The building of the National Fine Arts Museum, around 1909.
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Home/Stories and articles/Museums Live
May 2002

Chile's Independence Centennial Celebration:
Inauguration of the National Fine Arts Museum

In the place where at the beginning of the Century there was just mud and garbage, now stands "Century's most outstanding architectural and urban work", according to a recent popular poll. It is the Fine Arts National Museum, a space with a French neoclassical style, that was created to hold the country's artistic development and an everlasting symbol, part of our Independence Centennial celebrations.

"Our artists now have a wonderful home, a Palace that gathers all the comfort and advances in its area, along with the harmony and beauty of its construction. Inside you feel like you were in Europe, and when looking through its wide windows -where the soft light filters, illuminating the paintings- we see the Andes mountains, our land's beautiful landscape. Yesterday was a big date, and marks the best and most intellectual of all of our Centennial celebrations".

(taken from El diario ilustrado / September 22nd, 1910).

The wasteland that was left after the last works of canalization and filling of Mapocho River's south border in 1892, was the place chosen for the building of the school and Museum. According to Alberto Mackenna, the location (of more than 26,2000 square yards) was a space "destined to be a wasteland, where abandoned dogs would walk along the pigs looking for garbage and women that would make a living out of such a low job…" (2).

Looking to Paris
In those years, a great deal of Chilean future architects dreamt of studying at the "City of Lights", to learn more about modern techniques and appreciate from its original source the style that most pleased Santiago's inhabitants.

Along with that premise and right before the Independence Centennial, the State of Chile called for an International Contest for the building of the Museum. The jury —Rafael Errázuriz, Augustín Matte, Juan Luis Sanfuentes and Ramón Subercaseaux— favored the project presented by Emilio Jecquier, an architect that had studied at Paris' Fine Arts School.

According to the trend favoured during the time, Jecquier copied the inside hall and main façade from Paris´ Petit Palais Museum. An article published on Zig-Zag magazine on July 30th, 1905, stated that his work"has brought us some refinement, some of that exquisite classic elegance, filtered through modern taste, that is now the big thing in Paris, world's most artistic city".

The finishing of this project demanded from the government a substantial raise on the originally approved budget. From the 495,310 pesos calculated in 1905, the finishing of the project had a spending of 22,100,000 pesos.

Nervous arrangements
In 1906, Pedro Montt was elected president. He had to face constant political turmoil, an economic crisis generated by the Valparaíso earthquake in 1906, the great spending of public works and the world recession in 1907. To that we have to add the worker's discontent, which would end on the sad events of the Santa María de Iquique´s killing.

The preparation of the Centennial celebration was at risk, because the earthquake had forced the government to concentrate the spending on the port's rebuilding. Because of this, some people even suggested canceling the celebrations. The situation forced for a pronouncement by the Senate. It would have been a shame to cancel everything, the invitations were already sent to the foreign authorities.

During his term's last year, Montt took part of the activities that, in May of 1910, celebrated the Centennial of the Argentinean Independence. When he came back, he was diagnosed with a disease similar to arteriosclerosis, having to name Elías Fernández Albano as vice-president, and travel to Germany for medical treatment. On August 17th, hours after landing back in Chile, the President died without seeing the work that so much developed during his term.

Elías Fernández had to receive the foreign authorities that began arriving for the celebrations. During Montt´s funeral mass at the Cathedral, Fernández got a strong flu that shortly afterwards became pneumonia. Ten days later, and because of a heart attack, the vice-president died as well.

Two deaths of such distinguished persons in less than a month shook the country. The magazines would ran photographic articles about the funerals, while informing of the arrival of new visitors, or the buying in Argentina of new lightning to array the city. As a consensus candidate, Ramón Barros Luco was named President. He assumed in November, with Emiliano Figueroa as his Vice-president. The gifts for all the foreign visitors and authorities —with the hallmark of Elías Fernández as President— were handed out anyway.

The new Arts Museum was inaugurated on September 21st, 1910. During the crowded ceremony it was also opened an International Exhibit that was mounted inside the space for the Museum and the School, with new catalogs and a copper medal especially designed. Then began a new stage for the arts promotion in Chile.

"On the governmental mess in which we now live, it is no surprise the Centennial finds us unprepared. A lot has been written, a lot has been said, but little has been done. The anarchy of ideas cannot produce results any different. Some have even thought about delaying the Centennial and it has been necessary for a Senate Act to stop that. But let us not be mistaken: the Senate did not oppose this idea just because the invitations had already been sent around the world, in other words, because there was no turning back. Randomly we have the opening of the Fine Arts Palace around that same date: it has been a coincidence. But not even that is working fine. In order to inaugurate the Palace in September, workers will have to be there day and night, getting two or four times their regular salary, and sacrificing some details because of the short time now left".

"This Palace will become the headquarters of a lot of celebrations: it will be the best thing the delegates will see in the whole Centennial program. But nothing has been done to the square around the buildings front of the Palace. It is hard, almost impossible, to fix all this in two months. As it is our habit, we have left everything for the last minute".

(taken from El diario ilustrado / July 18th, 1909).

(1) Lisette Balmaceda, The Fine Arts Museum (thesis). Santiago, Universidad de Chile, Facultad de Bellas Artes, 1978, page 61.


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