Wagner Malta Tavares

Perfume De Princesa (perfume Of A Princess) By José Bento Ferreira

by José Bento Ferreira


Wagner Malta Tavares 
November, 2. 2013 to april, 6. 2014 

The first observation about Perfume de princesa [Perfume of a Princess] is a very simple one: the structure of tubes that winds along the stairs at Beco do Pinto is as much a part of the work by Wagner Malta Tavares as are the fragrances it exhales at specific points along the path. This finding is substantiated by sculptures such as Herói (2010) and Anúbis (2008) – in which fans are coupled to fabrics and objects resembling sarcophagi – and it points to an enduring theme for this artist: the integration between art and technology. Despite Wagner Malta Tavares’s evident optimism about the possibilities of putting technological devices to aesthetic use, the recurrence of the theme and the way it is treated show that he has not yet resolved this question: it needs to be continuously raised and still demands an explanation. 

A second observation is also simple: in contrast with his futurist perspective, the artist looks to the past when researching the history of perfume and considering the memory of the place. Nonetheless, Perfume de princesa recurs to the wind as a form, which was also done in the works shown in 2010 at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, as observed by critic Rodrigo Naves. Instead of fluttering fabrics and the wind buffeting the face of the spectators, the machine designed by Wagner Malta Tavares blows floral fragrances along the historical alley in São Paulo’s downtown district, punctuating the path of the passersby with traditional essences of perfumes, including rose, lavender and angelica. Beco do Pinto is transformed into a time tunnel with the reconstitution of the 19th-century olfactory atmosphere, headed up by Domitila de Castro Canto e Melo (1797–1867), who had a longstanding affair with Dom Pedro. From 1834 onward, she resided in the mansion that came to be called Solar da Marquesa de Santos, and which today belongs to the Museu da Cidade. 

A more ambitious reflection could be made based on observations about this olfactory experience, which by means of that technological structure looks to both the past and the future. According to anthropologist Alain Corbin, the search for the ideal city and the idealization of the natural landscape (as in the English gardens) are linked to an “accentuation of the sensibility” from the second half of the 18th century onward. The author characterizes certain public health measures as an “offensive against the olfactory intensities of public space.” The systematic battle against the bad smell of the sewers, hospitals and prisons described by Corbin is not related with a freer use of creams, perfumes and other cosmetics, but rather with discipline in their employment. 

The history of perfume goes back to ancient Egypt (Gombrich comments on perfume utensils decorated with images of the gods), but between the 18th and 19th centuries traditionally used aromatic substances were spurned by citizens terrorized by the microscopic world revealed by Lavoisier and convinced that the civic virtues stemmed from a natural state of humanity. In accordance with a Puritan idea of nature, the body’s natural odors were valorized, and the use of perfumes plummeted. Even taking a bath was seen as an act of vanity potentially harmful to one’s health. Floral colognes substituted creams based on animal extracts, and began to take part in a game of “imperceptible codes” linked to the feminine realm, in accordance with a strengthening association between the woman and the flower. Curiously, the reinvigoration of nobility intensified the use of these refined perfumes as elements of social distinction and for the dissemblance of amorous seduction. 

A recent biographer of Marquesa de Santos, Paulo Rezzutti, cites descriptions by travelers who were struck by the city of São Paulo’s cleanliness in the late 18th century. A few decades later, separated from Dom Pedro and living in the mansion on Rua Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Domitila demanded the reconstruction of Beco do Pinto, invaded by a neighbor. According to Rezzutti, slaves tasked with going down the alley to throw trash into the Rio Tamanduateí would sometimes throw it in the marchioness’s yard. Although the contact between people of different generations and social classes by means of their singular aromas or “olfactory impressions” is appreciated, it is impossible to distinguish it from the social control that each individual exercises on the odors of others and their own. 

By reconstituting possible formulas of perfumes from past eras and effusing them in places of memory (including inside the Solar and around a bathtub that the marchioness never used), Wagner Malta Tavares problematizes the distinction between factual and imaginary history. A mistress of the emperor and an illustrious lady from São Paulo, Domitila de Castro Canto e Melo Lindfors bolstered the image of the woman from São Paulo, who, also according to Rezzutti, was considered beautiful and independent. Without disregarding the web of meanings it is enmeshed in, Wagner Malta Tavares’s work crystallizes fantasies, prejudices, moral judgment, and idolatry: Domitila’s tomb at Consolação Cemetery has been venerated in different ways, and perfume is also an attribute of the cadavers of saints. 

José Bento Ferreira