This work is sold with a certificate of authenticity from the Fundación Pettoruti, signed by Mr. Tomás Roberto Diaz Varela dated 30 September, 2008.
Emilio Pettoruti, one of the best-known Argentine masters, is renowned for his series of paintings depicting musicians, represented as Commedia dell'Arte characters or as members of tango orchestras. El cantor dates from 1934, and is an outstanding example from a period when he developed the signature elements of these two great bodies of work. El cantor is an example of the ways in which Pettoruti worked in series, analyzing the formal possibilities of figural and still-life compositions. In this case, according to Patricia Artundo, this work was "a second version of La Casa del poeta and Tres cigarrillos."(1) Just a few years earlier--in 1927--he painted El Quinteto, perhaps his best-known work. Pettoruti had rendered his first musicians in 1920 and continued to explore the theme until the early 1950s.
Scholars including Jacqueline Barnitz, Edward J. Sullivan and Mario Gradowczyk have recognized Pettoruti as a pioneer of modernism and abstraction in Argentina, along with his close friend Xul Solar.(2) Like Xul, he had traveled to Europe and in the early teens, Pettoruti saw and participated in exhibitions of modern art abroad and met artists associated with avant-garde movements, including Futurism and Cubism. In the formative decades of the teens and early twenties, he traveled throughout Italy, and visited other European cities including Paris, Munich, and Hamburg. The artist's stage and costume design experience, his knowledge of Italian culture, as well as the Cubist preference for depicting Commedia dell'Arte figures, all had an impact on this body of work.
During the period when he lived in Italy, he earned a living designing "costumes and stage designs [as well as] for a ballet."(3) An example is Figura of 1918, in which the figure's costume is rendered as a series of repetitive spherical shapes, the floor beneath as a circular pattern and the curtain, as a series of straight lines of alternating colors. In this watercolor on paper, the stage is flattened and pushed up against the picture plane; the floor, figure and curtain are conflated into an abstract pattern, both circular and linear.
Forging an independent creative path however, Pettoruti was neither a follower of Cubism or Futurism. Rather, he was a contemporary participant who met Giacomo Balla, Filippo Marinetti, and Juan Gris, among others and exhibited in various European cities beginning in the teens.(4) He chose however, to return to Argentina in 1924 and foster the arts there, becoming a part of the Martin Fierro journal circle, acting as an arts administrator and art writer, who worked to promote links between artists from Europe, Argentina and other Latin American countries.(5) For example, in the late 1920s, he traveled to Brazil, where he met Tarsila do Amaral, Mário de Andrade, and others.(6) Between 1930 and 1947 he was Director of the Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes.(7)
In his mature work, we see the ways in which he retained a critical distance from Futurism and Cubism as he developed an eclectic artistic practice, in which his work alternated between figuration and abstraction.(8) The three major series for which he is known, harlequins, tango musicians, and still-life pictures, all include elements of abstraction. In El cantor, we see the ways in which Pettoruti signals this play between abstraction and figuration, and references his and others's bodies of work. The harlequin figure draws on his own early experience as a set designer, and to the work of Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso, among others. Rendering the wood grain of the guitar, the artist reminds us of Cubist collage and trompe l'oeil effects. Combined with the pointillist details at the top left, above the figure's shoulders, also serve as a reminder of synthetic Cubism. The pointillist effect also appeared in his collages of teens and in still-life paintings of the twenties. The attention to nuances of color gradation and use of outlining in this series can alsobe traced to Pettoruti's fascination with mosaics. In 1913-1914, he studied this technique during his travels in Italy.
Pettoruti's subtle sense of color, light and composition is in evidence in El cantor. We see this in the beautiful range of blue hues used to render the eye mask, and other color variations throughout the entire picture. In this work, the artist creates a complex play of figure and ground. He creates this oscillation between the two through the use of outlining, color gradation, and play of geometric forms. As well, the artist juxtaposes the figure with a series of angular shapes that lead the eye towards a perspective that is always frustrated by the rigors of the compositional structure. The outlining and shifts in color, which also at first glance appear to indicate foreground and background, only serve to further confound these distinctions. We see similar strategies in the depiction of the ruff, a play between transparency and solidity.
In so doing, Pettoruti calls attention to the flatness of the picture plane and the fragility of illusionism. Similarly, the score held by the singer, devoid of musical notations, also plays on the dangers of confusing representation with mimetic depiction. The geometric elements of the harlequin's garb--the diamond patterns of his costume, for example, lend themselves to Pettoruti's complex play of color, geometry, and space. Finally, the artist makes reference to perspective as artifice through this occlusion of vision in the series--figures are shown with masks over their eyes.
The serial nature of Pettoruti's production, the oscillation between figurative and abstract works, and the inclusion of references to the history of art, particularly avant-garde movements, point to the analytical and self-referential nature of his works. Petorruti was a participant in artistic debates surrounding realism and abstraction, articulating his positions in articles and his autobiography. In 1938, for example, he disagreed with Antonio Berni's critiques of Cubism and his theories proposing a new realism that would be comprehensible to the masses. Pettoruti wrote:
There are those who want to see us come to what they call a 'New Realism' which is nothing but photographic enlargement, with all the defects of the camera, all its roughness and callousness, its insensitivity, its showiness. Aren't the perceptions of the artist infinitely superior to the most faithful description of reality?(9)
Early in his career, he had found Futurism a dead-end due to what he viewed as its attempt to recreate cinematic movement. Likewise, he critiqued those who believed that paintings could be a site for mimetic photographic realism.
In Pettoruti's figure and still-life compositions of the 1920s-1940s, central to his entire artistic production, we see the beginnings of his great abstract paintings of the 1950s, which he pursued to the end of his life. For example, the beautiful vertical section to the left of the figure in El Cantor, could, if removed from the picture, stand alone as part of the abstract series that he began in the 1950s and pursued until his death in 1971. (See L'Oiseau noir, 1958--lot 61).
As Edward Sullivan has argued, for the artist "The subject of music functions as an analogue for the act of creation itself."(10) Interestingly, the cover of his autobiography, Un pintor ante el espejo, includes a drawing of a harlequin, suggesting that the artist saw this figure as a surrogate for himself. These harlequin paintings, then, are a summation of the artistic and intellectual questions that preoccupied Pettoruti throughout his career.
Dr. Miriam Basilio, Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies, New York University.
1) P. Artundo, "Emilio Pettoruti: Biography and Critical Chronology," 215- 252, in E. J. Sullivan and N. Perazzo, Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971), Buenos Aires, Fundación Pettoruti, Asociación Amigos del Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2004, 231.
2) J. Barnitz, Twentieth Century Art of Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2001, 58, 65-74, M. H. Gradowczyk, "Pettoruti Among Texts and Paintings," 197-215, and E. J. Sullivan, "Emilio Pettoruti: an International Perspective", 15-152, both in Sullivan and Perazzo.
3) Artundo, 220.
4) Artundo, 219-223.
5) Artundo, 223.
6) Artundo, 225-227.
7) Artundo, 229.
8) Sullivan, 44.
9) Quoted in Gradowczyk, 197.
10) Sullivan, 101.