You never know when you’ll trip over a chunk of fine art here in Bueños Aires. Last week we were in the city center and, desperate for coffee, ended up in a mall named Galerías Pacifico. There, in the foodcourt, we found ourselves sitting under a kind of Social Realist Sistine Chapel.
Mind you, the Galerías Pacifico is not an ordinary mall. The building it inhabits was built in 1891 and was originally the BA headquarters of the Parisian department store Le Bon Marché. Aristide Boucicaut, founder of the Paris store, was in favor of “a new kind of store that would thrill all the senses”, and something of that spirit remains. As soon as you step in the entrance, you are enveloped in a kind of Beaux-Arts wonderland with glass-vaulted arcades, Corinthian pillars and all kinds of architectural frippery. Incidentally, the building was modelled after Italy’s first shopping mall the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
In 1945, a big central dome on the first floor was built and the owners commissioned five of the best artists in the country to decorate its interior. Each artist would be responsible for one or two panels, but the whole would give the pleasing impression of unity thanks to a similar palette and universal themes such as ‘fraternity’, ‘generation’ and ‘humankind’s relationship to Nature’.
After munching away on the best almond croissant ever, I elbowed other tourists out of the way and got to work with the camera. Unfortunately, it was not very easy to get decent shots, but at least you’ll get a vague idea of the spectacle.
After our visit, I started wondering about the artists. They seemed like a nice bunch of fellows and good with the brush, so I decided to find out more…
Manuel Colmeiro (1901-1999)
Manuel Colmeiro was born in Chapa, Galicia, and came to Argentina at the age of twelve. He briefly studied at Belas Artes University but then left to form an artistic self-learning group with other painters and sculptors. In 1926 he returned to Galicia and two years later held an exhibition in Vigo, the biggest city in Galicia.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he was exiled to Argentina and remained there until 1948. During this period he mingled with other Galician exiles including artist Luis Seoane, writer Rafael Dieste and poet Rafael Alberti. In 1949, shortly after completing the mural in the Galerias Pacifico, Colmeiro moved to Paris and stayed there until 1989.
In the sixties he gained a lot of recognition, with exhibitions in London, Paris and Madrid. He spent the last ten years of his life in Galicia.
Lino Enea Spilimbergo (1896-1964)
Lino Enea Spilimbergo was born in Buenos Aires in 1896, the son of Italian immigrants. He took drawing lessons at an industrial school, then entered the National School of Fine Arts.
Winning a prize for a 1925 exhibition allowed him to travel to Europe, where he expanded his training in Germany, Italy and France. In Paris he studied with André Lhote, whose influence may be seen in a comparison of these two landscapes, the first by Spilimbergo, the second by Lhote.
Returning to Argentina in 1928, Spilimbergo soon became one of the country’s most celebrated painters and he received many prizes and put on an exhibition yearly for many years. He was a also a professor at the University of Fine Arts.
In 1933 he began his career as a muralist, collaborating with Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros and a few fellow Argentines on a big avant-garde project named “Ejercicio Plastico”, still considered a key moment in Latin American art. Owing to the tastes of the he mural was not created in a public space but in the basement of Natalio Botana, the wealthy editor of Diario Critica. For years, it was hidden and then forgotten–you can read about its interesting history in the article “The incredible story of the hidden mural of Siqueiros in Buenos Aires”.
Demetrio Urruchúa (1902-1978)
Urruchua was born in Pehuajo on the edge of the Pampas, 365km away from Buenos Aires. He was from a simple peasant family and had 21 siblings. His father was dictatorial and abusive, which instilled him from an early age with an unconditional love of freedom and contempt for established order, an attitude that is demonstrated in paintings like ‘El Pacto’ (below).
As a child he stepped on a large thorn, necessitating a trip to the capital for medical treatment. He stayed there for two years and his health was never the same afterwards, meaning he was unsuited to physical labor. He ended up staying with his sister in BA and going to school at a religious college, where his talent was soon recognized and encouraged.
His first exhibition was 1931 and after that he enjoyed an extensive career so that his works are now in several private collections and in galleries worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Galería Due Mondi de Arte Internacional de Roma and in the Museo Municipal in Montevideo. He became a well-known teacher and left a quote “You cannot teach how to feel”. He died in 1978.
Antonio Berni (1905-1981)
Antonio Berni’s father was an Italian immigrant from near the Swiss border and his mother was an Argentine of Italian descent. His father died in WWI, when Antonio was just 14, and the teen went to work as an apprentice at a stained-glass company. He also studied painting at the Rosario Catalá Center, where he was considered a child prodigy.
In 1925 the Jockey Club of Rosario awarded him with a scholarship to study in Europe, and he chose to go to Spain but eventually ended up in Paris, where a number of other Argentinian artists were also working. He gained a second scholarship and returned to Paris, where he became interested in surrealism. At the same time, he read enthusiastically about Marxism and revolutionary politics.
Returning to Argentina in 1939, he was shocked by the effects of unemployment, by poor working conditions and by the military coup d’état that ushered in the so-called Infamous Decade. He began using his art to speak out against social injustice and to speak on behalf of the underprivileged. Two of his most famous series deal with an underprivileged boy named Juanito, who exists in a filthy shantytown, and Ramona Montiel who shares Juanito’s origins but pulls herself up to a higher social level through prostitution.
During the 1976 coup, Berni fled to New York City and produced art observing the city through a slightly ironical lens. He died in 1981.
Juan Carlos Castagnino (1908-1972)
Juan Castagnino was born in the little town of Camet, near Mar del Plata. He studied in the School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires and studied under Lino Spilimbergo and Ramon Gomez Cornet.
By the end of the 1920s he’d become a member of the Communist Party and, though he painted a variety of subjects, his affiliation may be seen in much of his work. In 1939 he travelled to Paris and attended the atelier of Lhote, then travelled further and met George Braque, Fernand Leger, Pablo Picasso and others. In 1941 he returned to Argentina and worked toward a degree in Architecture.
He won a number of prizes and particular recognition for an illustrated version of Argentina’s national poem Martin Fierro. He died in 1972.