French Mission, by André Penteado, is the second of a series of works generically titled Rastros, Traços e Vestígios (Trails, Tracks and Traces). The first was called Cabanagem, and the following ones Farroupilha, Descobrimento (Discovery) and Independência (Independence). Together, they try to identify through photography the subtle marks that bind past events in Brazil's - political, social and artistic - history to the country's current situation; facts occurred in a time when the possibility of photographic records still didn't exist, which implies, from the start, the adoption of creative practices to represent such articulation through the capture of images.
French Mission is a book and an exhibition. Just as the publication isn't an unfolding of the show, the latter isn't a mere summary of the first. Both are exhibition devices that emphasize different aspects of one object of interest that can never be entirely comprehended. Like any representation practice, French Mission - the book and the exhibit - is a cutout or an abstraction of an event that is never reduced to them. It is an inexorably failed attempt to revive, in present times, facts that took place in the past. A strategy that, following what historians, archaeologists and other researchers do, tries to point out, in evidences - in this case, photographed -, connections between temporally distant situations.
The exhibition is comprised of three distinct groups of images. In the most compact of them, thirteen photographs reproduce - confusing content and shape - a text published in the end of the 1950s in the Revista do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (Historical Heritage and National Archive Journal). Presented by art critic Mário Barata, the publication discloses a letter by Joachim Lebreton, dated June 12, 1816, addressed to António de Araújo e Azevedo, the first Conde da Barca (Barca Count) and Ministro e Secretário de Estado dos Negócios do Reino português (Minister and Secretary of State for the Business of the Portuguese Reign), then based in Brazil. In it, the French artist and former secretary of the Institute de France proposed, in the context of Portugal and France's rapprochement after the Bonapartist regime's decay, the academic guidelines for establishing a fine arts school in Rio de Janeiro based on the existing European rules - in particular, in France. For this end, the writer defends, it would be essential to count with a group newly-arrived of French artists who were willing to set up in Brazil as teachers, among which were the painters Jean-Baptiste Debret and Nicolas-Antoine Taunay and the architect Auguste-Henri Victor Grandjean de Montigny. In August of that year, they would create the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts by imperial decree, the first step towards the beginning, in Brazil, of a visual culture anchored on the European neoclassical style, consolidated through a series of paintings, prints, sculptures and buildings realized and built, from then on, by the French Mission's members in the country.
The second set of photographs, printed in larger dimensions than the previous one, captures current "tracks, traces and vestiges" of this remarkable fact in Brazil's artistic history. There are twelve images that present traditional arts education environments, sections of paintings and sculptures made by members of the French Mission, a photo of one of their descendants, and spaces of buildings designed by some of these artists, whether or not they dedicated themselves to teaching and showing artistic productions. They make clear (or at lest suggest) how much of the current everyday life in Brazil - specifically in Rio de Janeiro - is still marked by that event.
It is with the third set, however - composed of only two gigantic images - that André Penteado evokes the conflicting aspect of the French Mission, implying a critical perspective on everything that is shown. In the first, an indigenous person's figure sculpted in the 19th century is presented as if he were a king, even though he holds a kind of shield with the Empire's insignia, in an involuntary (and violent) irony on the physical and symbolic obliteration of the original populations throughout Brazil's history. In the second one, an African-Brazilian man, visibly suffering from vitiligo - a condition in which the skin looses pigmentation - holds the sculpting tool, which can also evoke an old whipping instrument. I don't want to conclude anything or pass judgment; these images tone uncomplicated narratives about the results of the French Mission in Brasil, for the institution of an "erudite" artistic culture had an almost inevitable counterpart - the confirmation of indigenous absence in the country's artistic imagery, as well as the suffocation of another tradition in the arts that was consolidated there, anchored in the baroque and with a relevant black presence among masters and apprentices, trained by rules that were different from the ones adopted at the academy. French Mission, by André Penteado, reopens - in an almost insinuated manner - the frequently interrupted discussion about the relations between power, art, race and class in Brazil.
Moacir dos Anjos