We’ve covered Argentina’s top contemporary artists before, but this time we’ve rounded up some of the most important and influential painters in the country’s history.
Carlos Morel, recognised as the first prominent Argentine artist, was born 200 years ago this year. Working with oil painting and lithography, he would produce battle scenes, religious scenes, personal portraits, and other pieces commemorating 19th century Argentine life.
But it was in the early 20th century, encouraged by waves of mass immigration that new art movements emerged, influenced heavily by Europe, but developing a distinctly Argentine style. These are some of the most significant painters to come out of this chapter of history.
One of the best-known 20th century Argentine painters is still alive today. Carlos Alonso currently lives in Unquillo, in the province of Córdoba, but was born in Tunuyán, in Mendoza, 84 years ago.
Alonso left school at the age of 14 to enter the Fine Arts National Academy of Cuyo. His work is mostly influenced by the expressionist art movement; he often paints bodies and situations in a tortured way, to express the pain and misery of humanity. His characters are often wounded, with a sick white face, in unrealistic positions. This is likely influenced by Alonso’s own suffering during the military dictatorship: his daughter was ‘disappeared’ a year after the coup d’etat of 1976.
Alonso’s favorite subjects are social issues, eroticism, and violence. After his personal loss, the painter left to Italy, and then to Madrid, later returning to Argentina in 1981 where he participated in several exhibitions, and was awarded the Konex prize for ‘Best Argentine drawer of the decade’ in both 1982 and 1992.
The son of Russian immigrants, Roberto Aizenberg was born in 1928 in Villa Federal, a small town of Entre Ríos. At the age of eight, he moved to Buenos Aires with his family. He first studied architecture but then decided to focus on painting, though architecture continued to influence his work and way of representing things: he liked to play with space, forms, and three dimensions.
Recognised early as a young master, Aizenberg entered the art world in the 1950s, after he met his mentor Juan Batlle Planas, who introduced him to European avant-garde movements, especially surrealism.
From his very first exhibitions, he was considered a talented artist, but a tragedy interrupted his developing career. Between 1977 and 1984 he lived in Europe after the three children of his companion, Matilde Herrera, were kidnapped – they remain disappeared. He returned to Buenos Aires when the dictatorship ended, but he never again received the recognition he had before he left.
However, today Aizenberg is considered as the first and most important Argentine surrealist painter, though his work is not exclusively contained in that style. Dawn Ades, renowned author and art professor from the University of Essex explains that: “Roberto Aizenberg’s work both illuminates and is illuminated (…) and it should form part of the international history of the (surrealist) movement, though it is no way limited to this. He was one of Argentina’s greatest 20th century artists (…) His place is in the global history of 20th century art.”
Benito Quinquela Martín
Benito Quinquela Martín is one of the most famous Argentine painters, and an icon in the neighbourhood in which he lived: La Boca. No one knows the exact date of his birth as he was abandoned at an orphanage, but it is estimated he was born around 1890, in Buenos Aires.
Quinquela Martín worked on daily scenes of the La Boca port area. This neighborhood was (and is) resolutely working class, made of warehouses, shipyards and port constructions, zinc and tin houses. In his paintings, Quinquela Martín represents the beauty of the place in itself, using striking colors, but mostly captures the difficult daily realities of the port workers; several of his pieces, for example, deal with child labour.
Some of his contemporaries criticise him for focusing too much on this specific neighborhood, stating that he was unable to work on something else, but the artist didn’t see it this way. He was proud of this port and its story, and this almost obsessive passion led him to become famous internationally after an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. He then exhibited in Madrid, Paris, and New York City.
After becoming popular, he donated several art pieces to the city of Buenos Aires, and especially centres in La Boca. Also, he bought land and donated them and the money to build a school-museum called Escuela Pedro de Mendoza.
Benito Quinquela Martín died in 1977: on his coffin, there was a painting of the port of La Boca.
Often compared to Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Marc Chagall, Xul Solar is another of the most famous Argentine painters. Born in San Fernando, Buenos Aires province, in 1887, he first studied music and architecture before focusing on painting. In 1916, he first signed his work as “Xul Solar” – his real name is Oscar Agustin Alejandro Shulz Solari – as a reference to the energy of the light and the sun.
His paintings are mostly of buildings or constructions, that almost look like characters as they seem to move and mix among themselves as though alive. Some of his urban scenes can evoke memories of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, while some remind of the surrealistic images coming out of Salvador Dali’s imagination.
From afar, Solar’s paintings might seem delirious but with a closer look, a lots of subtle signs are references to the damages of war.
A lot of things are hidden in his work: Solar is not only a painter, a sculptor, and a writer but also an inventor of imaginary languages. “I am a maestro of a writing no one reads yet,” he once said. Inspired by metaphysical theories, he invented two languages – one is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish, the other is based on mathematics.
Like many Argentine painters influenced by the country’s difficult history, Antonio Berni’s work is focused on social issues. Born in Rosario, Santa Fe, in 1905, his works focus on the forgotten, poor sectors of society. His art is mostly influenced by the historical events he saw and lived through.
Berni started to develop his interest in social issues after living in Spain and France. In Paris, he met Louis Aragon, famous French writer and poet, who introduced him to the Dada movement and to surrealism, but most-of-all made him work with him in his fight against imperialism. It is also in France that he discovered Marx’ books.
After the 1930 coup d’etat he went back to Argentina, married and had a daughter. Then, he started to focus on all social and political issues from all around the world. Argentina was not the only country going through a crisis – this was also the beginning of Nazism and fascism, there was the Spanish Civil War, etc.
“The artist is forced to live with his eyes open, and at that time (the 30’s) the dictatorship, the unemployment, the poverty, the strikes, the labor struggles, the famine, created a tremendous reality that breaks the eyes,” he said in 1976. With his political conscience and his painting skills, he developed the concept of “social realism”.
A few days before his death, in 1981, he declared in an interview : “Art is a response to life. Being an artist is to undertake a risky way to live, to adopt one of the greatest forms of freedom, not to make concessions. As for the painting, it is a form of love, a way to transform years into art.”