Essays  Jorge Glusberg  

Jorge Glusberg

The Vast and Rare Domains of the Art of Norma Bessouet

In 1906 the French Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob published his masterpiece, Vies Imaginaires (Imaginary Lives), which was to deeply influence Jorge Luis Borges's Historia Universal de la Infamia (Universal History of Infamy). One of those imaginary lives, "Paolo Uccello: Painter" imagines a relationship between the sixteenth century Florentine artist and a little girl whom Schwob names Selvaggia, which in Italian means "Wild".

In creating this thirteen year old adolescent and bringing her into contact with the Renaissance artist as his model, Schwob sought to draw a parallel between the respective obsessions of this pair of characters: Uccello is preoccupied by aesthetic considerations, by problems of form, whereas Selvaggia hungers for life, suggested by her falling in love with the painter while she sits for a portrait. So overwhelmed is she by the feelings engendered by Uccello that she fails to ask for food and dies of starvation.

In her series of paintings and drawings titled Selvaggia and Uccello, exhibited in her last individual show in Buenos Aires, Argentinean artist Norma Bessouet reinvents Schwob's story. Using the Italian word for bird, "Uccello", Paolo di Dono's nickname, as a jumping off point, Bessouet depicts the painter throughout her series as a black avian presence and Selvaggia as his constant companion.

Bessouet's reading of Schwob's tale is one of extreme sensuality and multilayered symbolism. Her rendering of the adolescent girl is subtly executed, revealing mastery of line and color as well as a certain mystery, an exploration into the rare and uncommon. She succeeds also in evoking contrasts between the evanescent Selvaggia and the darkened figure of the bird, between reality and what is dreamed, between desire and the everyday. Though she stresses the pictorial realism of the images, Bessouet succeeds in transforming them into mirrors of other realities.

The more recent work of this Argentinean artist conveys an atmosphere of surprise, doubt, perplexity, and bewilderment: a girl sits in the middle of an empty room, surrounded by toads and frogs, her hair disheveled by the wind and circling birds; an adolescent practices bullfighting in a setting reminiscent of de Chirico's metaphysical scenes; bathed in lamplight, a young woman tugs on a thread issuing from a door to an adjacent room; in a dark wood, this same woman carries a sphere that eerily illuminates her figure; and in the middle of a grove, a little girl watches a train belch smoke in its progress along the rails.

The viewer, in confronting Bessouet's fantasies, peopled by enigmatic female characters, some of them bald, naked, or half-dressed, the unique inhabitants of lonely spaces, discovers that it is not his role to understand this world, but to share and take part in it.

Or, as the French surrealist known as the count of Lautréamont insisted, "Poetry must be made by all, not by one". The influence of surrealism on the art of Norma Bessouet has been noted before. But her work transcends the clichéd limitations of this term, to enter into an all-encompassing realm, what André Breton once referred to as a veritable "Culture of the Surreal".

Together with the Nicaraguan modernist poet Rubén Darío, let us ask ourselves: "Who is not surreal?" Who does not penetrate those "vast and rare domains / where the mystery of the flower is offered to whomever wishes to cut it / where there are new color fires unseen before / and a thousand imponderable ghosts / that must be made real?".