Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

An Artist's License to a Child's Dream: Argentine Painter Norma Bessouet Evokes the Still World of Young Girls Disconnected from Life's Adult Realities

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

An Artist's License to a Child's Dream: Argentine Painter Norma Bessouet Evokes the Still World of Young Girls Disconnected from Life's Adult Realities

Article excerpt

NORMA BESSOUET'S world is one of childhood fantasies and dreams, that looking-glass wonderland of a young girl, not quite woman. Her work shares traits associated with such other Latin American narrative fabulists as Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, and Remedios Varo, but involves a visual language and viewpoint all Bessouet's 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 work to discuss her career and methods.

"I don't much like 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 who is also a painter. We worked together in Uruguay, 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 Selvaggio and Uccello."

Bessouet drew inspiration for that series from French symbolist Marcel Schwob's seminal story collection, Imaginary Lives (1896). One of the fictitious tales describes a love affair between a young beauty named Selvaggio (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 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 1987, Selvaggio and Uccello opened at the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo and then traveled to Caracas and Buenos Aires. As a prelude to the Columbus Quincentenary, in 1989, Argentina's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Latin American and Iberian Studies at Harvard University cosponsored another showing at the Arden Gallery in Boston.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1947, Bessouet admits she has always admired the slightly stiff classicism associated with the early stages of the Italian Renaissance. "My mother, an amateur artist, studied drawing and painting with Italian academicians. She got me started. My father, 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. …

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