Argentina, while a broad topic to cover, can be partly explained in a context of Modernism. Author Jorge Luis Borges, then, can be included as a part of the Modernist trends within and outside of literature, but also extending to visual art. Modernism in Argentina can begin to be discussed particularly from the 1920s. This period refers to the time before the avant-garde of the 1960s. The early 1900s in Argentina saw an increase in economic enterprise. The expanding economy was naturally conducive to an expanding middle-class that was interested in music, literature, art and travel. Unfortunately, the end of the 1920s brought with is an antipathy on the part of art critics towards all representations of Modernity, which created mistrust for fine art in Buenos Aires unlike anywhere else. This is most likely due to the tendency towards reactionary work to social issues, as is the case with much Latin American art.
Writers, too, were heavily involved in the fashioning of Modernity. The poet Oliverio Girondo was able to predict the evolution that would take place until the end of the 1930s with his desire for things that were truly alive as opposed to that which was perfect and idealised. In the case of Borges, he made a choice to work within a context of what is known as ‘metafiction,’ a literature that was aware of its own artifice and suggested reality itself as a fiction.
Borges admired the Argentine artist Xul Solar for his geometric, figurative deconstructions, utilising symbols of magic to create something that was almost science-fictional and artificial. Borges, like other avant-garde writers, was interested in applying new meaning to history. In some cases, he presented problems meant to confront the narrator, creating an unsatisfactory resolution in the end. In rejecting realism and positivism with relation to identity, Borges was paving the way for Argentine artists to explore the concepts and abstract qualities of identity.
The artists’ avant-garde movement of the late 1950s brought with it plenty of experimentation. Buenos Aires was not only the capital of Argentina, but also a stage for national political, economic, cultural and social conflicts. Artists of the Argentine avant-garde reacted to these conflicts and decided to create their own rules. Arte destructivo (destructive art) was what could be called “posthistorical,” a trend of alluding to violence and death by destroying everyday objects (chairs, umbrellas, photos, etc.). The primary ideologist of this collective was artist Kenneth Kemble. The idea was to aggressively confront the audience. Kemble wrote in his manifesto, “The existence of art obeys a series of vital needs in man, to which he appears to be conditioned.” The various means of destroying were meant to speak to the human desire to break something that, in a particular moment, embodied all of the world’s evil. It was Kemble’s belief that each person had a measure of sadism in his or herself. In a larger context, this ‘inherent sadism’ came out through war and dictatorship, the desire to hurt and control on a larger scale.
Some other artists took part in Informalism, or informalista. Informal art was a hybrid of Latin American sensibilities of style and European Abstract Expressionism, creating a contrast between intuitive abstractions and carefully plotted formal compositions. Again, this movement hinted an inclination for destruction, but this time it was channelled by releasing inhibitions, as well as through violence. Jorge Romero Brest was a forerunner for Informalism in Argentina. He believed it was to act as a “cleansing of visual representation” inevitably containing emotions and social references. Ultimately, according to Brest, the goal of informalista was not to deliberate the past or generate crisis, but create a ‘nude,’ poetic realism.
The Experimental Art Series was produced by a sizeable group of artists in Argentina. In their collective statement, they claim that the avant-garde had become a movement “aware of its cultural weight.” Essentially the goal of the series was to reverse the roles of the observer and the observed. Graciela Carnevale’s project involved unknowingly locking the audience in an empty room with one glass wall, covered in order to hide it. The audience was forced to participate in the action. Once they realised they’d been locked in, she would gauge the reactions, whether they remained passive or turned violent and broke the glass wall in desperation. Her objective was to bring awareness to everyday violence. In her statement, she identified the repression of social systems that turn people into passive beings, and ultimately refuse the possibility of change.
Antonio Berni had his own ideas about the avant-garde, attempting to develop “Social Realism” in Buenos Aires after spending time with the Surrealists in Paris. In the 1960s-1970s, this took on the form of slightly cynical works of art depicting ‘low life’ in Buenos Aires. “Social Realism” had a definitively leftist bias, dealing with institutional freedom. Pop Art became a popular form of art in Argentina in the 1960s, but contrary to the Pop Art of the United States, Latin American Pop Art was satirical, aiming to comment on society’s shortcomings. In his own art, Berni made use of irony, kitsch and grotesque imagery, which continued to show in much of the art in Argentina well into the 1990s.
The last military dictatorship in Argentina, lasting until 1983, seemed to have a particularly lasting effect on artists. Between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, any analysis of Argentine art seemed to show a lack “of historical perspective.” From this, it is obvious that the damage done to institutions by the government, including galleries, impacted the artists’ will to produce any commentary on the social and political atmosphere, perhaps out of fear. It was at this time that about 30,000 disappearances were recorded. For the artists of Argentina, the desire to be subversive was greatly outweighed by the possibility of being severely reprimanded. While the military government had decided it important to develop a cultural image, it was essentially for propaganda, and most certainly not to support slander and social commentary.
Borges’ lessons in re-defining historical narratives were not helpful in this context as they had been decades earlier. The unpredictable relationship between art and politics made it difficult for artists to predict any sort of progress, the principal goal of Modernism. It took until the mid-1990s for Argentina to show signs of regaining its “ideological strength.” Contemporary art in Argentina struggled with its environment in anticipating the future. Artists sought a balance between self-examination of identity and the tools Borges had proposed to explore identity in all its forms. The creation of art continued to fluctuate in its use of national and international sensibilities. Drawing upon the past allowed for the distortions of memory to creep in, though as Borges had suggested in his metaficti
ons, it was necessary to “transform reality.” However, in the context of Argentina, there would always be an anxiety in the approach to progress.
Colás, Santiago. Postmodernity in Latin America: The Argentine Paradigm (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994), 123
Elliott, David. Argentina 1920-1994 (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1994). 22, 28, 30, 44, 48-49, 122
Katzenstein, Inés. Listen, Here, Now!: Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004). 25, 28-30, 31, 94, 99, 298, 299
Jaén, Didier Tisdel. Borges’ Esoteric Library: Metaphysics to Metafiction (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1992), 29, 30
Sarlo, Beatriz. Jorge Luis Borges: a Writer on the Edge. Ed. John King (London: Verso, 1993). 11
Sullivan, Edward J., ed. Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century (London: Phaidon, 1996). 299