Two Argentines from Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio and León Ferrari, are in the news this week, but for different reasons. Bergoglio is drawing international headlines for his travels through Brazil, while Ferrari is the subject of obituaries, but the two men are inextricably linked.
Bergoglio, a relatively spry 76-year-old better known as Pope Francis, is touring South America's largest and most populous country in hopes of reinvigorating Roman Catholicism where it’s fading fast, despite having the largest nominal adherence in the western hemisphere. Even given the difficulty of obtaining foreign currency in Argentina, many Argentine Catholics are making pilgrimages to their northern neighbor to view the first South American pope.
Ferrari, who died in Buenos Aires yesterday at the age of 92, is a good example of why the church is struggling. His father built churches and painted their frescos in Italy and Buenos Aires for a living, but the son assaulted religious hypocrisy with gusto – his prize-winning masterwork La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western and Christian Civilization, pictured above) began as an almost topical protest against the Vietnam War in 1965, but in the interim it’s become an enduringly eloquent statement about the contradictions of political and ecclesiastical power.
So powerful was Ferrari’s work that in 2004, when the Centro Cultural Recoleta hosted a retrospective of his portfolio, the then Cardinal Bergoglio filed a lawsuit against it and protesting Catholics vandalized some of the exhibits; after a brief closure, it reopened to record-breaking attendance. As the photograph above shows, the lines outside were long - the exhibit rooms could not accommodate everybody at the same time.
I had the good fortune to meet Ferrari in his Retiro apartment shortly thereafter, and he was amused by the controversy. Before I left, he gave me a booklet of his poems which, unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced, but I’ll be looking for it again today. Even if I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bergoglio one-on-one, I’m not sure I’d bother, but I’ll always be glad to have met a gracious, good-humored and unassuming artist like León Ferrari. Given his beliefs (or lack of them, in this case), “Adios” is certainly not an appropriate salutation, but he deserves to be remembered and respected for his contributions to Argentine and global art and culture.