Mario Alejandro Yllanes

1913 – 1948
Bolivian School

Alejandro Mario Yllanes, the greatest painter of the Bolivian School, was born to a poor family of Aymara indians in 1913. He was orphaned at the age of 12. An exceptionally intelligent child, he worked his way through public schools, and commenced law studies in Oruro. In 1930, however, he renounced bourgeois ambitions, consecrating his talents to a career in art.

From the very first, Yllanes’s productions were forthright political manifestos, brilliantly conceived and imposing in format. A born monumental painter, Yllanes excelled in the representation of simple people, their customs and their rituals. He depicted them with a noble, heroic aspect and visual clarity through an extraordinary color palette and superb draftsmanship. He addressed the timeless universal concerns of struggle, life and death through the prism of ancient pre-columbian culture.

Yllanes’s artistic genius and his unique personal vision brought him to the attention of the Mexican Muralists, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. They embraced him as a colleague and comrade-in-arms, taking him under their wing. It is said that Yllanes assisted Rivera with the execution of the infamous murals for Rockefeller Center, which were painted over due to their Communist subject matter (replaced by insipid, allegorical works by the English painter, Brangwyn.)

As with his illustrious Mexican homologues, Yllanes utilized Aztec, Inca and Mayan imagery as a source of creative inspiration, turning away from European models. He employed flattened perspective and created densely populated compositions as a means of expressing Latin American realities.

Ylannes served for a time as Minister of Culture from Bolivia to Mexico. In this capacity, the artist rubbed elbows with the highest echelons of society without ever renouncing his attachment to the most humble citizens of his country. He defended their interests and was incarcerated on numerous occasions for his outspoken political beliefs.

The circumstances surrounding Yllanes’ death are as mysterious as the public furor surrounding his short life. He received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948, and moved to New York (presumably to receive the award), but never showed up to collect the prize money. Some speculate that he was assassinated, as there are no known works by the artist produced at a later date. Yllanes biography continued to be published in “Who’s Who” until 1972, but no new biographical information was added to the 1948 article. The legend circulates that the artist was assassinated in Bolivia alongside Che Guevara in the 1960s. While the theories relating to his disappearance are intriguing, the mystery remains to be elucidated.

The work proposed here was shown at the Bard retrospective. The only other overview of Yllanes’s work took place at the Palace of the Fine Arts in Mexico City in 1946, an event sponsored by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Twenty of the artist’s woodcuts were exhibited alongside sixteen of his paintings. Diego Rivera wrote the impassioned preface to the exhibition:

…As with the rest of us, in Yllanes, the root bloomed out of our American plastic, one which is more than 20 centuries old. As with all blooms, it was new and fresh and strong, so strong that it could not be ripped or starved by exile…The integrity of his position in the social struggle is reflected by the integrity of his technique. He plays no tricks; he says what he wants with the means he has, without hiding his intents nor his true sensitivity.. Through his work we see him approaching a more and more American expression, that is his own and also a universal one, since universality is attained only by those whose work has deep roots in special places of this world identifiable in their work. As a rock, a tree and a shrub are typical of some special place in space and time, examples of a species, part of a group, they also are similar to all their genus, and universal by consequence. The work of art which has no national root never results in universality and never surpasses imitation. Art that is not part of a tradition, part of the expression of a nation, is not and cannot be but “pastiche” and a despicable arrangement. From this danger Yllanes’s work is permanently safe. He will succeed with certainty, because he has excellent material in hand, strong plastic abilities; His form is expressive and courageous, and very often it shows the qualities of the conquest of style: his matter and color are original and full of character. As Yllanes comes closer, through his own freedom of expression, to the purity of our classic, the admirable pre-Columbian, he will be nearer his target, which he already sees and conceives with decision and clarity.  Artists and workers of Mexico must receive with open arms the Bolivian Comrade Yllanes… May it be welcome among us, Yllanes and his good example.


Diego Rivera. June 7th.

Works by Mario Alejandro Yllanes are conserved in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. A retrospective, with symposium and catalogue, was organized by Bard College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992 under the title: “Being Discovered: The Spanish Conquest from the Amer-Indian Point of View.” A catalogue raisonnè, authored by the historian, Victoria Combalia, was published recently.

Yllanes’s productions, many of which have been lost or destroyed, are almost never available on the art market.