Memory and Dictatorship

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are ten definitions of the term memory. These definitions span from the act of remembering, to the capacity for retaining, to a physical memorial or shrine (Oxford English Dictionary, 2009). This article will focus on the definition of memory that pertains to the act of keeping a record or commemorating. This definition will in turn, be related to dictatorship in the context of Argentina’s artists and government. The artists of Argentine art were not concerned with commemorating or creating pieces that would keep a record of what was happening in Argentina. Instead, they specifically created works for political betterment and Argentina’s future.

As a nation, Argentina has been through many political leaders, each overthrown by the next president. The various governments were strongly military based, constantly in a state of change and rarely seemed to make choices that benefited the country.   Argentina’s economy would go from bad to worse; already run into the ground by the military Junta, it was further weakened by the worldwide crisis of the Great Depression in 1929. During World War II, Argentina remained neutral but silently leaned towards the Nazis parties (Romero, 2002). This was another poor decision as there was constant pressure from the Argentine people and other countries such as the U.S. to side with the Allies. Near the end of the war, the government finally fell to the pressures and sided with the Allies. This was too late for the U.S. however, and in 1945 they made Argentina pay for their poor choices by pressuring other countries to restrict their purchases from Argentina (Romero, 2002). This greatly affected Argentina’s already hurt economy, and the country fell behind the rest of the world. The government’s unfortunate choices are the backdrop to the beginning of political artistic movements within Argentina.

Artist movements began in the 1920’s with the group Artistas del Pueblo. This group of artists focused on marginalized classes and painted everyday life in Argentina. They were one of the first groups to believe that art could transform society (Pacheco, 1996). By the 1930’s there was a strong emphasis on images of war. Raquel Forner was a prominent artist at the time. She painted images of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Her piece Liberacion (Liberation) acted like a report from the front lines of war which in turn directly challenged authorities. . It was a document of the suffering caused by the government and their choices (Giunta, 2007). Artists like Forner addressed themes of brutality and war to show the government the reality of their decisions. The artists hoped that their depictions would sway the government to side with the Allies sooner rather than later, as the government’s neutrality was clearly hindering the country. Although visuals of the front lines were painted, they were not meant to be kept as records. These works were meant to provoke the government into political change for the betterment of society.

Another coup d’etat allowed Juan Domingo Peron to become President of Argentina in 1944. Peron became a man of the working class. He quickly established strong ties with them as he encouraged them to voice their demands and then ensured that they were seen through.  To his country, he seemed like someone who could fix their problems. Some still saw through Peron’s facade and he was known as “the one who threw fuel on the fire at the same time he claimed he could put the fire out” (Romero, 2002). Ultimately his strong ties with the workers are what gave Peron power and kept him in government.

Peron’s lack of proper governing gave way to a new movement in the 1940’s called Concrete art. Concrete artists were opposed to all forms of realism and had abstraction as their goal. They used their works as a means to create social order. “It is difficult to represent the will of the people by comfortably marching in the rear. In art, to effectively be with the people, it is necessary to march at the front, with a fixed gaze and complete awareness of how society develops and of the conditions necessary for its transformation” (Giunta, 2007). They believed that by creating a revolution in art, they would in turn create a revolution throughout the world. Alongside the concrete artists, the Independent Salon formed in direct opposition to the government and included influential artists such as Forner and Antonio Berni. The artists of the Independent Salon felt that it was their civic duty to call back democracy to Argentina.  As one can begin to see, with each change in government there is a change in art movements. Although each movement’s style is different, they have a common goal of social reform within Argentina.

In 1949, there was another economic crisis as Argentina became dependent on imports. Their industry’s growth was hindered as they no longer focused on manufacturing their own goods. As a result, there was a sudden increase in inflation, strikes and unemployment (Romero, 2002). Artist Antonio Berni identified with the masses and developed the style of Social Realism. By the late 1950’s he developed a series about two characters who lived in the slums. The pair became representations of the working class life and the political events of Argentina (Elliot, 1994). Getting across his political message was very important to him and Berni praised the artists of the time like him. “These artists have collectively broken out of their self-imposed isolation, as well as that imposed on them, in order to mix in with the mass of citizens…, fighting for the cause of Argentine democracy without which, they know, the necessary spiritual probity and opportune climate for the free expansion of human personality is impossible” (Giunta, 2007). Berni represents one of the many artists in Argentina that were driven by political turmoil. He became determined to send out a message and create reform within society using artistic means. It was not necessary for him to create pieces that would recall the past. Instead, he depicted the turmoil of Argentina at the time and used these images to initiate a reaction in order to create a better future.

Peron lost the support of his two biggest groups, the army and the workers, after the decline of the economy in 1949. Peron and his government became more totalitarian and turned towards terrorism. He retaliated against the people by burning down their socialist buildings and resorted to violence. This resulted in riots and violence all over the streets of Argentina. Peron was forced to resign in 1955 (Romero, 2002). Violence continued to rage as Argentina’s government constantly changed between military leaders throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. These leaders created a “nation on survivors” as they ruled the country with terrorism (Pacheco, 1996).

After the military took over in the 1960’s, it became harder for artists to create works to change society as the government became very impatient with any sort of misbehaviour or opposition. Still, artists continued and in 1968 after one of their pieces was censored, artists created a piece in which they kidnapped the curator of a supportive foundation and destroyed their own exhibition. Some artists were arrested immediately, some created organizational groups, and others became guerrillas and joined violent revolutions (Kreimer, 2006).  Artists such as Norberto Gomez also responded to the violence of the times by creating works in resin that resembled skeletons and body parts. He also created instruments of torture and funerary monuments in plaster (Pacheco, 1996). Gomez’s works were not created to commemorate or memorialize those that had died at the hands of the government, but rather to show the world the horrors that were going on in Argentina.

Argentina continued to suffer from violent leadership until the 1980’s when democracy was slowly restored (Pacecho, 1996). With this new found government artists were free to explore new fields such as post-modernity now that they did not have to focus on the need for change. Returning to the original definition of memory and dictatorship, one can see that the artists of Argentina were unconcerned with the past or need to record their plight. Author Pacheco (1996) gives a central quote to this article: “Memory is suppressed through the necessity to transform reality”. There was no time or want to create works that would record the history of Argentina. Argentine artists were determined to create art about the present that would elicit a change from the ill-powered government to create a better society for the future of their country.

Liana Bontempo

Works cited 

Elliot, D. (1994).  Argentina 1920 – 1994: Art from Argentina. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford.

Giunta, A. (2007).   Avant-garde, internationalism, and politics: Argentine art in the sixties. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kreimer, J. (2008). Argentina Provokes. Art in America 96(6), 119-122. Retrieved from http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/

Oxford University Press. (2009). Memory. Retrieved November 19, 2009, from Oxford English Dictionary Online, http://www.oed.com

Pacheco, M. (1996). Argentina. In E.J. Sulivan (Ed.),  Latin American art in the Twentieth Century (pp 284 – 299) . London: Phaidon Press.

Romero, L. A. (2002).  A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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This entry was posted in Antonio Berni, Argentina, Argentine, Buenos Aires, Juan Perón, Raquel Forner, United States, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

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