The Art of a Soldier of Perón – Daniel Santoro

No. 3 – Buenos Aires, June 2004

Daniel Santoro intends to be the painter of the foundational Peronism, to recover the ideological content in art, and to build a great installation to be able to see scenes of the Peronist utopia. Critical and passionate, he tells Laura Batkis about the complex alliance between art and politics. 

Santoro’s house in Congreso neighbourhood looks like a cabinet of curiosities, like those of the Dukes of the Renaissance who gathered rarities in search of the philosopher’s stone. There is a huge library filled with volumes of art books and Peronist manuals, along with his collection of shells, insects and reptiles in formaldehyde and toys. One room is occupied by a model of a city that the artist started with the construction of Calabria, the birthplace of his deceased mother. He couldn’t stop so he continued to expand until it became an eclectic city, where American buildings stand next to a country house, a villa, soldiers and a train runs between the lights in each building.  In another room, there is a huge painted mural, a reminder of the scenery he created for the Colón theatre, with the figures of Leonardo and Paracelsus in the foreground. We sat in his workshop, surrounded by his paintings of those children wearing aprons as protective shells given by the State, Siam refrigerators and Pulqui planes to create this article. 

Where do you get the iconography of your paintings from?

From books like this one (he shows me an encyclopedia, hard cover, golden letters, La Nación Argentina, Justa y Soberana (The Argentine Nation, Just and Sovereign, 1950). It is an encyclopedia, drawn and colored in a folkloric way, of everything the government had done up to 1950. I am interested in the graphic resources, which I define as a kind of soft Stalinism. They take Soviet posters and instead of faceting them, they put happy gauchos, with roses, yellows, cheerful colors, so that it does not look communist. 

It is a drawn compendium of the Justicialist model of society. 

Yes, everything is there, the five-year plan, all the ships, all the schools, all the houses, all the airports, it is very crazy. The ideological part is worthless, always the past and the present, the worker before as a slave and now as a free man. Or phrases like “Social aid yes, charity no”. “Social aid is used to mitigate needs and restore society as slow acts for the descendants of the homeless”. 

It is like a happy tale, they look like medieval friezes made to indoctrinate and delight the people. 

Yes, it’s propaganda, but it’s all real. If you look for one of these schools, you will find it. There is nothing fake. 

An overwhelming graphic, like an excess of information. 

It’s as if they thought “let’s put everything so they don’t bust our balls”.  It is the most edited and most destroyed book in the history of Argentina. 

Who were the artists? 

This is incredible… (we read the colophon of the book). “For this atlas no extraordinary service has been hired and this task performed by permanent personnel of the State has not caused, therefore, any additional expenditure to the treasury. In the graphic part, the team of draftsmen of the State control participated”.  This is very strong. Think how much it would cost to make an equivalent book nowadays, you have to go to international consulting firms, hire numerous advertising studios. 

With this graphic you are now working based on Antonio Berni’s works.

When Berni creates the saga of Juanito Laguna, he makes this boy appear in a garbage dump, without schooling, without anything. It is the 1960s, so he is 4 or 5 years old. He could be the son of a teenage mother. What I do is to continue the fiction but going backwards, the story of his mother. If Juanito Laguna was in that condition, his mother in 1949 could have been a girl protected by the State.  It seems to me that it was not a coincidence that Berni did not want to investigate Juanito Laguna’s ancestors, because he would have inevitably had to come across Peronism.  It amazes me that while Berni includes so many signs in his paintings, none of them have any trace of Peronism.

You paint Eva Perón a lot. 

She is a contradictory character. Today she is taken in her revolutionary facet. For example, Cristina Kirchner says that she likes an active image of Eva Perón, the one with loose hair that looks like Che Guevara’s girlfriend. Actually, if we had let the fervor of the 70’s flourish, she would have been Che’s mistress. But if you look closely, the Evita on the cover of La razón de mi vida (My life’s reason), which she was in charge of, is the Eva who looks like a religious icon, with a calm tone, a friendly smile and a sweet look. And this is the Eva she wanted to be and to show. An Eva Perón who is not a feminist, who is absolutely anti-communist and anti-Marxist. 

With a servility towards her man who is Perón.

Eva was a soldier of Perón. The Eva that is shown today is very biased, and it doesn’t do justice even to her own will. On the other hand, there is the Evita who restores justice, the one who does not do charity from the State but social aid to restore the injustices subjected to the people. She did it perhaps with excesses, as seen by the ladies of charity who hated her. Who still hate her. The anti-patriotism in this country is unbelievable. When I published my book “Eva Perón for beginners”, together with Nerio Tello, there was a big poster of Eva that I drew to promote the book. It was at the entrance of the bookstore in the Recoleta Village cinema. Some women complained so much that they decided to take it down. Of course, they couldn’t stand that a “black girl” who could have been their maid had come to power, but if there was a poster of Che, it wouldn’t bother them, because he is like a very rebellious boy, with a Lynch family name. The strong issue is racism against the slumdog. If a black man appears on television, he is an African, but never a slumdog. We don’t look at that, and that’s where Peronism is. 

What came first, painting or political activism? 

First came political activism at the age of 14, in Guardia de Hierro. It is a group sometimes labeled as fascist but in reality we were simply Peronists.  We fought for Perón, we assumed we were Perón’s soldiers, we read everything he had read, as Lacanians do nowadays. We tried to reconstruct in our heads what his thinking was like, we submitted ourselves to a kind of brainwashing. During my militancy I did decorative paintings, which was not usual. Then I entered the Art School. And I resumed my political activism in the 90’s with the manuals I made in the bars (several volumes of the Manual of a Peronist Child). They are like notes for future works. 

You started to have a lot of visibility with “Un mundo peronista” in Recoleta, and the big breakthrough was at the 2002 Art Fair, when a gallery sold all your work. 

Yes, an unusual thing….

How do you explain this sudden Santoro fever? 

Maybe because this topic appeared clearly for the first time. The whole subject of Peronism in the visual arts was absolutely denied, as if it were not esthetizable material. There is a kind of oblivion, nobody ever painted the bombings in Plaza de Mayo either.  

What is your conclusion then?

As far as I remember in the 70’s the only thing that was shown was Peronist iconography. And yet in art it was not expressed, because there is a kind of look that needs homologation.  I think it is the superficial eye. The superficial eye sees everything that is national as an excess. When Glusberg came to my exhibition in Recoleta he told me “This is like a kind of neo-kitsch”. If you paint a Marilyn Monroe, a Coca Cola bottle and an American flag they say: “It’s pop”. Now, if I paint a black woman from here, a mate and an Argentine flag on the back with the same criteria, they will say it’s kitsch. If you put that same painting in New York, it is pop, because it is popular art. 

Does it bother you that some people see that kitsch tone and that the Peronist content is taken as something funny, curious?

The issue has to do with value. It’s not the same to say pop as kitsch. They subject you to the doorman’s scrutiny. In Argentina art is guarded by a few doormen. Legitimizing doormen in relation to an external homologation, because they receive orders like any other doormen. You tell a doorman “no slumdogs allowed” and they comply. 

And Peronism does not pass through the main entrance? 

No, Peronism is “slumdog”.

And how did you get in?

From the outside. In 2002 the English magazine “Modern Painters”, directed by David Bowie, who is an art collector, came. It was because of the Recoleta exhibition, they had received a catalog. The art critic Julian Kreimer came and wrote an article about Argentine art, taking my work. It is the Gardel syndrome, “we are going to look at it with more attention because abroad they give it a lot of attention, they say it is Argentine art, it must have something”. 

You are also painting the bombing of 1955 in Plaza de Mayo

It is a subject that was not represented.  Only recently Saccomano in the book “La lengua del malón” makes reference to this subject.  In those bombings 600 people died, among them 25 children who were in a bus. They are unclaimed dead, not vindicated, Peronism was twice in the government after that and never even put a plaque in Plaza de Mayo. And the subsequent executions. It would be necessary to see if those are not the first ones who really disappeared. 

You talk as if there was something premeditated in all this. 

I will tell you something that is very hard, but it is like this: the dead from the left are “pop”, the dead from Peronism are kitsch. If it were not for Rodolfo Walsh with “Operation Massacre”, that would have been totally forgotten.  So-called “political” art was appropriated by the left.

And yours then is…

It is political art, where I try to reconstruct those loose pieces of the foundational Peronism that I find wonderful.  

In your paintings, situations occur in places of urbanization that were projected at that time. The strange thing is that you mix resources from the whole history of art. 

Because I am interested in making an aesthetic bet. I use elements of Hopper, Balthus, the Italian artists of the pre-Renaissance like Giotto and Simone Martini. Also Immendorf, Kippenberger. They are successive filters that hinder the direct reading. And I also use Kabala, Taoism and Chinese. The Tree of Life, which has 3 branches, I link it with the 3 branches of the Peronist movement and the third position.  In the kabala the central branch is that of emptiness. I take the third position as an ideological void. Peronism is the empty field between the left and the right. 

What is this void like? Tell me a little about what you mean.

I make a strong self-criticism, because Peronism has a bright side and a very dark side. A rich man takes power, he has 100 million in the Bank, when he finishes he will have 110 million, he had Armani before and he continues using Armani afterwards. On the other hand, a trade unionist appears, a good guy, who fought all his life, but dressed in a shabby suit and ends up with an Armani, and steals 2 million and you can see it everywhere. Peronism easily shows that dark side. 

What do you think of today’s art?

A whole epiphenomenon was generated around art, which was not created around music due to a problem of competition. If you don’t listen well you can’t be a music critic.  In visual arts, women get divorced at the age of 50 and start an art gallery, and anyone can start writing reviews. It seems that there are no limitations. Much of what was done in art in the ’90s was the worship of bullshit, due to incompetence. And if you say so, you are a censor, because you have to be politically correct. 

You also refer to an epiphenomenon around art.

Example: Museo Costantini (Malba). It has at least 70 guys who are scamming it, who live off it. There used to be a single director and someone who did the set up and put up the lights. The exhibitions were great. Now there are first curators, second curators, deputy chief curator. One guy puts up the bucks and there’s a bunch of people around trying to get something out of him. If I donate a Morandi painting to the Costantini they will look down on me. On the other hand, if I go and take a huge truck with 5 thousand kilos of edible gelatin, 7 thousand kilos of whipped cream, I say it is a sculpture and I donate it, they will say “great!”, because they will open a new department in the museum of “edible art”, with employees to keep it in cold storage, and then the University of El Salvador will create a degree in edible art. And from there, teaching positions will arise from the sculpture I donated. That is the epiphenomenon.