On ViewMendes Wood DM
In aestheticizing their encounters with nature, artists make infinite decisions—either unwittingly or intentionally. Some might attempt an “accurate” portrayal of space, flora, and light. In doing so, they interrogate the very nature of documentation: is it possible to arrive at a scientific visual rendering without the interference of personal, cultural, or ideological bias? Others might adopt an abstracted or distorted approach to natural imagery with the intent to convey a psychological or emotional response, or to counter the symbolism of a preexisting visual lexicon. What is the impact of choosing one approach over another? Are there circumstances in which we rely on artists to mirror “truths,” be they personal or societal? Are we more likely to trust a delicately painted leaf than a loose, expressive swatch of spring green?
Landscapes of the South, a group exhibition on view at Mendes Wood DM, presents 27 compositions in which creators—ranging from renowned traveler artist Frans Post (b. 1612, Haarlem, Netherlands; d. 1680) to contemporary Costa Rican painter Federico Herrero (b. 1978)—respond to natural settings. The show also contains works by Brazilian modernists who, according to the gallery, “sought to subvert the vision of…colonizers by building a national artistic language.” Diversity is found not only in artists’ origins, eras, and intents, but in their formal choices; the landscapes exhibited are nostalgic and deadpan, impasto and serenely smooth.
From just inside the doorway of Mendes Wood DM’s primary gallery space, the paintings and drawings on view look like little windows—winking capsules that promise to reveal important temporal, socio-political, and cultural clues. While the images seemed serene, I entered the exhibition braced for conflict, specifically with the traveler artists’ depictions of Brazilian landscapes. I presumed that their European conventions and imperial gaze would noticeably exoticize or commodify their subjects—that their attempt to “capture” foreign landscapes on canvas would in effect colonize them. My suspicion was heightened by the presence of modern Brazilian works where artists ostensibly reclaimed their native land.
I found many of my expectations for colonial traveler art manifest in Parisian painter Henri Nicolas Vinet’s (b. 1817, Paris; d. 1876, Niterói, Brazil) A Mountain Stream in the Rainforest Above Rio de Janeiro (undated). Painted in the second half of the 19th century, the work’s imagery—which gushes beauty and yearning—is gloriously pre-industrial. With the meticulous enthusiasm of a naturalist and the brush of a Romanticist, Vinet rendered a shimmering virgin landscape that conveys the awe of initial encounter with the tropics. The painting’s middle ground presents an impressive breadth of deep-green, overgrown flora that bows with the weight of its own exceedingly healthy foliage. In the foreground, sun-struck scrub vegetation encroaches upon a stream of clear water that rushes over and between rocky outcroppings—one can almost feel the warm glow of plein air light. And in the background, imposing mountains in lavender-gray rise ever higher through layers of white mist. I couldn’t help but think of shan shui, or “mountain-water” painting—a style originating in Song Dynasty China and championed for centuries by the literati—in which infinite, atemporal landscapes feature passages of mountains, rivers, and waterfalls unified by mist. Like shan shui landscapes, Vinet’s tropical paradise seems to combine natural, subjective, and metaphysical realms. While not abstract in form, the painter’s vision feels tinged with fantasy: a wild yet tranquil paradise where one is alone but never lost.
Directly across the room from A Mountain Stream hangs another dreamlike painting by Brazilian artist Alberto Da Veiga Guignard (b. 1896, Nova Friburgo, Brazil; d. 1962, Belo Horizonte, Brazil). He, however, was concerned with conveying the burgeoning industrialization of the mid-20th century Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, rather than nature’s grandeur. Guignard, who moved to Europe with his family in 1907, studied art in Munich, Florence, and Paris. He returned to Brazil in 1929, and exhibited his work in Rio de Janeiro alongside celebrated Brazilian modernists including Candido Portinari and Tarsila do Amaral. Then, in 1944, he moved to Belo Horizonte—the capital of Minas Gerais—which, at the time, was rapidly developing into one of Brazil’s largest industrial centers. Paisagem de Sabará (1956) reveals the metamorphosis of a small city that lies just east of Belo Horizonte, which served as a gold-mining hub in the colonial era. Using sheer pigments, Guignard painted red roofs and ghostly white facades, which seem to be materializing—or perhaps dissolving—amidst a lush green valley. Nestled at the center of the composition is a factory, whose smokestacks puff away in blue and green. The disconnected architecture and land made me wonder if Guignard was imagining the reversal of forthcoming damage to a pristine natural setting.
Mounted to the right of Guignard’s work is a 2019 painting by the São Paulo-based artist Lucas Arruda (b. 1983, Guaçuí, Brazil)—a landscape which, painted from memory, conveys a sensorial/psychological state. Part of his Deserto-Modelo series, the intimate work measures around eight inches square. Close study reveals shaggy palms in olive and moss green, and a densely sprouted understory steeped in the chocolatey-brown earth from which it emerges. A gray, fading light hovers above the tropical vegetation, conjuring an unusually chilly, humid day. The image is eerily silent, the vegetation wild and uninhabited. Delicate lines scratched into the oil paint—which trace silhouettes and distinguish individual fronds and raised bark—invoke a sort of primordial energy, recalling streaky lines left by children’s fingers in mud. The work communicates a feeling that is neither foreboding nor welcoming, more earthy than sublime; a return to fundamental contact with one’s own humanity.
To the right of Arruda’s painting is Frans Post’s Franciscan Convent of Igaraçu (1659), created after he returned from Brazil to Holland, which addresses colonial efforts to establish European religious values. Hanging on a floating wall across from Franciscan Convent is a work by Hélio Melo (b. 1926, d. 2001), a self-taught Brazilian artist whose landscapes stem from his experiences working as rubber tapper in the Amazon. This, next to a group of diminutive paintings and drawings by Tarsila do Amaral (b. 1886, Capivari, Brazil; d. 1973, Saõ Paolo). In an adjoining gallery, one finds mostly contemporary works on canvas, wood, and jute, by South and Central American artists. Surrounded by so many relatively small works in a relatively small show, my head began to spin.
And so the question arises: what are the implications of organizing a show in which the magnitude of diversity erodes not only chronology, but also the pre-established art historical categories that it takes as its springboard—Latin American traveler art, European Romanticism, post-colonial art, Brazilian modernist art, contemporary Latin American art? In some ways, this amalgamation is positive. In deciding first, to present nearly four centuries of art and second, not to present the works in chronological order, the show implies temporal, political, and economic fluidity. This fluidity, in turn, underscores the many, nonlinear paths to and definitions of modernity—a topic always worth revisiting.
But with over 400 years of art divided between two rooms, and no wall text to provide international, national, or local historical context for viewers, the grouping glosses over the significant events and particular socio-political circumstances to which many of these artists responded. Especially in the case of the European traveler and modern Brazilian artists—each of which require careful, nuanced study—especially when they are paired. A narrower focus on any of these colonial/modern juxtapositions might have encouraged a slower, more thoughtful study of landscape’s role throughout Brazilian art history, one of many important conversations concerning increasingly relevant themes, including academicization, colonization, spirituality, identity, and the environment.