León Ferrari: Art and Family Imagination
12 Feb 2020, 2:57 pm
One of León’s most memorable traits was the calm and clear way he would defend his ethics – an unfaltering set of ideas based on social justice, freedom and the joy of life.
León’s life story, the one that exists in the family’s imagination, pieced together from fragments of conversations, scraps of narratives, excerpts of texts, and fictional tinges from each person’s subjectivity, was punctuated with personal tragedies, small conquests, much resistance and, right at the very end, resounding success, which brought everything that had come before into the light.
The son of Italian architect and landscape painter Augusto C. Ferrari, León was born in Buenos Aires on 3rd September 1920. He graduated as a chemical engineer before opening Tantal, a small factory that produced tantalum – a rare metallic solid, silver-coloured, soft and ductile, which today is often used in electronic components.
The first event to shape this family happened when León was about 30 years old. In 1952, married to Alicia and with three children; Mariali aged three, Pablo, two, and Ariel, who was not even one, the couple found out that their eldest daughter had meningitis. In Argentina, there was only a trial medication available to treat the disease, one that was not very effective and that had harmful side effects. León dedicated himself to research, international connections and consultations with specialists. The girl got worse. León discovered a clinic in Florence that had achieved good results with a new treatment. The girl was read the last rites in hospital. Even so, with flights paid for by a group of wealthy friends, León travelled there with a nurse, and Mariali stretched out in a basket. The flight crew and other passengers were so moved that the pilot requested authorisation to divert the plane and to land, instead of in Pisa, directly in Florence. Mariali was saved. The effect of the Argentinian medicine, however, left her permanently deaf. After over a year of treatment, Alicia returned with her to Buenos Aires, where their other two children, who had been staying with their grandparents, were waiting. León stayed in Italy for another year. In a studio in Rome, in Trastevere, he started making ceramic pieces. His first works are from 1954.
Back in Buenos Aires, whilst working simultaneously as a chemist, León started making metal sculptures (certainly utilising his knowledge of metal alloy) then, not long after, manuscripts in his unmistakable handwriting, one of them describing “the picture he would paint if he could paint” (Quadro escrito) [Written Painting]. According to Andrea Guinta, the researcher most dedicated to Ferrari’s career, this was a pioneering work in global conceptual art. His first openly political works surfaced in the mid 1960’s. Western Christian Civilization, his iconic work, has had the most impact internationally to date. The work, with successive and renewed layers of meaning, among them September 11th, was in line with his criticisms of both United States politics, and tyrannical power in general, and of Christianity, a religion that he understood profoundly, because of the time he spent in a school taught by priests, and from living with his father, an architect and painter of Church frescos. In a calm and gently mocking, but always firm manner, he would respond to his 8-year old granddaughter’s amazement at seeing mini plastic Christs in a frying pan, or a cage of doves shitting on a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: these are just suggestions to make you think about what Christianity does to millions of people on earth, in crusades that divide the world between “us” and “them”, and that support tyrannical regimes, like Nazism, and a great number of the Latin-American dictatorships. Who knows how many times, he said that Jesus’ words, “He who is not with me is against me”, inflamed divisions in humanity, and were the cause of so many massacres?
At this point, the intolerant politics that characterises authoritarian regimes, not least the Argentine dictatorship that erupted in 1976, strikes this family unit in a new, and this time irreversible tragedy. The coup happens in 1976. The family exile themselves to Brazil. Ariel, the youngest, decides to stay. León and Alicia, my father Pablo, Patricia, my mother, with 6-month-old me in her arms, my aunt Mariali, her husband and my one-year old cousin, arrive in São Vicente; not long after, the couple move to São Paulo, into an apartment on Rua Maria Figueiredo. The silence surrounding Ariel’s whereabouts – it took fourteen months before he was finally declared desaparecido, missing – resulted in an obsessive series of pictures by León, the Errores (Errors). Two metres wide and one metre in height, the pictures are of winding lines he drew, from end to end. Looking at these pictures through the lens of my family has always brought a lump to my throat: if I were willing to make myself follow every curve I would have to stand in front of the picture for a long time, retracing León’s meditation, a visual and temporal experience of anguish and beauty. Alicia and León stayed in São Paulo for fifteen years and formed, just as they had in Buenos Aires, a solid group of friends, amongst those always present were Aracy Amaral, Regina Silveira, Alex Flemming, Guto Lacaz, Carmela Gross, Marcelo Niestche, Hudinilson and many others. In 1990, they returned to Buenos Aires.
With his sense of injustice and thirst for protest, and the wisdom and determination he would express with those voluminous eyebrows, León was vivacious, shameless and extremely joyful right until he fell ill, at 92. He would laugh showing his teenage granddaughters collages of the Kama sutra and religious images, or running his fingers over texts by Borges printed in braille on the tits of one of Man Ray’s models. Eroticism certainly crossed over into not only his work, but also his personal life, much to my grandmother’s suffering, and our fortune, the generation who drank deeply from this liberal environment.
Integrity and cheekiness intertwined in his life and in his work. The joke about the popes is probably the one that gets the most attention today. There was a point when people thought of León as a repetitive old man: “León, let go of this thing with the Church”, a few close friends would say. But he was stubborn. In 1997, he wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II, in which he writes that, with the end of the millennium and possible apocalypse, a good part of humanity is subject, according to the Gospel, to eternal damnation, and requests that Judgment Day and immortality be annulled. The letter is signed CIHABAPAI (Club of the wicked, heretics, apostates, blasphemers, atheists, agnostics and infidels), subscribed to by a good number of artists, intellectuals and activists. Receiving no response, a second card was sent in 2001, now making using of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights: since torture has already been officially abolished on earth, he calls for the abolition of Hell, which is nothing more than the promise of eternal torture. Cut to 2004. The Recoleta Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires opens a retrospective of the artist, by then aged 84. León was very well known in the circuit but had little presence internationally. The retrospective covered his entire work, the ceramics, the metal sculptures and stamps from his Brazilian period, the handwriting works, the pictures and drawings, the installations with toys, the braille works. In one of the rooms, there was an ironic series called “Infernos”: Christs and Holy Marys in toasters, frying pans and blenders; León was highlighting, in a playful way, the types of torture caused by Christian hate speech. The exhibition transformed into a meta performance when a radical religious group invaded the room and destroyed one of the works. The religious community campaigned for the exhibition to be shut, until the then-Cardinal Bergoglio successfully requested the exhibition’s closure. The result was the opposite, the entrance of the exhibition was taken over by movements for freedom of expression, artists, intellectuals, teachers, and received a huge amount of media attention. An injunction guaranteed it was reopened. The number of visitors, which had been normal for an exhibition, quickly became huge, and long queues formed for the duration of the exhibition, right until the end. At 84, León had become a celebrity in Argentina, and museums around the world began to acquire his work: MoMA, Tate Reina Sofia; he won the Golden Lion in Venice. Years later, in 2013, by then sick and elderly, soon before he died, came the news that Bergoglio had become pope, Pope Francisco. I called him right away, and he was already celebrating the occasion: let’s open the champagne!
Long live León!