In Brazil, illustrator and graphic artist Oswaldo Goeldi is considered a master of the art of expressionist xylography – the art of engraving on wood. In Switzerland, the work of this Swiss-Brazilian dual national is yet to be discovered.
Felix Graf was a curator at the National Museum Zurich until 2017. Now he works as a freelance publicist.
Chuva (Rain) is the name of one of the best-known works by the illustrator and graphic artist Oswaldo Goeldi (1895-1961), who is still little known in this country. The 1953 wood engraving, printed with three colours, depicts a man under a bright red umbrella on a dark street edged by trees, a house and a wall. A heavy rain shower has just passed by. Shown from behind, the lone person, of whom we can see only the tails of his coat, his lower trouser legs and his shoes, is standing on the deserted street, and seems undecided as to whether he should go on or turn right. Irresolute, he stands caught in the tension between conflicting forces. The image conveys a sense of nervous energy. The man under the red umbrella is an anonymous city-dweller who hides himself, like the graphic artist himself. Oswaldo Goeldi had just a handful of artist friends. He lived a reclusive life in his studio in Rio de Janeiro. Inner and outer solitude is the milieu in which he carved out the artistic response to the existential crisis of modern humankind, line by line, incision by incision; like a woodcut, one might be tempted to say, were it not for the fact that we are actually talking about Brazil’s master of expressionist xylography.
Father was a pioneer in Amazon research
The artist, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1895, had Swiss roots. His father, Emil August Göldi, was one of the pioneers of scientific research in the Amazon region and was director of what is now, having been later renamed in his honour, the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém. In the Brazilian-French border dispute over Amapá, the jungle area between the Brazilian state of Pará and French Guiana, Goeldi Senior played a crucial role on behalf of Brazil. He was less successful with his management of the Swiss colony of Colônia Alpina, which he and his father-in-law, Karl Eugen Meyer, founded in 1890 in the hinterland of Rio. The Swiss colonists complained about the Colonistentyrann, the local despot who always carried a revolver for his own safety. In 1892, the Federal Council withdrew the license to recruit settlers that it had issued to the firm Eugen Meyer & Cie. The project had failed. After Göldi had handed over the management of the museum of natural history and ethnography in Belém to his Swiss colleague, Schaffhausen native Jacques Huber, for health reasons in 1905, he returned to Switzerland and in 1907 took up a professorship in biology and zoogeography at the University of Bern. Even after his return to Switzerland, he continued until his death to campaign vigorously for research on the Amazon rainforest and for the region to be protected. The natural history collection that he brought to Bern from Brazil is now held in the Natural History Museum of Bern, fully recorded, inventoried and in safe hands.
Between two worlds
His son Oswaldo Goeldi spent the first six years of his life in Brazil, was sent to Switzerland for his schooling, and returned to Brazil after World War I. Switching between the continents wasn’t easy for him, either in one direction or in the other. In Rio he established a reputation as an illustrator of essays and short stories in magazines and newspapers. In 1923 he began to experiment with the technique of xylography – the art of engraving on wood or printing from woodblocks. He found his subjects on the fringes of the city and society, among beggars, scavengers and prostitutes, and among the fishermen who ventured out into the Atlantic in their tiny nutshell boats. For his first printing blocks he used scrap wood: furniture parts he found lying discarded by the roadside, boards from fruit and vegetable boxes, and other detritus.
Unconventional – in life and in art
Oswaldo Goeldi’s attitude to technical progress ranged from scepticism to outright hostility. His interests lay in the individual and nature. On 2 February 1935, he wrote from Rio de Janeiro to his childhood friend the no less unorthodox Bern painter Hermann Kümmerly (1897-1964): My dear Hermann (…). You could deprive me of the cinema, radio, all the flying and racing machines, and I would certainly not be shedding any tears of sorrow and anguish; but don’t take my inks and pencils away from me. The mighty ocean with clouds and stormy winds above it. The diabolical ball of the sun, the hulking behemoth of the mountains, all things that creep and fly, all of this is closer to me than the stupid machines, which seem to me like grotesque structures of the human mind. This was written by someone who had enrolled at the ETH in Zurich 18 years before, at his father’s request, with the predictable result that he soon abandoned his studies.
Oswaldo Goeldi and Hermann Kümmerly, who exhibited together in Bern in 1930, rejected any form of academic art training and did not join any group of artists. They wanted to keep their individuality. Goeldi’s name does often appear in connection with the genre known as ‘Modernismo Brasileiro’. He was friends with Manuel Bandeira. But the concept of brasilidade, Brazilianness, was of no interest to him. Nor does the modernity of his works consist in the conveying of his graphic motifs through colour and shape, or the journey into abstraction; instead, it lies in imbuing the visible external world with personal, inner moods. In his woodcuts houses, trees, individuals, streetlights, night-time streets and animals are transformed into ghostly apparitions. A Brazilian critic once remarked that Oswaldo Goeldi worked with the eyes of the soul.
Longing for the mountains of home
The artist’s fascination with nature, the elemental and the atmospheric undoubtedly has to do with his family background. His father was a naturalist, and during his time in Bern Oswaldo was in and out of the home of Magda Kümmerly, the art-loving widow of lithographer and map printer Hermann Kümmerly (1857-1905), who died at an early age. He also rubbed shoulders there with Ferdinand Hodler, Cuno Amiet, Ernst Kreidolf, Robert Walser and Albert Welti. He worked with his friend Hermann Kümmerly Junior, producing lithographs in the studio of the Kümmerly & Frei printing company; two years younger than Oswaldo, Kümmerly was a passionate mountain climber and nature lover. On 28 January 1931, Oswaldo Goeldi wrote to him from Rio: The sea of sand often looks like a glorious snowfield. I find my greatest joy on the beach, looking out over the mighty ocean; only the Alps can speak as powerfully. (…). Affectionately, Oswald.Oswaldo Goeldi’s first graphic portfolio, 10 Gravuras em Madeira (1930), was an artistic and financial success. In 1950 he took part in the 25th Venice Biennale; a year later he won his first prize, at the São Paulo Biennale. In 1953 the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro hosted a retrospective of his works. The great artistry of the maverick and lyrical expressionist Oswaldo Goeldi suddenly found a receptive audience. In 1955, six years before his death, he accepted a lectureship in the technique and art of xylography at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes. But he didn’t consider himself a proper professor. Every art has a technical aspect that anyone with experience can teach. The creative component, however, is a matter for each individual, and anyone who attempts to control or confine it destroys a great deal. His students liked him.
The legends of the saints are written without footnotes. They can’t be checked and verified. The significance of these legends lies in the moral ideal that lives on in elaborate portrayals as a gentle entreaty to follow their saintly example.