Hungry for art and lunch, John and I decided to go to MALBA (Museo de Arte de Latinamericano de Buenos Aires). Because I run past it nearly every day and because it is invariably crowded with people who look like they’re onto something good, I have always meant to visit.
To fortify ourselves before the picture-viewing, we had lunch at the restaurant next to the gallery, Ninina. The menu was interesting, varying from edamame salad to squash-and-apple soup to and fairly expensive by Buenos Aires standards (US$10 for most lunch options), but fresh and tasty. The staff was very friendly and, judging by how packed it was at 2 p.m., it’s clearly one of the more popular eateries in the city.
Thus fortified, we girded our loins for gallery-going. Entry into the museum was only 100 pesos for both of us – less than US $2.50. The interior space–airy, light, white and boxy with convenient escalators and seats—reminded me of MOMA in New York. The main permanent exhibition is Latin American art from 1900 to the present, and there is also space for temporary exhibitions and for cultural activities and events.
The permanent collection is arranged more or less in chronological order, starting with modernism. The first picture was a pencil sketch of a cylinder, which elicited a quiet groan from John, who feels that he has seen plenty of Cubism already. His view, and I am inclined to agree, is that there is nothing particularly Latin American about it—Parisian cubism looks pretty similar to the Mexican or Peruvian variety.
But in spite of his misgivings, there were some attractive and unusual paintings in this room. Uruguayan José Cuneo had a picture of horses under a tree that was particularly magnetic, for example, but the real stand-out was Xul Solar, the true Argentine original.
Oscar Agustin Alejandro Schulz Solari (1887-1963) changed his name to Xul Solar around 1918. The reasoning behind it, I gather is (1) that ‘Xul’ sounds a lot like ‘Schulz’ in Spanish and (2) it is backwards for ‘lux’ (Latin for light). As a biographical panel explained, Xul Solar lived in Europe from 1912 to 1924 and soaked up avant garde art ideas including those to do with philosophy and spirituality. He invented a language called Neocriollo with the idea that it would become the pan-American tongue. He learned meditation techniques from the British Mage Alesteir Crowley and did a series of paintings based on meditations on hexagrams from the I, Ching. In 1924 he headed back home and got busy there painting and creating. He founded the Pan Klub—a kind of salon for artists and intellectuals that still exists. Not only that, but he invented a new kind of colorful piano, another language (Pan Lengua) and a zany kind of chess (Panchess). He had an idea that in the future floating city, ‘Celestial Jerusalem’, would help solve our planet’s overcrowding issue.
Solar was a friend of and collaborator with Jorge Luis Borges, who was twelve years younger than him. Borges referred to him as “one of the most singular events of our era.” Most of his works in MALBA are small -scale, watercolors on paper that I didn’t manage to photograph very well. Take my word for it that they are very strange! It is perhaps possible to detect hints of Paul Klee, African masks, Picasso and the mystic preoccupations he nursed his whole life, sprinkled with flying bird men, red diamond eyes and a palette that is distinctive and symbolically charged.
Another artist who caught our eye was Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), a Cuban artist who liked to draw figures that look part human, part animal, part plant. Like Solar, he too traveled to Europe (and New York) to study art. Lam claimed Chinese, European, Indian and mixed-African descent and studied under the same teacher as Salvador Dali: about as good an example of globalism as you can get. As this article describes, even his study of African art was sort of back-to-front, encouraged as it was by Picasso and other European artists.
Apart from these vivid personalities, there were plenty of other individual paintings that stick in the memory. For example, there was an exceptionally beautiful painting called “Disasters of Mysticism” (1942) by Chilean artist Roberto Matta (1911-2002) which would make a good Science Fiction book cover:
And John was particularly drawn to the dinosaur-skeleton-like nature of this installation called “Formes Volantes” (1969-1976) by Alicia Penalba (1913-1982).
After seeing it, I would recommend visiting MALBA if you’re in town. It’s a very nice museum, not too big so risk of museum-feet is minimal, and the items are displayed with care. Not only that, but it gives a tantalizing and digestible taste of Latin American culture, politics and history in the last century.