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Following the first and second World Wars, Latin American artists experimented with multiple forms of artistic expression. Beginning with Surrealism and Muralism after World War I, artistic styles evolved toward abstract expressionism, geometric designs, and social commentary through artwork.
Surrealism, an artistic movement originating in post-World War I Europe, strongly impacted the art of Latin America, where the the legacy of European rule over indigenous peoples embodied the central Surrealist value of contradiction. The widely-known Mexican painter Frida Kahlo painted self-portraits and depictions of traditional Mexican culture in a style combining Realism, Symbolism and Surrealism. Other Latin American Surrealists include Remedios Varo and Alberto Gironella (Mexico); Roberto Matta, Mario Carreño Morales, and Nemesio Antúnez (Chile); Wifredo Lam (Cuba); and Roberto Aizenberg (Argentina).
Buffered from World War II, many South American countries in the 1940s and 1950s entered an optimistic period of economic growth. Abstract art, with its emphasis on clear and distilled forms, became the dominant visual language, reflecting a move toward modernization and industrialization. The return of Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949) to Uruguay in 1934 was decisive in the development of abstraction in Latin America. Having spent more than four decades in Europe and the United States, he had quickly become associated with an international group of abstract artists, including Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. Upon his return to South America, he advocated a different type of abstraction that merged contemporary trends with the spiritual art of the past - particularly that of Mesoamerica .
The influx of postwar European artists to Latin America was another determinant factor in the rise of geometric abstraction. In Brazil, for example, the arrival of the Swiss artist Max Bill (1908–1994) in the 1950s inspired a number of concrete artists to form groups, including the Grupo Ruptura (São Paulo) and the Grupo Frente (Rio de Janeiro). The two groups differed about what constituted abstract art: the São Paulo contingent stressed reason, serial form, and optical effects; the neo-concrete artists of Rio de Janeiro accorded a higher value to the role of experimentation, expressiveness, and subjectivity. Broadly speaking, these two trends came to define much of the art produced in South America from the 1940s to the 1970s. Abstraction also flourished in Mexico, particularly in the 1960s, as the works by Mathias Goeritz and Carlos Mérida demonstrate.
Generación de la Ruptura, or "Rupture Generation," is the name given to an art movement in Mexico in 1960s in which younger artists broke away from the established national style of Muralismo. Born out of the desire for greater freedom of style in art, this movement is marked by expressionistic and figurative styles. Mexican artist José Luis Cuevas is credited with initiating la Ruptura, publishing a paper in 1958 called La Cortina del Nopal ("The Cactus Curtain") which condemned Mexican muralism as being overly political rather than artistic.
Nueva Presencia ("new presence") was an artist group founded by artists Arnold Belkin and Fancisco Icaza in the early 1960s. In response to WWII atrocities such as the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, the artists of Nueva Presencia shared an anti-aesthetic rejection of contemporary trends in art and a belief that the artists had a social responsibility. Members of the group included Leonel Góngora, Francisco Corzas, and photographer Ignacio "Nacho" López.
Otra Figuración ("Other Figuration") was an Argentinian artist group and commune formed in 1961 and disbanded in 1966. Artists of Otra Figuración worked in an expressionistic, abstract, figurative style featuring vivid colors and collage. Although Otra Figuración were contemporaries of Nueva Presencia, there was no direct contact between the two groups. Prominent members included Rómulo Macció, Ernesto Deira, Jorge de la Vega, and Luis Felipe Noé.
Another common practice of Latin American art is the use of parody. Parodies in art serve a dual purpose: they reference the artistic and cultural history of Latin America, and they also critique the legacy of European imperialism. Two notable artists who frequently employed this technique are Columbian figurative artist Fernando Botero and Mexican painter and collagist Alberto Gironella.