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How Gustav Likan Became Part of Argentinian History

The Unlikely Story of Gustav Likan's Commision by Eva Perón

Gustav Likan is an artist from Yugoslavia who stands out as a pivotal figure in the evolution of 20th-century modern art, celebrated for his contributions to colourism. Yet, Likan's artistic journey is intertwined with a series of formidable challenges and serendipitous encounters, notably his transformative experience in Argentina under the patronage of Eva Perón, the country's revered first lady from 1946 to 1952.

The Journey to Argentina

Likan and his family were displaced several times by the chaos and aftermath of World War II. 

They lived in Zagreb, Croatia when the war broke out but were soon forced to flee to Olmic, Czechoslovakia where they lived for some time. The communist USSR began taking control of the country, and since Likan’s wife Barbara was German, they were again forced to leave.

They then sought asylum in Vienna, Austria. Austria was in a dire financial situation and was not able to provide adequate support for the asylum seekers. Likan and his family boarded a ship to Bueno Aires, Argentina. 

During their 2-week voyage, Likan was quickly exposed as an artist and was paid to paint much of the crew including the captain. This produced a cushion of funds to help them adjust to the new country.

Struggling as a refugee

After arriving in Argentina, Gustav Likan painted portraits in exchange for money to cover his family’s living expenses. After some time staying in shelters and hotels, they finally found a house to rent and subsequently purchased some livestock. Money was still too scarce for comfort, however, and they hoped for a change of fortune.

One day, Likan’s wife Barbara showed him an ad in the newspaper from the Eva Perón Foundation. It called for a muralist to paint the walls of their new schools.

Eva Perón

Eva Perón, also affectionately known as Evita, was the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. During her term, she dedicated her life to social welfare and advocating for women's rights. Married to President Juan Perón, she became a beloved yet controversial figure, revered for her efforts to empower Argentina's poor and working class.

During her term, she established the Eva Perón Foundation which played a significant role in Argentine society by providing health care, education, and social assistance. The foundation was known for its efficiency and ability to mobilize resources rapidly, often bypassing traditional bureaucratic channels to deliver aid directly to those in need. It funded and built hospitals, schools, orphanages, and elderly homes, significantly improving the welfare of the most vulnerable populations in Argentina.

Eva Perón wanted the schools to be beautiful, which is how the Foundation decided to find a muralist to paint the walls. They put out ads and one of those ended up on Likan’s doorstep…

Securing the Commission

Likan applied for the job and was summoned to a painting competition. Their instructions were to paint child-friendly pieces including nature, animals, and peaceful scenes in as fast of a timeframe as possible. Likan got to work painting amongst dozens of other prospects and ended up finishing first. They told him he would receive a letter in exactly two days if he had been chosen.

On the second day, the mailman stopped by but only waved. Disheartened they went to relax and watch their animals. To their disbelief, however, they heard the mailman come back and deliver a special envelope informing him that he’d been chosen by Eva Peron.

Painting Murals

The job, which paid 9,000 pesos per month (equivalent to over $25,000 today), alleviated all of his family’s financial concerns but required Likan to travel far across Argentina. The projects required him to be away from home sometimes for multiple months at a time.

These locations mostly consisted of schools and children's hospitals opened and managed by the Eva Perón Foundation. He painted the flora and fauna around him including tropical plants, pumas, and parakeets. 

In preparation to paint the murals, Likan created sketches of various subject matter that would be later displayed on the walls. 

You can see more of the sketches here.

In total, Likan painted 14 murals in 11 cities and towns across Argentina between 1950 and 1952. 

Leaving Argentina

After Eva Perón’s death in 1952, Likan continued to paint for aristocrats in the government for several years. The country began to destabilize, however, and in 1957 he and his family chose to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Chicago, where he exhibited his art and became a professor at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

Likan and his family then moved to Austin, Texas in 1967 where he taught art at Laguna Gloria Art Museum and moved into his “dream home.” He passed away in 1999 at the age of 87.



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