Antonio Berni returned to Rosario in late 1931, following a decisive stay in Europe during which he had come into contact with different avant-garde innovations, tendencies toward a return to order and grand Western figurative traditions. Although he continued working in relation to the surrealist experiences he had cultivated during the last portion of his stay in Paris, he soon veered in the direction of new realism (1), which was as different from 19th Century precedents as it was from the social realism being proposed in the Soviet Union (2). This was a modern, heterodox version of realism that the artist began to practice along with his young disciples at the Mutualidad Popular de Estudiantes y Artistas Plásticos (Popular Students and Plastic Artists’ Society), a group that had just been founded in Rosario and that continued an intense cycle of activities until the maestro left to settle in Buenos Aires in 1936 (3). As part of a two-fold activism promoting both new art and a new society that had been stimulated to a large degree by David Alfaro Siqueiros’ presence in 1933 (4), the group launched into different experiences with murals, decoration for political events and graphic pieces that oscillated between propaganda and traditional printmaking. Nevertheless, easel painting—above all in large format—continued its development on diverse scales and modalities, from transportable mural painting to paintings conceived of for unhurried, intimate contemplation. For this reason, contemporary occurrences abound in his works, along with episodes gleaned from newspaper stories, from the epic of everyday life to monumentalized portraits.
Primeros pasos (First Steps) can be considered to fall within the framework of these last two variants that often worked their way into Berni’s pieces, a painting whose graceful, stylized characters share a monumental, hierarchic quality that can be found in many of the figures the artist painted during the thirties and forties. In this case Paule and Lily are portrayed, the artist’s wife and daughter who feature in various enigmatic scenes within a long series of works dedicated to feminine figures shown deep in thought. Such is the case in a hermetic painting that bears both of their names, also known as Composición (Composition) or Figuras (Figures, 1941, private collection) and the more serene but no less provocative Lily (1943, inv. 6534, MNBA). Although in some of these monumental portraits the figure stands out against a singular rural or riverside landscape, the majority are invariably situated in interiors with empty, undecorated walls,interrupted only by fragments of furniture or windows that open onto the outside world. Primeros pasos, as well as La pregunta (The Question, 1939, private collection), are both strange scenes in which time seems to stand still and the power of words is replaced by the characters in all the eloquence of their contained, melancholic gestures (5). In these scenes, some traces of Renaissance traditions and Christian iconography can be detected, especially the theme of the Annunciation. This is no coincidence if we consider the manner in which Giorgio de Chirico recovered certain zones of the past in his metaphysical painting, whose motifs and compositional modalities Berni seems to have transcribed in several of his works.
By observing the characteristics of the domestic environment that envelops the figures, how they are situated in space, their activities and gestures, we can find certain parallels with some Annunciations: the little girl with her gentle movements as the angel, and the mother in the manner of a Virgin, engaged with elements associated to sewing or reading, two activities that Paule—a sculpture student and Henri Barbusse’s collaborator in Paris—carried out with equal delight. If we return to examine the room once more, with its parallel planked floors—a checkerboard pattern was used in a preliminary version—exposed ceiling beams, openings in the lateral and background walls and the mother’s position, leaning with her elbows braced on the sewing machine and a large piece of draped cloth, various connections can be traced not only with Annunciations, but also with several of Giorgio de Chirico’s compositions such as Il figlio prodigo (The Prodigal Son, 1926, private collection) and Mobili nella valle (Furniture in the Valley, 1927, Museum Ludwig, Colonia), pertaining to the artist’s Parisian period. These striking parallels might even suggest that historical sources may exist that were revisited by both creators with a similar intensity. The powerful impact of Franz Roh’s magic realism (6) must also be taken into consideration in this painting; fundamentally, his proposal of an art based on everyday occurrences inhabited by mystery. In this sense, Primeros pasos provides a perfect example of painting that is situated, as the German theoretician maintained, between “devotion to the world of daydreaming and adhesion to the world of reality” (7) or, in the words of Rivas Rooney, a critic akin to Berni himself, between “pure objectivity” and “beings’ most intimate aspects” (8).Guillermo Fantoni
1— Berni’s first written formulation appeared in a text published in “El Nuevo Realismo”, Forma, Buenos Aires, nº 1, August, 1936, p. 8 and 14; the same text was published again in Ars, Buenos Aires, March, 1941, [s.p.]. For a view of this modality, cf. Guillermo Fantoni, “La pura objetividad y lo más íntimo de los seres: claves de un nuevo realismo” in: Cristina Rossi (coord.), Antonio Berni. Lecturas en tiempo presente. Buenos Aires, Eudeba (in press).
2— Regarding the tension between realism and surrealism, cf. Guillermo Fantoni, “Una revaluación de los años 30 a partir de la obra de Antonio Berni. De la experiencia surrealista a la formulación del nuevo realismo”, Estudios Sociales, Santa Fe, UNL, Year 3, nº 4, first semester of 1993, p. 175- 185 and “Berni y el surrealismo: imágenes del viaje, visiones de la ciudad” in: II Jornadas de Estudios e Investigaciones en artes visuales y música. Buenos Aires, Instituto de Teoría e Historia del Arte Julio E. Payró, FFyL-UBA, 1998, p. 219-226. Also cf. Diana B. Wechsler, “Melancolía, presagio y perplejidad. Los años 30, entre los realismos y lo surreal” in: Territorios de diálogo, España, México y Argentina 1930-1945, exhib. cat. Buenos Aires, Fundación Nuevo Mundo, 2006, p. 17-33.
3— Cf. Guillermo Fantoni, “Modernos y revolucionarios en los años ’30. Berni y los artistas de la Mutualidad rosarina” in: Ana Longoni; Daniela Lucena and Julia Risler (coord.), Políticas culturales y artísticas del comunismo argentino. Buenos Aires, La Montaña (in press).
4— Regarding Siquieros’ travel alternatives and the state of the art field in Argentina, cf. Martha Nanni, “Los modernos” in: AA.VV., Historia crítica del arte argentino. Buenos Aires, AACA/Telecom, 1995, p. 53-69; Marcelo E. Pacheco, “Antonio Berni: un comentario rioplatense sobre el muralismo mexicano” in: Olivier Debroise (ed.), Otras rutas hacia Siqueiros. Mexico City, INBA/CURARE, 1996, p. 227-247; Cristina Rossi, “En el fuego cruzado entre el realismo y la abstracción” in: María A. García; Luisa F. Serviddio and Cristina Rossi, Arte argentino y latinoamericano del siglo XX. Sus interrelaciones. Buenos Aires, Fundación Espigas (Premio Telefónica for visual arts history research), 2004, p. 85-125.
5— Cf. Jean Clair, Malinconia. Motivos saturninos en el arte de entreguerras. Madrid, Visor, 1999.
6— Franz Roh, Realismo mágico. Post expresionismo. Problemas de la pintura europea más reciente. Madrid, Revista de Occidente, 1927.
7— Ibid, p. 37.
8— Octavio Rivas Rooney, “Antonio Berni y un nuevo realismo”, Ars, Buenos Aires, March, 1941, [s.p.].
1940. GUTIÉRREZ, Ricardo, “El XXX Salón de Bellas Artes”, La Razón, Buenos Aires, 18 de septiembre, p. 8. — “Las dos obras que envió Antonio Berni tienen gran interés”, Argentina Libre, Buenos Aires, 8 de octubre.
1941. “El pintor Antonio Berni”, Nun, Rosario, a. 1, nº 1, marzo, reprod. [s.p.]. — Ars, Buenos Aires, noviembre, reprod. [s.p.] (número dedicado a Berni).
1944. DORIVAL, Geo, Antonio Berni. Buenos Aires, Kraft, reprod. [s.p.].
1968. RAVERA, Rosa María, Antonio Berni y la pintura. Rosario, Universidad Nacional del Litoral, p. 36.
1979. SVANASCINI, Osvaldo, “Antonio Berni” en: Gabriel Levinas (ed.), Arte argentino contemporáneo. Madrid, Ameris, p. 64.
1980. RAVERA, Rosa María, Berni. Pintores argentinos del siglo XX. Buenos Aires, CEAL, nº 23, p. 4, reprod. color p. 6.
1994. ELLIOTT, David, “Art and politics in the avant-garde. Antonio Berni” en: David Elliott (ed.), Art from Argentina 1920-1994. Oxford, The Museum of Modern Art, p. 40- 49, reprod. p. 47.
1997. GLUSBERG, Jorge, “Antonio Berni: iniciación y afianzamiento del arte político en la Argentina” en: Antonio Berni en el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, cat. exp. Buenos Aires, MNBA, p. 72-74, reprod. color p. 49. — LÓPEZ ANAYA, Jorge, Antonio Berni. Buenos Aires, Banco Velox, p. 24-25, reprod. color p. 95.
1999. WECHSLER, Diana B., “Impacto y matices de una modernidad en los márgenes. Las artes plásticas entre 1920 y 1945” en: José Emilio Burucúa (dir.), Nueva historia argentina. Arte, sociedad y política. Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, vol. 1, p. 301.
2004. ARMANDO, Adriana, “Entre telas: las mujeres en la obra de Alfredo Guido y Antonio Berni”, Separata, Rosario, CIAAL/ UNR, a. 4, nº 7/8, octubre, p. 48-49.