The Manière Noire of Fernando Vilela
São Paulo, 2012
I have always been attracted to the flat, thick ocean of ink with which the great engravers never fail to etch light out of shadows: light, that is, as mineral truth, as a presence hidden in earthly night, which we must unswaddle, rummage for in the dark weight of life, in the vespertine corners of our cavernous selves.
I refer here to the pall of the engraving, the manière noire, that most absolute of grays. The technique plunges the visual field into darkness, into a sheer and impenetrable, all-obscuring gloom through which, in flashes or tears, between fissures of clarity, the visible flickers into form within the uncertainty of a perceptual depth that denounces life as an algorithm of mystery and laborious chiaroscuro.
It’s Leyde-born Rembrandt standing before his first Flight into Egypt, darkening a scene from Seghers, engraving the already engraved, transforming the figure of Tobias into the iconic exegesis of the carpenter from Bethlehem; it’s the blind nook of thick-boughed trees in the pastoral scenes of Claude Lorrain; the phantasmagoric forms in Goya, the black cloud that distorts the faces of the hordes in his Caprichos and Tauromaquias; The somber arcades of Parisian night in the engravings of Meryon; the marvelous Eden of Rodolfo Bresdin, with its monkeys, donkey and deer; some nocturnal dance by Whistler; Oswaldo Goeldi’s dark chronicles of the city and Vija Celmins’ sea, crumpled like some illegible script; it’s the floating nights of José Suárez Londoño, with their hovering children and smoke-blanketed dreams.
Fernando Vilela is another practitioner of the manière noir and therefore also a member of this illustrious family of artists. Especially so in his more recent works, in which the photograph’s impeccable whiplash of light blends with the woodcut’s indefatigable bite. The fact that the grains in the wood bear the shadowy traces of a city that once was should not go unnoticed: the nocturnal thickness of the ink filters the chaotic, diurnal density of the São Paulo metropolis.
What occurs is a deluge of condensations: the lost memory of Josef Albers—from whom Lygia Pape likely learned the basics that enabled her, one day in the late 1950s, to come up with her Tecelares [Weavings], and thus invent a manière noir for neoconcrete geometry—resurges, only this time in unexpected association with another forgotten modern turned living image in Vilela’s engravings: Willys de Castro.
In the engravings of Fernando Vilela, among the wood grains and the dry rivulets of ink, there where the web-like atmosphere spins anew its cities, no-one could fail to see the sheer architectonic triangles, the voluminous angularities whose vertices barely touch, the subtle and sharp slants of light, or the muted alignments of windows, like dormant Active Objects.
This encounter, which also occurs on other material terrains, in the thickly plied oils, in the raw and rustic canvas of his paintings, makes me think of the constructive destiny of modern forms and their possibility, which must remain thus, if they are still to find their way back: the constructive nature of this work breaks with abstraction in order to be reunited with the city, with the setting in which we dwell, with the present in which we live. And so, in the multiple genealogy of engraving and the startling resurgence of this night-cloaked street—that is, in the manière noir of Fernando Vilela—echoes the ever-furtive splendor of light that gives us shelter.
Translation: Anthony Doyle