Buenos Aires Herald. Published Sunday, May 6, 2001
Art On Sunday
León Ferrari: a man for all seasons
The work of this outspoken artist is influenced by his love of the written word and by theological beliefs beyond his comprehension
For the Herald
León Ferrari (Buenos Aires, 1920) is a man for all seasons, who has weathered many storms. He thinks of himself as an artist primarily because he does work which he calls non-intentional art, in which he allows words and images to lead him into aesthetic projects that do not have religious or political references. But he is best known for his controversial pieces in which he has referred to political events or to his lack of empathy with the teachings of the Catholic Church and with those believers who think pain and banishment are fair rules for those who break the commandments. He is concerned with the origin of violence in Western civilization and with the violent beliefs and practices of those faithful who have sustained and supported the theories of hell and damnation throughout two thousand years.
Ferrari speaks in a soft, full voice he uses well, modulating the words clearly. It is a pleasure to hear him speak, and though his political work is prompted by pain and suffering, this very lucid, energetic and good-looking man finds joy and pleasure in what he does.
He started his career as an artist in Rome in 1955 working on terra cotta pieces. On his return to Buenos Aires that same year he worked sculpture in plaster, wood, clay and stainless steel wire from 1959 to 1964. In 1958/59 he worked as a producer in a film written and directed by Fernando Birri that was awarded three national prizes and which represented Argentina at the Cannes festival in 1959. In 1962 he started on his first “written” pieces: graphic work that he drew to look like hand written lines, an abstract representation of a non language. It was in 1963 that he did his first political work, a series of Letters to a general, in illegible handwriting. His Writings on air were published in 1964 with poems by Rafael Alberti. He worked with objects: bottles and boxes, and more words. This strong fascination with words, oral and written, led him to write a love poem by Borges in Braille on a naked woman by Man Ray, which meant that to read the poem the reader had to caress the body of the girl. There is this coming and going between sensuality, poetry and tragedy in Ferrari’s work. He plays the game of life broadly, not missing much, taking in pain as well as pleasure.
His, by now, classic controversial piece: Western and Christian Civilisation, in which he placed a custom made image Christ on the cross on a bomber to describe Christian “goodwill” vis a vis foreign cultures that needed a reminder of who was in control, preceded most of the intensive and extensive analysis and criticism that followed later in the US and elsewhere on the Vietnam war. Ferrari submitted this particular work to the 1965 Di Tella Prize exhibition. It was rejected. To day, when we know what happened in Nam, and how it happened, how the Asian natives and the US soldiers suffered the American high command, and their lack of knowledge on the culture and on the areas they wanted to control, this rejection reads like a bigoted piece of political and art criticism.
In his current exhibition at Sylvia Vesco art gallery, the artist has framed pages of L’Osservatore Romano, a publication the artist receives regularly. Ferrari kept the titles and overlaid images on the pages, which deny the statement the words make, or highlight the incoherence of what they announce. He has plundered art history and political imagery to illustrate disarray and cruelty cloaked in piety.
A series of pieces on the National Congress, shown inside a display cabinet, do much the same thing, discussing with images the lack of reliability and vitality of those in power.
Together with this exhibition, León Ferrari presents a book: La bondadosa crueldad, Kind cruelty. A text by Pablo Suárez is the erudite foreword to the poems, texts and the illustrations that discuss the Dirty War waged by the last military government. These illustrations are reproductions of those published by Página 12 in their Nunca más collection of thirty booklets. An introduction by the author himself is a variation of the theme he has been developing throughout his life on the awkward relationship of Western Christianity to cruelty and piety, fostering faith in goodness and, at the same time, wishing evil to one’s enemies or to those we do not approve of. This double concept of justice, as Ferrari writes, is at the very root of our civilisation. On a background of virgins, angels and doves, Christian artists have painted sorrowful pain: bleeding hearts, crowns of thorns, the Baptist’s (severed) head and crucifixes, innumerable crucifixes that surround us decorating cemeteries, police stations and barracks. He goes on to name Fra Angelico, Giotto and Miguel Angel, who used their dexterity with paint and brushes to exercise religious intimidation on the faithful. Ferrari is surprised that so many people have not questioned this unethical behaviour.
As he discusses the whole of his work, Ferrari harps once more on the subject of cruelty. He cannot understand that we would accept and wish for people to suffer in a theological hell. Some of them, he says, if this were true, would have been there for two thousand years. Their souls would be there, and, according to Saint Agustin, who has devoted many pages to this subject, souls can still suffer the tortures of fire. And though some people say things have changed, the current pope insists still that hell exists. He has said it is eternal and full of wicked people.
Last year at the ICI Ferrari exhibited a series of objects that illustrated scenes in hell, in which, I am afraid, he did not place the conventionally accepted villains, making his own choices on who to damn and who to save. This show drew the attention of conservative groups of the Catholic community who paraded in front of the ICI building and prayed the rosary to dispel the “evil spirits.” Laura Buccellato, the ICI curator, stood at the door to stop them from going in and destroying the work.
León Ferrari is an artist well beloved by artists and intellectuals. His infinite patience and interest in studying the teachings and motivations of the Church stand out as a deeper appreciation than the blind following of many easily acquiescent faithful. The man, the artist and his work have become cult objects in the art world, adding, against his own wishes, a religious aura –in the original sense of the word, from the Latin religare- to his persona.
(L’osservatore Romano, Sylvia Vesco, Galería de arte, San Martín 552, 1° 4 ).