Arm of the Forest 
by Andres Boero Madrid

Woodlands laden with sunshine, birds, fish, animals, and men; fierce natives with manes of long hair, natives of “Hum.” They were known to flourish once, and then slowly vanish with the arrival of the white man.
Since then, the fate of this soil East of Uruguay river has been driven by “progress,” which tramples on anything that does not keep up with its momentum. Faded, scattered, annihilated cultures. A deep Indian sorrow persists in the few remaining maroons.
Ayala is ageless; a sun-tanned man with arms like the forest. For over thirty years, he has been living in the depths of indigenous territory. To reach him, I have to go far, across dirt roads, high pastures, fences; I have to walk and walk along the river, until his dogs betray my arrival.
A handshake instantly connects me to my forefathers. Like Ayala, my grandfather knew how to live in the forest; in a different age, his path led him to this same spot. I’ll never know if it was chance that turned ​​him into a woodsman; perhaps it was his inexplicable connection with nature, which, I suspect, I have inherited from him.

The artist and the woodsman
Notes inspired by Arm of the Forest by Manoel Silvestre Friques

Introduction

The title “Arm of the Forest” invites us, through an incongruous juxtaposition, to think about the relationship between man and nature, or more precisely to consider the “culture/nature.” paradigm. What is Andrés Boero Madrid referring to when he announces the existence of a human limb in the heart of a body of wild vegetation? How is that human limb articulated in relation to nature as a whole? Ultimately, does the forest have arms?
Such inquiries may seem somewhat naive, since Boero, in choosing the title, has chosen a clearly metaphorical approach. Nevertheless, while it reveals the artist’s metaphorical intent, it does not fully clarify the scope of the expression, leaving us yet unsatisfied. In the beginning, it seems the answer would be: the arm belongs to the man, the human figure which appears in photographs with blurry contours; sometimes because his chromatic presence blends with the landscape, sometimes because he is never in the foreground or because the frame ends at the beginning of his nape, this lack of definition merely hints precariously at an identity, which always remains anonymous. Therefore, we are dealing with an arm camouflaged in the landscape.

A second approach points not to the man, but to the body of vegetation. Where we read arm, we may take it to mean “branch.”  From this perspective, the forest’s arm correlates to the ramifications presented in Boero´s photographs, which intertwine in tortuous ways, making it difficult for the human eye to create mental maps of them, thus imposing on the eye an inability to comprehend the observed object as a unit, in a way akin to the precepts of Gestalt psychology. These entanglements of branches set the tone of the work hereby described, thus forcing this text to follow the same meandering procedure. Let us intertwine the branches.

First arm: Painting and landscape

It is common sense to consider the landscape as one of the traditional pictorial genres, along with still life and portraiture. It achieved this status in the mid-seventeenth century, with the creations of Dutch painters like Salomon van Ruysdael (ca.1600-1670) or Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709), and it continued to develop in the work of such famous and disparate artists as Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), John Constable (1776-1837), and Joseph MW Turner (1775-1851), not to mention the iconic painters of impressionism and post-impressionism.
It is possible to propose a detour from this approach which considers the landscape as a genre, not as an object to be seen and contemplated, but as a process capable of crafting subjective and social identities. The representation of landscapes must then be understood as a vehicle for an exchange, which is conditioned by a network of socio-cultural relations. It is therefore an ambiguous medium of cultural expression, because, as a social hieroglyph, a representation of a landscape offers an image which belies its own contingent nature: the image of a landscape – as a representation of a scene from nature – rests on cultural conventions which determine its “naturalness.” There is therefore a two-way shift, by which conventions are naturalized while nature is conventionalized. That said, the question one might ask is, ” when understood as a cultural practice, how does landscape behave?”, because it does not only symbolize power relations, but it is also in itself an instrument and an agent of cultural power.

Taking into account, W.J.T. Mitchell’s theoretical discourse, we may begin to consider Uruguayan landscape painting, since Boero makes lengthy considerations about the vegetation of the Pampa. Thus, it does not seem outlandish to observe distance and proximity; the differences and similarities which exist between Uruguayan landscapes created by different local artists. Specifically in relation to landscape painting, we want to focus on two specific historical moments: the 1859 publication of the Handbook of Landscape Painting; a work by painter Juan Manuel Besnes e Irigoyen, and the planist exhibition organized by the Teseo group in Buenos Aires in July 1927.

The Handbook of Landscape Painting – a kind of visual journal by Besnes e Irigoyen – is rather remarkable, starting by its cover. Both the type of the title and the dedication to the author´s brother reproduce organic strokes, whose sources take on a graphic dimension, which does not renounce semantics. This is undoubtedly a variation on medieval miniatures, which “illuminated” capital letters at the beginning of a text. This interpretation is validated by the letter H in Handbook, which envelopes the whole text, creating a curvy, winding environment for the rest of the title. The rest of the letters in the word, on the other hand, reveal austere lines, specifically counterbalancing the curves that engender the following word: Landscape. This is where the curves become autonomous, freeing themselves from the letter shapes and acquiring their own graphical independence, to the point of constituting a spider web, a tightly-interlaced network, or, perhaps, a typographic jungle.

Objectively, the journal consists of images painted by Juan Manuel Besnes e Irigoyen, accompanied by texts which invariably give us the following information: location represented (house, field, church, ground floor, meeting, etc.), date (mainly between April and May 1852, with some entries from other years), and time of day. The drawings – the majority of them are watercolors [5] – have recurring themes, most prominently, they represent ships, buildings, local customs, portraits, official gatherings, military events, and the typical attire of the time. As a whole, the images depict scenes of Uruguayan customs and ways of life, based on the author’s travels across the land.

Being a journal, this work is characterized by a collection of visual information dealing with an emerging nation, at a time when it is making an effort to affirm its identity. No wonder that Besnes e Irigoyen is considered to be the first Uruguayan painter, although he was born in Spanish lands. In fact, the place reserved for him in the history of Uruguayan painting is that of a reliable graphic chronicler, alert to the emergence of a new nation, who has influenced even Juan Manuel Blanes, the most important historical painter in this country. Therefore, the set of landscapes that make up Besnes e Irigoyen´s journal should be taken as a medium of national affirmation, which maps out the habits, scenes, and customs of this region. The landscapes portrayed play a role in the bigger picture of a cultural process, they serve to illustrate the borders and territorial treaties of a yet unborn Uruguay [7] .

Let us now make a historic leap in order to comment on one of the exhibitions of Planism – a popular style, since it is not considered an artistic school or movement – which dominated the scene of Uruguayan painting in the 1920s and 1930s. Coined by Spanish painter Celso Lagar around 1915, and attributed to Uruguayan painting by Eduardo Dieste, this umbrella term comprehends a whole range of works which adopted Fauvist and post-Impressionistic precepts, creating images that emphasize the flatness of paintings in a non-illusionistic style, which does not seek to disguise a painting’s two-dimensional quality by the use of perspective.

The Uruguayan Planism painters, José Cuneo, Carmel Arzadun, Humberto Causa, Pesce César Castro, and Guillermo Laborde, among many others, share some similar characteristics besides their origin. They were all born in the last decades of the nineteenth century and belonged to a generation of well-to-do Uruguayans who traveled to Europe with the intention of staying up-to-date withe the dramatic transformations that were shaking the world of art. Upon their return from the old continent, they do away with volume, foreshortening, and other characteristics of academic painting, focusing on areas of color and geometric patterns, which accentuate the two-dimensional character of the pictorial surface.

If, from the point of view of formal procedures, Planism painters appropriate the European repertoire, with regard to their subject matter, they find in the Uruguayan pampas the prime objects of their pictorial representations. It is Planism’s choice of the Uruguayan landscape as a source of material for artistic creation that justifies the mention of the trend in this reflection. Because the Uruguayan landscape becomes the protagonist, with a certain sense of ambiguity, combining the need for affirmation of Uruguayan modernity with the validation of the national character. There is, thus, an intrinsic contradiction in this trend. While it involved a modernist flattening of figures and a focus on geometric patterns, which was a result of the European movements’ influence over the Uruguayan Painters, at same time, it features an appreciation of the Uruguayan countryside; the natural surroundings which have the ability to differentiate their country from neighboring lands and European counterparts alike. It is at this point that, once again, art resorts to the prortrayal of landscapes.

Led by Dieste, the Teseo group lasted for two fruitful years, between 1923 and 1925. Conceived as a space for art and thinking for its members, it was made up of visual artists, writers, and critics.As Esther Caceres notes in the foreword to Teseo – The Problems of Art, “this withdrawn and disciplined group, which stood far from careerist ambitions and the usual distressing stubbornness which unsupported by vocation or core values, fought a heroic battle, thus defining an era in our culture “(DIESTE, 1964, p.XI). In all of their diversity, the group’s artists choose the landscape as a medium for the new values ​​and trends. In this context, it doesn’t come as a surprise that in one of the exhibitions organized by the group in July 1927, 45 of the 60 works presented were landscapes, and most of them were planist.

Second arm: Nature’s Pencil

The history of photography is intertwined with that of the new technology´s rapid assimilation by industrial capitalism. Shortly after the public presentation of the daguerreotype at the Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts in Paris, its inventor, in exchange for the grant of the patent, wins a lifetime state pension by the French government. Thus begins the new technology’s rapid diffusion and marketing worldwide. Less than a year after its debut, in 1840, the apparatus was exported to Latin America by way of an expedition led by Father Louis Comte, who had set out to go around the world and produce photographic images of all the different places he visited. It is important to highlight two aspects at this time; firstly, the ceremonial and public character that marks the introduction of photography in Latin American territory, and secondly, one of the new technique’s chief functions:  territorial mapping, thanks to the surprising verisimilitude it could achieve when compared to the traditional arts, and its newfound objectivity, which appeared equivalent to that of science.

Amid all this rapid dissemination and marketing of photographic art, landscape photography occupied a prominent spot. If daguerreotype’s charm stemmed from its objective ability to portray the world without resorting to the human hand – the technique was actually dubbed as “nature’s pencil”- both urban and natural landscapes served its purposes well, becoming the medium par excellence to demonstrate its technical and industrial expertise. Trees, streams, meadows, and cultivated farmlands, churches, and other buildings, observed with meticulous precision, only served to emphasize the skill and fidelity of the new photographic discovery by documenting not only visible reality, but also what Walter Benjamin calls the “optical unconscious.” It should be clear, however, that it was not only landscapes that were transformed by photography; virtually all social spaces were traversed by this technique. It is important to mention diplomatic and military campaigns, amateur clubs, its various scientific applications, as well as communication and tourism, in addition, of course, to its use as an instrument of social control and surveillance (including the biased definition, in that sense, of the physiognomies of crime).

The prominent place occupied by the landscape in this process is due, no doubt, to the social uses offered by the new medium. In that sense, according to Rosalind Krauss, the discursive space of photography is distinguished from another existing modernist exhibition space, namely, the museum, which was guided by aesthetic values. There is, however, a kind of intersection between different discursive fields; an intersection encouraged precisely by landscape portrayal, understood here not so much as a noun, but as a process, ie, as a verb. As such, landscape photography in Latin America was a job undertaken for the sake of exploration, in the course of expeditions and topographical surveys. The circulation of these, primarily urban photographs, specifically from Montevideo, but also from other cities in the provinces, contributed to the formation of a whole national imaginary [12] , for an audience comprising both locals and foreigners:
The photographs in question depicted, almost exclusively, magnificent buildings, landscapes, city streets, parks, squares, or public works extolling Montevideo´s “modern” character. The city thus showed how it was spreading, as it simultaneously renewed its architecture, improved infrastructure and services, and inaugurated its first monuments and parks. This was a clear attempt to demonstrate the degree of civilization achieved by the Republic (BROQUETAS: 2012, p. 203).

As patriotic advocacy pervades the use of the new technique, which is also a means of expression, it can be said that the discursive space of the landscape presents itself as a crossing between painting and photography, characterized in that space by the need to appropriate the Uruguayan territory. From this perspective, the spread of photography is no different from Besnes e Irigoyen’s intentions, nor from Planism’s need for modernization: the landscape is the space of affirmation for a nation (and a continent) which presumes to be modern and advanced.

Third arm: Genealogical or Cinematographic branch

Let us now return to the initial reason for this reflection: the photographic series and film by Andrés Boero Madrid. At this point, it is important to clarify the connection between Uruguayan painting, the spread of photography in the country, and the work of a young artist in the beginning of the XXI century.
Undoubtedly, Boero engages in a dialogue with the Uruguayan landscape; perhaps as intensely as the painters and photographers who preceded him. In Arm of the Forest, it is possible to distinguish a kind of alternative to a modernizing and urban approach. The distinction is of such an order that the elements portrayed by Boero, far from being a mere display of technique, seek to establish an encounter between man and nature, which should not be understood as a “return to nature.” Because in a world where nature has given way to culture, and landscape is made up of banner ads – both static and moving – it is essential to inquire about the yet viable relationship between culture and nature.

Boero’s work – as well as Besnes e Irigoyen’s and Comte’s – are dependent on his transit across the Uruguayan territory. This voyage is not, however, a political and commercial campaign to impose a collective imaginary or a new social reality, but a journey that seeks to investigate the possible existence of an origin, both in the personal and in the collective sense. Something like an inner voyage, we might say, towards the place from whence we came. On the one hand, the work is the result of the artist’s choice not only to visit, but literally to live in a city of about 1000 inhabitants, the cradle of the Uruguayan nation, which is, nevertheless, left out of the whole process of spectacularization dictated by the logic of historical heritage conservation. On the other hand, the relationship established between the artist and thewoodsman arises from the need, already present in other works by Boero, to establish a contact with his ancestral forefathers, who were Uruguayan forestry workers; especially with his grandfather. Origin and roots thus become a quest, something that should be pursued, since a return to them appears impossible. The technical medium then assumes a magical dimension, because through its mediation, Boero can establish an immediate connection with other eras.
This being so, the relationship between the artist and the woodsman condenses different temporal dimensions. Such an encounter is also present in /0} The scent of that land (2012) and Everything returns to the wind (2013), both developed by Boero in the medium which is second nature to him, namely, film. Consistently, the idea of distance – both spatial and temporal – is present in both of those titles; “that place” refers to a place in the past and “return” can signify motion in either space or time. Within Boero’s artistic genealogy, one can observe an interweaving between artistic medium and parentage. These two films, centered around the figures of his grandmother and mother, respectively, shed light on the transmission of family experiences, which somehow determine and announce the existence of the artist. The meticulous precision of the cinematic – and photographic – support combines with another defining quality of the author´s vision, or rather, his Weltanschauung. That is, the clear images we see evoke other images (memories, symptoms, trauma, stories, ghosts, etc.), which reach beyond themselves.

If in these short films “otherness” is a familiar female entity, in Arm of the Forest we face a male figure, a fact that would represent a turning point in relation to the centrality of women in the artist’s earlier works. The arm’s strength appears to be as phallic as the tree; a primal, essential and constitutive element of nature. However, we must not forget that nature has been personified since ancient times, though usually in the opulent and feminine body of a muse, the mistress of animals. So, contrary to what one might assume at first, the presence of the woodsman emphasizes the feminine approach implicit in the artist’s older works, in this case, through the presence of the Uruguayan countryside. Unlike the progressive and modernizing urges – all ruled and marked by the idea of ​​verticality – the Uruguayan landscape presents a striking horizontality. It is this kind of hierarchical equality that questions the phallocentric, vertical, and anthropocentric character associated with modernizing movements in Uruguayan painting and photography. When observed through this light prism, cutting down a tree does not reflect the primal thrust of natural devastation, but rather, a change in direction.

Horizontality, Weltanschauung, the female presence, moving inward in a quest for origins, such procedures confirm this reorientation, whose ultimate result remains improbable and remote. It is a negation of landscape art, understood here as a totality which organizes all elements into a docile and structured composition: the visual illusion of unity and cohesion in the depiction of a continent, an individual, or a nation. In fact, the artist is not interested in the landscape, but, above all, in nature. In this sense, the charm of the images comes not so much from their perfect scientific accuracy, but from their revelation of a deeper sentiment of nature, one that does not turn the individual into an independent element in relation to its context, but links individual and nature phenomenologically instead. If the tree must fall, we must either ask forgiveness through a silent contact (there is an example of this in “Everything returns to the wind”) or deal with this explicit and indecipherable fall, at the center of the exhibition. While the comprehensive view of the landscape is discarded, we cannot say the same in relation to nature. Let us remember that, according to Simmel, there is something like an “indivisible unity of nature, in which each portion can only be a transit point towards the all-encompassing forces of existence” (Simmel, 2009, p. 6). A tree – an arm of the forest – then becomes the key to the whole flux of nature. Or rather, as his grandmother expresses it in “The scent of that place,”allowing us to glimpse the precariousness of a solitary existence capable of bringing together different temporalities and offering visibility to nature in its entirety:

Do you remember when you were kids, all the things you have done? Don’t you? Nobody remembers what it was like being a kid, and I remember everything! Everything I saw. Everything! Why can I remember? I wonder. Why is that? Was it because I was a loner and was always wandering? […] I do not live in the present. I live in the past, the present, and the future, always!

This indivisible unity contained in the grandmother’s tale seems to function as a compass for her grandson. Both in this photographic series and in his films, Boero transforms characters from his own history into his themes, a fact that, coupled with the presence of the artist himself in one of the films, suppresses the assumed distance between the creator and his work. The artist then focuses on the figure of the woodsman, without incurring the etnographer’s error of suppressing the observed subject, with the ultimate goal of confirming its existence. What he wants is not to create a work whose existence is independent of himself, but, on the contrary, to dive and delve into the work, so that it will finally become an act of existence in itself.

The artist and the woodsman: Arm of the Forest is a synthesis between these two figures, separated since the Renaissance in highly differentiated fields of action. There is however no process of identification between them. As it is clear in the video included in the exhibition, Boero is no master in the art of cutting trees, and he never will be. A strange equivalence persists, since both of them seem to retain a savage mind, through which they maintain a close relationship with nature. Each in their own way, each one with his instrument, which in the end is really surprising. Thus, the giant gap between the artist and the woodsman becomes the communicating vessel of an experience, of a life, a totality, and a kinship.

References
Barthes, Roland. the Neutral trad. ivone Castilho Benedetti. são Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2003.
Broquetas, Magdalena (ed.) Photography In Uruguay: History And Social Uses. from 1840 To 1930.Montevideo: Center Of Photography (of Montevideo), 2012.
Krauss, Rosalind. lo Fotográfico. barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2002.
Mitchell, Wjt Landscape And Power.Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 2002.
Dieste, Eduardo. teseo – The Problems Of Art. montevideo: Biblioteca Artigas, 1964.
Simmel, Georg. Philosophy Of The Landscape Collection: Textos Clássicos De Filosofía.Uiversidade Da Beira Interior, Covilhã, 2009.

 

This text is dedicated to Icarus Lira and to the memory of Felipe Bó Huthmacher. I thank the former for the conversations which resulted in some of the ideas discussed in the text.
[1] The name of Río Negro (Black River), comes from the native word ´hum´ which meant “to me” or mine in the guenoa dialect.

[2]               Paradigm is understood here as defined by Roland Barthes:“The paradigm, what is that? It’s the opposition of two virtual terms from which, in speaking, I actualize one to produce meaning” (Barthes, 2004, p. 16-17).
[3]
On the cover, where the document’s title appears, two different years are mentioned; 1852, the moment when Besnes e Irigoyen’s work actually begins, and 1859, the date indicated in the lower left corner, in a dedication to his brother.Currently, the journal is in the archives of the National Library of Uruguay, and it has been scanned in its entirety. The analysis undertaken here is based on the digital document. 

[4]
              Besides a painter, Besnes e Irigoyen was a typographer and calligrapher.

[5]
              The journal also presents the different experiences of Besnes e Irigoyen with lithography, one worthy of special mention is Trovatore created in 1836, based on the teachings of Joseph Gielis, a Belgian expert.

[6]
              This material recorded even diplomatic relations between Latin American neighbors.We have, for example, the representation of a Reception for the Minister of Brazil and the effects  of the Argentine invasion of Montevideo in 1845, which shows two groups of crestfallen Uruguayans, in an atmosphere of docile sorrow.

[7]
              As we might expect, the history of Brazilian and Uruguayan painting had parallel paths which converge at many points.For example, there is a mention of German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, who visited many areas of Latin America, including Brazil and Uruguay, during the first decade of the nineteenth century.Brazilian modernism and Uruguayan Planism also presents many similarities. The analysis of these pictorial paths will be reserved for a more appropriate time.

[8]
              See Gabriel Peluffo Linari: Uruguayan landscape through art in Uruguay.Publisher: Galer’ia Latina, Montevideo, 1995, p. 49.

[9]
              For Walter Benjamin, photography had a brief history before its massive industrialization.These are, therefore, the first signs of this creative impulse, which were overshadowed by its subsequent industrial diffusion. In this text, I wish to emphasize the social uses of photography and its quick capitalist absorption, both in Europe and in Latin America.

[10]
              In fact, a single expedition – that of Comte – was commissioned to show the novelty in Brazil (Bahia and Rio de Janeiro), Uruguay (Montevideo), and Chile (Valparaiso).

[11]
         Among its aesthetic values, Krauss notes, “the lack of depth, graphical construction, ambiguity, and, moreover, aesthetic intentions, such as sublimity and transcendence” (Krauss, 2002, p.42).

[12]
              Landscape was also one of the favorite motifs of amateur photographers in the early twentieth century: “A favorite of pictorial motifs was landscape photography.The members of Montevideo’s Photo Club, faithful practitioners of this aesthetic canon, established in the statute of the institution the importance of organizing excursions to the outskirts of Montevideo in order to create ‘picturesque’ “photographs (BROQUETAS, 2012, p.120).

 

 


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