Ernesto Pesce (1943 - )

La balsa de la medusa naufraga en la fuente de Plaza Congreso (1983)
The Raft of the Medusa Shipwrecked in the Plaza Congreso Fountain

Watercolour and colour pencil on paper
height: 165cm
width: 113cm

Donated by Iberia Torres 1995


Pesce’s monumental watercolour The Raft of the Medusa Shipwrecked in the Plaza Congreso Fountain makes clear reference to Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) Le Radeau de la Méduse -The Raft of the Medusa (1819). Pesce’s contemporary interpretation of Gericault’s painting belongs to a series Que viva la clase media- Long Live the Middle Class (1981-1984). The series’ title is an acerbic commentary on the Argentine middle classes engrossed by consumerism in the period following the last Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983). The artist describes the series as ‘...a critique of a degree of middle class frivolity content with the downfall of Peronism’. (1) The first post-dictatorship president, Raúl Alfonsín (in office 1983- 1989), belonged to the Radical Civic Union Party whose election marked a significant defeat for Peronism which had dominated the Argentine political landscape during much of the 20th Century. In the period preceding the dictatorship, Juan Domingo Perón had returned from exile in Spain and ruled the country for a year before his death. His wife second wife Isabel Martínez Perón succeeded him as President during a period of significant instability and was removed in the civic-military coup d'etat of 24th March 1976. During Isabel Perón’s presidency she had been granting the military increased power to use excessive force against groups deemed subversive.

What is striking about Pesce’s watercolour is the placement of diverse symbols of the Argentine nation. The recognizable ill-fated crew of the Medusa from Gericault’s painting are placed in the midst of the Congress Square in downtown Buenos Aires. The Congress building looms in the background and the Monument of the Two Congresses, a prominent neoclassical sculpture by Belgian architect Eugenio D’Huinque, towers over the Medusa’s crew. The monument evokes notions of Argentine nationhood with Buenos Aires at its centre. The fountain in the monument represents the River Plate, a major source of prosperity for the city. In Pesce’s re-imagining of Géricaut’s masterpiece, the Art Noveau Conifitería Los Molinos- a building completed in 1905 and deigned by Italian architect Francisco Gianotti- replaces the boat the Medusa’s crew gesture towards seeking salvation in the original painting.

Many of these elements make reference to the European influences on city planning and architecture in Buenos Aires; the square itself was designed by the Franco-Argentine architect Carlos Thays. Pesce’s appropriation of a masterpiece of French salon painting recognises these European influences on Argentine culture. The street design in Buenos Aires, based on Parisian Boulevards, earned Buenos Aires the reputation of the Paris of Latin America. Examining the significance of the Medusa’s crew, there are numerous possible interpretations that can be made taking into account recent Argentine history. The watercolour also contains some ambiguities.

According to the artist, this work was made in 1983, when democracy was restored in Argentina following the brutal civic-military dictatorship. During the dictatorship, many citizens were kidnapped, tortured, killed and disappeared. Those deemed opponents of the regime were sometimes drugged and thrown into the sea and their bodies were washed up on the shores of the River Plate. Considering this history, the Medusa's crew bears the scars of their shipwrecking in post-dictatorship Argentina and their bodies represent the tortured Argentine body politic.They pursue salvation in democracy after the experience of this national trauma. The crew also evoke the many immigrants who came to Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. Pesce’s own grandfather travelled from Alessandria, Italy to Argentina at the turn of the 20th Century and the artist has explored his Italian ancestry in much of his art, notably in his series Immigrants (1974-1979) where the intimate family photo albums became the raw material and inspiration for Pesce’s exploration of his own identity.

In The Raft of the Medusa Shipwrecked, another prominent feature of Pesce’s imagined Buenos Aires is the detail of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. The infamous puppet, like Pesce, is of Italian ancestry. Pinocchio’s inventor and father Geppetto was an Italian woodworker. Pesce has chosen to depict the puppet turned boy, being lured in by the tricks of Honest John and Gideon, the fox and cat in Walt Disney’s version of the story. Disney’s adaptation of the Italian children’s book represents Honest John and Gideon as characters that deceive Pinocchio. These iconic characters point towards the increasing influence of the United States in contemporary Argentina at a period of significant economic and political instability. These dastardly figures attempt to lure Argentines towards U.S. consumer culture.

As mentioned above, Pesce has attested to this work being completed in 1983, however, the date on the work itself appears to read 1993. In the 1990s Carlos Menem was President of Argentina and had presided over the Argentine Convertibility Plan in which the Argentine Peso was pegged to the U.S dollar, causing an influx of spending in the country and the emergence of a new middle class who could now afford expensive holidays abroad and the ability to buy new consumer products on a global market. The ‘frivolity’ of the Argentine middle classes was at its height in this period. This economic policy contributed to Argentina’s disastrous economic crisis which culminated in riots, looting and runs on banks in 2001. Perhaps Pesce’s Raft of the Medusa anticipates this economic crisis, of which signs were showing in the 1980s, with the dictatorship introducing neoliberal economic policies under José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz (in office 1976-1981) the dictatorship’s civilian economic minister. If the date of completion is 1983 this is significant as it is the year democracy was restored following the brutal dictatorship. The Medusa’s crew are at a crossroads, one path leads them down Honest John’s and Gideon’s path of U.S. consumerism.

A further mystery is the title of the work itself. The artist has stated it is La balsa de la medusa naufraga en la fuente de Plaza Congreso - The Raft of the Medusa Shipwrecked in the Plaza Congreso Fountain, however he signed the work with a different title La medusa balsa de la medusa navega en la Fuente de la Plaza Congreso - The Raft of he Medusa Sails in the Plaza Congreso Fountain. It is unclear why Pesce chose to write a different title on the artwork in 1993, ten years after he first painted it. Perhaps the artist felt that the country was not in the same shipwrecked position but rather a country still sailing towards an uncertain future due to mismanagement of the country by successive governments following the return to democracy. Pesce’s inscriptions and its two titles transform the watercolour into a palimpsest marking a turbulent ten year period in recent Argentine history as well as recognising a longer history of Argentina and its capital.

1. "... una crítica a cierta frivolidad de la clase media contenta con la derrota del Peronismo." my translattion, statment on Artist's website: accessed 15.01.2018

Sebastian Bustamante-Brauning, 2018

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