Dulce otium

by Paula Ramos

In the troubled days we live, talking about leisure is talking about laziness, inaction, ineffectiveness. These are the usual meanings associated with the word; depreciatory meanings, according to the logic of production and efficiency to which the capitalist society has accustomed us. The Latin word otium, however, has other connotations in its origin. The old Roman people called otium the concern with intellectual work and fruition, in opposition to nec-otium, the business, destined to meet the subsistence needs of the society. Thus, in the aphorisms of Pliny, Seneca and Tacitus, otium comes out as the state of contemplation of nature, texts, beauty, and everything that claims to our admiration; otium takes us to pleasant experiences of delight and appeasement at the same time; otium also suggests the encounter of the person with himself, through objects, people and situations that please him and calm him down. In a way, it’s this primordial meaning that the Brazilian Marta Penter emphasizes in her most recent works.

In the series Otium, we can see people at the beach , wearing bathing suits or  malleable shorts and T-shirts. Resting or walking, what moves them is an enviable enjoyment of the moment and the breeze. Some of them carry their beach chairs, symbolic assurance of welfare; others are already relaxed, reading, watching people pass, getting a tan.

Penter created the oil paintings and watercolours through a delicate exercise of observation, in Praia do Rosa, one of the most visited beaches on the coast of Santa Catarina. In the typical bustle of Brazilian beaches, she encountered people who were absorbed in their private universes, having their own moments of quiet and pause. Nothing seemed to disturb them; nothing seemed to take them out of the torpor of that lucundum…nihil agere, of the “pleasant doing nothing” of Pliny, the Younger, basis to the famous Italian expression Il dolce far niente.  With discretion, Penter photographically recorded those moments of rest and stillness and, later, interpreted them with sensitivity and humour: what newspaper would show in its cover the abstruse headline Does the world exist? Aware we are of our moral clock of “working hours” that rules the contemporary times, it would perhaps be more licit to ask Does this time of privacy and serenity exist?

We know it does. In some moments we have enjoyed it, even if through imagination, even if this time is reverberating in our memory. This is one of the key-concepts of Penter: the memory, individual or collective, real or projected. From the photos, the artist takes her human figures to the delineations of  paper and canvas, in large and impressive compositions of hyper-realistic bias.  Human figures who come from other times and living experiences, from moments of intimacy and leisure, of living together and sharing. She dialogues, in this process, with the poetics of Edward Hopper (1881-1967) and Gerhard Richter (1932). And, in the structure between photography and drawing, photography and painting, she reasserts the experience. If, as Luiz Carlos Felizardo says, the photography brings information and generates considerations about the past, making it assume, again, the condition of present, in Marta Penter’s work there is, at least, a third temporality, product of her interpretation and comments on what she observes. It is as if, when handling paintbrushes and paints, she effectively revived the scenes she represents. And more, it is as if she understood the caprices, the moments of joy and even the possible anguish of her characters. In fact, it is the human that guides her divagations; it is the human that touches and instigates her; the human is the essence of her thinking and work.

For the artist, memory is always in black and white. Several of her works have been developed in the scope of this palette. In her present paintings, however, a curious blue bursts, strategically applied. It arose in 2009, during a trip Penter took to New York . Walking across the city, its museums and parks, she started photographing people lying on the grass, or sitting on reclining chairs, talking, receptive to sunshine, in relaxation. Out of these images, she selected only human figures, representing them with the use of a graphite pencil in small sheets of paper and left these figures suspended in the center of the page. There weren’t, therefore, landscapes or sceneries, but only isolated human figures with a few objects, some of  which tinted by the blue  Bic pen.  Penter showed the works at StudioClio, in Porto Alegre (RS, Brazil ), with the title In Suspenso, and they have inspired her to produce the paintings that are shown in the present exhibition.

In the oil paintings and watercolours of the series Otium, the blue color vibrates in the details: details of magazine covers, sparse fragments, beach chairs. Opposing the timeless quality of the black and white, the blue leads to the present time. In a way, it offers the possibility of enjoyment, it suggests freshness to the scenes, it makes the warmth of the indigo beach chair tangible, it refers to the first structures of this kind to circulate in Brazil . The same effulgent indigo that, for centuries, has carried in itself feelings of enthusiasm and optimism, similar to the self-confidence and energy that emanate from the gestures of the girls posing for the picture, or the young women who, determined, walk against the wind, carrying plastic sandals, so iconic in Brazil.

Caught by the pleasure of the surrender and by the encounter with themselves, these characters, who have no identity, don’t reflect anybody, but they can take us to the idyllic atmosphere where they inhabit. In the quiet of this time and place constructed by the artist’s experiences, we are also invited to pacify and slow down, to believe that the condition of genuine otium not only depends, in great part, on our choices, but that perhaps it should also guide our own existence. 

* Ph.D. in Visual Arts , Art Critic and Professor of the Art Institute (UFRGS)

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