Surtout les chapeaux
Edward Lucie-Smith, Antonio Seguí, Frissiras Museum, Athens, Greece, 2003.

Like many major artists from Latin America, Antonio Seguí has spent a large part of his career away from his native country, which in his case is Argentina. He nevertheless remains profoundly linked to Latin American culture.

Even within the immense diversity of this culture, Argentina is a special case. Never the seat of a great Indian civilisation, and neglected by Spain, it only became a Spanish vice-royalty as late as 1770. Less than fifty years later it achieved independence from the Spanish royal government. At the beginning of the 20th century there was an immense influx of European immigrants, the majority Italian. Most arrived in the very short period between 1905 and 1910. They transformed the culture of Argentina and made it the most consciously «European» of all the great Latin American republics. Not surprisingly in these circumstances, Argentinean culture never felt nostalgia for the great Pre-Columbian empires the Spanish conquistadors displaced - something that has been such a powerful factor in the modern artistic development of both Mexico and Peru. Nor was it ethnically mixed, with powerful indigenous elements, as was and is the case in Brazil.

The hero figure in Argentina was not the proud Inca or Aztec, but the free-spirited Gaucho or cowboy roaming the immense Argentinean grasslands. It is a gaucho who is the hero of the national epic, the poem Martin Fierro, published in two parts, in 1873 and 1879. This poem gave its name to the avant-garde review of the same title, which first appeared in 1924 and served as a rallying point for the first generation of Argentinean Modernists.

This generation was, however, urban, not rural, and its main impulses came from Europe, not from the Argentinean hinterland. In the visual arts the figurehead of this generation was the painter Emilio Pettoruti (1896-1971). Pettoruti travelled to Italy on a scholarship awarded by the government of the state of Buenos Aires, and fell in with the group of Italian futurists who gathered round the magazine named Lacerba. Later, he exhibited in Berlin, at the gallery «Der Sturm», run by Herwath Walden, one of the most important artistic impresarios in Germany in the years that immediately followed World War I. Finally he went to Paris and met the great Spanish painter Juan Gris. Gris had a decisive influence over him. Pettoruti returned to his native country as a committed Cubist.

An important contemporary of Pettoruti's was Alejandro Xul Solar (Schultz Solari, 1897-1963). Xul Solar was also affected by Cubism, but his work, which is always on a small scale, shows many other influences as well. He travelled widely in Europe between 1911 and 1924, and seems to have had some knowledge of the Berlin Dada of the immediately post-war period, and in particular of the drawings of George Grosz. His drawings, like those of Grosz, often make use of lettering and graphic signs. Another influence seems to have been the work of Paul Klee.

Xul Solar is in many respects an immediate artistic ancestor of Seguí. Many of the devices he uses appear in a different form in some of Seguí’s most typical works.

Another ancestor, speaking in a more general sense, is a slightly younger Argentinean artist, Antonio Berni (1905-1981). Berni is now chiefly remembered for the work he produced at the end of his career, from the 1960s onwards - two great narrative cycles that combine painting with collage, in which the artist expressed his feelings about the social condition of his country.

He reached this point by a somewhat circuitous route. Berni studied in Paris for five years on a government scholarship, leaving Argentina in 1925 and returning in 1930. In Paris he studied under minor but fashionable Cubists such as André Lhote and Otto Friesz, but also came into contact with the dynamic new Surrealist Movement through the poet Louis Aragon. After he returned to Buenos Aires, he was in contact with the Mexican Muralists, working with Siqueiros on a mural in a private house when the latter visited Buenos Aires in 1933. Later still, he felt the impact of Picasso in his most Communist phase, and was influenced by the Socialist Realist artists identified with the French Communist party during the 1950s, such as André Fougeron (1913-1998) and Boris Taslitzky (b. 1911).

Berni, too, counts as one of Seguí’s forebears, though Seguí’s doesn't take his politics quite so seriously. What he shares with Berni is an interest in narrative, and a capacity for social observation. In addition, he is fascinated, just as Berni was, by certain typically Argentinean myths, particularly the myth of the tango.

The selection of Seguí’s work presented here shows not only the nature of his artistic roots in Argentina, but the remarkable originality and verve of his own contribution to Latin American Modernism. One of the true distinguishing marks of Seguí's work is its wonderful sense of humour. In the catalogue of an exhibition called «À vous de faire l'histoire», shown in 1998 at «La Maison de l'Amérique Latine» in Paris, he comments: «A sense of humour is the only thing that can save us... Yes, I’m for the globalisation of humour! In art, too, this is something that can save us. In France, humour is sarcastic, sometimes cynical. In Argentina, and above all in Córdoba (the city of Seguí’s birth), which is a city of students, humour is derisive - it deals with the absurdity of daily life. People will say of someone that he's "as useless as an ashtray on a motor-scooter..."».

One does not have to look far for examples of this spirit of derision in Seguí’s work. Look, for example, at his large urban and crowd scenes, such as Gente de las Azoteas (1992), Se Llamaba Charles Atlas (2001) or Pasar Desapercibido (2001). The first of these speaks of the claustrophobic nature of the modern urban environment. The other two paintings, which form a pair, have no buildings, but consist simply, in each case, of a vast crowd of scurrying flgures, covering the whole surface of the canvas. Some of these figures are nude, but their companions contrive to ignore this, so completely intent are they on the urgency of their own errands. These crowd scenes are reminiscent of what one finds in the Berlin drawings of George Grosz, but the mood is substantially less harsh. There are other elements as well - the deliberately stylised drawing seems to derive from aspects of children's art, and is a reminder of the work of Jean Dubuffet, a dominant figure in the Paris art world when Seguí first arrived there in 1951.

One noticeable thing about Seguí’s clothed male figures is the fact that they very nearly always wear hats. The artist notes, in «À vous de faire l'histoire», that «In my childhood, everybody wore a hat. When I went with my father and uncles to a foot-ball match, to a reception or on a hunting-party, they all wore very handsome hats, most of all my father, who was a real amateur of headgear...». The hats are celebrated in another, much earlier, work included in this show, Surtout les Chapeaux (1967). This is a combination of painting and sculpture, with cut out shapes clinging to a rectangular, white-painted pillar.

Surtout les Chapeaux introduces another aspect of Seguí’s art - the fact that, though he is usually classed as a painter, he has always worked in a large number of different media, with equal facility in each case. The present exhibition showcases a number of bronze sculptures, made at the very beginning of the 1980s. Though Seguí is far from being a «classical» artist, in any of the usual senses of that adjective, two of these sculptures even allude to a classical myth, The Fall of Icarus.

The others tackle subjects not generally thought of as suitable for sculpture – for example Secondary Residence (La Maison Secondaire) lightly satirises the French cult of the holiday home, with the house itself, its puffed up mistress and the tree in her garden all assembled on a little platform. The mood is kindly, but the observation of bourgeois pretentiousness is deliciously acute. The fact that Seguí's sculptural style easily encompasses two such different kinds of subject-matter is a tribute both to his confidence and to his sheer inventiveness as an artist.

In painting, though Seguí has usually been thought of as a painter of multi-figure compositions, he has also made a large number of canvases where single figures are dominant. Examples here are Sacando la Lengua (1965) and EI Fumador (1966). These are interesting for a number of different reasons. One is that they raise the slightly vexed question of whether Seguí at one time counted as a Pop Artist. On the whole Pop Art and Latin American culture did not mix, and most attempts at Pop by Latin American painters seem superficial. These paintings, which date from the high point of the Pop era, do nevertheless have an undoubted resemblance to the work made by the Hairy Who, a group of semi-Pop painters working in Chicago, who held their first collective exhibition in 1966. Sacando la Lengua is especially close to some paintings of heads made by one of the most prominent members of the group, Jim Nutt (b. 1938). The resemblance is certainly coincidental, as Seguí, then living between Paris and Buenos Aires, had no contact with the Chicago art world of that epoch. However, it is also significant because it signals the fascination felt by a large number of important artists of the post-World War II period with child art and Outsider art.

EI Fumador suggests another, much more firmly established connection – with Xul Solar, whom Seguí met in Buenos Aires in the very early 1960s, and, either through Xul Solar either directly, with the art of Paul Klee. An especially amusing aspect of EI Fumador is the figure's checked shirt, which looks like a direct transcription of one of Klee's more abstract compositions.

A more nostalgic, very specifically Argentinean aspect of Seguí's art is represented by the paintings and drawings he has made related to the story of Carlos Gardel (1890-1935). Gardel, killed while still relatively young in a plane-crash at Medellín, Colombia, was the greatest composer and singer of tango, Argentina's national music. Indeed Gardel himself thought of tango as a kind of nationality in its own right. He was in fact born in France as Charles Gardes, and was brought to Argen- tina by his mother when he was just over two years old. When he was on a tour of Spain in 1927, a reporter asked him what was his true nationality. Gardel replied: «My nationality is the Tango and its capital is Calle Corrientes». Corrientes was the street in Buenos Aires where all the tango bars were located.

For Seguí, tango is primary Argentinean myth. In the two paintings called Retrado con Codigo (1978), which show a figure – Gardel – from behind, with a free brushstroke above him, he seems to suggest that there is a close analogy between dancing the tango and the act of painting. As the lyric of one famous tango – not as it happens by Gardel – puts it:
Así se baila el tango
Mientras dibujo el ocho
Para estos filigranas
Yo soy como un pintor…
[This is how the tango is danced
when I “draw” a figure eight
doing this fancy footwork
I am like a painter…]

The Gardel series reminds one that Seguí’s art has a powerfully lyric component that transcends his satirical intentions, just as the tango transforms the joys and sorrows – most of all in this case the sorrows – of ordinary life.

Meanwhile, how are we to place that Seguí does in the complex artistic situation that now prevails at the beginning of the 21st century? Seguí is a veteran of 20th century Modernism, and he is one of the few artists of his generation (he was born in 1934) who has survived with his reputation intact and who is still creating work of great originality. The reason for this survival is, in my view, his populism, his keen sense of what is likely to communicate immediately with the ordinary spectator, the proverbial «man in the street». He is keenly aware of the way in which the supposedly experimental avant-garde has in fact been transformed into a kind of academy, and he is determined not to be caught in this trap. At the same time, he remains keenly aware of what the original Modernists achieved, and is not afraid to incorporate some of their discoveries in his own work.

Edward Lucie-Smith “A cumparsita for Gustavo”, Martha Chalikia; “Surtout les chapeaux”, Edward Lucie-Smith; “Antonio Seguí”, André Pieyre de Mandiargues; “In Antonio Seguí’s cities”, António Ramos Rosa, Antonio Seguí, Frissiras Museum, Athènes, Grèce, 2003.