Rebellion and experimentalism – the signature of the vanguard – are the historical and cultural legacy bequeathed by Argentina’s literary reviews. The country’s small magazines assumed their present shape in the twenties, that auspicious decade of economic and social optimism. As cultural manifestos were vigorously being penned across the globe, Buenos Aires adopted its own reputation as the intellectual hub of South America – the so-called ‘Paris of the South’, a coinage that still lingers today.
But beneath the surface of bohemian glamour lurked glaring social contradictions that informed much of the groups’ cultural and political struggles. Portals of poetic, philosophical and artistic trends, the reviews fostered a strong artistic community, lending writers a sense of collective purpose.
This week’s Top 5 lists some of the literary journals that have acquired a mythical status in the cultural imagination. Many of the polarised views and vitriolic debates of the 1920s were stirred by two competing literary factions: the Florida group – dubbed the Martinfierristas – and their counterpart, the Boedo group, contributors to Claridad. Cosmopolitan, urban and elitist on the one hand and international and socialist on the other, they constantly pushed artistic and political boundaries. Of a much less militant strand, the long-running magazines Sur and Contorno were instrumental in providing a forum for the writers of Argentina’s literary golden age.
Founded in 1931 and published regularly until 1970, Sur was the most vocal literary and cultural outlet in Argentine letters in the twentieth century. Sponsoring a cross-fertilisation of the arts – poetry, philosophy, history and the visual arts – it secured its iconic status for a generation of writers for whom the small magazine was a natural counterpart of the literary salon.
Its longevity was due, in large part, to the sound financial footing of its founder and lifelong editor, Victoria Ocampo, as well as the intimate friendship she cultivated with one of the country’s most famous writers Jorge Luis Borges. Sur provided the occasion for a number of literary encounters, including the introduction of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Ocampo’s younger sister, Silvina Ocampo.
Despite its name, Sur’s contributors ranged far beyond the local scene, including Virginia Woolf, Jean Paul Sartre and William Faulkner, to name just a few. Cultivating ties with foreign luminaries did lead to its derogative branding as extranjerizante - a term that indicated its allegiance to cosmopolitan, elitist, European models.
Whilst never brandishing a manifesto, and in spite of its apolitical ‘art for art’s sake’ agenda, the magazine articulated its own brand of liberalism – a resistance to mass culture and nationalist populism. Many cultural positions adopted throughout the twentieth century were often positioned by their adherence to, or distance from, Sur’s creative manual to the arts scene.
A screaming face bursts out of montaged buildings; a man brandishes a florescent torch; a Grecian goddess dances precariously on a sphere, beneath which reads ‘the pedestal of social peace’. Founded by Antonio Zamora, Claridad hit the press in 1926 with the stated mission to mediate the cultural debate, until that time monopolised by another review named Martín Fierro. Inspired by the French magazine Clarté, it gave voice to a militant group of intellectuals who advocated social integration fostered through the arts.
Claridad’s editions serve as documents tracing the developments of leftist thought in the first half of the twentieth century. Its ideals addressed both the influx of immigrant workers and the internationalism of the left. The first editions provided a platform for Russian literature, French social realism, and the dissemination of new national voices – especially those affiliated with the Boedo group, as well as the work of Argentine artists Xul Solar and Emilio Pettoruti.
Designs by the so-called ‘People’s Arists’ served as a vehicle for the dissemination of social protest and the struggle of neglected sectors of society. Its provocative, ideologically-freighted covers owe much to the futurist and constructivist aesthetic taking off across Europe.While reviews of films by directors Léon Klimovsky and Alfonso Longuet introduced readers to the experimental gaze of Soviet and German expressionist cinema, the Boedo group believed that aesthetic development was inseparable from political consciousness.
Founded by Evar Méndez in 1924, the innovative literary magazine acquired a mythic status in its mere three years of publication. A product of the wave of the avant-garde literary reviews that sprang up in vanguard circles throughout the 1920s, Martín Fierro set out to disperse the new ideas that were taking Europe by storm, and assimilate them into the national agenda. Recalling the eponymous epic poem by José Hernández, the Martínfierristas sought to explore the ‘topography’ of criollismo – collapsing distinctions between national tradition and a modern, democratic aesthetic. The gaucho was subsequently recast as a cosmopolitan, flaneur figure, and a frequenter of the shabbier districts of the city.
Martín Fierro’s signature is a wry, sardonic humour, notable in its pseudo-obituaries. Apollinaire, Picasso, Corbusier, and Stravinsky were just some of the eminent international figures that found their way on to Martín Fierro’s pages – as well as Argentine writers including Leopoldo Marechal and Raúl González Tuñón.
The provocative ‘Manifesto of Martín Fierro’, penned by the avant-garde poet Oliverio Girondo, clearly owes much to the Futurists’ vitriolic agenda, debunking moribund traditions and catapulting Argentina into the twentieth century. Méndez discontinued the publication in 1927, unhappy that a faction of the group were using its pages to garner support for the presidential campaign of populist leader, Hipolito Yrigoyen.
Hailed as a landmark publication upon its inception in the mid-1950s, the contornistas occupied a niche ground in political and cultural journalism. Founded by brothers David and Isamael Viñas, it produced only ten editions over the space of six years but, in that period, successfully formulated a new critical idiom. In keeping with a core group of Argentine intellectuals, one of Contorno’s most salient features was its militant anti-Peronism – viewing the 1955 overthrow as a moment of liberation. Their provocative manifesto, ‘Terrorism and complicity’ set out to dismantle the pillars of an antiquated arts tradition and bourgeois complacency. Contorno’s revisionary approach did, however, come under severe criticism from those who believed the magazine served merely as a vehicle to dismantle the cornerstones of Argentine tradition.
Despite its eschewal of the past, Contorno sought to advance a cultural agenda that would account for the stark realities of Argentine life, reproblematising relations between literature and society. The periodical published the work of an important coterie of writers, including influential contributors such as Juan José Sebreli, Oscar Masotta and Alejandro Rozitchner.
Highlight entries include Roberto Arlt and the Argentine novel and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada and the essay. Acutely aware of its place in the avant-garde tradition, it contextualised its own project with an essay, ‘Martinfierristas: their time and ours’.
Proa, the oldest Latin American publication still in print, was founded by Argentine writers Borges, Macedonio Fernández and Eduardo González Lanuza in 1922. Coeval with Martín Fierro, it shared many of its vanguard populist principles – including free circulation in libraries, bookstores and amongst friends.
Originally emulating the triptych design of the Spanish magazine ULTRA, it provided a platform for eminent European and Latin American writers of the era. Two years later, Proa was relaunched from Borges’ Recoleta abode with $50 capital, donated by Georges Braque, Alfredo Brandan Caraffa and Pablo Rojas Paz. The new version, with illustrations from Borges’ sister Norah, as well as Pedro Figari and Adolfo Gramojo, showcased the works of Pablo Neruda, Raúl González Tuñón, Roberto Arlt and Eduardo Mallea. But, constantly stymied by a lack of capital, Proa stopped publishing again the following year.
Silvina Ocampo and Bioy Casares relaunched the magazine in 1988 – a project that Borges ad unsuccessfully attempted since 1982. Proa’s content includes short stories, poetry, essays, literary, film and visual arts criticism. The magazine was again forced out of print following the 2001 economic downturn but was subsequently taken on until 2003 by Chilean publishers. In its third phase, Proa still has a circulation of over 17,000 with a wide distribution throughout Latin America.