To love you do not need a head or arms, because you love with your whole being.
TilsaTsuchiya, 1987

Born in 1928 to a Japanese father and a Peruvian mother of Chinese descent, Tilsa Tsuchiya’s work is rooted in Peru’s Nikkei community, formed in 1899 when Peru became the first Latin American country to establish diplomatic relations with Japan and to accept its emigrants in large numbers. When Tsuchiya was growing up in the 1930s, however, xenophobia and racial discrimination were by no means absent from Peruvian society; in fact, they were made all the worse by the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Despite this, from the beginning of her career, Tsuchiya chose to situate her work directly in Peru's cultural milieu, asserting the Nikkei's place within it through her own interpretation of traditional Peruvian subjects and symbols. Her unique pictorial language marked by delicate draftsmanship, hallucinatory layers of glazes, and asymbolic, complex mythological vocabulary (echoing that of earlier female Surrealists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo) was celebrated in her lifetime, and she represented her country at the XV Bienal de São Paulo in 1979. Today, she is considered one of the greatest exemplars of Peruvian painting.

Tsuchiya with the present work, circa 1975-84.

Tsuchiya began drawing at the age of eight, eventually pursuing her studies at Lima's Escuela Nacional Superior Autónoma de Bellas Artes in 1947. There, she studied with a variety of artistic mentors including the muralist Carlos Quízpez Asín, abstractionists Fernando deSzyszlo and Ricardo Grau, and the realist painter Manuel Zapata Oriheula, a leader of the Peruvian indigenis momovement. Oriheula's flat, brightly colored and stylized Expressionist forms drew inspiration from pre-Columbian and Quechua culture, and of her early teachers, his influence can be seen most across Tsuchiya's subsequent body of work. Upon the death of her parents, Tsuchiya took a leave of absence from the Escuela Nacional, eventually returning to win its Gran Medalla de Oro in 1954 and its Gran Premio in 1959. After graduating that same year, she moved to Paris,where she went on to study art history on scholarship at the Sorbonne while taking studio classes at the famed École des Beaux-Arts. Tsuchiya's time in Europe was critical to her work's stylistic and thematic development. In Paris, she experimented with a darker, more muted palette while concentrating on printmaking and engraving, and her travels in Italy and France incited a fascination with European art and its medieval past. Moreover, beyond adding tales of chivalric romance to her symbolic lexicon of Peruvian folklore and myth, in early 1960, Tsuchiya attended the critical late Surrealist Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (EROS), the last of a series of three groundbreaking exhibitions curated by the movement's leader André Breton. Its guiding thematic touchstone was eroticism, with many of the exhibited works examining the relationship between power, mythology and the female body. The exploration of these ideas would become ingrained to Tsuchiya's mature artistic output, and their Surrealist associations are readily evident in what is widely held to be her masterwork, 1974-75's Tristán e Isolda.

A detail of the present work

In her paintings, Tsuchiya sought to create a realm that was at once allegorical and elemental, weaving together elements of Andean landscape and mythical imagery (both pre-Columbian and medieval) into a complex tapestry which addressed the relationship between humans, our natural environment, and the legends that blur the boundaries between them. Her human-hybrid figures float placidly through lush, uncanny, almost earth-like realms, spaces where Eros is a source of power and vital energy. In Tristán e Isolda, while the subjects express a certain physicality, the curves of their bodies echoing the Andean mountains behind them, their being is simultaneously blurred into the airy kingdom they inhabit, whether by the pallor of their skin or the wispy head covering blowing in an imperceptible breeze.

That Eros suffuses the entire atmosphere is emphasized by the light emanating from the center of the composition; Tristán and Isolda are connected by an elemental force of attraction, not just to each other as their twisted tongues suggest, but also to the world around them. Their humble place within this greater whole is reinforced by the absence of their arms, the bodily instruments with which humans attempt to control their environment and their fate, as well as their posture suggesting worship of a greater divinity. Characteristic of Tsuchiya at her best, the work evokes a sense of duality: of male and female, of the mythical and elemental, the tangible and intangible, the Nikkei and European. And yet it projects a harmonious, unified statement: it is the culmination of an artistry born in Peru, delicately refined by time in Paris, and painted at the height of the second wave of the global Feminist movement.

Tilsa Tsuchiya with the present work

When Tristán e Isolda was first exhibited, the painting made a statement then as it does now, having been displayed in a manner befitting its dramatic composition. In 1975, just after its completion, Tsuchiya had a solo exhibition at the Sala Art Concentra in Lima's Miraflores district, a show supposedly celebrating her 'return to painting' after her years in France, but in which the present work was the only painting exhibited. Installed in an almost-empty hall with Richard Wagner's eponymous opera playing in the background, viewers were forced to consider the work in a context which asserted its significance to the artist, who parted with it only upon her death in 1984.