Art Meets Education

Joaquín Torres-García's Transformable Toys

A true Renaissance man in every sense of the word, Joaquín Torres-García was a painter, sculptor, muralist, novelist, writer, teacher and theorist and is considered to be one of the most important Latin American artists of the 20th century. He led a peripatetic life, traveling and working extensively in Europe and the United States, absorbing, experimenting with, and discarding artistic styles along the way before developing what became his own distinct visual language of Constructive Universalism. This unique style combined Latin American and pre-Hispanic traditions with contemporary developments like Cubism, Dada, Primitivism, Abstraction, and Surrealism.

“toys teach children which are the correct colors, the correct forms...and guide future generations to acquire a natural eye.”

One of the key tenets of Torres-García’s Constructive Universalism was the utopian belief that simple objects and symbols could be understood by anyone, anywhere, with the goal of bridging so-called “high” and “low” artistic forms so as to make art accessible to the masses. This concept is perfectly embodied by the hundreds of toys he designed throughout his career. Torres-García taught drawing in the early 1910s and had gained an understanding of the important role of play in childhood education and development. He began designing toys in 1917 and would go on to found his own company in 1920, Aladdin Toys in New York. The transformable toys reflected his Constructivist aesthetic while encouraging children to express their creativity and build knowledge or, as the artist explained it, the “toys teach children which are the correct colors, the correct forms...and guide future generations to acquire a natural eye.”

Advertisement in L'Acte magazine, num. 2, Paris, December 1927. Courtesy of the Archivo Fundación Torres García, Montevideo.

His toys were produced over a number of years and are classified in four periods: T1 for the artist’s Barcelona years, c. 1917-1919; T2 for his years in New York, c. 1920-1922; T3 for his period in Italy, c. 1924-1926; and T4 for his years in France, c. 1927-1932. The present model has been authenticated by Cecilia De Torres, the artist's daughter and the director of the Joaquín Torres-García Catalogue Raisonné, and dates to his time in Paris, where his toys were carried in the Au Printemps department store and where he also inked a manufacturing deal with Atelier Coll. Though humble in construction and appearance, Torres-García is best known for his toys and they influenced many of his contemporaries, including American’s Adolph Gottlieb and Louise Nevelson, leaving behind an indelible imprint on the history of modern art.

[Torres-García's toys are] unclassifiable objects...the emphasis on the economy of means and the insertion of extra pictorial values merges with several well-known poetics: Cubism’s analytical and synthetic deconstruction of representation; Dada’s iconoclastic use of recycled materials; Neo-Plasticism’s grid-based metaphysical insights; Surrealism’s heaping of bizarre intuitions; and Primitive art, understood as an animistic perception of a natural world with no tradition.

Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortharm Curator of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston