MALBA for Dummies
Undoubtedly one of the ‘must-see’ attractions of the city, MALBA (the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) offers an opportunity to view 100 years of modern and contemporary art from across the region. The collection introduces visitors to imaginative artists who mixed important European influences like Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and Abstractionism with pre-Colombian Indian and colonial motifs to create something new. But just in case you’re not on top of your Latin American art history and want to impress your travel buddies or visiting family here is my run-down of MALBA’s top ten works.
1. Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957)
Retrato de Ramón Gómez de la Serna, 1915 (Portrait of Ramón Gómez de la Serna)
During the 1920s young artists like Mexican Diego Rivera became involved in Parisian Cubism. This 1915 oil portrait of the intellectual Ramón Gómez de la Serna may easily be mistaken for a work by Braque or Picasso. It is a somewhat psychological portrayal with Ramón writing at his desk, yet the typical Cubist flat, fractured colours are not too harsh allowing the image to remain recognizable. While Rivera often borrowed from favourite cubist motifs like bottles or musical instruments, his style is also distinctive and characterized by brighter colours, larger scale and strange objects such as a gun and a woman’s face, perhaps a doll?
2. Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973)
By the post-World War I years, European artists and intellectuals began to travel to Latin America to find inspiration and the cultural interchange became a richer, two-way process. Surrealism bloomed in Latin American and Brazilian artist Tarsila, a student of Fernand Léger, fused this style with a Brazilian sensuality and mythology. Here, her ‘Abaporu’ (meaning cannibal) depicts a nude, distorted human contemplating a cactus flower with a lemon-slice sun in the background. The intense blue, green and yellow evokes the colours of the Brazilian flag. The shape of the huge foot and hand at the bottom of the picture, slowly shrinking to a tiny head at the top, is reminiscent of Joan Miró’s similar shapes.
3. Miguel Covarrubias (1904 – 1957)
George Gershwin an American in Paris, 1929
Miguel Covarrubias was Mexican but lived in New York. His caricatures of the jazz clubs and famous figures were the first of their kind printed in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Yet beyond this, Covarrubias was also an art historian, curator, cartographer, ethnographer, and documentary filmmaker and worked to promote the art of the Americas, from ancient works to contemporary pieces.
4. Antonio Berni (1905-1981)
Manifestation, 1934 (Public Demonstration)
By the 1930’s and beyond, as MALBA shows, Latin American artists found much of their inspiration in politics and the social problems of their own people. 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, forming unions and producing art with revolutionary content. He was influenced by, and responded to, the Mexican muralist Siqueiros and in this painting ‘Demonstration’ we see the same graphic techniques of muralism and larger-than-life characters. The hungry labourers are demanding work and food and look as if they are poised to storm out of the piece and overwhelm the viewer. Such narrative qualities and realistic rendering of figures became key features of combative social realism.
5. Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954)
Autorretrato con chango y loro 1942 (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot)
This 1942 self-portrait is one of the signature pieces in MALBA’s collection and depicts Kahlo posing with her pets, a parrot and monkey, in front of giant sprays of wheat. Kahlo was influenced by Surrealism and her many self-portraits are rich with symbolism, exploring issues about her life and feelings, and scrutinizing her facial features. For example, the presentation of pets perhaps represents companionship as a replacement for the children she never had. The experience of being a woman is also expressed in her hairstyle, braided in the Mexican peasant style, and in her blouse which is also traditional. She looks directly at the viewer – unsmiling and strong, with nothing to hint at her damaged body and illness.
6. Fernando Botero (1932)
Los viudos, 1968 (The Widowers)
Fernando Botero is a figurative artist and sculptor from Medellín, Colombia. His signature style, also known as ‘Boterismo’, depicts figures in large, exaggerated volume, which often represent political criticism or humor, depending on the piece. In this large work, The Widowers, we see a weeping family. Botero is influenced by many styles but in particular by the Renaissance art of 15th century Florence, and this work demonstrates some of those traits. For example, the family appears serene and still, even in the midst of movement. They are expressionless and seem to be suspended in a timeless, eternal dimension. Other Renaissance characteristics visible are the supreme importance of volume and sensuality, and the geometric precision of composition, which both result in an elegant, calm scene.
7. María Martins (1894 – 1973)
O impossivel, 1945 (The Impossible)
Brazilian Martins studied sculpture in Paris, Brussels and New York and had an intense love affair with Marcel Duchamp. This sculpture ‘The Impossible’ shows two sparring Venus flytrap heads (perhaps representing both the ruinous state of the world after World War II and her troubled affair with Duchamp). Martins used her Brazilian background to differentiate herself from the common stock of avant-garde production in Manhattan – here the twisting plants appear as creeping jungle vines. The sculpture shows her flair for fluid, animated entanglements of line and for grotesque, yet poetically effective, distortions of form.
8. Lidy Prati (1921 – 2008)
Composición serial, 1948 (Serial Composition)
Starting in the late 1940s, Concretism was the dominant style of the Argentine and Brazilian art scene. Central to this movement was the idea that art is a ‘means of communication that can be deduced from concepts’. Thus unlike traditional art, concrete painting and sculpture is neither figurative nor abstract, and does not try to represent reality or nature. Prati joined the Asociacion Arte Concreto-Invencion and signed the ‘Manifesto invencionist’. In this work we can see her exploration of geometrical forms, strips of colour and juxtapositions.
9. Rómulo Macció (n. 1931)
Aquel hermano loco de Theo 1963 (That Crazy Brother of Theo)
Rómulo Macció, along with others such as Ernesto Deira, Luis Felipe Noé and Jorge de la Vega, was one of the founding members of Argentina’s ‘Otra Figuracion’ Other Figuration group. These artists denied abstraction and reintroduced the human figure in painting by using expressive collage, scribbling, dripping and stains. A self-declared rebel against aesthetics in art, Macció described much of the genteel portrait and landscape art available at that time as ‘pink chocolate.’ They aimed to present humans as constructed in relation to history and in their individual and social world. In ‘That Crazy Brother of Theo’ we can see a brooding figure set against a background, perhaps suggesting urban pollution and decay. The Otra Figuracion group are considered essential to connecting Argentine painting to the challenges of contemporary art.
10. Magadalena Jitrik (n. 1966)
Ya decía yo que el miedo es una técnica 1996 (I Used to Say that Fear is a Technique)
MALBA is constantly acquiring new works and growing the collection. In 2011 they purchased this abstract work by Argentine Magdalena Jitrik. Much of Jitrik’s works aims to examine socialism and anarchism in contemporary Argentina and she draws on the pictorial language of the Soviet avant-garde. Here, the imprecise shapes and reduced colours channel Russian painter Kasimir Malevich. Yet her hybrid-style also draws on the geometric playful spirit of the Buenos Aires Madi movement of the 1940s. The title of this work ‘I Used to Say that Fear is a Technique’ is typical of her naming and – while arbitrary and open it hints at her attitudes and references.
Need more art? Experience a behind-the-scenes look at 7 of the city’s art galleries on The Palermo Gallery Walk and talk first hand with curators, owners and artists about local art, trends and current exhibitions.