A Letter from Buenos Aires, Argentina

Escape from St. Louis

By: - Oct 06, 2010

Bonetti Bonetti Bonetti

This past winter I went to Buenos Aires to reclaim my life. For nearly seven years I had been art critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a long-time Pulitzer rag that once enjoyed a good reputation. By the time I got there it was hard to detect any evidence of journalistic excellence. For the first few years I had a sympathetic editor who did his best to maintain standards; defeated, he left to head the local film festival. After his departure, conditions spiraled downward.

It’s no news that American print journalism is in free-fall. I’ve witnessed it from the inside both in St. Louis and San Francisco, where I worked for both the Examiner and the Chronicle, and it’s an ugly and dispiriting picture. At the editorial level, anyone with any talent has long since left to pursue other opportunities, many on-line. The worst, who, in a reversal of Yeats’ famous contrast, lack all conviction, are left with the responsibility of laying the beast to rest, and they are killing it without any wit, grace or style.
Needless to say, the personal stress level was high. For two years, I was marginalized, put-down and dismissed as an out-of-touch elitist. Formerly friendly colleagues, sucking up to the powers of the moment, turned. It got so that I never knew whom I could trust.  The lay-offs came on Friday afternoon, creating terror in the newsroom as the smiling editor went from desk to desk calling the soon to be dismissed into his office one by one.  For whatever reason, I was never one of those axed.

I bided my time. I had taken a buyout at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001 and I knew that with a bit of patience, you could make a bad situation work for you. Finally, the moment came, I sprang for it, and left with a full benefits package, cheap by most standards – the Pulitzers were never generous to their workers - but better than the next-to-nothing I would have gotten if I had quit. (N.B.: Pulitzer sold the Post-Dispatch to Lee Enterprises, but the pay scale and benefit packages were all contracted under Pulitzer.)
I had a lot of psychic healing to do. I spent most of the winter sleeping and watching DVDs, but I held the goal of going to Buenos Aires in my mind. It was summer there while we were dealing with darkness and freezing temperatures in the northern hemisphere. It was a real city as opposed to sadly declining St. Louis, where the airport has lost its international status, and the only classical music station is going off the air. And it was inexpensive (if not cheap).
So I crossed my fingers, made an airplane reservation and booked an apartment (through the agency ).
I was not disappointed. Buenos Aires was exactly what I had hoped for. Most people wouldn’t consider going to a busy city for a rest cure, but the hurly burly of the city, the press of the crowd on the pavement, was exactly what I needed after seven years in St. Louis, where suburban values dominate. During my six weeks in BA, I reconnected with my long buried flaneur. I’d walk until my feet ached through the city’s verdant parks or on its packed streets. On my fourth day, a rainy, hot and humid Sunday afternoon, I woke up, after a long sleep, feeling restored, reinvigorated.
With 12 million people BA is the same size as New York and London. Largely developed during an economic boom based on the export of beef and wheat, that began in the late 19th century and continued until the worldwide depression of the 1930s, it is a modern and (ostensibly) prosperous city. There’s not much left from the past in Buenos Aires. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans – even St. Louis – are older cities.

 From the balcony of my tenth story studio apartment in an upscale area of the trendy neighborhood of Palermo, glass of wine in hand, I’d sit at night counting the forest of high-rise apartment buildings while breathing the delicious air. Buenos Aires is well named – it has good air, refreshed by ocean breezes that blow off the Rio de la Plata (the River of Silver), which hugs its northern border.
BA is culturally rich in literature, music, visual art and architecture. I might have retired from active cultural journalism, but I didn’t retire my interests. While in the port city, I went to a jazz club, a couple of milongas - dance halls where the tango rules – and a chamber music recital. I reread Borges and read for the first time Roberto Arlt, and Hector  Bianciotti.

 In nearby La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province, I heard Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Produced by the adventurous Teatro Argentino, it was one of the best opera productions I’ve ever seen, the tawdry rise and fall of a provincial adventuress made luridly vivid. (BA’s famous Teatro Colon reopened after a four-year renovation after I returned to the U.S.)
And, of course, I went to museums.
BA doesn’t have a single large comprehensive museum that dominates the cultural landscape like Boston with its Museum of Fine Arts. There is the National Museum of Fine Arts, which attempts to survey European and Argentine art, but without the collections or resources to make a persuasive case for the former, especially before 1850. Rather, there are a number of smaller museums housing focused collections, some of them excellent, some not.
I hope I won’t bore you with a survey of what I found.
1. The Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, popularly known as MALBA ( ), is the best museum in town. A fairly new institution, it is based on the collection, gifts and loans, of Eduardo Costantini, a real estate baron. Gifts from other collectors and artists suggest that it has been taken to heart by the community.

 The museum, housed in a modern building designed by three young Argentine architects, features modern and contemporary art in both the permanent collection and the special exhibitions. All the art is Latin American: Art from Mexico to Argentina, including Portuguese-speaking Brazil, is shown chronologically by movement or tendency rather than by national school.

A three-work installation – paintings by Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, a Mexican, a Cuban and a Chilean respectively, each represented by an excellent work – nicely reprises Latin American surrealism. High quality works are the hallmark of the collection. The masterpiece – at least the most reproduced piece – by the Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral is here, and the master of the slashed canvas, The Lucio Fontana - who was born in Argentina - is among the best work of his I’ve ever seen.

 There are also superb works by the Mexican Diego Rivera (a cubist portrait), the Uruquayan Joaquin Torres-Garcia and the Colombian Botero. There is a good representation of the geometric abstraction and op art that was so important in Latin America. Surprisingly, hung within spitting distance of the Fontana is an excellent early 1950s Cy Twombly on loan from Costantini. Does it suggest that the collection might expand its focus to include North American art? I could see a Georgia O’Keeffe hung with the Kahlo and a Rauschenberg with the experimental artists of the 1950s and ‘60s, among other possibilities.
The main special exhibition on view during my visit was a show of the Cuban avant-garde from the 1920s through the 1940s, most on loan from the National Museum in Havana (now that’s something you’re not likely to see in the U.S.) Most of the work is not terribly interesting, but a dozen Wifredo Lams from the 1940s, that comprised a show within a show, made the exhibition worthwhile. Also of note was the painter Amelia Pelaez, who like Lam, blended cubism and surrealism to create a distinctive form of tropicalismo, in her case, leaning toward cubism as opposed to Lam’s surrealism.
A smaller exhibition featured the surrealist inflected photomontages made between 1948 and 1951 by the German photographer Grete Stern after she fled the Third Reich for Argentina. One of two women who revolutionized advertising photography in the 1920s under the name ringl + pit, Stern reinvigorated her modernist vision in BA. The photographs, some of them racy, were featured in an Argentine women’s magazine. They appeared in a section titled “Psychoanalysis Will Help You.”  That might help explain why BA has the highest number of psychotherapists per capita in the world.
By the way MALBA has an excellent café that serves a good lunch on a terrace under an old jacaranda tree. I recommend the croque monsieur.
2. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes or MNBA (  ), housed in a charmless converted pumping station, is a mess. My first thought was that it needed to be radically reorganized. (And it needs to be air-conditioned! BA is in the semi-tropics.) I was glad to read in the daily newspaper that the fairly new director plans to do just that; unfortunately, he intends to start with the floor devoted to Argentine art, which is the museum’s strongest suit, rather than the floor devoted to western art and sculpture from the Renaissance through the 1970s. Incoherently installed by donor rather than chronology, national school or movement, the old master section seems to emphasize the questionable and second rate. The shame is that there are some jewels among the “school ofs,” “follower ofs” and “style ofs.” (Is that really Rembrandt’s portrait of his sister? I don’t think so.) Among the old masters there are good works by El Greco, Zurbaran, Luca Giordano and Nicolas de Largilliere (a charmingly intimate portrait of his wife and daughter). There is a gallery of Goya oil sketches for his small bitter paintings depicting people behaving stupidly and badly. There is also a pair of Tiepolos that are hung far away from its 18th century cousins in a salon-style installation of a 19th century collection.
The museum’s holdings get better once we get to the 19th century, and the emphasis on Italian and Spanish 19th century painting distinguishes it from the carbon copy collections typical of many museums with the Barbizon school leading to realism and Impressionism on through the various isms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, there is a gallery of Italian Macchiaioli painting and a corner of another featuring landscapes and genre scenes by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, who painted portraits of many of the city’s elite. (Unfortunately, portraiture was not his forte.)
There are a requisite number of masterpieces or at least very fine works from the French school - a wonderful Manet nude, a great Gauguin, a van Gogh, a passel of pastels by Degas, a generous number of Rodins, who was avidly collected, and Bourdelles. There are Monets, Pissarros and Sisleys, too. The collection continues up through the 1970s, when the director went on a buying spree, acquiring works by  Pollock,  Rothko,  Kline and Nevelson along with their European contemporaries, Dubuffet, Fautrier, Burri, Fontana - the local boy who got away - and Tapies.
One of the fascinations of the museum is that 19th century salon-style installation that includes the two Tiepolos. Devoted to Jose Prudencio de Guerrico, who is credited with being Argentina’s first art collector, the collection defines eclecticism. Sometimes hung five pictures high, it includes the good, the bad, and the very very ugly. Still, as a snapshot of period taste you couldn’t hope for better, and the vitrines filled with silver mate vessels locates the collection in a specific place and time.
Upstairs, the extensive display of Argentine art from the 19th century to the present offers a crash course in the visual arts history of a culturally vibrant country. If none of the artists are of truly international stature, that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Among the modernists, the outstanding discovery for me was Emilio Pettoruti, whose work is a cross between Juan Gris and Gino Severini. A fine technician with a good sense of color, Pettoruti exhibited ambition and taste in his work, even if he lacked originality.
By the way, it might seem unfair to criticize a Latin American city for not having art collections that rival New York, Chicago and Boston, not to mention Paris and London. But unlike many other South American cities that emerged poor from colonialism, Argentina was rich – the fifth richest country in the world at the time of World War I. The thinness of collections and the second rate nature of most of the works is a sign that portenos, as residents of BA call themselves, didn’t really care about painting except as decoration. They put their money into building grand homes that aped the palaces of Paris, fashion and opera – Teatro Colon is one of the great opera houses in the world. In its priorities, it resembles San Francisco, which until recently had mediocre museums but a great opera house and a lifestyle to envy.
3. Which brings us to the Museo de Arte Decorativo (  ), a mediocre collection of decorative arts housed in the opulent splendor of the Palacio Errazuria, a grand pile designed in 1911 by a French architect for a daughter of the mighty Alvear dynasty. Included in the largely unimpressive holdings, are a great El Greco and a charming little Manet, which would make much more sense at the Fine Arts Museum just down the street. One quirk is a smoking room done up by the son in art deco style. Murals by the Catalan Jose Maria Sert depict allegorically the Human Comedy. BA is a city rich in art nouveau and art deco, yet, aside from this single room, there is none in what functions as the national decorative arts museum. A small annex or a series of galleries cut out of the current building featuring some of the decorative treasures sold in the antique stores in San Telmo could invigorate the museum.
4. Miles away in Boca, a slum originally occupied by Italian dock workers, is Fundacion Proa ( ), an ambitious kunsthalle in a renovated neo-classical structure with contemporary additions. When I visited, the show on view was devoted to Italian Futurism, the hook being that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurism’s foremost proselytizer, had come to BA and Uruquay twice, in 1926 and 1936, looking for aesthetic converts among the local artists, many of whom were of Italian background. Proa’s opening exhibition a few years ago was on Marcel Duchamp, who spent 9 months in BA in 1918. Other exhibitions on contemporary German photography, Mario Merz and Mayan art, however, have no discernible link to the city.
“El Universo Futurista: 1909-1936” was drawn exclusively from the collection of MART, a contemporary art museum in Trento, Italy. A large show, it was brilliantly installed and demonstrated that you could represent a movement without including work by its most important exponent. The only Umberto Boccioni in the show is a photograph of him. Rather, the show included many artists unknown to me who captured the spirit of Futurism in their work. (It did have works by Giacomo Balla. Carlo Carra and Gino Severini, creators of the movement alongside Boccioni.) I particularly enjoyed seeing the section devoted to photography. It featured images by the seldom seen Anton Giulio Bragaglia, a photographer who captured the Futurist obsession with movement in his work. 
5. Perhaps the most charming museum in the city is the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernandez Blanco, (no website). A collection of colonial art, it features what you won’t find anywhere else in the city – 18th century Argentine art. Most of the collection, however, focuses on the more sophisticated colonial art of Peru and present-day Bolivia. (Argentina was a sleepy backwater of the viceroyalty of Peru until the late 18th century.) There’s lots of silver and lots of Catholicism, which can combine into over-the-top flamboyance. Housed in a neo-colonial mansion based on Lima precedents, it is an odd but not-to-be-missed component of the local museum scene.
6. What can you say about the Coleccion de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat ( ) that doesn’t sound like a denunciation of a woman I had never heard of previously? A throwback to the days when private collections defined the local art world, it struck me as a monument to hubris. Housed in a brand new and obviously expensive modernist building in the rapidly gentrifying old port neighborhood of Puerto Madero (there’s a pedestrian bridge by Santiago Calatrava nearbly), the collection is a triumph of money over taste. (Sra. Fortabat, who married the country’s cement magnate, is said to be the wealthiest woman in Argentina.)

The collection hits a number of points, none well. Its strongest component is its Argentine art, yet much of it is not much above the level of kitsch. Its intent is, I suspect, to rival the national collection at the Fine Arts Museum, but it fails miserably at achieving that goal. The exhibits open dispiritingly with a gallery filled with family portraits, none above the society-art level. The obligatory Andy Warhol portrait is downstairs, or rather down-escalator, unmoored in a feeble selection of contemporary art and old masters. Among the latter, there are a couple of generic Netherlandish paintings (one attributed to Pieter Brueghel II).

But, ah, I forgot - there is a Turner. Not just a Turner, a great Turner, one of the best paintings I saw in BA! A feverish dream-image of Juliet and her Nurse high above Piazza San Marco in Venice, it blows away everything else in the collection. It also raised all kinds of musings about what Sra. Fortabat could have done for local culture if quality rather than quantity had been her guide. Again, if the Turner were at the Fine Arts Museum, it would endow that spotty collection with a greater distinction. But, alas, it is not. Instead it is entombed with a lot of leftovers in a mausoleum to private taste.