Type
Fiction
Category
Culture
Writing

Rococco

The auction of the painting A Lady Escorted into the Garden by the minor eighteenth-century Portuguese artist Alfonso Rigas de la Guerra created a significant stir in art circles when it was recently sold for €3.2 million (see ‘Unknown Work Sets Art World’s Hearts Racing’, Guardian, 17 May 2006). Though the price itself was relatively insignificant when compared to the astronomical sums fetched by more famous works, it nevertheless was an astonishing sum for a painting that has little, if any, international profile. It is not my intention here to comment on the workings of the international art industry. But I do believe it is necessary to make the one following observation before I begin: since the 1980s, any belief in the ‘revolutionary’ potential imbued in the traditional high arts can no longer be a tenable critical position, if for no other reason than the more democratic digital media technologies allow for a dispersal of message and image that would have been unimaginable to an artist of even a half-century before. But it is not only the internet that has exposed the elitism of art practice. Artists are neither a ‘proletariat’ nor a ‘vanguard’, and they do not make successful ‘revolutionaries’. If they have been, it has only been for a moment before the firing squad or the gulag or the concentration camp has seen to their ignoble demise. Some of the more fortunate are taken up as a permanent class of bohemian émigrés by whatever cities happen to be the cultural centres of their moment. In the end, all are forced to rely on the kindness of the haute-bourgeois stranger. We can only but wish them luck. The sword, we well know now, post the twentieth century, is indeed much mightier than the pen.

It is by necessity that I make this observation because if there was anything known at all about de la Guerra, it was his pathetic end by the guillotine on the Jacobin scaffolds of Paris. That biographical endnote was, until the recent auction, the only knowledge of de la Guerra that had come down to us through history. We owe his work, let alone the man himself, more than that. Let us rescue him from politics and return him to art.

The young Alfonso was a grandson of conversos in the Inquisition and he was never allowed to forget the Hebraic strain that ‘sullied’ his blood. His father was a highly placed administrator in the royal court, but the young de la Guerra’s life was punctuated by moments of exile when the bishops were aroused to further purges of those whose ancestry screamed heresy and infidelity. In the end, we can discern in some correspondence between the elder de la Guerra and his son, the father’s life ended in near poverty and complete banishment from society. It was no surprise then that the young de la Guerra, who had already at the Universidade de Coimbra shown remarkable aptitude in philology and philosophy, as well as mastery of the techniques of fine art, found it appropriate for his adventurous spirit to head out for the so-called New World.

In 1761, at the age of twenty-seven, after five years plying his trade as a portrait painter in the courts of France, Spain and Westphalia, he sailed for Rio de Janeiro. It was de la Guerra’s good fortune to have been a youth at the university when it came under the control and tutelage of that most remarkable of Enlightenment figures, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the first Marquis de Pombal, whose administration of the rebuilding of Lisbon after the great earthquake made his name famous throughout Europe. Most important for the young de la Guerra was the Marquis de Pombal’s fierce anticlericalism that culminated in the removal of the Jesuits from the Portuguese court and from their stranglehold on the universities. For de la Guerra, forced to watch his father humiliated by the dogmatic anti-Semitism of that breed of Catholic brethren, it must have been an intoxicating moment. Early letters back to his parents in Lisbon show him beginning to tackle the religious challenge of Protestantism and concurrently struggling to read Plato in the original Greek (his work evidences that he mistranslated quite promiscuously). More importantly, in the dozen or so drawings and canvases of his that survive from this student period, we see him rejecting officially sanctioned religious art for his first forays into portraiture and landscape. Of these, the only one of any importance is a lovely miniature of the Marquesa de Cabanas, by all reports one of the loveliest of noble women in Europe at that time. That a young student like de la Guerra was granted the favour of having such an aristocratic woman as the Marquesa pose for him says much about the waves of change initiated by the European Enlightenment. Nevertheless, Portugal’s power was beginning to wane in the world, the loss of territories and prestige had hurt the nobility, and de la Guerra was not alone in choosing to abandon what must have seemed the decadent exhaustion of old Europe for the excitement of the New. Let us remember, he was a young man, adventurous, fired up by the abandoning of centuries of dogma and hatred.

Knowing the above about de la Guerra, we may be, on first viewing, surprised by the conservatism of A Lady Escorted into the Garden. The two figures in the painting are instantly recognisable as an aristocratic trope: a nobleman and a noblewoman. They are dressed in the most flamboyant of mid-eighteenth-century European fashion. She sports a ridiculous ghostly grey pompadour, her gown is all satin, beads and lace. His skin is painted white and his pantaloons are shiny and silken. The most incongruous element of their dress might be that, though they are set in a typically Rococo Arcadian locale, she wears thin elegant pale-pink dancing slippers and he has on calf-high dress boots, the leather strapped through ebony buttons. They are also both wearing gloves, though that may be because de la Guerra has the gentleman lead his lady by the hand into the garden.

The protection of cloth refutes any charge of licentiousness that may have attached to the subject. Though the man and the woman look as if they may have stepped out of a tableau created for the French Sun King, the painting itself was executed in Brazil. The more we contemplate it, the more we become aware that the Arcadia the man and woman have stepped into is not one recognisably European. What initially appears to be innocuous and derivative shows itself under a more acute gaze to be something else entirely, something that I believe gives the painting a vitality that reaches across the centuries. In A Lady Escorted into the Garden we see the Europeans literally entering the New World.

The dense green undergrowth, the gnarled deformed giant limbs of the trees, the reddish glare of the sun. The tepid couple do not belong to this untamed beauty. I was a student in Buenos Aires in the late eighties when I first encountered the painting. It was hanging in a small alcove in the Museo de Bellas Artes, part of an exhibition on the Latin American landscape, not even part of the permanent collection. I remember responding to the vivid sensuality of the colours, the bold greens, the bloody blues and reds, but I was affronted by the insipid faces of the couple. There seemed to have been no care, no attention paid to giving them life or vividness. I had studied the period and knew of de la Guerra’s execution at the Terror, but the painting gave no sense of the tumultuous revolutionary history that formed the artist. I dismissed it instantly as an embarrassing and naive work, derivative, just another reactionary and scarred attempt to make over the new American landscape in Old Europa’s image. I recognise now the poverty of my reaction, how unforgivable my accusation of myopia was to de la Guerra, precisely because I was unaware of my own short-sightedness. A Lady Escorted into the Garden demands we trust our initial first reaction to the work, to ignore the human subjects and to focus our eyes on the world they are entering. This strange, unknown, disquieting and sublime garden is both novel and at the same time a return. The garden of the painting is not some blandly theatrical rendering of the Elysian Fields for the delectation of the First Estate. It is no mere backdrop. It is something ancient. It is the first Garden.

It is possible that I did not spot the serpent on that first, dismissive glance at the painting. What I did notice, what I expect every first-time viewer of the landscape observes, was the rush of lavender of the young buds on the forest floor, the bruised lemon colouring of the canopy of leaves that close to a savage aura around the couple. These leaves, the brandy-hued trunks and limbs of the rainforest trees, they are still shocking even after the passing of centuries. De la Guerra is a child of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, so the veins and textures of the leaves, the solidity and glimmering strength of the trees are depicted in faithful realistic detail. But how the colours shine, how they dance, how they mock the sedateness of European light. How can our eyes pay any attention to the pale ridiculous couple ostensibly at the centre of the canvas? It is the world – the natural New World around them – that is only truly alive. Even as I write this, as I recall my first encounter with the work, I also remember the jolt of anger, the desire to scrape the couple from the calico, to make the oils crumble away till they disappear and only Brazil – a naked but unsoiled Brazil – is left. I would not be the first critic to be reminded of Van Gogh’s use of colour as we contemplate A Lady Escorted into the Garden. Close to a century and a half separates the Baroque Renaissance execution of de la Guerra and the abandonment to an equally Baroque impressionism by the Dutch master, but they both share an ecstatic delight in the natural order. Their pigment is fire on the canvas.

But the more one returns to A Lady Escorted into the Garden the more one’s attention is drawn to the serpent and the monkey. The serpent, black, its skin glistening in a blade of sun penetrating through the thick trees, is coiled around the bronzed gnarled limb of a jacaranda tree. It is, of course, on an obvious, immediate level, a symbol of the first garden, of Eden. It is a hint that the fragile aristocratic idyll of the couple is about to be shattered through the Fall of revolution. It is my intention to argue that in de la Guerra we find an astonishing foresight. It is as if his early years spent painting portraits of the gentlemen and ladies of Western Europe have given him a precise insight into the twilight of the noble era. In a more modern parlance we might surmise that his dual outsider status – a converso, a child of a pauper – gave him the ability to stand outside of his class and grasp the subterranean tremors and writhings of social change and upheaval. I confess I look upon such an argument with much favour, as it does tally with the few biographical details we have of the artist’s life. What is important, however, is the work and how the work speaks to us.

The serpent’s head lays still, asleep in its tree. The reptile’s head faces away from the couple, towards that which lies outside the frame. This snake, in this garden, is not interested in the human subjects at the centre of the painting. The sleeping serpent, looped over the tree limb, occupies the top-right corner of the painting. At the bottom-left corner, there is a small monkey, alert, on its haunches, staring straight at us, but seemingly ready to leap away in flight at any moment. We recognise it now as a uakari monkey, evident from the spindly grey short hairs on its red raw bald head, from de la Guerra’s expert rendering of its long, fine, gold-orange fur. Its eyes are wary, penetrating and suspicious. In our anthropomorphic gaze we might understand these eyes as ‘human’. Here again we are also struck by de la Guerra’s incredible prescience. A century before Darwin sailed on the Beagle into the New World, it is as if de la Guerra is exhibiting for us the truth of the Garden. The serpent and the ape were there before us, and as our eyes shift back to the lazy smiles and bland features of the human couple, we sense that the serpent and the ape will be there once we are gone. It is no wonder that the painting disappeared for such a long time. It is startlingly blasphemous, almost modern in its audacity. It is no wonder, as well, that it still has such resonance for us contemporary viewers. What de la Guerra could not foresee, could not guess, was that the trees and shrubs he painted so lovingly would all eventually disappear in the insane lust of humans to strip the earth of its ore, that the uakari monkey was right to look upon us with misgiving. It too now faces extinction. That silly, superficial, dull couple will not be vanquished without bringing everything else down with them.

€3.2 million would have made the radical sans-culotte de la Guerra furious. It is a madness – but given that madness, it is also a bargain.

If nothing else, the notoriety around the sale of A Lady Escorted into the Garden will hopefully encourage greater attention to be given to de la Guerra’s other work. For the most part, there is nothing interesting to be found in his early European portraiture. There is a distinct, almost malicious, truthfulness in some of the work – no wart, no scar, no meanness in the eye or thinness of lip is allowed to go unrepresented – but overall the work is derivative and indicative of a young artist attempting to shake himself free of slavish adherence to the generation before. Unfortunately, many of the Brazilian works have been lost or destroyed. Of those that do remain, the Centro des Cedoes Artes Brasileianoes in Sao Paulo has an intelligently curated permanent exhibition with truly engaging and interesting curatorial notes supplied in Portuguese, Spanish and English (see www.ccab.br/delaguerra). There are also some very beautiful sketches and small canvases of working men, slaves and colonial administrators in the National Gallery of Kingston in Jamaica. The debts owed to the Renaissance are again evident but the majority of these works eschew a reliance on Biblical or Classical mise en scène to instead open up an authentic rendering of early colonial townships. I await future critical and biographical work on the life and oeuvre of de la Guerra, in particular his uniqueness amongst colonial artists in not wishing to subjugate the New World by the aesthetic conventions of the Old.

I cannot end without mentioning, with some sadness, a work of the artist that was never completed. As soon as news of the revolution in France reached Brazil, de la Guerra abandoned his new home and sailed immediately for Europe. It is said that he jumped on board a French vessel that had been taken over by mutinous revolutionary French sailors and that it was with them that he arrived back in the Old World. In Paris, de la Guerra began painting murals celebrating the new dawn and quickly became an associate of the Jacobins. He had become deeply antagonistic to the slave trade while in the Portuguese colonial territories and immediately on arriving in Paris, in fevered excitement and revolutionary passion, wrote his highly influential tract against slavery, Contre l’humanité. He also began working on a series of charcoal sketches, which were to share the same title. Those that still exist, largely in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are some of the most confronting and profoundly affecting testaments to the inhumanity of the international slave trade. Rendered all from memory, from what he witnessed at the slave auctions in the Americas, the sketches portray wretched men, women, children, shackled, lying in their own sick and excrement, awaiting to be taken to market. De la Guerra planned a canvas that would take up one whole wall of the main ballroom in the Versailles Palace (this was still when there were plans to have the palace converted into a gallery dedicated to the people’s history). Unfortunately, as the revolution entered its most authoritarian stage, de la Guerra increasingly fell out with the Jacobins. Never having forgotten the anti-Semitism suffered by his parents, he was fiercely anti-religious and scornful of Robespierre’s attempts to reconcile Christianity with forms of spiritual worship gleaned from the ancients. Recklessly, de la Guerra’s atheistic pronouncements became increasingly vehement and he was arrested and sentenced to the guillotine.1 After his execution, any of his artwork that remained was quickly destroyed except for those few sketches for Contre l’humanité.

I have in front of me a reproduction of de la Guerra’s Em Escravo. It is composed of black charcoal marks on white paper. The title is simple and brutally honest: a slave. The young man has the marks of the lash across his chest and shoulders. His head hangs low, he is stripped to nakedness and he clumsily attempts to protect his genitals from our mercenary gaze. His body is emaciated, his feet bloated, covered with erupting sores. Is it that we are still under the sway of imperialist racist memory that his wary, frightened eyes remind us of the ape in A Lady Escorted into the Garden? Or is it that this is exactly what the institution of slavery did, reduce the human body and human spirit to the animal world?

I prefer another understanding.

De la Guerra’s work is a reminder that the natural world is of equal to that of human society. The tragic helplessness in the African’s eyes is mirrored in the devastation that was to come to the Amazonian rainforests in wake of the Europeans’ arrival. The serpent in the Garden is, then, not the sleeping innocent reptile, but the cavorting foolish couple. De la Guerra’s painting asks us to reflect on the possibility that we are no worse and no better than the animal life in the Garden. No better, no worse. We still find this almost impossible to believe. The €3.2 million suggests how little we understand of what de la Guerra is still trying to say to us.

1 Most recently the French art critic and academic Angelique Circa has suggested that part of the increasing Jacobin antagonism to de la Guerra came from the radical conclusions of his fierce anti-slavery and anti-racist views. His advocacy of miscegenation, the liberation of colonial subjects and restitution for African and American slaves was possibly a bridge too far for even the most egalitarian of the revolutionaries. There is certainly evidence that after the Napoleonic putsch de la Guerra’s work was extensively destroyed. We owe the survival of his treatise, Contre l’humanité, to its popularity amongst abolitionists in Holland, Britain and the United States. See ‘Citoyen noir?: Une histoire d’une non-histoire’ in Art et Couleur: Études en Subjectivité.


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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels – Loaded, The Jesus Man, Dead Europe, The Slap and Barracuda. He co-authored the dialogue, Jump Cuts: An Autobiography, with Sasha Soldatow. He is also a playwright, film critic and essayist. His short story collection, Merciless Gods, is being published in November 2014.

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