ANIMALARIO, THE BESTIARY OF BLANCA MORENO
In Animalario (2014), artist Blanca Moreno -born in Bogota, Colombia- complements with 20 magnificent drawings a series of short poems on the subject of animals by the poet and film director Roberto Triana. Triana, also a Colombian, is the author of a previously published book of poetry, Bestiario (1980), also allusive to animals, which was illustrated with a set of lithographies by his friend, Italian artist Sandro Chia.
Bestiaries — a grosso modo are medieval compendia of animals, usually with images that are descriptive of reality and others charged with the imaginary. Their very long cultural presence continues alive today, for they express the fascination and mystery that these beings exert, as they sometimes appear to be so different, mysterious and opposed to us, but that also, and even more unsettlingly, they constitute alter egos in which we are able to identify ourselves and recognize some of our most fundamental features.
Blanca Moreno’s work occupies a unique place within the tradition of bestiaries, for she brings to this artistic genre her singular legacy, as a Latin American artist who has observed and minutely interpreted the nature and the landscape in Colombia, one of richest countries in terms of biodiversity in the world. The vision and power of her solid trajectory over several decades are especially resonant, since regrettably, few other local artists have focused on this reality and its complex implications with such extreme attention.
The observation and cataloguing of animals and the interpretation of our relation with them in the Western world has its roots in Greek antiquity –in the myth of Orpheus enchanting the beasts, the anthropomorphic behavior of the animals of Aesop’s fables, the observations of the natural world in Herodotus’ works, or in Aristotle’s Historia Animalium. During the Middle Ages the Bestiary as now understood, appeared as an explained collection of animals in the anonymous work Physiologus, a natural history that comprised a delightful mixture of facts and myths – of the imagined and the known- and which became a widely popular and respected work. Mythical animals like the unicorn and the siren figure there alongside real ones amid extraordinary assertions: the salamander, for instance, is the most dangerous of all beasts, capable of simultaneously killing many beings by poisoning if fell on a well or climbed a tree, and moreover, it is immune to fire. The same beasts repeatedly appeared in the various versions of the Bestiary and the descriptions, based on Biblical citations, gradually incorporated moralizing religious aspects relevant to human behavior.
Despite being a clergyman, deacon and the chancellor of Amiens in the 13th Century, Richard de Fournival subverted and parodied the content of the Bestiary imbuing it with satirical purposes and relating it to plays of conquest and seduction, while conferring it with erotic connotations. Fournival, son of the King’s doctor and holder of his own license as a surgeon, was a prolific writer of lyrical poems, works of alchemy and philosophy. His Bestiarie d’Amour, whose older extant copy is from 1290, draws moralizing parallels between animal behavior and amorous relationships; it is illustrated in the manuscript’s marginalia the teaching that between an human couple as between a wolf and man,- the one who first reveals his true intentions is at disadvantage, because the other, after noticing, would escape. This work transformed the scientific or religious approach of this genre to a literary with profane meaning, inaugurating a tradition of personal expression and poetic possibilities to which the current Animalario belongs.
During the Renaissance, in addition to a renewed interest for the tradition of scientific descriptions proper to that age, a new visual relationship between animals and humans appeared, including speculation of the correlation among human physiognomy (physical features] and character; Leonardo da Vinci’s expressive grotesque drawings of individuals who incorporated animal features -mostly with pejorative implications- underlined the anthropocentric attitude intrinsic to humanism.
In Latin America, the indigenous traditions of elaborate and varied representations of animals in pre-Columbian ceramics and metallurgy, characterized by detailed observation and closeness to the natural environment, disappeared with the domination of Spanish culture during the colonial period. Scientific endeavors such as the Botanical Expedition of José Celestino Mutis and the subsequent Chorographical Comission Comisión Corográfica], an attempted survey of the population and the landscape as part of the new national territory, were not concerned with fauna. The drawings of the German Maria Sibylla Merian and of the Dutch Albert Eckhout, in Surinam and Brazil respectively are great historical exceptions in South America. Their background in realistic painting of specimens, with origins in the pictorial genre of the still life, led them to focus their attention on the direct observation of native animals, many of which were unknown in Europe at the time, thereby incorporating an empirical component that was appropriate for sciences.
Blanca Moreno’s drawings don’t seek to literally illustrate the content of Roberto Triana’s poetic texts, which would be intrinsically impossible, but to complement them with counterpart visions of her own, for which she relies on her language which has been closely associated to the direct observation of nature, while evoking the regional legacy of her most celebrated and immediate precedent, Gonzalo Ariza, one of the most important and innovative landscape painters of the 20th Century in Colombia, who expanded the pictorial references to European academism by freely incorporating visual elements of Japanese heritage.
Blanca has produced a work that is based on direct observation and journeys through diverse regions of the country and settings, taking detailed notes and sketching in pencil or ink that she later uses for the execution of her oil paintings. These reflect not only the magnificence and variety of the Colombian landscape often documenting their still exuberant state of conservation or, in other instances, their decay and transformations due to social or economic forces. With equal inquisitive attention, she interprets remote rural locations, iconic or historical sites that are most endearing in relation to regional identities such as the Magdalena River and Tequendama Waterfall, and urban panoramic views of her hometown Bogotá. Her vision is empirical, but despite being realist, she doesn’t follow academic canons nor picturesque formulas; her works are current, truthful, and individual statements, as well as manifestations of a prevailing contemporary ideology of ecological conscience. On the whole, they represent a cosmovision of integration with nature.
In this series of animal drawings the artist alludes to widely diverse global pictorial traditions, not only to the realistic ones associated to the scientific observation in our continent, but to others of more remote regions with which it has close affinities. The Animalario has a parallel with three romantic or erotic books of Haiku poetry illustrated by the Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai: one of them includes insects, another frogs, and the third, depicts couples of birds belonging different species, whose behaviors present analogies with the sentimental situations expressed in the texts. Blanca’s drawings also evoke the Islamic(Mogul and Persian) naturalistic painting of the 15th C which includes al Ustad (master) Mansur, as one of its main representatives, who focused on the depiction of animals which were usually observed in exotic or zoological collections of Indian courts.
The elements of cultural hybridity freely displayed in Blanca Moreno’s bestiary’s drawings go beyond historical evocation. They surprise us when explicitly present as in the incorporation of ebru, the Islamic technique popular in the Victorian era for ornamenting paper with a marbling effect. In this technique, color pigments are placed on water thickened with vegetal gums, which prevents the dissolution of the colors and maintain them floating and visible on the surface of the water; there, the pigment is manipulated moving it to form a design that is the result of the flow of the water which is transferred to paper placed on top as a monotype print. The technique has a special meaning for its practitioners: the movement of the water is considered part of the vital flow of the universe; each design formed in the surface of the water is natural, unique and unrepeatable. The artists scatter the colors on the surface and can manipulate them, but cannot totally control the outcome of the drawing; it is chance or the “absolute power” which gives the design its final appearance.
Water has been a recurring subject in Blanca’s artistic trajectory; she has been always attentive to its presence or absence, its flow, its visible or underground “journeys” in rural or urban landscapes. The technique of ebru has allowed her to approach this element and to incorporate it in another context, as an active element in the execution of her drawings, integrating technical process and conceptual continuity. While ebru has typically been adopted as a beautifying and decorative technique, it is surprising in this case, that it constitutes a pictorial and significative element: it describes the spider web, the movement of air or wings of the hummingbird or the hawk, the splashing of waves on the tapir, or the sparkles of light on the fox’s coat.
This Bestiary not only reflects the complexities of Latin American hybridity, and characteristics of contemporary globalization which freely integrates various historical and cultural references, but it reflects a new conception of nature and a new relation with the animals that correspond to current questions and ideologies. Western culture, more than others, has been anthropocentric since the Genesis decreed that humans have dominion over the animals, that are beings with inferior characteristics, and that the human and animals qualities are mutually exclusive. Even so, the animal has also been a cultural archetype of “otherness” and has played a vital role in the symbolic construction of human identity. As alterity or “other”, the animal contains the paradox of that which is opposed or different, as well as that which is similar; as a mirror, it reflects facets of what we do not easily see in ourselves.
The poems of Roberto Triana openly express primary, fundamental, emotional, and sensual facets that communicate and identify us with our animal identity; the Animalario, as a whole, far from expressing a binary and excluding worldview that is articulated in terms of the opposition of the human and the animal, relocates and redefines us as part of nature in terms of human and nonhuman animals, questioning our relation with these beings and with ourselves. This new vision is reflected in a visual representation of animals that results from meticulous and fresh contemplation; it doesn’t follow pre-established nor generic prototypes in their representation but, almost as portraits, they express the vital individuality and emotions of each one. Roberto Triana and Blanca Moreno complement one another with their perspectives, backgrounds and voices, to converge in an integrated vision that adds up more than the sum of its parts, and celebrates the identity and fundamental essence of the animal – both nonhuman and human.