Monster Masterpieces: The Art of Antonio Berni
Ranging from the charming to the absurd, the work of Antonio Berni has been ubiquitous in Argentina since the 1930s, when he was a young artist advocating for political change. Little-known in the United States today, his works are a staple in many of Argentina’s major institutions, forming the core of permanent collections like the Latin American Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA) and the National Museum of Fine Arts. With an oeuvre that spans several decades of the twentieth century (Berni was prolific until his death in 1981), the diversity of his styles is astounding. While visiting Buenos Aires recently, I encountered small Chirico-style surrealist panels, expressive mural-sized scenes similar to those of Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and—most curiously—an enormous papier-mâché sculpture of an alligator-monster with a woman’s legs emerging from its mouth.
Antonio Berni | La sordidez (Sordidness, from the series Cosmic Monsters), c. 1964, wood, steel, iron, aluminum, cardboard, plastic, roots, nails, and enamel, approx. 4 x 4 x 13 feet, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The distinct phases that mark the progression of Berni’s artistic career were greatly influenced by the artist’s travels, and by the political and social climate of his home country. Berni studied art in Europe during the 1920s, most notably with the French artist André Lhote, and found the Argentina he returned to in 1931 a dramatically changed place. In 1930, Argentina’s president had been ousted in a military coup. This inaugurated a period known as the Infamous Decade, an era marked by economic depression and widespread unemployment. Berni was among a group of artists that agitated for political change, helping to form unions and produce art with revolutionary content.
It was at this time that the Mexican muralist Siqueiros visited Buenos Aires. Berni famously challenged the icon’s methods and theories, declaring his work ineffective in the Argentine context, and advocated instead for art that did not depend on commissions from the government and the elite classes. However, while Berni publicly went toe-to-toe with the famous muralist, questioning his ideas for the best revolutionary art, aesthetically their work was very similar. This can be seen in Berni’s 1934 painting, Unemployment, particularly in its large scale, narrative qualities, and realistic rendering of his figures. These elements became markers of Social Realism, a style that Berni was one of the primary practitioners of in the Southern Cone.
The 1940s saw a series of coups and dramatic shifts in Argentina’s government, the effects of which reverberated throughout the following decades. Berni, who had spent time living and working in other parts of the country, returned to Buenos Aires in the mid-1950s. In response to the depressed living conditions he had seen and experienced all over, he invented two fictitious characters whose lives personified the struggles of countless Argentines. The first was Juanito Laguna, a boy originally from a rural farm, displaced to the outskirts of the city and struggling to survive in the shantytowns with his family. The second was named Ramona Montiel, a working-class girl who discovered that prostitution was more lucrative than the dismal salary she earned as a seamstress, and opted for the former, despite its hazards and the social ostracism it engendered.
Both Juanito and Ramona became integral to Berni’s art, their imagined stories exemplary of the realities experienced by many. Berni’s practice also shifted with the development of the personas, as he began building works through assemblage, and using materials collected from the shantytowns that were also the backdrops to his imagined scenes. In Juanito Dormido for example, Berni created a three-dimensional landscape for his character using a collage technique. He flattened aluminum cans and nailed them onto the work’s surface, attached a toy plane to Juanito’s hand, and outfitted the figure in real clothing and shoes. The method is indicative of Berni’s experimental nature as an artist, and is also based on techniques he had developed decades before, as he was known for collecting photographs and newspaper imagery to use as studies for his paintings.
In the 1960s, Berni also created a series of monsters, assembled with discarded machine parts and industrial wares. Resembling post-apocalyptic creations one might see in a Tim Burton film, the creatures menace and consume the figures of Ramona and Juanito, or sometimes threaten the viewer themselves. In this way, they allegorized the increasingly global economic policies of the Argentine state, and their move towards industrialization, the effects of which continued to displace rural communities. These strange and dystopian works, while a notable departure from his earlier paintings, are indicative of Berni’s commitment to an accessible and narrative style of art-making, and his unceasing engagement with working-class communities. His work also fostered a movement of political engagement among artists in Argentina, a legacy that is very much alive in the practices of many artists working there today.
Several works from the later years of Berni’s career are being exhibited in the US for the first time in nearly 50 years, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The exhibition, Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona, will be on view until January 26th, 2014.
Nadiah Fellah is a doctoral student of Art History at the The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.