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Antonio Berni's monumental "Juanito and Ramona" series presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Antonio Berni, La sordidez de la serie Monstruos cósmicos (Sordidness from the series Cosmic Monsters), c. 1964, wood, steel, iron, aluminum, cardboard, plastic, roots, nails, and enamel, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Caroline Wiess Law Foundation. © José Antonio Berni.

HOUSTON, TX.- This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will present a groundbreaking exhibition of the work of Argentinean artist Antonio Berni (1905–1981).

Berni was widely recognized early in his career as the founder and leading painter of the New Realist movement in Argentina. But in the mid-1950s, motivated by the social distress and poverty he witnessed in Argentina amid social unrest and the country’s unbridled industrialization, Berni abandoned painting for assemblage. He devoted much of the rest of his life to chronicling the tales of Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel, two fictitious characters whose experiences over the course of 25 years were crafted to expose the undercurrents of Argentinean society. Berni witnessed Juanito and Ramona become popular legends and folk heroes within his own lifetime. Legendary composers, like Astor Piazzolla and Ariel Petrocelli, and acclaimed singers, like Mercedes Sosa and Atahualpa Yupanqui, composed and interpreted ballads telling the stories of these exceptional characters.

A collaboration of the MFAH and Malba – Fundación Costantini in Buenos Aires, this exhibition is the first to focus on this iconic series and the first Berni exhibition organized by a museum in the United States in nearly 50 years. The exhibition is co-curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez, MFAH Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA); and Marcelo E. Pacheco, independent curator and former chief curator at Malba (2001–2013). Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona is on view at the MFAH from November 10, 2013, to January 26, 2014. The exhibition will travel to Malba in late 2014.

"Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona marks the next chapter of the Museum’s relationship with Malba, which began in 2005 with the signing of an exchange agreement between both institutions and the organization of a number of joint exhibitions and publication projects," said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The last of these exhibitions took place in Houston in the spring of 2012, and featured masterworks from Malba's collection. I am pleased to again collaborate with Malba as we present Berni's Juanito and Ramona series—an extraordinary body of work that has been legendary for decades, yet never before presented in its entirety. This exhibition is unprecedented."

Mari Carmen Ramírez, MFAH exhibition co-curator, remarked, "In the United States Berni's art, for the most part, has remained the exclusive province of scholars and curators, but this exhibition will reach the Houston community, and well beyond, showing the full range of the artist’s creative genius. In Juanito and Ramona, we see a chronicle of a turbulent time in Argentina which also extended to all of Latin America. Yet, the significance of the series lies in the way Berni used the novel medium of assemblage to engage the social circumstances of his time. His large-scale assemblages, "poly-materic" objects and xylo-collage relief prints stand amongst the most innovative artistic proposals of the postwar period anywhere in the Western world."

"Antonio Berni is one of the great Latin American artists of the 20th century. His work never lost relevance as it evolved over the course of decades. With great humanism, his art moves us as it depicts the Argentine political and social reality of his time. Berni is of vital importance to Malba; he is one of the artists most represented in the museum’s permanent collection with key works from every period of his production," states Eduardo F. Costantini, founder and president of Malba. "It is a great achievement to have organized this major international exhibition in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, thus furthering the cooperation agreement in effect since 2005," he concludes.

The Protagonists: Juanito and Ramona
Characters Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel comprise Berni's best-known series and embody the tumult of postwar Argentinean society. Juanito, a child of immigrant peasants who seeks a better life in the city but ends up in a shanty town (villa miseria), expresses the marginality of Argentina’s poor as well as the impact of migration from the country to the city upon this population. He first appeared at the 1962 Venice Biennale, earning Berni the Grand Prize for Printmaking and Drawing. Juanito, however, is not a marginal kid but part of Argentina’s rapidly growing middle class. As such, he enjoys the incipient comforts of that life. In raw, elaborate constructions and environments, Berni shows him celebrating Christmas, learning to read, playing marbles, flying a kite, swimming in a lake with his dog and taking a meal to his father in the factory where he works. His world is created from clothing, sheet metal, crushed cans and plastic containers and broken chimney stacks which Berni masterfully assembles into monumental constructions.

Berni began to develop Ramona while living and working in Paris in the early 1960s. Ramona is a young woman of modest background who is eventually seduced into prostitution to access the powerful social and political elite associated with the profession. Berni scoured the flea markets and antique stores of Paris for the bits of lace, macramé and finery that he used to convey the excesses of her glamorous life, along with spare parts for television sets, radios, refrigerators and washing machines. Ramona is shown with her powerful circle of influential friends from all sectors of society—a general, a sailor, a criminal, an ambassador, a bishop, a bullfighter—and as a star of the café-concert circuit. Instead of a victim of her circumstances, Ramona emerges from Berni’s series as a woman in full control of her destiny.

In all, between 1962 and 1977, Berni created over 250 works about Juanito and Ramona in the form of paintings, collages, assemblages, constructions, objects, woodcuts, xylo-collages and large-scale environments. For his signature woodcut and collage-based technique, the "xylo-collage-relief" he used for Ramona, Berni applied pieces of lace, buttons, industrial machine parts, egg cartons, garments, lace doilies and other elaborate trimmings onto a large wood printing plate, then inked it and printed the image on massive sheets of paper.

In 1964, Berni started a related series of "Monsters"—large-scale, found-object assemblages that he called "poly-materic" objects—as the embodiment of Ramona’s fears and nightmares. Inspired by Catholic allegories and carnival floats, the creatures had an immediate impact on Argentinean artists interested in developing a local version of Pop art. Eight of Berni's monsters will be on view in the exhibition.

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