Visitors to the home and workshop of Martiniano Arce enter a world where their aesthetic sensibilities are quickly put to the test. Everywhere one glances, bright, curvaceous, filigree-like designs have been painted on virtually everything in this eighty-year old, second-story apartment in the heart of the historic Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo. Prom the blades of a ceiling fan overhead to the surface of a coffee table, computer, vintage typewriter, rotary phone, classical guitar, and lamp shades, every imaginable object has been rescued from its mundane, functional role and has been converted into a striking work of original art. A book of poetry, authored by his wife, Susana Lisotti, lies on the cluttered kitchen table. Its cover, designed and painted by Arce, bears the same combination of intricate, flower-like swirls of ornamentation and lettering favored by commercial painters a century ago. Even the toilet seat in the couple's cramped bathroom hasn't escaped its owner's compulsion. Rows of chesthigh, mural-like paintings on sheet metal and sturdy composite board, all bearing elements of the same eye-catching style, are stacked deep against every wall.
"I dream to paint," the gregarious sixty-seven-year-old artist says with a twinke in his eye. "I would pay to paint. I want to paint every minute, day and night." The ruggedly handsome painter is never far from his brushes. Long considered the most important living exponent of Argentina's indigenous filete style of popular painting, Arce appears to live in paint-splattered black jeans and a well-worn black polo shirt. His finger-combed hair cascades over a chiseled face that sees a razor blade only every other clay or so. He pats his sturdy midsection and comments that he never accepts invitations to dine out,. He doesn't want to take time away from his work nor hasten the day when his custom--designed coffin will be needed for its intended purpose. "I used to smoke and drink champagne," he admits, "but I gave it up. Today, all I want to do is paint."
And paint is what Arce does. Since the age of thirteen, he's had a paintbrush in hand and has been a guiding force in the evolution of what was once a purely functional style of commercial painting into what is increasingly being recognized as a wholly distinctive national style. It has become as much a part of Argentina's popular culture as the tango, which it emulates in the sweeping, graceful, and sensuous lines of its most elemental designs.
Filete shares with its music counterpart a strong link to the legacy of Italian immigrants who flooded into Argentina in the latter part of the nineteenth century. As legend has it, elements of then such popular graphic styles as ornatto Italiano and French rococo were adapted by commercial artists and incorporated into designs and lettering painted on horse-drawn wagons used to deliver milk, vegetables, meat, and other products. In addition to describing one of a meat-hungry Argentine's favorite cuts of steak, one of the definitions in Spanish-language dictionaries of the word filete, which comes from the Latin word filo, is "a fine line for adorning drawings."
What likely began as a highly informal manner of expression soon evolved into a more formal style. Primary colors were favored and gothic lettering, used at that time for inscriptions on the national currency, became the typography of choice. Inspiration for the style's trademark ornamentation was initially provided by the examples of classic wrought-iron embellishments and relief carved into the marble columns and cornices--gargoyles, coats of arms, birds, flowers, and other details--of such highly visible public buildings as the Colon and Cervantes theaters. Rippling banners in the national colors of white and pale blue and an increasingly inventive use of animals became hallmarks of the style in the late twentieth century. Arce, for example, has been in the forefront of incorporating the images of fire-breathing dragons into his panels. …