Art in the Time of Tyranny
How Argentinian artist Josefina Auslender found the meaning of freedom in Maine
by Chris Busby
“So let me ask you this,” the filmmaker said, warming up his subject for the interview, “tell me about what you’re allergic to.”
Josefina Auslender looked stunned for a moment, her grey-green eyes darting about as if searching for answers among the old photographs and artwork in the studio of her Cape Elizabeth condo. “Well,” she began, “my worst allergy is, do you know, dictators,” and she laughed. “Bad presidents, bad politicians.” (Other than that, she confided to documentarian Reggie Groff last winter, she’s allergic to Vitamin C. [Watch the short video Groff made about Auslender here.])
This innate aversion to tyranny runs in Auslender’s family. Her parents escaped Eastern Europe by emigrating to Buenos Aires, Argentina, during the oppressive years preceding World War II. Her Lithuanian mother was orphaned as a child during the First World War.
“Do you know the story of the film Doctor Zhivago, when Zhivago is taken by the militants?” Auslender, 84, asked me when I interviewed her last month. “My grandfather was taken the same way. Not because he was an intellectual or a doctor. He was a tailor. So they took him just to work. They came and they took him and he spent six years and came back when he was [mortally] ill, and probably a year later or before, he died, and after that my grandmother died. So these were six sisters and two brothers that were left by themselves.”
An aspect of her father’s family’s wartime experience in Poland and Belarus was actually made into a movie: Defiance, the 2008 film starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as the real-life brothers who led a group of Jewish partisans fighting to survive the Nazi onslaught and shelter survivors inside a sprawling forest. Auslender said one of her uncles joined this group and spent years “in the woods … with a doctor in the woods, with cows, and a school for the children, and they were moving constantly.”
Her father was one of only two members of what had been “a very big family” to survive World War II. He was an “adventurer,” Auslender recalled, a young man with no binding allegiance to any political philosophy or religion. “My father always was saying he wanted to be the citizen of the world,” she said. He and a cousin considered emigrating to the United States, but chose Argentina partly because “the conditions were open and much easier.”
By the time Josefina was born, her father had begun a successful career in Buenos Aires representing European companies that made furniture and other wood products there. His “colorful” personality and generosity made him a popular member of the community. “For example, I come from a Jewish family, but we had the best cooked apples with the wine of the saints at Mass, because my father was friends with the people that were providing wine for the church,” she said.
“My mother was the classical housewife. The only thing extraordinary that she used to do is smoke when nobody saw her,” Auslender recalled with a chuckle. But “in a very homey way, she was an artist — in everything she was doing. For example, when we were children, we didn’t have gas to cook or electricity. They were cooking with embers, so the walls were completely black, dark. So my mother, every morning, she would take the newspaper, cut all kinds of faces, flowers, and put them on the wall. Every day she would change them.”
Behind their home was the woodshop where carpenters working for her father cut boards. When she was five or six years old, Josefina would sculpt figures and objects by mixing sawdust with clay and water and flour. She fashioned high heels from the small, triangular pieces of wood left on the shop floor, and drew pictures of the furniture the workers made. “This is how I began,” she stated.
“Art is very important. It’s one of the most important things that we human beings have,” Auslender told Groff that day, remarking that even toddlers express a strong impulse to create. The source of our artistic visions, however, can be a mystery even to ourselves. Groff tried to get Auslender to explain the ideas that inspire her work — meticulously rendered, primarily abstract drawings made with graphite and colored pencils. “It’s impossible to tell you,” she responded. “If I tell you why I do them, I will be a hypocrite, because I don’t know why I am doing them. They come to me and I like them and I make them.” Later in the interview, she likened the process to “a machine in my forehead … bombarding me with images.”
Auslender — whose work is the subject of a solo show at Corey Daniels Gallery, in Wells, opening July 6* — received international recognition for her drawings in the 1970s and ’80s, including a solo exhibition at the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art. In Maine, her work has been featured at the Maine Jewish Museum and several Portland-area galleries, but has been shown much more rarely.
The story of how Auslender rose from that dusty woodshop floor to the height of her home country’s art scene and beyond is as remarkable as the artwork she created along the way. In addition to the deeply entrenched sexism of mid-20th century Argentinian culture, she had to contend with the repression and state-sponsored violence that wracked the nation throughout this period, culminating in the notorious Dirty War (1974-1983), during which an estimated 30,000 Argentinians — mostly students and trade unionists suspected of having left-wing political views — were abducted and murdered by the ruling junta and its death squads. The military dictatorship’s tactics during the Dirty War, described by one officer as “worse … than the Nazis,” included a hidden network of torture sites and atrocities like throwing detainees out of airplanes into the ocean.
The state terrorism of the Dirty War — conducted with the assent and assistance of the United States as part of its anti-communist Operation Condor — largely took place out of public view. People were abducted in their homes during night raids or snatched off the street when they were alone — effectively disappeared. Some were released after months or years. Most were never seen again, dead or alive.
The true nature and scope of the evil were not revealed until 1984, when a truth commission held hearings and published reports. Auslender and her husband, Abraham, moved to Maine two years later. Both had to reestablish their careers late in life — Abraham was 60 when he got an engineering job with cement manufacturer Dragon Products. Josefina’s work hasn’t garnered the level of recognition she received in Argentina, but she discovered something much more important here.
As a student in Buenos Aires she’d studied the work of abstractionists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, “but in a way, it was difficult for me to understand them until I came to the United States and I learned what was going on,” she told Groff. “Why [were] Rothko and Pollock and those people … in the United States and not somewhere else, with all the trajectory of the art in Europe that was so important? Why [did] America produce those very important artists?
“And I really realized that the most wonderful thing that an artist can have was here in the United States,” she continued. “That was freedom. The freedom of thinking. The freedom of feeling that you are not an idiot, or you are not a genius — you are a human being with lots of feelings and desires and ideas, and you could do them. Here, you could do them.”
Life During Dirty Wartime
Josefina’s father decided she should study business, so she was enrolled in a high school that focused on that field. “I was a disaster, a terrible student,” she said. At the end of her third year, she asked her father if she could attend the school of fine art in Buenos Aires, and after consulting with her mother, he concluded, “Well, let her do whatever she likes. She will marry, have children, then forget everything.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, “Buenos Aires was a beautiful place,” Auslender recalled. “It was like a colony, but with the flavor of Europe. Buenos Aires was built by the French, so we had a neighborhood that completely looks like Paris. We have a neighborhood that looks like England. All the poor neighborhoods, they were beautiful. People were working and they were having good jobs and the schools were very good.”
Josefina met Abraham Auslender when she was 16, and they spent the next seven decades together (Abraham died in 2016, at the age of 84). “It was very romantic,” she said of their courtship. “We were skipping school together [and would] walk through Buenos Aires. Because he never had money, we never went to have a Coke or a coffee or whatever. We’re just walking all day, three or four hours, until [it was] time to come back home.”
“He introduced me to classical music, to opera — especially Brahms, he loved Brahms — and to movies,” said Josefina. “We were both crazy about filming.” Abraham later produced three movies in Argentina, one of which won awards overseas, but it was difficult to line up financing for films, and the Auslenders lost a fair amount of their own money pursing this passion, so Abraham eventually gave it up.
Students were segregated by gender at the art school, and female students got a second-class education, with the best teachers and classes reserved for boys. There was little expectation that girls could ever become significant artists. But there was a strong expectation that all young people must enthusiastically support what Josefina called the Junta Perónista.
Auslender loves movies, but don’t ask her if she’s seen Evita, the 1996 film (based on the Broadway musical) starring Madonna as Eva Perón, the young wife of Argentine President Juan Perón, who served in her husband’s government for six years before she died of cancer in 1952. Groff made that mistake. “Oh, no. No,” she told him. “For me, it’s impossible [to watch Evita]. … She wasn’t what they show. She wasn’t a saint.”
In 1955, Auslender was about a year away from graduating from art school when Juan Perón was overthrown in a coup d’état and the government came under the control of a military dictatorship, the first of several that would take power in ensuing decades. This terrifying turn of events actually came as something of a relief to her, because she and her classmates had been facing an agonizing decision: join other youth in groups that put on public displays of fealty to the Perón regime, or refuse to do so at great risk to yourself and your loved ones.
“The first thing they gave you is a scooter,” Auslender said. A high-placed government official — sometimes Perón himself, wearing what Auslender called a “Donald Trump–style cap” — would lead long parades through the streets of Buenos Aires followed by patriotic students on their motorbikes. “It was horrible,” Auslender said. “It was like Mussolini’s time, the same. So I never was part of that group, but we were very afraid, too, at the same time. … Because it was very dangerous” not to join. “Not just dangerous for us, dangerous for our families, too, our parents, everything.”
(Getty Images has a photograph of Perón leading one such “motor scooter parade” not long before he was ousted from power. He’s sporting a white baseball cap. “Close behind are some of the girls in the [Secondary School Union] who were entertained in the presidential residences,” the caption read. “They were said to fight over Peron’s attentions by his 16 year old girl friend, Nelly Rivas.”)
The art school was shuttered for over a year in the wake of the coup, and by the time Auslender graduated she was pregnant with the first of her two sons. She dedicated herself to domestic duties, as her parents had foretold, but like her mother, she made art of that work, too.
“You have to understand that we artists are very stupid people,” she told Groff, quoting a character in some movie she’d seen. “We are completely [unable] to do anything else but art. And we do art because we are complete idiots and we can’t do anything else.” She laughed heartily. “I thought [that] was a wonderful explanation, because this is what it is. There comes a moment when there is nothing you can do — everything you can do is art, and you translate art to everything. When you are cooking, you are doing art; when you are cleaning your house, you are doing art; when you are dressing your children, you are doing art, you are looking for the colors, the combination of colors — what goes with that? … That was my life.”
When both her boys began school, Auslender had a five-hour window during the day to make artwork, and she endeavored to use every second of it. She was particularly interested in sculpture during this period, and made clay pottery and ceramics inspired by pre-Colombian artifacts. She began studying under a sculptor who taught classes at his studio. “That was really a demanding professor,” she told Groff. “He kept me three years drawing, only drawing. I was going to his studio three days a week for three hours every day, or four hours. He kept me drawing all the time. By the time he said to me, ‘Josefina, well now you can just go buy the clay and we will begin to do the first [sculpture],’ I was completely crazy about drawing, and that is what I did since then … for more than fifty years.”
The drawings Auslender made in the late ’60s and early ’70s are clearly influenced by sculptural and architectural ways of seeing the world. Towering, faceless buildings rise against the night sky, rendered in a way that conveys not only their imposing mass, but also a sense of serenity. She drew otherworldly landscapes and intricate forms that obeyed their own laws of gravity. There’s a slight surreality to these drawings, like M.C. Escher without the visual tricks, and the precision of their execution is itself a thing of beauty.
While chatting with Auslender in her studio last month, I marveled at one of these early works in which most of the lower half is a uniform shade of pure darkness. She explained that to achieve that deep black, she covered the entire section with graphite pencil five times. “I always explain to young people when I talk to them, ‘You can use ink [to create black] and then go with the graphite, but it’s not the same. It’s dead. It’s completely dead.’ … Do you know why Mona Lisa is so important and so attractive? Because Leonardo never stopped painting her. He was painting and painting and painting, and these are the layers and layers and layers of energy coming into a piece of art.
“The other [reason] is that he was a great artist,” she quipped with another big laugh.
When the Dirty War began in the mid-1970s, Auslender’s work morphed in a profound and mysterious way that she’s hesitant to even try to explain. “Sometimes I feel that I shouldn’t tell the story because some people can think I’m lying,” she told me. Then she set the scene…
“We were beginning to be under the militants and so there were things going on, because people began to disappear and we didn’t know why. And the stories were getting worse and worse. So many young men from the high schools, they were disappearing, because [from the government’s perspective] every complaint that you had in the country is because you were a ‘communist,’ so you had to disappear. So this is what they did. They killed them all. But these were children that were 16, 15 years old — the age of my two sons, so we were really very afraid.”
Auslender and her husband wanted to get their family out of the country, but came to a terrible realization: “There is no place to go.” The “machine” in her head began bombarding her with images in which the buildings and forms of the past were joined by a new element: female bodies, in whole or in parts.
“My work changed completely and I never could explain what happened to me, because from doing that kind of thing I began to do like totem bodies … especially all women. And why women? Because we mothers were really scared about our children. Because Buenos Aires was a very healthy city and very easy, and you could walk around Buenos Aires, any neighborhood, until five o’clock in the morning, and our children were accustomed to that. So teenagers, can you stop them, [tell them] not to go and do all the kind of things that they love to do? We couldn’t sleep every night until they were coming back home, both of them. It was absolutely terrible.
“And then listening to things that were happening around us, our neighbors, part of our family, their sons and daughters disappearing,” she continued. In that pre-cell-phone era, most people carried a little book in their pocket or purse with the names, addresses and phone numbers of their friends, family and associates. If your name was in the address book of someone snatched by the authorities, you were then in grave danger of being abducted and tortured, as well.
“One of my nephews was taken for that reason, because his name was in the book of one of his university classmates, and he was taken with his wife,” Auslender told Groff. “He was afraid, so he came to his parents’ house with his wife and his baby. One night all those police came to my brother-in-law’s house, they put the black hoods on [everyone’s] heads and they took those two young people and they kept them for three months. So yes, we had that. Every family had that in Buenos Aires. It was very difficult not to have somebody in your family, or your friends [abducted]. Many artists in Argentina disappeared too, because they were very political.”
When Auslender exhibited this new series, she titled it The Bodies, but “in reality, the name is The Infamy,” she said. “I showed them in Buenos Aires [as] The Bodies because it was very dangerous to say The Infamy.” She laughed, ruefully. “They would put me in jail.” Unlike her previous exhibitions, which had generated a lot of press coverage, “nobody — only one newspaper — wrote about me, and that was something very strange.”
The Infamy imagery manifested in her mind for three years, then suddenly “disappeared completely.” Years later, when full accounts of the Dirty War became public, “I realized that I was working like a medium,” she said, channeling the suffering of thousands of Argentine mothers and grandmothers, sisters and wives.
The success Auslender achieved in the 1970s, and the subversive nature of some of that work, surprised her friends and family, “because [of] all my colleagues, I was the youngest, with a husband that had a very good job and a father that was a rich guy, and I was a bourgeois!” she said. “I became the young emerging artist of my generation. That made me laugh a lot, because everybody, all my friends, everybody was expecting me to be like a wonderful housewife. They never thought about me being an artist.”
In 1978, Auslender had a solo show at a gallery in Madrid. While visiting the Prado Museum she was enthralled by Los Caprichos, the series of prints by Francisco Goya, made at the close of the 18th century, that daringly satirized the wickedness and foolishness of Spanish society and its political and religious elites. A later series of caprichos, which Goya called The Disasters of War, also made a strong impression on Auslender.
She completed her own series of drawings inspired by Goya’s prints when she returned to Argentina, but once again she was compelled to censor the title. She called them simply Caprichos, rather than Los Caprichos de la Guerra (The Caprices of War), “because I will have to call them Los Caprichos de la Guerra Sucia” (The Caprices of Dirty War), “and that was [too dangerous]. I have two sons and a husband. I couldn’t do that.”
The Caprices of Dirty Trump
Many years ago, Auslender was speaking to a group of art students in Maine, and one of them asked if she believed artists have an obligation to express political views in their work. “I don’t feel that,” she said. “This is something that has to come from you. It’s like, if you are forcing something … it shows, and it’s not strong. It has to be something real that comes from inside you.”
During the Dirty War, she said it was impossible not to internalize the fear and grief of the people around her. One night when she and Abraham were going to dinner with some friends, “Suddenly we were on the Avenue Corrientes — that is the center of Buenos Aires — and a huge group of people came, and they were all the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, with the white scarf on the head and the photograph of the children that disappeared. How could you not be part of that? It was so terrible and so emotional.
“But sometimes,” she added, “in the worst moment of the life of a person during a war, people were doing beautiful things, because it was an escape. It’s the way to survive, in a way. … Some people have that kind of thing that will push them out to do things, to show what is going on is wrong. I don’t know what to say, because I never proposed myself to be denouncing anything. I didn’t know how. It came out by itself.”
The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges occasionally attended tea parties and other social gatherings where Auslender was present. (She once illustrated a collection of Borges’ poems.) “He was saying the same, that many times he didn’t know from where his work came,” Auslender said. She also related an anecdote about Pablo Picasso, who, when asked when he knew a work was finished, is said to have replied, “When the other leaves me.”
“There are works that if I decide to continue working on them, I begin to feel sick. It’s impossible for me,” said Auslender. She’s almost physically incapable of creating art to meet others’ specifications or demands, be they the curator of a themed exhibition or her own art dealer. “That’s why I don’t sell very well,” she told Groff. “If you aren’t honest with yourself and with what you are doing, there comes a moment that you have to stop. And you know that you should stop, because if not — like in Argentina, we have a saying, ‘You are not anymore an artist, you are a chorizo-maker.’”
Money and fame are ephemeral, but masterworks that earn an artist money and renown last well beyond the artist’s lifetime, becoming part of the culture and identity of the nation. “I feel that we artists … are building something,” Auslender said. “It’s like writers, musicians, architects, filmmakers, everybody is building. Somebody that makes good bread is building something good for the country.
“But … visual art, especially, it’s become like a commodity,” she continued. “People are selling some pieces for hundreds of thousands of dollars and some are not selling anything, but people want to sell, and the galleries want you to sell, and the museums want to have a very prestigious and extraordinary artist. … We are forgetting something that is essential, but is about art: Art is the soul of a country. When we go to visit a country, what do we do? We go to museums, we go to the streets and look at the beautiful buildings or beautiful landscapes [designed by] landscape architects. We go and look at the paintings.
“Art, for me, is something that should be kind of sacred. It’s something that we are building not for ourself, but for the other, for the people. Because once it’s out of our studio, it’s not ours anymore. It belongs to the people and it belongs to the country.”
When the mysterious muse that guides one series departs, Auslender is never idle; she’s usually working on two series simultaneously. Her work ethic is rigid and intense. “I work like a mason,” she told Groff. “I come early in the morning to my studio and work. I used to work for eight or nine hours when I was in the middle of having lots of shows, preparing commissions or whatever, or more sometimes.”
By the early ’80s, Auslender’s sons were young men, and, freed of the demands of parenting, she was finally able to put in those long days in her studio. But she and Abraham felt they could no longer live in Argentina when the Dirty War ended. The hideous secrets uncovered by the truth commission brought the unnerving realization that they’d been living for years surrounded by monsters. “My husband was playing tennis four times a week in a club that was across the street from the worst place for the tortures in Argentina, and nobody knew anything,” Auslender said. “It was completely hidden.”
With the Dirty War over, the military dictatorship again gave way to Perónist politicians whose neoliberal policies, often described as a form of “corporate” or “right-wing” socialism, had eroded public life and institutions. Auslender was especially distressed that Argentina’s once excellent public schools and universities were privatized by Juan and Eva Perón, and the quality of the education there steadily declined as a result. Plus, the Perónists’ fascistic tendencies still worried Jewish Argentinians. Juan Perón had been an open admirer of Mussolini before World War II, and after the war he gave Nazi officers like Adoph Eichmann safe harbor in his country. (In 1960, Eichmann was nabbed and taken out of Argentina by Israeli agents, then tried for war crimes and executed by hanging in 1962.)
One of her sons, Marcelo, studied medicine and later worked at Maine Medical Center, during which time he met and married a woman from Saco. After using visas for several years to live in Maine for six-month periods, Josefina and Abraham moved here permanently in 1986. Josefina hasn’t been back to Argentina since her mother died decades ago, and she turned down an opportunity to return earlier this decade, when a museum invited her to show work there, in part because she needed to care for Abraham, who was struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
“The other thing is that it’s impossible for me to forget,” she said to Groff, then paused in solemn thought. “And forgive,” she continued, pausing again before adding, “because everything was mixed with politics, and racism, too. I never thought that I could say one day, ‘I don’t want to forgive them.’ Because forgiveness is one of the most wonderful virtues that a human being can have. … But there are some things that are impossible to forgive.”
Groff began to ask his next question, but Auslender wasn’t finished. “Killing young people, and [drugging] them and [throwing] them from an airplane or a helicopter into the ocean, because they were young and they were asking for a better life for themselves. It’s impossible to forgive.”
The newfound feeling of artistic freedom Auslender experienced in Maine inspired her to make work that’s brighter and more colorful than her 1970s oeuvre. Her drawings became more textural than architectural, and more spontaneous, though no less exacting in the precision of their execution. Manhattan Blues, a series she completed after visiting New York shortly after 9/11, was interpreted by many as a reflection on the attacks, but Auslender said it was really inspired by the reflection of clouds moving on the windowed sides of Manhattan skyscrapers.
“My work, because it’s kind of dark — it’s always dark — the light is really very important,” she explained to Groff. “First, it gives a point of attention. It’s like the light is taking you by the hand and moving you around the drawing. … It’s like you are a maker of something. You are creating a space that doesn’t exist outside you, it exists inside me. And I have to go inside me and discover [what] I am trying to express. And then with the way I manage the dark parts and the light parts … it’s modeling something and giving them a kind of shape and a form and a sense.”
Auslender also began painting again when she moved to Maine. “I couldn’t paint a lot, because in Argentina they were putting you in a kind of compartment, and I became a draftswoman,” she said. “They didn’t want to show my paintings.”
The freedom to paint was one aspect of the larger sense of liberation Auslender felt when she moved here. “Something that helped me a lot is that going to my studio, I knew that I could do everything I wanted … and it would be OK. People will like it or not. It was me and my work. I never have to look behind, like in Buenos Aires when I was sitting in a coffee shop, and see if somebody was listening to what we were talking about.”
Auslender’s other son, Ariel, is a painter living in Germany who freely expresses his political angst through his work. “This morning we were talking and he said somebody came to his studio,” Auslender told me. The visitor asked Ariel, “‘What’s going on with you? Why do you paint so many angry people?’ And Ariel said, ‘Because I am listening to news.’”
Josefina also listens to the news, and knows the prospects for prosperity and security in Latin America have not appreciably improved since she left. In Brazil, the neo-fascist government of President Jair Bolsonaro terrorizes and oppresses free-thinking people with the enthusiastic support of Washington. In Venezuela, sanctions imposed by the United States led to the deaths of over 40,000 civilians between 2017 and last year, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research released in April, and the Trump administration — with the full support of many Democrats — tried to spark a bloody civil war there this spring, all because President Nicholás Maduro is “socialist.” Meanwhile, refugees fleeing violence and repression in Central America are hunted down like dogs along our border and imprisoned in filthy camps for what is inherently a political “crime”: stepping over an imaginary boundary line without the proper paperwork.
I asked Auslender if Trump’s presidency was bringing back the anxiety she felt during life under Perón and the military dictators. “No,” she responded. “Not yet, because … I believe in the American people.” She’s impressed and reassured by “how seriously Americans are taking their freedom.” Only in the United States, she said, would the government empower someone like Robert Mueller to investigate the leader of the government. “And you see that Donald Trump, he went to England and … he wanted to be a king too, but he can’t. It’s impossible for him.”
Auslender knows it’s foolish to assume fascism can’t grow among a culturally enlightened populace. “That Germany could have what happened in a country with all the intellectuality, and all that kind of music — people were saying, ‘In the country of Beethoven and Brahms, it can’t happen,’” she said. “But here, what’s different is that there is a system, an organization” of political checks and balances.
“One of my big influences was coming to the United States and learning about … the real meaning of freedom,” Auslender told Groff. Now, as the surviving member of a family compelled to jump across three continents to escape tyranny, “it would be terrible for me to think that it could happen in the United States.”
*My fiancé, Mainer contributor Sarah Bouchard, is the director and curator of the Corey Daniels Gallery. She is also the co-founder of International Artists Manifest (IAM), a nonprofit arts organization devoted to the care, promotion and preservation of the work of under-represented artists after they depart. Auslender is working with IAM to plan her legacy. Reggie Groff interviewed Auslender for IAM, and video of those interviews was provided to Mainer and used as the source of some quotes included in this story.
A show of Josefina Auslender’s work opens at the Corey Daniels Gallery, in Wells, on July 6, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and continues through Aug. 10. A video interview with Auslender by Reggie Groff can be viewed via this link. Our new website launches this Labor Day. In the meantime, you can support Mainer as a subscriber at mainernews.com.