An early emancipation

Alicia Rosario Pérez Penalba was born on August 9th, 1913 in San Pedro, in the province of Buenos Aires, where she lived with her family for two years. Her parents were both Spaniards (Santiago Pérez and Remedios Penalba). Her father, worked for Ferrocariles Argentinos, the reason that led the family to itinerate among various cities in Cuyo region, Patagonia and Chile. The impressive and contrasting nature of that area will later greatly impact her sculptural work.

At the early age of 15, Alicia Penalba made her utmost possible to move out from her home to study Art in Buenos Aires but also to and escape the yoke of her father. She therefore wrote a letter to the governor of the San Juan Province to ask for a scholarship. Although he couldn’t provide her with the coveted Sesam (suspended for economic reasons), he recommended her for a job at the San Juan’s Vital Records Office. It was the first step to her emancipation and the mark of a strong aspiration for self-determination. She undeniably owes her strong temper and determination to the severity and intransigence that her father, she detested, inflicted to her, her sisters and brother. In 1929, one of her siblings committed suicide at 17 years of age. Alicia Penalba explains: I decided to break the curse of my parent’s house, run away alone, just as I had so often dreamt of doing when I was young, seeking complete independence in my acts, leaving my hands free to do and undo…

In 1930, she entered the School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires where she graduated as a professor of drawing and painting, participated in Salons and group exhibitions, winning several national awards.

It is interesting to note that she would always sign her work with the name of her mother only: Penalba.

An artist in Paris

Laureate in 1948 of a grant from the French government, Alicia Penalba moved to Paris where she enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in engraving and, from 1949, worked at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and from 1950 for three years in the studio of the great maestro, Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine. In Paris, she studies the sculptures of European’s most relevant avant-garde; Hans Arp, Brancusi, Giacometti and met with Étienne-Martin, François Stahly and Etienne Hajdu, with whom she participated in numerous group exhibitions. She made her first abstract sculpture in 1951 and decided to destroy most of her previous works.

The blossoming of an oeuvre

From 1953, she starts to develop and to elaborate vertical bronze abstract sculptures, series of Totems (Totem d’amour) and Plant Liturgies. All Totems have a concavity in the middle where a symbol of life, a seed, in some way sexual is placed, protected by the walls of the side of those totems. Jungles (Passion de la jungle) she has seen in reality or in movies as well fascinated her for the life that was encapsulated inside. The first visits of European Gothic Cathedral’s at that time were also of great importance and impacted her works. She presented her first solo exhibition in 1957.

At the end of the 1950s, in the series Doubles (Double Sorcier), the rigidity of these vertical rhythms splits into distinct elements between which light creeps in. From 1959 she begins to make sculptures for architecture and receives in 1961 the International Grand Prize in Sculpture at the VIth Biennale of São Paulo in Brazil. In May 1960 she has a solo show at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris and from then on exhibitions in private galleries, major museums and large international shows will multiply; New York, Zurich, Rio de Janeiro, Otterlo, Eindhoven, Kassel, Basel, Lausanne, Paris, Rome, Milano, Geneva, Brussels or Caracas and many more. Her works start to be part of important collections.

Subsequently, Alicia Penalba develops several series in which the elements, tightened on themselves as in an inner spiral or exploded end up gathering in the 1960s, in an upward movement of horizontal and oblique volumes, in unstable equilibrium, suggesting the burst of a flight (Rumeur d’ailes). The point of departure of this new phase was her relief of the Saint-Gobain stand at Expomat in 1960. Bronze forms that were suspended on free-standing glass walls. At that time, the sculptor more and more realizes monumental works (St. Gallen, Switzerland) as well as flying elements directly put on walls (Formes volantes) in search of lightness.

The Consecration

Her retrospective “Totems et Tabous” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in May 1968, together with Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta asserts her international recognition. In the 1970’s she continues to work on monumental works for sculpture parks (France, Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Italy, Argentina and in the United States) parallel to small sculptures and experiments with lithography, collages, tapestry, designs for porcelain as well as with jewellery (since 1965).

On November 4th, 1982, she died in a traffic accident along with her partner, Michel Chilo. The accident took place at a railroad crossing in the Landes region in France, while they were on their way to the burial of Michel Chilo’s father.

Text: Diana Wiegersma

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