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YOUAH Home » Magazine » Great Masters » ANTONIO BERNI, Argentina
Tuesday, 18 Feb 2020


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90rf0At the beginning, the Argentinean Antonio Berni captured the anxiety of unemployed or oppressed laborers.  A couple of years later, his vision converged on shantytowns (villas miseria), where his famous figures Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel represent poverty and inequity. 
He is one of the masters of Latin American political art and undoubtedly the most renowned and most relevant one of Argentina. Antonio Berni (1905- 1981) is acknowledged as the pioneer of this sprout of creation that questions social injustice and inequity. His oil paintings on canvas depicted demonstrations of oppressed workers or the anxiety of redundancy and later on the city’s wretchedness with its urban litter.   He therefore has been called the “painter of hopelessness”.



90rf1Key artist of his country’s creative production and one of the most renowned ones at international level, he never denied the political theme of his artwork.  On the contrary, he used to say that such construance of reality was fundamental: 'It should not be ignored, if overlooked it goes misapprehended. A mere esthetic interpreation may turn into treason'.



However, political art –such as Berni’s- is not biased or pamphletary, but creation within a human and solidary range of vision, 'an equity and fraternity based ethics'. In other words, he thought that his artwork should be an agent of positive social change; if not,  'if there is no love to be transmitted, there is no painting, no art, nothing at all. The genuine artist as well as genuine art opens new roads spurred by the ever changing objective conditions. Artists and art will cease to be if they follow established clichés,  clinging to archaic and outdated modes that do not reflect the true artistic and social  reality’.



According to experts, what is so noteworthy of this artist is that despite his political activity, he always expressed himself  poetically, 'a poetry of tenderness that cohabits with humor and piety’.


Antonio Berni was born on 14 March 1905 in Rosario. He was the youngest of three brothers, sons of Italian inmigrants. His father, a tailor from a small town near the border of Switzerland, died when the future painter was only 14 years old, and the family had to move to a small farm owned by his grandparents from his mother’s side. He began to study drawing at the Academy of Art of the Centre Catalá and worked at vitraux workshops, where he learned stained glass making.  According to a researcher of his life and work, Berni made his debut exhibit of his drawings at a lottery agency, and soon afterwards,  in 1920,  he displayed his fairly impressionist paintings at an exhibition that was a great commercial success.


When he was 18 years old, he was awarded a scholarship and left for Europe. In Madrid, he contemplated the artworks of Velázquez and Dalí. He stayed in Spain until 1927 and then returned for some time to Argentina , after which he went back to the old world, where he stayed until 1930. In the course of his second sojourn in Europe, he studied  at André Lhote’s workshop and viewed the production of Picasso, Braque and De Chirico.



On his return to Buenos Aires with his French wife and his daughter Elena,  he choose the salon of Amigos del Arte to display his markedly surrealist photomontages and drawings, which elicited unfavorable reviews.  At that time, in addition to its surrealistic style, what characterizes his artworks  are quite rotund figures and colors that remind those of the Mexican muralists. In the course of the 30’s and 40’s, his painting is filled with social condemnation and a thirst for defense of the most underprivileged people. Experts consider that 'the artist approached historical reality, came to a standstill at incidents that proclaimed human rights and found his way to social realism'. Another parallel line of his artwork features magic and metaphysic shades of an almost renaissancist classisism. In general terms, most of the paintings of this genre are portraits of women 'of imposing plasticity’.



During more than two decades, Berni  witnessed the deprivation and underdevelopment of the poorest regions of his country,  and this is what he expressed in his paintings. Perhaps his most renowned series are Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel (*), stock characters representing a disadvanged youngster and a prostitute. Berni’s series was awarded the Gran Prix for Engraving at the Venice Biennal 1965.  Berni’s social observation of these characters lead him to the metropolis. In fact, during the previous decades thousands of Argentinien rural-to-urban migrants had settled in the peripheral slums, called 'villas miseria'. For his artworks, he used trash materials and industrial wastes.


Berni visited important museums in Latin America, the United States and Europe and also exposed his work at the Di Tella  Institute. Two years later, he set up his expo-show ‘Ramona in the Cave’ at the well known Rubbers Gallery. He died in 1981.


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