“What’s the matter with Bernardita, / She doesn’t want to paint any more? / That’s what those who don’t know her are saying. / Well, she never stopped painting. / Now she does it with life itself. / She passes her days painting and / She doesn’t do anything else / she paints her space, her meals, / Her toys, her very life.”
Ximena Fernandez, Tunquen, 2000
Bernardita Zegers has undertaken a path of decantation of techniques, materials and themes throughout the course of her career, seeking the most essential way to express her interior condition. Sensitive and candid, imaginative and playful, she goes complying with life’s rites of passage, one by one, discovering a renewed version of her own self after each stage is surmounted.
The new work of Bernardita Zegers transports the artist to unknown territory, both contextually and geographically. The transformations in her style emerge from a sensation of unconformity with the earlier stages and achievements in her career. She has not wanted to be trapped in her own past, recognizable and recognized.
She seeks her future in change. In order to continue to develop as a person and also as an artist, she abandoned painting, drawing, her robust figures, the striking colors, her self-referential imagery, all of the attributes that distinguished her earlier work.
She freed herself from the stress of concentration, her obsessive sense of dedication, the long hours spent before a sheet of paper, striving for the resolution and execution of the images her public applauded. Instead, she sought dispersion, awakening to new appetites, unfamiliar fields of action. She applied that same passion for painting to creating new recipes in the kitchen, inventing clothing on her sewing machine, integrating new acquisitions to the decor of her home, to travel, to reinvent herself as a grandmother/guide, among other roles. She delighted in generational renovation.
Premonitorily, in 1986 Chilean poet Diego Maquieira wrote of Zeger’s evolution: “It has been a long time since I have seen such power of expression transform itself into a way of life and give form and body to an artist’s work. More so, in work that is so far from the formula of grandiloquence and the recourse of repetition, so foolishly celebrated and ritualized by the dogmas of art and its specialists. I speak of the fecundity of experience above and beyond the sterility of experimentation.”
Bernardita recreated herself. Escape, in her case, led to finding herself. She prepared a series of objects composed of practical and banal elements, combined in dream-like playthings: unexpected juxtapositions, captured in boxes with found content, natural and man-made. The result: magical messages, poetic connections, a singular expressivity derived from the residue of other moments, other realities.
“On first contact with Bernardita’s work, I felt the presence of a South American Joseph Cornell, at once a collection of fantastic curiosities from ordinary life made extraordinary in their presentation and altered context, reliquary, votive, a religious sensibility distanced from the institution of religion. Rites and relics from a feminine center that encompasses a creational world. A physical and spiritual wisdom conjuring the trickster. Toys and dolls transduce innocence. Icons reconfigured transmute meanings.” That was Anney Bonne’s heartfelt reading.
The new work maintained the freshness and delicacy of her early paintings. She has added touches of humor, of nostalgia and childhood memories, also references to nature and the cycles that order the life of someone who lives in an environment where the closest neighbors are the sea and the wind, the sun and the nocturnal heavens.
Chilean artist Benjamin Lira wrote in the catalogue for the exhibit of those objects in 2005: “As slowly as the tempo of the tides of Tunquen and with the freedom of chance, a diversity of elements discover their potential on her work table, accommodate themselves, are decanted, and then evolve. The communion between the interconnected pieces empowers them, articulating their union, until the process produces the vibration of the birth of a new object, inserting itself, like a flash of lightning, in the surprising universe of poetry.”
The years of painting fantasies and constructing stories produced an artistic catharsis. She had converted thoughts into things and emotions into three-dimensional images. She gathered an arsenal of materials, the nucleus for a modest municipal museum. Novelty again grew into habit, the danger of repetition became a reality. She once again sought novelty in what was closest to her emotionally: her home, her husband, her daughters, her grandchildren and her mother, in the kitchen, inventing new dishes, at her sewing machine, in visits to the flea markets in Santiago and Valparaiso, in the most simplest of experiences during her trips to the United States and Europe. Her imagination found nourishment from new sources. She continued her process of globalization, without losing the domesticity of her center.
Among the unusual things that her husband brought with him to Chile, Zegers found a thick portfolio of antique engravings executed by French engraver J. E. Thierry in 1810: over 150 images on verge paper of plans for public buildings drawn by an Italian/Swiss architect at the end of the 18th century in St. Petersburg. A dozen prints were missing from the collection, so it had little bibliographical or documental value in its incomplete state. The author, Luigi I. Rusca (1762-1822), was named Architect to the Court of Czar Alexander I in 1802. After studying in Italy, in 1783 he was called by Czarina Catherine the Great to St. Petersburg at the age of 21 to become an assistant of Giacomo Quarenghi. In 1790 he began to design palaces, schools, military buildings, churches, libraries, even a mosque. He was named to the Academy of Arts in 1815 in recognition of his work as an architect, city planner, decorator and furniture designer. The French-made engravings form the catalogue-raisonne of his remarkable creations.
Rusca alluded to “a certain simplicity of character and propriety” in his Russian buildings. The majestic dimensions of his projects regain human scale in the prints, thanks to the clarity of purpose registered in his architectural plans, projections, and elevations. It was precisely this straight forward directness in his presentation that caught Zeger’s fancy on examining the engravings. She found a solid backdrop upon which she could express what the work made her feel in relation to time and the essential dimension of the sublime.
She decided to utilize the static architectural images as the starting point of a work of her own. The question was: how to do it? She observed them, studied them, divided them into categories. She discarded many impulses. She juggled with ideas. The project pricked her imagination like a thorn in the sole of her foot. She could not get the challenging possibility out of her mind. She began to gather elements that would provide the flat surface of the plan with a third dimension. She invented situations, vignettes. She wanted to maintain a connection with the original history: the glory of Czarist Russia, the splendor of the world created by Peter the Great, the legendary city which exploded into magnificence in the latter part of the 18th century.
In a trip to the United States, she visited the city of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, now a beachside paradise for pensioners from the North. She imagined joining the two versions of an identical name. The Florida version had been invented by Peter Demens, a Russian immigrant, in the 19th century and grew in faux-imperial luxury until the Great Depression of 1929. The testimonies that she found of the stately period of the city’s history were for the most part kitsch memorabilia designed for decades of tourists: postcards, posters, key chains, ashtrays, etc.
She purchased these testimonial treasures, as well as a number of small objects with which she could construct a world atop the rigid lines of the Imperial Russian architectural plans. In Europe she found old spindles with thread, textile fragments, buttons, little figures, and then in Buenos Aires, antique postcards. She returned home with an infernal mass of material. She faced the same problem as before: how to integrate the material onto the sheets of ancient cotton paper, so noble and strong, so austere and frugal?
The essence of the plans had become part of her being. She began with the theme of St. Petersburg, Florida. She blended twin readings for the two cities: the original majestic, the New World version superficial. The viewer can sense the contrasts in the juxtaposing of materials and attitudes. There were postcards of typical landmarks, two inch-tall ballerinas in Bakelite, a horse, a mouse, all intermingled in codes that only the artist could decipher. The combination of esthetics enriched the two propositions, giving a playful vitality to the historic raw material, that Parisian paper made two centuries ago.
She prepared a series of work following these guidelines until she began to question her direction once again. She tired of what she felt was the triviality of making up visual stories. She sought something more subtle, less anecdotal. She stopped working on the prints for quite a while. She kept on ruminating, meditating, without find the thread with which to tie the past to the future.
All of a sudden, one day, it appeared: thread in itself would be the cord to bind the angles of approach. She began by tying points of reference with antique thread of the same colors used to paint the buildings of Imperial St. Petersburg at the time of its blossoming. She crisscrossed the paper’s surface with seams, with lines of tensed thread joining one point with another, establishing natural links between the different perspectives in the plan. One of her discoveries in the United States stood out over all other materials. She found a basket filled with spindles from a textile mill in an antique shop in Upstate New York. The colors of the thread matched to perfection the tones of the ancient palaces of St. Petersburg.
She connected a detail of an elevation to its equivalent on the floor plan, uniting projections, for example, of the same window. The artifice created a dynamic effect that rivets our attention. When tensing the thread, the paper wrinkled slightly, permitting the play of shadows across the surface. She produced a disturbing effect between the immobile black lines of the original and the constellations of thread that danced above the plane. The result is a geometric poem, where the superimposed textures establish dialogues with the architect’s lines. The color of the threads enriches the connection, since the harmonious tones are the same as those of the original, still-to-be-built walls.
The work achieves a tension that vibrates before the observing eye. The mind does not capture the meaning, because there is no need for one. It is a game of sensibilities, of renovations, of bridges in time and space. Paper and inks from the 18th century, threads of the Industrial Age, one sharing space with the other. The result is a work that can be totally anonymous, if the viewer does not know the references: just an example of dexterity applied to an esthetic exercise. With the pertinent information, the context grants an added value to the reading, opening dialogues that begin with Russian history and traverse time to today, when an artist decides to impregnate this motionless scene on a sheet of paper with life, with color, with the poetry of a search successfully concluded.
Tunquen – January 2010