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Bella Boca: Museo Benito Quinquela Martín

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La Boca at once both attracts and repels. On one hand it is celebrated as one of Buenos Aires’ least changed barrios, stubbornly retaining its wayward charm; on the other it is maligned for its crime, pollution, and violence. Porteños will roll their eyes at camera-toting tourists hailing cabs for El Caminito, the neighbourhood’s iconic, kitschy “must-see” attraction, yet in their next breath will betray a nostalgic affection for the working-class enclave where their grandparents or great-grandparents very likely first set foot on Argentine soil.

Boca’s stereotypes are so overdone and marketed in the tourism industry that you might feel like you know the neighbourhood without ever even venturing there – and for those who do make the trek, it’s usually just that quick jaunt to El Caminito before crossing the barrio off the to-do list entirely. It’s difficult separating the genuine from the fabricated, and therefore the true spirit of the neighbourhood often remains hidden.

Terrace at Museo Benito Quinquela Martín. (Photo: Madeleine Decker)

The Museo Benito Quinquela Martín, founded by and named after the barrio’s most famous artist, is a good place to find that spirit. Opened in 1938 on land donated to the city by Quinquela Martín, the property also houses a primary school and theatre, all overlooking the waters of the Río Riachuelo and just a stone’s throw away from the Caminito.

“Everything I’ve done and achieved, I owe it to my neighbourhood,” reads a Quinquela Martín quote, hanging in the entrance to the museum. “It gave me the unstoppable drive that served as my inspiration.”

The museum is a love letter from the artist to the barrio he grew up in, and an effort on his part to provide a space for burgeoning artists from an Argentina that, at the peak of immigration, was struggling to make sense of its cultural identity.

Housed on the second and third floors of the building, the museum’s modest collection is more representative of Boca’s gritty back alleys and shipyards than the Caminito of the guidebooks. Though the walls are painted the same bright primary colours as the neighbourhood’s famous iron-sided tenements, the artworks themselves are decidedly more subdued, suggesting there lies a profound melancholy beneath the cheerful exterior.

Vicente Vento’s ‘Fin de Jornada’ (‘End of the day’) presents a hazy, diluted contrast to the lively reds, blues and yellows we are accustomed to; hunched workers slink home, hands in pockets, as smokestacks puff silently into the sky. These same elements are to be found in many of the paintings on display – the ever-present Río Riachuelo, the looming smokestacks, anonymous workers dwarfed by the city that grows unstoppably around them.

A section of the second floor devoted to portraits gives us a closer look at these previously faceless workers and other residents of the barrio from the turn of the century to about the ‘50s. Lino Spilimbergo’s ‘Momento Feliz’ (‘Joyful Moment’) portrays an old man sitting down to a bowl of soup, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine. Portraits of artists’ mothers line the walls – all Italian, all wizened in black mourning shawls. The ragged-clothed youth in Antonio Berni’s 1951 ‘El niño y su moneda’ (‘The boy and his coin’) bears a striking resemblance, unfortunately, to so many children on the city’s streets today, a reminder that over the course of the century, some things haven’t changed.

The commentary (in Spanish) also points out the political undertones of many of the works, reminding us that it was La Boca, after all, which elected the city’s first socialist congressman in 1935. While these interpretations are interesting and no doubt shed light on the context in which the art was made, they are not necessary in appreciating the deeper, non-political anguish in such pieces as Eduardo Sivori’s ‘El muerte del marino’ (‘Death of the sailor’).

The second floor also houses a fascinating collection of ships’ figureheads, in keeping with the nautical theme that permeates so much of the artwork. The ornately carved maidens and bearded deities come from ships with names like La Abundancia, El Conquistador, and La Fama Italiana, which once plied the waters visible from the museum’s windows. The Sala Eduardo Sivori plays host to rotating exhibits of Argentine artists, and Boca-based Guillermo Mac Loughlin’s ‘Itinerario’ will be on display until 6th March.

Terrace of sculptures at Museo Benito Quinquela Martín overlooking La Boca. (Photo: Madeleine Decker)

The museum’s third floor is where Quinquela Martín made his home and studio until his death in 1977 and the living space is left largely intact. The walls of the spacious, airy apartment hold portraits of Quinquela Martín done in homage by other famous Latin American artists, and serve as a gallery of his impressive, larger than life oil paintings. Here again we see the ubiquitous smokestacks on the far shores of Avellaneda, fiery sunsets and longshoremen bowed beneath the weight of cargo. In ‘Después de la explosión’ (‘After the explosion’), tiny figures repair the crippled hull of a massive ship which appears like a snarling, water-borne monster, just moments away from devouring them.

A rooftop terrace provides a view of the river and the Boca skyline, from which Quinquela Martín often gazed for inspiration. “From the balconies of my studio, I sometimes feel a strange sensation like an inner voice telling me I could not have been born anywhere but here.”

Museo Benito Quinquela Martín
Av. Pedro de Mendoza 1835 (1169), La Boca.
Tuesday – Friday 10am-6pm, weekends and holidays 11am-6pm.
Summer hours (January and February): Tuesday – Sunday 11am-5.30pm
Admission: Free, $10 contribution recommended.
Free concerts offered every Saturday at 3pm.
Accessible by bus lines 64, 53, 20, 152, and 29

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