By Kate Clarke
Julio Escamez was destroyed on the orders of the junta.
Only months before, president Salvador Allende had travelled to the southern city of Chillan to inaugurate the mural.
The mural had taken Escamez two long years to paint. He had painted day and night on a high scaffolding, eating quick snacks and even sleeping on a makeshift bed right there in the Salon de Honor. Then, in a few hours, it was gone in a morning’s demolition job by the hirelings of Pinochet’s notorious regime.
Julio called his mural Principio y Fin (Beginning and End) and it depicted the struggle of the peoples of the world, through wars, conflicts and suffering, for a brighter future.
It was in the hope of such a future that Dr Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government had been elected in September 1970 to represent the ordinary people of Chile.
Escamez’s mural was a striking and beautiful work of art, but apparently it was too dangerous for Pinochet and the junta to allow it to remain.
It had been commissioned by the city council of Chillan. Eduardo Contreras, who later became a leading human rights lawyer, proposed the idea. Before the coup he had been on Chillan’s city council together with the city’s mayor Ricardo Lagos, whom he had known well.
Contreras recalls: “In September 1973 the junta’s former regional commander-in-chief, Colonel Juan Guillermo Toro Davila, together with his military henchmen and carabineros (police) shot dead – without trial – the socialist mayor of Chillan, Ricardo Lagos Reyes, along with his wife, who was eight months pregnant, and his son Carlos.
“One mural more, one mural less – the junta didn’t give a damn by that stage. The killings in that region were horrific.”
After the 1973 coup and the junta’s destruction of his mural, Escamez fled to Costa Rica. He has lived there ever since.
But now, 36 years after his mural was destroyed, Escamez has been invited by the city authorities to paint another mural in the very same building.
“The forces of ignorance thought that by destroying his mural Beginning and End they would do away with the profound cultural vision, inherited values and name of Escamez. Ignorance, pure ignorance!” wrote Miguel Angel San Martin in Chillan’s local newspaper La Discusion.
The Pinochet regime’s destruction of Escamez’s art is not the only example of such bigotry. Events in Chillan were reminiscent of events 40 years earlier relating to another, similar work.
Famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had been commissioned by John D Rockefeller Jr to paint a mural for the lobby of the Rockefeller Centre in New York.
Rivera proposed a 63-foot-long portrait of workers facing symbolic crossroads of industry, science, socialism and capitalism.
But Rockefeller couldn’t stomach Lenin appearing in the mural. Rivera was ordered to remove the offending image.
The artist refused, offering to “balance” the work with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the opposite side, but to no avail. Despite negotiations to transfer the work to the Museum of Modern Art and demonstrations by Rivera supporters, Rockefeller Centre workmen demolished the mural at close to midnight on February 10 1934.
Art censorship again reared its head seven years ago at the UN, where somebody felt the need to cover up the tapestry copy of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting Guernica.
It formed the backdrop behind then US secretary of state Colin Powell as he was trying to convince the security council that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But at least they didn’t destroy it – just covered it up temporarily with a big blue drape.
Escamez’s new mural will mark the bicentenary of Chile’s independence from Spain, celebrated last Saturday, and is to feature the country’s independence hero Bernardo O’Higgins, who was born in Chillan.
By accepting the invitation to paint another mural in the same building where his earlier one was destroyed, Escamez, now in his early eighties, is following in the footsteps of the great Diego Rivera.
Following the destruction of his Rockefeller mural, he went on to recreate it in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.
It seems it’s not so easy to destroy a painting after all.