Beginning April 22, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, hosts an exclusive loan exhibition from one of Latin America’s most important arts and cultural institutions: el Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires), known as “Malba.” The exhibition features 39 masterworks by some of the region’s best-known artists, including Tarsila do Amaral, Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam and Diego Rivera, as well as landmark figures new to U.S. audiences.
Modern and Contemporary Masterworks from Malba – Fundación Costantini is part of an ongoing artistic exchange between the MFAH and Malba, a partnership formed in 2005. Founded by collector Eduardo F. Costantini in 2001, Malba is the only museum in South America dedicated to collecting and exhibiting Latin American art from 1900 to the present.The upcoming Houston exhibition, curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez, MFAH Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and Director of the MFAH International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), will feature artists well known in South America’s Southern Cone but new to many North American audiences. Rafael Barradas, Antonio Berni, Alfredo Guttero, Emilio Pettoruti and Jorge de la Vega are among the artists included. The exhibition will be accompanied by a lecture program and a major catalogue featuring an interview with Costantini by Ramírez; text by Marcelo Pacheco, Chief Curator of Malba; scholarly analyses by Pacheco, Edward Sullivan, Patricia Artundo, Llilian Llanes and others of each of the works featured in the exhibition.
“This is a unique chance to see ‘textbook examples’ of major Latin American masterpieces here in the U.S.,” said MFAH Director Gary Tinterow. “Modern and Contemporary Masterworks from Malba – Fundación Costantini will include works by many of the key avant-garde Latin American artists who pioneered modern art in their respective countries or participated in the principal European movements.”
“Displaying Latin American masterpieces from Malba furthers the goal of the MFAH to recognize the original contributions of Latin American artists to Modernism, and to expose the public to this legacy,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, the MFAH curator. “Many in the U.S. are familiar with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—and the exhibition will feature excellent examples from both—but we also invite people to discover and explore other significant Latin American movements such as Antropofagia, Vibracionismo, Surrealismo and Otra figuración through the important examples that will be on view here in Houston. This is a great opportunity to see in the U.S. what visitors would otherwise need to travel to Buenos Aires to experience.”
“A great collection is of little use without social purpose and education, and the presence of Malba in the United States reinforces our commitment to the dissemination and promotion of Latin American art in the world,” said Malba founder Eduardo F. Costantini. “This exhibition includes the most important body of work from the permanent collection of Malba. The absence of such a group of works in our museum is justified only by the importance of spreading the word about Latin American art in the U.S., and the undisputed prestige of the MFAH and the close relationship that unites us.”
A major highlight of the exhibition is a 1928 painting central to Brazilian national identity: Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporu. Amaral was a leading Latin American Modernist painter who lived and worked in Paris and São Paulo. In the late 1920s, her painting Abaporu became the emblem of the Anthropofagia (Cannibalism) movement in Brazil. Both Amaral and poet Oswald de Andrade used cannibalism as a metaphor to describe the Brazilian ability to digest and transform European culture. Abaporu features a large, stylized seated figure, cactus and bright sun—elements through which Amaral seamlessly combines Brazilian subject matter with her avant-garde influences. The work inspired a generation of artists to create a uniquely Brazilian art, one rooted in the belief that Brazilian identity can be at once indigenous and cosmopolitan. This painting has long been viewed as a national treasure, and in 2011 Malba loaned the work to Brazil so that the painting could be present during a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
An early Cubist work by Diego Rivera, widely considered among the greatest painters of the 20th century, is another exhibition highlight. While living in Europe from 1913 to 1918, Rivera produced nearly 200 works of Cubism before returning to Mexico in 1921 and becoming a muralist—the work for which he is best known. Retrato de Ramón Gómez de la Serna (Portrait of Ramón Gómez de la Serna) (1915) is one of Rivera’s most stunning Cubist works. It depicts his friend Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the Spanish writer who later moved to Buenos Aires and continued to be a major cultural figure.
The well-recognized face of Frida Kahlo also makes an appearance. Kahlo’s Autorretrato con chango y loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) (1942) is a classic late work, showing the artist surrounded by two of her favorite pets. The acquisition of this painting by Costantini in 1995 for approximately $3.2 million (at that time the highest amount paid for a work by Kahlo), catapulted both Kahlo’s reputation and Costantini’s art collection to international attention. Wifredo Lam, the Cuban artist who established himself in Paris and befriended Picasso, became renowned for avant-garde depictions of Afro-Cuban culture. Two works by Lam—an untitled painting from Costantini’s personal collection as well as La mañana verde (The Green Morning) (1943)—are on view in the exhibition. Both are considered among Lam’s most important paintings for their synthetic depictions of Santeria symbols and Afro-Cuban legends, as well as for the artist’s delicate handling of the gouache medium.
Several works by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García, the founder of Constructive Universalism, are on display, including his extraordinary Composition symétrique universelle en blanc et noir (Universal Symmetrical Composition in White and Black) (1931), one of the strongest and rare surviving examples of two key years in his production: 1931 and 1932, when the artist arrived at the core of his Constructive Universalist idiom. A number of works from that period were destroyed in a 1979 fire at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.
Two works by Torres-García’s friend and fellow Uruguayan, artist Rafael Barradas, are on view. Barradas created several art movements while living in Spain, most notably Vibracionismo (Vibrationism), aimed at capturing the color and dynamism of urban life. The two Barradas works in the exhibition are prized examples of this genre. Argentine painter and sculptor Xul Solar, who was the subject of a Malba retrospective that traveled to the MFAH in 2006, is represented in this exhibition by Troncos (1919), a watercolor that brings together Xul Solar’s interest in world mythology and esoteric philosophy.
A range of examples from the prolific career of Antonio Berni, the central figure of 20th-century Argentinean art, are presented, including Manifestación (1934), a portable mural depicting a public demonstration. Also on view is Berni’s 1962 La gran tentación or La gran ilusión (The Great Temptation or The Great Illusion), a Pop commentary on the allure of consumer culture, made from an assemblage of feathers, tin and other found materials. One of Berni’s three-dimensional allegorical monstruos (monsters) are featured as well.
Many of the artists in the exhibition, though well recognized in South America, are less known to U.S. audiences. Emilio Pettoruti is considered the most important Argentine artist of the 1920s. A participant in the Futurist movement while living in Italy, Pettoruti sought to bring Modernism to Argentina. Together with artist Xul Solar and writer Jorge Luis Borges, Pettoruti became involved in the avant-garde journal Martín Fierro in Buenos Aires. Two charcoal drawings on canvas, which relate to his Futurist period, resurfaced only recently, and these extremely rare works are included in the exhibition. Monumental scenes of workers’ lives by Cândido Portinari, one of the most important Brazilian artists working in the 1930s in the Social Realist style, are on view, as will the work of Argentine artist Alfredo Guttero, who is virtually unknown in the United States but is renowned for the unique textures he achieved in his work. Guttero created a technique he called “fired gesso” to give his canvases the appearance of fresco. The resulting paintings are exquisite but extremely fragile and are rarely allowed to travel. Fortunately, Malba’s conservators have declared Guttero’s Anunciación (Annunciation) (1931) stable enough to send to Houston.
Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston