You Better Go See The New Berni Exhibit At MALBA

Posted on December 11, 2014 by Anna Lowe in ARTS

Article by our one and only Anna Lowe.

Antonio Berni’s ‘Juanito and Romina’ series shaped 20 years of his artistic production, won him international recognition and remain a defining vision of modern Argentine life.  Produced jointly by MALBA and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this monumental exhibition displays 140 of his works and forms a compelling, must-see show.

Berni at MALBA 4

Entering is immediately striking; the show is overwhelming and brash yet also vibrant and, at times, beautiful. Visitors step into Berni’s fictional world dominated by two protagonists – Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel. Juanito is a boy from the Buenos Aires slums and Ramona, a lower-middle class woman who aspires to join the upper elites through a life of prostitution. Berni traces the harsh poverty of their lives in consumer-driven post-war Argentina, creating a personal narration of the struggles and spirit of country.

The exhibition is organized to tell a powerful story, showing the development of Juanito and Ramona through different mediums – first, two-dimensional oil paintings, then woodcuts, collage-reliefs and huge constructions made ​​with scrap machines and other found objects. Visitors are initially confronted with two pulsing rooms showing the humble Juanito with his lower-middle class family. The huge canvases depict Juanito celebrating Christmas, learning to read, flying a kite, swimming in a lake with his dog and taking a meal to his father in the factory where he works. In Juanito Goes to the City (1963) the young boy is scarecrow-like and has a sack thrown over his shoulder as he wades through a sea of debris. His shirt, trousers, cap and bag are all objects stuck to the canvas; only his face is made out of paint – applied in thick globs.

Berni at MALBA 2

The creation of Juanito represented a decisive break for Berni, whose early works are in the style of social realism. ‘The Unemployed’, for example, portrays idealized worker-heroes optimistic for the future through political struggle. In contrast, the Juanito series is personal and pessimistic – showing no specific political struggle or popular resistance. Berni saw Argentine industrialization as bringing social unrest and poverty and thus abandoned painting in favour of these dirty, intentionally ‘bad taste’ collages. He hoped to shock the mostly bourgeois and middle-class art viewing audiences of the 1960s who were familiar with elegant, geometric abstraction. In 1965 Berni commented, “I am a painter in step with life, in sync with events that are constantly changing” and these figurative representations of unattained modernism detail Argentina’s frustrated aspirations.

Berni at MALBA 1

Berni’s contemptuous critique of Argentine society is even more caustic when expressed through the morally complex perspective of Ramona. He began to develop her while living and working in Paris in the early 1960s and searched flea markets for the bits of lace and finery to convey the excesses of Ramona’s glamorous sex work; her calves are shaped like champagne bottles and, even as a baby, she is sexualized with thick eyeliner and large breasts. Through Ramona’s eyes, Berni creates lovers and ‘protectors’ – officers, politicians and even priests from the Buenos Aires elite. They are all disjointed characters assembled from junk materials to signify their grimy morals – ‘The Colonel’ (1964) presents an officer with sickly green skin-tone and skulls and dollar signs adorning his cap. As well as these corrupt officials the exhibition also displays a number of monster sculptures made from found objects such as rusty nails, screws and camera flashes. They symbolize their fears and more generally the waste products and social pressure of an industrializing world.

Yet Berni’s the Juanito and Ramona series is also loaded with contradictions and can be both serious and funny, repelling and beautiful. His stunningly detailed woodcuts won him first prize for printmaking at the 31st Venice Biennale in 1962 and portray Ramona in monochromatic, sensuous shapes. Another appealing work is the richly coloured The Great Temptation of the Grand Illusion (1962) showing Ramona and a gang of men under a huge billboard advert of a perfect blonde. Here Berni employs photography and ‘pop’ culture as tools for irony – media images and lusty men cover Ramona’s body. While ‘Pop’ art emerged in North America with celebratory consumer culture and advertising, in the South relations with dictatorships and the mass media prompted a different expression. Berni’s Latin American Pop becomes another reflection of disenchantment.

Berni at MALBA 3

This large exhibition is highly accessible both in style and subject – especially for tourists and expats. Although exploring a specific time period, Berni’s storytelling is powerful and the works are shockingly applicable to Argentina today . Just as Juanito remains a young boy in Berni’s paintings, similarly Argentine society is still troubled by politics, inequality and slums fifty years on. As a tourist, the Parisian avenues of Buenos Aires and lavish tango shows seem suddenly tarnished and repellent after viewing them through Ramona’s eyes (MALBA curates the show with background tango music for extra impact).

Berni’s art is unambiguous and oozes excess – a style many collectors and critics have found hard to appreciate. But his technical skill and bold vision of industrial Argentina represent some of the country’s most important works and will surely stand the test of time

  • Open until 23rd February 2015
  • Hours: 12 – 20. Closed Tuesdays

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