Splendors of Courtesans and Miseries of Working-Class Boys

Museum of Fine Arts Houston hosts ‘Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona’

“Art is a response to life.
To be an artist is to undertake a risky way to live,
to adopt one of the greatest forms of liberty,
to make no compromise.”
— Antonio Berni


Antonio Berni, RAMONA EN LA CALLE, de la serie Ramona Montiel y sus amigos
(RAMONA IN THE STREET, from the series Ramona Montiel and Her Friends), 1966, xylo-collage-relief, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Alfredo and Celina Hellmund Brener. © José Antonio Berni

Images of Antonio Berni (1905-1981), one of the greatest Argentinean artists of the 20th century, are visually accessible and instantly recognizable. He is a storyteller who exposes the social evils of capitalist society by depicting scenes from the life of a working-class youngster, Juanito Laguna, and a working-class girl/prostitute, Ramona Montiel.

However, the manner in which he unfolds their stories is unique and complex. Berni is responsible for creating at least two new art media — a crossbreed between painting and relief, and a crossbreed between a print and a sculpture.

A significant portion of Berni’s works in the exhibition “Antonio Berni: Jaunito and Ramona,” at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, is represented by monumental-scale assemblages which blend together painting and collage. The list of the materials used for each of these works is long and diverse. Most of them incorporate industrial or commercial refuse as well as regular residential trash — machinery parts, scrap metal, broken appliances, old clothes, discarded household items, smashed cans, glass beads, plastic and other “relics of civilization.” In Berni’s works, they become a part of the  landscape, clouds, buildings, streets and figures. Glued, stapled or nailed to the board, they provide three-dimensionality to the scene turning it into a deep relief.

While these objects are reconfigured, they are not altered and their original purpose is still apparent, which often provides them with a symbolic meaning. Thus, in “Juanito Laguna Is Going to the Factory” (1977), transistors from a discarded TV set become factory buildings while smashed coke and beer cans serve as paving stones in the road to the factory, a parody of the “yellow-brick road.”

This is how the artist explained what prompted him, a renowned painter, to turn to assemblage as his new medium: “One cold, cloudy night, while passing through the miserable city of Juanito, a radical change in my vision of reality and its interpretation occurred…. I had just discovered, in the unpaved streets and on the waste ground, scattered discarded materials, which made up the authentic surroundings of Juanito Laguna – old wood, empty bottles, iron, cardboard boxes, metal sheets etc., which were the materials used for constructing shacks in towns such as this, sunk in poverty.”*

The overwhelming presence of refuse in Berni’s assemblages literally places the viewer in the environment of a shantytown. This immersion has a powerful effect, akin to a theatrical experience.  Like an experienced stage director, the artist orchestrates a convincing setting for his story while keeping the viewer fully aware that it is a make-believe.

Antonio Berni, LA COMMUNION DE RAMONA, 1962, gouche, velvet, lace,
buttons, metal, and paper on wood, Private Collection. © José Antonio Berni

Berni’s stories are played out by characters which are more reminiscent of puppets than live actors. Their faces bear the same look from scene to scene — a kind of a “generic,” expressionless look one may see on a doll or in a portrait done by a Sunday painter. There is a difference in the way Berni portrays his favorite characters, Juanito and Ramona.  Juanito’s face is painted flat while Ramona has the face and body of a doll made of plaster in high relief.

However, it is not their faces, but their clothes and their environment that tell the stories of their lives. Juanito starts his life as a son of a poor farmer, then moves with his parents to the city and starts working at a factory. Although his environment changes, he is invariably surrounded by squalor and poverty.  A boy, a teenager and later an adult living in the shantytown, Juanito is always portrayed wearing a cap, a dirty shirt, baggy pants and worn shoes.

Similarly, Ramona started her life as a poor working-class girl, but she quickly changed her career to a showgirl in a cabaret — hence such glitzy outfits as sequin dresses, lacy undergarments, fishnet stockings and golden shoes. To find these accoutrements, Berni rummaged flea markets in Paris in the 1960s. He saw Ramona as a modern embodiment of a Parisian courtesan of the Belle Epoque, a new Olympia. Significantly, in one of his assemblages, “Ramona’s Dream” (1977), his favorite character is shown lying in the bed nude (except for the lacy thong which accentuates more than conceals her pubic area) in a pose reminiscent of Manet’s famous picture.

Another large group of Berni’s works comprises prints, which add many new episodes to the stories of Juanito and Ramona. While Berni’s assemblages are highly innovative and original, his contribution to the area of printmaking is arguably even greater. Berni invented a new type of print which he called a xylo-collage-relief.

Xylography is a type of wood engraving and is the oldest known relief printmaking technique. It is a “woodcut in reverse”: instead of raising the image above the surface (similarly to a typographical print), the image is carved into the woodblock. Berni created high-relief images by blending the ancient art of xylography with collaging and the papier-mâché technique. The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see Berni’s woodblocks side by side with the resulting prints and thus better understand this intricate process.

To create a xylo-collage-relief, Berni would start with adhering the molds and various materials (metal scraps, fabric, etc.) to the woodblock. Then he pressed the dampened paper against the block and into the molds before running it through the press. To create the areas of high-relief, the artist added patches of paper to the deepest pockets of the print in a manner similar to the papier-mâché technique. It took him years of experimenting to arrive at the right consistency of paper dampness and pressure level to avoid paper tearing under the stress. After applying ink, the artist would run the paper through the press for the second time. To reinforce the paper, he applied a second sheet to the back of the print after stuffing tissue inside the pockets to keep the desirable shape.

Berni first used this new process to produce large-size prints of Juanito Laguna’s series. By adhering to the woodblock the same industrial refuse items he used in assemblages, Berni created varied textures which provided a fitting setting for his beloved character.  Exhibited at the 31st Venice Biennial of 1962, these prints attracted international attention to his work and made him the winner of the prestigious International Grand Prize for Printmaking and Drawing.

Antonio Berni, JUANITO VA A LA CIUDAD (JUANITO GOES TO THE CITY), 1963, wood, paint, industrial trash, cardboard, scrap metal, and fabric collage on board, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © José Antonio Berni-Sucesión Lily Berni

However, in the following years Berni demonstrated an even greater level of mastery in his series of xylo-collage-reliefs based on adventures of Ramona Montiel. Laying stress on the baroque style of ornamentation, the artist created exquisite decorative compositions in which ravishingly beautiful Ramona appeared in the company of glamorous and daring men, such as a matador and a boxer. Berni wrote that he was attracted to bullfighters “because of their richly structured arabesque-laden glitz.” At the same time, one cannot but feel the undercurrent humor, the artist’s tongue-in-cheek attitude towards this story about glamour and risk, constant gamble with death for glory and wealth — a story frequently found in soap operas, gossip magazines and tabloids.

The series about Ramona in Spain was especially popular and gained high acclaim in the United States. Jacqueline Kennedy proudly proclaimed that “The Bullfighter” from this series was among the most treasured items in her collection.

Within his own lifetime, Berni witnessed his creations, Juanito and Ramona, become popular legends and folk heroes. Since the late 1960s, various Argentine musicians have written and recorded Juanito Laguna songs, including Mercedes Sosa’s “Juanito Laguna remonta un barrilete” (in the album “Para cantarle a mi gente,”1967) and “La navidad de Juanito Laguna” (in the album “Navidad con Mercedes Sosa,” 1970). In 2005, a compilation CD commemorating Berni’s 100th birthday included songs by César Isella, Marcelo San Juan, Dúo Salteño, Eduardo Falú, and Las Voces Blancas, as well as interviews with the artist.

A collaboration between the MFAH and Malba-Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires, “Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona” is the first exhibition to focus on Berni’s iconic series and a related series of monumental “Mon-sters,” as well as the first Berni exhibition organized by a U.S. museum in nearly 50 years.

The exhibition is on view at MFAH, 1001 Bisonnett, through Jan. 26.

For more, visit www.mfah.org.


* Quoted in: Salinas, Esmeralda. The Power of Juanito: Antonio Berni and the Continuing Legacy of Juanito Laguna. http://www.academia.edu/401451. P.4.



Elena Ivanova
UP Contributor

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