martes, 2 de diciembre de 2014

Bruno Premiani, by Leonardo Wadel


by Leonardo Wadel

To “drive a screw” at the side of your head, twirling a vigorous index finger, is the popular way of pointing out the “loon”, real or feigned. And there he stood: tall, blondish, gaunt, dolichocephalic (with a pyramidal forehead, which indicated both the spark of genius and an incipient baldness), staring at something in the damp shadows which stained the old walls of the “Hospital de Clínicas”... It was '48, or '49.
Yes, it was him, looking fixedly with straining, myopic eyes at the ghostly, mysterious shapes on the wall only he could see! Some kids, loitering nearby, twirled their index fingers at their temples mockingly, but he did not heed them. I doubt he even saw them. He went on peering at the blotted wall, oblivious of anything else...
Eventually, he realised I was there beside him. Ecstatic, he pointed out an “angel” to me, an “angel”whose outline he divined among the cross-hatching of fissures and cracks. Quite an “angel” it was: four-legged, vampire-winged, serpent- tailed, wearing elegantly tailored trousers... A quaint creature indeed, the kind only the late, great Bruno Premiani could discover in old, dilapidated walls.
But he did not stop there: his wandering finger traced with fervour prehistoric behemoths, a Greek Temple, battles and parades. I confess that, at the beginning, I was blind to those phantasmagorias. But used as I was to descry goblins and monsters in the shapes of clouds or in the puddles amid the cobblestones, soon I could also behold Bruno's chimerae...

I remember the first time I met him, at the publisher´s office in Editorial Dante Quinterno. His lanky figure wasn´t exactly prepossessing. But his eyes, blinking, near-sighted, sad, seemed to look into abysses rarely fathomed by other men. They seemed to be turned to an inner world which only he, the great loner, knew. His suit was stern and dark, his tie black, his face clean-shaven. He treated everybody with a straightforward candour, with no hint of arrogance and calculation.
That day also began our long professional association; we adapted classics for comics in “Patoruzito”, Quinterno´s flagship magazine. Verne, Hugo, Salgari, Dumas, Shakespeare, Stevenson, Harte, Gobineu, Doyle, Melville, Cooper, Tolstoi, Conrad, Twain, Wilde... “The '93”, “White Fang”, “The Call of the Wild”, “The Companions of Jehú”, “William Tell”, “The Black Tulip”, “Mutiny in the Bounty”, among many, many others...
Unlike many of his peers, Bruno knew his worth, and was quite vocal when arguing with his publisher, Dante Quinterno, about page rates. For Premiani, it was not a question of money, but of principle. Quinterno, a tough man himself, used to throw up his hands in despair every time Premiani came for an increase in his payment. I always told the publisher that Bruno was worth his weight in gold, and as the sales never flagged, Quinterno, more often than not, had to give in.

Bruno was born in Trieste, 1907, when it was still part, not of Italy, but of the old Austrian Empire. Even as a child, he knew he wanted to become an artist. Later on he studied decoration and set design, and he excelled in both of them.
In 1930 he arrives in Buenos Aires, where he starts to teach at the Scool of Fine Arts – something I learnt many years later, as he was very close-mouthed about himself, and was never one to brag about himself and his attainments.
He began to work as an artist in “Crítica”, one of the most important newspapers in those days, with his “Visto y Oído” cartoons, and his dazzling illustrations of famous historical episodes and characters, which became his specialization. When he tried his skills at advertising, he also brought his encyclopaedic knowledge of everything historical to that area. In a sketch about May 25th 1810 (Independence Day in Argentina), an artist had made the people hailing the revolutionaries standing on bales, barrels, boxes, etc. Premiani quietly observed that the type of box depicted in the illustration was anachronistic, as they had not yet been invented in the early XIX century, and least of all, to be seen in the River Plate region. Dear “tano”, always a Creole at heart! (*“Tano” is the humorous name given to Italians in Argentina and Uruguay).

But he was no star gazer, locked up in an ivory tower: he traveled a lot, usually staying for long spells in the different countries he visited. It was during his stay in Brazil where he became interested in the “bandeirantes”, those fascinating adventurers and outlaws who built the Brazilian Empire. He wrote an article (which he illustrated himself) about them, “Bajo el Signo de las Bandeiras”,published by the magazine “Leoplán”. He showed that he was no fledgling writer: his style was clear, elegant and solid. If he had decided to dedicate himself to writing, he would have distinguished himself in that discipline too, but fate chose otherwise...

He was marrried to an admirable Hungarian lady, Beatriz, who was completely devoted to him. She was always there for him, and when she passed away in 1950, it was a grievous blow to Bruno. He never recovered completely from it, and I doubt he ever loved another woman the way he had loved Beatriz. The first time he visited me at my editor´s office in “Patoruzito” after her passing, I hastily rose to shake his hand and offer my condolences. But with his usual stoicism, he asked me to let it be, and to concentrate on the present, and the next story we would work on together... That´s the kind of man he was.
Always calm and collected, there were times when he allowed himself some leeway, as when he threatened to punch in the face those “artists” who shamelessly copied his work, or when he tore into pieces an illustration he had made for a reckless publisher who had cheekily intended not to pay him the rate they had previously agreed on, right in front of his face...

Then came the day -perhaps a bleak day- when he decided to move -lock, stock and barrel- to the USA, a country for which he felt a deep attraction. He mailed me from New York the finished pages of the stories for “Patoruzito”. In one of his letters, he told me that he had found the country he had been looking for all his life: he admired the order, grandeur, efficiency and monumentality. Of course, he was offered all the work he could get.
But not everything was wonderful in the USA. Premiani said that the weak were not respected. And after a dangerous nightime episode in New York, he decided to return to Argentina. “Buenos Aires”, he affirmed,” is the only city where an old man can walk the streets safely at night”. What would he think about that nowadyas (*This was written in the '80's).
However, the times and ways had changed. No longer was I at the helm of Quinterno´s glorious “Patoruzito”. Word baloons had replaced the descriptive captions in the “Classics” adaptations.
I remember “asados” at the country house of cartoonist Mirco Repetto, one of Bruno´s closest (and very few) friends. I remember Bruno, once the meal was over, looking at some frogs in a puddle, and quoting verses from Whitman´s “Leaves of grass”...
But then, that was the kind of man he was. Though not formally religious, he was interested in spiritual matters. He never traveled without first consulting an astrologist; he believed in ghosts, and even confided that the shade of his friend, the great illustrator Roberto Bernabó, had visited and spoken omens to him one night...

He revered the figure of Manuel Belgrano, that dandyish, sedentary civilian-turned-general who won many battles during the War of Independence in the early XIX century (*and who designed the Argentine flag); he had long cherished the idea of doing an illustrated biography of the great patriot. It never came to be, even though his wife Beatriz once told me that he had patiently gathered loads of historical documents and built up an impressive archive of reference. But he did finish and publish “El Caballo”, one of the finest books on horses ever written. Not only is it an artistic milestone, but a scientific one, which brings to mind the work of another giant, Leonardo Da Vinci. As a token of his everlasting love, the book is credited to Beatriz AND Bruno Premiani.

In his last years, we worked together again, this time for the children' s magazine “Anteojito”, published by García Ferré. The Premiani/Wadel adaptations had made their comeback: “Ben Hur”, “Michael Strogoff”, “Robinson Crusoe”. “The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym”... His fluid brushstroke, his zest for period accuracy, were as admirable as ever. But his health was failing; perhaps his loneliness had chipped his armor. In 1983, he suffered a stroke from which he recovered, but the die was cast. The last time I saw him, I was sorely taken aback by his tall but now bent figure. When I asked him how he was getting on, he merely smiled and said, “Everyone must die...”. He turned round the corner at Corrientes Avenue and Talcahuano Street, and I never saw him again.
'84, '85: sombre years, that took a dismal toll of many of our great artists: Premiani died practically an invalid; José Luis Salinas, in a genteel penury; Lino Palacio, brutally murdered; Bróccoli, cut before his prime. But Premiani, who had never cared about material things, who had given himself wholly to art, learning and culture, will never be forgotten.

(The writer, Leonardo Wadel, was one of Argentina´s most respected comnics writer, fundamentally remembered by the “Vito Nervio” stories, illustrated by Emilio Cortinas and the great Alberto Breccia).