Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona is now showing at Phoenix Art Museum and features over one hundred objects by groundbreaking artist Antonio Berni (1905-1981). The included works span a variety of media including paintings, assemblages, sculptures, works on paper, sketchbooks, and printing plates. Berni is little known in the United States, but widely recognized throughout Latin America as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. He used a wide array of bright colors and materials in his works to shed light on the realities of the Argentinean working class and their struggles to overcome economic challenges during the 1960s and ‘70s. A collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Malba – Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires, Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona is the first Berni exhibition organized by a U.S. museum in nearly fifty years and the first to focus on this iconic series. Berni rose to prominence early in his career as a leading painter and promoter of “New Realism” in Latin America. In the mid-1950s, motivated by the social distress and poverty he witnessed amid his country’s rapid industrialization and parallel socio-political upheavals, he abandoned painting for a more visceral artistic medium: assemblage. In 1958, Berni began a series of works that chronicled his country's story through the tales of two fictional characters: Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel. Juanito was a young boy who left his home in the countryside to seek work in Buenos Aires and ended up living in poverty in the villas miserias (misery towns or shantytowns) on the city’s outskirts. Ramona, on the other hand, was a young working-class woman who was lured into a life of high-society prostitution by the promise of expensive gifts and luxurious decadence. Over the latter part of the 20th century, Berni’s invented characters became so well known that they attained cult status in Argentina as popular legends and folk heroes.
Berni constructed narratives of Juanito and Ramona’s lives in his artwork using discards from everyday life. For Juanito he used waste materials like old wood, machine parts, and crushed tin cans found littering the slums of Buenos Aires, while for Ramona he used gaudy costume jewelry and chintzy, second-hand fabrics obtained at flea markets. This link between materials used and the fictional worlds depicted—the substance and the subject—could be characterized as “material realism.” This series developed into a social narrative on industrialization and poverty, underscoring disparities between the wealthy Argentinean aristocracy and the “Juanitos” of the slums, and exposing the political power networks at the core of high-society prostitution. Pictured above is a print of Juanito Berni made using found objects for the print mold. The mold itself is as much a work of art as the print it produced.
Phoenix Art Museum’s Shawn and Joe Lampe Curator of Latin American Art Dr. Vanessa Davidson said, “This landmark exhibition showcases Antonio Berni’s creative genius to great effect. The works are fascinating as they document Argentinean society’s undercurrents during the 1960s and 1970s and showcase artistic ingenuity and innovation in materials as well as method.” She added that, “Berni was a singular artist whose influence continues to be felt throughout Latin America to this day.”
“Following on the success of Order Chaos and the Space Between, the collection from The Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation, this exhibition will further help to open our audience’s eyes to the great diversity of art produced in Latin America,” said James K. Ballinger, The Sybil Harrington Director at Phoenix Art Museum. “Berni’s artistic radicalism can be compared in the United States to Robert Rauschenberg’s pioneering assemblages. Both artists took radical leaps of faith in fundamentally questioning exactly what art could be and what it could be made of,” Ballinger continued. He added that, “Berni was a pioneer and a visionary in Latin America, as this exhibition illustrates.”
The exhibition will be at Phoenix Art Museum from June 28 to September 21, 2014. For further information about the exhibition please visit phxart.org/exhibition/antonioberni.