MADI and the great adventure of contemporary art

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MADI and the great adventure of contemporary art

Roots of the MADI in South America

Írta: Jorge Glusberg

Life in Buenos Aires was no “fiesta” in the early 1940s as it had been in Paris for Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s. The second military government since 1930 had seized power in 1943, plunging the country into (among other misfortunes) a cultural and educational blackout.

Rhod ROTHFUSS (U) 1946

But the ousted conservative government did nothing to reaffirm democracy: on the contrary, from 1940 it devoted its time to limiting freedom, above all, the freedom of the press, and to bringing back vote rigging, thus eradicating consultation with the people.

Although most of the military admired Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy (which fell in the middle of 1943) and Falangist Spain (victorious in 1939), Argentina remained neutral convenient for both the interests of London (on which Argentina to a great extent depended) and those of Berlin.

However, having been isolated diplomatically by the United States, by the other Latin American republics and even by Great Britain, the military government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and Japan in January 1944 and finally declared war on the two countries 14 months later in order to be able to join the United Nations Organization (founded in San Francisco at the end of June 1945 shortly after the capitulation of Germany and not long before that of Japan).

It was in this climate “one of hope as far as the International scene was concerned for the victory of the Allies was by then taken for grant-ed, and one of despondency regarding the domestic situation, as the dictatorship was gaining ever greater strength” when the proud and provincial Buenos Aires of 1944 set out on that great adventure of contemporary Argentina art from which the Madí Movement was to be born. It all began with the appearance in March of the first – and only- issue of Arturo, a “magazine of the abstract arts” edited by Carmelo Arden Quin, Edgar Bayley, Gyula Kosice and Rhod Rothfuss. It featured theoretical articles by all four and poems by the first three, as well as by the Chilean Vicente Huidobro and the Brazilian Murilo Mendés. Also included were reproductions of the work of the Uruguayan Joaquin Torres García (in addition to a theoretical text and a poem of his), and of various works by Torres García’s son, Augusto Torres, the Uruguayan Rothfuss, the Portuguese Maria Elena Viera da Silva, the Argentina Tomás Maldonado (who designed the cover), Lidy Prati (also Argentina and responsible for the vignettes), Piet Mondrian (who died on 1st February in New York) and Vassily Kandinsky (who was to die that same year in Paris, on 15th December).

The modest publication printed in workshops in the isolated Caballito to the west of the city centre aroused virtually no interest in Buenos Aires – whose population at the time was 2,800,000 – nor in the rest of the country with its additional 12 million inhabitants. Today, however, Arturo –  “Arcturus”, chosen by its members as a tribute to the first-magnitude star in the Boötes (or Herdsman) constellation is an essential document in the bibliography of 20th-century history (not only that of Argentine art) and is also a symbol with something of the legend and the fascination of magic about it.

Martin BLASZKO (RA) 1946

Its founders, however, scorned both legend and magic. They believed firmly, even vehemently, in a new form of art, and “more importantly” that it was they who were forming it, extracting it (almost) from nothing. And there is no doubt as to the truth of this. Above all they were young men who sensed that, once over (as it would soon be), the war would cause all kinds of fundamental changes in every way and they wished to play their part in making those changes create a new world, new as the art they themselves produced, the only form of art corresponding to that world.

What they wished for and advocated was, in fact, the birth and affirmation of a new man in a free, just and equal society, a society arising out of the ashes of fear, pain and death. Thus they proclaimed in Arturo: “Jubilation. Denial of all melancholy”. This was their art in a nutshell, the art of life. And precisely because it was the art of life, the art of Arturo’s creators was based on the elementary ” the line, the point, geometric figures and volumes, plain colours. It was the language par excellence of sculptural and pictorial creation, for it was not tainted by a need to justify the appearance of things, and thus made it possible to imagine a different reality” self-sufficient, of insuperable visual joy, a reality mobilizing unknown, unheard-of sensations, in continuous succession, constantly in play.

Arturo’s founders predicted that geometric art (a term used here in its widest sense) would be the social art par excellence because it would arouse in man an awareness more in harmony with, and more worthy of, his innate spirit of invention, his avidity for the unusual and the unexpected. But they also believed that their art, thus depersonalised and open, bore within itself ideas and emotions, reason and feeling, for it was a way of life, of being in the world. Aesthetics in Argentina was in need of the onslaught of these hard-working young artists (when Arturo appeared, Arden Quin, the oldest, had just reached 31 years of age, Bayley was 24, Rothfuss was almost 24, and Kosice 20). Modernism, which had emerged in the 1920s, had become bogged down with reiterative imitations. But Solar Xul (1888-1963), who in 1924 had created in Buenos Aires for the whole of the Americas what we call the Culture of the Surreal, continued with his visionary, dazzling work. Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971), who had also in 1924 laid the foundations for the Culture of the Rational (parallel and complementary of the former) reached the peak of his post-Cubism with the “los Soles” series. And finally, an ex-Surrealist from the Paris group, Antonio Berni (1905-1981), was prominent in the 1930s (as he is even today) through his political art, recording in Buenos Aires the situation of the humiliated Argentina in those times of political and social crisis.

The eruption –  for that is what it was –  of 1944 thus overcame stagnation and, above all, established a new, essential stage in artistic accomplishment. The break with the past was so clean that it led to a volute-face in the history of our aesthetic manifestations, a change that has continued as such until today, going beyond any succession of styles or trends, even those in sharp contrast to it.

Experimental art was born and from then on local artists ceased once and for all to submit to foreign codes and models. Instead, they joined the creative force peculiar to the forming of that international language called art, and travelled along a road encouraged by the critical regionalism of the Uruguayan Pedro Figari in the 1920s (a road we did not always follow). The fields of art criticism and theory –  areas virtually unexplored in Argentina and yet so decisive and necessary – also finally became consolidated.

Gyula KOSICE (1946)

Not for nothing have we used the term “experimental”: it was this situation, which led to the divisions among Arturo group members between 1945 and 1947. Divisions at times in the form of bitter arguments and controversies that continue even today, as the disappearance of documents and works has made it impossible to carry out satisfactory academic research into the subject.

However, such a situation obviously does not prevent us from appraising the struggle of those young avant-garde artists in the prim Argentina of the times, nor the results they obtained. For where geometric art is concerned local precursors were few (Pettoruti and Juan del Prette, 1897-1987, are only indirect points of reference), and there was no specific or deep knowledge of international developments (Malevich, Lissitzky, Mondrian, van Doesburg, Vantongerloo, Vordemberge-Gildewart, Moholy-Nagy, Arp, Kandinsky, Bill, Lohse). On the other hand, the war ensured that communication channels with Europe remained closed.

We have only the experience of Joaquin Torres García (1874-1949) to draw on. Having taken geometric art to Paris, he returned to Montevideo in 1934, putting into practice in Uruguay his own, unique version of that trend known as “Constructive Universalism”. And although not all the Arturo group members admired Torres García, his effect on some of them – particularly on Arden Quin and Rothfuss – was all-important. It was this situation of starting virtually from scratch and of therefore having to draw up their proposals together (at the workshop of each one, at their meetings in the Cafe Rubf in the Once area, and at the La Fragata confectionery on Avenida Corrientes y San Martin, in the city centre) which brought out their differences as far as art, politics (among them were Marxists, Communists, Socialists and Independents) and even personalities were concerned.

This was when they began to separate. In 1945 the “Movimiento Arte Concrete-Invention” – the future “Grupo Madí” –  was formed. Remaining outside the normal circuit of galleries and cultural centres, they met at the homes of the psychoanalyst Enrique Pichón Riviere, a Lautréamont scholar, and of Grete Stern, a German photographer who had studied at the Bauhaus and settled in Argentina in 1936. At these short-lived meetings they showed each other examples of their work, read poems, held concerts and danced, all in the same night. Arden Quin, Kosice and Rothfuss attended both venues, while Bayley, Raul Lozza and Alfredo Hlito attended the second only.

But around the end of that year (1945), Tomas Maldonado (1922), Lozza (1911), Hlito (1923-93), Bayley (1919-90) – perhaps the greatest poet of his generation -, Lidy Prati (1991), the sculptors Claudio Girola (1923-94), Enio Iommi (1926) and others formed the “Asociacion de Arte Concreto-Invencion”, which held four exhibitions throughout 1946, issued its – then obligatory – Manifesto, and published a periodical – all the copies of whose first and second issues (still in 1946) were sold.

Also in 1946, Arden Quin, Kosice and Rothfuss’s group took the name “Movimiento Madí” (although there are several versions regarding its origin, there is no point in discussing them here), held three public exhibitions and issued their Manifesto. In 1947, the magazine Arte Madí appeared and from that time until 1954 eight issues were printed. It was also in 1947 that the third split took place: Lozza left the AACI and formed a school of his own “Perceptismo”, at whose first exhibition he was the sole exhibitor; and the periodical Perceptismo appeared (seven issues between 1950 and 53), disseminating the theories of this trend, in which Lozza was briefly accompanied by his two brothers, Rafael and Rembrandt Van Dyck.

Az Arturo címlapja (1944)

In the meantime, there had also been a split in the Movimiento Madí in 1947 when Arden Quin and Martínez Blaszko (1920) left the group. One year later (1948), Arden Quin took “Madismo” to Paris, where with the Uruguayan-Argentine poet and artist Volf Roitman (1930) he founded the Centre d’Études et de Recherches MADIstes (1951-1957). At the same time, the Buenos Aires movement reached the French capital through the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles.

In 1996, half a century after the birth of Madí, the Centra de Exposiciones y Congresos in Saragossa held the exhibition “Madí Internacional. 50 A’os Después” (“International Madí. 50 Years On”), with works by fifty-five artists from Spain, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, France, Japan, Venezuela, Uruguay (one of who was Roitman, who lived in Barcelona), and Argentina (Blaszko and Arden Quin). This was a unique case of persistence and, moreover, expansion.

For in the late 1950s the activity of Madí-Buenos Aires decreased considerably. The “Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención”, which had become the “Grupo de Artistas Concretos” in 1949, became on the initiative of Aldo Pellegrini the “Grupo de Artistas Modernos de la Argentina” in 1952 (Maldonado, Girola, Hlito, Iommi and Prati, plus the abstract artists Aebi, Fernández Muro, Grilo and Ocampo). But this group broke up with Maldonado’s departure for Europe, where he finally gave up painting in 1956. Each of the original members of 1945 was to go on with his work, taking one path or another. Lozza also continued with his work after the disappearance of “Perceptismo”. This was also the case of the Madí-Buenos Aires artists, who have since exhibited in Europe, Latin America and the United States.

Volf ROITMANN (1969)

The presence at the Saragossa exhibition of Arden Quin (Carmelo Heriberto Alves) was like that of a patriarch. And that, without any doubt, is what he is, although not only because of his age, for to a certain extent he was also a patriarch between the late 1930s and the early 1940s, when he was preparing the way for the appearance of Arturo and already considered himself among the founders and ideologists of Madí. After Arden Quin left the group and went to Europe, Gyula Kosice (a nom d’artiste which he took from his native Kosice, situated before World War II in Hungary and after in Czechoslovakia, although he reached Argentina in 1928 and soon became naturalized) became the helmsman of Madí-Buenos Aires, with Rothfuss (Carlos Maria, known as Rhod) as its main representative in Montevideo.

In their inaugural Manifesto (1946) Madí’s founders included Arturo’s belligerent rejection of all expression, all representation, and all meaning. They also scorned Cubism and Surrealism and censured concrete art, which by not having succeeded in resisting the “institutional movements”, had facilitated the victory “of intuitive impulses against reflection, (…) of the revelation of the subconscious against cold analysis, study and rigorous detention of the creator in the face of the laws of the object to be constructed…” “Madí rises up against all this,” they added, “confirming each man’s fixed, absorbing desire to invent and build objects within the absolute values of the eternal, alongside mankind in its struggle for the building of a new, classless society that will release energy and dominate space and time in all senses and matter to its logical conclusion”. “For ‘Madismo’,” they said, “invention is an internal, (insurmountable method, and creation an unchangeable totality. Madí, therefore, invents and creates.” And, indeed, they did invent and create: the “cutout frame”; encouraged by Arden Quin and advocated by Rothfuss in Arturo, and also used by the concrete artists “was developed to a considerable degree by the Madistas a decade or more before the appearance of shaped canvas in the United States; and the painting of “coplanar” coloured planes ” another of Arden Quin and Rothfuss’s discoveries; and articulated sculptures with rotational movement, the first example being Röyi (1944) by Kosice, who was also a pioneer in sculpture of neon gas tubes (1946) and “towards the end of Madí”  in hydro kinetic sculpture (1957).

But apart from the works created by Diyi Laan, Juan Bay, Elisabeth Steiner, Rodolfo Uricchio, Aníbal Biedma and Nelly Esquivel, to mention only a few of the stars in Madí’s galaxy (and the works of music, poetry and dance, for which there had always been a place in Madí ” well ahead of multimedia), we must also mention the spirit that inspired them ” and which also inspired the concrete artists and “Perceptismo”. It was a deep faith in man’s power of creation, a reference to the future from an active and spirited present with nothing of the “escape plan” about it. It was the flag of a Utopia which the Madistas waved stridently and passionately in the street of the galleries, protected by jubilation and the denial of all melancholy (including the melancholy of Buenos Aires, a main characteristic of the city’s inhabitants, perhaps due to the tango) which they used as their watchword.

It is true that no new world came into being, as the young artists and poets of Arturo had hoped: the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust soon warned them of this. But that Utopia still exists as a challenge to be met, like all Utopias. And this, together with progress in art, is what, after so much time, makes of the Madí adventure – and that of its contemporaries –  that symbol with something of the legend and the fascination of magic about it.

(1996,  MADI art periodical No1)