Strength and Splendour, by Helena Vasconcelos
The restlessness, reactions and the ensuing thoughts, words and works that most human beings experience when contemplating a work of art have been the object of much study, debate and speculation over the centuries. In the moment when something becomes an "art object" (it does not fit the nature of this text to develop the complex transmutation then occurring – it is enough to remember Marcel Duchamp’s "ready-made"), it immediately acquires a huge power on the viewer’s senses, triggering a flow – optimally, a torrent – of strong and endlessly varied emotions. A painting, a sculpture, a simple drawing, can equally cause the most prosaic and basic desire, instigated by greed – the robberies in museums and galleries are well known as is the relationship of the work of art with the idea of "statute" that has always impelled men to include artistic pieces in their lootings after battles – and the deepest aesthetic, philosophical and metaphysical reflections. We do not feel the same before the spirituality of a "madonaa" by Fra Angelico, the mystical force of a stone lacework in a medieval cathedral, the disturbance of a scene by Bosch, Mona Lisa’s enigma, the chaos and vitality of Creation in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the touching delicacy of a sculpture by Modigliani, the intellectual abstraction of a painting by Malevich. The anger, the moral and political indignation that sweeps us in front of Guernica may have little to do with the satisfaction and the sensorial satiety we feel when looking at a nude by Bonnard or a still-life by Cézanne, and Van Gogh’s insane grief touches us in a different way from Picasso’s promethean creativity. And so far we have been referring to well-know territories, to canonical images of our so called "Western" civilization. What have the first explorers felt in face of Benin’s statues, the engraved figures of Indian temples, the rupestral paintings of the Aborigines, the funereal chambers of the pharaohs or the colossus of Easter Island?
All these references are aimed at giving clues to the mystery of the creative act. What has driven men – and women – to create since immemorial times? Undoubtedly the desire to leave a testimony, a mark of their passage on earth, an evidence of their personality, an image of the environment where they lived, the scenes they have witnessed, what most affected them both in a positive and negative way. Indeed human beings have always tried to achieve though art some kind of immortality, the denial of the transformation in dust and nothing but dust.
It was also through art that human beings have evolved from the civilizational point of view. Starting from the mere transcription of facts, as in pre-historical paintings with their hunting scenes and animal images, ideas gradually became more complex and perfect. Art intermingled with Philosophy, with Science – some of the most beautiful and perfect drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci were related with his scientific discoveries and projects – and of course with Religion. The artistic practice became more than a mere representation – it was something that implied beauty and emotion, love, reflection, awe and also comfort and pleasure. It was also connected with power and glory: kings, princes, popes have sponsored the artists best capable of recording their feats to posterity – sometimes rather paltry ones – leaving a mark, a trace, something that transcended them and perpetuated their memory.
In a more sophisticated way, Art began to contain mysteries, as human beings have always understood the power of symbols. But, above all, they have always desired to tell – and to listen to – a good story.
Most works of art – either in painting, sculpture, literature, music or architecture – tell many stories. Take for instance a very specific type of art: the painting of the Netherlands throughout the seventeenth century. Rembrandt and Vermeer – to mention only the best known – continue to elicit our aesthetic sense and curiosity. We marvel at their beauty, their technique but above all we wonder about the stories told by those paintings – so beautiful, so real and so mysterious. Why are we ravished by the picture of a young girl with a pearl ear-ring, by the capture of the moment when a woman is reading a letter or when a man bends over a table covered with maps, or by groups of soldiers going the rounds? Because, in addition to the "plasticity" that attracts us – the delicacy of the drawing, the technique of the painting, the finery of details, the fascination of the light and shadow interplay, the minutiae of the sceneries – there is something more: the narrative. Those are real people in real environments, living their story, which makes them intensely close to us. Those are people that feel, study, love, live and outlive death though art, through the artist’s hand that fixes them forever.
Our life is made not only of dreams but also of the endless narration of stories – love and indifference, lust and coldness, laugh and tears, effort and rest, joy and sorrow, solitude and company, solidarity and unconcern, birth and death – and, as we all know, these are also the sources of literary creation. All these things are present in Clotilde’s "tableaux vivants" – the works of her Cape Verde cycle. Later I will refer to two other important cycles in her work – the fish and the flowers cycles that, in addition to people and pets, make up for a very specific cosmogony.
That’s why we have to open all doors and windows ajar and enter the painter’s universe. When Clotilde, who had never been in Africa, went to Cape Verde to paint, she experienced that adventure with a happy and fertile awe and curiosity. Africans – those Africans in that Africa – live in permanent feast on the streets that prolong and often replace their houses and are also the place to trade, to socialize, to gather friends and family, the place where children play. Clotilde watched and transposed that life stage to her paintings, where we devise the bustle, the odour, the noise of those animated streets. Our eyes are at the level of the eyes of those characters that lean at the window, seat on a step or squat in a corner. Our curiosity is triggered by neighbours’ whispers or by the insinuating expressions of the few male or male-like figures that fleetingly appear on the background. (See exhibition at the MAC Galley in Lisbon in October 2005).
Everything would be much easier if the painter – also a sculptor, ceramist and experimenter in many fields – confined herself to a merely realistic painting – which she could do in an admirable way in view of her great technical skill. See, for instance, the precise composition and the vigour of the painting reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of the above mentioned exhibition: a young woman occupies the centre of the composition. Everything about her is round and soft: the belly where we guess a pregnancy, the plump breasts, the wide and sweet eyes, the rich curve of the thighs. She has folded her hands over her belly and, although she is dressed, the triangle of the pubis is well outlined. This woman is flanked by two rather anthropomorphic goats, lurking behind her body. Indeed, they are not oats – which would make sense to feed the baby about to be born – but billygoats with their slightly satanic beards. Billy-goats stand for the power of procreation, the force of life, libido and fertility, but they are also connected with Greek tragedy. (Tragedy means in Greek "the billygoat song" because they were sacrificed in the feasts dedicated to Dionysius. However, in addition to the perfect placement of elements on the canvas, Clotilde always shows us the wider order of the universe – the close relationship between people, animals and plants – and the fertile and creative disorder generated by the permanent clash between those worlds. In other paintings, women – always women – with their easy laughter, their grave wisdom, their fat lips, their generous silhouette and their beautiful black colour, are the primeval centre of life and all familiar and social activity. They perform a multiplicity of tasks, affections, glances, acts and insinuations. There is always the presence of home – comfort, protection – and Nature – animals, fruits and the splendour of sexuality, intimately connected with Woman as essential, central and magnificently sovereign being, as provider of life, nourishment and well-being. But everything in these paintings is ambiguous, and eroticism – and irony – are common features. Women at the window are embraced by lustful cats, watched by thoughtful monkeys, challenged by inquisitive and provocative roosters. Fish, as the billygoats I have mentioned above, are also present as representations of nourishment, of life preservation. In psychoanalysis, dreaming of monkeys – related with agility and ludicrousness – evokes lust and appeals to erotic self-satisfaction; birds are messengers between worlds and cats are symbols of gentleness and sensuality but also of cruelty; as to roosters, we know they are the universal symbol of the rising sun, of energy and light. They are Apollo’s aides and obviously they evoke the courage to face the darkness. But they can also represent wrath and the frustration of unsatisfied desire. There is still another animal that appears stealthily – it looks like a mythological griffon, a fabulous beast that contained the representation of the humane and divine in the same body.
It is difficult not to mention the rich symbology Clotilde’s paintings embody, a symbology highlighted by the opulent use of colour: blood red, sunny yellows and ochres, ultramarine blues, luxuriant greens, would justify by themselves a separate analysis, as would the accuracy of composition: geometrical lines creating pictures within pictures, squares framing characters and scenes in different planes, in the classical, renaissance way. We could also speak of the irony traces in everyday life scenes and apropos of Pieter Brueghel.
But, apart from all this and pour cause, Clotilde made an exhibition in 1998 in the Mãe D’Água space at Amoreiras, in Lisbon, where she presented large paintings of fish. Fish that entwined, untwined, wound and grasped one another. Red fish from the Macao sea, oil blue, ochre, black. Fish with tentacles like desperate arms and hands, with mermaid tails forever condemned to the deepest waters, trying to rise to light. Bird-fish, people-fish, tadpole-fish in a frightening or simply mysterious dance. The title of the exhibition was "My Fears, My Sea", which quite explains that kind of awe those creatures triggered, imprisoned in their aquatic element – from where we all emanate – celebrating that eternal cycle of birth, death and (re)birth. The representation of these fish and of some of the animals appearing in the Cape Verde series is intimately linked with the subconscious. They are surreal elements, with an explicit reference to the great inspirer of the surrealists, Hieronimus Bosch.
Clotilde appears to have overcome her "fears", as in 2003 she presented a series of paintings entirely connected with the vegetal world: flowers, fantastic plants in a luxuriant, exuberant, hedonistic and obstinate world. A more attentive observation reveals a rich iconography connected with the celebration of sex, of the eternal enrapturing dance of the masculine and feminine, of the yin and yang. The representation of flowers opening their petals like exuberant vulvas reminds Georgia O’Keefe’s work. But whereas the American artist’s paintings were diaphanous and self-contained, Clotilde’s are a dazzlement of colour and mystery that makes us shiver of pleasure and fear. The masculine side appears in all its splendour in the stamens of some flowers, evoking at once Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures with their triumphant exhibitionism. The whole is desire and death, eros and thanatos, meeting and challenging each other.
From all that has been said, note the most important: the personality of the painter, of the person who created these universes with all their exuberance and splendour. Her sensuality is revealed in parallel with her sense of belonging; her warm tenderness intermingles with amazement; drama is softened by irony and laughter is moderated by tears. Clotilde embraces the cosmos and does it with distinction, race, strength and a powerful sense of what being human means. And, above all, being a WOMAN.