Eastern phallic deity Go-Shintai
Eastern phallic deity Go-Shintai


Untitled ("Bible" series). Drawing of the Pisa Duomo superimposed by engraving from the modern school of Ukiyo-e and Jehovah by Rafael Sanzio. Photos: Courtesy Fundación Augusto y León Ferrari

In the year that León Ferrari would turn 100, I choose the series Bible, 1989, as an object of reflection. With these works he concludes his bridge to hell, begun in 1965 with the seminal work La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana, trigger of his clash with the Catholic Church. More than twenty years later Ferrari took up the religious theme with more than one hundred collages made with hybrid variants, mixing texts and images of sacred scripture with works by Michelangelo, Dürer, Goya, Da Vinci, Raphael, newspaper news and oriental engravings, of formal elegance and eroticism in the flower of skin. Bible is the beacon of Ferrari’s total art and with it he unleashes several vertical comments on Holy Scripture, ranging from God to residents of the periphery shot by the death squad in the dictatorship of the 1970s.

Dozens of these collages are collected in the book Bible, considered one of the landmarks of transgressive thinking, with a presentation by the poet Regis Bonvicino. The photocopied, opaque images, worked in black and white, recall the graphic process of activist union newspapers. Max Ernst defines collage as “the meeting of two distant realities on a plane alien to both”. Using only the image of a penis, which represents the Eastern phallic deity Go-Shintai, from the 17th century, and an engraving of an angel with a sword, taken from the Shnorr Bible, from 1860, Ferrari reiterates Max Ernst's thinking and creates a work of poetics illuminated by nonsense. He is not constrained by the common morality of precepts followed by the majority. Using the texts of the Bible is part of his anarchic thinking, with the intention of freeing iconography trapped in books and giving them life by juxtaposing and superimposing it in works close to photomontage. East and West coexist in Ferrari's visual proverb, an inventory linked by a narrative of texts and images that announce setbacks. Confronting differences in sexuality in other cultures he comes to challenging work. It appropriates the design of the Pisa Duomo and contrasts it with the engraving Ukiyo-e, from 1910, and Jehovah, by Rafael Sanzio, sixteenth century, preceded by the biblical commentary: “If the daughter of a priest is caught in rape and dishonor the name of the father, will be given over to the flames (Leviticus 21,9)”. The counter-reading that settles around the works in this series is composed of layers of interpretations.

Untitled (Bible series)
Untitled ("Bible" series), woodcut by Hishikawa Moronobu superimposed on Dürer's "Last Supper".

With the disappearance of his son by the military dictatorship, in 1976, Ferrari leaves Argentina and settles in São Paulo. Presence/absence is the specter that accompanies him in exile and torments him until the end of his life. Ferrari operates in the void that exists between art and life, messing up the system, opening up the logic of domination with collective characters that contest, interrupt and put history in check.

Constant questions about the Scriptures are not only reflected in art, but contaminate their entire way of living. In a letter to his sister Suzana written in 1984, he comments: taking “sin” out of hell or, better, converting hell into a garden full of flowers, as it is in reality, can be a good way to clean or start to clear our heads of Bible verses and their congeners.

Ferrari disobeys and rejects any genocidal project of power. In the 1980s, I saw some drafts of this series in his studio in São Paulo and it caught my attention that the biblical characters floated on top of the blades/leaves. God, saints, angels seemed to denounce the religious heaven as a place of surveillance of the order, which refers to Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish.

Eastern phallic deity Go-Shintai
Right, Eastern phallic deity Go-Shintai with angel with sword, taken from the Shnorr Bible. Photo: Courtesy Fundación Augusto y Leon Ferrari

In 2004 he suffers a new onslaught from the church and the system when his exposure hells and idolatries, Recoleta Cultural Center, in Buenos Aires, is invaded by Catholic fanatics who set fire to some works. At the time, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, clashed with him, calling him “blasphemous”. Ferrari never traded his freedom of expression with any established power, either Church or State. On the contrary, he continued and broadened his repertoire of cathartic conception, by developing new symbolic processes against arbitrariness.

Ferrari bothered a lot because of the free way with which he always worked, against the art circuit, which usually aligns itself with the system. In 1989, after being invited to participate in the Art in Latin America, at London's Hayward gallery by curator Dawn Ades, her work was censored and cut from the collective. In 2013, as a response to all the censures he has suffered over the years, he makes a definitive statement: “Freedom of conscience, the right to believe in any god, or in none, also implies, for some, the right to each one studies, defends, criticizes, makes art, humor, cinema, theater, literature, with any of the beliefs”.

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