This lot is sold with a letter of authenticity signed by the artist and dated May 1957, along with other documentation.
Argentina's most famous artist, according to a Time magazine article in 1953, Benito Quinquela Martín rarely strayed far from the docks of his native home in La Boca, the once blighted port district of Buenos Aires. His humble beginnings are the stuff of legend: abandoned at birth and later adopted by a dockworker, he grew up hustling coal, drawing with bits of charcoal before he could read or write. Largely self-taught as an artist, Quinquela remained a self-styled Impressionist throughout his career, eschewing avant-garde experimentation for emotionally intimate renderings of the waterfront, brought to life in the bustle of the ships and the hardworking dockhands attending them. As his career rose to greater and greater heights, the beloved pintor carbonero generously and repeatedly gave back to the boquenses, building a local grade school and leaving a legacy of museums and a bounty of his own work, commemorated in the waterside Museo Quinquela Martín.
A lifelong denizen of La Boca, Quinquela embraced the docks as his characteristic subject, painting them from various and sundry perspectives throughout the days and over the seasons in brilliant, lyrical colors. The saturnine, twilit shadows of the present work darkly illuminate a graveyard of broken ships sinking slowly beneath the violet-gray water, the frayed wooden hulls the last remnants of their earlier lives. "The port is my great theme," he once explained, indicating that "every artist should cultivate his own: the essential point is to not reconstruct the themes without reconditioning oneself at the same time, within the themes, to create new worlds without leaving the old behind."(1) Quinquela's evocative seascapes appear in this sense as veiled self-portraits, reflecting the artist's experiential relationship with the port and its familiar, circadian rhythms. Critic Fermín Fèvre has remarked that Quinquela's later paintings reflect "a more intimate vision, inflected by solitude and nostalgia." In the absence of the human figure, he notes, his "painting becomes serene and meditative."(2) The melancholy waters of Cementerio de barcos permit no human presence or even a mitigating glimpse of sky; the intense emotion of the scene is instead closely distilled in the boats themselves, metaphors for the old port and its ever-faithful interlocutor.
Quinquela masterfully choreographs the fated boats through soft, glassy colors that show the rich chromatic range of violet from gossamer waves of periwinkle to deeper, amaranthine depths. Like the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, Quinquela's atmospheric treatment of the seascape invests it with an expressive pathos that viscerally dredges up the fears and emotions lodged within its watery vessels. A meditation on the passage of time, the painting is also a solemn tribute to the working classes of La Boca and the port's all-enveloping presence in their lives. Its symbolic resonance lay at the heart of Quinquela's life and work, and even in the fading twilight the port reveals its stirring emotional pulse, here pensively interpreted by its foremost native son.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park.
1) B. Quinquela Martín, quoted in Fermín Fèvre, Quinquela, Buenos Aires, Editorial El Ateneo, 2001, 4.
2) Fèvre, Quinquela, 56.