In 20th c. history, the renowned Chilean printmaker and poet Carlos Hermosilla Alvarez (1905-1991) came to be revered in his homeland, but remained relatively unknown outside some academic circles in the United States. The reasons are many, but what grows stronger with the passage of time are Hermosilla Alvarez' images and the impact of his words, which sought to right a wrong, and help free millions of oppressed Chileans from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Hermosilla Alvarez was born in Cerro, Chile to Carlos Hermosilla Sanhueza and Maria Isabel Alvarez. He was the eldest of three boys from a middle income family. Eventually, the family moved to Santiago where Hermosilla Alvarez' father worked as a lithographer. Unfortunately, Hermosilla Alvarez' youth was spent in and out of hospitals, suffering numerous operations after contracting tuberculosis. It decalcified his bones and required a lot of recuperation. He vowed to become an artist despite losing and arm and a leg to the disease. He began to draw during this period, and eventually met and married his future wife, Maria Pinto, a nurse and sculptresss. Hewould later write poems about his difficult youth.
He drew the working people and peasants of Chile. In the southern part of the country he observed the area’s dockworkers, fishermen, and homemakers. He went into the Lota mines to see firsthand the miners' arduous life. He also sold newspapers which exposed him to the realities of World War I “.He worked as a messenger boy for the local telegraph and cable. He also illustrated the early works of a number of Chile’s most famous authors: Efraim Sxmulewicz , Pablo de Rokha and Nicomedes Guzman.
In the 1920s he began to submit his work for exhibition, winning his first art competition in 1927. Three years later, he entered the University of Chile in Santiago. Upon graduation he was hired in 1939 as Professor of Printing and Drawing at the fledging la Escuela de Bellas Artes (the School of Fine Arts) in Viña del Mar, Chile. He along with a small group of other professors literally built an art program from scratch. Although he won numerous prizes, awards, and honors for his artistic and social contributions to Chilean art and society, his first priority was his students. He put his teaching ahead of his own career and was well-known for his generosity. He was also known for his loyalty to the working class from which he had sprung.
Hermosilla Alvarez taught art for nearly 34 years until 1973 , when a military coup placed Augusto Pinochet in power. Then Hermosilla Alvarez shifted his creative energies to writing poetry. It became an outlet for his opposition to the Pinochet regime. One method of his opposition, was to make print portraits of leading opposition figures. He also published many poetry collections dealing with the workers, peasants, fishermen, and ordinary citizens of Chile as well as the country’s cultural and artistic elites.
As a result of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy cultural exchanges in the 1940s, Hermosilla Alvarez' work was first seen in the United States. Exhibitions of his work were held in the US, Finland, Germany, and France and the proceeds went to support the exile Chilean communities and the various domestic causes which he and his wife supported.
Hermosilla Álvarez talked at length about the choices Chilean artists had made to elude the control of the Pinochet regime and the fight for the return to democracy.
“If I’m invited by an organization controlled by the Government of course I would refuse to participate, but what we have left are private galleries, independent institutions, and cultural centers. Now if those doors are closed for us we still have the streets to show our work. What I am advising you is that you also look for those alternative spaces, but you should never accept defeat…”
Hermosilla Álvarez made an unwavering lifelong commitment to social justice and to democracy . He and his wife lived among the working people whom he portrayed with dignity and respect. His life and work have been documented in numerous works in Spanish since his death. In 2012, the University of Playa Ancha created the First Annual Carlos Hermosilla Art Contest.
There are many references to his work in latin Amrican art chronicles, and the University of Colchester, In Essex, England has the largest public collection of his works. He donated thousands of his prints to the Municipality of Viña del Mar and la Universidad de Playa Ancha (renamed from la Escuela de Bellas Artes). A gallery (Sala Hermosilla)was later named in his honor.
Democracy has once again returned to Chile, through the efforts of millions of Chileans like Carlos Hermosilla Álvarez. The artist and poet lived to see his country’s return to democracy, and now we can see his spectacular prints which spoke of the trials of his countrymen.