Critical texts

An oeuvre that is developed as it unfolds*
By Francisco Dalcol, 2016

Immersion in the process of painting can take artists down unexpected paths. In these forays, many seek a point in which to anchor their work and develop it from there. Others, such as Lenora Rosenfield, choose to keep on looking for new places guided by the current demands of their work. That is, they take their work on different paths revealed by an intense dive into the unknown.

At the many occasions in which she emigrated from Brazil to study, research and work in educational centres and universities in Italy (Udine and Florence) and in the United States (New York and Cambridge), Lenora Rosenfield was interested in some question decisively posed by her work at the time. She was always driven by the impulse of knowing what simple observation failed to totally reveal.

Hence the fact that each new quest took on the character of an almost vital necessity to unravel some aspect of the invisible universe of painting, only tangible to those who are dedicated to investigating in depth its materials, techniques and expressive forms. In the way Lenora follows her own path, practice takes place in consonance with her great interest in new discoveries, usages and transformation of materials throughout the history of art. An operation that, in itself, makes the old, the modern and the contemporary seem to enter a state of synchronicity as her artistic work is materialised in the here and now.

In Lenora’s work, making and being in the world complement each other and are inseparably amalgamated. Her interests are based on the materiality of painting, but not without invoking the sedimented layers inside the psychology of the poetic and creative act. These processes of displacement between inside and outside involve the body itself as part of the gesture of painting, and borrow its movement and shapes in the struggle between its scale and the planarity of painting.

In her figurative themes, expressionist gestures and abstractionism, Lenora finds expressivity in her painting by moving in an empirical and inductive way in her research of materials, supports and techniques. She seeks to understand their properties and characteristics in order to draw visual and conceptual strength from them.

Linking the practice of drawing and painting to a profound knowledge of the fresco technique and to her experience as a conservator and professor at UFRGS, Lenora uses all her facets in the development of a very personal technique she called “synthetic fresco,” a combination of wet lime plaster and pigments on synthetic felt. She also explores this nonwoven fabric as a painting support by investigating the possibilities of egg tempera as an element that integrates the creation process of the recent Planisfério series.

Presented in three rooms of the Art Museum of Rio Grande do Sul (MARGS), the exhibition Itinerários focuses on the diversity of a nearly five-decades-long career, presenting a selection of paintings that situate some of the most important phases of Lenora’s trajectory. However, the retrospective is not presented in a linear or chronological way.
In pointing out some possible dialogues between works elaborated in different places and times, Itinerários is guided by a sense of prospection: it seeks to recognise in the works and in their articulation in the exhibition space indications of the paths taken by Lenora in her painting, an oeuvre that is developed as it unfolds. In the exhibition, these itineraries propose that visitors regard Lenora’s works as an experience driven by the realisation that the act of painting involves a surprising and infinite unveiling of very deep layers.

*Curatorial text for the exhibition ITINERÁRIOS: Lenora Rosenfield, held at the Museu de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul (MARGS), in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from November 22, 2016, to January 15, 2017.

An amorous dialogue
By Paula Ramos, 2014

Lenora Rosenfield’s poetics is the result of a long process of observation, research and understanding of the characteristics of materials and methods of painting; in this particular case, those related to the ancient fresco technique.

In disuse today, the fresco (from the Italian, affresco meaning “fresh”) is a kind of mural painting which consists of the application of pure pigments, mixed only with water, on a wet layer of plaster or lime. During this process, the colours penetrate that layer, integrating itself to the support. Some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of Western art are frescoes, like the narrative cycle by Giotto (1267–1337) in the Scrovengni Chapel, Padua; the Sistine Chapel, the sublime expression of Michelangelo (1475–1664), in Vatican City; or the radiant compositions of Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770) in the Patriarchal Palace of Udine. It was from the latter that Lenora extracted the image in perspective of a rebellious angel expelled from Paradise by Saint Michael. Reduced to a shape and contour, almost like a cartographic image, it is one of the main tropes of Lenora, who attaches, cuts up and overlaps fragments dozens of times in her own frescoes.

Lenora’s frescoes, unlike the ones mentioned above, are not made on walls. Materially, they are the result of chemical experiments with modern materials used in civil construction, such as mortar and felt; as a concept, they maintain the same principle as the original technique: pigment and water are applied to a specially prepared support, turning into a single entity.

For more than 15 years, Lenora has dedicated herself to what she calls “synthetic fresco.” This investigative and artistic trajectory is in line with her activity as a teacher in the field of painting at the Art Institute of UFRGS, and also with her earlier restoration work. She is a teacher and researcher who skilfully aligned her personal production with her academic life and with more subjective interests, such as dance, the focus of the Movimento series.

Lenora became fascinated by body language around 2005, when she decided to learn how to dance or, as she puts it, “to educate her body.” At the time, she had recently concluded her PhD in Fine Arts, bringing to the canvas, in a geometrical and apparently detached way, the dimensions of her own body. Observation of other bodies, this time in motion during dance classes, led to a radical change: from controlled and sterile shapes, inert limbs referencing a single body, she started to depict perfect, light and fluid bodies. These transfigured bodies emerge, repeatedly and in sequence, in a standardised space, some achieving discrete volume, as if they were trying to overcome the limits of the support. Arranged side by side, the quadrangular supports resemble the grids used in the perspectives of frescoes in churches and palaces from the Baroque period. We therefore return to Tiepolo and to the beginning of this text, especially if we think of how the artists of the Settecento subverted the rhetoric of representation, exploring illusionistic effects and projecting their figures beyond the “frame,” whether the real one or the one established by architectural elements.

The poetics of an artist is usually defined by a cyclicality of themes. In the case of Lenora Rosenfield, this is the result of diligent observation, readings and studies, but chiefly of introspective experience in the studio. It is in this alchemical environment that Lenora, through the quickness of execution required by the fresco technique, gradually frees her figures, that is, herself. She is always her own theme, from Tiepolo’s fallen angel to a tireless dancer, in her fruitful and amorous dialogue with different times, techniques, materials and traditions.

Mastery of technique and expression
By Daniela Kern, 2014

Painter Lenora Rosenfield set out on a unique path in search of the knowledge and experience she deemed necessary for her education as an artist. Instead of going to Paris, the great centre in which many of the most important artistic avant-garde movements of the 19th and 20th centuries had developed, Lenora set out in search of contrasting and complementary environments that would provide her with both the possibility of intense artistic experimentation – like New York, where she studied in the 1970s, attending courses by Donald Stacy and Joseph Stefanelli at the prestigious New School for Social Research –, and mastery of ancient painting techniques, in the case of Florence, where she attended the restoration course of Istituto per l’Arte e il Restauro and did an internship at Gabinetto G. Vieusseux, in the early 1980s.

Lenora’s oscillation between these two poles, her interest in the historical tradition and technical repertoire of Italian painting, and in the American environment, the new epicentre of contemporary art, marked later stages of her career, as she completed part of her doctoral studies at the New York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Università degli Studi di Udine, Italy.

Such complex education and a pursuit of parallel but complementary careers (as a painter, conservator and teacher), reflect on a creative process that combines aspects that rarely intercross, especially after the well-known “crisis of painting,” namely technical erudition and expressive experimentalism. For Lenora, one must master a technique in order to be able to choose creatively among the many possible nuances of expression, and this is how she dedicates herself to experimenting with a series of innovative procedures, like, for example, her frescoes on nonwoven fabric, that are easily transportable, unlike the old monumental fresco technique.

Between two worlds – Lenora Rosenfield’s Brazilianness
By Mario Sartor, 2012

Every one of our actions is a result of experience and sedimentation of cultural traits. Individualising from time to time the modalities with which such traits are sedimented is ultimately neither easy nor particularly useful, unless we do not consider the positivity and benefit derived from the combinatorial possibilities of cultural stimuli. I believe that Lenora Rosenfield, who was born and raised in Brazil, fully embodies the example of artist of our time, with a cosmopolitan background, but at the same time – when she is truly as such – bequeathed in a concrete world of history.

In 1971, Lenora, not yet 20, travelled to New York to attend the famous New School for Social Research, in which some of the most representative artists of the 20th century worked as teachers and where young artists destined to become the emblems of the artistic culture of our time had studied. Important figures such as Donald Stacy and Joseph Stefanelli were her teachers there. The abstract expressionism of both – never without some residual figurative aspects, however – was certainly an encouragement to her evolution but perhaps also a consolidation of that visual culture popular in Brazil during her teenage years when, among so many others, Antônio Dias and Flávio Tanaka were good models to be followed. The visual culture that Lenora brought with her, certainly as a result of her influences during her youth, was one of the nuanced Latin American situation in which numerous artists, from the 1920s onwards, had showed an interest in the European avant-gardes and a successive and progressive emancipation and, finally, an elaborate maturity and independence that turned Brazil into one of the leading nations in the field of art. From Argentine artist Xul Solar to Anita Malfatti, to Italo-Brazilian artist Ernesto De Fiori to Antônio de Carvalho; from the figurative eccentricities and synthetic concerns of a prematurely conceptual art, to the tormented expressionism of Lithuanian emigrant Lasar Segall – with his distillations as part of the Dresdner Sezession Gruppe 1919 – in the 1970s, Brazil could present itself as an exemplary laboratory. The artists who matured in those years could not do without certain pathways nor certain cultural models. Lenora’s figurative art was abundant in audacious colours progressively emptied through structural density and, in the 1980s, started to follow, who knows through what kind of knowledge or foresight, the art of Iberê Camargo, one of the most important contemporary artists in Brazil.

In the early 1980s, Lenora arrived in Italy. In Florence, a restoration course at the Istituto per l’Arte e il Restauro and il Gabinetto G. P. Viesseux not only put her in contact with the problems associated with conservation and restoration of works of art, but also provided her with the opportunity to broaden her knowledge of painting materials and techniques, which she had successively reserved in her artistic production. However, she put that knowledge into practice in her professional life that from time to time intercepted her artistic life. This educational and professional experience resulted not only in a valued conservation work, focusing mainly on mural paintings of particular historical and artistic relevance in Rio Grande do Sul, but also on a very broad disciplinary knowledge, which would have led her to teach at the Arts Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

Moments of convergence between her phases of education and production were frequent in Lenora’s career, thanks also to the scholarships she received to study at the Texas Conservation Center (Pauhandle-Plains, USA, 1986) and at the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge (1992–93). In the 1980s and 1990s Lenora took part in many group exhibitions that evidenced all her talent in a production strongly connected to figurative art and which, in many ways, still resented its personal “historical” path, through the Latin American experience in the visual arts. Iberê Camargo, consciously regarded as a reference point in the 1980s, was not only a thematic or exquisitely aesthetic encouragement, but a valid technical and pictorial reference. He was a quarrelsome and complex man – even brutal in some ways, as witnessed by all those who knew him –, but fundamental in determining the definitive growth of Lenora’s artistic personality, chasing her fears, perplexities and setbacks away when she faced the canvas. She herself recognises this decisive value: “In our intense Sunday meetings at what could be defined as a free school next to his house, he taught me to merge, in the same composition, background and foreground with great visual harmony, with brushstrokes on substrates of opaque enamel paints. At the time I was concerned with developing spontaneous brushstrokes, a pure gesture that is not controlled by “reason.” It was a formal and substantial pathway, at the same time in which, by uniting them years later in her doctoral research (in Visual Poetics at the São Paulo University, 2000–2004), Lenora began to do research on Filippino Lippi and Giotto, which led her to the work of Tiepolo; quadratura and the work of Andrea Pozzo; their formal problems and solutions, technical problems linked to fresco painting and the technical and formal solutions of her latest phase. Therefore, her artistic career evidently and increasingly combines historical research and artistic solutions, with lessons from the art of the past becoming propaedeutic of the present.

Reflecting on her career, Lenora recently observed that “the need to know fresco painting led me to research on its traditional materials and the way I can use the fresco technique today. I realiser that the tactile sensation of the new materials I used was delightful, and I felt excited as I developed new combinations, such as making longer brushstrokes and expressing an expressionist background that I recognise in myself. I thus began to use in my painting what I had learned in restoration about painting materials. My first synthetic fresco was a portrait of Botticelli looking at the viewer, like a painting by Filippino Lippi in the church of Carmine, Florence. It was there that I noticed for the first time the emphasis given to the look in the painter’s face in his portrait. After that I painted a fresco of the same portrait according to the traditional technique of the great masters.”

It could be said that if it is true that the present generation of mature artists, especially in America, has been consciously experimental, Lenora Rosenfield is one of them. The continual expansion of her research has indeed taken her to a new stage, more current and committed from an experimental and technical viewpoint. Reflecting on our own bodies and on our attitudes as we compare our bodies is undoubtedly a behaviour of our times; and Lenora resolves it in a nearly aesthetic and philosophical position of particular interest: “Observing Lippi’s painting I understood that my gaze had turned towards myself, it became an introspective gaze; and this led me to question myself and to represent my own physical form. From that moment on, I started to use my own body, which I started to literally paint. The body became the object, model and mould itself, transposed to painting through reality, not through observation. The legs and parts of the bodies moving in the painting are marks left by a real body, and not only images of or allusions to it. The visibility of the body is revealed through the shreds, lines and shapes represented in the works. From that moment on, in addition to painting, I started to cut the support into pieces and to paste them, creating small reliefs. My synthetic fresco technique resulted in the fresco-collage.”

Part of Lenora’s originality certainly lies in this combination of tradition and modernity. She proves an attentive researcher, also willing to explore gestures (it is worth remembering those actresses who use their own bodies as the basis for a conceptual discourse: from the tormented body of Frida Kahlo, to the restless and mutilated bodies of Maria Izquierdo’s figures, to the metaphorised bodies of Tarsila do Amaral and Ana Mendieta. Female bodies in the works of Latin Amerian women artists frequently play an important role of strong emotional impact). Lenora Rosenfield takes the body and anatomises it on a pictorial surface to reveal its expressive potentialities. Recently, reflecting on her production, she affirmed: “When I intended to deepen the sense that the use of my own body could have in my painting, I realised that I needed a profound knowledge of movement. This led me to dance, which I still practice today and which is still very present in my production. The influence of dance on a procedure that resulted from the square grid can be seen in my current works using the synthetic fresco technique. I them, I explore body movements originated from dance classes and from the square grid.” That was the ideological foundation that gave Lenora a foundation on which to base her postdoctoral project, which took her to Udine to study the great 18th-century quadratura paintings of Tiepolo. Her research often touched on other objects of curiosity that required further studies, so she ended up encountering Andrea Pozzo’s techniques for creating spatial illusions and extraordinary perspectives. Lenora’s current production is a result of this process of study and research, which ows its existance to some Tiepolesche suggestions in the representation of flying or falling. But the formal distillation of her figures – in unfleshly and synthetic figures that remind us Mediterraneans of certain Etruscan bronzes (but Lenora denies any influence from them) – is old and comes from profound suggestions that she does not reject. On the contrary, she regards them as the most important of all: Brazilian prehistoric (rupestrian) art, especially dear to the Brazilian imagination which, in other periods, was to be used as the basis for a national identity in the construction of a national mythography. Lenora does not impose the myth; she rather deprives it of rhetorical substance, while the simple and old figures and the modern ones – or extremely modern ones – made by her meet one another on the pictorial plane. Light, colourful dancers, bearing other meanings and other worlds the intertwine in the present.

The impression I get
By Gerd Bornheim, 1996

The shadows on the other side and a feeble and exacerbated realism always seem to seek self-awareness in the light arising from an apparently uncharted darkness. It is as if the world came to a halt in a sort of primeval fright, frozen in an unconscious – or perhaps all too conscious – look: after all, lines and colours are languages, forms of communication.

Is it worth talking about influences? There is Iberê Camargo, the magnificence of old age already felt in this context; if there is any influence from Iberê, let us wait and see through which trails he will make himself present. Goya’s black monsters, on the other hand, are one of Lenora’s true and not-that-secret passions. As such, they are taken very far from their original asceticism: what we see in Lenora’s work is a whirlwind of feelings, passions, poignant brushstrokes and disfigurations unable to obscure the fact that they are truly necessary.

There is indeed an abyss of distances here, and it could not be otherwise. Lenora does not create a reflective caricature of daily life, nor politically condemns the calamities of power. Her commitments are of a different nature. And yet, Goya’s extraordinary vigour is present in Lenora through her visual language, although permeated by contemporary elements: expressionism, oneiric surrealism, a need to express her own subjectivity to the limits envisioned by our time. All that in an extremely unwary way, vulnerable to its own harshness, with no flourishes of language except for those of pure visuality. In a way, it is an interior world which offers itself in the form of visions that filter subjectivity, or rather explode in a rich imagery of bright colours crossing the planes, providing a confusion of faces, bewildering the eye, and ultimately finding a very feminine sensuality.

I just wanted to say a few things about the impression I get when I look at Lenora’s works.