Anyone who has traveled -ah, the good old times with no mask- knows it: it is customary to arrive in a country and try to find out which works of art should not be missed.

It’s not just one, of course, but if you go to Paris, you will go to see the Mona Lisa. In Madrid, for example, you wouldn’t miss standing for quite a while before the Guernica.

And in Argentina? Any selection is arbitrary, of course, and can be questioned, but here we suggest –going from contemporary art to the 19th century- ten works that are worth seeing, between the historical and the most avant-garde, between the social and the experimental.

Esfera azul (Blue Sphere)

​By Julio Le Parc

The large blue Sphere that artist Julio Le Parc donated to the Kirchner Cultural Center (CCK) in 2016 undoubtedly is one of the most iconic pieces of art for Argentineans: that’s because of Le Parc‘s importance in our art history; for his role as an original, kinetic and optical artist and for his international track record.

The scale of this work in blue acrylic – measuring 4.50 by 4.50 by 4.50 meters – plus its «mobile» quality (thousands of plates moving to the rhythm of the breeze), produce a hypnotic effect on whoever looks at it. At the same time, it sparkles: it scatters sparkles and reflections.

When he donated this piece, the artist -who has lived in Paris since 1958- said: «There they are, here they stayed, from here I took them, they are always with me: those intense years of my childhood. We are where we come from: the center of the world, the beginning of the world… The world beyond (then, in my childhood) was already backed by the Andes, dreaming of the sea».

These spheres that Le Parc donated to Argentina symbolize his presence’s demarcation here; the act of leaving a bit of himself in his native land.

They also point to one his obsessions over time: to unravel the myth of «unique art». There is no «single» piece or work of art, since art must have a democratic nature, Le Parc used to say since he was a rebellious Fine Arts student in the early 40’s Buenos Aires, until May 1968, when he was banished from France for joining the protests.

Le Parc was born in Palmira, a small town near the Andes, he is the son of a worker, and managed to touch the sky above with his hands through his works. He represents art, and also the dream, the hope of every Argentinean. His shiny moving pieces spawn smiles, surprise and well-being.

It is no coincidence: surrounde by a harsh reality, the artist always thought of giving this to the public: a momentary gift.

El lobo de alfajores (The Alfajor Sea Lion)

By Marta Minujín

​Sparkling, gigantic, facing the Argentine Sea: the stunning monument to Mar del Plata’s famous stone sea lion created by Marta Minujín in 2013 -which stands on the city’s waterfront, on the esplanade of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAR)- evokes the stone guardians that have watched over Mar del Plata’s promenade and Casino since 1940, when they were created by the great José Fioravanti.

But Minujín’s sea lion is interactive: when it was inaugurated –at the same time the MAR opened for visitors-, its purpose was to engage public participation. That is why that first sculptural mammal was ephemeral: it was made up of some 80,000 Havanna alfajor silver wrappers -a well-known brand from Mar del Plata- that the public could pull from the sculpture and take away.

People picked the alfajor wrappers forming the fur of Minujín’s colossal sea lion and exchanged them for an alfajor at any Havanna store in the country. Once again, national cuisine and good food are part of an artistic event, this time blending performance, action and an ephemeral monument.

Shortly after, the sea lion laid «naked»: wrappers had been blown away; visitors had ripped them off. That is why in 2014 the metal mammal was covered again, but this time with a permanent material: golden aluminum plates, especially designed to prevent corrosion from saltwater.

Whoever has had the Mar del Plata experience of the «Marta-Fioravanti-sea lion» knows that visiting it is a wonderful plan: there is nothing better than walking at sunset from the beach across Camet Avenue towards the MAR Museum, your skin shiny with suntan lotion, your beach umbrella under your arm, wearing your sarong wrap and flip-flops, and your sandwich leftovers in your backpack. The esplanade where Minujín’s Sea Lion stands has seats. And so the very same thing happens every day: families take a rest there, looking curiously up at the reflective side of the golden guardian. The new coastal guardian.

Marta Minujín, who never fails to hit the target with national pop icons, knows where to turn: her Alfajor Sea Lion is also a new monumental icon of the beloved seaside resort.

Exclusión (Exclusion)

By Pablo Suárez

​A guy hanging outside a train’s door, dressed only in jeans, his torso naked, his hair in the wind and his mouth ajar, scared by the risk of traveling on the outside of the wagon. Of course, he has not paid for his ticket; he is traveling as a sneak. In the inside travel those who did pay: the artist represents them as gray people, similar one to each other, dull and boring.

Exclusión, by Pablo Suárez, resorts to an ironic code, that of the grotesque art, to account for those left out of a system: his is a work of social criticism but in a key of humor. This way, Suárez follows the tradition of other great Argentine artists who dealed with parody and irony: Juan De Dios Mena, Florencio Molina Campos, Antonio Berni through some of his own periods…

Created in 1999 with materials such as polyester resin, epoxy, synthetic paint and a background of MDF, it is not quite certain how to classify this Suarez’s sculpture: it could be some sort of a painting including sculpture, a sculpture linked to painting, or a piece which bears something of an installation.

Some authors argue the character’s wild eyes, faced with the possibility and danger of falling into the void (a resource the artist repeats throughout his works) refer to Suárez’s biography ―his father’s suicide.

Unable to affirm that, we can though observe his piece. The relationship between the title, Exclusión, and the standing of the man with the naked torso hanging at the edge of an abyss, give us a key to access the wink Suárez ironically conveys to us. Who travel inside the train, who merely hanging…? Why…? But instead of bitterness, the work surprises us by generating a smile. A bit sour, but a smile at last.

La familia obrera (The Working Class Family)

​By Oscar Bony

It was 1968: in the middle of the exhibition/event Experiencias 68, within the illustrious Instituto Di Tella, right on Buenos Aires’ renowned Florida Street, an artist exhibited as a work of art a whole family ―the father of which was a metal worker, the mother, the son― all posing on a pedestal for eight hours a day. The tittle of such Oscar Bony‘s work is La familia obrera, a piece that still continues to be talked about: because Bony «rented» a working family to put it on display (he paid them, similar to what Spanish artist Santiago Sierra would do much later).

As a background to Bony‘s work, noises and conversations recorded in the family’s usual domestic space could be heard. The caveat? The artist had placed a small sign on a side of the exhibited piece explaining that, in order to create it, he was paying the father of the family double what he would earn during his ordinary working days. Results: public and critics shocked and the eyes of general Juan Carlos Onganía‘s dictatorial government alerted.

What did Bony want to do by exposing a father, a mother and a son as if they were a piece of art…? He was calling attention towards how the economy and the capitalist system work: with La familia obrera he showed one of the most frequent problems an ordinary family has (how to make ends meet) and revealed how, if a contractor offers more money, the contracted party goes there: the whole of this in the midst of the prevailing crisis of Onganía’s dictatorship (1966-1970), which had devalued the national peso by 40 percent and frozen wages but maintained public works (therefore the workers continued to have jobs). He had also imposed a law to restrict strikes.

Bony finally points out the status of the work of art: even a family can become an artpiece. It is no longer a matter of painting, drawing or sculpting, but of stating an idea, beyond the means or materials it takes.

It is interesting to note that the worker-father of this family is not dressed in work clothes or in a heroic position of protest or struggle, but he wears a shirt, dress pants and holds a book in his hand. The mother is also not doing housework or working. In fact, all three members of the family have books with them: they are doing «something else» than working.

They read. They study. By those years, this was synonymous with a certain class mobility here.

In short, La familia obrera is not just a piece of art but a different kind of production: it is about experience as a work of art. And of an artist who becomes a «patron», a «company» or a «contractor», with a family and a metalworker who do not «produce» but work as a work of art (it was considered scandalous in the 1960s: exhibiting people as museum pieces and workers without working; some considered this an attack on their dignity). Certain specialists described this type of artwork produced in Argentina at the time as «acts of explicit labor sadism».

Both La familia... and the exhibition Experiencias 68 became historic because the police censored a work: Baño (Toilet) by Roberto Plate, and faced with this, all the artists in the show decided to stop exhibiting, took to the streets, destroyed their pieces and signed a document against censorship.

“Pesadilla de los injustos” (La conspiración del mundo de Juanito Laguna trastorna el sueño de los injustos) (The Nightmare of the Unjust or the Conspiracy of Juanito Laguna’s World Disturbs the Dream of the Unjust)

​By Antonio Berni

Berni is a fundamental creator for Argentinian art: he made wood engravings to which he would attach collages, sometimes taken out of life-size garbage and junk: tin, metal sheets, wood, fabrics, burlap, lace that the artist or his assistants used to find in the streets or bought (a search in garbage that, unfortunately, is a trademark of great crises in impoverished countries).

But above all, Berni was the author of two emblematic characters in the history of Argentinian art: Juanito Laguna, a boy born and raised in a slum, and Ramona Montiel, a whore, a character influenced by the figure of Emma, the prostitute created by also painter Lino Enea Spilimbergo.

The ideological influence of the Communist Party ―which Berni joined in 1931― eventually gave rise to a «new» type of realism. It is this new realism ― the fruit of diverse influences, including that of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros― which can be seen in Pesadilla de los injustos.

Pesadilla… is not a collage. It has a mural scale (some 9 by 13 ft) and has endured diverse material treatments to shape its set of ferocious monsters. Most of these were built up with immense sandblasting and layers and layers of paint imposed on the canvas with force, with rage. The colours and brushstrokes of monsters standing on the ground line vary greatly from one another. On the other hand, those hanging upside down from the upper part of the work (the sky?) are mainly red and similar: they could be a group of flying demon-bats. Sanguineous or bloodshot.

It is a painting of a very powerful critical ferocity, but what is Berni criticizing there?

The subject, of course, is open to interpretation, but what is certain is that the artist painted these characters to describe the group of people whose actions prevent a little boy like Juanito Laguna from evolving in peace. These monsters surround him, Berni tells us. They are huge, heavy and dark. Appearing as a block, they represent evil, horror. Cruelty.

Amidst the swarm of such tremendous characters, Justice takes her place: her mouth half-open showing dirty teeth, her protruding eyes and under a form similar to that of an unsophisticated robot (made of painted fragments of nuts, bolts and household appliances). It holds a small, fragile, almost secondary scale. Compared to the monsters, the scale goes practically unnoticed.

However ―a desire, a political program? ―it is these monsters who undergo nightmares, who cannot sleep peacefully because there are «Juanitos» who dream and carry out a change in their (individual, collective) paths to have a better life.

Signos zodiacales impares (Odd Zodiac Signs)

​By Xul Solar

No spirit is more mysterious, complex and beautiful than that of artist Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari, better known as Xul Solar (Xul: lux, light, spelled backwards). Born in 1887 in the province of Buenos Aires, his parents and siblings already perceived him as a child who was someone special: Xul’s life would ratify this suspicion later on. He was not only an artist who created a completely different and original work, but also a mystic, a visionary, an esoteric and occultist, a lover of literature, music, painting and philosophy.

A friend of Jorge Luis Borges —who frequently visited him at his home, where they discussed for hours about religions—, the artist led a particular life: he expressed his inner world and his visions not only through paintings, objects and drawings, but also by creating his own systems of signs and languages. For example, Neo-Creole, mixture of Portuguese with Spanish, German and English, a language with which Xul tried to unify Latin America.

For Xul Solar, his works were mere vehicles allowing him the discovery of spiritual truths. By mixing shorthand, ideograms, signs and symbols, as well as scenes from the visions the artist himself experienced, he would create unique inner worlds.

Xul’s main interests were those dimensions of vital matters that remain hidden, invisible in everyday life. That is why he became involved with the cabala, astrology and tarot (among so many other systems of divination and beliefs), whose signs and figures he links together.

An example of this is his painting Odd Zodiacal Signs, created between 1953 and 1954. A very personal reinterpretation of the signs and symbols of the tarot, through this work he assigns each card of that system a name in Neo-Creole; a sign which can belong to the zodiac or represent a planet; a number according to the duodecimal numbering; and a letter.

During those same years Xul painted the 24 tarot cards in the size of a Spanish deck, calling them a Tarot with astrological correspondence. In a second series the artist used the Tarot of Marseille as a reference. While in Odd Zodiacal Signs, Aries, for example, is represented as Anubis —the Egyptian guardian of the tombs—; Aquarius, as the Hindu goddess Ganesh; Sagittarius as Zeus; and Libra as the Egyptian goddess Maat.

It is difficult to enter the «Xul-world»: a first step to do so is to accept the existence of other realities which go beyond the sphere of the immediate. Realities in which the spirit invents, instructs, divines and creates. Realities in which spirit lays above all.

Elevadores a pleno sol (Freight elevators in the sun)

​By Benito Quinquela Martín

The port of Buenos Aires full of ships and sleepless people working, under a “hot bed” system (beds were rented by the hour, one worker got up to go to work and another one took his place). It was the heyday of Buenos Aires and Argentina during the interwar period, when the country received immigrants, exports, and raw materials. A country with a strong economy.

Shortly before all this, in 1890, a baby had been abandoned at a Foundling Hospital in the Barracas district. At six, he was adopted by a family from the La Boca neighborhood, the Chinchellas, who owned a charcoal store. The boy first helped his father to carry sacks of coal and then taught himself to draw and paint. Over time, he became La Boca’s iconic artist and its most beloved resident: Benito Quinquela Martín, of course.

Criticized by «professional» artists (since Quinquela had not studied at the Academy, did not follow fashions or intellectual or avant-garde artistic styles, and formed part of the usual network of professional connections) and loved by the community and the Republic of La Boca (and in European and North American markets), the painter portrayed better than anyone else the working spirit of a sleepless Buenos Aires that watched how inbound and outbound ships arrived and departed laden with people and products.

In Elevadores a pleno sol this can be clearly seen: there is no empty space at the harbor. Everything bustles, runs, rushes: smoke comes out of numerous chimneys, production is non-stop.

Quinquela liked to use a palette knife rather than a paintbrush (hence the overload of oil in his pieces, characterized by energetic, rapid, thick strokes, and the statue outside his museum-house in La Boca, which portrays him holding that tool).

A defining feature of his personality was his commitment to the neighborhood where he grew up: when Quinquela managed to be financially comfortable, he founded and donated to La Boca an elementary school, a lactation room, a kindergarten, a children’s dental institute, a school of Graphic Arts and the Teatro de la Ribera. «Caminito» was also the artist’s idea, who created it together with a group of neighbors: they decided to inaugurate a «museum-street» where old train tracks used to be.

When Quinquela died of heart failure in 1977, he was buried in a coffin that he himself had prepared for the occasion a few years earlier: on its lid Quinquela had painted a scene of the La Boca harbor, while inside, his body was to rest on an Argentine flag also painted by him.

Las Nereidas (The Nereids)

​By Lola Mora

It was said that the sculpture was salacious, lascivious, offensive. It was ready, it was going to be unveiled at the Plaza de Mayo but the Church and the most conservative sectors complained, and the beautiful statue that Lola Mora had made –Las Nereidas– ended up at a less central location, the Parque Colón, and later even further away. Here is the story.

Salta residents claim the artist is from Salta, people in Tucumán swear she is from Tucumán, but the truth is that Dolores Candelaria Mora Vega de Hernández (commonly known as Lola Mora) was born in 1866 in Trancas, a town in the department of Las Candelarias, in northern Tucumán Province.

In 1895 she traveled to Buenos Aires to obtain the coveted aid that would allow her to study in Europe. Support was given by President José Evaristo Uriburu: a monthly grant of one hundred golden pesos for two years. In Rome she focused on studying sculpture.

Las Nereidas was commissioned by the government of Buenos Aires. Lola Mora returned to Rome and began to create this monumental sculpture in that city: Venus -the Goddess of love, beauty and fertility- appears as the central figure of the work: the fountain symbolizes her birth. Venus is seated on a scallop shell, surrounded by sea nymphs. The Nereids –marine deities- are present at her birth.

This magnificent work is carved in Carrara marble and consists of three groups of figures, each led by a steed emerging from the water. At the center of the sculptural group, at the top, rising from the foam, is Venus (Aphrodite in the Greek world).

The work was finished and, as it was mentioned, it was not inaugurated at the Plaza de Mayo but at Parque Colón (at the present-day corner of L. N. Alem Av. and Juan D. Perón St.). On the day Las Nereidas was unveiled, the only woman present at the event was the artist herself: Lola Mora. That was the level of social control and scandal caused by the display of a group of naked female bodies carved in marble.

But pressure continued and was such that in 1915 Congress described the piece as a «horrible monstrosity», and in 1918 decided to relocate it to an even more distant site on the southern waterfront. From that moment on, the government stopped asking Lola Mora for sculptures, reliefs and monuments, and also ordered the works the artist had already begun to be stopped.

Sin pan y sin trabajo (With no bread or work)

​By Ernesto De La Cárcova

Sin pan y sin trabajo (1894) could be considered one of the first great paintings in Argentine art with a social subject and a clear critical intention. It is an essential work in our art history because it deals with a topic that never loses its relevance: it speaks of poverty, injustice, outrage, and the grievances of Argentine citizens.

A key element: the man with the clenched fist looks out the window of a dark room at a conflict: a group of workers on the street are on strike and police on horseback are clamping down on them.

De La Cárcova painted this piece while studying art in Italy; when he returned he submitted it for one of the first art contests, El Salón El Ateneo, and it made a splash. It gave rise to controversy because it was innovative both in its subject (the workers’ grievances) and in its treatment (a naturalistic and dramatic dark-colored realism, which was locally unusual at the time).

That style emphasized the social criticism that De La Cárcova wanted to bring to the forefront, exposing the consequences of industrialization, the dire working conditions, and the changes that modern times was bringing to our land.

Who are the characters? A couple of poor workers painted as two important, monumental figures. A slender woman, nursing a hungry baby at an empty dining table. The man looking out the window, seated on the edge of an rickety chair, raising a clenched fist, as if in anger, with a hammer and sickle by his side (unused tools and also symbols of the working class) defines a tension of diagonal force in the composition: he gives the painting a sense of strength, of movement.

It is interesting to notice that the artist created this work while he was already enrolled in the Centro Obrero Socialista (a precedent of the Socialist Party). After this work, the artist changed his style , turned to portraits, still lifes and nudes, and chose lighter color palettes.

It is undoubtedly an iconic painting that has never lost relevance.

Después de la batalla de Curupaytí (After the Battle of Curupaytí)

​By Cándido López

Oh, Cándido, Cándido! No painter in Argentine history was as endearing as him, with his huge panoramic views of the regional wars that marked us as a country; with his little men scattered on the canvas, running, resting and dying on the battlefield… He painted with very fine-tip brushes (and with infinite patience) after having been in the middle of the battlefield during the War of the Triple Alliance, fought between 1864 and 1870. In it Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay confronted Paraguay.

This warrior-artist – he was a Second Lieutenant in the National Guards Battalion of San Nicolás – painted even though he had lost his right hand in that 1866 encounter, the battle of Curupaytí, when a grenade hit his right arm.

He had his arm amputated. After his convalescence, he returned to the war as a member of the San Nicolás infantry. He thought he wouldn’t be able to paint anymore but he still had his eyes. And he had another hand. An intelligent, strong man but almost destitute, in 1869 he decided to do what seemed impossible: to educate his left hand to continue painting war scenes. He then focused on what he had seen on the battlefields.

Although he tried hard to get ahead, Cándido was still poor and had a family to support. In dispair, he wrote a letter to former president Bartolomé Mitre (whose portrait he had painted), asking for financial aid. Mitre commissioned him to do some paintings: a series documenting the Paraguayan War. The painter intendend to paint one hundred canvases but only completed fifty-two, most of them signed with the pseudonym he used at the time: Zepol.

The paintings were based on sketches he had drawn on the fly, between life and death in Paraguay. He painstakingly recreated the smallest and most important scenes of that war.

In Después de la batalla de Curupaytí, skies are overwhelmed by thick clouds; soldiers are exhausted: the battle has just ended. The field is calm, sad, desolate. There are dead horses on the ground. There are bodies lying around, corpses everywhere. Some warriors are dragging blankets, weapons, remains. Others, their dead comrades. There are cots, sabers, fire, smoke… There is a feeling of weariness in the air. In the distant horizon (with the artist’s point of view high above) there are tents and palm trees.

Cándido López did not portray the great army leaders. He focused on the rank and file: the common people. He tells us about their daily life at the front. Their battles. And what came aftewards.

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Information about museums

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Infografía: Clarín


TEXTS / Mercedes Pérez Bergliaffa

EDITOR / Patricia Kolesnicov

TRANSLATION / Román García Azcárate y Elisa Carnelli

DEVELOPER / Ornella Cicalello

VIDEO AND POST PRODUCTION / Alejandro Leguizamón

PHOTO EDITING / Julieta Gómez Bidondo

INFOGRAPHY / Vanina Sánchez

PM & DESIGN / Tea Alberti



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS / Malba, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Casa Museo Xul Solar / Opening
picture: Courtesy of Atelier Le Parc