A Different Grain: Woodcuts, Artists, and Politics in Buenos Aires

María Inés Tapia Vera’s ‘Melodia’

The painted woodcuts of María Inés Tapia Vera (exhibited last month in Galería Vermeer) are a subtle mix of classical elegance and modern content. Women recline against traditional backdrops of gardens and lushly patterned textiles, their poses invoking the classic female model: yet there is nothing old-fashioned about them. One woman appears to be thinking fiercely, but her scowl as she lies on her loft bed isn’t without provocation. Another woman with a red kerchief round her head and a Japanese screen behind her looks out, defiantly, at the viewer. The doubleness is mirrored in the form—the woodcut’s baroque lines simultaneously invoking tradition and outlining the “modern” subjects in bold.

Work like Vera’s is part of a larger rediscovery in the Buenos Aires art scene of more traditional techniques. One recent double exhibit, for instance, paired the work of Max Gómez Canle (landscapes evoking nineteenth-century romanticism substituting three-dimensional shapes for windswept travelers) and Sebastián Gordín (modern takes on the cabinet of curiosities). It’s the woodcut, however—”xilógrafo” in Spanish—that offers some of the most exciting technical possibilities, providing a refreshing alternative to the contemporary porteñopreference for abstraction.

Though it’s being put to new purposes now, the woodcut has a rich history and a special place in Argentina’s artistic past. The technique itself is fairly simple: the artist must carefully cut away the inverse of the design he hopes to imprint in wood, in order to create a kind of stamp. As an art form, however, it has always occupied a tricky dual position, serving as both high art and social message.

In 1914, when she was 14 years old, the future artist Norah Borges (sister of the famous Jorge Luis) travelled from Buenos Aires to Switzerland while her father underwent ocular surgery. There, she was exposed to an artistic hotbed of daring postwar ideas. German artists in exile were experimenting with expressionist forms and searching for ways to express emotion in pure form; the simple, powerful lines of woodcuts proved a fertile medium. At 18, Borges trained in the technique with the artist Arnaldo Bossi in Lugano, and after a feverish few years involved in the literary scene in Spain, brought her appreciation of the woodcut back to Buenos Aires. The woodcuts became part of her work in the avant-garde Florida Group; in some circles in the 1920s, the woodcut thus became a modernist form, closely tied to the movement Borges and others developed. One can see this clearly in the dreamlike ‘Venus y Cupido’.

Bellocq’s ‘Meat Packers’

Back in Buenos Aires, the artist Adolfo Bellocq had also discovered woodcuts. Instead of apprenticeships or classes abroad, however, he had taught himself the techniques in his own city. Soon he had mastered the form, transforming it into a tool of popular propaganda to create images of slaughterhouses and pornographic cinemas, tango dancers and industrial streets, dockworkers and pimps. The images lent illustrative power to the Boedo group he would found, a movement based on the working class barrio in Buenos Aires and intensely concerned with social conditions.

Indeed, though the most well-known artists learned their skills in Europe, the woodcut also developed independently in Latin America as a folk tradition. Strongly associated with popular support, its use was therefore frequently political. The art itself—bold, occasionally crude lines and a black-and-white aesthetic—contributed to its rare immediacy. In Mexico, where the woodcut culture has a particularly strong history, artists like David Siqueiros turned to it as part of the indigenismo movement championing the people. In northern Brazil, illustrated cordel literature became a traditional way to disseminate news in rhyming, poetic format to a largely illiterate population. In Argentina, woodcuts were embraced in the twentieth century by Peronists and those speaking on behalf of the public (sometimes, though not always, the same), featuring on both leftist posters and on the covers of “intellectual” magazines like Sur.

During the interwar period, the dual possibility of the woodcut as medium of modernist experimentation and social argument would stratify. In the 1930s, there was an explosion of daring surrealist works like Juan Batlle Planas’s xylograph ‘Paranoid X-Ray’. At the same time, as the political situation grew more complicated, the push toward social realism was strong as well. Some artists did try to combine the two, however. Shocked by the catapulting to power of a conservative dictatorship, Antonio Berni—the artist largely responsible for bringing French surrealism to Argentina—had by 1934 taken up explicit social themes like unemployment and workers’ strikes. His famous ‘Juanito’ woodcuts of the 1950s depict a young boy’s journey through dreamlike but recognisable streets, rubbish-filled and poster-plastered; they mark Berni’s preoccupation with the constant possibility of violent rupture into the everyday.

Osvaldo Jalil’s work

Even the most political of these works gain power because the slow, arduous process of carving wood serves as a counterpoint to the quick-lit blaze of the polemical messages. The woodcut amplifies and intensifies with its evocation of slowness—precisely because of its traditional form.

Contemporary artists have taken note. The work of Buenos Aires artist Osvaldo Jalil draws attention to the right-wing paramilitary violence against Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico. Rough black patches provide the minimum needed to suggest an old bandit; the viewer can make out only hunched shoulders, a wide-brimmed hat, a gun, and beneath his feet, a shock of red: blood. There’s the famous Antonio Frasconi, raised in Montevideo but born in Buenos Aires. His woodcut illustrations of novelist Mario Benedetti’s The Disappeared intensely critique the tortures and murders of the Bordaberry and Álvarez dictatorships in Uruguay. And at the MAMBA in San Telmo, an exhibition just closed featuring the drawings of Antonio Seguí, among them a number of early-career woodcuts prefiguring his later paint work. Preoccupied-looking men with suitcases dash left and right, a humorous but faithful snapshot of the urban.

The Museo Nacional del Grabado in Buenos Aires and the Museo de la Xilografía in La Plata feature homegrown work by Buenos Aires artists. It remains true, however, that many of those artists familiar with the technique of the woodcut learned it while studying abroad in Europe (especially France). For artists here, the challenge is perennial—how, trained in a form as “high art” in Europe, one might turn it to local concerns back in Argentina. But it’s just that tension between old form and modern content, between European influence and “Argentine” identity, that gives the woodcuts such possibility—the bold lines of the past serving as a clarification and purification of modern complexities.