Brazilian Romantic Satire on the Peripheries of Photo-Realism: the Case of Angelo Agsostini

Brazilian Romantic Satire on the Peripheries of Photo-Realism: the Case of Angelo Agostini

Marcus Wood
University of Sussex

1.        The following analysis considers four abolitionist satires produced by Angelo Agostini (1843–1910), a satiric lithographer of genius who worked in Rio de Janeiro in the second half of the nineteenth century. Agostini made his prints in a place and at a time riven with contradictions which resulted from the manner in which incipient urban capitalism was thrown up against the survival of a slavery system operating feudal social structures. Rio was a metropolitan center in which slave labor existed hand in hand with the development of new technologies including gas-lighting and steam power. Rio also had more operative photographic studios than any city in the world with the exception of London. Agostini, while he incorporated modern developments into the subject matter of his work, produced print satires which dealt with ancient social abuses. In their compositional complexity and metaphorical ambitions, many of Agostini’s works, in fact, resonate with much earlier visual analogues. His most successful prints are best compared with the work produced by James Gillray and Francisco Goya at the height of the golden age of Romantic print satire in England and Spain, well over half a century earlier. A detailed examination of some of Agostini’s more ambitious designs might open up a space in which to initiate understanding of the specific qualities which define Brazilian late-Romantic graphic art.

2.         Agostini’s designs for the journal O Mequetrefe [“The Good-for-nothing”] typically focus on one central dramatic scene, which is set against a blank, or almost empty, backdrop. Several prints analyze slavery and abolition in terms of fantasies with quasi-allegorical settings. Many of the more effective prints use the beast-fable or draw upon well-known classical and Christian martyrological narratives. Their metaphorics consequently evolve out of some of the basic building blocks of European graphic traditions of satire. Yet what gives Agostini’s work its dynamism, and its unique status within graphic print satire, is the manner in which the visual language is infused with quintessentially Brazilian elements. These elements are sometimes quite literal, and involve the incorporation of Brazilian flora and fauna into his symbolic repertoire. Yet Agostini also does things with Brazilian social custom, political process, labor methods, and even the idiosyncrasies of the Brazilian sense of humour which are quite unprecedented.

3.        Agostini’s big, almost lumbering, prints for O Mequetrefe are at their most powerful when they challenge the limits of genre and formal convention, and when they destabilize political truisms. At their best they share with late Goya, both as painter and printmaker, an expressive universality which is capable of getting beyond the limitations of specific political causes or the peccadilloes of particular politicians. [figure 1] The following print satire “ESCRAVIDÃO” (O Mequetrefe, no. 447, January 14, 1888, 4-5) meditates in a general way upon slavery and emancipation, as Brazil teetered on the very verge of abolition. Here Agostini expands the potential of the beast fable by conflating antagonistic elements of realism and fantasy. He creates both a mythical monster, and something very real, and in this particularly looks straight back to Goya’s ghastly Fiero monstruo! [Wild Monster!], from The Disasters of War. Agostini’s print is both wise and pragmatic, and suggests that the moral dilemmas which slavery and emancipation generate have no simple solutions and may well lead to a violent, uncertain, and quite possibly ruined future.

4.        The print could not on the surface be simpler, one word “ESCRAVIDÃO” [“SLAVERY”] is inscribed in capitals upon the body of a crocodile, which a group of men try to restrain and capture. Yet despite its monumentality the print is deeply conflicted. On closer examination the interplay between word and image emerges as saturated in ambiguities. The inscription at the bottom of the print reads: “Emquanto estes não atam nem desatam, vem chagando o caçdor que lhe dará o .” [“The huntsmen, really don’t want to let it go, they move forward to make the coup de grace”]. The print seems to say that, whether they want to or not, the politicians must slay the monster slavery, and yet to kill slavery they must paradoxically let go of it.

5.        This print uses narrative and stylistic shock tactics; it appears to be naturalistic, but juxtaposes antagonistic realities. The naturalism is consequently layered and charged, for the drawing throws into bizarre collision two contexts which, although both realistically observed, would never normally co-exist. A specific set of caricatured, fashionably accoutred, and spectacularly bourgeois Rio politicians express intense psychological anxiety. They experience their extreme emotion over the issue of abolition, yet this emotion is combined with a realistic rendering of the technical methods used by professional crocodile hunters, as they restrain their very real and very dangerous prey, prior to executing it. The print is built upon an ingenious and confusing contradiction which is cleverly embedded in a pun on the verb “desatar.” “Desatar” means in its most immediate sense “to let go,” or “to untie,” but also carries, or implies, many other meanings including “to release from captivity a person or animal,” “to liberate,” “to give up control over,” and “to become unravelled” (Novo Michaelis). Finally there is a set of meanings leaning towards desertion, in its familiar English sense: the verb can imply the withdrawal of involvement in a thing or project, the act of walking away. Viewed as the center of a web of possible significations, the crucial verb consequently takes on a series of disconcerting political inferences. The politicians don’t want “to let slavery go” in each and every one of these possible senses. They don’t want to end the system of bondage they are familiar with and responsible for, and they don’t want to let the monster they have both created, and which they control, go loose. The paradox at the heart of the satire can be summarized as follows: in order to kill slavery the slave power must commit an act of emancipation. But of course this is “to let slavery go” in a further sense, to release it into a chaotic future in the form of an unknown and untried socio-cultural phenomenon, “freedom.” It is in this context that several of the secondary meanings of “desatar”—“to unravel,” “to come apart”—become prominent. In this sense the real crocodile is not mere “slavery” but a more horrifying prospect: the politicians” internalised terror of “freedom.”

6.        The print consequently articulates a social and psychological dilemma, the idea that slavery may become much more potentially lethal for the former slave owners once it is reconstituted in the form of a concrete mass liberation. The print looks out with a certain unflinching—not to say grim—pragmatism, at the reality of emancipation for a slave-holding empire. Written into this metaphoric crocodile is a terror of the effects of emancipation which cuts two ways. Once it has been let-go-of, what will this freed crocodile of slavery/liberty represent, how will things fall apart, in what form will the snapping jaws manifest themselves? The two extremes of violence held in balance in this print—one liberationist, one repressive—embody two possible but apparently irreconcilable futures. One might be manifested in the violence of the ex-slavers, in the expression of a colossal resentment and in a continued desire to re-impose control and to exploit. The other might be manifested in the fury and revolutionary potential of a slave population bent on revenge and pumped up for it by centuries of persecution.

7.        In its ideological interrogation of slavery and freedom through a metaphorics of monstrism, this print makes significant intellectual advances upon the extant tradition of Anglo-American abolition graphics. When this print was made it was building upon—while simultaneously interrogating—a longstanding tradition of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English and American abolition prints which had shown slavery as a monster. Yet this monster invariably took the form of a rampant and insatiable force of evil. The most common manifestation was a rabid, often animalized, planter with a whip, or a knife, or instruments of torture, actively tearing into slave bodies. Other examples depicted slavery as a serpent or fantastic dragon with crocodilian elements. Slavery appeared conveniently allegorized and distanyiated; it was invariably an inhuman mythologized force of evil actively consuming the slave body in acts of brutality and torture. Demonic, bestial, anarchic, and sadistic, it was an evil “other” which abolition as a manifestation of the civilized power of developed and enlightened nations needed to kill off (Wood, 2000, 95-101; Wood 2010, 112-30).

8.        The novelty and shocking Brazilian-ness of Agostini’s work emerges in the manner in which he makes slavery into such a naturalistic beast. To show slavery as a very realistic salt-water crocodile, being restrained according to a system of capture used by coastal Indians in the Northeast then (and to this day) is disconcerting at a number of levels. The creature is not simply emblematic or allegorical in the manner of earlier abolition prints, but it is complicated by its documentary naturalism. If the label “slavery” is removed from its side, what we have is a very lifelike crocodile being disabled by having its two natural weapons—the muscular tail, and the deadly jaws—bound up and tied down. The crocodile squats on a muddy shoreline, very reminiscent of endless mangrove swamps of the Northeast, of Penambuco and Alagoas. The scrubby intertwining trees in the background reaching down to the tide-line appear to be mangroves. The men at the back are lashing the tail to a tree to immobilize it, one bracing himself by the knee against the trunk to get better purchase; the men at the front have bound the jaws together, and are keeping the crocodile fully extended in order that it cannot exert any leverage. The crocodile’s fore and back legs grip the muddy bank in an attempt to hold their ground, while the body is accurately drawn and exists as one serpentine torpedo of muscle. In spatial terms the print is wonderfully ordered. The whole thing is set on a tilt; on the slide, the knotted groups of politicians forced out to the right and left desperately fight to stay where they are, to stop the beast, aided by the inevitable forces of gravity, drawing them back into the waters from which it was seized.

9.        The satiric brilliance of the print lies in throwing such a precisely observed description of the genuine technique used to catch a crocodile up against the fantasy of the politicians, who have jumped in from another world, decked out in the fashionable European costumes of Rio power-brokers. These gentleman politicians, complete with bow ties, wing collars, and elegant Victorian trews, slither awkwardly about in the dirt, pushed out to the margins of the composition, with the monster of slavery clearly at the center of attention for the viewer and the would-be captors alike. We are given a world on the slide, where the majority of the surface areas is composed of a blank wall of mud. The animal belongs to the landscape, and is at home on Brazilian water, Brazilian land, or in a soupy mixture of the two. It is the politicians in their European borrowed robes and their precarious patent leather shoes, who are the alien presence. They are moving out of their depth, and as they slither on the bank, the mud which they slide upon—and which entraps them—is also a symbol of political corruption.

10.        These men come off as truly out of their element, artificial, somehow foreign; they attempt to battle a natural force which is at home, angry, and resistant. One strong reading of the print is as a pessimistic and pragmatic warning that modern Brazil should simply walk away from, or blank out, the horror of its slavery inheritance. Viewed this way, the print warns that if slavery constitutes a saurian horror as terrible and as fierce as the politicians envision, then what is the point of civilized men trying to capture and restrain it? Surely it is better to leave it alone, to live out its sinister existence in peaceful, invisible oblivion within the muddy waters which the politicians dare not enter. What the water means in this print is consequently also open to conjecture—it is a natural element which is itself both symbolically and literally obscure. It is not easy to know what to make of this slow impenetrable element which flows out to the bottom-right-hand corner of the print and out beyond the margins of the picture. The Atlantic ocean was, of course, the route by which the entire slave population of Brazil was originally imported, yet the ocean is also an ancient and profound metaphor for freedom. This swamp shoreline may be the sign of an ambiguous and torpid freedom, but what sort of freedom lurks in mud? Is it freedom for the slaves and the politicians to live together in the warm, dark, maternal waters of a post-emancipation Brazil, or the ironic freedom for slavery to continue to endure, renamed but essentially unchanged? As with so many of Gillray’s greatest political satires, Agostini finally refuses to give the viewer any simple final answer, and in this sense addresses the impossible legacy of slavery with a maturity that confronts—indeed embraces—conflict and contradiction.

11.        In the best of the work he did for O Mequetrefe, Agostini takes the political lithograph into new satiric and descriptive territories, and his innovations seem to grow out of his ability to embrace elements which photography had introduced into visual culture. At what may initially seem to be its most simple level, the influence of photography upon Agostini’s print technique relates to the pure power of documentary realism. Creating political propaganda by adopting an aesthetic of “less is more,” Agostini was capable of harnessing within his lithographs the objective visual energies generated by photography. Photography had injected new and unsettling elements of realism into the conventions of many extant visual genres including portraiture, landscape and the tableau vivant. In the following print he fuses all three of these areas to create what remains a genuinely unnerving interrogation of slavery and ignorance.

12.         [figure 2] The title of “O supplicio do escravo Bernardo (Vide o texto),” [“The Entreaty of the Slave Bernardo (look at the text)”] (O Mequetrefe, no. 435, May 28, 1887, 4-5) directs the reader to a long accompanying article which takes up the two preceding pages of the issue. Under the stark headline “Um Crime Impune” [“An Unpunished Crime”], the text gives a melodramatic account of the circumstances leading up to the death of Bernardo as a result of his prolonged torture and abuse at the hands of a gentleman, one Antonio de Atahyde e Souza, described as “a widower, farmer and native of Portugal.” Bernardo, who had been given his emancipation papers a year earlier on 4 March 1886, was still being kept as a slave by Atahyde. The “slave” had gone to the authorities to state that he was free and to complain of his abuse at the hands of Atahyde, only to be returned to the now irritated “master.” Bernardo was put in the stocks then repeatedly whipped and beaten, the abuse leading to terrible wounding of his back and buttocks. He finally died when he was subsequently kept in the stocks. He lay on a cold brick floor for 52 hours without food or water, and continually aggravated his wounds by rubbing them against the floor. The statement that Bernardo lay there all night, in his agony grinding his injuries into the stone and dirt, came from a slave witness, and are seen by the article’s author as opening the way into an imagined world of unending pain: “What a prolonged and dolorous agony now saturates these words!” Despite the exhumation and examination of the corpse, and the presentation of medical testimony to the authorities, Atahyde was never prosecuted. The article ends with outraged condemnation not only of all who participated in the atrocity, but with the statement that if such things can happen in this nation, then Brazil itself is “a land of barbarians.”

13.         Agostini’s task was to create, within a single visual narrative, a commentary on this all too typical—and in fact all too commonly reported—little set of circumstances. The choice of subject and the descriptive method are quite different from anything that had appeared in earlier print satire dealing with slave trauma in Europe and North America. The approach Agostini adopts is also dramatically different, in rhetorical terms, from that of the written text. He opts for a strategy of severe restraint and narrative understatement. The moment and the event he chooses to describe are carefully choreographed. The viewer is placed inside the outhouse in which the atrocity occurs. We stand on the same brick floor on which Bernardo is tortured, and witness the beginning of his ordeal, knowing that the violence we witness will damage his body in ways which then cause his lonely and extended death during the ensuing night. The design ironically exploits its landscape format. The middle and background of the print consists of a view of the farmhouse, and outbuildings poking up from a sloping field. It is the sort of outside view that people never bothered to paint, but which the camera frequently would record, because, quite simply, it is there. The ordinary, open, calm, uninhabited suburban land is monumentally banal: a silent everyday backdrop for a banal, silent, everyday event expressing the limitless power of slavery. The foreground, on the other hand, is formally dramatic, and occurs, like so many narrative studio photographs of the period, within a narrow stage-like foreground, complete with proscenium-style frame and props. Part of the satire’s power comes from the manner in which it suggests frozen action upon a stage—in other words a tableau vivant. The composition is set up through a series of strict rectilinear forms and spaces. The outhouse architecture sternly encases the human action, a large horizontal beam runs across the top, and two vertical beams point down, like mighty arrows, into the composition. Set at a slightly oblique angle against this stark frame are two rectangular box forms: the first is the massive stocks, the second the packing case upon which Atahyde sits. The stocks itself is drawn with great accuracy, and precisely conforms to the typical structure of the communal tronco which occupied such a central and self-consciously dramatic symbolic space in the fazendas and town squares of nineteenth-century Brazil. Made of hardwood, these vast structures, with their geometric holes, still stand in public spaces and museums across the Northeast of Brazil. But Agostini insists that the tronco is not a theatrical monument to the memory of slavery, but merely a useful part of the furniture of the farm outhouse. It thrusts dramatically into the composition from the left. The far end remains invisible, shooting out of the picture frame and suggesting that there is no end to this terrible set of parallel lines.

14.        The most charged space of visual/emotional punctuation in this print are the sets of black holes into and out of which the slave limbs penetrate. The great planks are periodically cut through by these ghastly geometrical orifices, circles which are obscenely polished pebble-smooth by the twisting limbs of innumerable victims over immemorial time. The manner in which Agostini inhabits these holes is inspired. On the left of the design, the further set are filled by two anonymous legs, the body tumbling back and out of the left margin of the design. This faceless disembodied victim is challenging us as witnesses to give him, or her, an identity, to make the suffering mean something. These are perhaps two of the most traumatically-charged legs and feet in the slavery archive. This fragmented body serves, in compositional terms, to provide a counterweight to Bernardo’s body. As he lies left to right, the other body lies right to left, the space between the two supine victims providing the dramatic stage inhabited by the slave with the whip, who is about to begin the process of flagellating Bernardo. The knotted flail which he raises has several lashes, and each is weighted with pieces of lead. One detail is terrific, pushed up above the horizon line of the tronco we see four toes. These pitiful digits are the only part of any body which reaches though a hole and becomes visible out beyond the stocks, inhabiting the free space of the landscape. The toes “stand” there, yet because of the perspectival trickery of the composition, the strands of the cat-of-nine-tails dance around these naked parts of a foot, emphasising that there is no escape, no free space, no way out of this world of arbitrary torment.

15.        The display of Bernardo’s smooth, unblemished back has something ghastly about it, and only the whipper and ourselves (existing as viewers who are both witnesses and accomplices) are privileged to see this. Much of the extraordinary power of this design comes from the sense of separateness; there is the constant intimation that the scene which we are witnessing is cut off from the eyes of the rest of the world. The ultimate terror which the narrative embodies relates to the fact that the only white witness, the torturer himself, seems completely oblivious—or to use the vernacular phrase “out of it.” The vertical support beam creates a separate performative space for Atahyde; he is set up in his own little compartment on the right hand margin, almost as if he is posing in a studio for his portrait. His visual independence from the rest of the composition is striking; he could be cut off from the page with a pair of scissors. He would then exist as a powerful portrait study, and nothing would suggest the horror which he is at the heart of. Again Agostini has given slave power a new kind of face: this is a modern man, an urban gent, a man who could step straight into a Machado de Assis dinner party. He has a manicured beard, and elegant brushed back grey hair. He is dressed in a city suit, with white wing collar and bow tie, and is holding a large cigar with casual ease in his right hand, his left hand resting on the box top. He doesn’t look particularly good or bad, he doesn’t look handsome or ugly, he doesn’t look at all. There is no moral decay or inuman barbarity written into this face, there is no emotional engagement of any sort. He just looks like anyone else, a dull man who is spectacularly unexcited and unaware, locked into thinking his own unexceptional thoughts. The crucial thing is the detachment: a psychological detachment to match the spatial one. What defines both this man’s evil, and the social tragedy his actions create, is the fact that there is no sadistic engagement in what he has instigated, and no interest in what is happening or will happen. Agostini has risen above the melodrama and sadism with which the Anglo-American abolition archive had so energetically and easily demonized the slave power. Rejecting the easy and pornographic spectacle of grinning planters bathed in the blood of writhing mulattas, or of slaves foundering in boiling vats of sugar cane juice, Agostini has given us something far more terrifying and of infinitely greater moral worth. Agostini has created slavery in the form of a modern monster: a placid, passive being, complacent within the mantle of its assumed superiority.

16.        Agostini takes a mundane story of pointless violence and attempts to explain both why it happened and why it will never be prosecuted. While the journalist rants and sends up rhetorical fireworks of arch sarcasm, Agostini grimly exposes the silent confidence, the meditative oblivion, the transcendent impunity of the slave power. Agostini is the only artist I have come across who, in a spirit of furious satire, could show the smooth-faced, calm, unimpeachably well mannered appearance which Brazilian slavery presented to the world, even at the brutal instant when it did its very worst.

17.        As abolitionist propaganda reached a crescendo in the late 1880s, Agostini produced work which seemed to push at more and more aesthetic boundaries. In February of 1888, only five months before the passage of the Golden Law abolishing slavery, the Brazilian media suddenly became fixated upon a certain extreme case of slave abuse. Two small slave girls, Joanna and Eduarda, had been kept in a cellar, starved, beaten, burned with irons, and systematically tortured over months by an insanely cruel mistress, who shamefully had connections with the Royal Court. The great mulatto journalist, propagandist, and abolition leader Jose do Patrocinio had been tipped off about the case, and published a series of articles concerning the abuse. The case became a cause celèbre, and a local photographer, one Heitor, was called in to make a series of portraits of the traumatised, scarred, and swollen children who were also displayed in public. Agostini contributed to the cause and used the photograph as the basis for a lithographic portrait [figure 3] Os fructos de perversidade [“The fruits of perversity”] (O Mequetrefe no. 399, 10 February 1886, 8). In giving this portrait of horror such a simple brief ironic title he achieves a disgusted aphoristic extremity reminiscent of the sparse sarcastic linguistic fury which energizes certain of the captions of Goya’s Disasters of War—for example, “This brings you luck,” (beneath a grotesque scene of torture) or “This is what you were born for” (The caption for an image of a man vomiting over a pile of corpses). But Agostini is working in a different technical world from that of Goya, and the power of this work comes out of the way it explores a peculiar empathy between the qualities of early photographs and stone lithography. The portrait that Agostini developed out of Heitor’s photograph maintains—even though we are now familiar with the graphic representation of extreme abuse through many millions of photographic images generated across the vast tracts of useless violence which constitute twentieth-century history—the power to hold our attention. The icon of these two small female victims is so unforgiving, and it whips up a combination of things that is almost unbearable to see united. There is the pathos of the shabby dirty little one-piece utility frocks, collarless, shapeless, ragged at hem and cut off sleeves, tied at the waist with string. This is clothing which informs us that slavery was a mass institution, that its victims wore uniforms. This is the clothing of the work-house, and the industrial factory floor before there were child labor and factory acts. This is the clothing which systems of ultimate abuse put on children, when they no longer respect or see the innocence they embody. There is the fact that one girl is taller than the other, the fact that the shorter one goes barefoot, while the taller one wears thin slippers. There is the fact of physical stiffness saturating such young bodies. They are bent, prematurely stooped at the waist, lost in some sort of space we can never understand, upright but teetering, going nowhere, futureless, out of time, forcing us to stay there with them for as long as we can take it. The arms out in front reaching into thin air are like a blind person's; they are held down and out, they are damaged, useless, bandaged at all four wrists. The hands are swollen, the one hand held palm upwards, with the faintest suggestion that it is waiting to receive the stigmata, or maybe pleading, or maybe begging, or maybe just fractured. Rhetorically more forceful than anything, the fact of isolation—the visual fact that in their dumb pain these two little girls, standing so close, do not reach out to each other, do not seek to touch, to hold hands, but let their hands hang, unfelt in space, because maybe it would hurt too much to make contact with anything or anyone, maybe because they inhabit a world of pain where it is inconceivable that anyone else can be alive to share it. And then those unspeaking, unspeakable, heads, hair shorn like adult felons, or victims of disease, or inhabitants of the lager. The large visible ears of the figure on the left have a dreadful fragility, a delicate nakedness, that makes us wonder what ghastly and unrecoverable sounds they have had to hear. And finally those faces, the faces of children beaten into an ageless, genderless, fissured pulp. The foreheads rent with sharp slits, precise cuts which Lucio Fontana would have appreciated, and the eyes closed, one would say looking down, but these faces seem driven so far beyond the capacity to see anything. That simple horizon line, and the barest indication of the uneven ground on which they stand, are the only things that locate these icons of the human crime of Atlantic slavery in time and space. And yet the patterns the bandages make, and the way the black flesh moves in and out of the clothing, is formally beautiful.

18.        Maybe one way to come at the magnitude of Agostini’s achievement in the portrait of Joanna and Eduarda is to think about the other options that might have been available. What if he had decided to turn the whole event into something more like a comic strip, and tried to link it, as some sort of proto-graphic novel, into the general concerns of the abolition movement? What if he had done this, yet opted to incorporate elements of documentary realism as charged with an hallucinogenic realism as those of Goya’s Disaster’s of War, and as infused with human metamorphoses and animalizations as extreme as those of Gillray at his wildest? We get some idea both of how deeply the event struck Agostini’s imagination, and of his ability to draw on a European graphic inheritance, by the fact that he did exactly this. [figure 4] Here is the alternative interpretation of the outrage of Joanna and Eduarda which appeared in Revista Illustrada (no. 427, 18 February 1886, 8) eight days after the portrait in O Mequetrefe.

19.        In this remarkable sheet, Agostini has gone for a very different narrative and aesthetic approach. He draws again upon photographic resources, but also takes up narrative techniques which were developed in the older single-sheet, compartmentalized narrative prints of Europe (Kunzle, 1973). Then beyond this, the print even seems to anticipate cinematic techniques. The print incorporates a series of long and short views, sequential narrative, and shocking surreal montage effects to express outrage. The page works through seven vignettes that are to be read, initially, from left to right, top to bottom. Yet these images also set up dramatic sets of contrasts if read vertically or through diagonals. The sudden jumps in scale and viewpoint encourage such visual mixing and matching on the part of the viewer, the whole page is in spatial terms radically unstable and so invites us to throw away visual convention in responding to it. It is as if the outrageousness of what we are being shown requires a new way of telling a visual story to do it justice.

20.        The top two scenes take up about a third of the page, and consist of a middle-distance crowd scene and of a close-up double portrait. The first image to left shows the girls being displayed in public by the two abolitionist propagandists. Beneath the caption reads: “Naõ é só no interior que se commettem crimes contra os escravos. As pretas Eduarda e Joanna levadas ás redacções dos jornaes pelo José do Patrocinio e João Clapp provam que na Corte tambem ha verdugos.” [“It is not only in the interior that crimes are committed against the slaves. The blacks Eduarda and Joanna, taken up in the newspaper articles of José do Patrocinio and João Clapp prove that even at Court there are inhuman torturers”]. Agostini starts out, then, by attempting to break down a stereotype which still pervades attitudes to slave abuse today. Slavery is not something that happens away from civilization and urban centers, in “the interior,” out of site, amongst barbarian slave-holders. Again, this is a blow against the emotional extremism of European Romantic and Sentimental constructions of slave abuse. Agostini focuses on the point that the most extreme abuse of defenseless children is happening in the heart of the most modern city in Latin America, the then-capital of Brazil, Rio da Janeiro, and further that it is being perpetrated by female aristocrats. The crowd that surrounds the two white-clad, staggering girls is not done up in the stereotypical attire of the tropical planter, but is dressed in top hats and dark suits. The lady who exits the frame at right, and towards whom Patrocinio gestures, wears a crinoline and bonnet, and is probably not dressed unlike the lady responsbible for torturing these children. All these figures, with the exception of the victims, could be transplanted to the streets of central London, Paris, or New York with no difficulty. The next scene uses a “zoom” technique to focus in on the two girls in close-up, but again looks down from a slightly elevated view-point. This portrait is a miniature variation on the full-sized and full-figure portrait Agostini had produced for O Mequetrefe. It is based on another of the photographs of the girls taken by Heitor, and again shows two victims front on, almost blinded by beatings, and with their faces completely wounded and disfigured. The caption is simple and factual: “Heitor, the photographer, took the portrait of these two vicims, nearly blinded from beating, and with their faces cut up and disfigured” [“O photographo Heitor tirou o retrato das duas infelizes, quasi cegas de pancadas, e com o rosto todo ferido e desfigurado”]. There are major differences between this portrait and the earlier one. This time the girls are shown three-quarter figure, and seated. The older of the two girls has the top of her dress taken down over her shoulders, uncovering the top part of her breasts, while the younger girl’s top remains firmly buttoned up. The effect is to suggest both the femininity and the girlish vulnerability of the victims. This device, partially unclothing one girl while leaving the other dressed, is used to force the viewer to see both of them as abused yet as on display. The hint of sexualised voyeurism in the double portrait requires the viewer to remember that these girls, although children, are slaves, and as such are sexually available to whoever owns them. There are no limits to what the owner can do to either body, as Aime Cesaire instructed, “you can do anything” to any slave body. Yet as we as viewers look at these bodies, we are made aware of a terrible ambiguity: we cannot tell if they are looking back at us. The image is terrifying because of the way it upends the conventions of the full-face portrait. Normally we would expect to look into the eyes of the viewer, but here we cannot tell where their eyes are directed, or indeed if they have any eyes left. They may be looking at us or into some blood-filled haze; their children’s eyes appear completely swollen shut.

21.        The third, fourth, and fifth vignettes fill the middle section of the image, but only about one quarter of the space. These intense little views constitute, if the page is seen as a whole, the filling in a visual sandwich. For these scenes of the official response to the death of one of the girls, Agostini has pulled right back for a distant view, almost a wide-angled set of scenes. The effect is to remove us, to take us out of the action, to make us distant and less intimate viewers; peering into the scenes from far away, we are forced to try and work out what is going on. The third scene suddenly shows the girl we have just been looking at, the older of the pair, Joanna, now stretched out and completely undressed apart from a sheet over her abdomen acting as a sort of forensic modesty veil. She has passed from alive, tortured, seated, and partially clothed, to dead, supine, beyond pain, and unclothed. Again the prose is tight and factual, reflecting the nature of the scene we are witness to: “Three days later the unfortunate female Joanna found herself in the Morgue, where several doctors carried out the autopsy, they declared that she died from tuberculosis aggravated by maltreatment” [“Tres dias depois a miserera Joanna achava se no Necroterio, onde varios medicos, precendendro a autopsia, declaravaram ter ella fallecido de uma tubercolose aggravada por maus tratos”]. There is no false sentiment here, only the facts of the case, and the uneasy conclusion that the doctors found the cause of death to be TB and not the direct result of her extended torture. She, and the doctors who stand around her, are shown only about one quarter the size of the figure she was when alive. In death she gets a surfeit of medical attention from the best doctors around, she has become a tragic celebrity, and at the same time an object of medical curiosity.

22.        The next two vignettes are drawn from the same distant perspective, but move from inside to outside, and show the funeral procession of the girl and her interment. The captions take up the theme of celebrity and tell us that Joanna’s death has now become the concern and responsibility of the abolitionists: “The Abolition Confederation accompanied her to the Cemetery and conducted the burial” [“A Confederação Abolicionista fez o enterro, acompanhandora até o Cemeterio”]. From an elevated viewpoint, as if looking down from a window, we see an elaborate procession entering the cemetery gates, and incorporating a series of horse drawn carriages. The furthest away comprises a glass-sided and elaborately-decorated funeral carriage, Joanna’s body visible to the public. This is the sort of spectacular funeral arrangement which would normally be reserved for aristocracy or celebrity—Joanna, in death, has become a cause celebre. The last of the middle scenes shows the scene at the graveside. Only at this point does the print, through the caption, pass from grim and uninflected social reportage into openly satiric mode. The caption announces: “On top of the coffin, beside a garland of flowers, her emancipation certificate was nailed!” [“Sobre o caixão, ao lado de uma grinalda, achava-se pregada a sua carta de liberdade!”]. Death is here ironized and literalized as the final form of liberation for the slave.

23.        This shift into dark humour allows the print to pass into its final stage, which replaces the stark documentary naturalism of the earlier artwork with something that borders upon surreal fantasy. In its sudden transfusion this imagery looks weird, and yet all Agostini has done is suddenly return to the language of his eighteenth-century progenitors. The fantasy, of course, looks directly back to the collective animalizations which invigorate countless Gillray satires, and the Capricios of Goya. The bottom half of the print is dominated by a strange scene in which two caricatured males are shown surrounded by a menagerie of domestic birds and beasts. A small Pierrot-style juvenile in striped body suit, wearing a fool’s cap, and clutching a giant pen, bends over them at right. The elaborate caption draws out the satire:

And yet in spite of all these horrors of slavery, we must not lose heart. The philanthropic spirit has penetrated into the highest class of our society, which, overwhelmed with emotion at the appalling treatment suffered by donkeys, dogs, cats and so on, has resolved to found a society for the protection of animals.

The president of this humanitarian Association is the most Excellent Senator Senior Nunes Gonçalves and one of his most fervent henchmen, the Excellent Senior, the Chief of Police Coelho Bastos.

– To our guardians of beasts. –

[“Apezar de todos esses horrors da escravdidão, não devemos desanimár. A philanthropia penetrou na alta classe da nossa sociedada, que, comovida com os maus tratos que soffrem os burros, cães, gatos et.c. resolveu fundar a Sociedade Protectora dos Animaes.

O Presidente desta humanitaria associacão é o Ex. Sr. Senador Nunes Gonçalves ed um dos seus mais fervorosos adeptos, é o Ex. Sr. chefe de Policia, Coelho Bastos.

- - Os nossos parabens á bicharia.”]
Agostini suddenly shifts attention to the social world in which the abolitionists must function and make themselves heard. The surge for animal rights had been inaugurated in Europe and America, at exactly same moment as abolition, and disconcertingly, often existed in an explicit relationship to it. Animal rights rapidly lead to the foundation of the humane societies in Europe and North America in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and was also making headway with the emergent middle classes of Brazil’s urban centers. This final part of the print is, then, a very ingenious and very serious confrontation with a series of issues relating to the equation of animals with slaves first evolved in the abolition literatures of Europe from 1780-1833 (Wood, 2003, 398-406). This problematic equation involves the moral levelling of the rights of human slaves with those of farm livestock, an ethical descent which was explicitly legitimized by the slave codes. Yet beyond this, the equation incorporates the blurring of the moral boundaries between human rights and animal rights, which arose in the wake of the new emotional bourgeois concerns for the feelings of animals. Agostini focuses on the insane moral contradictions which can allow a society to maintain slavery with all its attendant cruelties, while officially buying into the new universal sentimentalism fixated on animal rights. The attack works by suggesting that abolitionists need not despair, for if Brazil’s elite are prepared to begin by feeling sympathy for beasts, then who knows—in time they might feel some pity for African slaves. The design plays cleverly with conventional animal symbolism: the two politicians, notorious pro-slavery figures singled out in the text for their support of the new animal rights society, are shown attached to their bestial symbols. Gonçalves embraces an ass, while a pig squats at his feet, and a dog jumps up his leg. The associations of these animals relate to stupidity, greed, and servility. Bastos has a gesturing ape on his shoulder, the traditional symbol of both foolishness and lust. Bastos, in top hat and tail-coat, also holds a large angora rabbit under his arm, and looks exactly like a magician who has produced a rabbit out of a hat. The implication is that if these two can get away with this piece of political chicanery, they can, in the public’s eyes, get away with anything.

24.        The final phrase is a superb and typically Agostinian pun. While on the surface it is a cry of applause for the saviours of the animals, the word “bicharia” can also mean a crowd of people, or a heap of vermin. Are we looking at protectors of animals, or protectors of a crowd of people, because the slaves should have—indeed from an ultimate humanitarian perspective do have—the same rights as animals? Or is it a venom-spitting finale saying that the politicians, their followers, and the animal rights activists are all a pile of vermin, as long as they cannot feel for the slaves? There may also be an obscene pun on the colloquial meaning of “bicha” designating a low form of homosexual. No wonder the little figure on the right, who runs through the pages of Revista Illustrada and is representative of Agostini’s satiric muse, gazes in childish amazement at all he has seen in the page opposite and above. The very last scene, bottom right, shows the little satirist simply giving up. In Juvenalian mode he declares: “This country of ours really does take the cake!” [Esta nossa terra é um cumulo!]. He gives the whole thing up—the ghastly joke is beyond the powers of satire—and seems to echo the famous declaration from Juvenal’s first satire, that in a world of utterly depraved contradiction “it is difficult not to write satire” [“difficile est saturam non scribere”]. The satire Agostini has created has achieved a novel shock effect, one that comes out of forcing the collision of two hitherto-unknown worlds. The new world of photographic documenatry realism and the old world of the transposed beast fable (transmogrified into high satiric art by the etching needles of Goya and Gillray) are thrown into each others’ arms on terms of aesthetic equality.

Works Cited

O Mequetrefe. Rio de Janeiro, 1885.

Revista Illustrada. Rio de Janeiro, 1888.

George, Mary Dorothy. Catalogue of the Political and Personal Satires: Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. London: British Museum, 1935–4.

Goya, Francisco, y Lucientes. Los desastres de la guerra, etching sequence. Madrid: 1815–20.

Kunzle, David. History of the Comic Strip, 2 vols. Berkeley/Los Angeles: U of California P, 1973–90

List of Figures

Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figure 4:


Published @ RC

December 2014