In celebration of Valentine’s Day, Ursula Davila Villa, associate curator of Latin American art, examines love, lust, and everything in between.
Oscar Wilde once said that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. His words serve as a lens to better understand the complexities of love and all its related emotions. Throughout time, artists from all disciplines have expressed love, passion, lust, despair, or even hatred towards a special person through their art, writing, or musical compositions. Sometimes what begins as love and beauty might turn into indifference and repulsiveness. Many artists who were inspired by these feelings have left us with great works to admire and ponder. The Blanton’s own collection, in fact, offers fascinating examples that illustrate feelings connected to the intricacies of love. Join me on a brief tour of what the museum’s holdings can offer in this day of thriving emotions.
Antonio Berni is one of the most important Argentine artists of the twentieth century. Most of his 1960s and 1970s work narrates the life of two marginal characters: the street urchin Juanito Laguna and his girlfriend, the prostitute Ramona Montiel. For Berni, Ramona embodied the exploitation of sex driven by lust in exchange for money, but she also raises wider issues of inequality and poverty. In this print, Ramona appears as a good-looking woman with a client depicted as a grotesque-looking man. The interesting tension between the aesthetic of both characters suggests a fine line between the embodiments of lust, as represented by the client, and sensuality, manifested in Ramona’s look and pose.
Alice Neel is known for her uncanny ability to represent subjects as if depicting them from within, not only rendering their exterior self. In David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock she represents a gay couple sitting next to one another. Bourdon, portrayed in elegant attire, was an art critic and writer, and Battcock, appearing unshaven and dressed in underwear and a pair of red socks, was an artist and a critic. Neel rendered the pair of lovers as if they were in different rooms, averting each other’s gaze, and sitting on chairs that occupy different spatial planes. Writer Richard Flood spoke of Neel’s assertive depiction by describing how the painting projects a sense of despair and devastation characteristic of a relationship that has gone wrong. Indeed, he was right, for Neel had sensed a breakup and prophesied it on her canvas.
Love Despite Despair
Thomas Hart Benton’s work depicts scenes of the Post-War American life that emanate nostalgia, inspiration, hard work, self-reliance, and individualism. He painted Romance at the midpoint of his life and right after The Great Depression era. The lyrical view of a young couple on a relaxed evening stroll reveals a sense of familiarity and intimacy while projecting a certain ideal of lovers sharing a timeless moment. The painter provides us with an uplifting image that embodies the strength found in companionship, instead of solely turning his attention to the economic hardship faced by many families at the time.
Unwritten Love History
Although Jorge Macchi’s Historia de amor is not part of our permanent collection, this work was on view at The Blanton in 2007. The work is a simple Argentine newspaper cut-out page that only shows the frames that separate personalized messages published in the journal and a single note. The entry, written by someone by the name of Luis, is addressed to Adriana and it conveys a congratulatory birthday message, ending with the words: “I will always love you.” The work’s title suggests a possible love story. However, the emptiness of context in which the message appears suggests an uncertain future, and indeed, as we well know, not all love stories have happy endings.
Antonio BerniDetrás de la cortina [Behind the Curtain], 1963
Collagraph with relief halftone and hand-inking
Gift of The Museum of Modern Art, 1982
Alice NeelDavid Bourdon and Gregory Battcock, 1970
Oil on canvas
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1983
Thomas Hart BentonRomance, 1931–32
Tempera and oil varnish glazes on gesso panel
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991
Jorge MacchiHistoria de amor [Love Story], 1999
Private Collection, Madrid, Spain