In my recent trip to Argentina, I had the opportunity to see ‘Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona’ at the MALBA (Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires) which has been co-curated by Maricarmen Ramirez (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) and Marcelo Pacheco (until recently MALBA’s chief curator). Both ‘Juanito Laguna’ and ‘Ramona Montiel’ are a series of paintings depicting two different cartoonish characters created by one of Argentinas’s most important painters. I am referring to Antonio Berni (Rosario, 1905 – Buenos Aires, 1981) who painted them during his stay in France where he got in close contact with the Surrealists and those artists that were close to the Communist Party.
Spread along three of the museum’s floors, it aims (according to the curators’ opening statement) at showing Berni’s ‘international’ influences as if they were the product of his artistic maturity which (we are invited to assume) only comes when artists get in touch with the European avant-garde.
Although there is some truth in this, the show does nothing of the sort to the point that any attempt to link the images to the big international movements (Surrealism, Dada, Expressionism, among others) diverts the viewer’s attention from that that is truly relevant in this show which is the way in which this Argentine artist manipulated Pop Art understood as an Marxist allegory of the economic (and hence, political) domination of the North (USA) over the South (Latin America).
Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel are not new as art historical types for they should be inscribed in the tradition of urban rascals that could be traced back to Fuenteovejuna where youth represents both purity and potential corruption. This is also the case of ‘Ramona Montiel’ who reminds us of those innocent women fallen into sleaze that we often see in William Hogarth’s etchings and in Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens’ novels. The problem with this show is that by focussing on them as characters, it ends up presenting a confusing scenario that the viewer might end up summarising as ‘Poor People’s Pop Art’. Besides, by placing one painting beside the other as in frames in a cartoon, the curators seem to invite the viewer to see the unfolding a story which does not really unfold. In fact, Antonio Berni manipulates their stories so us to make them both unrecognisable and uneventful. Thus, their actions are not presented as meaningful actions but as attributes of two ‘fallen heroes’ that happen to be the main characters of a tragedy of sorts which title could be something like ‘the tragedy of Third World’s modernisation’.
Ironically, Antonio Berni uses a visually comedic language (cartoon, Disney, Pop, Arte Povera) for tragic purposes. Juanito Laguna is neither a heroic underdog (like Chaplin’s The Boy) nor a anti-hero like Oliver Twist. In fact, one cannot identify him through his facial features. Instead, the viewer has to rely on the situation depicted as stated in the work’s titles. It is at this level that Juanito Laguna is a loser in a world that he cannot control in the least. To begin with his is both anonymous and unrecognisable. Even though the show opens with an frontal depiction of Juanito, his facial features are unrecognisable. Ramona Montiel could, by contrast, be seen as a winner in a corrupt system.
She is a professional hooker who after passing several exams managed to master deceit. Is she an allegory for politics? It is actually the way she is deconstructed both literally and metaphorically which makes her a special character. She passes from being a good girl to an Olympia of sorts (as in Offenbach’s Hoffmann Tales). As an automaton, this woman becomes an assemblage of other people’s desires which put together bring about monstrosity as a new kind of beauty. There is something dignifying in the incarnated life experience that this disproportionated woman conveys. Her nightmares are an opportunity for Berni to take this thesis to its logical consequence making Pop art and Arte Povera collapse into a Boschian hellish scene which, by being placed immediately after Juanito Laguna’s paintings end up looking more toy-ish than they should.
The show’s three floors exhibits from top to bottom: Juanito Laguna’s scenes (as if we were talking about Christ), Ramona Montiel’s life stories (as if we were talking of the Virgin) and on the ground floor, Berni’s latest paintings of the series show what happened when Juanito Laguna grew up.
To my surprise, in his adulthood Juanito became sketchier, less colourful and blonde. The cans of Coke gave way to cans of fuel. The inflamable and the blonde as the end of Latin American culture under the rule of the American ethos. It is a real pity that curators Ramirez and Pacheco did not made it clearer that there is really no Disney in Berni. J A T