Essays  Caleb Bach  

Caleb Bach

An Artist's License to a Child's Dream

Norma Bessouet's world is one of childhood fantasies and dreams, that looking-glass wonderland of a young girl, no quite woman. Her work shares traits associated with such other female, Latin American, narrative fabulists as Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, and Remedios Varo but involves a visual language and viewpoint all her own. Meticulous and patient by nature, Bessouet usually produces only a half dozen or so oil paintings annually. Each speaks eloquently to that special state of grace, confidence, and self knowledge many young women begin to conceal or abandon in the interest of that long-standing male-dominated institution we call civilization. Almost always Bessouet works from a live model, sometimes with the same one for several years. Her highly imaginative statements about the private world of young females derive from close relationships she establishes with her models, both in Buenos Aires and New York City between which she divides her time. It was in her upper Manhattan studio that she took a break from her labors to discuss her career and methods. 

"I don't use much professional models. If I do not have a personal connection with the young person I am painting, it doesn't work. That is very important to me. That makes it all the more difficult then in finding the right person because she must fulfill a physical requirement and yet also be willing to enter into a personal relationship. That's why working through friends works best because they know and respect me. Here in the States it's very difficult and expensive to have a model come to your studio regularly for three or four hours daily. I find it easier to arrange these things in Buenos Aires where currently I am working with a model who is a professional musician, a clarinetist named Elisabeth Cueli, who used to be a fine arts student and dancer. She's a bit older than my previous models but diminutive, beautiful, and a delicate spirit. Two years ago she was recommended by a painter friend. I've been working with her ever since. For many years I had a wonderful model Gabriela Aberastury who is also a painter and a close friend. We worked together in Argentina but when she left for Germany, it was no longer possible. In the early eighties I used her for twenty paintings and drawings devoted to the theme of Selvaggia and Uccello."

Bessouet drew inspiration for that series from Marcel Schwob, the l9th century French, Symbolist writer who, in l906, wrote Vies Imaginaires (Imaginary Lives). One of the fictitious tales describes a love affair between a young beauty named Selvaggia (meaning "wild' in Italian) and the great Florentine painter, Paolo Uccello. In the story she gradually withers away as he neglects and forsakes her in favor of his art. Because uccello in Italian means bird, Bessouet opted to represent the Renaissance master as an enormous raven that consorts with the young woman whose hair is closely cropped (a convention that would persist in for several years). Bessouet's visual treatment is not a literal reading of a story in the manner of an illustrator but rather a highly personal meditation that draws its inspiration from Schwob's story of longing and abandonment. In September l987, as a traveling exhibition, Selvaggia and Uccello, opened at the Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo and thereafter traveled to Buenos Aires. As a prelude to the Columbus Quincentenary, in l989, Argentina's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Latin American and Iberian Studies at Harvard University co-sponsored another showing at the Arden Gallery in Boston.

Bessouet, born in Buenos Aires in 1947, admits she has always admired the slightly stiff classicism associated with the early stages of the Italian Renaissance. "My mother, Luisa Enero, an amateur artist, studied drawing and painting with Italian academicians. She got me started. My father, Iván, a businessman, liked to work with wood: the restoration of furniture, building things, carving. He encouraged me as well. When I was very young I wanted to be a dancer. As a teenager, a friend asked me to accompany her while she registered for classes at the Academía de Bellas Artes 'Prilidiano Pueyrredón' in Buenos Aires. Upon entering the building, I realized that was where I wanted to be. I registered and she didn't! I studied with Ideal Sánchez, a founding member of Orion, Argentina's first Surrealist group. I also worked with Jorge Krasnapolsky, an excellent painter and technician. Pop Art and figurative work, in the tradition of de Kooning and Bacon, was all the rage then. I was out of step with those current trends. Fortunately one instructor, Aida Carballo, also at odds with the mainstream, took me under her wing. I remember when she saw my work. She said, 'Go to the library, find something on the quatrocento italiano, and stay with that all summer. We will talk next year.' She also gave me a book on Uccello. All of that opened something new and wonderful for me. She became my principal teacher for drawing, printmaking, and painting."

For the cover of the Selvaggia and Uccello catalog, Bessouet selected an oil painting called Traveler, Heart of a Bird that depicts an unclad maiden holding a handbag full of leaves in the company of four exotic birds. One senses that this evocation of escape from earthy tethers to float and soar, wander and explore, very much reflects the artist's own, early determination to know the world beyond the confines of the Rio de la Plata. During much of her adult life she has moved around a great deal and she still loves to travel, a habit that began to manifest itself in the mid-seventies. "When I began winning prizes and selling some of my drawings, I decided to travel to Europe to see great art. While in London, someone advised me to study at the Slade School of Fine Arts because it had a reputation for understanding foreigners in contrast to the Royal Art Academy which tended to be more exclusive. Registration at Slade had already closed but within ten days of my arrival, I managed to obtain a fellowship from the British Council. That was l974. Almost all of my classes involved oil painting, the main emphasis at Slade. The following year I spent time in Florence but I found the Florentines a bit chauvinistic, perhaps a defense mechanism against the constant presence of tourists and outsiders. I found it difficult to make friends there so I moved on to Rome, and in 1976 to Barcelona.

In Spain, Bessouet took an unexpected break from painting. "At that time my father died. I went home briefly but upon my return to Barcelona, my mother sent me his carving tools. I began carving and building dolls in wood and other materials as a form of relief from my drawing and painting. Since childhood dolls had always been important to me. My mother, very romantic, also loved dolls as did my aunt. I still have their collections. Anyway, I started making bigger dolls using molds which I sculpted. I found a teacher, a Portuguese sculptor living in Barcelona who made those enormous gigants (giants) and cabezudos (fat heads) of papier mache that are part of seasonal parades and festivals throughout Catalonia. He was deaf and dumb but via sign language he taught me how to work with the traditional brown, Kraft paper and glue. I recall making one doll that I named Grabiela. When Carmen Balcells, the Barcelona-based, literary agent who represents Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many important Latin American writers, saw it she just had to buy it. As an outgrowth of my work with dolls, in l981 I won a fellowship from Spain's Ministry of Culture to study sculpture in New York."