Florence Hercule at NMNM

This review of “Florence Hercule. Le nouveau Robinson” at NMNM Villa Paloma appeared in the May 2017 issue of Flash Art International:

 Hercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm - Collection C. H. Florence -  Leila et Silvia FlorenceHercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm – Collection C. H. Florence – Leila et Silvia Florence

Meticulously researched and documented, this captivating show co-curated by artist Linda Fregni Nagler and NMNM’s Cristiano Raimondi brings together a vast array of drawings, watercolours, prints, letters and manuscripts that shed light on the remarkable achievements of the nineteenth-century draughtsman, printer and inventor Hercule Florence (1804-79). Born in Nice but raised in Monaco, this self-styled “new Robinson” is little known outside of Brazil, where he settled and worked for much of his adult life, after taking part in the ill-fated Langsdorff expedition (1825-29) into the Amazon that cost the German leader Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff his sanity and the French painter Aimé-Adrien Taunay his life.

Florence’s studies of the Amazonian landscapes, its flora and fauna, as well as indigenous tribes and their customs hold pride of place in the show alongside the finely illustrated diaries he kept during the expedition. Yet this forgotten figure from Brazil’s colonial past deserves our attention today for his subsequent discoveries: innovative proposals for a system of musical notation of bird song and animal cries; a sixth architectural order, the Palmian; and more or less successful experiments with different printing techniques, including “photographie” (a term he coined in 1833 for a technique of printing with light) – a few years before Daguerre was credited with the invention of the photographic medium.

Commissioned works by five international artists, three of whom live in Brazil, provide a welcome contemporary twist to an exhibition which might otherwise flag owing to the sheer weight of archival materials. Formally varied in approach, they pick up on different aspects of Florence’s oeuvre, whose ongoing preoccupation with copying and recording informs Fregni Nagler’s own artistic contribution. Lucia Koch’s translucent silk curtains printed with subtle colour gradients drawn from Florence’s enchanting watercolour series of cloud-strewn skies are one of the exhibition’s highlights.

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