With its small, dispersed settlements, colonial Argentina lacked the great religious art tradition of the populous Perú and Bolivia, which developed their own “schools” of painting and sculpture. Porteño art critic Jorge Glusberg has even argued that the colonial period, “characterized by subordination to the European models currently in vogue,” lasted until the 1940s. Glusberg may underrate some earlier painters and sculptors, but many innovative artists have flourished (if not always financially) since then—in both figurative and abstract modes.
European-trained Prilidiano Pueyrredón (1823–1870) painted landscapes and people of rural Buenos Aires. Eduardo Sívori (1847–1918) and Ernesto de la Cárcova (1866–1927) both displayed concern with social causes such as poverty and hunger.
After losing his right forearm to a grenade in battle against Paraguay, army officer Cándido López (1840–1902) painted more than 50 oils of war scenes with his left hand; more remarkably, his works were not romanticized scenes of combat heroism but vivid landscapes depicting routine activities—ordinary encampments and river crossings, for instance—plus the occasional battle.
Benito Quinquela Martín (1890–1977) portrayed immigrant factory workers and stevedores in his vivid oils of La Boca. The watercolors of Borges’s friend Xul Solar (1887–1963; real name Alejandro Schulz Solari) dealt with esoteric and mystical themes.
The versatile Antonio Berni (1905–1981) worked in painting, drawing, engraving, collage, and sculpture. His socially conscious canvases, such as Juanito Laguna Bañándose entre Latas (Juanito Laguna Bathing in the Trash), have fetched astronomical prices at auction.
Berni, along with Lino Spilimbergo (1896–1964), Juan Carlos Castagnino (1908–1972), Galician-born Manuel Colmeiro (1901–1999), and Demetrio Urruchúa (1902–1978), were part of the Nuevo Realismo (New Realism) movement that created the ceiling murals in Buenos Aires’s Galerías Pacífico shopping center.
When not collaborating on such projects, Spilimbergo specialized in geometric forms, still life, and lighted landscapes. Castagnino specialized in rural, even gauchesque, landscapes, while Colmeiro and Urruchúa were both socially oriented painters and muralists.
Modern Argentine painting’s current star, Guillermo Kuitca (born 1960) contrasts small figures with large environments, transforms everyday abstractions such as floor plans and road maps, and creates abstract visual expressions of popular music themes like the antilynching classic “Strange Fruit” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
Buenos Aires is a city of monuments but many, if not most, are pretentious busts of ostensible statesmen and colossal equestrian statues of military men. The Rodin-influenced Rogelio Yrurtia (1879–1950) found better outlets for his talents in statues like his working-class tribute Canto al Trabajo (Ode to Labor), on San Telmo’s Plazoleta Olazábal.
Those who followed Yrurtia have been more daring. León Ferrari (born 1920) created the prescient La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western and Christian Civilization, 1965), a sardonic Vietnam-era work that portrays Christ crucified on a diving F-105. Similarly, Juan Carlos Distéfano (born 1933) blends sculpture and painting in works like El Rey y La Reina (1977), a thinly disguised portrayal of extrajudicial executions carried out by death squads after the 1976 military coup.
Alberto Heredia (1924–2000) mocked the pomposity of monumental public art in El Caballero de la Máscara (The Masked Horseman). The misleading title describes a collage that’s a headless parody of an equestrian statue that ridicules 19th-century strongmen and their contemporary counterparts.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition