Grande Rio, 2012, Oil on canvas, 180 x 240 cm
It was a conscious decision by Torsten and Nina Römer to select February and March 2012 for their first confrontation with Brazil. It was carnival time, the grandest cultural event in the country. It may seem typical for a first visit to Brazil to select this period. But to all the parties involved, including the companions of both artists, it was clear from the beginning that it was not about superficialities; the idea was to approach and to the study and the transformation of experiences of a socio-political and cultural event.
Normally, when people visit a country for the first time they occupy themselves with typical locations, typical events, typical customs and typical traditions of the country. Römer + Römer, however, experienced this because of their previous experience in a globalized world in an optimal way. They satisfy their artistic interests and their curiosity by examining society, exemplified by observation of activities in the public arena.
Berlin was the beginning. The reunited city’s numerous changes and adjustments were a suitable platform for studying social relations and their transformation into a work of art. Their active participation, their analytical perspective, the preservation in digital media and finally the transfer to canvas are the cornerstone of the artistic process. The process developed in partnership. The decision to appear in 1998 as an artist-couple is a source of lively communicative power that carries over into their painting.
The artists supplemented their intensive occupation with Berlin in several European cities, China, Israel, Russia, Korea, North America and now in South America: Brazil, 2012.
Römer + Römer stand in the tradition of wandering artists who studied foreign worlds and captured them in works of art. In an expanded framework numerous archives and collections have been created which have passed from generation to generation and have shaped the image of the new continent from a European perspective.
In the 19th century, Berlin promoted several expeditions to Brazil. In 1842, Prince Adalbert of Prussia first explored the country and its customs. He left behind an expedition diary filled with sketches. The color drawings were published in 1847 in an edition of 100. His brother Frederick William IV was, just as Frederick the Great, a great patron of the arts. Alexander von Humboldt convinced him to promote expeditions to South America, in which even artists such as Eduard Hildebrandt participated. Today, their resulting work forms an important part of the collection of the Berlin State Museums. (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz). Among the models were Franz Post and the activities of many other artists and scientists, who, from the 17th century onwards, traveled the world to study and depict geography, flora, fauna and the economy, including the slave trade1,2.
Many artists keep returning to Brazil. The São Paulo Biennial, founded in 1951, (making it the second oldest in the world after Venice), is an important part of the continuous international artistic exchange. Since Brazil is a BRICS country with a vibrant economy,we are interested for the current art world of the country that has a vibrant art scene, new museum structures and an evolving art market.
These conditions encouraged Nina and Torsten Römer to visit the country. It was almost inevitable that they took the national symbol of Brazil, the carnival, as their artistic theme. For them, the carnival is the epitome of multicultural encounters and peaceful coexistence in the celebrations where social differences are largely eliminated or marginalized. This is a recurrent theme in the work of Römer + Römer. Here the artists are on the trail of socalled ‘mega-events’, because the Brazilian carnival is one such event. Carnival has been celebrated for thousands of years; it reportedly goes back to Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. Carnival is celebrated differently in different regions of the world. In Brazil, carnival started in the middle of the 17th century under European influence. The first samba school was founded in 1928 in Rio de Janeiro, since then many more have sprung up; every year they take on an elaborate appearance which is transmitted to many countries throughout the world.
Nina and Torsten Römer accompanied the carnival in Rio de Janeiro from a very personal perspective and out of a special interest. They strolled days and nights in the city in order to experience as much as possible. From this emerged thousands of photographs in which they preserve their experience. At the Sambódromo, they spent three nights in order to make themselves a part of the whole. From the movement of the masses, the artists have sensitively captured individual items or small groups, emphasizing the mythic transformations of individual participants. These give insights into a fantastic world full of poetry, imagination and dazzling splendor beyond the everyday struggle for survival. The valuable and beautifully designed costumes are reminiscent of the colonial heritage with its baroque splendor.
The place for gathering, preparing for and concentrating on the big show is known as the ‘Concentração’. Here, Römer + Römer were witness to the transition from reality to illusion. Group dynamics, the work of an entire year, the passionate commitment of individuals and a general euphoria shape the image of the samba schools. Added to this are rhythm, choreography and music as well as individual character interpretation. In their new series, Römer + Römer focus on four samba groups: Rio Grande, Unidos do Viradouro, Mangueira and Beija Flor.
This exhibition is titled Sambódromo – the name of the official site of the parade in Rio de Janeiro and the stage of the annual pageantry. Römer + Römer however deal much with the preparation time in the Concentração; the basis for this are mostly their photos, which they alter on the computer: from photos they must form images, from events they must form poetry.
The Cucumbi Indians in the Concentração shows a dense composition of people who are stacked high and who serve as ornaments of a float of the Mangueira Samba School. The result is a color composition in which individual facial features merge with the overall situation. New here is the width of the color scale, which as yet had not been applied in their work.
The color character and the mood of each image are individually designed. Of course, the colors correspond to each other, but without showing transitions, since they are concentrated in thousands of individual pixels.
The Mangueira Samba School – in the color tone of pink and green – presented itself in the procession under the title “I’m going to celebrate, I’m Cacique, I’m a Mangueira”, a tribute to Cacique de Ramos; in the Bloco Cacique all members are dressed during the parade as Indians.
Comparable to a samba school, it gathered more than 10,000 members, as the procession took place on Avenida Rio Branco. With the advent of the institutionalized carnival in the Sambódromo, the street lost much of its importance. The Bloco was of fundamental importance for the development of a samba style that, in the 1980s, became known as ‘Pagode’ and today enjoys tremendous popularity.
The prestigious Mangueira Samba School chose this theme to make people more conscious of the origins of the carnival in Brazil. Römer + Römer take this theme for another image: Majestätische Sambatänzerinnen der Gruppe Mangueira, eine Hommage an Bloco Cacique de Ramos (Majestic Mangueira samba dancers of the Mangueira Group, a tribute to Bloco Cacique de Ramos). Every gesture, every facial expression, every costume, all the dances and the music unite under one theme that has its roots in history and tradition not only of the carnival, but of the country.
An example of the representation of historical events in the country in 2012 was given by the ‘Beija Flor’ Samba School. Their motto was ‘São Luis – the magical poet of Maranhão’ – a parade to celebrate the 400-year history of this Brazilian city. The choreographic sequence begins with the colonization and the three colonial powers, France, the Netherlands and Portugal, with details of legends and stories of this new world. Soon after, the parade focuses on the arrival of black African slaves and their martyrdom. Religious and folkloric characteristics are symbolized above all by a dance piece called Bumba-meu-boi, which combines music, poetry and literature. The parade ends with a tribute to São Luis and threads its way through houses, streets and roads like a big carnival ball. Römer + Römer were fascinated by the the magic of Bumba-meu-boi, and their image Das Kulturelle Erbe Brasiliens, Bumba-meu-boi auf dem Wagen von Beja-Flor (The Cultural Heritage of Brazil, Bumba-meu-boi on the float of Beja Flor) is based on that. Male and female participants of the samba school reflect the diversity of the country and its tradition with colorful, ‘economical’ (i.e.: minimal) costumes. It is as if the spectators were listening to the rhythm of the dance, the voice of the singers and the music of Batteria – so authentic is the representation.
The center of Rio de Janeiro is the background of many images. The streets and their profiles form the framework of the scenes in the pictures. This refers primarily to the intimacy of the assembly in the Concentração, before the euphoria in the Sambódromo. The perception and reproduction of this microcosm before the big show allows an incomparable view of the event, so that an almost intimate and personal aura can be felt. At this moment each protagonist gets his or her own platform and backdrop for the realization of his own dream before he or she plunges into the mass of the parade.
This is the case for example in the picture Majestätische Sambatänzerinnen der Gruppe Mangueira, Hommage an Bloco Cacique de Ramos (Majestic Mangueira samba dancers in the group, tribune to Bloco Cacique de Ramos) and Superação (Superação), in which a part of the Acadêmicos Rio Grande Samba School can be seen and which uses yellow as the leit motif. In 2012, this samba school designed a tribute to people who have overcome suffering and disaster, such as Frida Kahlo, Nelson Mandela or the Japanese after the atomic bomb. Each year each samba school needs to find a new theme; the result is a mixture of historical and current topics that reflect on domestic and international problems.
The painting style of Römer + Römer shows the scenes in great detail. For spectators and fellow artists there arise new confrontations between motifs, contexts and artistic reproduction. Here it is about a world that is as fantastic as it is artificial and which presents itself as a short-term reality in the form of more carefree vitality. The participants exude grace and joy, and they create an almost perfect world with elegant movements.
This effect is supported by the color. In Superação – Overcoming, the individual female participants do not yet seem to be in the mood, but in the picture Grande Rio,Tribut an Nelson Mandela (Rio Grande, a tribute to Nelson Mandela), the viewer feels the effective momentum and energy of the group.
The ‘Unidos do Viradouro’ Samba School took as its theme the mindset of Nelson Ro-driguez, the most important Brazilian writer and playwright. Some of his sentences are legendary, such as “Life’s is the way it is” or “All unanimity is stupid.” They correspond to the mentality of the Cariocas (natives of Rio de Janeiro) with a trace of irony and cynicism towards everyday life. Out of this context we see the image Viradouros Bräute im Traumbild von Alaide (Viradouros brides in the dream image of Alaíde), based on Rodigues’s play ‘Vestido de Noiva’ (Wedding Dress) and performed for the first time in 1943. The great tension that pervades the play arises not only from the contrast between the main characters Alaíde and Lucia, but also from the contradictory relationships between all the characters. The play embodies the ridiculous excesses of modern sentimental dramas in Brazil.
Römer + Römer’s image shows a group of men and women, all of whom are dressed as brides. The basic color is violet. The presentation of ruffles and textiles attains an effect that many can see as that of a wedding cake. Corresponding to the work of Nelson Rodrigues are the reflections of Stefan Zweig based on his experience of Rio de Janeiro. “For a city to be exciting, it must have within itself strong opposing tensions. A purely modern city is monotonous, a backward city is, in the long run, uncomfortable. A proletarian city oppresses, and, of course, a luxurious city exudes, after a short period, sullen boredom. The more layers a city has, and the more colorful its contrasts, the more attractive it will appear, such as Rio de Janeiro”3. This corresponds to the fascination that Römer + Römer have felt, and has led them to investigate the events and artistic implement.
These pictures are their first expedition into a previous terra incognita, and more will follow; after this exhibition, the works will be shown in Brazil. Brazil provides a platform for discussions, which are necessary for the peaceful coexistence of people. This is thanks to and despite all the contrasts between classes, colors, religions, beliefs and political parties. The country is changing and is showing itself confidently and democratically. This conflict can be seen in the images of the series Sambódromo. Römer + Römer have recognized the signs of the time and are recording them.
This exhibition starts on September 7 in Berlin, a random decision. But the date falls on the Brazilian national holiday. The country’s independence from Portuguese colonial rule took place on September 7, 1822. And that is also celebrated with the images of Römer + Römer.
1 Ferrez Gilberto, Die Brasilienbilder Eduard Hildebrandts, Henschelverlag Art and Society, Berlin, 1988
2 León Krempel, Frans Post: Maler des verlorenen Paradieses, Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, 2006
3 Stefan Zweig: Brasilien. Ein Land der Zukunft, Bermann-Fischer, Stockholm 1941.
Translation: Michael Cullen