Antonio Berni’s Fictional Portraits: An Adapted Excerpt from the Exhibition Catalogue
The current Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition, Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona, focuses on the Argentinian artist Antonio Berni (1905–1981) and specifically on the assemblages to which he devoted 15 of the last years of his life and career. These works tell the life stories of two characters of Berni’s invention: Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel. Motivated by the strife, poverty, and unrest in his country as it industrialized, Berni offered commentary and criticism through his depictions of Juanito and Ramona. Here, in an adapted excerpt from Marcelo E. Pacheco’s contribution to the stunning exhibition catalogue, “Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel: Two Extinct Creations,” are the stories of Juanito and Ramona.
Marcelo E. Pacheco –
[Antonio Berni] worked almost exclusively on portraits of Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel [from 1962] until 1977, producing paintings, collages, assemblages, constructions and objects, woodcuts, xylo-collages and xylo-collage reliefs, environments, and a project that included installations and audiovisual media. Both were victims of the marginalization and exploitation wrought by consumer society, but each had different relationships within the system. Juanito was the son of a farm worker from the backlands who had moved to the capital city in search of a better life as a metal worker, settling with his family in one of the “barrios de emergencia” [shantytowns] on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Ramona was a middle-class teenager who, rather than cleaning offices and bourgeois houses, chose to become a prostitute, a job that paid better than custodial work, could lead to a higher social position, and could also provide an entrée into a world of luxury, elegant clothes, travel, jewels, her own apartment, and perhaps a career in show business. Her beauty, huge eyes, and garnished hair; curvaceous and juicy figure; and long, shapely legs were her ticket to an alternative future.
Berni’s two fictitious characters turned out to be singing a swan song for a world that was fast becoming extinct, in order to make way for Argentina’s festive, anesthetized commitment to the expansion of post-capitalism and globalization.
Juanito Laguna reclaims his right to learn to read and subverts the surrounding garbage dump into his playground, but the forces of exploitation that run the production system are not weakened. In Ramona, the forces of history act in a similar manner: as she climbs the ladder of prostitution, she reclaims her power over her own body; and in her love affairs she managed to avoid submissive relationships. In the final battle, however, events leave her history inscribed on her body. In La gran tentación, the body of the prostitute that marches in the procession, denouncing the false promises of the consumer society, is covered with a multitude of collages, hundreds of events printed on the character’s skin—anticipating what was already the old Ramona Montiel’s narrative memory. Even during her most successful period, Ramona’s nights were tormented by nightmares of monsters lying in wait for her, as expressed in a series of polymateric objects that Berni created in about 1965. The few portraits of Ramona Montiel as an old woman reflect her ugliness, her spitefulness, her body deformed by time; here, she is down alone in her room or as a madam of a brothel in the provinces.
Juanito lived surrounded by waste material, in collages and assemblages created to expose the wretchedness of urban workers, but spent his childhood playing and engaging in adventurous activities. Some of his portraits even depicted him in positive situations, as when he was shown learning to read, going to the carnival, or enjoying his vacations. The little boy seemed happy spinning his top, playing with his dog, and flying his kite, while the marginalized conditions and the poverty of the shantytown were in the background.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was impossible to imagine the programmatic, accelerated extinction of their historical narrative as a result of their final, irrevocable expulsion from the system of production and from society. It was a different world that soon learned to coexist, sans memory, with its uneasy conscience.
Marcelo E. Pacheco is chief curator at MALBA—Fundación Constantini.