In MALBA’s permanent collection is a 1934 painting by Antonio Berni (1905–1981), titled The Demonstration. It depicts a group of protesting Argentine workers as a sea of blazing faces. Executed in social realist style, it is almost unrecognizable as being by the same artist as the one whose work formed this exhibition at the same museum.
Convinced that painting could not sufficiently portray the plight of Argentina’s working class, in the late 1950s Berni abandoned painterly realism for realism of a very different sort: works that instead of merely depicting the trash heaps of Buenos Aires’s slums, for example, actually incorporate real trash. Over time, this detritus evolved from scrap metal and rags in the 1950s to brightly colored consumer packaging in the 1970s.
Consisting of over 150 works, “Juanito and Ramona” opened with a small set of early paintings before quickly moving on to Berni’s hectic assemblages. Many of these immense collages, made over a period of 20 years, featured two fictional characters leading very different lives: Juanito Laguna, a boy living in a shantytown, and Ramona Montiel, a young seamstress and factory worker turned high-class prostitute.
Juanito and Ramona also appeared in a section devoted to Berni’s prints, the medium in which the artist truly soared, aesthetically and technically. Berni’s quest for ways to express his vision led him to develop “xylo-collages” and “xylo-collage-reliefs”—prints of exceptional interest and beauty produced with exquisite woodblocks incorporating bits of metal, rubber, and leather. To make the prints, some of which were shown here alongside their blocks, Berni even developed his own paper, capable of withstanding a vigorous process that pushed it into high relief.
With its rich subject matter and dazzling technique, the work here confirmed Berni’s status as one of the 20th century’s most fascinating artists.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 125.