Metamorfoses: Imanência Vegetal, Mineral e Animal no Espaço Doméstico Romântico at Museu da Cidade – Extensão do Romantismo
Museu da Cidade – Extensão do Romantismo, housed in Porto’s Quinta da Macieirinha, has a new exhibition programme which will run for an extended period of time, with occasional additions of pieces and rotation between nuclei.
Metamorfoses: Imanência Vegetal, Mineral e Animal no Espaço Doméstico Romântico is the exhibition project’s title, presenting the notion of domesticity and the Romantic house as a place where the several aspects of the cosmos, nature and humanity are recreated and organised. Starting from the working areas of some of the most important Romantic thinkers and researchers, such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe or Alexander von Humboldt – as well as João Allen -, the idea of the house is presented as a heuristic place, consecrated to the research and observation of the world, and a museological apparatus, notions underlined by the several pieces, creating a Romantic worldview following contemporaneity.
The exhibition has pieces from the archive of Museu da Cidade and the former Museu Municipal do Porto – Portugal’s first public museum, set up in 1848 – with origins in Museu Allen, which had pieces from the collector that showed an eclectic interest, research and curiosity, characteristic of Romanticism.
Metamorfoses has eight nuclei, united by Luís Tavares Pereira’s museographic layout, comprising platforms, showcases, light sets and mirrors. The house acquires a “museum effect” through radiance, transparency, and breadth, where the various pieces are protected, accessible and highlighted. This allows a journey through the Romantic realm. At the same time, we are led to think about its legacy, notably the inclusion of nature at the centre of life and thought, the notion of the traveller who collects, observes, and classifies multiple species or objects, conceptualising them through free association, senses, and imagination. But also the connection with colonialism, according to present-day thinking. Each object is positioned in the room according to a dialectic, enhancing the various metamorphoses, ambiguities, and transformations, in a constant questioning and ceaseless discovery.
The first room is Animais como retratos de príncipes, a quote from Jaime Fernandes, one of the most recognised Portuguese artists of outsider art. Although not from the Romantic era, it encourages a particular imagery reflected in the pieces on display and the topic of domesticity, particularly animal dignification. Cão & Cadela (China, 1735-1796), a couple of dogs depicted as princes, side by side with a lithotech, Amuleto de Chu (6th/3rd centuries BC), or a small sculpture of Ísis com Hórus ao colo (6th/3rd centuries BC) contain multiple symbolisms, within a poetic background. This challenges their material, symbolic and temporal character, underlining the Romantics’ desire to perceive the world and welcoming it into the domestic sphere. Some of these objects could be or were in houses, like those of Guerra Junqueiro, Marta Ortigão Sampaio, or João Allen.
Then we enter Gabinete, a re-enactment of the Romantic labour space. The objects are on view, especially a watercolour by António Carneiro, together with a skull, cartographic illustrations, natural elements and one of the first editions of Humboldt’s Kosmos, a determining factor in the thought of the time, reflecting on everything connected to nature, despite the connection with Goethe’s Theory of Imagination, given the friendship and sharing between the two thinkers. Gabinete poetically emphasises the symbolism and the ambiguous side of the Romantic project, between imagination and reason, seeking to understand the Cosmos.
Mesa Borboleta (19th century), made of marble, with inlaid polychrome and mother-of-pearl stones, begins the journey of the Casulos nucleus, dedicated to the subject of the butterfly, chrysalis, and transformism. In these rooms, there are metaphorically open fan-like pieces, with diverse materials, sizes, and vegetal motifs, such as a collection of hair combs made of turtle, numismatics, minerals, insects, or fans. In this hallucinatory whirlwind, there are similarities with the next nucleus, Caleidoscopia eTransformismos. Among boleros, scarves, and lacy plackets, we see the collection of cut-out papers from Casa Vitorino Ribeiro – decorative pieces with geometric shapes, proposing mimetic visions of micro-events. What stands out is Santo António (self-portrait, c.1902) by Aurélia de Souza, an oil painting in 1:1 scale, where the artist represents herself as a saint, questioning the observer in a provocative gesture. It seduces us through its transformism, metamorphosis, and ambiguity, like a chrysalis that becomes a butterfly.
On the Museum’s second floor, we see an impactful Indian quilt, given its colour and elegance in depicting vegetal motifs. It looks like a creeper with a dragon’s body. As well as evoking metamorphosis again, it indicates an ascent to the top floor. And then we see the Le Douanier Rousseau nucleus, a painter who, although not from the Romantic era, had a work where nature is mysterious, as well as plant and animal motifs delicately interwoven with a naïveté filling the whole canvas. Like the tapestry in the centre of the room, alluding to hunting and showing a particular untamed side of nature, which dialogues with the exhibited Bordallo Pinheiro pieces and still-life paintings, elements that echo each other. And also a watercolour by António Carneiro, based on a vision of Teixeira de Pascoaes, one of the prominent authors of Portuguese Romanticism.
The next nucleus Da mão à boca – Os sentidos não enganam, is based on Humboldt’s Theory of Nature and Goethe’s Theory of Imagination, according to the exhibition’s general concept. The pieces allow us to imagine and create using what nature gives us, such as pots, plates or vases in ceramics or silver, from separate times and places, suggesting the relationship between the producing hand and the ingesting mouth. We point out a painting by Marta Ortigão Sampaio, an imposing wooden table, with pelican-shaped feet, recalling its symbolism as a sacrificial animal, which provides the womb and stomach to its offspring. And three still-life paintings, with seabreams, cabbages, pheasants, and feathers, recalling a suspended, precarious, and tumbling world, a feature of Romanticism related to the present day.
The heart of Metamorfoses is the room Cosmos – Amostra e Caos, a reconstitution of a proposed cabinet of curiosities, one of the first museum encodings, a collection of objects and transformable materials, rewritten and bearing meaning. Collecting has been something done since prehistoric times, bringing together fascinating objects, often passed down through generations. Today, religious, civil, royal or dignitary collections are still preserved, many of them now public. Our libraries store much material and immaterial knowledge over centuries. The cabinets come from the Renaissance studiolo, a room dedicated to reading, studying, and writing, filled with works of art or objects that aided research. Belonging to princes, humanists, or wealthy merchants, the studioli gave way to the Kunst-und Wunderkammer, or Chambers of Artistic Objects and Wonders, with objects produced by humans (artificialia), natural specimens (naturalia), pieces from locations beyond Europe (exotica), as well as scientific instruments (scientifica). Later, following these collections, the cabinets of curiosities appeared, reflecting the spirit of an age of great scientific curiosity, collection, and study of objects from the colonies or places all over the world. Each cabinet represented the expression, curiosity, and scientific spirit of its owner, who lived in the time of European colonialism, of discovery and display of the so-called exotic, new and different. These places were hallmarked by otherness and the domestication of fascinating objects. Cosmos is a mirrored room, in a semi-circle, filled with objects, including embalmed animals, plant fossils, ostrich eggs, whale teeth, ornate goblets or amulets. In this disturbing and uncanny division, everything is reflected and reverberating, showing the world as a diverse place, but also nostalgic, melancholic and one of loss, always questioning history and humanity’s place in the cosmos.
For a final reflection, we enter the Salon, a room dedicated to performative arts and a painting gallery, where a preliminary version of a António Carneiro painting is exhibited. The three phases of life are visible, in a kind of eternal return, reminiscent of the three paintings by Jean Baptiste Pillement, which represent the bonanza, the storm and the shipwreck, in a dramatic crescendo. We see the typical Romantic themes and the symbolism of the overbearing spirit, falling and collapsing, but also scientific curiosity, abundance, and idealism. Similarities with today, where we question everything again, like our relationship with nature, the way we apprehend the world or how we communicate and organise ourselves in community.
Metamorfoses: Imanência Vegetal, Mineral e Animal no Espaço Doméstico Romântico, is on view at Museu da Cidade – Extensão do Romantismo, until 31 december of 2023.