Pablo Neruda, Mexican muralists and the first edition of Canto general

Nathanial Gardner, BAS editor

As a poet whose work is universally loved and read in dozens of languages, there are few unexplored areas of Pablo Neruda’s work. One aspect, however, that still remains relatively untouched is the text-and-image relationships that Pablo Neruda maintained with other visual artists. On several occasions he collaborated both with new and well-established artists in ways that successfully blend his poetry with visual texts. One example of this is the book La casa en la arena, which he created with Sergio Larraín, one of Chile’s most important photographers. In it they show, as is typical of Neruda, how the ordinary can become extraordinary as they explore the beauty of Neruda’s seaside home, the Casa de Isla Negra, using text and image.

Neruda 2 the filmA touching moment in Il Postino (a film that draws upon Antonio Skarmeta’s novel El cartero de Neruda, which recreates Neruda’s exile on Capri while he waited for an arrest warrant in his native country to be withdrawn) is when Neruda and the protagonist Mario – the postman of the title – listen to a tape sent from Chile in which Neruda’s compañeros celebrate the poet’s birthday in his absence. On the tape, his friends attempt to cheer him up with news of the success of the underground copy of Canto General that was circulating throughout Chile. There is a fascinating upside to the fact that political circumstances made it necessary for Canto General to be first published in Mexico in 1950 instead of the poet’s native Chile. This was that the key Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros had the opportunity to illustrate the first edition of the now famous book of poetry.

While the details are less clear on who created the illustrations – some suggest that that they were done by Diego Rivera, while the style of others suggest they might be Siqueiros’s or even possibly someone else’s – their role is important. They give a face to a drowsy Inca who appears to doze in the Andes. A priest and a conquistador kneel together on American soil. A Christ-like figure shows us the bounty of the Americas. Workers unite behind a prophet-like figure who holds a scythe in his hand instead of a staff or rod.

A city-scape that could be Guanajuato or Valparaíso suggests where these characters might live; a landscape offers an idea of how they successfully tame the land amidst hardship. The illustrations add a visual dimension that engages directly with the poetry and forms a parallel narrative that is worth studying.

Neruda 6More impressive than the black-and-white illustrations is the mural art that the book includes. These colour illustrations, which we know are by Diego Rivera and Siqueiros, bookend the extensive collection of poems and offer important insights into the narrative and inject it with a visual dimension. Rivera’s mural-like introduction to the cycle of poems is true to his usual visual style in which his work narrates the past and present, while suggesting the future. While most of Rivera’s best-known murals reflect on Mexican history in his effort to educate the Mexican masses, this piece is similar to his mural in San Francisco called The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent in that it visualizes Latin America on a much wider scale. In Canto General, the Anglo-American element is not present and the visual narrative mirrors the narrative of the collection of poetry, which considers the history of the New World from a Hispanic perspective.

As you read the painting from left to right, you can see that it corresponds to the Latin American continent observed from north to south. The Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas are all present. American birds and animals such as the jaguar, the deer and the llama are present as are the eagle, the condor and the quetzal. The Latin Americans are industrious. They work as architects and builders, farmers and weavers. They provide the necessities of life as well as constructing great centres of gathering. Their rituals, gods, and religious practices are part of the top centre section of the painting and propose that these great civilizations are harmonious, and that they possess transcendent philosophies that contribute to their cultural background. The vibrant colour present in the images and their peaceful coexistence suggest a land of wonder and beauty as well as Latin America’s rich history, just as we find in the written element of Canto General.Neruda 7

Siquieros’s images are much more sombre in nature. A faceless man leaps up out of the land reaching outward as if he were to spring out of the text. This image is said to relate to ‘La arena traicionada’ in Canto General, which critiques the dictatorships in Latin America. In the image, one can detect links to Siquieros’s 1944 mural The New Democracy in which democracy, as a woman, bursts forth and appears to leap out of the image and into real life. The portrayal of the faceless individual lends itself to two possible interpretations. The man is struggling against the dangerous quicksand of dictatorship, or he is bursting forth out of the sand and we contemplate him as he achieves his freedom and liberty. Looking at the positive tones that predominate in Canto General, my mind seems more inclined to the second reading over the first. What is true is that the collaboration with the artists adds to the depth and texture of the series of poems that other editions do not. They reference the Latin American collaborations that were taking place at this period and evidence a positive ethos that contributes to the excellence found in Neruda’s work and that of his esteemed colleagues.