With a population of 482,000, Montevideo in the 1930s was a city of European immigrants, containing few traces of the indigenous tribes that had once lived on this bank of the Río de la Plata. The capital of Uruguay, it was characterized by the political stability and prosperity that earned Uruguay the nickname “The Switzerland of South America,” by which it was known until the 1970s. The country’s inhabitants were proud of its democratic system and its progressive politics. Nowhere else in Latin America were church and state so separate (divorce was legal as early as 1907). In the nineteenth century, the liberator of Uruguay, José Gervasio Artigas, had urged Uruguayans to be “as educated as they are brave,” and this emphasis on education has been the central characteristic of Uruguayan culture.
Uruguay set the groundwork for an extensive welfare state in the early twentieth century, guaranteeing free education and health care for all. This resulted in a high literacy rate and a strong, liberal middle-class culture. In the 1930s, Montevideo had an active opera house, a lively publishing scene, and a strong connection to French and British cultural values. It was into this comfortable but somewhat provincial atmosphere that Joaquín Torres-García returned in 1934 after forty-three years in Europe and the United States. Torres-García’s presence in Montevideo revolutionized the cultural scene and laid the groundwork for the introduction of abstract art into South America. His influence on Uruguayan popular culture was so strong that today Uruguay’s currency bills, postage stamps, and countless tourist souvenirs bear imagery derived from Torres-García’s work.