León Ferrari: art against church and state

A comprehensive exhibition at the Buenos Aires Fine Arts Museum features the work of Argentina’s renowned contemporary artist, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth

Years before he would become Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio called Leon Ferrari’s work “blasphemy.” 

It was 2004, and the Recoleta Cultural Center in Buenos Aires had just opened a retrospective of the Argentine contemporary artist. By that point Ferrari had had an extensive career challenging the institutional violence of Western civilization, with a heavy focus on religion and the Catholic Church. 

“I write to you today very hurt by the blasphemy being perpetrated […] behind the excuse of an art show,” Bergoglio wrote in an open letter. 

A few days after the opening, ultra-Catholic militants barged in and destroyed some of the artworks. A Buenos Aires court even closed down the exhibition, a ruling that was later revoked by a higher court, triggering prime-time debates about censorship.

“I wish he would always write a letter for each of my shows,” said Ferrari, laughing, in an interview with Buenos Aires Fine Arts Museum director Andrés Duprat. “Those who attacked the exhibition actually completed the works.”

The exchange was captured in Ruben Guzman’s 2012 documentary Civilization, which is currently being screened in the Museum as part of the historical and comprehensive exhibition “Leon Ferrari. Recurrencias.” 

Curated by Duprat and Cecilia Rabossi, the show features nearly 250 works created between 1960 and 2011: drawings, inks, collages, engravings, objects, blueprints, plans, and ceramics. Originally planned for 2020 for the 100th anniversary of Ferrari’s birth — but interrupted by the pandemic — the exhibition opened last May and will be on display until August 13.  

Photo: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Press

Irreverent and humorous, Ferrari  — who passed away July 25, 2013, ten years ago — stated that the Church had unwillingly made him more famous. Whether or not this was true, he did gain more international recognition in the years that followed. He was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice International Art Biennale in 2007, and his work has since been exhibited at MoMA in New York, the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, among others.

Jesus on a US Air Force bomber

“A multi-disciplinary artist, he was a painter, an engraver, a draftsman, a sculptor, and also a great theorist and debater,” wrote Duprat for the exhibition opening. “He was, most definitely, a humanist.”

Born September 3, 1920, Ferrari started painting and drawing in 1946, the same year he married Alicia Barros Castro, the future mother of his three children. In the early 1950s, the family traveled to Florence to find medical care for his daughter’s tuberculous meningitis. In Italy, Ferrari developed his craft by working on sculptures and had his first solo show in Milan in 1955, the same year he returned to Argentina. In the early sixties, he began his “abstract writing” series, from which his 1964 piece Cuadro escrito (“Written painting”) is regarded as an predecessor of international conceptual art.

The year 1965 and the Vietnam War would be a turning point. That year, his piece Western and Christian Civilization, a Jesus figure crucified on a model US Air Force bomber, was banned from the Di Tella Award exhibition. 

Photo: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Press

“The only thing I ask of art is that it helps me to express what I believe as clearly as possible, to invent the plastic and critical signs that would allow me to condemn Western barbarism with the utmost efficiency,” Ferrari said in a written response for Propósitos magazine. 

“Someone could prove to me that this is not art, I would be OK with it. I would not change my path, I would limit myself to changing its name: I would cross out ‘art’ and call it politics, corrosive criticism, whatever.”

Since then, Ferrari’s prolific work — sculptures, paintings, heliographs, calligraphic drawings, and collages — have conveyed a biting critique of religious institutions and the hypocrisy of Western governments that promote political violence and warfare.

Photo: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Press

“He was a kind of Renaissance artist, but in reverse,” said writer and scholar Noé Jitrik. “A anti-church promoter who fought, calmly and strenuously, against all the outrages, collusions and infamies the Church had committed throughout its history.”

Yet his “activism” was also driven by a cheerful, mocking spirit: he was the founding member of CIHABAPAI (the Spanish acronym for “Club for the Impious, Heretic, Apostates, Blasphemous, Atheists, Pagans, Agnostics and Infidels”.) On Christmas Day 1997, the organization formally requested the Pope to proceed with the elimination of both Judgment Day and immortality. In 2001, they sent a letter to the Vatican requesting the eviction and demolition of hell.

“He lived his activism against religion with tremendous joy and a certain levity,” says art critic and friend Fabián Lebenglik

Photos: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Press

Nosotros no sabíamos

In 1976, during the Argentine dictatorship, Ferrari compiled a series of newspaper clippings about the ongoing killings done by the military for a piece he named Nosotros no sabíamos (“We Didn’t Know”), referring to the way a large portion of Argentine society pretended to ignore the horrors of state terrorism. The work includes several articles published by the Buenos Aires Herald, the only newspaper that continued to denounce the crimes of the military junta. Later that year, Ferrari and his wife went into exile in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he continued his artwork developing other avant-garde techniques.

Photo: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Press

Shortly after leaving, in February 1977, one of his children, 25-year-old Ariel Ferrari, was kidnapped and disappeared by the military. Ever since then, the artist became a fervent activist for memory, truth, and justice, fighting in court and the media for the case of his son and his partner Liliana Bietti, who was also forcefully disappeared. Ariel’s case was eventually tried as part of the “ESMA Mega-case” in which 19 Navy officers of the ESMA Clandestine Center of Detention Torture and Extermination were convicted in 2017.

Artist Federico Zukerfeld, from collective art group Etcétera, remembered how Ferrari supported demonstrations held by HIJOS — the movement that groups children of desaparecidos, those kidnapped during the last dictatorship — at the homes of the then-unpunished repressors back in the 1990s.  

“He would always call to see if we needed help,” he said in a video testimony for the exhibition. “And he would call afterward to be sure we all had gotten home safely.” 

Zukerfeld described Ferrari as a referent for many Etcétera members as a self-taught artist. “We learned from and were inspired by him.”  

“A lot of people believe what he did was vital,” said Ferrari’s granddaughter Julieta Zamorano in a greeting video for the botched opening of the exhibition back in 2020.

“My grandparents gave us so much love that every time we open an exhibition or publish a book about him, it’s a way of giving back some of that love we got from them.” 

“León Ferrari. Recurrencias” can be visited at the Museum’s Temporary Exhibitions Pavilion (Libertador Ave. 1473, Buenos Aires). Tuesday to Friday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.  Admission is free of charge. 

Photo: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Press


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