Bestiário – Museu Fora de Si
What is the bridge between some 19th-century tiles and a medieval literary genre? These are the two essential elements of an exhibition inaugurated last November 11, in Belas, Sintra.
How? Well, let’s find out.
It is the exhibition Bestiário – Museu Fora de Si until February 26, 2023 at Adega da Quinta Nova da Assunção, curated by Victor dos Reis. The project Museu Fora de Si aims to exhibit the works of the Municipal Art Collection and the other artistic and scientific collections of Sintra in different places of the municipality in unusual exhibition venues. This project’s first round consists of three distinct moments, one for each semester, with different themes.
With varying conceptions, the three exhibitions establish a triptych, like chapters in a book, seeking dialogues between the venues and the works in the collections. Another quality of the project, based on the will to bring people together with the cultural heritage, is the choice of schools and libraries to receive a small part of the exhibition. Museu Fora de Si wants a greater involvement of the local community with the exhibitions.
In 1860, the construction of Quinta Nova da Assunção began by José Maria da Silva Rego, nephew and heir of Gregório da Silva Rego, a shipowner and merchant with connections to Brazil. Quinta Nova da Assunção is a palace that followed the trend of covering the common areas with tiles. These, with a semi-industrial hand-painted pattern, were made by Ferreira das Tabuletas, a tile painter from Lisbon, whose colours have covered several well-known sites in the city, such as the interior of Cervejaria Trindade. Quinta’s tiles have traditional and romantic panels, but also a tropical edge, with animals from the Brazilian fauna.
Jaguars, colourful birds and plants stand alongside lions and heraldry of the Quinta, in a dreamlike maze with visual references influenced by the transatlantic exchanges that began in the 16th century. This journey in the exterior part of the garden leads us to the Adega, a 250 square metre space where the exhibition takes place.
Bestiaries, or books of beasts, popular in the Middle Ages among the clergy, are a kind of proto encyclopaedia – visual or textual – of animals or fantastic creatures. They give a formal description of the beasts and have a symbolic and theological interpretation of the symbols of vices or virtues according to the prevailing morality.
As we said, Museu Fora de Si project intends to draw on the municipality’s artistic and scientific collections, with pieces that have never been shown to the public. Or, despite having already been exhibited, they are now in contexts that challenge their natural order.
Exhibiting in a building like Adega da Quinta Nova da Assunção requires effort from the curator. He must respect and treasure a place full of signs on the walls. It is an excellent achievement by the curator Victor dos Reis, who understands and explores the dialogues of the Quinta’s heterotopia.
The exhibition’s promotional image is Susan Norrie’s Three craws sat upon a waa (1953). For me, Paula Rego’s Aberystwyth (1987) is the centrepiece. It is on a small horizontal sheet of paper, with an illustration rendered in etching and water-ink. Four figures make up the plan in a natural setting in the background, a mountain to the left and a surface from left to right. The figures, two apparently human and two supposedly animal-like, are moving dynamically in a possible race. The threshold between humanity and bestiality, which melts away in a puff in Aberystwyth, is the synthesis of Bestiary.
The exhibition, being in an old cellar, has the gloomy, dimly lit aura of a building like these. This stresses the contrast perceived by our eyes as visitors. We focus our vision on an engraving or a reptile fossil. This varied appreciation of signs with distinct meanings, immersed in a tangle of contexts, is the exhibition’s sublime side.
Bestiário accepts the existence of every reference source in Sintra’s preamble, which represents another reality. Although not as fictional as medieval bestiaries, it feels like a cabinet of curiosities, a journey through an unknown world.