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Chile's brightly brushed port.

Valparaiso, Chile's largest port, is like an impoverished, eccentric aristocrat, living on dreams and memories. Once one of South America's richest cities, it is now slightly decrepit, but full of reminders of a golden past. Before the opening of the Panama Canal, every ship that went through the Straits of Magellan on its way to California had to stop in Valparaiso for provisions and recreation. Valparaiso was a world class port--cosmopolitan, colorful, with patrician English and Chilean families who built their mansions on the rolling hills by the sea.

The construction of the Panama Canal was only the first step in Valparaiso's decline. Natural disasters and the vanishing industrial base followed, adding to the deterioration of the port's bustling activity.

But now a novel initiative has put a little color back into the cheeks of this endearing old patriarch. Entitled the "Open Sky Museum" (Museo de Cielo Abierto), it consists of 20 murals designed and, in some cases, personally painted by members of Chile's "Generation of 1940" in the meandering, often unkempt, streets of the port.

The "Museum" was the brainchild of the painter Francisco Mendez. "When we made the list with Nemesio Antunez," he says, "I asked that the participants be painters with a long and well-known career and that is why this walk becomes a museum. Moreover, they are all members of the 40s Generation which was an important milestone in Chilean painting. Through these painters, different expressions or currents that were being developed in Europe or the U.S. began to appear here. That's why within the different works there are a variety of styles: surrealism, geometrics, Op Art, expressionism, pure abstraction, realism and Pop Art."

Among the artists participating in this project were Mario Carreno, Ricardo Yrarrazabal, Roberto Matta (whose mural was painted by a disciple), Rodolfo Opazo, Mario Toral, Ramon Vergara-Grez, Francisco Mendez, Roser Bru, Sergio Montecino, Nemesio Antunez, Jose Balmes, Gracia Barrios, Guillermo Nunez and Augusto Barcia. The artists were asked to create murals which were representative of their work. Most of them were executed by students of the Art Institute of the Catholic University of Valparaiso under the supervision of the artists themselves. "For the most part, the students prepared the backgrounds and drew the main motifs. Once these were done, the artists would intervene," says Mendez.

The works range from Nemesio Antunez' wistful mural of an enchanted house full of children and embracing lovers; Sergio Montecino's landscape of southern Chile precariously rolling in a narrow street; Jose Balmes' huge, richly textured loaf of bread to Guillermo Nunez' monochromatic mural resembling a large Chinese character. "This is the first collective experience in Chile of this nature," says Sergio Montecino. "And I think it will be a positive one for a city with such a wonderful bay, architecture, and light."

A visit to the neighborhood confirms that all the objectives of the original project were amply fulfilled. Neighbors are delighted about their new-found fame and the scores of tourists that visit their previously forgotten neighborhood. They are also fiercely proud about the murals that grace their property and are more than willing to provide their own interpretation to anyone who cares to listen. Some of the owners of the houses where the murals were painted became so enthusiastic with the project that they had to be restrained from using the leftover paint to create their own works.

The initiative has been a good balance of art, solidarity and social responsibility. There are plans for continuing this project with younger painters and perhaps turn yet another one of Valparaiso's hills into a new wing for the "Open Sky Museum."

Marcelo Montecino is a freelance photographer and writer living in Santiago, Chile.
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Title Annotation:Valparaiso
Author:Montecino, Marcelo
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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