Bockelman on Kefala, 'Buenos Aires across the Arts: Five and One Theses on Modernity, 1921-1939'

Eleni Kefala. Buenos Aires across the Arts: Five and One Theses on Modernity, 1921-1939. Pitt Illuminations Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022. 264 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4692-2

Reviewed by Brian Bockelman (Ripon College)
Published on H-Urban (November, 2022)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version:

Many Faces of (Argentine) Modernism in Buenos Aires

In the interwar period, Buenos Aires became both a sprawling modern metropolis and a hotbed of modernist experimentation in the arts and letters. To a degree unmatched elsewhere in the Americas, save New York and São Paulo, the Argentine capital attracted a coterie of vanguard European intellectuals amid the multitude of immigrants seeking higher wages and greater freedoms than could be found back home. Just as important to its cosmopolitan milieu were educated Argentines and other Latin Americans who had spent the war or postwar years worshipping at the altars of European modernism and were now returning to start their own literary or artistic careers in Buenos Aires. For many in this Hispanic “lost generation,” return meant confronting a city they thought they knew and instinctively disliked in the way that young people view their inherited surroundings but also discovering a landscape that was rapidly changing in disarming and stimulating ways. In today’s parlance, Buenos Aires was an important site of “urban modernity,” which the author of this playful, searching book acknowledges straight away to be a highly unstable concept, open to multiple meanings and manifestations, including “technocapitalism, rationalization, industrialization, commodification, reification, abstraction, simulation, and hyperreality,” as well as “mass migration, accelerated urbanization, and rapid modernization” (p. 4). For aspiring artists of all types, particularly artists who embraced the cacophony of experimentation, modern Buenos Aires—no less than Paris or Berlin—offered endless possibilities of new subject matter and sensory experiences to explore on the page, canvas, or screen.

Eleni Kefala, a poet and literary critic at the University of St. Andrews, examines the resulting artistic responses to Argentine modernity in a sophisticated but accessible series of essays, each focusing on a major cultural figure of the 1920s and 1930s: the writers Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Arlt, and Oliverio Girondo; the painter Xul Solar; the filmmaker José “El Negro” Ferreyra; and the photographer Horacio Coppola. Although she does not belabor the point, her book invites readers to consider Buenos Aires as a space of modernism in its own right, experiencing many of the same tensions in urban life and generating equally interesting aesthetic reactions as occurred in the paradigmatic cities of avant-garde culture in the United States and Northern Europe.[1] Kefala, who clearly admires and makes ample use of German social theory throughout the study, cultivates something like Georg Simmel’s blasé attitude toward her subject, taking it for granted as significant because it exists, rather than because it points to some essential lesson about Argentina, Latin America, or even modernity itself. Gone, for instance, is any emphasis on hybrid or peripheral modernity that characterized earlier scholarship on this period of Argentine cultural history, most notably in the work of Beatriz Sarlo (whom she otherwise cites regularly).[2] Kefala even suggests that the modernist texts she has chosen to study represent “an arbitrary selection out of a potentially infinite number of urban visions” (p. 160). So when she promises in her title to elucidate “five and one theses on modernity” expressed by her six protagonists, we are to understand that there are many more left unexplored—and indeed the conclusion only lightly summarizes the preceding cases in favor of starting a seventh, that of poet Alfonsina Storni.

This spirit of matter-of-fact detachment, which seems to parallel the author’s affinity for the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) aesthetic, is the source of both the book’s strengths and its weaknesses. Kefala is most interested in textual criticism, which she pursues in extended form for each creative figure under study, offering insightful readings of major works by interrogating them alongside others in the artist’s oeuvre and a healthy dose of both recent interpretations of the same texts and classic (mostly Western Marxist) theoretical statements on modernity and enlightenment. Biographical and contextual details are supplied but kept to a minimum, and only occasionally does Kefala examine the artists’ own descriptions of their ambitions and intentions (admittedly more available for some than for others). The feeling is often one of joining a conversation among critics that has already started, again conveying the intrinsic importance of Argentine modernism without making any special appeal to convince the uninitiated. Kefala truly dazzles in this space, identifying a characteristic topos of aesthetic response to modernity for (nearly) all of her subjects: “utopia” (mythologized place) for Borges, “atopia” (non-place) for Girondo, “melotopia” (melodramatic place) for Ferreyra, “dystopia” (ruined place) for Arlt, and “eutopia” (happy or perfect place) for Xul. Coppola, the “one” left over, does not get a neat spatial label; instead, his “objective” photographic aesthetic subsumes some elements of the others in pursuit of a more comprehensive and quasi-official record of modern Buenos Aires once it was fully formed. Kefala’s is a poetic criticism that creates in order to explain; page after page, her analysis brims with new and repurposed words that are themselves reflections of the instability of modernity: “coǵniscape,” “dromocratic,” “eudaimonia,” “geotechnic,” “kinopoetics,” “mistifelicidad,” “neoteropoios,” “pluriversal,” “psychospheric,” and more.

While this generative approach has the advantage of attending to the uniqueness of each aesthetic project, it also reinforces the larger view that there is no stable core to the experience of modernity or its transformation into art. All that is solid indeed melts into the air—or, to twist another phrase well known to historians, “every man his own modernity.” Before such a resolutely immanent perspective, one hesitates to ask for transcendence. In explaining her choice to focus on Buenos Aires in the 1920s and 1930s, Kefala offers an entirely pragmatic view: “The discussion that follows examines artistic responses to modernity that are historically and culturally fixed in order to allow for a relatively cohesive approach to what is a highly multifaceted problem” (p. 11). Although she resists characterizing Argentine modernity or Argentine modernism as distinctive, she does recognize that the cases under study have historical connections to each other and therefore can be treated as alternative reactions to roughly the same social and spatial conditions. As the book proceeds, comparisons become a more prevalent part of the analysis, an effective technique that allows Kefala to locate each artistic response aesthetically, culturally, geographically, and sometimes politically. So, for instance, we learn that the early poems of Borges and the films of Ferreyra “both essentialized the urban margins on the premise of its closeness to the country’s cultural core. But while Borges’s suburb was emptied of immigrants and recriollized, Ferreyra’s was proletarianized and ethicized” (p. 92). At the same time, Ferreyra’s realistic if melodramatic portrayal of the city’s subaltern neighborhoods “stands in complete contrast to Oliverio Girondo’s atopian space,” which emphasized the movement and technology of the modern city but was never really “geographically fixed” on Buenos Aires (p. 65).

Such comparisons enliven the close reading of individual works, and they bring Kefala nearer to her goal of “offering a new conceptual grid for understanding the various facets of the ‘modern’ in Argentina” (p. 184). The conceptual innovation is clear: each expression of Argentine modernism is a landscape of imagination that maps onto the real Buenos Aires imperfectly and in its own way. The grid, however, never quite takes shape. The closest Kefala comes is in her chapter on Arlt. All of a sudden, she breaks into an appraisal of her six protagonists together: “As we pass from atopia to dystopia, we move from external unmappability and what I have referred to as topospheric pollution (Girondo) to internal disorientation and psychospheric pollution (Arlt), as well as from the aestheticized geometry of modern rationalist space (Coppola) to the rationalization and emptying out of the inner landscape of the self (Arlt). At the same time, Arlt meets Ferreyra at subalternity, albeit that the moralizing dualism of [Ferreyra’s film] Perdón viejita does not allow for the kind of dystopian reality we find in [Arlt’s novel] Los siete locos. Ferreyra’s melodrama may lend force to the existing social structures—and in so doing it touches Borges tangentially at criollismo—as opposed to sapping them, but Arlt concedes that setting one’s face against those structures would not necessarily eutopianize urban life. Only in the spiritually and geotechnically reconstructed cityscapes of Xul does eudaimonia [happiness] seem conceivable” (p. 112). It would be wrong, however, to take this baroque passage as a summary of the many and diverse relationships the author sees between her subjects and their responses to modernity. An actual grid charting all the variables and plotting the coordinates of modernist expression in each category for each artist might seem a utopia all its own, but it would elevate the general contribution of the book to the high level of its individual parts.

The same could be said for greater engagement with existing interpretations of the cultural history of interwar Argentina. In a twist at the end, Kefala abandons her careful detachment from making claims about the national or regional specificity of the infinitely varied modern experience, saying unexpectedly that her “aim was to provide a fresh perspective on Argentine urban modernity” (p. 184). The book is fresh in the sense that it is new and inimitable; but how is it fresh in comparison to previous studies of the same period and the same constellation of artists and writers? By no means is Kefala’s work absent of such studies; in fact, she brings a wealth of them to bear on her readings of specific texts. But they play no role in helping her articulate a broader contribution to the field. How does her interpretation of modernist culture in interwar Argentina compare, for instance, with Sarlo’s literal and figurative emphasis on “a peripheral modernity”? Does it confirm or challenge portraits of the Argentine avant-garde put forward by literary historian Christopher Towne Leland, who stressed a Weimar-like psychological atmosphere of frenzied experimentalism amid liberal decline, or by urban historian Adrián Gorelik, who emphasized an ideological struggle to represent the rapidly swelling outer districts of the new metropolis?[3] Neither seminal book is mentioned, although Kefala does make good use of smaller studies by Gorelik, particularly in her chapter on Borges. In fact, her argument with Gorelik over how to interpret Borges’s fascination with the arrabales (outskirts)—he sees “populist radicalism,” she “conservative but tactical” whitewashing—is one of the most memorable parts of her monograph (p. 32). One wishes for a similar positioning of the overall interpretation being advanced.

As it stands, Buenos Aires across the Arts will be welcomed above all for its penetrating and original analyses of the six (and a half) creative figures chosen for inclusion and for its attention to the diverse cityscapes that fired their imaginations. Except for Borges, the artists examined here have not often been written about in English. While they are all well known to scholars of modern Argentine cultural and intellectual history (indeed, the near exclusion of the socially committed wing of the interwar vanguard will surprise specialists more), they have not received the broader attention they deserve, even among students of Latin American arts and letters. This book, or even individual chapters, will make their stories and the predominantly Spanish-language criticism of their works more accessible than ever before. This is especially true for “El Negro.” Conscious of the fact that hers “is the first extended examination of a silent film by Ferreyra, an artist largely unknown outside Argentina,” Kefala offers a tour-de-force reading of Perdón viejita (1927), balancing close scene analysis with generous contextualization, bringing to life not just the film but also Argentine popular culture in the age of the tango-melodrama (p. 63). She also manages to illustrate both the promise and the limits of Ferreyra’s “melotopian” attempt to humanize the poor immigrant neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, which her other protagonists always find some way of avoiding. To her credit, Kefala works hard not to choose her favorite among the Argentine modernists (though she leaves no doubt about her least), allowing each reader to find something different of interest here. According to the book’s logic, it could be no other way.


[1]. Note that “modernism” here is not to be confused with modernismo, an earlier pan-Hispanic response to French symbolism and Parnassianism. The vanguard figures discussed in this book saw the ornate, dreamy modernismo of the preceding generation as tiresome and aesthetically bankrupt.

[2]. Beatriz Sarlo, Una modernidad periférica: Buenos Aires, 1920 y 1930 (Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 1988).

[3]. Christopher Towne Leland, The Last Happy Men: The Generation of 1922, Fiction, and the Argentine Reality (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986); and Adrián Gorelik, La grilla y el parque: Espacio público y cultura urbana en Buenos Aires, 1887–1936 (Bernal: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 1998).

Citation: Brian Bockelman. Review of Kefala, Eleni, Buenos Aires across the Arts: Five and One Theses on Modernity, 1921-1939. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022.

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