Paranoia and Hope: The Art of Juan Batlle Planas and its Relationship to the Argentine Technological Imagination of the 1930s and 1940s

Michael Wellen


The creative works of artist and poet Juan Batlle Planas (1911-1966)—a figure relatively unknown outside of Argentina—have long been understood as enigmatic and solitary experiments in surrealism. This essay, through a combination of formal analysis and cultural history, examines his collage series and paintings made in the 1930s and 1940s—especially his Paranoid X-ray series—to argue that these works are representative of a broader set of urban cultural responses in Argentina to the struggles of economic recession, political uncertainty brought by military rule of the 1930s, and tidal waves of (mis)information spread by mass mediated news sources. In particular, my analysis expands on Beatriz Sarlo’s theory of the “knowledge of the poor,” a term she uses to indicate the prominence of professional science, pop psychology, and crackpot inventions in Buenos Aires’s working class and middle class cultures of the 1920s and 1930s. By placing Batlle Planas’ work in this historical context, this essay reveals how Batlle Planas’ eclectic interests in Freudian psychology, Tibetan Buddhism, crystallized minerals, and the bizarre healing theories of Wilhelm Reich correlate with the growing technological imagination inspired by Argentina’s mass media, which in the early decades of the 20th Century circulated a surrealistic jumble of cultural information across Latin America.

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