Of Brain Massages and Identity Crisis
The Transregional Academy on Latin American Art II has just ended. I am still processing the remarkable experience, the transfers of knowledge, and the inspiring atmosphere that lead this encounter. I simply need to write something about it. Registering at least some of my thoughts, I say to myself, will make them more vivid and enduring. I will focus on only one aspect of this many-sided event.
A few years ago, probably due to the fact that I was completing my doctoral dissertation and spending an average of fourteen hours a day in front of a computer, I developed a strong neck pain. After that, massages turned into a regular presence in my life (whenever I could afford them). Having a massage means a rapid succession of sensations: from the initial pain to the lasting relief. The waiting is the hardest part.
The image of the massage resonates with my wonderful and eye-opening experience as a junior participant in the Transregional Academy. As part of the group B (“Making Modernities? Mobiles, Media, Mediators, and Artists”), I had the opportunity to present my current project to a keen audience of juniors and seniors: Hannah Baader, Jens Baumgarten, Milena Gallipoli, Diego Fernando Guerra, Laura Karp Lugo, Miriam Oesterreich, and Laura Petrauskaité. I have to admit that being the center of attention of such a group for an hour and a half was indeed a moving experience by itself.
Let me return to the massage metaphor. Massages are a succession of feelings. The kind of feedback I received took precisely this form. Among the many useful and remarkable comments I received, I would like to focus on one particular question posed by Hannah. She asked me what kind of approach I was planning to take on my new research subject: the lives and works of Argentine women artists between 1920 and 1940. Was I going to take a sociological approach? Was I planning to include close analysis of these women’s artworks?
The question was extremely simple in its terms, but deceptively complex in its implications. This seemingly innocent question of approach lingered for a while. Actually, it lingered for a rather long time, for this question is connected to two key methodological problems I have tackled with for quite a long time, without being able to fully articulate them.
My initial reaction was to swallow the bait: “my” women artists deserved to be discussed in the terms art history, in its many shapes, provides. But, as all good questions, this one caused a chain reaction that I would like to explore through what I think are the two most important points raised by Hannah’s powerful question.
The first point concerns the role individual artists have played in the writing of art histories. A male individual surrounded by legendary features and accomplishments, as many feminist art historians have pointed out, usually plays such a role.
Women artists in Argentina, particularly those who worked before the 1950s, can rarely follow this pattern. The reconstruction of their lives and works is dependent on hard-to-find archival sources. These approaches are doomed to be fragmentary, for many sources have not been preserved, causing gaps and lacunae in our understanding of their activities and achievements. A more sociological approach, focusing on the shared qualities of women as a socially constructed group, may shed more light on them than more traditional methodologies associated with art history.
The usual strategy of the case study presents some obstacles. In order to reconstruct one of these hardly-remembered women artists, it is necessary to mobilize several sources, often obscure. This time-consuming task sometimes proves to be useless: so many voices have been erased from the existing records.
The second points relates to the role objects have played in the writing of art histories. Where exactly are the works of Argentine women artists between 1920 and 1940? Of course, many museums and some private collections own remarkable pieces by some of them. But, going through the newspapers and illustrated magazines of these years, it becomes evident that so little of their production has survived. Realizing this fact invites reflection on the selective nature of cultural heritage.
I would like to further explain these two points with a short example. Painter María Elena Bertrand was born in 1899 and exhibited a series of remarkable nudes in the 1920s. I have also found press articles regarding her trip to Europe in 1926, when she exhibited in Madrid and achieved some success. The rest of her life is unknown, even the time of her death. Moreover, I have not yet been able to find any surviving works in museums or private collections. I know that at least three of her paintings were auctioned in Buenos Aires a few years ago, but I have not been able to track down any of them. Bertrand was a well-known figure back in her days, but the memory of her achievements is blurred now.
The “archive” (or should we speak of the “patriarchive” upon which art history is built?) does not include and has not registered voices like Bertrand’s. Should I keep silent? Should I take a leap and venture outside the boundaries of art history, so often seemingly centered upon the “biography” and the “object”? The question is now clear to me. The answers… not so much. But I have a good question and that is a start. After the initial pain and identity crisis, there is some relief I sincerely feel grateful about.