Our Lady of desires
Among the stories that traverse the work and, above all, the life of Maria Martins is her involvement with Marcel Duchamp. Aside from their social and artistic interaction, Maria and Duchamp had an intense love relationship. Duchamp met the artist upon his arrival in New York in 1942, and since then his encounters with Maria were frequent. Two well-known works by Duchamp were inspired by and dedicated to his "impossible bride": Paisage fautif [Faulty landscape] from 1946 and Étant donnés, one of his referential works executed secretly throughout a period of twenty years from 1944 to 1966. The matter and the meaning of Paisage fautif, a raised drawing, made on a fluid material over black velvet, was always a mystery to critics and researchers, until, in 1989, as a result of an exhibit in Houston, Texas, it was discovered that the material used was sperm, probably DuchampËs own. Paisage fautif, was therefore an homage to the woman that the artist loved but whom he could not marry, because she had chosen to remain as the wife of the Ambassador Carlos Martins. The installation Étant donnés, was originally called Étant donnés: Maria, the waterfall and the gas of lighting, as can be inferred from the initial studies and drawings. The work shows a female nude, lying with splayed legs in a state of abandonment. In the Ë50s the work was modified. The title was changed to Étant donnés: 1st the waterfall, 2nd the gas of lighting. The color of the anonymous womanËs hair, which originally was black like MariaËs, was changed to blonde, closer to that of TeenyËs hair, whom Duchamp married in 1954.
In one of the many letters that he used to send to the artist, Duchamp would refer to Maria as notre-dame des désirs [our lady of desires].5 In fact, in Maria Martins, desire goes beyond letters and other limits of personal life, to permeate her entire work.
The artist created a remarkable amalgam, where men and women, animals, forests and swamps appear to echo sensuality. She manipulates images, imbuing them with desire, violence and lyricism and in so doing, ascribing to them a mythical condition. In particular, bronze is treated in such a way that through autonomous nuances, it replicates the organic nature, the textures and porosity of the human skin and of natural sap.
Each one of her works, most of which are marked by titles that confer them a narrative, epic or autobiographical character, articulates a discourse on the erotic and the feminine. The design of her sculptures are metonymies of desire.
Boiuna, for example, has its body covered by recurring details reminiscent of mouths or vulvas. Maria herself describes her work as a female character, a cobra-monster and an evil spirit: "Boiuna in her prophetic rounds, killing men·Boiuna with her countless mouths, sucking their blood, draining out their strength. Boiuna, the specter of every secret pleasure, of every stolen ecstasy. The revenge of the gods!"6
The piece Cobra grande, from the same series, presents an even more ornamental image: the cobra-goddess supported by, wrapped around and hanging from two organic pedestals, which evoke plants, trees and roots plunged in the soil. This is how Maria describes the character: "[. . .] she is the queen of all the Amazon goddesses. She is the goddess that summons night to the world, in order to stop the light of day from harming her eyes whenever she visits her realm, in the immense and unknown region of the Amazon. She has the cruelty of a monster and the tenderness of a wild fruit."
By counteracting cruelty against tenderness, Maria Martins appears to be commenting on her own personality. Feminine power and eroticism seem to converge in a work whose theme is the intrinsic solitude of the human being, resulting from a permanently dissatisfied desire and the impossibility of consummating the fusion of two bodies. Sculptures that exhibit "empty embraces" are in that realm. In works such as Sem eco [Without an echo], of 1943, and Saudade [Longing], of 1944, arms encircle space, transforming themselves into twisted spirals, wrapped around a desperate desire to embrace someone. In those hollow labyrinths of desire, the arms remain alone.
5. More details about the relationship of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp can be found in Calvin TomkinsË Duchamp: a biography, New York: Henry Holt, 1996, chapter 15, and in the article "The bachelorËs quest," by Francis M. Nauman, published in Art in America, September 1993.