In recent years the paintings of Antonio Berni have become one of the most influential phenomena in the cultural history of Argentina. An artist respected by artists, critics and historians of his country, he presents the strange paradox of commercial success and public attention while his images continue functioning in a rather rebellious, provocative fashion.
When the artist garnered one of the main prizes at the Venice Biennale in 1962 there were many critics, particularly in Europe, who took note of his work. Over the next two decades, long stays in Paris underlined the artist's attempt to build an international career. His contact with critics like Michel Ragon, Mario de Micheli, Pierre Gaudibert and Gassiot-Talabot, his participation in the international Biennale exhibitions devoted to illustration, and world-wide individual shows all constituted milestones abroad, while there also occurred a succession of exhibitions in Argentina.
This is the time when Berni developed his oil collage cycle with scrap metal and fabric remnants based on the figures of Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel, the two models of marginality that permitted him to maintain a narrative discourse on figurative statements. This is also the moment when he perfected his technique of wood engraving combined with relief and elaborated on matrices constructed of rubbish and junk gathered in the villas miserias or shanty towns surrounding Buenos Aires.
Since the 1930s, Berni has presented a problematic profile for Argentine art. His strong ideological stance and his constant attack vis-a-vis the legal order have marked an extensive career of nearly sixty years with constant changes in form.
The exploration of languages and styles, techniques and iconographic re-elaborations places Berni in a creative line of strong projection in the context of Argentinian art. In particular since the polemic 1960's, Berni signals the rare example of a painter studied by painters who constantly renews himself in the proposals of the new generations of artists.
Berni has developed paintings of narrative base since the 1920s using as one of its principal registers the exploration of sociopolitical themes. After his particular assimilation of Andre Breton's Surrealism (1929-1933), the painter created a sharp-edged response to Mexican muralism in his cycle of monumental temperas on burlap, as in Desocupación and Manifestación.
As part of this position Berni begins his quoting of other painters by creating fields of representation in which levels of interpretation intersect. The case of Emigrantes from 1956 is a clear example of this modality. The "homage to Segall" begins with a plastic commentary on the Barco de Emigrantes (1939-1941), one of the most famous canvases by the Lithuanian painter who emigrated to Brazil in 1923.
The syntactical organization of the image alludes directly to the source, adopting however a more direct and synthetic manner. Color, dry in its texture, acidic in tones and based on the mural effect of tempera, recalls one of the customary means found in Berni since his burlaps of the 1930s and taken up again in the 1950s.
The Argentine painter reduces the group of figures to a few protagonists where men, women and children are mixed, repeating the mother-daughter duo in several instances. The habitual poses of the individuals portrayed places the anonymity of the figures and the familiar character of each face and each position of the body, in tension. The "passengers" in Berni's boat must be seen in the context of his paintings on the internal migration in the province of Santiago del Estero and the cotton pickers in the province of El Chaco, series developed between 1951 and 1956. They are tempera paintings of large dimension, concentrated in groups of workers laboring in the cotton fields or traveling across high barren plains in search of a place to settle, survive and feed their families. In contrast, the painting Emigrantes opens with the ship's prow penetrating the space and placing the development of the image in depth, in planes of figures that function as successive screens opening up from the reclining woman at the base of the picture, her position and red dress assure the containment of the instability provoked by the converging lines of tension that cross the whole surface of the canvas.
The image is bare in complications and dense in suggestions. The formal elements maintain the tension between the choppy sea and the lack of stability of the very inclined plane and the pronounced foreshortening displayed by the ship's deck. Small figures, almost domestic actions, attire and even anecdotal attitudes hold together a simple, unadorned narration.
Berni transfers to Segall's context images that speak of another emigration: the forced exodus of rural and semi-industrial workers to the great urban centers, new utopias of survival and work dignity, during the years of the first post-Perón era in Argentina, a nation on the verge of entering the euphoria of development and growth. The artificial solidity of the waves and the uncertain movement of the vessel announce a new postponement of this expansion.
Mario E. Pacheco
Buenos Aires, August 1996
translated by Dr. Wayne H. Finke