Por Martiniano Arce
Argentine Painters of a Timeless Style Showcase a Century of Art
By Héctor Tobar, Times Staff Writer
BUENOS AIRES — Back in the heyday of the sign painters of Buenos Aires, Martiniano Arce never stopped working. He would spend hours in a stable-cum-workshop, drawing fine lines and tiny beads in oil along the sides of horse carts, on the hatches of delivery trucks, on the hoods of city buses.
He painted dragons and tube-necked swans. Sometimes, the owner of a milk cart would splurge and ask for a portrait of Carlos Gardel, the legendary tango singer. Arce would oblige, painting Gardel with his trademark fedora, always inside a perfect oval or circle at the center of the frame, because in the craft known as filete, symmetry is everything.
What began as a simple style, doodles on the side of carts, evolved into a graphic style of design. The fileteadores brought a touch of color and the fanciful to the self-confident, booming Buenos Aires of the first half of the 20th century. Eventually, their work began to fade from the cityscape, at about the same time that the glory days wound down into epochs of crisis and gray dictatorship.
But Arce kept working. Though he never considered painting to be "work."
"I've been fortunate," says Arce, a voluble 65-year-old who began to paint filete designs when he was 13. "I've never worked a day of my life."
Today, Arce basks in the title of "Illustrious Citizen of Buenos Aires," conferred by the City Council in recognition of his contribution to the visual life of the metropolis. He is one of dozens of men and women, young and old, who still practice the craft.
Filete has endured, especially in San Telmo, a neighborhood of cobble-stone streets that is the oldest in Buenos Aires. A fin de siecle graphic style pioneered by Italian immigrants, filete is now a century old. To manyporteños, as residents of this city call themselves, it is as much a symbol of Buenos Aires as tango or fire-grilled beef.
This month, the Museum of the City in San Telmo is holding its first-ever celebration of filete. The museum's galleries are filled with objects fileteado from throughout the decades: the front end of a delivery truck, the side panel of a horse-drawn cart, signs that once hung in restaurants and cafes.
"Filete is something that brings happiness to us, because of its colors and the spontaneity with which the work is done," museum director Jose Maria Peña said. "The fileteadores inspired themselves with the elements of daily life."
The signs' decorative lines were inspired by the art nouveau designs that were in vogue in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires during the first decades of the 20th century. Their distinctive, gothic lettering was copied from the Argentine currency of the day.
"When a cart came out of the shop of the fileteador, people lined up to see it," Peña said. "It was like waiting to see the dress on the bride."
In the beginning, one of the jobs of the fileteador was to paint sayings and slogans requested by the owners of trucks and carts. One at the museum reads, "Como el pibe no hay dos": There's no other one like the kid. One of Arce's favorites is, "Reality is an effect produced by the lack of alcohol."
By the time Arce was growing up in the 1940s, filete was something a young porteño with an artistic bent and limited means could do as a vocation. When Arce began painting in the 1950s, he remembers, "you couldn't take a cart out of the shop without it being fileteado."
The visibility of the craft began to decline after 1960, Peña says, when the city barred horse-drawn carts from its streets. In 1975, the government prohibited signs on city buses from being hand-painted.
"Some official said that you couldn't see the numbers on the buses clearly enough if they were fileteado," Peña said.
In the last few decades, the city's leading fileteadores have painted objects designed for display in galleries and homes and for advertising. For an art exhibit linked to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Arce decorated a 6 1/2 -feet-tall Coca-Cola bottle at the company's request. His design graced the cover of a Grammy-winning album by the Argentine rock group Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.
As his fame grew in the 1990s, Arce met two presidents, Carlos Menem and Fernando de la Rua. To both, he offered to paint filete designs on the presidential jet, known as Tango Zero One.
"I wanted to put dragons on the tail and a bunch of other designs on Tango Zero One, but they never took me up on it," he said.
In the meantime, he's spent countless hours painting filete designs on nearly every object in his home in San Telmo.
After climbing a flight of stairs, a visitor enters the main living area to a startling sight: two coffins, both elaborately decorated in the filete style. There is a pink one decorated with roses for his wife, Susana Lisotti — like him, she is very much alive. And there is a black one for Arce himself, upon which he's painted swans, dragons and the dates of his birth and "death."
"I'm planning on living a lot longer," he observes wryly.
There is an old rotary telephone covered with gold filete lines and a rose in the center of the dial. On the blades of ceiling fans overhead, the filete design slowly spins air downward. The television has green and red lines hand-painted around the screen. The computer, mouse and ink-jet printer have all been fileteado.
"To me, an empty, unpainted space is a kind of sin," he said.
When Lisotti brings coffee to Arce and a guest in the living room — placing it on a table also painted with Arce's designs — the visitor can't help but notice: "These coffee cups are the only thing in the room that are not fileteado."
"Just give me time," Arce shoots back