León Ferrari: Art, Archive, and Memory

Andrea Wain | University of Buenos Aires

In recent years, we have witnessed a period in the art world in which the figure of the artist as researcher has taken precedence over the conception of the artist working through perception as that which is merely sensory. We see, instead, a conscious, deliberate practice that sets out to embrace research on a number of distinct topics and uses archival data or images in works that are created largely for and by this material.

To posit this relationship between artistic creation and research is not a novelty; much less so if we consider some of the most relevant artists in the history of art. Nevertheless, a specific analysis of the influence of research on art has become necessary because the archive today occupies a privileged and constantly expanding position in the art world, particularly when we take into account the variety of archiving mechanisms, the possibility of access to information media, and, above all, the complex storage systems now available. All of this, speaking in very simplified terms, entails a shift in artistic practices, both in the interests and the media one uses for inspiration and creation.


In the field of the visual arts, the Argentine artist León Ferrari, through the different stages of his career, has time and again used archival materials to create pieces that deal with the abuses of power, social injustice, and the violation of human rights.

I ignore the formal value of those pieces. The only thing I ask of art is that it helps me express what I think as clearly as possible, to invent visual and critical signs that let me condemn more efficiently the barbarism of the West. Someone could possibly prove to me that this is not art. I would have no problem with it, I would not change paths, I would simply change its name, crossing out art and calling it politics, corrosive criticism, anything at all really.1

With these words, Ferrari concluded his long response to an art critic at the Argentine newspaper La Prensa who had been appalled by the fact that a “serious” institution like the Torcuato di Tella Institute would accept Ferrari’s work. The criticism itself was a response to the 1965 Di Tella National Prize exhibit, to which Ferrari had been invited. At the time, Ferrari had been shocked by an image of the Vietnam War he had seen in a newspaper and this inspired the piece “Western, Christian Civilization”: a US FH-107 war plane attached to a Santeria Christ, which, together with three other small-format works, addresses the relationship between religion and violence.2

In that same year, Ferrari created a literary collage titled “Palabras ajenas” (“Words from Others” or “Alien Words”), composed of fragments from different contemporary news-wire agencies as well as biblical and historical texts. The piece produced an imaginary dialogue between 160 figures, including Hitler, Goebbels, the then-president of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson, Pope Paul VI, Goering, and God.

Palabras ajenas (1967) was Ferrari’s first book as well as one of his first works to attribute to religion the responsibility for many of the wars in the history of the West. In a response quoted on the back cover of the book, Juan Gelman noted:

Reality—mediated by papers, journals, newswire agencies—is the unique and blistering character in these conversations between God and certain men, among those certain men, and between those certain men and God. It is a work that does not end with the final punctuation mark but, rather, admits other possible endpoints of destruction, other cessations of coercion. It is a reality lately so persistent—“papers always say the same thing”—that, for most people, it unfolds as mere custom. A custom that León Ferrari shakes down with vigorous intensity, revealing the outlines of this reality, its interconnections, its intimate details, its kinship with histories both remote and recent. But it is not mere testimony. Or, to put it differently, the hand of the artist has rendered such a refined testimony that he has been able to make palpable—in counterpoint to the facts, expressions, and descriptions—other more intimate, unsettling realities, pushing one toward hope.3

Palabras ajenas was originally conceived as a play, and was staged by Leopold Maler in October 1968 at the London Arts Laboratory under the title: Listen Here Now: A News Concert for Four Voices and a Soft Drum.


The use of images has always been associated with power. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Christian art—to name only a few examples—all used this medium to reproduce and introduce beliefs, ideas, or to perpetuate political and religious power.

For his own work, León Ferrari had an extensive personal archive of images and texts on hand, which enabled a vast production of archive-based works; his use of the collage technique entailed the specific actions of perusal, selection, and classification. The themes elaborated variously encompass preoccupations with violence, injustice, and discrimination, their subsequent reverberations, and with “difference”—be it around religious questions, sexual choices, political beliefs, or any other difference. This theme was also a component of works concerned with local history, as is the case with all the pieces focused on the military dictatorship that controlled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 and resulted in the disappearance of more than thirty thousand people.

One of Ferrari’s most well known works is the series Nosotros no sabíamos (We Didn’t Know, 1984), which draws on Ferrari’s own archive of news stories from the Argentinean press covering cases of disappearances or the discovery of corpses in 1976, the year of the coup—the same year that he sought political exile with his family in São Paulo. Ferrari received Argentine newspapers by post, read them, selected the stories that referred to the persecutions and homicides being committed in the country, and cut and pasted them back together, almost ritualistically, in a moment of pain and angst. He thus generated a series of eighty-two pages, the title of which gestures toward a condemnation of the citizens who in later years would claim that they did not know what was happening in the country while Ferrari himself was able to collate hundreds of articles published in official newspapers referring to the dead and disappeared.

In 1995, the daily newspaper Página/12 published the book Nunca Más (Never Again) in installments—the name referred to the report of the same name released by CONADEP (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas; National Commission on Disappeared People) in 1984—and Ferrari was commissioned to create a cover for each installment. Using his collage technique, the artist created an “anthology of cruelty,” in which successive images illustrate the crimes and annihilations that are part of the history and religion of the West: the conquest of America, the Inquisition, the Biblical flood, Hell, Nazism, among others.4


One could argue in a conversation, from an objective critical standpoint, that the Bible is like the I Ching: in its ambiguity, it has something for all tastes.5

In 1986, Ferrari was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to research and compose the series, Relecturas de la Biblia (Re-readings of the Bible, 1986-9). In this series, his method consisted in juxtaposing illustrations of biblical stories with erotic scenes or images of wars and other events in which the West—the propagator of Christianity—was implicated in torture, assassinations, and the violation of human rights. This device was also used in the Brailles series, dating from the early 1990s, in which the illustrations and Braille text renders the same result as the image collage procedure.

In these works, the use of montage enables the combination of divergent images: of priests inside the Vatican and images of World War II concentration camps; of greetings between official statesmen from murderous states such as Videla or Hitler’s regimes and various Popes; or juxtapositions that could be more ironic and sometimes comical, such as an angel circling an erotic couple from the Kama Sutra, or a biblical text with the often touted phrase “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” written in Braille over an image of female masturbation from the Japanese artist Utamaro. The images used in these works were sourced from a variety of different media: newspapers, magazines (often specialized journals) as well as iconography from art books, religious texts, erotic magazines, and images from the Bible.

In one way or another, the association of image and text or the text-image generates a place where thought and active memory are present. Above all, documents manifest themselves as something living and not stagnant, and are able to interpolate the spectator with different contexts and associations, unchaining an act of reflection and the production of meaning.


One of the main functions of an archive is to preserve the past. There are archival images that blend in with the environment because of their familiarity, to the point where they pass completely unnoticed by the onlooker. It is in the act of selection and the intervention of a different or alien element that a signal is produced, a gesture that enables one to think the image from a different place. Ferrari uses images that have had a particular type of circulation and that—far from bearing a special, permanent relationship with the present— have in many cases been canonized as artworks of genius (this is the case of many of the representations of Hell in the history of Western art) and analyzed merely in terms of their technique and the biography of their creators, overlooking entirely their content and the interests those artworks addressed.

Has anyone taken the time to observe in detail the representations of the final judgments and hells of Michelangelo, Giotto, Fra Angelico, and their peers?

Works often published in texts with titles such as “The History of Universal Genius” often do not allow us—on account of the “natural” way in which one perceives and sudies them—to question why they were made, their objective, and who commissioned them. Ferrari notes:

This art sanctioned the actions of the Church, so that people thought it justified to torture those who thought differently and it made it natural to think of hell or the Apocalypse. And the great and admired artists were complicit in that outcome. The West has an extraordinary treasure-trove of works of art that wield torture as an instrument of the Gospel, constructing thus a great culture out of the greatest of barbarisms: torments, fire, and terror. The art of the West, its greatest creators, left us a patrimony of painted cruelty.6

Using these canonical artworks, Ferrari produced several series, including Ideas para infiernos (Ideas for Infernos, 2000) and Serie de los excrementos (Excrement Series 2004-2008), in which various animals “collaborated” in the artwork.

To select and de-contextualize: a critical operation based on a dialectic of historical and contemporary texts and images that signal relationships, deconstruct situations, and produce associations, demonstrating that documents, archives and history itself are not history, and that revisiting the past pertains to the present as well as the future.

Translated by Miguel Winograd

Andrea Wain received her degree in Art History in the Department of Philosophy and Literature in the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) where she works as a professor. She has also taught in the Instituto Universitario Nacional de Arte (National University Institute of Art) and currently in the Universidad del Museo Social Argentino (University of the Argentine Social Museum). She has worked in the Visual Arts Department of the Centro Cultural Recoleta (Recoleta Cultural Center) in both the direction of exhibitions and editorial management. Her work has appeared in newspapers, journals, books, and catalogues. She is currently collaborating with the archive of the Augusto and León Ferrari Foundation in Buenos Aires.

1 Ferrari, León. 1965. “La respuesta del artista.” Revista Propósitos, December 21.

2 “Western, Christian Civilization” was banned from the exhibit.

3 Juan Gelman in the back-cover of Palabras Ajenas (Buenos Aires: Falbo, 1967).

4 The artist used those words to refer to the Nunca Más series in an article published in Página/12 on October 19, 1995.

5 Briante, Miguel. 1988. “León no se hace el sordo,” Página/12, June 14.

6 Wain, Andrea. Y León Dijo. Edición de entrevistas realizadas a León Ferrari por distintos autores desde 1972 al presente (unpublished)