Evandro Teixeira. Chile 1973
The Photographer and the Poet
"Your presence here is very important." With these words, Matilde Urrutia, Pablo Neruda’s wife, welcomed the Bahian photographer Evandro Teixeira into the small room of the Santa María Clinic, in Santiago, Chile. It was the morning of September 24, 1973; Neruda had died the night before, lying motionless on a gurney with a cloth wrapped around his head and face. The photographic record of this moment – one of many that Teixeira would take in the hours that followed, attending the poet’s wake and funeral process – is ambiguous. In contrast to the previous days, when Neruda's house was vandalized by soldiers of the new Military Junta – which 12 days earlier had bombed the palace of La Moneda and deposed President Salvador Allende, his friend – the photograph seems to evoke the poet's political defeat, the futility of his aspirations, relegated in the end to a narrow and depressing little space. When juxtaposed with the days immediately following Neruda's death, however, Teixeira's images take on different contours. Dressed in his blazer, already in the coffin, the poet's inert expression takes on a more assured look, a kind of timeless serenity, as if he knew in advance that his death would be the first real challenge to the terror that General Augusto Pinochet was trying to impose. The scene is famous: a procession that begins timidly and grows in number until a crowd – made up largely of militants from the Chilean left – gathers around the coffin, shouting slogans and singing the Internationale, ignoring the curfew imposed by the new Junta.
It is ironic, and at the same time appropriate, that it was the wife of a Chilean military attaché who informed Teixeira that Neruda was hospitalized at the Santa María Clinic. With this information in hand, the photographer went to the hospital on September 23, 1973, to photograph the poet but was denied access to him. Neruda died that night, and the next day the public was already aware of his death; when Teixeira returned, the hospital was surrounded. However, he gained access through a side door, and to his own surprise, he found Neruda on the stretcher with Urrutia beside him. Overwhelmed by the privilege of access that probably every photographer in Santiago wanted, he immediately began to take pictures. He then accompanied Urrutia by car to La Chascona, at the foot of San Cristóbal Hill, the couple's home in the city. The house, as well as the couple's other residence in Isla Negra, near Valparaíso, had been looted and vandalized by the Junta: books were gone, windows broken, furniture destroyed. The body was mourned there, from where the funeral procession left for the General Cemetery of Santiago.
Some passersby and residents watch the hearse with a mixture of reluctance and curiosity, perhaps for fear of breaking the curfew. But the gathering soon turns into a demonstration, with a crowd following the body. In one of the photos taken near her home, Urrutia appears surrounded by a press camera and microphone, with a look of dismay on her face, perhaps the result of the mixed emotions she must have felt that day — grief, fear that the military would interrupt the procession, and the understanding that her husband was a national figure who deserved a dignified farewell.
In Teixeira's photographs, one can identify other figures of the time: the writer and lawyer Aída Figueroa, a close friend of Neruda; the writer Francisco Coloane; the Argentine poet Roberto Alifano; the Venezuelan filmmaker Fina Torres. It was the first major challenge to the authority of the Pinochet government, and it would not be the last. Neruda's death was a ghost that haunted the regime until its overthrow and continues to raise doubts today. In February 2023, the poet's nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, said that an international panel of scientists had concluded in a new report that samples of Neruda's bones and teeth showed the presence of a toxin related to the bacterium that causes botulism, reinforcing suspicions of murder.
Evandro Teixeira remembered the emotion that came over him during the funeral. He said he cried a lot while shooting. The photos of him are do justice to the gravity of the occasion. At the hospital, Urrutia had said his presence was important, and he had taken the hint.
This text gathers excerpts from the article “The Photographer and the Poet”, by Alejandro Chacoff, published in the catalogue of the exhibition Evandro Teixeira. Chile 1973. São Paulo: IMS, 2023.