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A JOURNEY INTO THE INVENTED TRUTHS OF WALMOR CORRÊA

Maria de Fátima Costa

 

Looking at the work of Walmor Corrêa, the spectator is overcome by a sense of both security and strangeness. The artist and his spectacular technical skill present us with creatures that at first sight seem familiar, but which as we move closer deconstruct themselves and become extraordinary.

This common and disconcerting abnormality seems to be what allows Walmor to create his playful arrangements, like some kind of pick-and-mix. The aim, like that of every artist, is to reach an audience. Some people walk past the walls and vitrines displaying Walmor’s drawings and objects and believe that they have seen his work, failing to unveil the magic inside it; but others allow themselves to be seduced, approaching it to be fascinated by the particular features contained in something that seemed so ordinary. That is how they communicate.

On discovering the mystery, something wonderful – a real mirable – breaks the barrier of time to establish itself in a kind of mediaeval-contemporary symbiosis. Finally, here is proof, a visual document to prove the existence of creatures considered strange, hybrid and monstrous, which science has always wished to deny.

The first inclination is to compare them to ancient wonders, those fantastic animals that shared and populated the mind of Mediaeval man and which appeared in Modern cartography, such as the cynocephalus, acephalous, sciapod, griffon or unicorn. For a long time these beings lived among men, but on some distant, unreachable shore, until relentlessly hunted down by the wise men of the Enlightenment. But we all know that some of them managed to evade the executioner and went to live in different parts of the world, such as Loch Ness, the Chilean archipelago of Chiloé and many other hiding places. Some, like the mermaid, the curupira or the minhocão, even came to Brazilian shores and are living with the Pantanal river people, the Amazon Indians or the coastal fisherfolk.

It is into this state of limbo, where fantastic creatures still survive, that the work of this artist transports us, reanimating their existence.

Is Walmor one of those adventurers of times past who penetrated amazing places, like Marco Polo or Baldolino? Is he a scientific documenter, like those prematurely aged young people who explored new worlds in the 18th and 19th centuries, drawing and cataloguing exotic species? Or is he the Demiurge that Plato speaks of, the divine craftsmen and organiser of the universe, modelling the pre-existent to imitate perfect models?

There is no doubt that his genetic makeup contains something from those characters, but first and foremost Walmor Corrêa is an artist. And as such, he seeks – and succeeds – to create his own language. An artist who intuitively dresses as a traveller, biologist, doctor, scientist, as he himself admits, to produce his work.[1] And as he re-follows those journeys this talented artist establishes symbioses between the ordinary and the strange to allow these disconcerting creatures to emerge.

But what would be the genealogy of these characters Walmor has created? Tzvetan Todorov says that the literature of the fantastic contains at least two types of beings: the uncanny and the marvellous.[2] The marvellous belong to the world of miracles and therefore retain remnants of the supernatural. While the uncanny can be identified by reflection, and therefore derive from human activity. Applying these observations to visual language offers a way into the nature of the beings created by Walmor, since the work invites us to make exactly that kind of reflection.

That inference is not without reason, for in an interview with Paula Ramos for “Canal Contemporâneo” in early 2008[3], Corrêa tells a little about his creative process, and reveals that he has been driven by curiosity and imagination since childhood, but that the real spark came during a visit to the Amazon in 1999, when he recognised the possibility, “as an artist”, of creating creatures that were even more surprising than those in nature. The cause was a visit to the Amazon Natural Sciences Museum insect collection, where he heard visitors inventing the most absurd stories about the habits of such animals and realised that people lied and invented information to demonstrate their knowledge. So he asked himself, “Why can’t I invent things as well?” Which was when he began to invent insects, “that were very similar to the ones in the museum, but which didn’t exist.” That was the source of the Mesas Entomológicas [Entomological Workbenches], with their myriad representations of creatures reminiscent of dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, ants and mosquitoes. Reminiscent of, but not.

So Walmor Corrêa is an artist who uses visual language and his unfamiliar creatures to reveal another nature, as if adopting a line from a poem by Manoel de Barros: Everything I don’t invent is false.  His work therefore introduces an invented truth.

And having invented the unusual collection of tiny insects, the artist’s transformative gaze soon turned to larger animals. In 2000, Walmor introduced another group of creatures: birds, fish, rodents and mammals with transmuted bodies. Here was the Pinguisch, a mixture of penguin and fish; the Apterigiformes Aco II, with its 1001 uses; the Pelágius Sonhatorum Chim, originating from China; the rodent turtle [Nageschildkröte], the beaked monkey [Schnabelaffe], the snail-lobster [Krebsschnecke], and other creatures from this peculiar fauna, whose morphology contradicts the functionality of their organs. This genuinely surprising work was shown in the appropriately titled exhibition, Perverse Nature.

In creating this work the artist demonstrates his intimate and unparalleled knowledge of pencil and brush, bringing substance to each of his invented creatures with complete mastery of his craft. From choice of colour to the delicate line, the whole group conveys a sense of visual poetics that captivates the eye. Meanwhile, what we are looking at creates greater impact. It is not just the appearance that is being shown. An accurate cross-section penetrates the epidermis to reveal in abundant detail each of the organs inside the hybrid bodies of the animals on display, like some kind of anatomy book. If the surface beauty is seductive, the insides stimulate thought, demanding understanding. Perhaps that is also the perverse suggested by the artist’s title for the exhibition.

There can be no doubt that the model for this work lies in scientific drawing. That is to say, in the visual records made by documentary artists on naturalist journeys aimed at revealing the individuals or species of the flora and fauna of a particular region. Hence the need to describe them not just in line and colour but also in words, as the old guidebooks did. The textual descriptions are aimed at completing the information and clarify any doubts in the drawing. “Few would doubt,” E. H. Gombrich tells us, “that the understanding of images, whether still or moving, is vastly facilitated by the addition of verbal explanations.”[4]

Faithful to his adopted concept, the artist constructs the figures and complements them with words; text and drawing contest each other on the support, causing the body of the strange animal to float in a sea of handwriting. The Pinguisch, for example, is shown in profile with details of its internal and external structure; it is also accompanied by an explanatory description: “Observation of the Pinguish is very difficult: its great agility and speed (reaching 150 km) allows it to be seen just as a light sliding through the waters. As it takes flight, the body leans parallel to the water, while the feet act as propellers. Study and observation of the species is only possible in the months of October and November, during the mating season. They are inhabitants of Patagonia.” It is a text that initially seems to convey substantial explanations but which really offers little credible information in terms of common sense.

These hybrid beings, with their anomalies, relate almost automatically to the possible results of research like the Genome project, and contemporary biological cloning, forcing the viewer to reflect on the immediate future. But Walmor’s extraordinary creatures also mix with our ancestral human memory, recalling man’s tireless search for fantastic, intangible worlds occupied by – and still occupied by, we hope – strange creatures. Humankind needs dreams, after all! What is being made, as he has said, “[…] is a fantastic nature that is unaware of its own impossibility.”[5]

It is in this laboratory of possibilities that we can enter the artist’s world, which with a refined sense of humour breaks the boundaries of reason, time and space, throwing the conventional off-balance and establishing the unexpected. His apparently monstrous, exotic and extravagant beings put a check on normality, question the obvious and the established and demand reflection.

Which is why the viewer is nearly always disturbed when coming into contact with Corrêa’s work. It does not want just to be contemplative or explanatory; these extraordinary characters demand comprehension.

 

The artist’s journey

The language and form of Walmor Corrêa’s work often lead to comparisons with 19th-century artist-travellers who, following the principles of art and science proclaimed by Alexander von Humboldt, sought to create a balance between the instructive and the harmonious.

The comparison is apt, and there is indeed much in common: the same individual fixation on the natural world of fauna and, more rarely, flora; the use of classification taxonomy for identification; concentration on details, and explaining the parts – direct indications of functions; the presentation of collections; accurate technique, and other characteristics. But there are also significant differences in terms of the creative process, reception and concept. The artist-traveller was a member of a scientific team, with a commitment to verisimilitude. While Walmor suggests the unusual, the absurd and the incorrect that might exist in nature; or perhaps the artist is an error of nature, as suggested by a poetic line from Manoel de Barros: The artist is an error of nature. Beethoven was a perfect error.

Inheriting the craft of the visual documenter – that is to say, of draughtsmen almost always trained in cartography – whose function was to put accurately onto paper the physiognomy of plants, animals, landscape views and everything that narrative was unable to perfectly and clearly describe[6], the artist-travellers, as they are known today, only emerged in the first half of the 18th century. Prior to that time it was customary to talk of the illustrator, the tracer or the documenter when considering the authors of visual records on naturalist expeditions.

Such figures indeed have much in common. Documenters and artist-travellers – in very general terms – were people who made visual depictions en voyage and therefore travelled to the most remote parts of the world in search of the exotic and the unknown, to record it and create possibilities for its exploitation. The two used the same techniques… faced with the chosen subject matter – always in accordance with the recommendations and demands of the team of naturalists making up the expedition – they sketched the object in their carnet de dessins, attempting to achieve complete realism. And as contact with the depicted object would be brief, taking place in transit, they possessed great technical mastery and knowledge of the appropriate standards for representing flora and fauna, laid down in manuals and always using pencil and, mainly, watercolour[7].

But in the early 19th century a line – initially tenuous and then more robust – began to define a boundary between these two figures. To the distaste of leaders of scientific expeditions, a new element began to enter the portrayal. Influenced by Romanticism, the documenter began to individualise the work, consciously adding beauty to the composition. Consequently, we come across depictions in which, without losing verisimilitude, nature is shown more as possible than as real. Now we have the artist-traveller.

In this comparison between Walmor and those figures of the past, our artist, although not moving to remote corners of the world to carry out his work, is closer to his travelling colleagues not just in terms of mastery of technique and care for scientific accuracy, but also because his work is impregnated with beauty and a particular sense of poiesis. Moreover, although based on another concept and without a commitment to verisimilitude, Corrêa’s disconcerting fauna sets up a play with nature – between the possible and the real – by evoking today’s genetic studies or entering into the limbo of ancestral human memory.

But there are still other issues to consider in this process: Walmor wants to meet his audience frontally, exhibiting his work in museums, galleries and other spaces and displaying it without any filtering process, to offer the viewer first-hand contact (or, dealing with strange beings, a close encounter of the 4th kind). This aspect is one of the most visible differences between Corrêa and the travellers.

The general public is rarely able to establish direct contact with the works of the nineteenth-century explorers. This is because the journey was a laboratory. In transit, the artists only sketched out the figures to be depicted; the pages were always unfinished and intended purely for science.  When the journey was over, the sketches were completed and destined for Natural History studies, with or without the presence of the author. Once completed, the image was then transferred to print – using a range of different techniques, mainly lithography – and it was the print that reached a wider audience, through edited publications resulting from the scientific expedition.[8]

It should be remembered that in the journey from sketch to print the subject matter always underwent modifications, either to meet public demand, to embellish the scene or simply out of the print technician’s ignorance. This would mainly occur in relation to landscapes, everyday scenes or depictions of indigenous societies, which would certainly greatly compromise the principle of plausibility pursued by the author and the intrinsic documentary value of the content. In the specific case of pages depicting species from the animal and vegetable kingdoms, intended for taxonomy studies, the printed work was nearly always monitored or revised by biologists and the modifications were fewer. But nevertheless, the morphology of many animals and plants was adulterated to such an extent that they seem to be aberrations today and closer to the hybrid creatures suggested by the work of Walmor Corrêa.

It should also be taken into account in relation to the work of Walmor and the art of the travellers that the latter were nearly always members of a scientific company and, as such, their works had to meet external requirements. The subject matter was chosen by the botanist, the zoologist or the astronomer, and in the majority of cases by the expedition leader. And in any one of those cases, their works had to relate to the general objectives of the scientific venture. Each page created by an artist-traveller was part of a bigger project. Its meaning – in the sense suggested by E. H. Gombrich[9] – could therefore only be found in the expedition as a whole and in relation to the venture’s other forms of documentation, such as manuscripts, maps, herbariums, and other objects collected en route, and bearing in mind the aims of the expedition. On their own, the records made by the travellers appear incomplete.

Walmor is a contemporary artist who makes his work individually and driven by free will. No one tells him how to present his figures. If his animals are strange, hybrid or even appear monstrous, it is not because there were changes or errors at the time of making them, but instead because that is the way they were conceived. The extraordinary creatures are characters from an imaginary world to which only the artist has access. They are his creations. Walmor Corrêa is not a Natural History illustrator, and seeks neither record realities nor create falsehoods; the animals he creates develop out of invention. They develop out of his artistic creation. So, when questioned about how he feels when producing his hybrid figures, whether he feels like a creator or documenter, he not immodestly explained that initially he thought like a documenter. But the results of some of his works, such as the series of taxidermy hybrids, mixing rodents with birds – did not satisfy him: the harmony and beauty of proportion became lost in terms of colour and the joints. So then he realised that making “with the taxidermists was almost impossible” and he therefore had to “lend a hand and help them”. Then, he felt more like a creator.[10]

 

A visit to Flora’s carpet

In 2004, Walmor was invited by the São Paulo Biennial Foundation (FBSP) to join a project that would bring him even closer to the art of the travellers. In a partnership with the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the FBSP brought together a group of artists to revisit parts of the Brazilian journey of the Austrian painter Thomas Ender (1793–1875) in 1817–1818. Headed by Robert Wagner, the director of the Library and Print Room at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the contemporary project involved German, Austrian, American and Brazilian artists. The group followed a two-week route that included stretches in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, with the aim of investigating the places the Austrian painter may have visited, based on Thomas Ender’s works, and making comparisons between the 19th-century depiction of the landscape and that of today.

Thomas Ender was a painter in the naturalist expedition sent to Brazil by the Austrian government in the early 19th century, as part of a well equipped group of scientists, including eminent figures like the zoologists J. Natterer (1787–1843) and J. B. von Spix (1781–1826), the botanist C. F. Ph. von Martius (1794–1868) and the mineralogist J. B. E Pohl (1782–1834).  Different groups of these naturalists took different routes into the hinterland of Brazil between 1817 and 1822, and in return provided unparalleled knowledge about the country.[11]

Ender only stayed in Brazil for ten and a half months, however. Health problems took him back to Austria in June 1818. Nonetheless, during his short period in Brazil he visited Rio de Janeiro and its surroundings and also, still in the company of Spix and Marius, visited São Paulo, when the two Bavarian naturalists were beginning the long route that would take them as far as the Amazon. On his return to the capital of the Austrian Empire, Ender took with him hundreds of visual records, drawings and watercolours, which are now part of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts Print Room collection.

One interesting fact about Thomas Ender’s work is that there are no studies of botany or zoology as part of a Natural History. The predominant themes in his Brazilian work are rural and urban landscape views, local customs, particularly of the black and mestizo population and domestic objects. There are admittedly records of trees, such as palms and bananas and study details of leaves, but these do not amount to a botanical study, and records of animals are rare. Ender was a landscape painter and that was the role he performed during his brief stay in Brazil.[12]

On the 2004 journey, the project guidelines required the artists to assume the roles of the characters in the 19th-century company of travellers. Walmor Corrêa was given the role of the botanist, C. F. Ph. von Martius. But he did not collect any plants. His collection of information and species was carried out with a camera and graphic annotations in text and images. During the process he sought to “indicate the possible changes that had occurred in the place, and also what might have been there precisely during Thomas Ender’s time”.[13] At the end of the journey, now back in the studio, he researched libraries and the Internet to classify the floral species depicted. Finally, collecting together the field notes and other information, he produced a work titled Sementeiro de Thomas Ender [Thomas Edner’s Seed Collection], first shown in a special room at the 24th São Paulo International Visual Arts Biennial and then at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.

The development of this work and the way it is exhibited are very different from the artist’s other works. He steps back from the unreal and dedicates himself to verisimilitude in a journey over the beautiful carpet Flora has spread over part of southeastern Brazil, which also seeks to provide information about the changes taking place and stimulate reflection about conservation.

Travelling routes that might have been visited by Ender and his compatriots, Walmor carried with him several copies of pages with images from the Austrian painter’s book: depictions of Cascatinha da Tijuca, views of Ouro Preto and the Mosteiro de São Bento, and other subject matter. These pages served as Corrêa’s carnet de dessins, where he would make his graphic notes. On the “Serra dos Órgãos (Orgelgebirge)” page, for example, he drew the “guaraná fruit” and the “jambu”, noting: “many trees here w/fruit, *we ate the fruit”. He also made a sketch of a bird, writing, “the dancing tanager. A very colourful bird”. And he intervened directly on the reproductions of Ender’s work, reworking the leaves of some of the trees, and noting that one of them, on the right side, was “also present here”. In diary form, he records,“26/05/2004/ 11 o’clock arrive at Von Martius Visitor Centre – Containing original works recovered from the Austrian botanist von Martius / Von M., who came on the same expedition as T. Ender – 1917”.

Here, and on the other pages used by Walmor-Martius during the trip, he records contact with the region and quickly describes its physiognomy, comparing the landscape from the 19th century with the 21st, forming a work captured first-hand d‘après nature.

For an artist-traveller of the past these pages would be merely background studies, never seen by the public. But Walmor displays them, revealing the fabric and morphology of the experience and his immediate impressions, establishing an intimate connection and making the viewer a partner in the work. He also allows mistakes to be shown, such as referring to Martius as Austrian when he knew that the botanist was Bavarian. It all becomes part of a device that is not ashamed to reveal all its mechanisms, which is something that viewers almost always find disconcerting.

With the rules established, the artist begins one of the most engaging games suggested by his work, presenting the object that provides the exhibition title, “Sementeiro” [Seed collection].   As he himself explains, this is:

[…] a kind of display stand or vitrine, like those found in seed and compost shops. On this “vitrine” I arranged packets of seeds from the trees in the catalogued region. There are a total of 10 different packets, with 10 packets being displayed in each section, totalling 100 packets of 10 species. The packets use the normal packaging style for this kind of product: an image of the plant on the front; and its characteristics on the back, together with planting recommendations.

Seen like this, the “Sementeiro” seems to be just a device for the artist to display the species recorded during his journey. The depictions of fruit on the front of the packets are drawn in the conventional way: on the cashew package, for example, the particular physiognomy of the fruit can be seen; the same applies to the guaraná, and also in the attributes of the maçaranduba, the pindaíba, the pitanga and all the other plants available on the display. There are no monstrous species or seeds from threatening trees. They also display the artist’s great dexterity, in which lines and colours depicting this group of flora come from the same secure hand that created the hybrid fauna.

But make no mistake; while Corrêa has not created mutant vegetables and strange plants on this venture, he has not failed to ask some reflection of the viewer. Once again, the challenge appears at a closer look, when the work reveals itself and allows the idea to emerge. While visitors are allowed to touch the packets, they soon discover that some trickery is involved; the seeds inside are not the ones for the fruit on the packet.  When touching the cashew packet, for example, it feels not to have the unmistakable shape and consistency of the nut. The artist has put seeds in the packages, but they are seeds from other plants, like ordinary grains of rice, beans or corn. But even more disconcerting is what is written on the back of the packaging, directly below the information about their characteristics, right where it says “Planting instructions”. Both in Portuguese and in English, the instructions are quite unusual. The Feijoa (Feijoeira, Goiabeira-do-mato, goiaba serrana [pineapple guava]) is recommended to be fertilised with small doses of spit, which will produce a showy and strong plant; the guaraná (Guaranazeiro), is to be watered just once a month; the grumixama (Grumixameira, grumixabá), is recommended to be planted with the surprising addition of 1kg of rice pudding!

The “Planting instructions”, together with the false seeds in the packets, are one of the most stimulating playful relationships that Walmor has offered his viewers.

[…] in a kind of game, as if trying to “hide” the secret of these species, I subverted the information on the packaging. In other words, if anyone were to purchase one of these packets and take them home to plant the seeds, and if this “anyone” followed the instructions on the back to the letter, they would have no success at all.[14]

These amusing suggestions disturb reason and raise new questions. They remind us that the work of art is a question, an interrogation, an investigation, creating invented truths. Walmor Corrêa has said of his truths, “I don’t aim to explain, I only offer my anarchistic artist’s gaze over a tiny part of the complexity of the universe and the issues fundamental for survival, driven by awareness and also by the surprise of being free. Only art can transcend concepts and revise rigid codes, and in the end, only art can shout: Possible! Possible![15]

[1] Based on an email interview between the artist and the author.
[2] Tzvetan TODOROV. Introdução a Literatura Fantástica. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 2002.
[3] Available at: http://www.canalcontemporaneo.art.br/blog/archives/001608.html
[4] E. H. GOMBRICH. The uses of images. Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication. London:  Phaidon, 1999, p. 228.
[5]Interview with Susana Dias. Revista Eletrônica de Jornalismo Científico, http://www.comciencia.br/comciencia/handler.php?section=8&edicao=37&tipo=entrevista
[6] Breves instrucções aos correspondentes da Academia das Sciencias de Lisboa. Lisbon, 1781, p. 209-210.
[7] This preference arose through watercolour being a way of supressing the distinction between drawing and painting and was originally employed in the interest of immediacy of representation. On this subject see: ALPERS, Svetlana. A arte de descrever. São Paulo: EDUSP, 1999, p. 301.
[8]It might be appropriate to add that the most important fruit of the scientific journey was the publication. The route itself was a pretext, a starting point. The purpose was to return. The great narrative would only be completed with the publication, closing the circle. If for some reason the results never reached the public, the scientific enterprise would lose all meaning, and the collection and imagery would be stored in the archives of the scientific institutions, as happened with the work of J. J. Codina and J. J. Freire, the draughtsmen on Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira’s expedition (1783–1792), or Hercule Florence and Aime-Adrien Taunay’s, and the Langsdorff expedition (1822–1829) – to recall expeditions interesting to us – waiting more than a century before it found an audience.
[9] In Symbolic images, referring to D. E. Hirsch, Gombrich states: “a work means what its author intended it to mean, and that it is this intention which the interpreter must try his best to establish” (London: Phaidon, 1972, p. 5).
[10] From an email interview between the artist and the author.
[11] Natterer made a longer trip between the Centre-West and the Amazon, remaining in Brazil for more than18 years, and his vast work is still little known.
[12] In a short autobiography, Thomas Ender recorded that in 1817 he won a landscape painting competition in Vienna and shortly after applied for the post of painter on the natural history expedition that was preparing to visit Brazil. He also tells that he was in the country “for nearly a year, where I made several one-day journeys from the town, one to São Paulo and another 150 hours to the north. This resulted in my delivery of some 700 drawings – of forests, valleys, animals, plants and landscapes – to the court on my return to Vienna, together with three landscapes, mostly in watercolour, depicting the nature.” Ender, apud Robert WAGNER and Júlio BANDEIRA (Orgs.) Viagem ao Brasil nas aquarelas de Thomas Ender 1817– 1818. Petrópolis: Kapa Editorial, 2000. Volume 3, p. 662 and 663.
[13] This quotation and others about the trip were taken from the text The Brazilian Expedition of Thomas Ender (2004). O Sementeiro de Walmor Corrêa, by the artist himself.
[14] Walmor Corrêa, cited text.
[15] Interviewed by Paula Ramos and published on Canal Contemporâneo, available at: http://www.canalcontemporaneo.art.br/blog/archives/001608.html