Throughout his career, León Ferrari developed an art that served as a melting pot for ethics and aesthetics and offered a harsh critique of political and social structures as well as the artistic traditions that served them. Ferrari, whose father was a painter for the Catholic Church, recognized an apparent contradiction in Christian belief: From an early age he struggled to comprehend the concept of what he referred to as “just cruelty,” namely the harsh episodes of punishment that recur throughout the Holy Scriptures such as the Great Flood, the fires of Sodom, the Last Judgment, and, indeed, hell.
Because Ferrari believed that this brutal side of Christianity was the root cause of numerous acts of military aggression throughout modern history, he placed this idea at the core of his iconoclastic body of work. In 1965, when Ferrari was invited to take part in an exhibition at the Instituto Di Tella, a cultural research center in Buenos Aires, he chose to submit La civilización occidental y cristiana. This sculpture depicts the crucified Christ mounted onto the fuselage of a United States fighter bomber in a scathing two-pronged attack on Christian iconography and American foreign policy. Here, Ferrari’s Christ no longer symbolizes the promise of eternal life, but acts instead as a harbinger of imminent death at the hands of military superpowers, a prospect that was globally feasible when this sculpture was made, at the height of the Cold War. As American military intervention in Vietnam continued to intensify, Ferrari’s sculpture gained iconic status.
León Ferrari was a self-taught artist who worked in a wide range of mediums. He began his artistic career in Italy, working as a sculptor, in the 1950s. By 1955 he had his first solo show in Milan, and that same year he returned to Argentina. He soon expanded his artistic production to ceramics, collage, painting, and drawing, working in plaster, cement, wood, and stainless steel wire. Beginning in the early 1960s he adopted conceptual strategies and his first “Written Paintings” and “Written Drawings” emerged. With these nearly calligraphic pieces he explored the boundaries between lines and words. Ferrari is mostly known for his social and political concerns, which are reflected in his art. His famous La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western Civilization and Christianity, 1965) was among his first artworks protesting the United States’ military intervention in Vietnam. In 1976 he left Argentina for political reasons and exiled himself in Brazil. There he applied the technique of heliography to create series of “plans,” mapping sections of labyrinthine worlds with sarcastic notes. Ferrari also wrote critical essays and invented new musical instruments. He was honored with many awards and prizes and returned to Argentina in 1991.