Essays  Witney Chadwick  

Witney Chadwick

The World of Norma Bessouet

The paintings in Norma Bessouet's current exhibition represent a further refining of an earlier body of work dedicated to the visual crystallization of dream-like and fantastic voyages and mythic narratives of the spirit. In her previous works, inner fears, desires fantasies and emotions mingled in scenes of heightened realism and dream-like condensations of time and space. A heightened reality was present, discernible in carefully executed figures and environments, and in Bessouet's attention to descriptive detail. Yet often the laws of mundane reality appeared to be suspended, and logical relationships replaced by unsettling and suggestive narratives centered around the actions of elegant, often androgynous figures with shaved heads and translucent skin who enacted their mysterious rituals in spaces that recalled certain Renaissance interiors.

Bessouet's painting merges certain Latin American strands of literary magic realism with Surrealism, often recalling the fabulous pictorial narratives of female Surrealist painters like Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Toyen with their explorations of dream, memory and sexuality. Like Leonor Fini, another twentieth-century painter who combined Argentinean and European pictorial traditions, Bessouet makes her female protagonists the active agents of an imaginative life that transforms reality by seeing beyond its surfaces and conventions.
Bessouet's current exhibition, which includes paintings executed since 1989, takes as its theme a pictorial expression of the inner world of childhood. Her interest in children is not universal, but rather centers on the lives of specific children she has known, children whose passage from infancy to adulthood is marked by their cultivation of intense inner lives. While the two series included here, The World of Anna (1989-92) and Memories and Dreams (1993 to the present), have roots in the fertile traditions of Symbolism, Surrealism and Magic Realism as well as in the narrative cycles of early Italian Renaissance painting, they articulate their concerns through a focused exploration of the fantasies and dreams of particular children.

The World of Anna is based on Bessouet's observation of a friend's daughter who agreed to pose for her, beginning when the child was about eleven years old. Using life-size drawings and photographs as sources for the paintings, Bessouet explores the child's character and personality, focusing on fleeting expressions of her spirit and inner life. The drawing Anna Then, and the paintings that developed from it, reveal a child strangely disconnected from contemporary life with its frenetic rhythms and cluttered environments. Instead Bessouet's child model inhabits a world that recalls a timeless past, an impression heightened by the almost monastic simplicity of her dress and the elaborate lace collar with its suggestion of Elizabethan costume.

As Bessouet merges her world with that of Anna, the child becomes witness to a world in which she appears as a solitary being. As Bessouet inserts her image into a series of settings inspired by the child's fantasies, Anna illuminates them with her haunting presence. The paintings are remarkable for their evocation of the stillness and silence of the child who observes everything than takes place around her, and whose relationship with the external world is internalized rather than expressed through relations with others.

Bessouet's long observation of Anna, as well as several other children who came to pose for her, led her to reenter the world or her own childhood as an adult. The series titled Memories and Dreams represents the painter's transformation of her own personal memories of childhood into meditations on the power of the artistic imagination to transform reality. These paintings, with their rich hues and enamel-like surfaces built from the careful application of layers of pigment and glaze, are also elegiac in their evocation of the powerful world of imaginative play that is all too often repressed and abandoned as children mature.

In Winds of an Imaginary Night (1995), a small child stands with her back to us holding a doll's stroller in one hand and watching the approach of a large black locomotive. Like De Chirico, who used the image of the train to evoke the geographic dislocations of his childhood, Bessouet's use of this image may also recall the abrupt transitions that took her from a childhood in Argentina to art school in London, and from there to New York where she currently lives. While many of the paintings in this series depict a small child, others suggest a young girl on the verge of adolescence. Where All Horizons End As I Sit and The Enebro Tree (1996), suggest emotional and psychological transitions out of childhood.

Bessouet's direct observation of the child's world as one in which fantasy and reality are often indistinguishable, and her pictorial expression of childhood as a moment redolent with latent feeling and inchoate emotion, surround the world of the child with a dreamlike intensity that recalls the ecstatic children of Dorothea Tanning's paintings Children's Games (1942) and Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1946). If Bessouet's paintings also sometimes recall those of Balthus in their elaboration of the prepubescent female body as a sign for the embodied imagination, they display none of the older painter's fascination with voyeurism and scopophiliac pleasures. Instead Bessouet's timeless infanta (as the artist has termed her) becomes a seer, a witness to strange rituals and uncanny happenings. Bessouet's frail, often androgynized, children are not the objects of the male erotic imagination, but the subjects of a visionary world in which familiar objects and known places are merely the gateways to new realms of being.

The girls and young women who inhabit Bessouet's painted world are watchers, intent witnesses to events and ritualized transformations that are as ephemeral as childhood itself. Like the Surrealists, who constructed an image of the so-called femme-enfant or child-woman as medium or muse, believing her perceptions to lie intuitively closer to the worlds of the dream, madness and the unconscious, Bessouet assigns visionary functions to women. Yet unlike images of women created by male Surrealists to serve as projections of the masculine imagination, her female protagonists reveal a disquieting sensitivity to the ways that femininity itself is constructed around play, domestic rituals, costume and memory.

Bessouet's pictorial world is governed by allusion and metaphor. Dedicated to making visible the invisible, she remains firmly committed to the practice of painting as a activity.