One Man's Political Paintings Depict Tango's Passionate Past

For painter Ricardo Carpani, today's youths could never capture the essence of tango, an art form indelibly, painfully embedded in the history of his country.

Bushy graying eyebrows arched, eyes flashing frustration, Mr. Carpani speaks of a political art born at the turn of the century, its passion tested but never stilled by the military government's "dirty war" from 1976 to 1983.

It was during that time - forced into exile in Spain - that Carpani first painted the tango.

"I began painting the tango then in exile as a way to recapture my childhood, to keep my identity," he recalls in his book-filled apartment. Carpani first was drawn to the tango in the 1930s, when a depression gripped Argentina. He later associated its expression with the fight against political injustice and poverty.

Carpani and his posters were nationally recognized as symbols of a popular revolution in the 1960s and '70s, when Argentines massed in protests, calling for democracy. He was on a trip to Spain in the early 1970s when Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla unseated President Isabel Peron and embarked on a campaign of violence and repression that lasted until 1983.

Warned not to return, Carpani and his wife stayed away for a decade. "In the 1960s, we were fighting a revolution," he says. "We thought we had the power to create a new society. When I returned, I encountered a reality that I couldn't have imagined."

He points to his portrait: "Where is the stop for Bus 60?" - a man, hat tilted on head, newspaper gripped in his hand, entangled in vines in a hectic jungle. "This is me," he says. "This was not the country I knew, not my society. Where were our ideals? When I came back, there was no solidarity, only egotism."

He says today's tango could never capture the angst of its roots. Young people, he says, just don't understand. "Tango has a code ... of amor ... of passion," he says. "The young people dance it like it's exotic. They learn the steps, they repeat it mechanically. They don't feel it." To demonstrate, he sweeps his gray-haired wife into an embrace. They plunge into movement, gliding past stacked paintings.

"Tango is a way of thinking, a culture," he declares. "As [writer Enrique Santos] Descepolo said, 'It's a sad thought that you dance.' "

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