Eclectic Art & Visual Culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Statue in La Boca

I could easily write a dozen posts on Buenos Aires. And I was only there for a little over five days. It was such a stimulating city and there was so much to absorb that I barely managed to dip my toes into it all before we were whisked over the Andes on the plane back to Chile.

I was overwhelmed by the sights, smells, sounds, feel, and tastes that city had to offer. I can only describe many parts of the city as artistic, intellectual, fashionable, historic, sophisticated, elegant and straight out of a bygone era.

San Telmo, historically an Italian neighbourhood

You can’t help but feel that Buenos Aires is maintaining a firm hold on the relics of its golden period. Much of the stimulating visual culture in the city is, I believe, the legacy of immigrants who came from all over Western Europe (most arrived in Argentina sometime between the 1850s-1950s) and brought with them the distinct aesthetics of their homelands. They proudly emulated and incorporated their visual history into Argentina and have, ever since, been holding onto it. I think that the relative distance and isolation of the country since then allowed its old-world artistic sensibilities to thrive, evolve and be somewhat protected from the audacious melting pot of global culture.

Antiques shopping in San Telmo

I saw some very stylish Porteños – what the city dwellers call themselves – on the cobblestone sidewalks of the city. I get ridiculously giddy over fashion, especially the glamorous, old-world, pretty kind of fashion, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to see men and women dressed to the nines in Buenos Aires. They still “dress for dinner” as one of my friends here in Chile described. Younger women wearing trendy yet sophisticated styles: tight – but not bordering on the obscene – trousers, dressy leather flats, blazers, silk blouses, chunky jewelry, colourful scarves, hair styles in a stylish knots held with barrettes that could have been pulled from Evita’s style handbook. I saw older women with their husbands downtown for a dinner and a show wearing tailored skirts and blazers that could have come straight from a 1940s Chanel boutique, silk scarves and patent pumps. Many men of all ages wore suits that would be right at home on the high streets of Milan.

The palacio de justica

The city had endless blocks of historical buildings, most built between the end of the 19th century through the mid-20th century. Many buildings looked as though they were transported straight from the 8th arrondissement of Paris, the palazzos of Florence or with art nouveau details found on American buildings in cities that boomed in the 1920s, like Chicago. I was also reminded a little of Montreal, as many more modern buildings were built to blend harmoniously with the older architecture. Of course, in all fairness, there were some requisite basic minimalist “lego block” buildings, but as we wandered through the downtown streets our eyes had no shortage of unique and elegant details from a past era to soak in.

And then there are the interiors. There is the attention to detail in most of the city’s historic cafes that we ducked into. Instead of modernizing their cafes, they embraced the past with wooden cafe tables and chairs, turn-of-the-century chandeliers, wood and glass cabinets, and chic red, black and white colour schemes.

Hand-laid mosaic floor in the National Cathedral

The cathedrals seemed to be lifted straight out of Europe and all that we stepped into were impeccably maintained. Can you believe this hand-laid mosaic floor throughout the National Cathedral?

I’ve also never seen so many theatres in one city, and most are still in use for live performances. We toured the famous Teatro Colón, considered to be one of the top five concert halls in the world and certainly one of the – if not the – most glamorous. Even one of the city’s many, many bookstores is housed in an old theatre.

Eclectic shops in La Boca highlight the Fileteado Porteño style

The shops themselves. I could go on about the shopping for hours, but it’s worth mentioning that boutiques themselves all had a unique flavour. Many harked back to an earlier era of beautiful, elegant displays and unique, one-of-a-kind (sometimes hand-made) items.

Of course, I cannot write a post highlighting the art found in Buenos Aires without mentioning Fileteado Porteño, the decorative and popular art that began in the 20th century, originating from Italian immigrants who painted designs on wooden carts. The movement spread into popular culture and was even incorporated into the package designs of mass-produced products such as Coca-Cola and Evian. We saw it highlighted in the city’s touristy Caminito in La Boca, which we explored on a sunny afternoon.

Stained glass dome in the Teatro Colón

And finally, even the politics of the country are visual. We were in the country the weekend of its presidential election, and images of the incumbent presidential candidate (and victor) were everywhere throughout the city.

Argentina has experienced a turbulent history and several extremes in recent decades. It was, in the early to mid-20th century, one of the wealthiest nations in the world and more or less was as developed as the United States at that time. Since then, it has struggled politically and economically, experiencing periods of growth and recession. On the one hand, Argentina seemed incredibly developed and sophisticated to me; on the other, it also has high levels of poverty. Many of its struggling citizens live on the outskirts of the city without electricity, water or paved roads. For that reason, I don’t want to give an unfair impression that the city or country was head-to-toe flawless. Not unlike Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, it certainly has a gritty side.

It was, however, a city that impressed me with its many Porteños who value the arts and place an emphasis on their own visual traditions. Stay tuned, I have much more to share about my impressions of Argentina…

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