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The History of Benito Quinquela Martín

Texts Marcos Rodríguez   Photos Pablo Etchevers

A biographical review of a man who is a synonym for the neighborhood of La Boca: Benito Quinquela Martín.

The History of Benito Quinquela Martín
There is a wide gap between Benito Quinquela Martín and the rest of painters: his biography and his work have not been attractive to art enthusiasts only. A great artist of important recognition and career, an undeniable talent for painting ports and port workers sceneries, his presence clearly visible throughout the neighborhood of La Boca and still alive in the memory and the heart of the Argentinian people.

Man from the most humble of origins, his history sometimes resembles a novel written in the XIX century. A fantastic human being whose life brought about a change in the world of painting and (sometimes it is hard to believe the extent of such change) of his beloved neighborhood of La Boca, where he lived until his death.

Benito Juan Martín was a son of the neighborhood of La Boca. One day in the month of March of 1890, some nuns found him opposite the door of the House of Abandoned Children, an orphanage; that is the reason why his exact birth date is uncertain. He lived there until he was adopted at the age of six by Manuel Chinchella and Justina Molina.
The History of Benito Quinquela Martín
In those days, La Boca was a neighborhood in expansion and an important port. The bustle and hustle of the commercial activity kept pace with hard and popular life in the conventillos and other places where the new immigrants lived. Benito’s father himself was an Italian immigrant, of whom the boy took the surname after a phonemic translation into Spanish language: Quinquela. It is the spirit of La Boca that still vibrates off the canvasses signed by Benito Quinquela Martín.

The young man attended only two years of primary school, but, unfortunately he had to give up his studies because his parents needed his help. He unloaded bags at the port and he helped in the family coal shop. When he was 17 years, he attended drawing and painting lessons at night at a local academy under his only master: Alfredo Lazzari.

His first exhibition was at the age of 20 in the Sociedad Ligure de Mutuo Socorro (“Ligure Society of Mutual Aid”) and in 1919 he won the second prize in the National Exhibition. This was the beginning of his career and the first step to show his talent throughout Argentina and abroad. Although his prestige increased, he was faithful to his style and themes: ports, ships, coal, labor and the life of a neighborhood he would never leave aside.
The History of Benito Quinquela Martín
In the 1930s, Quinquela Martín began a series of activities with the aim of giving back to his neighborhood of La Boca what it had given him. In 1933, he donated a piece of land in order that the National Council of Education could build a public school subject to two conditions: first, the school would be built on the first two stories, a museum of Argentinian artists would be opened on the second storey and the top storey would be destined to both Quinquela’s house and atelier; and, second, Quinquela would decorate the classrooms with murals. In 1936, Pedro de Mendoza School was opened and, in 1938, it was the turn of the Museum of Argentinian Artists, today the Benito Quinquela Martín Fine Arts.

Later on, Quinquela continued to make similar donations in order to build a theatre, now called Teatro de la Ribera (“Theatre of the Riverside”), a kindergarten and a breast milk center and, finally, a Pediatric Dentistry Hospital. These places were also decorated with his murals.

His last work outdoors was probably the one which dramatically changed the appearance of La Boca. In the 1950s, the neighborhood of La Boca started to decline since the port decreased in importance, the old conventillosdeteriorated, life was definitely changing. Touched by nostalgia, his love of art and of his neighborhood of La Boca, Benito decided to organize an outdoor art exhibition space devoted to artists and craftsmen. He recreated an old street filled with colorful conventillos on a stretch of a disused railway line and this path was named Caminito after a popular tango written by Juan de Dios Filiberto.
The History of Benito Quinquela Martín
Even during the last years of his life, Benito Quinquela Martín went on working in his atelier built above the school and the museum. He never either left La Boca (or, rather, he always returned to La Boca after his journeys) or abandoned the life of his neighborhood: his doors were open and he often walked around the children of the school he helped to found. He died in 1977 and his spirit is still with us.

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