Habits of Mind

  • Communicate
  • Synthesize

Understanding Scarcity

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Define and identify examples of scarcity.
  • Express understanding of the topic through writing.



  • Describe this object as though you were talking to someone who has never seen it. What is the subject matter? What is it made of?

  • Can you identify any specific materials that were used? The artist experimented by combining a hodgepodge of elements: industrial refuse, scraps from the sewing basket, domestic objects of daily life.

  • Talk about the ways those objects create different textures.

  • Notice the dimensions of this sculpture and discuss its scale.

  • What about the creature’s face? How would you describe its temperament or character? What about it gives you that impression?

  • Imagine that this sculpture made a sound. What would it sound like and why?

  • Consider the scale of this work. What if it had been made much smaller? How do the dimensions impact our understanding of the work?

  • This sculpture consists of wood, cardboard, plastic, roots, nails, enamel, and metals including steel, iron, and aluminum bottle caps. What associations do you have with those materials? What might the choice of materials tell us about the work?

  • Berni developed a series of sculptures in a similar vein around two primary themes: sordidness and voracity. How would you describe those themes? This sculpture is called La Sordidez, or Sordidness. How does that title add to or change the way you see this sculpture?

  • One of Antonio Berni's fundamental philosophies for art making derived from his insistence that art address the social and political realities from which it stemmed. To that end, his choice of materials alluded to the economic conditions and disparities in Argentinean society.

  • This sculpture epitomizes the series of "Cosmic Monsters" Berni produced in response to the painful and troubled sociopolitical realities of his country's history.

  • What did you feel and think when you first observed this work of art? Write each feeling and thought.

  • What part or parts of this sculpture contribute to these thoughts or feelings? What initial inferences can you make?

  • Investigate the clues the artist has given you. What do you see as the focal point of this work? What led you to that conclusion?

Born in Rosario, Argentina, Antonio Berni is a central figure in 20th-century Argentinean art. Berni studied drawing in Rosario in 1916 while apprenticing in a stained-glass workshop.

In 1925, he earned a scholarship to study painting in Europe. Settling in Paris for five years, he was deeply influenced by the Surrealist movement. Returning to Argentina in 1930, Berni exhibited his own Surrealist paintings, which were poorly received by critics. Soon after, his paintings, including murals, shifted to a more realist style and focused on social reform.

In the 1950s, Berni abandoned his social realist style, although he continued to create art with social and political themes. In 1958, he began a series of prints, collages, and assemblages incorporating garbage and found objects, based on two characters he invented, Juanito Laguna, a street urchin, and Ramona Montiel, a prostitute. Berni created the prints using an innovative technique that used impressions left on paper by trash arranged as pictures.

These won him the Grand Prize for Printmaking at the 1962 Venice Biennale. In subsequent work, Berni began to collage found materials onto canvas, enhancing them with paint to create large format works. Later, he transformed his work with scrap metal and waste into sculptural assemblages that featured two themes: La sordidez (Sordidness, 1964) and Voracidad (Voracity, 1965), in a series called Monstruos cósmicos (Cosmic Monsters). Berni returned to a more conventional style of painting in the 1970s but throughout his life continued to make works addressing poverty.

Reaching just over five feet in length this urban creature was created from the refuse of modern society. Bent and rusty nails fill out its bristling head and neck, ragged shards of wood stand up from its crawling spine, while decayed and rotten plant roots encrust its back. Its wide open mouth reveals jagged, uneven teeth, created from pieces of plastic ice cube trays, and a thrusting reptilian tongue made from a splintered piece of wood. Like a rat scouring through alley trash bins, this “sordid,” wretched monster appears too intent on finding its next meal to notice the shock and disgust with which it is received. To Berni, La Sordidez is a universal allegory for the degradation and corruption of modern society caused by endemic poverty.

The theme of this assemblage sculpture is conveyed by both the materials used and the subject matter itself. Berni chose man-made materials and natural refuse marked by age and deterioration. He assembled and arranged these waste products of society into the shape of a monster that exists only because of such waste.

From the mid-1950s into the early 1960s, Argentina underwent rapid economic development, accelerated after the downfall of President Juan Domingo Perón in 1955 and financed by infusions of foreign capital. These were “boom” years in Argentina; an expansive and optimistic mood prevailed throughout the country, especially in Buenos Aires.

With expanded access to consumer goods, many people, including Argentinean Pop artists, celebrated consumer culture much in the same way artists like Andy Warhol did in the United States. However, there were others, including Berni, who were more concerned that the infusions of capital were not reaching those with the greatest needs. They spoke out against the negative aspects of rapid economic development, the emptiness of a materialistic society, and the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider