In the stand of Galería Sur, a Uruguayan gallery exhibiting in Art Basel, is a large painting showing figures huddled in the prow of a ship. Crammed in amidst ropes, chains, and each others, they are sleeping, waiting, gazing into the distance, and in one case breastfeeding, while the boat moves through rough waters. The image, by Argentine master Antonio Berni in 1956, is titled Los-emigrantes, Homenaje a Segall.
As the title notes, it’s an homage to a famous depiction of immigrants by Lasar Segall, a modernist painter who was born in the Jewish ghetto of Vilnius and settled in Brazil in 1923. When Segall painted his own rendition of the universal theme, in 1939-41, the huddled masses packed in the boat were of course the lucky ones.
Segall wasn’t the only influence on Berni, himself the child of Italian immigrants. As the dealer Martín Castillo and I examined the connections between the paintings, along came Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which will be staging a Berni show next year. On his iPad he had open an image of Picasso’s Sleeping Peasants, a 1919 painting owned by MoMA. So the Argentine figurative painter had borrowed from two modernists who were themselves immigrants, transforming the marginalized and dispossessed into protagonists of a modern-day history painting with a distinguished pedigree.