Art and History: Testa, Benedit, and Beuys – History as a Metaphor for Art

No. 29 – March 2006

Who writes history? How do we recognize the authentic authorship of constructions that have been recycled through time, and of which, in many cases, there is very little data? There are some artists who use historical sources to recreate the content they cite with a personal meaning. They make an artistic metaphor that falsifies the original source by deviating from the norm of truthfulness to enter into artistic fiction. It’s about giving an interpretation of the historical data without an explicit political or narrative content, but using the conceptual mechanisms of the order of discourse in contemporary art. Such is the case of the Argentineans Clorindo Testa and Luis Fernando Benedit, and the German Joseph Beuys, some of whose works will be analyzed in this article.

Clorindo Testa (1923) uses iconographic, historical, and literary sources to build a fictional story based on hypothetical versions of Argentine history. The manipulation of historical sources is essential in the shaping of his discourse with strategies that involve quotations, appropriations, inventions, and changes of the original data to resignify history with a new content. Testa’s way of interpreting reality and facts always begins with the location where his work will be exhibited: he requests the blueprint, and then he begins to think. That place that occupies his thoughts is already part of the foundation of the subsequent execution of his work.

La fiebre amarilla is an installation that he presented in 1992 at Centro Cultural Recoleta. As previously stated, the trigger is the architectural place: an ex-convent of Recollect friars that was recycled and converted into an exhibition center by Clorindo Testa himself ten years earlier, along with Luis F. Benedit and Jacques Bedel. This place was used as a hospital to place the beds of the victims of the yellow fever in the last century with the outbreak of the epidemic in 1871. The artist’s story is represented by rustic wooden stretchers painted with lime, with white papers crumpled and folded that evoke the sick wrapped in sheets, and death lurking in a painting with the figure of a character similar to Little Red Riding Hood, with a hooded head, watching the scene through a window. This is the other plague, La peste en Ceppaloni (1978), the one which “dressed differently” – as the author says – passed through the south of Italy, the artist’s place of origin, in the 17th century. What records survived from the yellow fever in the Rio de la Plata region? Some sketches made in ink on paper and hung next to the stretchers would give us a clue that would imply the possibility that there was an iconographic document that would be added to the picture painted by Juan Manuel Blanes in 1871, Un episodio de fiebre amarilla en Buenos Aires (Yellow Fever in Buenos Aires). Already in 1977, Testa drew La peste en la ciudad (The Plague in the City), in reference to another epidemic that also passed through Buenos Aires, and a piece for which he won the Itamaraty Grand Prize at the São Paulo Biennial for the selected artworks  of the Group of Thirteen (Cayc Group). On that occasion, death also “dressed differently,” disguised as a rat.

At the ICI (Institute of Ibero-American Cooperation) in Buenos Aires, a cultural center also created by the architect-artist, Testa found the curious facsimile edition of the Inventario de Trujillo (Inventory of Trujillo) of the 18th century. There are nine volumes that consist of 1441 drawings and watercolors commissioned by Martinez Compañon, the Bishop of that jurisdiction in Peru. They are scenes of the flora and fauna, portraits of kings of Spain, and clothes corresponding to different occupations. The facsimile edition constitutes a fundamental document because of the information it provides about the period. But, was it complete? Who are the authors of these anonymous watercolors? In the installation at the ICI, Testa presents the missing illustrations, continuing the story of the Bishop three centuries later. One of them, drawn on the institutional catalog of the Spanish Center in Buenos Aires, is the schematics of the mineral hill of Gualcayoc with its internal galleries used by the natives to work in the silver mines. Another “missing work” that the Bishop could not have included in the inventory was that of his own funeral. In Testa’s illustration, the Bishop is inside the confessional attending the scene. The repeated figure of the lying bishop on a wooden board is surrounded by silhouettes of nuns made of paper, leaning on chairs that officiate as prie-dieu, completing the set of the wake.

Sometimes, historical events do not happen but are thought of, like Explosión de la Casa de la Moneda de Potosí (The Explosion of the Potosí Mint) (1991), whose execution was perhaps ordered by Belgrano when he left the city in 1813. For Testa, imagination is the source and origin of the production of the artistic act, as well as of the non-artistic act, indeed. If Belgrano’s hypothesis were confirmed — the order that was never carried out — then the event actually existed as a fantasy that is recreated by the artist. This is an explosion fantasy that a year after the painting about Potosi is completed, is verified, but this time not as fiction, with La explosión de la Embajada (The Explosion of the Embassy) in1992.  By placing the two works together in his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires in 1994, Potosí’s exploits acquire new interpretations.

Mixing autobiography with historiography, in the Apuntalamiento (Shoring) presented in 1994 at the National Museum of Fine Arts, he places the photocopy of the catalog of the same work made at the same museum in 1968. In his characteristic moderate and almost descriptive tone, Testa points out that he has repeated the work because there is a cultural model that is fragile. And he adds the following text: “A new support for the same National Museum of Fine Arts”.

In 2003 he presented in the Cabildo of Córdoba (Town Hall of Córdoba) the exhibition Crónicas y Ficciones about some missing plans of the history of Argentine architecture, recently found in Ceppaloni by the architect Clorindo Testa.

The trigger for this exhibition was the city of Córdoba itself, due to the importance of the cultural heritage of this city,and, as always, the plan and the history of its Cabildo. This building was the municipality in the sixteenth century, since the cabildos continued the spirit of the Castilian fueros (laws) in America, where the city was vigilant of its own rights. It was where the cells of prisoners were, which were found during the recent restoration works. In the 20th century, this place was the provincial police headquarters, and a clandestine detention center in the 1970s. Nowadays, it is the headquarters of the Municipality of Córdoba and a Cultural Center. In this context, Testa makes interventions in the four rooms on the upper floor.

Except for very vague descriptions, there are almost no documents that record the history of Argentine art in the 16th century, and the reconstruction of the architecture of the following century is also full of doubts, anecdotes, and more inventories due to the fervent missionary activity that promoted the construction of educational establishments – novitiates, churches, universities – and the rural settlements known as the Jesuit Estancias. After the expulsion of the order in 1767, we have the drawings of Juan Kronfuss and a wider bibliography that, in the 20th century, attempts to reconstruct the architectural memory of the area  (Mario Buschiazzo, Dalmacio Sobrón and Guillermo Furlong, among others).

Although documents are missing, the architectural monuments themselves reveal the stylistic coexistence of the Altoperuvian contributions with the Luso-Brazilian influence coming up from the Atlantic and the influence of European architects like the Belgian Felipe Lemaire, who had worked in shipyards and built the wooden vault of the Church of the Society of Jesus. In the Anuas Letters, it was recorded that “Lemaire took the shape of the wooden structure from a book printed among the Gauls. Which book is it? We know hardly anything for sure, except for isolated attributions and testimonies. The contribution of Italian architects such as Brassanelli, Prímoli, and Andrea Bianchi was also fundamental, together with the indigenous labor, in shaping the Hispanic Baroque so characteristic of the region.

Where are the data and projects? Only in the Cathedral of Córdoba, the names of Greogorio Bazán de Pedraza, Andrés Jiménez de Lorca, Pedro Torres, José González Merguete, Domingo de Villamonte, Fray Vicente Muñoz, José Rodríguez, and Andrea Bianchi among many others, can be found together.

Testa invents a fictional story of the other projects that may have taken part in the construction of colonial architecture, but which, due to incidents unknown to us, have not reached us. It is said that it was not easy to get Bianchi’s intervention in Córdoba because of the enormous number of projects he worked on, as no one wanted to do without his services. In the documents of the time, this architect is credited with the portico of the Cathedral of Córdoba, the façade of the Ischilin Chapel, and in Buenos Aires, the Cabildo, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pilar, the San Pedro Telmo Parish, and the Church and Monastery of St. Catherine of Siena. The Italian architect by training -he was born in the Swiss Canton- was the most renowned among his peers. He had studied in Rome among the disciples of Bernini’s disciples, and was an admirer of Borromini and Serlio. He was, according to the historiography of the time, “the greatest architect who worked in Argentina before 1810” and the most “Italian” one. In other words, he was the most awarded, consecrated, and legitimated. But, by whom? We do not know his competitors and where the non-winning projects are.

Testa rewrites the history of architecture beginning with the rise of another architect: Don Francesco, Bianchi’s main competitor. With a long brush, like the one used by the Colon Theatre’s scenographers, Testa made the plans and the façades of Córdoba and other regions, but three centuries later. He paints standing up, with the paper on the floor, inventing the fiction of that other artist whose sketches are found today.

Clorindo Testa presented his last installation in April 2005, when the thirty-five year anniversary of the construction of the San Martín Cultural Center was celebrated. It is called El Apuntalamiento Innecesario del Centro Cultural San Martín (The Unnecessary Shoring in the San Martin Cultural Center), and it is a tribute to the creator of the building, the architect Mario Roberto Alvarez. And once again, with the sense of humor and irony that characterizes Testa, the artist considers that Alvarez’s work is not the one that should be propped up, but, once again, and thirty-seven years after the first version of this work, it is about modifying the cultural policies that mark the course of Argentina’s artistic history.

The journey through national history is also the basis of Luis Fernando Benedit’s most recent work (1937). From the 1980s onwards, the artist began to draw on historical sources linked to Argentine history. With the intention of recovering vestiges of our cultural past, Benedit executes -between 1986 and 1988-, watercolors, drawings, and objects about the voyage of the Beagle. It is a pictorial epic about the survey of the flora and fauna of Patagonia, carried out by Charles Darwin between 1831 and 1836, on board the English ship Beagle, commanded by Captain Fitz Roy.

With his eyes set on the south, Benedit made his report about the end of the world. He rescues the history of the Araucanian Indian Ceferino Namuncurá, grandson of the great Cacique of Patagonia. He also collects the history of the evangelizing action of Reverend Thomas Bridges in Tierra del Fuego. He takes the dictionary compiled by the missionary, the Yamana-English Dictionary, which is the only record of the southernmost canoe people of the continent and a fundamental source to reconstruct the original names of the geographical features of Ushuaia. Some fragments of the dictionary appear in a text by Jorge Luis Borges, “El Informe de Brodie” (“Dr. Brodie’s Report”). Thomas Bridges and the Yaghans then share their existence with David Brodie and the Yahoos, the characters of Borges’ story.

In the Fuegian Portraits, he evokes the story of three Yaghans — Jemmy Button, Fueguia Basket, and York Minster– who in 1828 are taken by Fitz Roy to England to be civilized and returned to their place of origin three years later as civilizing agents.

In Marcas, the original source is the corpus of cattle branding of the Province of Buenos Aires catalogued by César Hipólito Bacle in the 19th century. The whole set includes a real branding iron and the projection of a watercolor of Tarquino, the first Shorthorn bull imported to Argentina.

In his recent works, Benedit pays homage to the chieftains of Argentina in huge portraits drawn in charcoal on canvas.

In the case of Joseph Beuys (Germany, 1921-1986) it is interesting to see how he uses strategies of action and performance art to give his politicized view of the relationship between Germany and the United States. In 1974 he is invited to exhibit at the René Block Gallery in New York. The artist plans to enter the United States with his performance Coyote: Me gusta América y a América le gusto yo (Coyote: I like America and America likes me).

The action begins when he is transported wrapped in felt, on an ambulance stretcher from Düsseldorf to New York, in the same way he will return to his country of origin. His intention is to have an encounter with an American, to try to communicate, to like each other, and to understand each other. Ironically, Beuys asks that the encounter be with an authentic American, and then he locks himself up with a coyote, an animal sacred to North American Indians, who was extinguished during the conquest. The action will consist in trying to domesticate this carnivorous mammal that lives in the desert. Instead of a rifle or knife, Beuys decides to defend himself using his own strength and suggestion, so that mutual understanding, and not civilization, will be the cause of the conquest. The artist carries a flashlight, a cane, a triangle around his neck, an old tape recorder, and strips of felt to sleep on. Every day, he receives copies of the Wall Street Journal, which relates his actions in the mass media, to find out how the press tells the story. After a week locked in a cage and fighting until he gets tired, the coyote ends up eating from Beuys’ hand. The coyote gets used to Beuys, and Beuys gets used to the coyote, until the artist comes to sleep on the coyote’s straw, and the coyote lies down on the artist’s felt strips. Beuys has used his talent of persuasion to gradually induce the beast to give up his wild instinct and go, finally, to lie down at the artist’s feet.

This symbolizes a multicultural action: the encounter between the white man and the Native Americans, a nature-culture antinomy, in a discourse that questions the limits of tolerance and coexistence in society. There is a critique of American politics in relation to redskins, alluding to the American trauma, which Beuys seeks to help overcome through the relationship with the other, as others were the redskins, and as in each nation what is different is otherness — that difference that distinguishes each culture. Thus, the artist assumes the social role of interpreting the conflict with the artistic metaphor of the encounter between different cultures.