In 1956 the artist created a character for his paintings by inventing a hero: Juanito Laguna, an inhabitant of metropolitan Buenos Aires, the boy from the "villas miseria" or slums, located within the industrial and working-class belt surrounding the nation's capital. Berni himself recalled years later: "Juanito Laguna came about in Buenos Aires, in metropolitan Buenos Aires, when I began to make a series of sketches in the poor neighborhoods, seeing that mass of children and feeling that I still had not personalized him sufficiently in my previous work. Then it occurred to me to give a name to a character who would come to be the archetype of all those children. Although he is from Buenos Aires, he could also be the archetype of all the children or all the little slum kids of the cities of Latin America: he could be from Santiago de Chile, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas."
Over the next twenty years the daily stories of Juanito Laguna and his family became a motif and subject of a great body of work. Drawings, oils, collages and illustrations show Juanito as a child and as an adult in different moments of his life: Juanito playing, Juanito bathing in the river or lagoon, Juanito watching TV, Juanito and his family during Christmas, Juanito hunting birds with his sling shot, Juanito on vacation, Juanito learning to read, Juanito playing the flute.
Juanito bañándose entre latas is a key oil-collage painted in 1974, the year when the figure of Juanito clearly dominated Berni's images. Juanito is within a desolate landscape composed of garbage. Certain traffic signals incorporated into the image add the element of legal convention and order established by the police within the absurd situation of a flooded surrounding. The absurdity is formed from accumulating garbage on a superimposed industrial landscape annihilating the presence of nature. The emblematic figure of Juanito is always placed in scenes rivaling in visual and narrative importance with that of his surroundings.
Berni's decision to concentrate his narrative on a figure and unfurl his story in successive, almost chronologically revealing images is accompanied in particular by the visual and conceptual discovery of constructing his paintings with actual industrial waste. His first drawings and oils with Juanito led, in 1980, to a gradual incorporation of collage and rapidly, to an extreme solution of transforming the orthodox collage into a new ideological vehicle: tin cans, plastic, boards, wires, scrap metal, iron, sackcloth, gears, billboards, toys, etc. are transformed into the raw materials that form some parts of the figure and the environment of Juanito Laguna's compositions.
The waste material and garbage are placed in Berni's work to give real, objective body to the narrative and the existence of the character. A Shell Oil tin can, for example in Juanito bañándose en la laguna is simultaneously a collage in its visual value, and in meaning: a real tin can in the wasteland of a slum; a reference to consumer society and dependent economies; the presence of industrial waste; a real landscape in the world of Juanito Laguna, and an element of plastic construction in the artistic composition as a three-dimensional object on a pictorial surface, adding political commentary on top of Berni's own commentaries on Argentine bourgeoise taste, local visual traditions, art history and artistic expression. Thus Juanito bañándose entre latas joins several of Berni's obsessions that can be traced back to the beginning of his career in the 1920s.
Juanito bñándose en la laguna is a clear example of how a Latin American artist responds in the re-elaboration of international languages, creating plastic fictions where the subject, action, characters, materials, syntax, symbolic elements, formal structures and expressive resources turn to the tensions of daily reality and urban history.
Buenos Aires, April, 1997
Translated by Wayne H. Finke