Fine Arts according to Rep

No. 4 – Buenos Aires, July 2004

Many people start their day reading his comic strip on the back cover of Página/12. Laura Batkis chose to interview him for his brand new book Bellas Artes instead and called Fabián Mauri to take the pictures.

Multifaceted (Miguel) Rep. He has been drawing the comic strip of Página/12 since its first issue, where he deployed a true parade of characters, from Gaspar el Revolú to El Niño Azul. He worked in mythical magazines such as Fierro, El Péndulo, and Humor Registrado, where his first character, El Recepcionista de Arriba, appeared. He is the author of Postales, Rep hizo los barrios, and La Grandeza y la Chiqueza, among other books. He gets into the skin of Borges and Kerouac to illustrate the series Para Principiantes. He researched everything about graphic humor and went for more: he came across the art of museums and tells how he decided to put together Bellas Artes (Fine Arts), the book that has just been published by Sudamericana.

How did the idea of doing Bellas Artes come up? 

I always liked to recreate the milestones of painting. The first time I used the subject was in 1983, with The Anatomy Lesson to study composition in Rembrandt. 

Do you make a translation?

Yes, it’s about transforming what is painting into lines because I am a draftsman of lines, like almost everyone else. And that translation is very difficult. The best examples of that are the drawings by Frida Kahlo and Bacon. 

It’s like understanding an artist by studying their work. 

What I like the most is to get into the paintings and the artist’s problems when they compose them. I translate the painting into my style and recreate the representation. 

So you make an interpretation of art history.

Yes, because I stylize it, with the Rep style. The re-reading is always a stylization, applying your style. 

In Bellas Artes, there is a part dedicated to Argentine art. 

Of Argentine art, I’m interested in a line of criticism that goes through Cándido López as a social chronicler, continues with Molina Campos, Berni, culminating with Pablo Suárez and Marcia Schvartz. Di Tella and the ‘60s do not interest me at all. The money that came from outside was to break a tradition. It’s a paranoid conspiratorial point of view, but it seems to me that it has a basis all over the world. Fashions in art are harmful. Then there are isolated artists that interest me, like Kuitca. I am his contemporary and I perfectly understand his cultural consumptions. Pure conceptualists do not move me. Others I like are Noé and León Ferrari, who are thinkers. From Macció, I prefer his most current work, the urban illustrations. And I am also interested in Benedit.

How do you get the humor part?

That is the stage where I want all the people to understand with me the wonderful adventure that is the history of art. That is the most popular part where there is professional intervention. I want the teaching of art history to be democratized. Much of the lousy art that is in circulation would be counteracted by educating the sovereign, the more knowledge, the higher the quality of taste, and the more careful the selection. Then there would be more filters and better art. Mind you, this has nothing to do with an aristocratic or elitist idea of beauty, but the more information, the less the sham appropriation of knowledge. We all have the right to have access to something as elementary as art.

And humor is a gateway…

I can’t theorize about humor, because humor is my outlook on the world. I see Giotto’s work and I see it from a humorous perspective. A paradoxical perspective, which takes solemnity out of the scene. I could not be a serious plastic artist. I could not be Kiefer. Bellas Artes is a parodic reading with a lot of love for the artists I choose. 

What is the difference between a cartoonist and a fine artist? 

The fine artist is a thinker. And that thinking is not required too much in the cartoonist. Nor is a journalist a thinker. There are few graphic humorists who are thinkers and therefore artists. In art, it is necessary to have one’s own thinking. Art is made by the authors. 

And there are no authors in graphic humor?

Yes, there are some. Quino is an author and a thinker. Breccia cannot be forgotten: he marked a before and an after within the comic strip. He delved into his roots, into the marginality and the shore, Mataderos, the south, and he exploited the limits of the comic strip. Another author who has produced a major work is José Muñoz. And I am only talking about Argentines. Other marvels are Oski, Copi, and Calé.

There are more conditions in graphic humor.

Of course, you can’t work an image as obsessively as De Chirico because working for mass media establishes a lot of previous agreements. Both graphic artists and journalists have a kind of emotional education; they have to communicate as plainly as possible. You are always thinking about the client. The fine artist is freer. Take Matt Groening, from The Simpsons, for example, he never wanted to have “art gallery communication.” Another one is Robert Crumb, an artist on a par with Lichtenstein, but he always had the intention of being massive from the underground. 

What is this art gallery communication?

The circuit of the art dealer is not the same as that of the publisher. Today something interesting is happening and that is that the limits are being blurred. The art aristocracy is mixing with the publishing aristocracy. You can find as much quality in graphics as little quality in art. 

If the fine artist is a thinker… the graphic artist does not think? 

No, he has a different pace for thinking. The graphic artist has urgent thoughts that conspire against his thinking. I am constantly thinking about what is happening, and I have to translate that current reality, with a clear language so that it can be understood in any neighborhood of Buenos Aires or the provinces. Your thinking is contaminated by the mass reach of your work, and that takes power away from your thinking. No philosopher has a thought for the masses; generally, they speak to their cliques. What is for the masses does not revolutionize. Many factors creep in; everything is increasingly under surveillance.

Do you mean how the system digests every revolutionary act?

Yes, when the Beatles appeared, who already had an intention of reaching the masses, and they made the break, they really surprised us, because they came with the previous strength. Then that language itself is devoured by the system. Sooner or later, everything that is a new language is metabolized. Look at the Sex Pistols logo and the image of the ’76 punks. It went from being subversive to being something of little value in a museum. 

What is it like to work with immediacy?

It’s being a chronicler. I am naturally informed; what I do is add new information every day and try to do something with that news salad. Ten years ago there were five news items, now there are forty-five. It is impressive how much is reported during the day. 

Where do you get your information from?

From the radio and my newspaper. Being informed all the time means that many things don’t surprise you, like the attack on the twin towers. I can only be surprised by things with a different logic. 

For example?

The arrival of extraterrestrials. That’s what I’m waiting for (laughs). 

When did you become interested in what is happening in the world?

Since 1980, when I was working for the magazine Humor Registrado.

And before that?

My wish to be a cartoonist was timeless. I could make castaway jokes in any magazine.  From ’78 to ’81 Humor Registrado was a magazine with humorous intentions. Then it turned into a current affairs magazine, and finally, it ended up being a boring magazine. But that’s where I got informed. I began to have a reading of the world, which increased with the Malvinas/Falklands War. I learned to have the reading of the loser because we are losers. And as a humorist, it is good for me to be on the loser’s side. 

What topics wouldn’t you cover?

None, I give myself the freedom to tackle all topics: black humor, religion; I trust how I get to those topics.

And which side are you on in the Bellas Artes series?

On the side of the loser, far from the king who pays. On the side of the rebellious Velázquez who painted Las Meninas; on the side of the artist’s anguish. That’s why one of my favorite artists is Goya, because he is a sufferer. 

How do you approach these authors?

I get into them, I do research, I put myself in their shoes.

Who would you not draw?

Osvaldo Soriano was suggested to me but, although he was my friend, I didn’t have the encouragement for so many pages. His life and his work were not mysterious enough for me. Neither would I do José Martí or Lugones or Chico Buarque.

And the ones you would be interested in drawing?

The Beatles, Rodolfo Walsh. 

But you don’t just stay in the comic strip.

They are different processes. In Bellas Artes, I do parodies, as in La Grandeza y la Chiqueza, or graphic reports where I tell what I experienced in Fito Paez’s tour, watching a concert of La Mona Gimenez, or like in 2003, when Chavez and Fidel Castro came, and I spent a day in the hotel with them. These are chronicles that go out of the humorist’s routine. 

What is it like for you to exhibit in a gallery or a museum?

Very different from the typical exhibitions of cartoonists. I don’t like exhibitions where the originals of the comic strips are shown. For me, the museum or the gallery are sacred places.

What is the difference between a joke and humor?

It is necessary to differentiate between a joke and comedy and humor. Comedy is what is done in revue theater. It is a technique with formulas that are learned. Humor, on the other hand, is thinking without formulas. It is not only the joke but also about having a humorous outlook on life. The humorist’s comedy is on the verge of tragedy, but comedy is not. The humorist first understands himself and laughs at himself, then laughs at others. Comedy only laughs at others. 

In everyday life, do you have humor?

Yes, I look at life in a paradoxical way, as if it were a cubist painting. I get involved with something and I see a situation that is dramatic, light, curious humorous all at the same time. I live my personal dramas in a powerfully dramatic way, and then I try to distance myself from it, which I translate into writing, and then when I tell it, I try to have a humorous tone. 

Is there such a thing as Argentine humor? 

What I see as purely local humor is that of the countryman. I think it is something very pure of a certain Argentinianness. I like silly humor but when it comes from an intelligent person who does not show off his or her status or erudition and who is not afraid of ridicule. That is for me today the most stylized way of being intelligent.