by Liliana Hermosilla Rosenthal and Joel Rosenthal, Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA

The Coronavirus pandemic has made me appreciate more than ever the contribution that my late Uncle Carlos Hermosilla Álvarez (Chile: 1905-1991), known as “the father of Chilean realist printmaking,” made during his lifetime. Surrounded by his powerful prints, my husband Joel Rosenthal and I dedicated ourselves some years ago to bringing his story and his art and poetry to the consciousness of an English viewing audience by displaying and donating the several hundred prints and related works of art that he personally gave us from the mid-1970s until 1991 when he died.

Tio Carlos was my father’s older brother and a major figure in Chilean art. He was a founding professor of the Escuela de Bellas Artes, renamed the University of Playa Ancha during the Augusto Pinochet years of military dictatorship, in Viña del Mar, Chile, where he labored tirelessly on behalf of his loving students for 34 years. Winner of approximately 50 awards and honors during his lifetime for his social contributions as well as his artistic achievements, he retired from teaching following the military coup in 1973, but continued with his art and poetry, which previously had been a secondary, but early interest.

Tio Carlos displayed a talent for art at a very young age. His studies were interrupted by illness, decalcification caused by bone tuberculosis, and he lost his left hand and his right leg to amputation, and some hearing as well. It is reported that he had 18 operations during this early period of his life. However, he persevered and committed himself to a career in the teaching of art. It is difficult to comprehend the psychological – let alone physical – impact of this illness. I have always wondered where he drew the strength to overcome his physical limitations to become a great teacher, artist, and poet. By the time I was born in southern Chile in 1943, he was already a renowned professor of art and drawing and an illustrator.

Insight into his character can be garnered from his poem, Amanecer de Hospital (Dawn in the Hospital), published three years before his death in 1991, but written years before and based on his own experience. The poem originally appeared in 1964 in the Chilean magazine HACI, published by his friend and poet Andrés Sabella. It was originally entitled “Tras un Sol Enarbolado,” but reissued in 1989 as “ENTRE LOS DEDOS DEL VIENTO,” (“THROUGH THE FINGERS OF THE WIND”), a title taken from the poem’s next to last line.

In this poem, Tio Carlos expresses his love for life and his eternal optimism – even in times of personal trauma – qualities which characterized his entire life. In the glowing Prologue to the first edition of the poem, Sabella mentions the multi-faceted nature of Tio Carlos’ professional life as a printer, painter, poet, teacher, and notes that each activity is imbued with a clarity, directness, and generosity toward others.

The poem, which I have translated into English, opens with a line from Chilean poet Carlos Pezoa Véliz (…and as I lay sick alone in bed in a large room…Pezoa Veliz) who also drew upon his own experience. Here is a brief sample:

“High is the window where// my heart //looks through It yearns to see the wings of a new day [. . . . .] //Each hour is a promising message,// each minute a //smile//each second is a petal dancing//each ray of light, a dragonfly//each movement of air a light flower….”

Here we see the reflections of a young man aspiring to a career in art who had not yet embarked upon the formal training which would prepare him for a teaching career. There is neither darkness nor self-pity. There is optimism as well as concern for other patients. This early experience enabled Tio Carlos to capture the suffering of others in his work as reflected, for example, in this print entitled Niño Herido (Hurt Child).

El Niño Herido (Hurt Child) (etching)

Alleviating the suffering of children was an important goal for Tio Carlos and his wife Tia Marina Pinto, nurse and sculptress.

Undated Photograph of Tio Carlos and Tia Marina

His sensitivity for children can be seen in many of his prints.

Nelida (etching, left) and Portrait of Young Girl (etching, right)

He not only lived a life of concern for others, but he also contributed his time, talent, and money generously to a variety of causes, even though he and Tia Marina were people of modest means. One of his favorite causes was the work of Dr. Leonel Cooper and the Pediatric Society of Valparaiso which focused its efforts in the area of childhood poliomyelitis. As early as 1956, he organized an exhibit at the French Cultural Center of Valparaiso, Chile, with all the proceeds going to the Orthopedic Clinic of Dr. Cooper and the Pediatric Society.

A related subject of his art was people with disabilities. Tio Carlos, himself disabled, drew prints of ordinary people with blindness. He forced viewers to acknowledge that not only could the blind find alternative means of communicating, Ciego Cantor (The Blind Singer) but they could also find love and companionship, as he had with Tia Marina, as depicted in El Ciego y su Mujer (The Blind Man and his Wife).

El Ciego y su Mujer (Blind Man and His Wife)

Tio Carlos acknowledged that he owed a debt of gratitude to others for what he had accomplished. Women were a central part of his life: his mother Maria Isabel Álvarez, his wife Tia Marina, his art instructor, Ana Cortes, at the University in Santiago, and his caregivers. He drew prints of his mother and wife, the latter in a variety of techniques.

Tia Marina (etching, left) and Maria Isabel Álvarez (etching, right)

When Tio Carlos turned more seriously to poetry after his retirement, he celebrated Tia Marina in a number of poems as well.

Our Collection includes a limited edition print of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the founder of modern nursing, whose tireless dedication to injured British soldiers during the Crimean War led to the professionalism of nursing and the moniker “The Lady With Lamp.” Likewise he celebrated in print the achievements of Dr. Lucas Sierra who played a pivotal role in the modernization of surgical medicine in Chile.

Florence Nightingale (limited edition woodcut)

After Tio Carlos’ retirement following the 1973 coup, my husband Joel and I raised money for his various causes by organizing exhibits of his work in Milwaukee, and Madison, Wisconsin. We donated prints of his work from our personal collection to a number of art institutions in the United States including the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University in Milwaukee, the Organization of American States in Washington D.C, the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas in Austin, the Gabriela Mistral Foundation in New York, and recently to the Emile H. Mathis Gallery of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

His commitment to various humanitarian causes, as well as his teaching and art career which featured the ordinary people of Chile, scenes of his beloved Valparaiso, the city of his birth, resulted in his being named an Illustrious Citizen of the City of Valparaiso in 1965 and then Artist of the People by the University of Chile in Santiago in 1971, an award personally granted by the President of the Republic during a ceremony in Santiago. He was accompanied by his friend and now Professor Emeritus René de Costa of the University of Chicago. (Professor de Costa included Tio Carlos’ print of Pablo Neruda in his 1972 publication entitled “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda.”)

Tio Carlos’ influence has continued on since his death. His former university named a Salon in his honor and recently opened Museo del Grabado de la Universidad de Playa Ancha (the University of Playa Ancha Printmaking Museum), the first Latin American museum of printmaking, based in large part on the thousands of prints and personal correspondence he donated to that institution. The City of Valparaiso, also the recipient of many of his works, has created a biennial art contest in his name. Many of his students are still producing art in Chile, the United States, and elsewhere. However, one of the most enduring aspects of his legacy remains the social nature of his art, including his recognition of the contributions of health care providers such as Florence Nightingale and others not only in times of collective distress, as the world faces today, but also during ‘normal’ times as well.

At his funeral, the folksong “Gracias a la Vida” (Thanks to Life) composed by Violeta Parra, was played for mourners from all walks of life who attended.

Violeta Parra (woodcut)

Tio Carlos and Tia Marina had lived among the working people of Chile during his lifetime and he chose to be buried alongside them as well in a cemetery for the public employees of his community. He was one of those rare individuals whose public life and private life were one and the same.

This essay was written by Carlos Hermillosa Alvarez' granddaughter, Liliana Hermosilla Rosenthal, and her husband, Joel Rosenthal and shared by CAVT Museums.