Read below the conversation between Luiz Camillo Osorio and Jacques Leenhardt on the occasion of the lecture given by the French critic on the theme “Rereading/Reviewing the Images of J.-B. Debret”. Among the topics discussed are the two angles with which Debret worked; the late visibility of the painter’s images and the different strategies of contemporary artists to elaborate on the past.
Leenhardt is a Director of Studies at EHESS (Paris) and honorary president of AICA.
Translated by: Rebecca Atkinson
L.C.O – In your recent book containing colour plates of all the drawings and paintings by J-B Debret and the texts he wrote to contextualize them, you are attempting to restore a certain integrity to the iconographic work of the French artist and his critical analysis of the colonial and slavocratic reality of Brazil. Although he was the official painter of the Portuguese court and one of the founders of the country’s Academy of Fine Arts, he also produced drawings clandestinely here, which he took back to France on his return in 1831 and had lithographed in Paris, forming a unique representation of the Brazil of his day. Could you talk about your research, this relationship between the texts and images and the vision of Brazil that started to take shape there?
J.L. – As I see it, we have to clearly distinguish two parts, two directions, in Debret’s oeuvre. On the one hand, there is the professional painter who worked for more than twenty years with Jacques-Louis David and who, after the fall of Napoleon and David’s exile, leaving him financially straitened, joined the so-called French artistic mission of 1816 and took refuge in Brazil. On the other hand, there is the author of 800 drawings and watercolours which constitute the documental source of the book Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil [Picturesque and Historical Journey to Brazil], which Debret produced secretly in Brazil, took back to France in 1831 and had published in Paris between 1834 and 1839.
We should distinguish them clearly because the painter received by the prince regent, João VI, together with other Frenchmen to lead the creation of an Academy of Fine Arts and immortalize in oil paintings the life of the Portuguese court displaced to its Brazilian colony clearly doesn’t do the same work as the artist who portrays himself seated on the pavement wearing a paper hat, documenting the everyday hustle and bustle of Rio de Janeiro. The former is a court painter, subject to the rules of behaviour and aesthetic norms inherent to this position; the latter is an artist who felt he was witnessing an important moment in history – the transition from colonial to imperial rule in Brazil – and who intended, through his work as a painter and writer, to fulfil his role as witness and commentator on the social and political transformations taking place before his eyes to the best of his abilities.
These two characters coexist in Jean-Baptiste Debret, undoubtedly with a degree of contradiction, just as the enthusiastic Jacobin of the early days of the French Revolution coexisted with the professional who, by force of circumstance, at the age of 52, placed himself at the service of Portuguese royal power in exile. When Debret arrived in Brazil, the revolution had already given rise to an empire in France, so his personal political disappointments must have prompted him to finally take the side of the constitutional monarchy, accompanying Pedro I at the time of the constitution of the Brazilian Empire.
The distinction between these two characters is essentially political and explains the singularity of Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil among all the works published by European authors. Debret is not a traveller. He spends fifteen years in Brazil, and if his book contains the word “historic” in the title, it’s because its author, far from intending to produce a book of an exotic nature, claims to be doing the work of a historian. As he himself writes, he is witnessing the end of the colonial world and the advent of an independent nation. His portrayal of Brazil in 152 lithographic plates and 400 pages of text focuses on this transition, its contradictions and its hopes. The division of the work into three volumes, each with its own theme, leaves no doubt as to what question this Jacobin in voluntary exile wished to pose: How can a nation be made that brings together native Indians who fled into the wild before the brutality of colonization, Africans enslaved and severed from their roots, and prejudiced European immigrants, as he himself was? It is this challenge that his book illustrates and exemplifies, and it is because of this, his ambition and the time he devoted to it – more than twenty years – that Debret cannot simply be slotted into the category of “traveller”. If his book actually belongs to the “Brasilianas”, it holds a quite unique place among them.
In the introduction I wrote for the new edition of Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil, [Imprensa Oficial Nacional do Estado de São Paulo, 2015], I insist on the importance of this idea of explication. Debret is a painter, but even so he is very aware of the fundamental ambiguity of images, and also of texts. That is why he systematically resorts to writing, “so that the quill and the brush may reciprocally redress their mutual shortcomings” (p. 44).
A prime example of this urge to ensure his reader would interpret his images correctly, and one I believe may be unique in the history of illustrated books, can be seen in the addition of several pages of text to accompany each image, in which Debret explains what is being shown. All the plates in Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil are accompanied by three or four pages of explanatory text. Debret knew he was working in a cultural milieu that was unfamiliar with the codes of Neoclassical aesthetics. Also, as Rodrigo Naves points out, he was unsure whether his images would be understood straight away. This pedagogical concern, which has everything to do with the republican pedagogism of 1789, sheds light on the political intentions behind his publication of this book. For example, what he painted for the curtain of the Imperial Theatre to mark the coronation of Emperor Pedro 1st, an event that would represent a complete break from Portuguese royalty, was a kind of “allegory of good government”. The only thing representing the emperor is the letter P, his initial, above the throne, because his role was limited to being the “perpetual defender and constitutional emperor of Brazil”. But in this allegory of constitutional power, he is surrounded by all the components of the nation. In order to avoid any misunderstanding as to the political significance of the indigenous and black figures on the curtain, Debret went on to publish in the local press, at his own expense, a political analysis of his image and his vision of the harmonious union of peoples around the sovereign. We must therefore view Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil as a set of texts and images with their own coherence and above all must not skip over the explanatory pages, which often express fierce irony in relation to what the images represent.
L.C.O. – Something you highlight in the book is the length of time – one century – during which this material disappeared from view, with no publicity or debate about it whatsoever. In France, as in Brazil, the images went underground. How was interest in this material rekindled and to what extent was the fact that this resurgence of interest came in parallel with the modernist period responsible for the images and texts being separated from one another?
J.L. – We should understand that throughout most of the 19th century, the history of the conquest was essentially a heroic legend of the occupation of South American territories by the Portuguese. At the time, nobody wanted to see or read about the other side of the conquest: the extermination of the native Indians and the exploitation of enslaved Africans. That’s why the images Debret published on his return to Paris were so unflattering to the imperial court’s expectations. The discomfiture caused by the images from Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil was so powerful that when Debret gifted the court with Volume II of the book, in which he presents the different jobs done by slaves in Rio de Janeiro, the official institute of history and geography, Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasileiro (IHGB), refused to include it in the imperial library. It is unlikely this rejection came as much of a surprise to Debret, who knew perfectly well that the images would not go down well, which is why he himself kept them hidden from the authorities for the fifteen years he spent in Brazil.
So it was that Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil disappeared from public sight in Brazil and France, leaving virtually no trace until its rediscovery in the 20th century. Unsold copies of the book are said to have been offered to the famous bookseller Ch. Chadenat at the end of the century and that he refused them, fearing he would lose money in the deal. Today, the book is extremely rare and very expensive.
Obviously, these images were erased from the Brazilian collective imagination because, as commented at length by the IHGB censors, they illustrate to an unbearable extent the racist violence of the slave-based regime. At the same time, these same prints paint a flattering, or at least extremely positive picture of black wage-earning slaves in their execution of all manner of trades in the urban space. Commenting on this, Debret stresses that the Portuguese had a strong aversion to work, so much so that the country was actually built entirely from the toil of the wretched slaves themselves. Featuring them in images was therefore a deliberate statement on Debret’s part – one which could only have seemed repellent to the lettered public and government of the time.
These are the reasons why Debret’s images were banned for almost one century, until they earned recognition in Brazilian iconography in a new ideological context.
This reversal of this situation came in the context of the profound transformations undergone in Brazil in the early decades of the 20th century. The emergence of a new generation of politicians with ties to the urban elites meant that racial mixing could finally be seen as an asset of the nation, not a handicap. Only then did the hegemony of the racist structures that had resulted in racial mixing and retarded the country’s cultural and economic development slowly – but never completely – fade. The Modern Art Week of 1922 marked a turning point in this sense. Artists and essayists, including the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, the writer Mario de Andrade and the painter Vicente Do Rêgo Monteiro, all highlighted the contributions made by the native and African cultures to the constitution of the nation. It was in the context of this unprecedented mood that Debret’s images could finally be brought to light.
In fact, as of 1914, a weekly publication Revista da Semana started bringing out reproductions of images of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro from Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil. Later, it expanded the spectrum of its publications until finally, in 1931, it reproduced images of violence against enslaved populations under the heading: “From the shadows of captivity to the dawn of abolition”.
It is as if Brazil was gradually beginning to turn the page on the denial of slavery. Debret’s images, once repressed for symbolizing the uneasy conscience of a morally bankrupt nation, finally gained the public visibility they had been denied from the beginning. This late recognition gained a boost when Raymundo Castro Maya acquired more than 500 drawings and watercolours by Debret from a Parisian antique shop in 1939. He went on to bequeath his collections to the Chácara do Céu Museum, where they are kept to this day. The final act in this revival was the subsequent translation of Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Brasil into Portuguese by the anthropologist and art critic Sérgio Milliet and its publication in 1940. Since then, Debret’s images have been recognised as an unparalleled archival source whose dissemination in the public space has made them synonymous with the collective imagination of colonial and imperial Brazil. We should certainly be heartened that such a complex oeuvre has finally been brought to the attention of a wider audience, but this distribution of the images alone, without the texts and contexts that illuminate them, often has the opposite effect of inducing a superficial and reductive interpretation.
L.C.O. – The art historian and critic Rodrigo Naves begins his book A Forma Difícil with a very original chapter on Debret, highlighting how his iconography allows us to begin to perceive the perversity of social life in Brazil, in that it contains the beginnings of a visuality that is truly Brazilian. I think this is an interesting interpretation, because it reappraises the critical value of his work, which has been so associated with colonialism. Without ceasing to work as an official painter, Debret understood how to see and speak of the country’s ills in an original way. How do you analyse the critical value of this oeuvre born within the official system?
J.L. – When he arrived in Brazil, Debret was a mature adult whose experience of the upheavals of history and certainly also the death of his only son had made him both observant and sardonic. Rodrigo Naves is right when he points out the gaping abyss that existed between the dreams of Greco-Latin grandeur contained in the neoclassical aesthetic cultivated during the French Revolution and the mundane reality that assailed Debret’s eyes in Rio de Janeiro between 1816 and 1830. His watercolours of everyday life in the streets are brought to vibrant life by the biting irony of his portrayals and comments, while his court paintings – sans irony – depict a pompous world devoid of grandeur weighed down by joyless artificiality, attesting to the painter’s unease or the inadequacy of his style for depicting the court in the tropics. But apart from this unease, there is something else, which Rodrigo Neves develops very well in his analysis: that Debret himself had a consciously critical relationship with the images and used them to denounce the romantic myths permeating knowledge of Brazil in Europe.
L.C.O. – How do you see Debret’s visual output within the vast production of travelling artists throughout the 19th century? Not least because a man who lived in the country for 16 years does not exactly fit this label. Are there any peculiar traits in this work by Debret? How can we view it in the context of other work by travelling artists?
J.L. – Debret is an artist who was trained by David. By that, I mean he was perfectly aware of what we would today call the rhetoric of the image and knew how to take advantage of it. This is clear from the very first print in his book. In this first chapter, entitled “The virgin forests of Brazil”, Debret does not content himself with representing untouched wildlife; he populates it with a set of figures and comments on his image in the following terms: “The group of figures who animate this landscape represents three native soldiers, civilized men who, after ravaging a village in the jungle, bring back the women and children [as] prisoners of war”.
By inserting a scene of war into the heart of virgin forest, Debret turns his back on the exotic imagery circulating at the time in which Brazilian forests were made to look like some kind of paradise. Observing more closely, I realized that in his painting, Debret is referencing an image that was being circulated widely at the time, the famous Virgin Forest, exhibited in Paris in 1819 by its author, the Count of Clarac, which became known throughout Europe thanks to the print produced by Claude François Fortier in 1823.
In Clarac’s painting, hard to make out in the midst of the vegetation are two figures crossing a river on a felled log. Dressed in the manner of the Bororo people, the man leads the way followed by his wife, who is bearing their child. The composition exudes calm and happiness in this sublime setting. The characters are “at home” in this natural world as yet unspoiled by the hand of man. So much for the postcard.
Debret takes up this stereotypical image of romantic exoticism and inverts it. He zooms in to allow the viewer to see the part where the native Indians are walking. And what does it show? On the same fallen tree trunk bridging the abyss, just as Clarac imagined it, he inserts two Amerindian women, captive and chained, escorted by three armed soldiers. As the commentary to the image indicates, the menfolk have been killed and the soldiers are bringing back the women and children as slaves. The text and image work together to operate a total, shocking, deeply ironic reversal.
What makes Debret’s image stand out is the fact that it refers directly to the violence of a colonization process which forced the Indians into the forests, where they took refuge to escape forced labour and slavery. This print and its commentary open Debret’s book as a “primitive scene” which makes the violence that accompanied the European occupation of Brazil the lynchpin of the whole history to come. Debret takes Clarac’s romantic mythology and contrasts it with the theatre of history, including the truth of colonization, the violence inflicted by the colonizers on the natives.
This “tableau vivant”, this performed image of two chained indigenous widows dragging their children into a new form of slavery, imprints the viewer’s consciousness with two different things: violence itself and the staged nature of the image. Debret creates a violence-forest. He does not aim at naturalism; he does not set about capturing a moment of life in the forest; he composes and constructs a depiction whose topic is violence. This image does not aspire to be plausible; on the contrary, Debret uses this theatricality to impose a reflective distance, a Brechtian Verfremdung, from the violence it portrays. But he inserts this mechanism at the most symbolic point in his work – at the beginning – so it can operate as a mandate for how to interpret the rest. Debret invites his reader-viewers to go beyond the supposed referent of the image, that is, to free themselves from the pictorial and face the political dimension of the images he offers.
L.C.O. – Most important of all, how should we see him from the present, without neglecting either the European colonizer’s view or the specific nature of a gaze that critically analysed all the outrageous aspects of the slavocratic regime.
J.L. – Calling, as I do, for Debret’s images and texts to be analysed closely to reduce misunderstandings does not absolve Debret from the ideological flaws of his time. How so? Nobody can escape the a priori circumstances of their time. But while we may see racist or colonialist traits in Debret, we can also find their opposite, along with a strong sense of the dignity of all human beings. Which means all we can do is observe that Debret is both divided and contradictory. He understood perfectly well that if the native Indians had fled into the forests, it was to escape colonial violence, but he could not shake off the idea that his European civilization was superior and was a desirable benchmark for human evolution. This is a limitation that marks the entire colonizing West, but also all expansionist cultures that have been witnessed on the five continents. The Incas, Mayans and Chinese also at some point in their destiny believed themselves to be superior to the cultures they dominated, each according to its own methods. The extermination of Amerindians by white colonists is one of the most tragic episodes of this logic of the most powerful.
After so many wars – and today’s wars only reinforce this view – humanity is trying to break free from this deadly logic. That’s why I’m so interested in the diversity among the young generation of Brazilian artists who are engaging in critical work on the images produced during the colonial and imperial periods in Brazil.
L.C.O. – More recently, we have seen a lot of fascinating work by Brazilian artists, mostly of African descent – Jaime Laureano, Gê Viana, Dalton Paula, to name a few – who are critically appropriating Debret’s iconography and displacing the colonizer’s viewpoint, bringing forth different ways of seeing what has become “naturalized” in Brazilian social life. What they are doing is not so much a historical analysis, showing how the past was, as a deconstruction of the present, insofar as they are denaturalizing the hegemonic narratives of who we are. How do you, a European historian with extensive Brazilian experience, view this contemporary re-view of Debret?
J.L. – I share the very same interest and I think it forces us to reflect on some factors that will always surprise us. You used the ideas of “re-vision” and “critical appropriation”. They seem to me well suited to the type of work a number of artists are currently doing. It’s about opening the way for new visions rather than simply latching onto the received critical discourse about images produced in the past. It’s a strategy that often seems to bypass any critical examination of the images from this past, offering the contemporary imaginary something “quite different”. From this point on, the word “criticism” can mean something different from how it’s conceived in the tradition of philosophy, from Antiquity to Marxism. It’s a very complex topic.
In the work of Gê Viana or Dalton Paula, it seems to me it’s less about intellectually deconstructing, in the manner of the 1960s, sets of images whose ideology can be accused of being reactionary or outdated. A different type of “criticism” is emerging which aims to subvert an entire socio-discursive stratum, question a whole system of verisimilitude.
Let’s look at an example, or at least start with what I understand of Dalton Paula’s series Assentar [Settle]. The extremely subtle use he makes of Debret’s images is not intended to denounce them for in some way colluding with colonialism or racism. Paula doesn’t hold Debret to account, and I think it makes perfect sense, because if he were to do that for real, there would have to be an in-depth analysis of the images. He would have to take into account the irony, which always proves to be very complex, since Debret himself, in his explanation of this image Return of a Farm Owner, where we see the owner carried by his slaves in a hammock, decries the ridiculous vanity of this means of transport. So it’s not at this critical level that Paula addresses the image.
Like Gê Viana, Dalton Paula notes that the images contained in the “Brasilianas” are part of a collective imaginary in which the violence of the past has been frozen in representations which have become so widespread it’s almost impossible to question them in a simple way.
It seems to me that these artists have opted for a different strategy, which I would call faire um pas de côté; i.e. sidestepping or changing register. As a strategy, this reminds me of Paul Lafarge [1842-1911], son-in-law of Karl Marx and co-founder with Jules Guesdes of the French Workers’ Party, the country’s first Marxist party. Against capitalist exploitation, Lafarge published a pamphlet entitled The Right to be Lazy . In it, Lafarge stands up against the ideology of work, insidiously propagated by religion and the ruling class, and which holds an important place in the arguments of the labour movement itself. Lafarge speaks out about this strange madness: a love of work. Claiming the right to idleness is an attempt to thwart this fascination with work, which by definition quashes the liberating drive of the social revolution.
I have the feeling that this type of approach, used by Paula in his series Settle and also by Viana in a way in his giant mushrooms, employs new image strategies that are rich, inventive and clearly call some of our intellectual habits into question.
L.C.O. – In my view, this contemporary output shows evidence of going beyond denouncing and towards a kind of historical fabulation that drags the past out of its logic of facts to invent new power relations from the present. Josi, one of the PIPA 2022 prizewinners, has an expression to talk about her work, which I think is quite appropriate in this context: she talks about “reverse-bleaching”. To bleach clothes means to whiten them, remove all stains, purify them. Its reversal is the appropriation of stains, allowing them to impregnate the (social) fabric and visually transform whiteness. Poetically inverting the value of the pure and the impure, harnessing the impurities of the past to enable something to open up in the present. Could you comment on how you see this from the perspective of the post-colonial debate, which is so important globally?
J.L. – I completely agree with you. In the work of many artists, there is evidence of an attempt to evade the rhetorical pitfalls of denouncement, which often ends up reinforcing the system it intends to be emancipated from. I think the idea of “inverting” and “reversing” you talk about in Josi’s work is very stimulating. Artists invent new notions when they feel boxed in by the ones saturating the mainstream critical discourse. The idea of “reverse-bleaching” is designed not just to refute the myth of whiteness and purity, but more radically to give space and dignity to the tiny remnants that are just as responsible for making history as the leading figures of power. This has been called the “vision of the vanquished”. Today, it’s being developed under the label of subaltern studies. It’s about strengthening theoretical tools and strategies to open up as yet unexplored imaginary spaces. In the lecture I gave under the title Rereading/Reviewing the Images of Debret, I quoted the Samoan artist Yuki Kihara, who borrows the notion of “upcycling” from the vocabulary of the environmental struggle. She uses it to refer to the action of taking up images that mass culture has popularized to the point of losing all truth and efficacy and infusing them with a new critical spirit. I see this as a very interesting way of reinterpreting Debret’s images.
Given the difficulty inherent to representing the past, I think it’s fascinating to see how all these artists are finding ways to address the collective imagination that has been built up over time without resorting to reactive confrontation, which would quickly become sterile because it would reduce the complexity of the issue to a fight between good and evil. Also, your expression “harnessing the impurities of the past” seems welcome to me. It reminds me of the Martinican poet and thinker Édouard Glissant, writing in the introduction to his magnificent book Caribbean Discourse: “does not the world, in its exploded oneness, demand that each person be drawn to the recognized inscrutability of the other?” It’s no longer just about reversing the discourse of oppression, but about deepening the understanding that true liberation also means being able to confront the shadows of ambiguity.
Translator’s note: “Brasilianas” are archives or collections of artefacts relating specifically to Brazil.