MALBA – Antonio Berni

The Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires is housed in a beautiful modern building in the leafy area of Recoleta. It was a real pleasure to enter this sanctuary from the heat and wander through the extremely well presented collection, especially as the contents of every room revealed new discoveries. The work of only two artists was known to me – the famous Mexican duo Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – so new names came thick and fast. But the name of one artist drew my attention throughout the chronological display. He seemed to be at the forefront of successive movements and styles. So I have done a little bit of research and here is a very short introduction to the output of Antonio Berni.    

Delesio Antonio Berni was born in 1905 in the city of Rosario, about 300 kilometres north west of Buenos Aires, the son of an Italian immigrant father and an Argentine mother who also had Italian forebears. In 1925 he received a scholarship to study in Europe. After touring Spain he settled in Paris where he was became interested in the Surrealists and especially the work of Georgio de Chirico and Rene Magritte. He was also introduced to Marxist theory via a  friendship with the poet Louis Aragon.  

In 1932, the year after he had returned to Argentina, he had his first one-man exhibition of his surrealist paintings. An excellent example of his work at this time was La siesta y su sueño (The Siesta and the Dream). The influence of de Chirico’s ‘Metaphysical’ work which was key to the rise of Surrealist painting is plain to see. The disorientating effects of dreams was of great interest to the Surrealists, especially the disjuncture of objects within time and place. A large metallic object resembling some sort of funnel rises from the sea – too close to the nearby shore to emanate from a submerged vessel. Some sort of giant craftsman's tool (a G clamp or perhaps a part from an infernal industrial machine) emerges from the rocks looming over the car and equal in height to the two-storey house. There is the hint of a predatory threat from this curious object. The siesta must have followed a very good lunch.

Two years later Berni was concerned with more pressing social concerns than the mysteries of dream. Demonstration reflects the dire political and economic climate of the 1930’s. The  ideological confrontations between liberalism, fascism and communism, the threats of war and the depression produced a febrile atmosphere where unemployment and depressed wages led to strikes. Here Berni depicts one such confrontation but whereas other artists may have emphasised the sheer mass of people by reducing every visage to a series of dehumanised masks, Berni characterises each face in the crowd as an individual. This is especially effective in the front rows of the crowd where the features of those taking part betray their own concerns, fears and hopes. This painting together with others such as Desocupados (The Unemployed) were at the forefront of a new movement - Nuevo Realismo - documenting the harsh realities of life for workers and the poor in 1930’s Argentina.

In the 60s and 70s, Berni worked on a series of works about the adventures of two fictional characters: Juanito Laguna (a lad from the slums) and Ramona Montiel (a prostitute). Both are Argentine archetypes born on the periphery of Buenos Aires although, as he maintained, they could have inhabited any large Latin American city. In 1962 Berni received a prize at the XXXI Venice Biennial for engravings in the Ramona Montiel series. The Great Temptation, a mixed media assemblage (including wood, plastic, chicken wire, coins, crushed cans, cardboard, aluminium foil etc) is part of the same series and is dated in the same year although it was not exhibited, at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, until 1964.

An old prostitute (Ramona), standing to the right, is surrounded by men who are gazing admiringly at the the apparition of a beautiful blond woman – the subject of the great temptation – holding in one hand a purse overflowing with silver coins and in the other a blue car (the very latest model). Ramona is endowed with big hips and full breasts which are now unfortunately not as firm as they once were. Her naked body is emblazoned with a number of portraits of men (tattoos?). She wears black heels, turquoise stockings with red suspenders, her mouth and eyes are heavily made up and she sports a blonde wig. The beautiful young woman to the left represents the antithesis of this vision of corruption. Berni has not used collage for her, rather he has rendered her with a very fine painterly technique. She looks as if she has been transported straight from a cinema poster of the period.

La siesta y su sueño (The Siesta and the Dream)
The Great Temptation