Recently, I was on a road trip to the provinces of San Juan and La Rioja. The main point of the trip was to see Parque Ischigualasto, Parque Talampaya, and guanacos.
But, there was an opportunity to take in one of my favorite type of little museums: a personal collection that got wildly out of hand. This is the Museo Piedras del Mundo:
The enterprising proprietor of the museum has put together three rooms of displays, which he will lead you through (Spanish only). The main gallery boasts a hell of a rock collection.
Pains are taken to give information on the chemistry of various minerals, which are indeed from around the world. There are also sections dedicated to the local geology.
A second room houses local archaeological finds (the region is rich in fossils and ancient human-made relics, as well as impressive rocks)…
…and also some truly alarming local creepy crawlies.
The third room houses the seashell, fish specimen, and photography collection (all the photos were taken by the museum owner).
You will easily burn more time in the museum than you thought you would. And it’s a fun little place! It is maybe just past the middle of nowhere, if you’re coming from San Agustín, closer to a very, very small village called Usno. There’s literally nothing around the place. It is, if I recall correctly, $100 pesos for entry, and it’s open from 8am to 7pm daily. He’s also got a little gift shop.
I spent January in the US, and managed, during my relentless pursuit of Tex-Mex and Whataburger, to visit the McNay Art Museum, a place that will always be special to me.
The McNay opened in 1954, with the home, collection, and an endowment of Marion Koogler McNay, as established in her will. It was the first modern art museum in Texas, although the holdings expanded outside of that frame.
When I was a regular visitor, as a teenager, it was already a super cool place. There was an auditorium and workshop space, the grounds were beautiful, and the museum was free. I went often, and I got pretty familiar with the collection.
In 2008, the museum underwent a heckin big expansion, adding 45,000 square feet of space plus a sculpture garden. It isn’t free anymore, but it does have a cool gift shop and also lots of exhibitions. I do feel a bit wistful for the smaller oasis the McNay was for me back in the day, but it has grown and it is thriving and one must be satisfied with that.
I took a metric ton of photos, but I won’t subject you to them all. Mainly, I was just very happy to visit some old friends.
And meet some new ones.
The McNay also has a big-time theatre arts collection, some of which formed part of this exceptionally fun show:
Just a couple more pictures of the courtyard and grounds, I promise:
Should you wish to explore the collection and temporary exhibits more, the museum has a robust online presence. But do go visit if you’re ever in the area; you’ll be so glad you did. The McNay is treasure of San Antonio.
The McNay Art Museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and general admission is relatively steep, at least to me (as I’m used to the inexpensive entry fees of Argentina), but they have a pretty extensive free and discount list. See the website for all the where, when, and how much nitty gritty.
Having been elbow-deep in various other obligations and pursuits, I have been a terrible blogger. But I’m actively scheduling some upcoming visits, so I had better work through my backlog here. I’m not going to say too much about the MALBA, as it is widely called, because…it’s really famous. If you’re an art-interested traveler touring Buenos Aires, it’s already on your agenda. As it should be.
There’s an impressive permanent collection, with all the usual suspects and more.
There’s also these amazing benches, probably my favorite museum seating in the world so far. It’s actually very comfortable.
I am very fond of birds.
What’s that? Fun, interactive pieces? Duh.
(Seven Unexpected Movements, Julio Le Parc)
The permanent collection is a real treat, but the MALBA also moves some pretty extensive temporary exhibitions through. When I visited, there was an exhibition of Pablo Suárez, an Argentine painter and sculptor with a pretty broad stylistic range.
You’ll burn a few hours in the MALBA, which is pretty much a can’t-miss stop in Buenos Aires if you’re at all into Latin American art and culture. Signage is in Spanish and English. There’s a nice restaurant with a solid menu, and a pricey gift shop. The museum is open from 12 to 8 (and an hour later on Wednesdays) except Tuesdays, when it is closed. General admission is, at the time of this post but haha Argentina inflation so do double check, $170 pesos (reduced admission for students, teachers, and local retirees is $85), except on Wednesdays when it’s $85 (and reduced admission patrons are free). Under 5 and disabled visitors are always free. Private group guided visits in English can be arranged by email.
The MALBA is located in Palermo, kind of between the Japanese Gardens and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, close to many other major museums and attractions. Fewer places in the city are easier to get to via bus, taxi, subway (D line), or on foot.
Well, hello, 2019. I have been a terrible writer. I was in the US for the end of December and all of January, and even though I took with me a backlog of museum visits to work on while I was there, it obviously never happened because a good 97% of my focus at home is devoted to getting tacos. Thank you for your understanding.
So now I’m home, and also sick, which is a great condition for acclimating to the change in time zone, but whatever, my point is I have time. So–
This is the Museo Judío de Buenos Aires, and if you’re thinking that’s a bit unassuming and you might miss it, don’t worry, because this is the temple next door:
The museum is connected to the Templo Libertad, the central synagogue of Buenos Aires. It faces the same stretch of squares as the Teatro Colón and the Supreme Court building. I’ll touch on the history of Jewish Argentines lightly as I go here, but Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America, and their history is, of course, extensive.
Visitors to the museum will encounter first a heavy, locked door, and they must be buzzed into the antechamber. Visitors are at this point required to show identification to the doorman, who sits behind a shield. After that, the doorman is able to buzz visitors through the next heavy, locked door. You will find extra security precautions at many Jewish schools and synagogues in the city; 1992 and 1994 saw two major terrorist attacks against the Jewish community (the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Center [AMIA], respectively). They are accustomed to foreign visitors, and passports are welcome forms of identification.
Inside, you will find a warm and welcoming staff. The signage is in Spanish, although an audioguide is available in multiple languages for download on smartphones, so bring some headphones. It does not appear that the guide is linked on the museum’s website, so it requires Internet access within the building or a local data plan. I hope they consider linking it in the main website so it can be downloaded prior to visiting. I also hope they expand the content someday, as it is on the lean side, but nevertheless a pleasant way to tour the museum.
The museum’s collection is entirely donated, and it includes ancient artifacts:
As well as a few contemporary art pieces here and there:
…which is a nice touch, a reminder of the museum’s place within a community that is both ancient and living.
Most of the items are from the 19th and 20th centuries. This is a 19th century Polish Tanahk (Hebrew Bible) in miniature that could be hidden on one’s person as necessary.
There are other religious texts and cases:
…as well as items related to Jewish life from all over the world:
In the late 1800s-early 1900s, there was a large number of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, escaping violence and attracted by Argentina’s liberal immigration policy. Thousands settled into agricultural life, and Jewish gauchos became a thing.
My favorite part was the Menorah collection!
Also the Torah pointer, which is just a really practical design.
Visitors can also see the temple itself, which is very impressive, and hosts an active congregation.
The museum has a small gift shop.
A unique history museum and worthwhile visit, the Museo Judío de Buenos Aires is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 6pm. The entry fee is a relatively steep US $10 for foreigners (but currently 80 pesos for Argentine residents and 50 pesos for Argentine retirees). It’s easy to get to via the B and D subway lines and a multitude of buses, and just down the street from Teatro Colón, so it’s right in the thick of things.
I am hardly a scholar of art history, but I can tell you that modern and contemporary art is hard. It often doesn’t adhere to a traditional notion of artistic skill, it often doesn’t portray recognizable subjects, it often offends traditional sensibilities. This art doesn’t lead you to its point; it asks that you meet it there. Modern art requires the consumer to work.
And that’s not a super easy thing to accept.
And it isn’t hard to see why many people are suspicious of modern art; they look at simple, geometric paintings or found-object sculpture and get the sense that they’re being conned. I have some opinions about certain artists myself, certainly. Who would want to look at or experience something, ascribe to it a meaning, and then find out it didn’t mean anything? That would suck.
So modern art requires some faith on the part of the consumer. It requires some work to understand the artist’s intent. And it requires considering what art is and what it should do.
But that isn’t all there is to it. The consumer experience matters. When you look at something, your feelings are your feelings, and it’s useful to examine them. You don’t have to like what you see, you don’t even have to see what the artist sees. The artist doesn’t get to dictate your reaction or interpretation. How it makes you as an individual feel is important. Modern art places importance on innovation and that emotional evocation.
Regarding innovation, I will tell you of the two times I met Jackson Pollock’s work in educational settings. The first time I was a young child on a school trip to an art museum. The woman leading the tour showed us a large Pollock canvas, and told us maybe we thought we could do that, but that it was deceptively simple–it was the way that he dripped the paint, his method, that made it unique and valuable. She was an Adult Authority Figure in her Field, so I tried to see the skill in his splatters, despite my reservations. When I was in college, my art history professor gave an explanation that seemed much clearer to me. “Maybe you think you could do that,” he said. “But you didn’t.” Pollock had innovated, and created something that no one else can now create.
So maybe you see something in a piece like this, motion and depth and shape:
I think it’s perfectly fair to look at something that is abstract and decide what you see in it and if you like it. But I do encourage you to at least take that look.
Now, modern art of course involves more than just painting and sculpture. There are often multimedia components and even tactile ones. The exhibition Pulso by Nicolás Mastracchio∼ incorporates photography, found objects, video, and your bare feet.
After removing your shoes, you walk around in very close proximity to the photos and what are described as “fragile mobiles,” such as that dry leave you see there. You may sit for several minutes for the video portion.
Mastracchio∼ was influenced by meditation and Zen principles, and “exploring the spontaneous and ephemeral configurations of a small cosmos of objects, which is ordered in a few minutes and then photographed, together with the installation of mobiles in movement.”
I might not have come to that conclusion on my own, but I do see it. The room was smaller and the carpet was soft and dampened the sound, making the exhibition room feel more intimate and quiet than the cavernous galleries. Walking among things like photos and the small mobile objects gave me a sharp sense of my physical being within the space. And, although it isn’t mentioned in the exhibition material, I was also disturbed by the non-natural objects floating in the air and the water in the video. It felt like pollution that I could not remove, and that’s a feeling worth examining, too.
There are lots of Argentine modern artists represented in the Moderno’s collection. This is Integralismo Bio-cosmos N°1, by Emilio Renart, and all I can tell you I am super glad it does not move.
Also in the sculpture realm is this Crucifixión by Norberto Gómez, which is certainly not the most comforting thing I’ve ever seen.
But I wanted to talk about this one for a second. It is clearly a crucifixion; you can see that from any angle, without reading the title plaque. Think, or look here if you like, about traditional crucifixion scenes. At least in my opinion, there is usually a serenity to Jesus, even if his pain is evident. There’s a sense of structure in the composition. They are, in a way, comforting. To my eye, Gómez has reduced the crucifixion to its barest agony. With a minimal human aspect, it twists and contorts without relief.
And then there’s this guy.
This is Lengua. You might recall Alberto Heredia from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Not everything he did involved terrifying disembodied mouths, but “terrifying” does seem to be a recurring feature, as seen here with the most alarming San Martin I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Last in the 3D arts that I’m going to note is Claudia Fontes’s Ofelia, which to me recalls Philippe Curtius’s waxwork Sleeping Beauty modeled on Madame du Berry (Curtius is now best known for teaching Madame Tussaud her craft; the Sleeping Beauty is in the London Tussaud location, and there are better images of it out there than the official video). I won’t go too deep into my thoughts on Ofelia, except to say that while the Sleeping Beauty waxworks (there were several) were created by and for the male gaze, Fontes has removed the female figure entirely, leaving only the gown (a garment that, incidentally, sunk Ophelia to her death). It does still breathe lightly, however.
Now, you could, for example, tell me that it’s just a dress with a little motor and a total sham, a cynical ploy to profit off being called “art.” Let’s say for a moment that you’re right. So what? Humans ascribe meaning in non-literal ways all the time; it’s a feature, not a bug. And people find personal meaning in things that were set up to make a profit, like Nicolas Sparks novels, CrossFit, or (let’s face it) any number of religious organizations, all the time. You, personally, might feel like it’s all bullshit–but the meaning they, personally, find in it is real. The main difference here is that the Moderno is free on Tuesdays.
I have less to say about these paintings, mainly because I didn’t photograph many abstract paintings, so I think these are easier to connect with.
I took this photo because the title is Cat and Flowers, which I thought was odd because there’s clearly two cats in the painting.
I liked this one because as a frequent bus rider, it feels very familiar, even though it’s more than 50 years old. All of the driver’s personal touches, from the Virgin of Luján to the scrolly letters, the crowds all the way up the full aisle–all still very true to life. I also liked it because there’s a cat.
So that’s a small sample of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, well worth a visit. Much, if not all, of the labeling and signage is in English. It’s located in San Telmo and easy to get to by subway and bus. The building was recently overhauled, and there’s a cafe and a small bookstore, where you can afford to indulge in a coffee considering the museum’s entry price is 30 pesos (less than US $1, currently). The museum is closed on Mondays and free on Tuesdays; check the website for current ticket prices and hours.
December is here, and despite my strenuous objections, spring is warming up the city. These will be the last weeks to enjoy the parks and gardens without feeling super hot and gross the whole time. It’s time to visit the plant museum.
The Buenos Aires Botanical Garden is, objectively speaking, the best place in the entire city. It’s one good soundproofing and a few shady hammocks from achieving empirical perfection. These are just the facts.
And there is a small sort of museum on the grounds: the main building, where garden designer Carlos Thays lived while he was director of parks and walks, so there’s a nice perk you don’t see in city governments much today.
Inside, you’ll find some models of the gardens and structures and antique prints and maps. The whole thing is very picturesque.
The museum/administration building is the center of the activities for the Garden, and there’s also a wee children’s library, which is adorbs.
The Garden itself has QR code labels for some of its collection, which is very handy for an outdoor museum (just go with it okay), as you see here on the artwork circuit.
And like many large public gardens, you can find contemporary art installations, too, such as “Instalación Mesológica” by Didier Rousseau-Navarre, which is meant to “question our relationship with the earth in the Anthropocene Age.” The seeds are made from the wood of their species.
The Botanical Garden hosts many workshops and activities and is a goddamn delight. It’s in Palermo, near the Rural, the Japanese Garden, the former zoo, the Museo Evita, and lots of other stuff. It’s a nice place in the city to find some birds; I saw a really pretty green hummingbird. It’s free and open every day except Mondays, and closing times depend on the season; check the website. It’s accessible via the Plaza Italia stop of the D line of the subway and a whole mess of buses.
I am still recovering from a “flu-like” virus, which wasn’t too bothersome as I mainly slept for three days, but I managed to make a quick visit to the Centro de Arte y Naturaleza (part of the Museums of the National University of Tres de Febrero, which also includes the Museo de la Inmigración). It’s in a really lovely building on the perimeter of the old Buenos Aires Zoo, which was chiefly built around the turn of the 20th century and as such is a fascinating example of old zoo architecture but was closed down for being a cruelly terrible zoo.
The Centro itself faces the large and busy Av. Sarmiento:
It’s quite small and doesn’t take much time to visit–but it is free, has a helpful staff, changes exhibits entirely every few months, and is right within a nexus of other attractions, making it an easy addition to any plans that include La Rural or the Botanical Gardens, or any other of the numerous museums and gardens within walking distance.
Two artists are currently featured. The first floor holds Zoología Fantástica, by Argentine biologist and artist Pablo La Padula. From the description on the MUNTREF website: “…it invites us to re-read the historical-cultural markers that reside in scientific devices and their interpretations, as well as in the decisions that are made for scientific dissemination, and the forms that these constructions assume in the social imagination. The materials that are used, the assembly, the lighting and the organization system, come together to place the spectator in the place of the scientist.”
The upstairs houses a show by Peruvian artist Claudia Coca called “Do Not Tell Me I Do Not Know How to Catch the Wind.” It examines the city’s life forms and their interaction, and includes embroidered verses.
If you’re already in the area, and if you spend much time in Buenos Aires at all you eventually will be, pop into the Centro and see what they have showing. It’s free and open Wednesday to Sunday from 2pm to 7pm. I really hope they put whale kid on a postcard.
There is something that has always struck me as phenomenally tragic about the Malvinas War.
It isn’t the biggest waste of life ever perpetrated, but it was a waste of life all the same.
It’s not easy for people who were born and raised in imperial powers to understand, either. There’s a lot of background to the conflict, which is important for understanding how the islands are generally viewed by Argentines, and I am in no way well-versed in the history of it, so I’m going to try to briefly illustrate what was going on before the war broke out in 1982.
1– The sovereignty of the Malvinas (they are known officially outside of Argentina as the Falklands, but this is where I live and also what the museum is called, so I’m going to stick with Malvinas) had been in dispute for 200 years, although they have been held continuously by the British since 1833.
2– The belief that the Malvinas are rightfully the possession of Argentina has been culturally entrenched for a long time.
3– British rule over the Malvinas is seen as imperialistic, and the imperial ambitions of European nations and the US has long wreaked profound tragedy across South America, and indeed the political interference of those nations was actively still doing that in the support of the various military juntas that overthrew Latin American governments at the time.
4– Argentina’s military dictatura had murdered thousands of people and was facing a severe economic crisis and growing opposition; the war was a somewhat cynical ploy to bolster home support by appealing to that dumbest of manipulable emotions, nationalism. The war, the loss–it’s all tainted by its association with an illegitimate and murderous regime.
5– Unlike the US, which is more or less constantly sending soldiers to die in conflicts, Argentina hadn’t been involved in any foreign conflicts to speak of since the Paraguayan War in 1870. Most of the Argentine war dead in the Malvinas were conscripts.
So–the Museo Malvinas is located on the edge of the ex-Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada, once the largest clandestine detention center and execution site during the dictatura, now a memorial complex. The museum itself is quite new and really lovely.
Outside the building is a large pool with a map of the Malvinas in the middle:
and a memorial to the ARA General Belgrano, which was sunk by British torpedoes with 321 of its crew and two civilians.
It’s not a particularly comforting space. You walk down, until the silhouettes of the ship are above you. The sound of the fountain forcefully brings to mind the idea of water rushing into the ship. It is an evocative, emotional memorial.
Inside, the museum covers the history and flora and fauna of the islands.
That is the focus of the very polished film that runs inside this little theater, despite its introduction here.
There are also areas that cover the older history of the islands as well as Argentine-British relations.
A sizable portion of the museum is dedicated to how the Malvinas have been and are currently addressed in Argentina’s culture, and the idea and importance of sovereignty.
Plenty of space is also given to the war and the dictatura (the leaders had assumed that the UK would not really bother with a military response and that the US, which Argentina had been aiding in funding the Nicaraguan Contras, would stay discreetly out of it, neither of which would be true) that made the dumb ass decision to go through with the invasion.
The war dead are, naturally, also memorialized. You can watch the tablets and note how many were young draftees.
So, for better or worse, the Malvinas remain a British holding (the Falklanders, incidentally, are overwhelmingly of British descent and wish to stay within the UK). The brief war ended with 904 dead and 2432 wounded. The loss finally brought down the dictatura, which had bought nothing with all the blood it spent for Argentina except meaningless grief and psychic scars.
The Malvinas are currently on the 50 peso note.
The Museo Malvinas e Islas del Atlántico Sur is free and open seven days a week and holidays. It’s accessible by train and several bus lines, as it is situated at the back of the ESMA on Avenida del Libertador, a huge avenue. None of the signage is in English, so if your language is weak, you’ll need to bring a translator. There’s a nice small cafe within the building.
As such, it has a very fine collection, and since this is a blog post, I will not be providing a thorough overview. For one thing, the museum has a very nice website partially available in English (and a guide app only in Spanish). So I’m just going to do a light overview! There’s just so much art!
Obviously, as a national fine arts museum, Bellas Artes has a strong collection of Argentine and Latin American art. The international collection trends noticeably to European art. Let’s have a peek, starting with these things, because I am a big fan of hair decoration:
These are peinetónes, very large versions of the Spanish peineta that were distinct to the fashion of the Rio de la Plata region in the 1830s, until shitty men took to criticizing the elaborate and expensive combs in the most sexist way possible (“terrible women neglect their families and whore themselves out in pursuit of this extravagance!”), and their use declined. You can find several contemporary illustrations mocking the peinetón. Certainly, there are reasonable criticisms to be made of fashions that are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and costly, but “look at these shallow immoral bimbos” is just the worst.
On to the older European stuff!
Early 1500s Virgin and Child with St John from Florence.
This is a Belgian-made tapestry from the early 1600s. As someone who can barely sit still long enough to embroider a simple outline figure on a handkerchief, I am always deeply impressed by tapestries.
This is a 17th century wood sculpture, “An angel with the head of St John the Baptist.” This stuff is all pretty typical of the time and region.
Moving forward, time-wise, the collection includes examples from a lot of the big dudes, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrant, Degas, van Gogh, Monet, Kandinsky, Pollock, Rothko, and so on.
There’s a lot of Rodin, owing to the museum’s first director’s admiration of him.
And mixed media works, such as Jorge de la Vega’s “A Timid Person’s Intimacy” (1963):
There are also, of course, Argentine sculptors represented, such as Alberto Heredia, who worked with discarded items to create his censorship allegory “The Gagged” in the early 1970s.
I’m also tacking on Joaquín Torres Garcia, who wasn’t Argentine but Uruguayan, because I really love his stuff so much.
Finally, here’s views of a couple of galleries, to give you a feel for the place, and the difference between the classical art galleries and the modern ones.
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is big and pink and hard to miss at Av. de Libertador 1473 in Recoleta. You can get there on a lot of bus lines and the H line of the subway. It’s open 11am to 8pm Tuesdays through Fridays and 10am to 8pm Saturdays and Sundays. It’s free for Argentina residents and 100 pesos (currenetly about 3 bucks US) for non-residents, although it is free on Tuesdays and 645pm-8pm Wednesdays through Sundays. There’s a free English tour at 230pm on Wednesdays and Fridays. Most of the signage is also in English.
Stepping inside, however, reveals a slick space of vibrant color, from the enormous performance posters to the magic, clown, and practical joke props for sale. Visiting during normal shop hours will also grant you a look at a (small for museum but large for personal, which it is) collection of magic artifacts, including original posters from the 19th and 20th centuries, props, photos, and books. Most of it centers on one stage magician in particular.
There was once a famous magician named David Bamberg, who was the seventh, and final, member of the Bamberg dynasty of Dutch magicians. During the first half of the 20th century, he performed in Chinese-style clothing under the fakey Chinese and remarkably racist name Fu Manchu.
Odd place for a lot of the stuff belonging to a UK-born itinerant magician of Dutch extraction to end up, right? Well, David Bamberg started using the stage name “Fu Manchu” in Buenos Aires, and eventually retired here and opened a magic school. He died in the city in 1974.
The museum is a small room, so it only takes a few minutes to look around, but if you’re interested in vintage magic stuff in general or David Bamberg in particular, you’re going to like it.
There is also a cabinet of mid-century Argentine magic props. The sign says the staff will not tell you how they work.
Visit the Argentine Museum of Magic in the Bazar de Magia during store hours every day but Sunday, but they break for lunch–check the website for hours. The store not only has magic props and gags, there’s also books on magic (even some in English). You can walk there from the Plaza de Mayo, and it’s around the corner from the Avienda de Mayo stop on the C line.