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Cover of "Cartooning in Latin America" Cover of "International Journal of 
Comic Art" Vol.3,Nº 2 Fall 2001 The following article by Gisela Gil-Egui was first printed in the International Journal of Comic Art Vol.3,Nº 2 Fall 2001 (pps. 127-37).
It was later republished in Cartooning in Latin America edited by John A. Lent, published by Hampton Press, Cresskill, N.J. c2005. ISBN: 1572735600

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 Alonso and the Art of Leaving it All to Art

By Gisela Gil-Egui[1]

I: Venezuela and the opportunities of a crisis

If the development of editorial cartooning is inevitably linked to the growth of the publishing industry, few countries can illustrate this relationship better than Venezuela. A strange territory where sophisticated visual arts meet an underdeveloped book industry, this nation lacked of a strong cartoonist movement for most of the 20th century, in spite of having many renowned painters and illustrators. A small domestic market of readers[i] would barely sustain several national newspapers, and thus references to contemporary Venezuelan cartooning used to be reduced to the names of Zapata[ii] and Pardo[iii], who had been working for more than thirty years at the two largest daily papers in the country, El Nacional and El Universal, respectively.

By the late 1980s, however, a number of banks and private companies began to launch newspapers and magazines as part of long-run corporate communications strategies. While the market was still not large enough to support the newcomers, their plan was to survive during the first years with the financial support of their parent organizations, and gradually steal readers to established publications by means of in-depth content and dynamic graphic design. Innovation became a necessity for these editorial initiatives in their search for a niche in the suddenly-turned-competitive domestic market.

One of those new publications was Economía Hoy [Economy Today], a specialized newspaper initially modeled after The Financial Times, and later concerned with a broader scope of subjects and beats. Its publisher, Maria Di Mase, brought to the business both her connections to a wealthy family of bankers and a unique experience as printer and editor of fine books and magazines. As her hybrid vision of a finance/arts newspaper evolved, Economía Hoy developed a particular graphic identity, and gave room for the establishment of one of the most influential teams of creators in the recent history of Venezuelan editorial cartooning.

II: One voice, many worlds

Alonso Álvarez de Araya Cid, known simply as Alonso, was part of the cutting-edge trio that started a new page in the local making of illustrations and caricatures for periodical publications. Along with Julio Zúñiga (Peli) and Eneko Las Heras (Eneko), Alonso chronicled through sharp parodies the daily ironies of the life of a nation gone from rich to poor without getting completely aware of it. Politics versus economic engineering, neo-liberalism flirting with populism, flourishing markets and sinking industries, yuppies against hippies, heroes and villains, luxurious mansions next to shackles, immediacy fighting history, hope, and absurdity, all got mixed in the tragic-comic recipe that the team offered to the readers. These cartoonists' ability to transform the dramatic events of a faltering economy into clever jokes represented an analgesic among the complicated figures, dense analyses, and cloudy forecasts reflected day after day by the publication.

"We experimented with an approach to humor in which simplistic scatology, common in other newspapers, was not allowed," says Alonso. "We always tried to establish a dialogue with the reader, even when, as Peli suggested one day, we also kept in mind that by the end of the day some fisherman in the market would end up using our drawings to wrap his catch. Nevertheless, we focused on creating a critical binnacle logbook of that sort of shipwreck in which we all were living."

Between 1991 and 1996, Alonso produced for the newspaper three daily illustrations, three weekly editorial cartoons, and a weekly half-page for the Sunday edition. During that time, he started a series of humoristic drawings about suicides, where the characters try unsuccessfully to hang themselves. Being originally from Chile (although born in Seattle), his creation seems to commune with certain necrophilia and some passion for death that has hunted many creators from South America, even when it comes to deal with trivial circumstances of daily life.

"Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay have always looked at themselves with justified irony. Coming from Chile, it is difficult for me to escape that feeling of absurdity, since in many aspects Chileans see themselves as the pied-noir of Argelia. In any case, my hung men were born during a time in Venezuela when I started to notice, with a mix of anguish and sarcasm, that society's obsessive and (fortunately) always aborted intention of committing suicide, or 'autosuicide' —as former President Carlos Andrés Pérez once said."[iv]

III: New stages to enact new searches

As many other cartoonists, however, Alonso had —still has— parallel concerns regarding non-humoristic art. Thus, after graduating in Art History from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, and after earning recognition as one of the most promising names in editorial illustration in that country, he decided to move to the United States in 1996. Here, while his wife was attending a Master's program at the State University of New York in Buffalo, he refined his techniques in Illustration, Printmaking, and Painting with professors Elka Kazmierczak, Harvey Braverman, and Andrew Johnson.

Four years later, in 2000, Alonso packed once again to move to Austin, where his wife is completing a doctoral program in communications. Since then, the young artist has been working as a freelance illustrator for a variety of publications and clients. In the heat of Texas, he creates as easily as he does in the harsh winter of Buffalo, or in the tropical humidity of Caracas. The assumption about the importance of a belonging to a particular space to be able to sing to all landscapes does not seem to apply to Alonso's work.

"The mother landscape has little relation with my drawings. Mi obsessions are stateless and rather staged in an anachronistic space. I am interested in people, their ideas, and actions. Landscape in my work is conceptual, not real. Perhaps a consequence of all these migrations is that I always see people 'from the outside' (although not to the extreme of the character by Albert Camus). Another consequence may be perceived in my choice of formats: I have generally worked at a light, portable scale."

These recent years in Texas have supposed for Alonso not only a change of professional scenario but also a change of techniques. Due in part to the demands of some corporate clients, he has been busy experimenting with computer-assisted animation and digital processing of images, thanks to which bold, defined figures have come to enrich a portfolio that was mostly of characterized by fine lines in ink or by strokes in oil paint, charcoal, or watercolors. Yet computers and state-of-the art technologies do not completely seduce this artist, who after becoming familiar with "those devilish machines" is entertaining the idea of an exhibit of charcoal drawings entitled Unplugged.

Seriously speaking, though, Alonso thinks that no medium can be underestimated, since each expressive resource has different potentials to convey different ideas and emotions. For the same reason he finds that any discussion on whether cartooning is only a utilitarian genre or an artistic end in itself completely misses the point of the polyvalent character of every human creation.

"Editorial cartooning can be both things at the same time. It all depends on the person behind the pencil or the pen. I think, for example, that Picasso was, among other things, an excellent cartoonist. His approach to human portrait was most of the times that of a caricaturist. And some of his etchings were conceived as illustrations. You can also mention Daumier, who was basically an illustrator —one who generally thought of Parisian masses as his real audience (not the local intelligentsia), but one who from time to time would produce extraordinary pieces, such as the Laundress[v]. Moreover, the notion of art as an end different from utility is a quite recent idea in human history. Many of Hogarth's[vi] works were created as promotional signs to be hung on top of a tavern or butchery's door. Nothing glamorous, as you can see."

IV: Art in spite of oneself

In the same way that he warns against the futility of talking about distinctive genres within visual arts, Alonso looks with skepticism at the lines drawn by some scholars and critics between beaux-arts and pop culture. It is all, again, a matter of perspective and references, and therefore he does not believe that the artistic limitations that many illustrators pinpoint about editorial cartooning are located within the massive production system of a newspaper, but within the creator's mind.

"I find the he idea of artistic realization [as a result of working or not on a particular medium] suspicious. The real issue is the definition of a work 'x' within the frameworks of determined plastic languages. The kind of illustration that I am interested in is marked by literary references and by what I call 'high culture,' to the horror of sociologists. I am keenly attracted to Edward Lear's Limericks and to Edward Gorey's 'nonsensical' comic strips, to give a couple of examples. In the domains of visual arts, constant references to pop culture seem to have left more than one undesired 'stain' on the so-called beaux-arts. In any case, it is our own idiosyncrasy what leads us to choose, consciously or not, the form of artistic expression that better suits our needs, so the limitations that you mention are in our head, not in the medium."

Alonso concedes, of course, that every human's creative act is constrained by practical restrictions of resources, time, money, or themes. However, he thinks that true artistic expression, be it painting, music, architecture, poetry, or cartooning, can never be stopped by the annoyance of some few material potholes on the way.

"Unless one has an ascetic vocation, all restrictions are a bummer. But I think the worst one is not having the spiritual integrity to decide what one wants to do. Julio Cortázar[vii] once said, when writing in Paris his famous book Rayuela [Hopscotch], that he had only two options: either he wrote a novel or he threw himself into the Seine. Lihn[viii] said in some poem that he hoped to have written 'forced by major circumstances.' It seems that art happens, even in spite of oneself."


[i] From a population of approximately 23 million inhabitants, an estimated of only 5 million people are considered systematic consumers of books and periodicals

[ii] Pedro León Zapata. Born in La Grita, Venezuela, in 1929, this painter, illustrator, and humorist has the longest trajectory in editorial cartooning in the country.

[iii] Joaquín Pardo Morales (1921-1999). Born in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, he was the senior illustrator for El Universal, one of the two major Venezuelan newspapers, for more than three decades.

[iv] Alonso refers to a famous semantic "blooper" made by former President Carlos Andrés Pérez that became the subject of jokes and parodies in Venezuela for months.

[v] Laundress On The Quai D'Anjou, Honoré-Victorin Daumier (ca. 1860). Allbright-Knox Art Gallery.

[vi] William Hogarth (1697-1764). English painter, printer, and caricaturist, he initiated a tradition of anecdotic paintings and portraits in his country.

[vii] Julio Cortázar (1914-1984). Argentinean writer born in Brussels, Belgium. One of the most important authors of contemporary Spanish literature, his work is characterized by an experimental narrative and existential concerns.

[viii] Enrique Lihn (1929-1988). Chilean writer born in Santiago, Chile. He was a central figure of the Chilean generation of writers of the 1950s.

 Biographic File Card


Héctor Alonso Álvarez de Araya Cid, Alonso, was born to a Chilean family in Seattle, Washington, in 1960. He was raised in Santiago, Chile.

In 1983, due to a combination of political and family-related reasons, he emigrated to Caracas, Venezuela, where he studied Art History and Criticism at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Among his instructors were some of the most renowned Latin-American intellectuals, such as Anna Gradowska, Agustín Martínez, Roldán Esteva-Grillet, and Graziana La Rocca.

In 1985 he started working in the graphic design industry, and in 1988 became free-lance illustrator for a number of Venezuelan magazines and newspapers.

In 1991 he was incorporated as a part of the illustration staff of Economía Hoy, where he worked with Julio Zúñiga (Peli), and Eneko Las Heras (Eneko). Years after the disappeareance of that newspaper, its illustration staff is still recognized as the most innovative team of editorial cartoonists and illustrators in Venezuela.

Married to Venezuelan journalist Martha Fuentes-Bautista, Alonso and his wife moved to Buffalo, New York, where he earned a BFA degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo. In SUNY, he was student of Prof. Elka Kazmierczak (Illustration), Prof. Emeritus Harvey Breverman (Printmaking), and Prof. Andrew Johnson (Painting).

When it comes to list his influences outside the academia, Alonso gets lost in an ocean of references: "Every day I could swear a different truth. What happens is that one always observe, absorbs, follows, and copies without discrimination, and from time to time lays something on one's own. And I say 'lay' as chickens lay eggs (even this is a plagiarism from something said by Cortázar in one of his sonnets). But I can give a hint of some of the most important names in my career, although they are not always reflected by my work: Themo Lobos, Hervi, Oski, Palomo, Quino, Sábat, Bosco, Forges, Sempé, Fontanarrosa, Chumy Chúmez, Peli (my mentor), Eneko, Loredano, Gorey, and Lear."

He currently resides in Austin, Texas, where he works as a freelance illustrator.

[1] Gisela Gil-Egui is doctoral student at the Mass Media & Communication Department in Temple University. She graduated as a journalist in Venezuela, where she worked as staff writer for two major newspapers and as a contributor of several magazines. She moved to the United States in 1996. Her research interests are telecommunications policy, Latin American media, and communication theory.