Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona showcases more than 150 works of one of Argentina’s most dynamic and acclaimed artists of the 20th century. Berni was a well-known public figure by the end of his life, and this exhibition – a collaboration between the MALBA and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston – gives us a clear understanding as to why Berni’s work has transcended art history and entered Argentina’s national folklore.
The exhibition begins with a series of large-scale collages that Berni made in the 1960s, centred on the fictionalised figure of a small boy from the slums of Buenos Aires, called Juanito. Berni used actual materials from the slums to make these works. As such, we see Juanito dressed in jackets and caps that Berni salvaged from the slums of the time; we see him walking through mountains of trash that the artist collected and re-used in his art.
Raw and expressive, these works transport us to the poverty-stricken environs of Argentina’s working classes in the 1960s. The once-wealthy South American country was, by the 1960s, plagued by a series of problems including an unstable economy, strikes, guerrilla warfare and political kidnappings. Berni’s intention was clear: to cast a critical eye on the vast gulf between the rich and poor that divided Argentina into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” His feeling for the social inequalities of his time is palpable. For Berni, the New Realism of the time was not an artistic movement, but a “way of thinking about the world.”
Indeed, the artist’s preoccupation with colonialism, economic dependence and over-commercialisation is channelled through compassionate images of Juanito in the slums. We see disturbing images including a house fire engulfing Juanito’s house, and his family escaping a flood. We witness a family Christmas in Juanito Laguna’s Christmas (1961), where the gaudy purple and red faces of Juanito’s family verge on the nightmarish. Their expressive faces are reminiscent of Picasso’s cubist portraits and the distorted shapes of the room recall the deliberately skewed perspective of Van Gogh’s interiors.
However, comparisons with other great artists end there. Berni’s images are rooted in a very particular time and a place. Argentina’s first villa miseria (misery town) was founded in 1931. Poor Italian immigrants lived in the city’s first shantytowns. Later, migrants from the rest of South America, including Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia, inhabited them. In Juanito Takes a Meal to His Father, A Metalworker (1961), his father’s factory, with its billowing smoke, looms like a giant over a tiny sketch of Juanito in the foreground of the canvas. The sheer enormity of the factory tells us that we are in the newly-industrialising, developing world. Though at times verging on the cartoonish, Berni’s triumph in these canvases is to make an icon, an everyman, out of Juanito. The boy has multiple faces; he is, in Berni’s words, an “archetype.” Berni said he wanted to represent not just a slum-dweller in Buenos Aires, but in any city of Latin America.
Berni’s fictionalised female figure Ramona is the focus of the central part of this exhibition. Ramona is a lower-middle class teenager who is destined to clean the offices and houses of the bourgeoisie. Instead, she opts for the life of a high-class prostitute. Much of the inspiration for Berni’s woodblock prints of Ramona came from Paris, which Berni visited frequently and where he eventually established a studio. He collected lace and other materials from the French capital that he used to create these richly-textured images of Ramona. Unlike Juanito, who remains marginalised in the slums, society’s double standards over sex mean that Ramona has access to another social world. Her clients include army generals and aristocrats, clergymen even, as glimpsed in the diptych Ramona’s Striptease (1963).
The exhibition culminates with Berni’s later collages of Juanito, made in the 1970s. In these, the artist started to use more blatant symbols of capitalism. The litter of well-known brands like Shell and Coca-Cola fill these canvases. Yet one senses more optimism in the later works. In Juanito Laguna Going to the Factory (1977), Juanito is at peace with his surroundings. He is not melting into the background like in some of the earlier works. The colours are brighter, the brushwork gentler. With this lighter mood, some of the expressive appeal of the earlier works is lost; but what we lose, we gain in aesthetic appeal. In Juanito Asleep (1978), there is a colour and compositional harmony that was missing from the earlier works.
In these mature works, some of Berni’s last, the biting social criticism of the earlier collages and prints has softened. The anger of the 1960s still lingers, but there is melody too. It is a sense of Juanito’s peace with his surroundings, a reflection perhaps of the artist’s own journey to greater acceptance.
Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona, until 1 March, MALBA, Avenida Figueroa Alcorta 3415, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
1. Ramona en la calle, 1964 (copia firmada en 1966). Xilo-collage-relieve. Matriz xilográfica: 78,7 x 56,5 cm. Estampa: 88,3 x 64,1 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Adquisición del MFAH financiada por Alfredo y Celina Hellmund Brener.