Stop, Look and Listen

Wild MFAH exhibition mixes art and politics from Argentina's greatest artist

Think of Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel as not one boy and one girl, but as each representing the collective consciousness of the emerging middle class in Argentina. These two fictional archetypal characters, imagined by Argentine artist Antonio Berni, chronicle socio-economic issues that resulted from Argentina's industrial development, beginning in the 1950s.

Neither Juanito or Ramona is a victim of his or her circumstances. Rather, each emerges with a strong disposition to adjust and enjoy life despite their imposed milieu.

Their story is front and center in Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona, an exhibition in collaboration with Malba – Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Jan. 26.

The collection of paintings, assemblages and sculptures reveals Berni's convictions. Berni believed that it was an artist's responsibility to respond to his or her environment. This style, coined New Realism, served as a record of the growing pains experienced by a rapidly changing society.

With commentary from Mari Carmen Ramírez, the MFAH Wortham Curator of Latin American Art, this audio photo essay examines some of the colorful pieces in the exhibition.

Antonio Berni, Juanito con la moto, c. 1972; oil, wood and fabrics, including glued cotton and sock; shoe; industrial trash including radio components, rubber tires and plastic containers; metals including a chain and sheet metal, nails and staples on wood; private collection.

An important tradition in South American culture, Carnival is a time when people aren't divided by social classes or gender. The carefree outdoor celebrations rouse a colorful party spirit during which, for a short time, everyone is considered equal to one another.

Juanito, in vibrant costume, is seen here enjoying Carnival with his friends in Buenos Aires.

The collage — dating from 1962, a pivotal year for Berni in which he won Grand Prix for Printmaking at the Venice Biennale — had been presumed lost, but it reappeared last year at auction.

What's remarkable in this work is that it's the only one in which two specific characters appear together. Click the player (above) to hear curator Mari Carmen Ramírez explain her theory about the curious woman wearing high heels, red stockings and a black lace dress, a woman who started yet another art trend for Berni.

Antonio Berni, Carnaval de Juanito (Juanito’s Carnival), 1962, collage, collection of Gail and Louis K. Adler.

Berni depicts Juanito in various scenes, although these scenes aren't in sequential order. They are individual snapshots of the life of a typical boy whose family moves to the big city in search of a better future.

At first, they live in shanty towns that fringe Buenos Aires, but soon they begin to enjoy certain "luxuries" that are afforded as part of a modern society — such as going on vacation. Juanito and his family may be poor, but they aren't destitute by any means. In fact, they represent the hope for the rise of the Argentine middle class.

This assemblage incorporates real car parts, including the metal body and tires. The addition of these kind of discarded materials, Berni thought, heightened the realism of a world he was hoping to bring to life.

Antonio Berni, Las vacaciones de Juanito (Juanito’s Vacation), 1972, acrylic, wood, various metals including a car door, rubber, broom straw, various fabrics, paper and jute on wood, private collection.

In 1978, as Antonio Berni approached the end of the Juanito series, the artist depicts his archetypal figure in activities such as fishing, playing with trash and riding a motorcycle.

Among these works, which are much smaller in size than the former assemblages, Juanito dormido (Juanito Asleep) represents one of the most tender and poetic moments in his life, a quality that shows Berni's vast emotional range — his ability to move from the caustic to the lyrical.

Here, Juanito is asleep, surrounded by toys and trash within the backdrop of a shanty town.

As part of his aesthetic evolution, Berni incorporates even more real materials than before. In fact, there is very little painting in this work. Real shoes, a real shirt, wood, metal and a sculpted body achieve a striking relief from the support. 

Antonio Berni, Juanito dormido (Juanito Asleep), 1978, oil, wood, cans, cloth, jute, nails, paper mache and plastic toys on plywood, MALBA–Fundación, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires.

In between the series of Juanito and Ramona is a collection of charming, seductive and playful monsters that speak about desire from a Freudian point of view while offering a cautionary tale of the dangers of excess.

All these monsters, crafted out of trash, express that what's discarded may come back to haunt and retake society. Soda bottles, depleted spools of yarn, glass lightbulbs and document stamps fashion this curious beast that literally puts Ramona out of her misery.

This mischievous reptile, called Voracity, part of the series Monsters of hell dispute Ramona Montiel, is in the middle of eating Ramona, perhaps a sign of her Catholic guilt associated with living a profane life.

Antonio Berni, La voracidad, de la serie Los monstrous del infierno se disputan a Ramona Montiel, 1964, polymateric construction composed of acrylic, tempera, wood, cardboard cones; iron, bronze, wheat stalks, vegetal tow, synthetic hair, antique seal handles and wood molding; pens, parts of plastic toys, mannequin with stocks, garter belt and nylon underwear; leather shoes, tin-plate, plastic bottle lids and glass light bulbs; private collection. On extended loan to Malba – Fundación Costantini, Buenos Aires.

Berni's formal vocabulary for the character of Ramona Montiel is inspired by his time living in Paris. Berni draws context from the images of chorus girls in vaudevillian shows — not unlike Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's portrayals of the Moulin Rouge.

But before Ramona walks on the Parisian wild side, Berni reminds the viewers that she indeed grows up proper in an Argentine Catholic family. Portraits of Ramona's mother and father, which in the exhibition appear adjacent to La communion de Ramona, follow the dignified tradition of middle class portraiture — as if her family belonged to a higher social class.

Here, Berni presents Ramona in her first communion donning an exquisite lace dress adorned by a cross on her chest and an image of the baby Jesus.

Art critics say that the character of Ramona was born in 1962.

Antonio Berni, La communion de Ramona, 1962, gouche, velvet, lace, buttons, metal and paper on wood, private collection.

A much different woman from her origins, this working class Ramona quite literally weighs in on the effects of consumer culture.

Berni was concerned with the consequences of the beauty industry. Women were encouraged to resort to whatever means were necessary to look a certain way — to improve their bodies in an effort to conform to society's standard of grace and appeal.

By juxtaposing anatomical features with industrial elements in this relief, Berni warns against the hazards of the dehumanization of women at the hands of a burgeoning material society.

But he does so in a playful, whimsical fashion.

Antonio Berni, Sin título (Ramona levantando pesas), de la serie Ramona Montiel y sus amigos {Untitled (Ramona Lifting Weights), from the series Ramona Montiel and Her Friends}, 1963, xylo-collage-relief, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Tom Roupe and Scott Gieselman in honor of Peter R. Coneway at “One Great Night" in Nov. 2001.

Secure, confident, almost defiant, this Ramona isn't shy about who she is and what she's done to get ahead in life. She's not a victim of a male-dominated Latin society, but instead chooses to use her sexual power to her advantage.

"Sexuality is not something that degrades, "Ramírez says. "Sexuality is used as a weapon."

Just as important as being responsive to social issues, Berni thought that it was equally important for artists to be innovators in their respective fields.

This xylo-collage-relief represents a breakthrough in artistic technique. Berni melds traditional woodcut methods with materials found in mixed-media assemblages.

Here, Berni uses doilies to achieve remarkable effects.

Antonio Berni, Ramona vive su vida, de la serie Ramona Montiel y sus amigos (Ramona Living Her Life, from the series Ramona Montiel and Her Friends), 1963, xylo-collage-relief, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Duke Energy in honor of Peter C. Marzio and his 20th year as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at "One Great Night" in Nov. 2002.

Mari Carmen Ramírez says that La gran tentación o La gran ilusión is one of the most important pieces of the collection, possibly having been created as part of a manifesto exhibition that responded to the exponential growth of consumerism.

On the top left, Berni compartmentalizes the stereotypical image of beauty: A fair-skinned woman with blonde hair, blue eyes and red lips embracing the "virtues" of progress in the form of an American-made car.

In contrast, the woman on the right, naked, appears as the polar opposite while in the company of a group of grotesque characters. Berni's composition compares a symbol of the comforts of modern society with a demographic for whom these luxuries are unattainable.  

Antonio Berni, La gran tentación, o La gran ilusión (The Great Temptation, or The Great Illusion), 1962, oil, wood, burlap, canvas, paper, ornaments, iron, cardboard, plastic, glass, glue, lithographic image and feathers on plywood, Malba–Fundación Costantini, Buenos Aires.