Antonio Berni (1905 – 1981)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

The notion of home is a painful constant throughout the work of the pioneering ‘New Realist’, Antonio Berni. His pieces often chronicling the devastation wrought by industrialization upon his native Buenos Aires amid the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Equally comfortable combining colours with his brush or accumulating debris to cast and arrange on his canvas, Berni’s work is urgent and painful. Both incisive and resolute in its interrogation of the effects of mechanical progress on those crushed beneath.

‘Fire in the Shantytown’ – 1958

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Though a fairly small painting to witness in person, the feeling of pure incineration that Berni evokes within it crafts a sense of the image far bigger and more dominant than its frame. At first it is merely this conflagration that entrances, its vivid celebratory design almost suggestive of hands aloft in praise, or, perhaps, sacrifice. Then, as the eye follows the fire to its natural beginning, the eponymous shanty town compounds the wonder to something more troubling.

These aching fronts of nothingness being but mere spindles at the back of the image, and suggestions of evacuated humanity at the front. The fire is clearly unstoppable. Especially against the wooden structures that cruelly enlarge its fervor further. As to what caused it, we know not, rather it is the passage that we are here to witness. The sense of seeing something on the cusp of annihilation. Indeed, there is something so total about this particular destruction that it helplessly draws the viewer closer in towards the inferno at its core.

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The sheer gloop of the paint here is incredible. From the cartoonish red speckled with the dribble of black, to the aches of yellow & orange dotted in parts by the pure white incandescence, Berni forges a pyre of great magnitude and stature. One easy to imagine as a thing of unforgiving, merciless heat. When seen at a distance the flames stand out, but feel impenetrable, almost child-like in their bold strokes. Up close however, the fragility and delicacy of the blaze is revealed.

‘Juanito Laguna Going to the Factory’ – 1977 

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Beginning from the year that he painted ‘Fire in the Shantytown’, Berni conceived two characters, Juanito Laguna & Ramona Montiel, with whom he depicted near exclusively up until 1977. Juanito, a boy who left the countryside to find work in Buenos Aires, ends up living in poverty on the city’s outskirts. Ramona, on the other hand, is a middle-class teen lured into a life of high-society sexual slavery by the allure of expensive gifts & luxury. The series for Berni became a social narrative on industrialization and scarcity, highlighting the vicious disparities between the wealthy Argentinian aristocracy of Ramona’s existence and the Juanitos of the slums.

Here in ‘Juanito Laguna Going to the Factory’, there is a yellow-brick road aesthetic inherent. Work is, in a sense, freedom for the young boy, but his path is cluttered by the detritus of his class, with Juanito surrounded by: paper, cardboard, electronics, smashed cans, zippers to name but a few. It really is quite remarkable the variety of objects that Berni skilfully melds with his own painterly style; the artist utilizing the reality of our world within the imaginary of the painting to forge a distinct, defiant link between the two.

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There is, of course, still paint employed throughout. Juanito’s face above for example is delicately treated, it’s vacant flat stare as telling as the skin-tone echoing the sepia brush behind. The real joy here from a craftsman point of view however is the intelligence of Berni’s design. The factories on the horizon made of upward electrical clips for the fences and a torn torso of a transistor for the buildings themselves, the sky a multifaceted, churned grimace.

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Its complex layering a result of washed cardboard twisted into a deformed horizon. There is, it seems, a silver lining streaked through it. But one that amidst the similar roadside glints of Juanito’s journey suggests little hope.

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