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De vuelta al centro del mundo INGLÉS

Back to the Center of the Earth

Antonio Bermúdez

Humboldt travelled through Latin America between 1799 and 1804, accompanied by frenchman Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858) and, from 1802 onward, by ecuadorian Carlos de Montúfar (1780-1816). During his travels, Humboldt visited the current territories of Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and México, and through his texts and drawings he showed European society the natural and social conditions of the New World. His work would be transformed into books, magazines, paintings and etchings that would capture the imagination of a great number of travellers of the 19th and 20th centuries. These travellers would cross the Atlantic, following the footsteps of the Prussian, attracted by his exotic imagery, to take part in scientific commissions or by his direct recommendation. Humboldt would not only expand the frontiers of Pan-American science, but he would also show in Europe, the images of a territory that was vulnerable to be exploited and modernized.

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt’s diaries and sketches would become the predominant visual repertoire about the Americas in the canon for a great part of the latter representations of the continent (natural, human, geographical). This would generate a sort of broken telephone of images, reproduced by others with singular variations and appropriations, which normally depended on the education and trajectory of each artist, and which could eventually respond to prejudices about “the American” instilled into European society since colonial times. Following Humboldt’s footsteps the following scientists and artists travelled to the Americas from very early on: Auguste Le Moyne (1800-Ca.1880), François Désiré Roulin (1796-1874), Joseph Brown (1802-1874), Jean-Baptiste Boussingault (1801-1887) and Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858).

Among Humboldt’s followers we can distinguish five strains: (i) the artists who transformed his narratives and sketches into illustrations for their publications, (ii) the Europeans who travelled through his direct recommendation, (iii) travellers who did not know Humboldt directly but were influenced by his publications, (iv) the 20th century artists who found Humboldt later on, as an inspiration for their works.

In the 19th century, an artist of the Humboldt School could be one who represented this uncharted territory, Latin America, from the iconography built by Humboldt’s close circle of artists and scientists. In order to rescue this imagery during the second half of the 19th century, one did not need to cross the Atlantic or be physically present in the New World. This lead to each European representation of the Americas, despite having Humboldt at its root, having innumerable variations. For example, in pictorial representations of volcanoes in Ecuador like the Chimborazo or the Cotopaxi (depictions which are commonly based on Humboldt’s famous Atlas of the Mountain Ranges), the magueyes are depicted, which are reminiscent of Mexico. The equatorial mountains, which in reality have peaks which softly slope along the horizon, could look in the humboldtian depictions, more steep or abrupt, like the great Swiss mountains (though it is worth noting that many European artists, having never stepped foot in the Americas, used the topographical universe of their native countries as a reference, which they could then romantically transpose onto American nature). On the other hand, almost every humboldtian landscape features two or three palm trees on a first plane, to the side of the composition, framing the landscape, which can also be seen in the paintings of the Baron Gros or Frederic Edwin Church. The palm tree was the defining attribute of the tropics, the element that would allow for the spectator to deduce that the painting, drawing, or etching, was alluding to the New World, regardless of whether it was an Andean landscape, where palm trees are habitually not found.

The people featured in these landscapes commonly adhered to the humboldtian stereotype of Latin American types and customs: people from the countryside, or indigenous people in picturesque situations, workers in improbable situations; New World animals like jaguars, alpacas or exotic birds; strange customs such as burials or street brawls; or characters in traditional colourful costume, aware of its own exoticism. It is this universe of the senses which is rescued by Bogotá artist Antonio Bermúdez, through his images and installations. Bermúdez, with no intention to be a historian, builds a humboldtian taxonomy of the pan American landscape. In order to achieve this, he works with archive material, through obsessively obtaining sheets of an etching from the early 19th century of a view of Chimborazo, tracing the variations, the stereotypes, the imaginaries, the perceptions, the exotization and the political constructs of that kind of pictorial collage which was the Americanist representation of the 19th century.

We will have to understand this universe of sense, which has endured until our time (and which has helped build power relations between nations and people). We will have to analyse it. We will have to understand its images, how they are constructed, assembled, and divulged. We will have to begin to deconstruct the universe of imaginary shapes that not only inhabits these old etchings (but also inhabits ourselves): A universe that populates our mind and configures our senses; we will have to dismantle this intricate collage which constructs and explains us.

Halim Badawi

 Crítico de arte