Tag Archive | "avant-garde"

Leopoldo Marechal: A Tale of Relegation and Rediscovery

Leopoldo Marechal is a second-time-around success story; an author acknowledged only retrospectively as one of the most significant names in Argentine writing.

Following on from Jorge Luis Borges, Oliverio Girondo, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, the Beyond Borges series looks at the prolific poet, occasional playwright, essayist and novelist whose unpopular political stance resulted in his most accomplished writing being deliberately overlooked for decades.

Rediscovered by later generations, his full-length novel ‘Adán Buenosayres’ was one of the first Spanish language texts to have be deeply indebted to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and is today considered one of the pioneering, must-read works in Argentine literature.

Leopoldo Marechal in Buenos Aires

Life and Early Work

Marechal was born in Buenos Aires in 1900; the eldest son in a family of French-Uruguayan and Basque-Argentine descent. He received a modest upbringing in a southern suburb of Buenos Aires and, from the age of ten, spent regular holidays with his uncle in Maipu. These early experiences provided an exposure to rural environments that would influence and specifically feature in much of his writing.

Having already begun the “dangerous habit” of counting syllables with his fingers, he wrote his first poems aged only 12. At 18, and only shortly after the death of his uncle, he suffered the loss of his father – an event that pushed him into a teaching career he would maintain for much of his life.

During the 1920s Marechal became actively involved in the avant-garde journals ‘Proa’ and ‘Martin Fierro’, along with the likes of Macedonio Fernández, Girondo and Borges. Amidst this climate of literary fervour he published his first collection of poetry in 1922.

‘Los aguiluchos’ bore echoes of earlier modernist influences while a second collection, ‘Días como flechas’, was published only four years later but adhered more closely to the avant-garde trends of the time. Though both titles revealed the same influence of nature and expression of passion, the latter demonstrated more of the finely tuned elements that framed it well within the reformist movements of the period.

In 1926 Marechal travelled to Europe where he wrote for several Spanish journals and surrounded himself with the artists and sculptors of the ‘Paris group’. He returned briefly to Argentina but, in 1929, returned to Paris where he completed his third book, ‘Odas para el hombre y la muter’. Marking something of a return to classical forms, the book received recognition in Argentina in the form of the prestigious Premio Municipal de Poesia.

An article by Marechal in the magazine Martin Fierro

As the 30s came around, the writers of the influential Florida group began moving away from the avant-garde, signifying an era of aesthetic conversion that witnessed many about-turns and relinquished ideals.

Marechal went on to publish several further books of poetry and won the Premio Municipal de Poesia a second time in 1940 for his book ‘Sonetos a Sophia’. By the end of the decade he seemed well on track to become one of Argentina’s most accomplished poets, had his political opinions not impinged so badly on his future literary success.

Adán Buenosayres

Despite being the author of three novels, almost 50 years of poetry and several plays and essays, ‘Adán Buenosayres’ is the single novel for which Marechal is now most known. Far longer than many of the celebrated Argentine novels before it, the 1948 edition covered 741 pages and was divided into seven books.

Purposefully named after Adam in a biblical sense, the Adam of Marechal’s novel also happens to be Argentine, and porteño, Parts one to five take place over three days and narrate the adventures of the principal character, while the sixth and seventh books make use of a more intimate first person; the sixth serving as Adán’s autobiography, and the seventh describing his symbolic descent into hell. Since the novel’s prologue informs us of his fate, Adán’s status as a mythical character is almost immediately secured from the offset.

As much poetry as it is prose, and as autobiographical as it is fictional, the mood of Marechal’s classic is one of its most noteworthy aspects. Its sarcastic and mocking spirit goes some way in tempering the melancholy sentiment of the story itself, and a linguistic richness accompanies its enormous flow of images and symbolism. Often compared to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the novel aspired to do for Buenos Aires, and for the variations of the Spanish language, what Joyce’s novel had done for Dublin.

Marechal's urban novel aspired to do for Buenos Aires what Joyce's 'Ulysses' had done for Dublin (Photo: Kate Bowen)

Rejection and Rediscovery

Had Marechal published his novel ‘Adán Buenosayres’ shortly after he’d begun writing it in Paris in 1930, its success story might have looked different. As it was, by the time the novel was published in 1948, its reception was marred by a general reluctance to detach the work from the political position of its writer.

A century earlier, the controversial ideologies of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento had likely succeeded in garnering more public attention for his historical essay ‘Facundo’, but Marechal’s masterpiece paid dearly for its author’s political allegiances.

Having initially aligned himself with a generally accepted trend of catholic nationalism, the author later declared his allegiances to the government of Juan Domingo Perón – a move that resulted in his work being shunned by his contemporaries for almost two decades.

Although his writing was not directly political, from 1945 there was no going back. Marechal would become known as the Peronist of his generation and, as such, his work would be purposefully overlooked until new political winds took flight.

Besides the favourable opinion of a select few writers and the ardent admiration of  Julio Cortázar, the first publication of Adán Buenosayres slipped into oblivion. Its reissue, almost 20 years later, caught the attention of a younger generation whose historical interest in Argentine literature led to the novel’s resurgence and its current recognition as a pioneering work in Argentine writing.

The novel has since been translated to French in 1995, Italian in 2010 and is currently being translated into English for publication this year.

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Oliverio Girondo: Advocating the Avant-Garde

Following on from Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentina Independent continues the Beyond Borges series with an author who, if Borges had not existed, would almost certainly have become a more widely known advocate of the Spanish American avant-garde. The Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo was, for many, the best Argentine poet of the 20th century and today remains one of the most treasured.

Portrait of Oliverio Girondo

A Rival for Borges

Born in 1890, both Girondo and his wife, the contemporary poet Norah Lange, mysteriously shifted their dates of birth back one year to 1891.

The son of wealthy parents, he experienced a privileged upbringing and a solid education was secured for him in prestigious schools in England and France. A deal struck between Girondo and his parents meant that even when he returned to Argentina to complete a law degree, he would still be able to return to Europe every year.

Like Borges, he encountered the exponents of the European avant-garde at an impressionable age. Both authors played an active part in introducing the first of the vanguardist movements to settle in Argentina, both became high profile writers competing for the literary crown of Buenos Aires, and both fell in love with the same woman.

The feud which ensued over Borges’ unrequited love for Girondo’s wife has somewhat stolen the spotlight away from Girondo’s writing. But, an irreverent and provocative author, a fierce observer of society, and a demonstrable deep understanding of what it means to be human reveal Girondo as a fit rival for Borges in many respects.

Advocating the Avant-Garde

Besides a brief attempt at theatre in 1915, and a unique narrative effort named ‘Interlunio’ 1937, Girondo remained first and foremost a poet. His three act play, ‘La Madrastra’ was an infectious melodrama, afterwhich he says he “tore papers”, discarding his writing in cities as far flung as Edinburgh, Seville, Bruges and Dakar, before eventually compiling new writings with those he had saved into his first collection of poetry.

Revealing the obvious influence of French writer Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Veinte poemas para ser leidos en el tranvia’ was published in France in 1922; the same year that Borges’ early poetry, ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’, was published in Argentina.

Together, they are regarded as the major initiators of the avant-garde in Argentina, though rather than focusing on Argentine content, Girondo’s work was inspired by a frenzy of foreign cities and more international in its outlook. Having met with rave reviews in France and Spain, it received more critical attention on home soil following the publishing of its second edition.

Girondo's poetry on the cover of Proa Magazine

Back in Buenos Aires, Girondo became heavily involved in the avant-garde magazine ‘Martin Fierro’. Founded by Evar Méndez and named after José Hernández‘s influential gauchesque poem, the magazine brought Girondo into contact not only with Borges, but also with the great philosophical thinker Macedonio Fernandez and the gauchesque novelist Ricardo Güiraldes, with whom he would go on to found Sociedad Editorial Proa.

Méndez later described Girondo as the great animator of the movement, and it was he who had authored the ‘Manifesto de Martin Fierro’, published in the fourth edition of the magazine on 15th May 1924.

As an advocate of the avant-garde, Girondo travelled to the countries of Chile, Peru, Cuba, Mexico and the United States of America, returning to France and then to Spain, where he published his second volume of poetry, ‘Calcomanías’, inside the Madrid editorial ‘Calpe’, in 1925.

The book was well received on both sides of the Atlantic and reviewed by Borges, who described Girondo as “a violent man who looks at something for a time and then suddenly slaps it in the face, crumples it up and holds on to it for safekeeping”.

Regardless, Girondo returned to Argentina with an increased presence. Appearing on radio broadcasts alongside Güiraldes and other exponents of the vanguardist movement, he concentrated his efforts on a major overhaul of Martin Fierro, ensuring the success of the magazine for almost another 25 years.

A Man of Words

Having travelled once again to Paris, Italy, Egypt and the Basque region, Girondo returned to Buenos Aires for the launch of this third book in 1932.

Probably the most talked about of Girondo’s six poetry collections, ‘Espantapájaros’ is both provocative and memorable. Opening with a formal tribute to Apollinaire, the book of around two dozen poems revels in refreshing humour. Launched in Buenos Aires alongside a bizarre and unprecedented publicity campaign, its first edition of 5,000 copies sold out in only 15 days.

Described as so “spectacularly original that even with advanced warning you are still going to be more surprised by it than by anything else you have ever read in your life”, ‘Espantapájaros’ comes packed with expressions of double meaning where innuendo runs rife.

The poem 'Yo No Se Nada' arranged in the shape of a man

In Girondo’s hands, words acquire new and unexpected meanings so that reading him rarely leaves you as you found him, leading to several of his works being labelled untranslatable.

Like Borges, he also moved away from ultraist trends to explore more elaborate metaphoric language. He was increasingly described as a humourist poet and, where his earlier poetry had tended to center on the image, the writing that followed began to reveal a love of linguistic experimentation that bordered on dangerous.

With a title that already hints at its maturity, ‘Persuasíon de los días’, published in 1942, is considered his most important work. Including as many as 54 poems it is also his most extensive, and reveals the playful sarcasm of ‘Espantapájaros’ to have been left far behind.

In a final irreducible gesture, ‘En la masmédula’ was unleashed like a carefully planned whirlwind in 1954. A dark summation of his work and a showcase of revolutionary syntax, it included poems such as ‘La Mezcla’ and ‘Mi Lumía’, a poem that inspired authors such as Julio Cortázar.

Described by his protege, Enrique Molina, as “one of the most daring adventures of modern poetry”, Girondo’s final book of 16 poems left readers and critics so stunned that the publishing house, Losada, chose to extend the volume on two separate occasions. ‘En la masmédula’ was republished once in 1956 with 26 poems, and again in 1963 as a collection of 37.

A lifelong poet and truly revolutionary man of words, Oliverio Girondo renewed and revived Argentine poetry over a period of 40 years. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, as well as the Argentine poet Leopoldo Marechal have composed poems in his name, and musicians such as Fito Páez have also dedicated songs to him; a testament not only to his own importance in Argentine writing but also to his lasting influence.

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Macedonio Fernández: A Museum of Possible Literatures

One in a collection of under-appreciated Argentine authors known as “los escritores malditos”, the name Macedonio Fernández remains surprisingly unknown outside Argentina.

For many, however, the mention of his unusual first name is enough to conjure up images of an iconoclastic author who was at once Argentina’s first metaphysician, an authentic philosopher, and a legendary mentor for a generation of avant-garde writers, including Jorge Luis Borges.

The Argentina Independent continues its Beyond Borges series with a look at the innovative author and influential thinker who made up one half of the most pivotal friendship in 20th century Argentine writing.

Macedonio Fernández (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Unravelling the Man from the Myth

Born in Buenos Aires in 1874, Macedonio’s life comes coloured with elaborate rumours and exaggerated eccentricities: a deathly fear of tramcars and dogs, a failed attempt to establish a socialist colony in Paraguay, and two assaults on the Argentine presidency through such unorthodox campaign methods as leaving only his first name written inside folded pieces of paper on café tables throughout the city.

As his son, Adolfo de Obieta, once said: “More will always be unknown than known,” but what we do know is that the early part of Macedonio’s life is almost unrecognisable from the perpetual myth that descriptions, such as those penned by Borges himself, have helped to create.

Although he learned to read in French, German, Spanish and English, Macedonio’s primary academic pursuit was law, which he studied alongside Borges’ father before being admitted to the bar in 1889.

Whilst his interests in psychology and philosophy were evident in a thesis entitled ‘Sobre las personas’, he maintained both the lifestyle and appearance of a professional family man until 1920, when the sudden death of his wife caused him to abandon his career and withdraw from public life. Retreating to live in boarding houses, he pored over philosophy and metaphysics in an effort to either understand or deny his loss.

That same year, wrapped up in unconventional ideas and burgeoning idiosyncrasies, he would be waiting on the dock to welcome the Borges’ family on their return from Europe and embarked upon a friendship that continues to be the subject of great debate.

A Museum of Possible Literatures

More of a great thinker than a great writer, Macedonio wrote unconcerned by the notion of publishing. Besides a compendium of speculative philosophy ‘No toda es vigilia la de los ojos abiertos’ in 1928, a collection of humorous writing ‘Papeles de recienvenido’ in 1929, and a brief meta-novel ‘Una novela que comienza’, published in 1941, the majority of his writing has been published posthumously.

His best-known work, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’, was published for the first time 25 years after his death, and despite having been laboured over for a period of 27 years, remains famously open ended.

Cover of 'The museum of Eterna's novel' published by Open Letter Books in 2010

Wrestling earnestly with the question, “How can we commit ourselves to love whilst facing the certainty of death?” the novel concerns itself with the idea of non-existence. A collection of characters, including the president, the gentleman who does not exist, the lover, and the author, gather at an estancia called ‘La novela’ where they are to be instructed in the art of non-being.

Subtitled ‘The first good novel’ and unabashedly described by the author as “the best novel since both it and the world began”, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ was written alongside a collection of intentionally bad writing titled ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and subtitled ‘The last bad novel’.

Together the two novels represent an extended experiment in writing, a museum of possible literatures, and secured Macedonio’s reputation as a writers’ writer.

Rejecting the concept of either a beginning or an end, Macedonio’s attempt at redefining the novel challenges in terms of both content and form. Containing as many as 57 prologues to its 20 chapters, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ describes the perfect execution of a novel wrought with paradoxical humour, whilst ironically and deliberately failing to execute it.

Never intended to be easily followed, Macedonio’s artistic intent was to create a fragmented and disjointed narrative that brought about sufficient confusion and frustration to shake the reader from their passive reading tendencies.

Acknowledged today for anticipating many of the ideas that emerged during the famous “boom” in Latin American literature, Macedonio’s novel preceded Julio Cortázar’s ‘Rayuela’ in the construction of an anti-novel. Though it was published several years earlier, ‘Rayuela’ directly honoured Macedonio by featuring him in the novel as the character of Morelli- the literary hero of the book’s protagonists.

An Accidental Icon

Described as someone “who would rather scatter his ideas in conversation than define them on a page”, Macedonio became an important source of inspiration for a generation of avant-garde writers known as the ‘martinfierristas‘.

Making infrequent but invaluable contributions to the group’s all night gatherings, Borges recalled how Macedonio would speak only four or five times a night, but admitted that never had someone who said so little impressed upon anyone so much.

Modest and courteous, and often crediting his thoughts to someone else, Macedonio’s writing, like his thinking, was often only a sketch of an undeveloped idea, thrown out for completion by someone else.

This technique, of leaving things unfinished, heralded in a new phase in experimental writing that led younger generations to regard Macedonio as the most authentic forerunner to the Argentine avant-garde and a prototype of postmodernism.

Jorge Luis Borges: A Product of Macedonio?

Adopted as a mentor by young writers looking to construct literature in direct opposition to the modernism of the previous generation, Macedonio is controversially described as “the man who made Borges”.

Whilst Borges himself acknowledged Macedonio as a mentor as early as 1921, later confessing that a failure to imitate his metaphysical canon would have represented an “incredible negligence”, he later downplayed the extent of Macedonio’s influence, famously denouncing both the avant-garde and ultraism in 1926.

Whether Borges was a product of Macedonio, or whether the relationship was one of more mutual and reciprocal influence, remains undecided, and the relationship that is regarded by some as hugely instrumental continues to be rejected by others as largely coincidental.

Even with both authors calling on a common handful of themes, it’s not possible to determine whether these sprang from Macedonio’s idea bank, and if they did, Borges’ flawless execution of them remains unparalleled, whilst Macedonio’s comes a little rougher around the edges.

However, many readers arrive to Macedonio’s writing having come in search of an author who makes Borges’ appearance more explanatory. And with Borges as Macedonio’s main source of encouragement as a writer, some argue that “Macedonio the literary man” was as much a product of Borges’ invention, as “Borges the metaphysician” was Macedonio’s.

Regardless of who made whom, Macedonio remains an obscure but fondly remembered writer, long admired for his ingenuity and his original approach to literature. His radical aesthetic and heady influence exploded the mould of modernist writing, forever altering the course of Argentine literature.

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Artistic Suicide: Oscar Bony at the Malba

Photo courtesy of MALBA
‘Familia Obrera’ 1968

In a controversial piece that would come to influence artists to this day, Oscar Bony displayed a working-class family as art. ‘Familia Obrera’ was exhibited in 1968, amidst mobilisations against the military dictatorship, in the gallery of the Instituto Di Tella, a hub of the Argentine avant-garde art movement.

Luis Ricardo Rodríguez, a pattern cutter, and his wife and son, were hired by Bony to sit on show on a museum platform, whilst a recording of the sounds of their everyday household life was playing in the background.

As the noose of political repression was beginning to tighten, the work signified a vibrant communication between art and life, and a defiant break with traditions. Being neither performance nor sculpture, it resisted classification, and brought into play questions of class and exploitation which were provocative and difficult to resolve.

Almost 40 years later, this controversial, boundary-breaking event is politely represented in Malba by a six-foot square black and white photograph. Safely contained within the museum, and history, it is difficult to imagine the energy that the original work generated, and the power of confronting a live family in the gallery at the time when the experimental artistic movement was heading for clashes with the authorities.

The show is the first ever retrospective of the important artist, who was born in 1941 in Misiones province, and died in 2002, whilst still producing art. Showing work from throughout the course of his career, it is difficult not to become dazed by his eclecticism: as well as the relics from his happenings and events, there are flickery short films in which time becomes confusing and any sense of the linear disappears; installations in which different modes of perception such as touch and sight are explored simultaneously.

Further on, are photos of bodies in motion, which refer to Francis Bacon’s angst-ridden existential paintings. There are giant flower and sky canvases, and later, photographs including landscapes and self portraits which the artist has shot with a gun.

This variety makes Bony difficult to categorise. He said himself in 1976; “I believe there is a constant in my work: discontinuity.” Art, to Bony, was a state of investigation: “My works are made to emit a point of reflection, which I believe is where the point of art is situated.”

Photo courtesy of MALBA

Bony emerged in the Buenos Aires art scene of the 1960s, an explosively creative moment in the city’s history. The removal of Perón from power in the previous decade had meant that a state of censorship in the arts gave way to a more vibrant sense of freedom and possibility among the Argentine intelligentsia.

The Instituto Di Tella, a key player in the legitimisation of the emerging Argentine avant-garde, began awarding prizes to artists, bringing them to the public eye. Some of the jury members were foreign critics and artists, creating an international dialogue which enriched the art scene. Added to this, the giving of grants meant that more Argentine artists could travel abroad.

Bony formed part of the emerging group of art rebels connected to the institute, and began to make installations and happenings influenced by conceptualism, pop and minimalism. This art posed existential questions: How do we break habits of thinking and seeing?

Following the military coup of 1966, led by General Juan Carlos Onganía, in which President Arturo Illia was overthrown, the Argentine political climate changed. The contemporary art scene is said to have been ‘jolted by a creative effervescence so powerful that journalists would also refer to 1966 as “the year of the avant garde”’.

Bony and others began a process of more overt politicisation which came to a dramatic head in 1968. A confrontation is said to have begun that year, when artist Eduardo Ruano smashed a picture of John F Kennedy, shouting ‘Yankees out of Vietnam!’

The most notorious manifestations of unrest were to happen when the Instituto Di Tella put on a show, ‘Experiences’ in the May of that year, in which Oscar Bony exhibited ‘Familia Obrera’, the working class family.

Although controversial, this was not the work that began the conflict. The show became the scene of a clash between the artists, the institute, and the government, when the police closed down an installation by Roberto Plate entitled ‘Baño’ or ‘Bathroom’, which had included provocative statements and anti-government graffiti.

Photo courtesy of MALBA

On 23rd May, in public protest of this act of censorship, the artists involved in the show removed their works and smashed up the remains on calle Florida. Some were arrested at the scene.

The event signified the end of an era, and effectively constituted an act of artistic suicide. Many refused to make art again until seven or eight years later.

In 1971 Bony declined to send artwork to a group show in London, saying “I am against the idea of any kind of art exhibit, that is why I am not sending any work to Camden. In addition I am in favour of non-participation as being the avant-garde.”

During the time of his self-imposed exile from ‘high art’, Bony began a new career as a rock photographer, gaining notoriety for his portraits of bands such as ‘Los Gatos’, ‘Almendra’ and ‘La Joven Guardia’. For almost six years he worked in the music industry, helping to form the visual identity of Argentine rock bands at a crucial time when the music was gaining access to mass media.

He returned to the world of ‘high art’ in 1974, with a series of photos and paintings. Looking back on his decision to leave the art world, he proclaimed his seven year retirement from the sphere to have been a mistake: “At that time we believed in a utopia that finally proved to be impossible: the possibility of obviating galleries and museums.”

“I had decided to quit, to never again show in a gallery or museum,” he stated. “I felt that I had come into contact with a deathly cold. It made me very afraid and I lived more than five years thinking that my life had ended. We undertook a fantastic utopia: unable to change society, we committed suicide.”

Despite the closing of the original work, ‘Familia Obrera’ remains one of Bony’s most influential works, and one of the most controversial. This work was later re-created in 1998 in the Fundacion Proa, Buenos Aires, and in 2004 in galleries in Slovenia and Houston, with similar families being hired to become live exhibits.

Bony commented on the reconstruction of the work: “For me La Familia Obrera implied many things that demand commitment. One was the relationship to politics, another was the intention to dematerialise the work of art.”

“I’m extremely interested in a certain condition of being on the border,” he explained. “And a certain tendency of meaning that has not been modified. Showing the work again seems to me to open up the analysis.”

This piece is also seen as the precursor to Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s contemporary installations in which he pays workers and powerless groups of the community to appear in a gallery. He packed one space with Mexican immigrant workers, confronting a mainly privileged audience with the exploitative capitalist system from which they benefit, and attracting fierce debate.

Photo courtesy of MALBA

Sierra’s work has been criticised for entering into the very exploitation that it seems to expose: Where Bony paid twice the breadwinner’s normal wages for his family to be on display, Sierra purportedly did not match their usual daily rate.

There will be no such accusations of exploitation in the Malba. Not because Bony wanted to avoid such a risk, but because their decision to display ‘Familia Obrera’ as a photo rather than a living family circumvents any of its confrontational power.

Despite haphazardly edited video clips in the Malba giving a clue as to the sense of energy and purpose that there must have been at the Di Tella in the 1960s, the show does not communicate the disruptive potential of the work, as though its energy can no longer touch or change us. The viewer does not feel themselves to be a participant as they would if they had been faced with real people, and therefore does not have to question the dynamics of power of which they are a currently a part.

Is the place for politics these days outside the Plaza de Mayo, not in the art gallery? Is the capitalist structure that Bony critiqued not still at-large? It seems as though Bony’s work has become confined to the safe bourgeois distance of the museum – one of the very things that he set out to rupture.


El Mago shows at the Malba, Avenida Figueroa Alcorta 3415, until 18th February 2008. For more information, visit www.malba.org.ar

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