María Helguera

(Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1943 - )

Memory of the Skin

Jaume Vidal Oliveras


Buenos Aires – Barcelona, Barcelona – Buenos Aires: this is the idea illuminating this exhibition, a return trip between these two cities. After its presentation in Barcelona, at the Espai Volart, the show will travel to the capital of Argentina, where it will be seen at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. María Helguera began her artistic career in Argentina, but in 1976 would go into exile to Barcelona for political reasons, with her children and the photographer Humberto Rivas. Even with this distance, her contacts with Buenos Aires have been constant: in a certain way, Helguera has developed a role as a cultural bridge between the two countries, which is where the proposal to set up a dialogue between the two art centres has emerged from.

At the end of the 1960s, when the artist began to exhibit in Buenos Aires, Helguera did a painting we could describe as both magic and realist, both in terms of motifs and treatment. The painting conjures up family relationships, solitude and love, constructing a cartography of her affective environment, as it were, with a fresh, transparent gaze. She was highly sensitive, spontaneous and direct. The person who was best able to capture this gaze was her husband, Humberto Rivas, in a famous photograph taken in 1979 that is now found in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya: María Helguera gazes at us straight on, her eyes full of fear and curiosity. Over time, that gaze would change. Those early pieces have the freshness of someone looking at the world for the first time. That said, in her personal imaginary realm there were shadows as well, although all stories are like that. María Helguera’s evolution was not linear, although we should point out that when she settled in Barcelona she soon began to adjust to the Catalan cultural microclimate: the colony of Argentine artists in the city, the people around the painter Hernández-Pijuan, the poet Arnau Pons, and so on. I have never spoken about these things with María, but I have the intuition that certain contacts were particularly important for her, such as with Ràfols-Casamada, for example. As María Helguera insists, Ràfols and Maria Girona invited her to join the Eina design school, where she would end up teaching. Apart from this, I imagine that this change opened up new aesthetic perspectives for her, or at least its influence seems to be present in the shift in her work from that point on. We do not know how Helguera’s work might have evolved if she had not gone into exile, but it is clear that Barcelona had a decisive influence on her career. The Catalan cultural atmosphere (or a certain sector of it, at least) contributed to her work and gave her tools that would enable her to reflect on her own culture and its source identity from another perspective. We should here include the magnetism of Antoni Tàpies at the time, which is still present today. His work with materiality, and his important writings in the search for transcendent art, something expressively primogenial and pure, even the artist’s heroic persona, echoed throughout the city in a way that María Helguera most likely perceived.

As I have commented at the start, Helguera has always encouraged cultural exchange between Argentina and Spain. An example of this is the exhibition of contemporary Argentine art presented at Centre d’Art Santa Mònica in 1996. Even with this, an episode I find symptomatic that should also be emphasised was the initiative to organise an exhibition of Mapuche culture, the Argentine indigenous society from before Spanish and European colonisation. This exhibition, which took place in 2002, also featured a programme of debates and study sessions. My intention in highlighting this event is to emphasise that her concern for Mapuche culture was perhaps comparable to her interest in atavistic, primitive questions, in myths—something that was germinated from a distance, not in the work done in Argentina prior to 1976, but in Barcelona, in the context of a framework of reflection where Tàpies was a main point of reference. Starting in the late 1990s, María Helguera’s painting would be inspired by universal myths and symbols, an inspiration that—while in line with Tàpies’ explorations and those of other post-war artists—especially had to do with the will to consummate a deeply transcendent emotivity in art.


The Basement

The Espai Volart is divided into two areas: one floor on street level and another lower floor that is a basement. In this regard, María Helguera’s exhibition seems to be an attempt to create a symbolic dialogue between these two spaces.

In any path taken through the exhibition, the basement represents a sort of subconscious source for her more recent work, which is on the upper floor. The basement would be her roots, her depth, what is hidden—what we find are mythical vessels.

On the lower floor two kinds of work can be observed. On the one hand, works are shown that repeat very precise motifs: horses, bulls, naked couples, pieces done in pure tones of red, ochre and yellow. With every necessary subtlety, these images are the symbol of primary, elemental nature, of animal energy. The artist’s intention is to articulate an ancestral or mythical iconography. On the other hand, we see work done by using registers from animal and human bodies. With a layer of pigment, living beings have left their unmediated mark on the canvas. In this case, María Helguera prolongates the experiences of Yves Klein, although with a different meaning: what interests her is the primary aspect of the print, the immediate mark of a body. These pieces retain the mystery that animates all life.



On the upper floor, Helguera shows her more recent production. In these pieces she has revived certain characters from Buenos Aires that had inspired her earliest work, while here they have been given a very different formal treatment. Now we are dealing with a more essential or simplified way of painting, which has been handled with a large amount of impasto and her use of the spatula.

Her work also features iconographic motifs that surprised me when I first saw them: The Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Pietà. There is another significant aspect here as well: some of these female and male figures are overlaid, so it is hard to tell them apart. They are like hybrid beings discovered in an embrace of everlasting love.

It is not at all easy to provide an interpretation for these works. Here we find María Helguera’s problematic as an artist, but also as a woman and as an individual human. La última milonga [The Last Milonga], a title that suggests The Last Supper, for example, is an homage to Joan Hernández Pijuan, who had died just before, in 2005, and who was close to Helguera. If I allude to this episode it is to explain the complexity and diversity of the implicit messages settled for in these works.

Given this, in the context of the project we are observing here, with this shifting back and forth between Buenos Aires and Barcelona, the work of María Helguera has other meanings, or at least it can be read along different lines. Thus, the identification and overlaying of male and female figures expresses this very interaction between the two cities, something that is very important in Helguera’s work as a kind of magical association. The allusions to the Passion of Christ (The Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Pietà) could perhaps be identified with the path of exile, or with the way Helguera lives this out particularly, amongst other possible readings. There is another piece I have yet to make mention of which for me is the key to the exhibition. I refer to Las olas del tiempo [The Waves of Time], a sort of installation consisting of a white tunic hanging in the air, surrounded by fragments of drawings, with the sound of the sea in the background.

Why then Las olas del tiempo? In the DVD accompanying the exhibition, María Helguera tells of an incident on the transatlantic passenger ship that took her into exile in 1976. Along the maritime route that connected Buenos Aires with Barcelona, the Spain-bound boat crossed with another that was going back to Argentina. At that very moment, both ships sound their horns. The trip she was then taking was about going somewhere, but it also foresaw her future return: María Helguera had no choice but to go back.

Could this tunic be interpreted as the vestment of a pilgrim, that person who travels in the direction of wisdom? At the end of the journey, the pilgrim is stripped of all former clothing and puts on a special garment, symbolising transformation and purification. Changing clothes is representative of the new man, in the same way that the journey itself has to do with transformation, the acquisition of a spiritual state.

María Helguera’s white tunic, hanging in the air, is a symbol of purification, it represents renewal. Yet precisely for this reason, in this garment there is memory of pain, exile and of the “failed actions” the artist speaks of, with errors and suffering—all of this is what makes that spiritual transformation possible. This garment is just as well a kind of tattoo or written document, with ecos of some of the motifs announced in her paintings, the Crucifixion being one of them.

As in initiatory tales, subjects like the Last Supper, the Pietà and the Crucifixion itself, as well as solitary characters from Buenos Aires, are the ritualization of suffering: the way in which sacrifice is expressed in being transformed and reborn. Creation is impossible without pain. Only in this way might it be possible to obtain the necessary energy to take a step further and transform the self. It seems to me that this is the exhibition’s message.

With this we have taken a look at the Helguera exhibition. We have spoken of subterranean energies, of sacrifices and of the idea of spiritual renewal implicit in the skin-clothing we have here referred to. Other readings are possible as well. There are, despite everything else, two large format pieces, La piel del río I and II [The Skin of the River I and II], which I have not spoken of, respecting the artist’s own request. “Let them speak for themselves!” Helguera said to me. They are the two pieces that begin the exhibition visit, although there is nothing about them that would alter the interpretation we have offered here.



María Helguera: The Creole Bride

Sergio Alberto Baur


I met María Helguera personally in 1996, while she was curating a show of Argentine art for the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica in Barcelona. During my long stay in Spain as cultural attaché for the Embassy of Argentina, I had many opportunities to get to know María even better: as an artist, as a curator and as a friend.

Those of us who know her are privileged, as are the visitors to this exhibition, and those who might hear her in her own words in this interview. María Helguera’s responses reveal a veritable tableau of Argentine culture, from the masters of Argentine art in Antonio Berni, Juan Carlos Distéfano and Roberto Aizenberg, her beginnings in the mythical Instituto Di Tella—the embryonic source of the 1960s avant-garde—to the words of our writers. In this way we find fully spontaneous references to authors such as Horacio Quiroga, Jorge Luis Borges and Manuel Mujica Láinez. The questions I posed were merely the pretext, a roadmap with which to find our way through her vast cartography.

SB: To begin could we set out a chronology of your life in relation to the stages of your work?

MH: Even though from a young age I was attracted to the visual arts, for family reasons I could not start studying art until I left home and went to live in Salta, in the north of Argentina. In that city I began to paint, but it was not until I returned to Buenos Aires, around 1966, that I really started to do my own personal work. My painting was intuitive and sensorial, as if I were trying to express my dreams in what were ineluctable images for me. It was a very fruitful time in Buenos Aires. I worked at the Instituto Di Tella, where I spent time with Roberto Aizenberg and Juan Carlos Distéfano, and became steeped in the cultural effervescence off those times.

When I was exiled to Barcelona in 1976, I felt I had been transplanted into a different environment. The experience was one of “rupture” and nostalgia at the same time. The result was the inclusion of a new theme in my work, the Argentine imaginary realm, such as the world of tango. Later, and because of my friendship with Albert Ràfols-Casamada and his scene, I began to do research with the discovery of Cézanne and Matisse as my ground.

I could also point to the impact of the work and theories of Antoni Tàpies, which brought experimentation with matter and procedures into my work. This took me up to the year 2000, when I worked directly with pictorial registers of animals, dogs, horses and people. I did these works as veritable ceremonial rituals: I spread the paint on the animal or person, and then took a print off of them. In this series there are two rather significant pieces that are an homage to missing Argentines, which I entitled La piel del río.

Continuing with the story of what I call my internal exile, I questioned my training and influences, which were mostly European, and began to research into the original cultures of Latin America, in general, and especially of Argentina. This concern was seen in the treatment of materiality and colour and in the inclusion of new textile features and iconographical elements such as the horse, the bull and archetypal human figures. All of them worked together to reflect a primordial world. In this sense, I also introduced the spatula and other incisive features where I perceive the influence of artists like Lucio Fontana or Joan Hernández Pijuan, who I was friends with starting in the 1990s. I was very much affected by his death, and decided to render homage to him with a large painting which signified the return of the sort of images I had used in my first period in Catalonia, and which gave me the title for the show I presented at Espai Volart in 2007. I refer to Malevos [Thugs], imaginary characters surging from out of the Argentine subconscious and its spheres of marginality, transformed into the apostles of La última milonga. This period, which we could describe as creole, continued to develop with the series of scarlet paintings. For this exhibition and the one at the Museu Nacional I have prepared an installation featuring drawings, a garment and sound.

SB: In the symbolic world you brought with you from Argentina, I believe there are many literary references. Who are the most important writers who have accompanied you and why?

MH: During my first period in Argentina, I would regularly go to the house of Manuel Mujica Láinez, who was a friend. His world of mysteries fascinated me, and he also passed on to me his love for Buenos Aires. Borges, with his visions, also was someone I learnt from, and he continues to open doors to the knowledge of the world for me. He is a source that never runs dry. Horacio Quiroga also influenced me, with his surprising metaphors.

SB: In many of your works, it seems that certain iconographical features are taken up in a passionately obsessive way, like with the horses. Where do these early images come from, and what is the reason for them?

MH: For me nature is sacred, and I always think there is a mystical dimension in my subjects. The subject of animals, the horse for example, is related to my origins. I refer to my outings in La Pampa, long rides on horseback in my childhood that for me meant freedom to dream of adventures and enjoy the sense of space. Yet there is also the memory of my mother, who told us how our grandfather rode a horse, a stallion, that had been given to him by the Patagonian cacique Huemul. More recently I have even dealt with the subject of the bull, which is so Hispanic. The impact of bullfights (an archaic ceremony impregnated with a halo of initiatory “sacrifice”, and with a strong visual tradition as well) has given me the possibility of expressing an image that runs counter to those related to where I am from. For this reason, I gave the name Paths of Light (2004) to the exhibition where I presented two motifs, the horse and the bull. The interaction between them represented the path uniting my land of origin and my land of adoption. The path of light and of insight.

SB: How do you, as an artist with roots in Barcelona for years, dialogue with Latin America, and especially with your country of birth?

MH: Distance and time have not altered in any way how I feel about my home country; just the opposite, this relationship has been deeply reaffirmed and enriched. Now, for example, I know and enjoy what is different about us and which, in my opinion, is especially well explained by the influence of original cultures. Ever since I began living in Barcelona, I feel that I am part of Latin American culture even more; before I only felt related to the culture of Buenos Aires. Let me explain: due to the characteristics of life in Buenos Aires, it was hard to think of the interior of the country or of the other countries of Latin America. In contrast, we did have information about Europe and the United States. Getting a certain distance made it possible for me to interest myself in and open myself up much more to knowing the interior of Argentina and of Latin America, despite the fact that—let it be said—I continue to feel very much like I am from Buenos Aires.

SB: If you had to choose one of your works as representative of you, how would you suggest that piece be read?

MH: The piece I would choose is called La novia criolla [The Creole Bride] (2006). It is a version of the Rembrandt painting, The Jewish Bride. The piece is a flagrant insult to the master, and at the same time a declaration of love. The Jewish Bride is the painting that I am most enthusiastic about in the entire history of art, and I have spent hours looking at it. When I did La novia criolla, I chose to break with something that had characterised my work for the previous five years, which involved not painting with brushes. That is, up to that point I had only worked with spatulas and other kinds of tools. I picked up the brushes anew and really enjoyed it, I revived an earlier period in my work and was encouraged to paint on the basis of feeling and emotion. I decided to work with only three colours as well: red, blue and yellow, and try to draw as many subtleties as I could from them. I like the challenge of seeking to say a lot with really very little.

SB: Who are your contemporary artistic references and what works of theirs would you highlight?

MH: My contemporary references are William Kentridge, Brancusi, Ana Mendieta... I especially recall how Kentridge drew his own self portrait. First, he drew it on paper, and afterwards he broke it up by filming the process. When this is projected, in an inverse way it allows you to understand the infinite combinations of the self, of its ruptures and disorders, as if it were a reflection of the construction and deconstruction of the self.

SB: Another Gaze: Contemporary Argentine Art, the exhibition that you organised at Centre d’Art Santa Mònica (Barcelona, 1997), was exemplary of the close relationship between the visual artist and the curator. The exhibition had a strong political and social bent. In what tradition of the history of Argentine art do you place your work, and why?

MH: Another Gaze had a main thesis, grounded in the theories of Pedro Figari on critical regionalism. This understands Argentina as an autonomous entity, while at the same time open to the world and thus universal. I personally identify with the thought of Pedro Figari.


Standing out sharply against a background of blue walls or open sky, two hoodlums dressed in close-fitting suits of sober black and wearing thick-heeled shoes dance a deadly dance—a ballet of matching knives—until a carnation starts from the ear of one of them as a knife finds its mark in him, and he brings the unaccompanied dance to a close on the ground with his death. Satisfied, the other adjusts his high-crowned hat and spends his final years recounting the story of this clean duel. That, in sum and substance, is the history of our old-time Argentine underworld.


Jorge Luis Borges: A Universal History of Infamy, translated by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, Penguin Books, 1975.