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January 2001

Sergio Larraín García-Moreno (1905 -1999):
The immeasurable man

Precursor of modernism in Chile, European vanguards' ambassador, creator of the Chilean Pre-Columbian Art Museum, this architect, professor and collector incarnated the blending of past and future, art and business, thought and pleasure. His life and mentality possessed a reckless width, which makes him an immeasurable figure.

Years of study in Europe were the precise nutrient for young Sergio Larraín García-Moreno's mind and soul. At a young age he started to absorb the cultural sparkle of the 20s and the rebel spirit of vanguards. Freethinking, attraction for modernity and originality, the courage to bet, were hallmarks of his personality that dazzled all who met him.

But in this man's wide concept, past and future inevitably shook hands.

Art was his big communication channel, and his passion for visual creation made him a loving, expert and prolific collector, both of contemporary painting and sculpture and of Pre-Columbian art. Pre-Hispanic people were for him a true obsession. "This sensibility was also shared by his time's vanguards, which searched for recovering dreams in non-occidental cultures. Artists such as Braque, Picasso or Kandinsky, who he admired and knew, had a strong relation with African and Asian art", says the art journalist Catalina Mena.

Important national artists such as Roberto Matta, Nemesio Antúnez or Sergio Valdivieso took their first steps encouraged by the support and indisputable confidence of this visionary teacher. At the same time, we owe to his generosity one of Latin America's most important Museums, the Chilean Pre-Columbian Art Museum, located at the corner of Bandera and Compañía Streets, downtown Santiago. His clinic eye praised the importance not just of Chilean artists, but of worldwide names: Dalí, Picasso and Giacometti, of whom he got works at a very low price during the mid-40s when they were just starting to be valued at the Art market.

"He would indulge himself"
It was in 1924 when Sergio Larraín entered as a student to the Architectural School of Universidad Católica de Chile, of which he would be Dean during the 50s. While he was a sophomore he started collecting pre-Columbian pieces, which would start accumulating at his house till becoming the base of a Museum.

An encourager of modernism and follower of Le Corbousier —who he met in Europe— his career as an architect included important downtown Santiago buildings. While being a successful architect, professor, collector and reckless traveler, Sergio Larraín found the time for all his other passions. "He was an avid reader, from classic French novels to scientific essays. A fan of music, lover of modern furniture and curious objects, luxury cars (he used to drive Porsche and Mercedes convertibles at high-speed), of rare foods and notable quotes", recalls Catalina Mena.

"He would indulge himself", says Carlos Aldunate, Chilean Pre-Columbian Art Museum's director. "Very different to that other Chilean aristocracy a little prudish, afraid of gossip, that would do everything modestly. Sergio liked good things. But he didn't care about money at all, but about the pleasures he could buy with it".

Another side of this was the negotiations he went through before buying. He would write letters to gallery owners, dealers, and antique collectors from all over the world. "Sergio Larraín was not only interested by object's testimony, but also for all the spiritual world he had inside. He read Carlos Castaneda, got into shamanism and even participated in a Wizards Congress in Colombia", says Catalina Mena. While devouring any book that made reference to ancient American cultures, he would exchange or sell some of his Modern Art works to buy Moche, Maya or Chavin pieces. He also traveled through archeological sites and contacted the world's most important experts, including Junuis Bird; an archeologist specialized in South America and director of New York's Natural History Museum. He was the one to convince Larraín about the value of the collection he had been gathering for more than twenty years and which was an important heritage for the country.

In 1976, he decided to create the Pre-Columbian Art Museum, a project in which anyone with some knowledge became involved. "He had a great charisma to convoke people around his ideas and establish high quality standards", says Mario Pérez de Arce, architect and colleague that saw him working as Dean of Architecture and Fine Arts. He completely reformed the teaching system and brought people like Joseph Albers, the head of American Bauhaus.

Once all the pre-Columbian pieces were classified, it began the search of works to complete the collection. With more than seventy years old, Sergio Larraín went to the American and European Art markets committing to his project the best specialists. Then, he got the City of Santiago to give him the old Customs building, which had been completely destroyed by a fire. He restored it with an Italian architect, who specialized in Museums. Finally, in 1981, the Museum was inaugurated, with an initial collection of over 1,500 pieces valued in millions of dollars. Today, thanks to private contributions, other buying and the incorporation of Larraín's posthumous donation the collection amounts to over 3,000 pieces.

His infinite energy and natural curiosity made him a key figure of cultural heritage in our country, even though he also got involved in challenges far from his usual work. In 1938 he was elected as alderman by the Conservative Party, thanks to the vote of women who got hooked by his picture in billboards. During the Second World War he appeared as the director of British Intelligence in South America, taking part in the anti-nazi campaign. For this reason Queen Elizabeth gave him the title of Royal's Order Sir. During the administration of Eduardo Frei Montalva he was an ambassador in Peru. But beyond this exuberant resume and his invaluable patrimony legacy, what those who met him will never forget is his tireless, respectful and unprejudiced love for Art.


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