A Passion for Hope through Imagination

by Hanniya Abid and Mariano Akerman

Versión castellano-rioplatense

Mariano Akerman was born in Buenos Aires in 1963. Architect and historian, he is also a multidisciplinary artist. In an exclusive interview, he shared some of his thoughts on art and life. According to Mariano, a painter should no longer be a slave of reality. “Today we need to create a better reality, not just imitate the existing one.” Mariano reminds us of the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible.” Mariano Akerman is convinced that "appearance is not essence, but mere accessory." Long ago he deliberately chose not to be a painter of appearances.

The painter with some of his small format collages, Islamabad, 2010

During the 1960s and 1970s, he received art lessons from his aunt Moroca at the Pirouettes Studio. As a painter, Moroca had a surrealist approach. She taught the art of automatism and stimulated her students' free association of ideas. A generous teacher, Moroca used to share her gouaches and brushes with her nephew. She had a good art library and usually lent him art manuals and other books among which were a biography of Michelangelo, Julio Payró’s Modern Painting, and Scott’s volume Design Fundamentals. Above all, Moroca encouraged the spirit of exploration. At Mariano's behest, she taught the history of art in her workshop. It is significant that it was Moroca who introduced Mariano's early work to the Casa de la Pintura Argentina (1984) and paved the way for his first solo exhibition at RG Fine Art (Galería Rodríguez-Gervasi en Arte, 1986).
Mariano's passion for books began in early childhood. He was particularly fond of looking at the illustrations of the encyclopaedia called El tesoro de la juventud (The Treasure of Youth, c.1947), which included, among other things, "some most unexpected characters" that could be traced back to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865).
Another important influence was Dictionary of Modern Art. One of the pictures illustrations in that book was James Ensor’s bizarre picture Intrigue (1890), whose strange figures wore distorted masks hinting darkly at uncertain intentions. In 1967, Akerman doodled over the illustration, which showed that the Belgian painter's image was important to him but at the same time showed his desire to soften what he later understood to be "a grotesque masquerade." The sense of the grotesque can be expressed in terms of either overabundant or missing attributes. Still a child, Akerman thought of Henri Matisse's Young English Girl, painted in 1947, as "incomplete", and thus added everything he supposed she was longing for—eyes, nose, mouth and eyebrows.
As the eleven-year-old prize-winner of a Reader’s Digest art contest, Mariano received a book whose subject matter delved into the strange, the astonishing and the truly extraordinary. Immersion in this book had a profound effect on the young boy, carrying him in a sense from the realm of reality into the realm of the imagination, where he would often feel most at home. Another powerful stimulus to Mariano’s young creative sensibility was early Netherlandish painting that included the amazing configurations of Hieronymus Bosch.
As a teenager, Mariano had breakfast once a week with his grandfather in a cafeteria not far from his home. Once breakfast was over, Mariano's grandfather would buy him the informative weekly issue of the Salvat Student’s Encyclopedia (1981-82), which was particularly rich in illustrations. It was in this encyclopaedia that, at the age of fourteen, Mariano discovered Francis Bacon's disfigured figures.
During Argentina’s period of dictatorship and repression, Mariano’s art teacher at Colegio D.F. Sarmiento was Professor Iglesias. Unusually for the time, she taught in an unconventional and stimulating fashion that encouraged all her students to express themselves freely. On one occasion, Prof. Iglesias brought to class a number of art reproductions and asked each student to pick out the one that interested him the most. The challenge was that each would remake the artwork he had chosen in his own way. To a teenager the expression "in your own way" could have been a problem, but this was not the case in this instance. Mariano chose François Gérard’s Psyche Receiving the First Kiss of Love (1798), for in that image he found "some sort of tenderness." He painted the mythological protagonists in surreal terms. Called Nada de Bésame Mucho ("Nothing of Kiss Me a Lot"), the resulting picture was exhibited at the Ministry of Education and, contrary to all expectations, was highly prised.

Nothing of Kiss Me a Lot, gouache, 1979

Prof. Iglesias' exercise provided Mariano with an excellent opportunity to exercise his imagination. Trying to "find his way" to remake Gérard’s image, he had bought an extraordinary book witten in English and entitled Surrealism. Struggling with his limited grasp of the language, the young student found himself attracted to the work of Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy.
In the summer of 1979, Mariano participated in a youth drawing competition and won a prize. This event took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay. A Visit to the House of My Aunt Moroca was the title of his prized image, which was as surreal. The gouache he painted immediately afterwards, Rococo Soirée in the House of a Medieval Princess, is a picture fusing abstraction and the imaginary. Around that time, an art critic wrote that Mariano Akerman distanced himself from banal preoccupations, suggesting unexpected experiences: the ones belonging to the empiric-meditative creator.

Crystalline, First Movement, gouache and mixed media, 1985-86

Mariano's first solo show, Fiber Transformations and Sweet Tales, took place at RG Fine Art in May 1986. The show included a gouache entitled Crystalline, First Movement and other imaginative works, many of which were conceived as mixed media. Then Mariano was studying architecture at Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires. He completed his education with a graduation project in 1987. Another art critic, Monique Sasegur, detected important elements in his work and in an article of hers entitled "A Vital Message" she wrote, "A first approach to the pictures reveals a draftsman who dominates line, colour and space sure of what he wants. If we look for a formal structure, this is obvious. But, there is also a strong thematic basis: the work of this artist has an interesting vital message. Here, the simple does not exclude the profound. The undulating forms of the natural, the vegetable, the animal, and the excellence of the human figure, which sometimes adopts the form of other living beings," all of them confirm this principle. "Akerman’s theoretical formation rests on his architectural career; the rest is lived experience which he incorporates into his work. Technical requirements lead him to an attitude at once refined and playful. Gouache, markers, colour pencils, collage, ink, and all the architectural tools create the desired effects. One of the aims is the active response of the spectator who can participate in the artistic game only by adding a personal dose of imagination and fantasy. In this way, the picaresque eyes of the personages meet those of the witness, who must differentiate figure from background. But, do they actually merge? Too oriental or too decorative? One would say ornamental, expressive, and powerfully hopeful."
A second solo show at Faculty of Graduate Studies of Universidad de Belgrano (1988) was known as Of Shell and Content, an expression conveying the artistic notion of form and meaning as inextricable. Such an idea is entirely consistent with Oscar Wilde's understanding of art as both surface and symbol. In the exhibition catalogue, Akerman quoted the words of André Maurois, “Art gives the spirit what the world denies it—the union of contemplation and peace.” In the exhibited drawings and watercolours, one could find "unusual voluptuousness, dreamlike enigmas, and beauty, all of them unfolding exuberantly" (René Olivieri).
Mariano's third solo exhibit, Ten Paintbrushes through Deep Waters, was inaugurated at the Bank of Boston Cultural Foundation in 1989. Three by the Window, one of the pictures exhibited, was described by art critic Teresita Pociello as a work whose mobile structure evoked Miró. Yet, according to her, the impact of Mariano's picture was “americanista,” as it epitomized the imaginative qualities that are "typical of art from the American continent."

Three Figures before the Window, watercolor, gouache and ink, 1989

While one may agree or may not with Pociello’s ideas, it is noteworthy that Three by the Window was inspired by transatlantic sources such as Carroll's imaginary characters and Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), an image Mariano first knew through a Tate Gallery catalogue from the early 1980s. Yet Bacon's painting conveys despair, while Akerman's speaks of hope. It is in this sense that Akerman's message finds expression in select images which provide the artwork with "the mysterious charm of things seldom seen by the human eye" (Zulema Vaini).
Ten Paintbrushes through Deep Waters was inaugurated with a series of telling remarks by poetess Bettina Sandrini, "There is a precise and delicate line in Mariano's work. As he depicts forms and details, his inner richness is expressed in terms of joy. In this way, his characters dream and grow up under skies, specially created by him in order to convey the better world he aspires to. Through a patient distillation, Mariano brings innovation into the visual arts."
Such innovation relates to Mariano's use of the imaginary. As Giordano Bruno once put it, "the fictitious image carries a truth of its own." This is true in Mariano's pictures where a certain symbolism is undoubtedly present. Yet the artist is reluctant to discuss this aspect of his work. “Sometimes,” he comments, “to talk about your own work is as necessary as dance is to architecture.” Even a tree in bloom has some of its parts buried underneath.
Writing from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts), in Argentina, Jorgelina Orfila indicates that "with secure hand and controlled drawing, a prolific imagination finds expression in Mariano's work. His technical knowledge intermingles with a profound introspection, and an almost obsessive desire to transcend the formal, to convey deep meanings."

Microcosm, mixed media collage, 1991, 2005

Mariano Akerman has exhibited in solo or group shows in a range of countries, including Argentina, Spain, Japan, The Philippines, Sweden and Pakistan. He has been awarded twelve major international prizes. Today he expresses himself through water-based techniques such as watercolour and gouache. He likes to make collages and drawings as well as sketches and designs. Technically, Mariano uses brushes in his own way and style, at times consciously leaving aside traditional or conventional approaches. He tells us he prizes inventiveness. While prizing creativity and inventiveness, the painter also recognises that the past will always be present in his imagery. After all, he is art historian as well as artist.

The artist as lecturer and art historian, Swiss Embassy in Islamabad, 2011

Mariano's painting style is intricate, precise, richly symbolic and wholly personal. His strikingly coloured and textured paintings suggest a world of fantasy; yet on closer inspection, the various shapes and colours hint at a vital concern with real-world events and experiences. Some critics consider Mariano's development as a painter has been a matter of refinement of technique rather than of dramatic stylistic change. Others are impressed with his sensitivity to all kinds of cultural material, which could be a reflection of his intellectual training and life experience. Thus sensitivity is combined with an ability to empathize with the most diverse cultural traditions and societies.

The Way I love You, watercolour and mixed media, 1989

Resident over the last twenty years in Asia, Mariano thinks of himself as a bridge between various cultures and traditions. Now living in Pakistan, his current concerns are art and education. Commenting with enthusiasm on the distinctive patterns in textile and truck decoration, Mariano talks of Pakistani trucks as "mighty modern elephants." Speaking of his first visit to Lok Virsa, which was his introduction to Pakistani material culture, Mariano observes, "It was a great experience and impressed me a lot, due to its multi-traditional dimension."
Of his experience in Pakistan in general, Mariano says, “Not even for a second have I had the feeling of being an alien in this country”. Asked to comment on Pakistan’s attractions, Mariano prizes its natural beauty, which he says gives him peace of mind. He appreciates the variety of the seasons. Considering the political situation in Pakistan, Mariano rejects its portrayal as a problematic country, mostly because “good things and bad things happen everywhere in these days.” Mariano values life. He is convinced that a dialogue between tradition and modernisation is both possible and necessary. As an artist, he rejects the idea of a world without diversity. “Imagine the world as completely uniform. Would you like to live in a place where everyone looks identical, does exactly the same things, speaks only one language and always thinks in the same way? Even the most ardent champions of technological development would agree that such a world would be sad and boring. It would be a catastrophe, the triumph of mediocrity. One sees value in cultural diversity. God has created a world based on the principle of diversity, not uniformity. You simply have to contemplate nature for a while. There is variety everywhere.”

Source: Hanniya Abid and Mariano Akerman, "A Passion for Hope through Imagination," Blue Chip Magazine, Vol. 8, Issue 89, Pakistan, March-April 2012, pp. 18-22. Prof. Hanniya Abid coordinates the Education Management and Communication Department of COMSATS University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Spanish version: Pasión por la esperanza a través de la imaginación

Comments received
1. Very readable and well written. Dr Jenny Naseem
2. This article is really well written and I had not known of your art views/life/accomplishments nor most of the earlier art work which you had done until I read this. Two thumps up. ;-) Amera Khan
3. Well done. I like the Pakistani trucks as magnificent elephants. Well-deserved praise and well-written. I like the format. Joan Pohl
4. Informative and very interesting. Prof. Rabiya Qadir
5. A very well compiled article. Now we know more about you thanks to this article. Wish you the best. Keep it up! Saba Fayyaz
6. Thanks Mariano! Ilona Yusuf
7. The article really does you justice. It is well written and provides clear and valuable information about you and how you became who you are now. I think it is a nice and good article about you and your work. Franka Wandelen from ’s-Hertogenbosch
8. Thank you very much for sharing with us this article! It is indeed interesting to get detailed information about you and your professional and artistic path. I find the article itself is very well organized and written in a most understandable way. Thank you again. I wish you all the success. Liuba Fedotova
9. Dear Mariano, thank you. You are a star as always! Guess what, I was looking through some books at Mr Books and I saw the Blue Chip Magazine lying there: the first page I opened was this article. I bought it straight away! Its always good to work with you. I am honoured to have you as my friend. Stay blessed and stay in touch. H.A.