SANTIAGO – In a manner of speaking, Chile today is a country imagined by Jose Balmes, said President Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday in paying tribute to the Chilean-Spanish painter who died on the weekend at age 89.
“Peoples ... exist in part thanks to the imagination of their painters, their poets, their singers. And Chile today is a country imagined by Balmes,” Bachelet said at the ceremony to honor the artist, who won the 1999 National Plastic Arts Award and the Altazor Award in 2002.
The ceremony took place at the National Museum of Fine Arts, where Balmes’s remains have been lying in state since he died on Sunday.
The artist came to Chile at age 12 on board the Winnipeg, a 1939 journey organized by poet Pablo Neruda to bring more than 2,000 refugees from Spain’s Civil War out of harm’s way.
“How do much we owe to this unique countryman, full of energy, reflective, kind, generous?” asked Bachelet, alluding to the artistic talent of Balmes, who not only renewed painting in Chile but also was the mentor and instructor for generations of other artists and a treasured fighter for social justice.
“Jose gave himself with generosity to this land that welcomed him, along with a handful of fugitives like him, and permeated our collective life with his art,” emphasized the president, whose administration decreed that Tuesday would be a national day of mourning.
A member of the Communist Party, Balmes, born in 1927 in the Catalonian town of Montesquiu, went into exile again after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, this time moving to Paris, where he lived until 1986.
Bachelet praised Balmes’s down-to-earth work and imagination during an “especially difficult epoch” filled with conflict, comparing his artistic work with “the verses of Gabriela Mistral, the songs of Violeta Parra and the theater of Andres Perez.”
She also emphasized the relationship of Balmes and his wife, painter Gracia Barrios, who in 2011 was also presented with the National Plastic Arts Award.
“The story of love of these two tremendous artists is also part of the legacy that Jose Balmes has left us, along with his painting,” Bachelet said.
After the ceremony, which was attended by hundreds of people, Balmes’s remains were transported for burial to the rural town of El Totoral, near Isla Negra, some 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) southwest of Santiago.