Inverting Sacrality: León Ferarri’s Rejection of a World with Hell

Leon Ferrari is the only twentieth century artist who dedicated a major part of his artistic oeuvre to deconstructing the relationship between the Christian notion of Hell and human violence. His work opposes the tendency of understanding the post-war era as a period of desacralisation and predominant secularism. Examining the biblical notions of good and evil, Ferrari’s work sits in the gray area between artistic appropriation and blasphemy. In particular, it considers the Christian theme of just punishment for the sinful as an ideological basis for present-day warfare and military violence.

Concerns with Biblical ethics were always integral to Ferrari’s thought, as his education in a Catholic school ingrained forever in his mind the idea of Hell. It is the division between believers and sinners, and the consequent condemnation to eternal suffering of the latter, that Ferrari conceived as deeply flawed. The artist’s provocative approach to this issue incited a religious uproar, attracting the attention of Pope Francis I. He addressed an open letter to Ferrari, dealing with what was perceived as an offense of ‘’our Lord Jesus and the Holy Virgin Mary’’ embodied in Ferrari’s works.

One of the works, which sparked the anger of religious communities was his controversial The Western Christian Civilization, 1965. This piece displays a life-size wooden painted crucified Jesus attached to an American bomber from the Vietnam War, creating a powerful association between military acts of violence purported by the allegedly righteous mission of defeating the evil of communism, and the Christian mission of defeating human vice. Thus, despite often being reduced to mere attacks of the Christian doctrine, his artworks voice a poignant and often unsettling critique of how religious power structures can inform a violation of basic human rights.

León Ferrari La civilización occidental y cristiana (The Western Christian Civilization) 1965 Plaster, wood, and oil

Ferrari found it incredibly difficult to accept the art world’s admiration for paintings of scenes such as the Last Judgement, which propagate a good versus evil dichotomy. One of the pieces that represents this problematic relationship is his Tostadora (Toaster), 2000 from a series, which focused exclusively on parodying the Christian notion of the torture endured by sinners. It features several small crucifixes of Christ emerging from a toaster, in an explicit reference to hellish fire. By ridiculing such a central biblical notion, the Tostadora points to a deconstruction of its absurdity, and implies a rejection of the Biblical notion of just punishment.

León Ferrari, Tostadora (Toaster) from the series Ideas para infijiernos (Thoughts on Hell),2000. Electric toaster and plastic Christs, 29 × 35 × 10 cm. Collection of Alicia and León Ferrari, Buenos Aires.

This critique, however, extends to encompass some of Ferrari’s most striking works — the political collages, which he produced to illustrate the 1984 report, dealing with the Argentinian military regime’s violation of human rights (1976–83). The collages were intended to criticize the support that the Church granted to an incredibly bloody and repressive government, which proclaimed itself ‘’Catholic’’. The report focused on the painful memory of the Argentinian dictatorship and the practice of ‘’forced disappearance’’ sanctioned by it during the suspension of democracy. This involved the systematic abduction, torture, murder and eradication of all traces of the corpse of people associated with activism against the regime. Ferrari’s own son was ‘’disappeared’’ in 1977 and it was only later that it was revealed that he was shot by a military official. Thus, a report that investigated this practice was of especially personal significance to Ferrari.

The series of collages illustrating it are entitled Never Again, 1995–6 and number roughly eighty images. These juxtapose renowned artworks which depict scenes from the Bible, and photojournalistic materials showing leaders of the Argentinian dictatorship, as well as Nazi and church officials. The cover of the first fascicule of Never Again features a reproduction of one of Gustav Doré’s renowned nineteenth-century engravings illustrating the Bible — The Great Flood — with a popular black and white photograph of the military junta leaders who seized power in 1976, pasted in the foreground. The upturned Argentinian coat of arms at the bottom of the collage functions as their pulpit. Doré’s engraving is an apocalyptic depiction of naked men, women and children grasping one another and trying not to fall into the waves of the flood. It refers to Genesis 6:7. The Doré original features an accompanying passage that refers to God’s will to destroy humankind for its sinful nature, as a just punishment.

León Ferrari, ‘The Deluge’ by Doré, 1860 + Military Junta (Photo: Public Records Office) 1995–6

The theme of the flood also evokes the recent revelation that the disappeared in Argentina were often thrown alive into the River Plate from military aircrafts. The generals depicted in the foreground of the picture have their backs turned on the suffering bodies of Doré’s flood narrative, while performing a rather static salute. This seems to be directed at the viewer, commanding attention. The mutually beneficial relationship between the Church and the dictatorship is explicitly targeted by addressing the issue of punishing he ‘’disobedient’’ both on an exegetical and political level. Thus, a link is also formed with the fact that reactions against the regime were often proclaimed ‘’immoral’’.

By decontextualizing the media used for the collages, Ferrari rejects an interpretation of the dictatorship as a unique transgression. Instead, he frames it as part of a larger world history of violence often justified in biblical terms. Moreover, by including popular Nazi photographs in the series, Ferrari’s collages are not simply acting as bringing attention to human rights violation within a particularly Argentinian context, but are rather attempting to emphasize the need to examine the ideological relationships, which enable such abuse of power in the first place. For example his collage Hitler with Children + Videla and Massera with children juxtapose Nazi with Argentinian military officials Thus, Ferrari’s work points to a deeply flawed and pervasive ethical logic which he saw as integral to a Western mentality, based on a friend/enemy specter of righteousness.

León Ferrari, Hitler with Children + Videla and Massera with Children, 1995–6

Another thought provoking example from the Never Again series depicts scenes from Giotto’s Last Judgement where people are being tortured and hung by different body parts. This is the backdrop for a black and white photograph of the processing Junta, lead by the Vicar of the Armed Forces, bishop Tortolo. This forms a direct reference to the notion of Christian Hell, so vehemently opposed by Ferrari. He even went as far as demanding that Pope John Paul II ‘’cancel immortality’’ and that the Holy See announce a millennial without Hell. Furthermore it recalls the report, where disappeared survivors were described as having been able to ‘’escape from hell’’. Thus, a powerful association is created between the victims of human rights violation and the biblical vision of tortured sinners, inspiring so many consequent artistic interpretations.

León Ferrari, Videla, Massera and Agosti with Monsignor Tortolo, Vicar of the Armed Forces (Photo: A. Kacero) + ‘The Last Judgment’ by Giotto, Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua 1306, 1995–6

Ferrari’s work exhibits a powerful critique of the Christian notion of Hell and its relationship to military violence. The artist stated that he thought of Never Again as an ‘’anthology of cruelty’’ as an endeavor to prompt a reconsideration of deeply flawed and ingrained ideological systems. The use of recognizable artworks, included in the canon of Western art history, displays an attempt to construct a critique of the relationship between Western Christianity and violence on a universal, rather than simply regional level. Hence, Ferrari’s specific humanitarian rhetoric prompts the reconsideration of the role played by religion in socio-political and cultural power dynamics, but also its larger historical implications.

León Ferrari, Nuncio Monsignor Calabresi, Cardinal Aramburu, Viola, Lambruschini and Galtieri (Photo: Loiácono) + ‘Banner of the Spanish Inquisition’, Etching by Bembard Picart, 1995–6

Notes:

Ezcurra, Mara Polgovsky, ‘Beyond Evil: Politics, Ethics, and Religion in León Ferrari’s Illustrated Nunca más’ in Art Journal, vol. 77, no. 3, 2008, p20–47

Estévez, Ruth, Augustin Díez Fischer and Miguel A. López, eds. The words of others: León Ferrari and rhetoric in times of war = Palabras ajenas : León Ferrari y la retórica en tiempos de Guerra, Los Angeles, California: REDCAT/CalArts’ Downtown Center for Contemporary Arts, 2017

Porterfield, T. ‘León Ferrari’s Hell’ in Religion and the Arts, vol. 17, no. 1–2, 2013, p98–112

Art History and Russian MA student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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