Mariano Akerman: Bridging Cultures

Sara Mahmood, "Mariano Akerman: Bridging Cultures," Blue Chip Magazine, issue 87, vol. 8, Islamabad, Pakistan, January-February 2012, pp. 20-24.

Blue Chip Magazine. Launched in 2004, Blue Chip has emerged as Pakistan’s premiere business magazine. Featuring the latest economic data as well as regular telecommunications, energy, capital markets and industry updates, Blue Chip has become an indispensable decision making tool within all levels of the private and public sectors. The magazine currently has a circulation of 6,000 copies a month primarily to Pakistan’s private sector including all levels of the financial sector from junior executives to senior management, all levels of industry including the telecommunications, energy, textiles and IT sectors. Blue Chip is also widely circulated in Pakistani government departments including the Ministry of Finance, the Board of Investment, the Securities & Exchange Commission, the Competition Commission, the State Bank of Pakistan, the Ministry of Health and the Planning Commission. It is circulated among all the embassies in bulk, particularly the Saudi, UAE, Chinese, US, UK and Argentine embassies which are then sent on to the various ministries abroad. Blue Chip is currently available on all PIA, Etihad and Cathay Pacific international business class flights originating from Pakistan.

Mariano Akerman, Innerscape, watercolour detail, 2005

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan. As the last slide vanished from the screen, the sizeable crowd gathered at the German Embassy auditorium on the evening of May 12th, 2010, broke into animated applause. Had they checked their watches, members of the audience would have found to their astonishment that they had been held spellbound for an improbable two hours and fifteen minutes. Not many lecturers on German art could have inspired such rapt attention.

"German Art" was the first lecture of a series ten Mariano Akerman devoted to the topic in Pakistan.

One of the good things about life in Islamabad these days is the sparkling presence of Mariano Akerman. Combining a formidable knowledge of the art canon with his exceptional skills as a teacher, the Argentinean painter and art historian Mariano Akerman has an unusual capacity to enthral his audience. One of a rare breed, he is a scholar who delights as much as he informs. Presenting German art to a lay audience and holding them spellbound for two hours is one proof. Another is the enthusiastic response of Pakistani student audiences to the opportunity Mariano provides for them to probe their own artistic heritage and its relationship to the art of other civilizations. Building bridges between cultures — between east and west, between scholar and layman — he describes as his vocation.

Mariano Akerman lecturing on the French imagery and that in his works, National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad, April 20th, 2010

Earlier this year in Islamabad, Mariano delivered a series of thirty-five lectures to a group of adult enthusiasts eager to deepen their understanding of the visual arts. Beginning at the beginning with how to appreciate a work of art, the series moved on to trace unexpected themes and linkages that brought the art canon to life in new ways. Here is the testimony of one participant to Mariano’s teaching style and breadth of perspective:

“Some of the topics are quirky areas of art appreciation I had never considered, but all are stimulating. It is particularly interesting to be drawn into discussions during these lectures rather than simply taking part in a dry question and answer formula.”

Videoconference: Mariano Akerman giving his lecture "Creativity in French Art" from the National College of Arts in Lahore, April 2010

Communicating his ideas about art to those interested in learning is described by Mariano as fulfilling his need to balance the independent views of the scholar with the human impulse to share. Not that giving is entirely one-way traffic. As well as enriching the audience, the teacher in the course of teaching engages in a dialogue with himself, which in turn helps to deepen his own understanding.

"German Art: Its Peculiarities and Transformations," lecture by Mariano Akerman, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Islamabad, 12 May 2010

As a child growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mariano recalls the perplexing experience of discovering Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in a quaint encyclopaedia. It was his earliest conscious exposure to the influence of the imaginary. During his teenage years, he spent a good deal of time with his aunt Moroca, herself a painter. It was she who first taught him how to paint, while sharing ideas such as the potential of automatism and free association. Mariano benefited too from Moroca’s extensive art library, which introduced him to the fantastic world of Hieronymus Bosch and the work of the Surrealists, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and especially Yves Tanguy.

Akerman, Rococo soirée at a Medieval Princess' House, gouache, 1979-80

As a student at the School of Architecture in Buenos Aires, the young scholar chose visual communication as one of his elective subjects: his graduation project focused on the relationship between boundaries and space. Mariano's work was deeply informed by Lao-Tsu’s observation that clay is shaped into a jar, but it is “the emptiness inside” that holds whatever one wants. Several critics have pointed to the strong connection between Mariano’s architectural training and the style he developed as a painter in the eighties, when he became a highly acclaimed exhibitor in the art galleries of Buenos Aires. The critic Monique Sasegur noted “his theoretical formation rests on his architectural career; the rest is lived experience.”

Akerman, Memory, mixed media collage, 2009 

Another critic, Bernardo Graiver, reviewing Mariano’s first one-man exhibition, wrote: “He distances himself from banal preoccupations, suggesting and evoking not disorderly experiences, but unexpected ones—those that belong to the empiric-meditative creator. Submarine jungles of arched stems and smooth leaves, beings that sing with a growing audacity, and warm soft organisms awake in an ample harmony of composition.”

Akerman, Crystalline, First Movement, gouache, 1986

The work of this period features organic designs that enclose and soften the “unexpected” subject matter: Alice in a group of figures standing before a window, the recurring egg motif, majestic birds emerging from natural forms. These pictures seem to portend the change that is about to happen. In 1991, Mariano leaves Argentina and since then has returned only for short visits. The portrait of the “authentic lady” that he paints shortly before his departure depicts a society woman exuberantly attired in zany hat and striking neckwear. Yet, the odd thing about the painting is that her armless egg-shaped torso comes to a stop at the hip. The egg motif suggests hatching and giving birth to life. It may point to the fact that the painter is about to embark on the adventure of life outside the nest.

Akerman, Your Honour, pencil, ink and watercolour, 1989

One critic of this period decried a “decorative” aspect in Mariano’s work. However, the critic Sasegur assigned this aspect its own importance; in a memorable phrase she summed up the artist’s work as “ornamental, expressive and powerfully hoped.” In this respect Mariano was influenced by the thinking of architect Robert Venturi, whose Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture he read in the mid eighties. By championing the eclectic approach of postmodernist architecture, Venturi sought to mitigate the exclusivist “either-or” approach of modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” was the mantra that encapsulated the modernist movement’s devotion to the principle establishing that form follows function. “Less is a bore” was Venturi’s spirited riposte to the pared down modernist approach.

Venturi also emphasized the fact that contemporary designers are heirs to a wide diversity of artistic influences. While Mariano criticizes much of postmodernist architecture for connecting with the past in a superficial fashion, he nevertheless admires the work of the postmodernist architect Louis I. Kahn, whose powerful designs draw on diverse historical sources. The Hurva, which is one of Kahn’s most daring and celebrated projects, wraps ancient ruins around a modern sanctuary.

Louis Kahn, Hurva Project, cross-section, 1968. Computer graphic by Kent Larson, MIT

Post Argentina, Mariano’s artwork includes both figuration and abstraction. He explores a variety of techniques, especially watercolour and collage. His work, developed over many years in Asia, shows his mastery of line, colour and texture in relatively small, intimate panels, strikingly grouped and beautifully framed.

Akerman, Inner Constellation, watercolour, 2005

It is also after leaving Argentina that Mariano expanded his work as scholar, communicator and teacher of the History of Art and Architecture. In Pakistan, he has targeted students in a wide range of educational institutions. Among them are Fatima Jinnah University, The National College of Art, Quaid-i-Azam University, The National University of Modern Languages and COMSATS. Mariano is particularly enthusiastic about his interaction with young Pakistani audiences. “Young Pakistanis are very curious about their pre-British past and how to connect with it. There is a freshness in the way they engage. Exposure to information and ideas helps them formulate the right questions to help them uncover the richness of their past.”

Akerman, Tell Me about It, collage, 2010

It is the combination of his intoxicating enthusiasm with his breadth of interest as an independent scholar that enthrals Mariano’s listeners. As noted by the student quoted earlier, he brings unfamiliar “quirky” areas of the art canon into focus. One of these areas is “the art of the Grotesque.” Defined by Mariano as an aesthetic category comprising double-edged configurations, the Grotesque has a long tradition in the visual arts, beginning with the fantastic hybrids found in the artificial caves or grottoes of Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome. This style of ornamentation was studied and copied by Renaissance artists such as Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo. In the early sixteenth century, Raphael and Giovanni da Udine developed it into a complete system in the loggias of the Vatican Palace. In this context, the grotesque is ornamental; it is only later that it becomes prevalently deformed and visceral, even hideous.

Akerman, Renaissance Grotesques, educational plate

Tracing the development of the Grotesque in the visual arts, Mariano’s research on the art of what Freud called “The Uncanny” highlights new connections while making evident the subtle transformation of Grotesque Art throughout the ages. “The Grotesque,” as he explains, “is neither attractive nor repulsive, but both at once. It is a problematic, double-edged realm where the one aspect always goes hand in hand with the incompatible other thus creating a visual paradox.” Central to Mariano's examination of the Grotesque is the work of Francis Bacon, one of the most important painters of the last century, whose shockingly brutal pictures also contain the extraordinary power to exhilarate and set free.

Francis Bacon, Lying Figure in a Mirror, oil, 1971
Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao

As an artist, Mariano continues painting and holding art shows. He has received more than twelve prizes in both art and education. Mariano likes to remind one that his priorities include his work as scholar and teacher. Anyone who navigates his site at http://akermariano.blogspot.com will be surprised by the originality of his ideas and the variety of links on offer, each with a wealth of illustration from the scholar’s always expanding archives. Moreover, each link brings a different piece of the jigsaw into focus. New connections emerge bridging cultures in unexpected ways. A visit cannot be highly enough recommended.

Akerman, Idyll, water-soluble pencil and collage, 2011

Sara Mahmood is from Wales and has lived in Pakistan for over 20 years. Apart from being a regular contributor to Blue Chip Magazine, Sara drafts reports and teaches analytical writing skills. She also writes book reviews for the Dawn Books & Authors and for Libas. Her chief interest is reading widely in poetry and fiction, particularly modern developments in writing around the world.

A group of students contemplating Akerman's collages after his lecture "Vers l'art libre et moderne," National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad, March 18th, 2010

Details from Mariano Akerman's paintings. As Van der Rohe once put it, “God is in the details.”

Further references on Mariano Akerman
Lectures, Seminars and Workshops, 2005-2010
The German Contribution to the Visual Arts
Pakistan Drawing and Painting Workshop
Educational Activities


Jacqueline Beaujean said...

Dessin moderne et couleurs chatoyantes.

Nelida Conte said...

Muchas gracias y felicitaciones.

Gabriela Stegmann said...

Qué buen articulo, Mariano. ¡Felicitaciones! ¡Y cómo me gusta "Idyll"! :) Thanks for sharing, beso grande, gab ~

Salo Guerschengorn said...

Querido Mariano, ¡Fabuloso! TODO. Los comentarios, tu creatividad, toda la aventura geográfica, una vida riquísima en experiencias y valores culturales. Te cuento entre mis amigos mas respetados. Me inclino, lleno de admiración a tu inteligencia, guapeza y constancia al arte. Mi cálido abrazo, Salo

Amera Khan said...

Delightful! Two thumbs up ;-}