“In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different”, says Aristophanes, the Greek playwright, at the beginning of his speech in Plato’s Symposium. “The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two.”
The male gender was made of two male halves, the female gender of two female halves and the androgyne of a male half and a female half. He goes on describing them: “the shape of each human being was a rounded whole, with back and sides forming a circle. Each one had four hands and the same number of legs, and two identical faces on a circular neck. They had one head for both of the faces, which were turned in opposite directions, four ears, two sets of genitals, and everything else was as you would imagine from what I’ve said so far.”
After enraging the gods with their arrogance, Zeus weakened the humans by separating them. “Since their original nature had been cut in two”, Aristophanes goes on to explain, “each one longed for its own other half and stayed with it. They threw their arms round each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to form a round living thing.” Depending on their original gender, men would be longing for men, women for women, and those once part of an androgynous whole were pining for the opposite sex.
Looking at Ismael Nery’s art, I couldn’t escape the echoes of the myth of Aristophanes. Time and time again, the Brazilian artist combined the two genders, resulting in surreal androgynous figures, mashed together. I do not know whether Nery was familiar with Plato, one would certainly expect so, but his quest for spirituality led him to develop his own doctrine, which he called Essentialism. Essentialism was a sort of mystical, humanistic Catholicism, based on the abstraction of time and space, claiming that people didn’t need to die in order to fuse with the divine. They could be at one with god while living. Nery was advocating for oneness in soul and body, his art bordering on the metaphysical.
Painted in a Surrealist fashion, Desire for Love (Desejo de Amor) employs several of the Brazilian’s signature themes. Set against a desert landscape, an eerie figure – lacking a human head – is occupying much of the scene. There is a temple and grass on the left side, while on the right we have the desert and a cloud hovering over what appears to be a couple dancing. The space seems contracted, as if there is no middle ground, distance and proximity blending together.
While Nery saw art as a means to express his ideas, considering himself mainly a philosopher, Desire for Love is no less visually captivating. Let’s start with the dominating figure. Initially, when seeing the breast, you might think you’re looking at a woman. Upon closer inspection, however, you might notice the large hand, the muscular arms and the upper chest, lacking the delicacy of a woman’s collarbone. The arm, holding a towel, is also covering the left half of the chest, which might have shown us less equivocally that we’re gazing at an androgynous figure.
Looking at the head, you might observe the blue-gray outline with a hole in it, which goes down to the left shoulder. This is something that Nery frequently illustrated to point out the presence of the spiritual, the oneness he thought was so essential for humans to attain. The hole also appears in several of his other paintings, usually when two heads merge, sharing the same eye. Meanwhile, the overall head, I believe, is showing the spiritual (the blue-gray shape) coalescing with the earthly, material world, as indicated by the rhizome-like root.
The couple to the right, seemingly on the main figure’s shoulder, yet casting a shadow on the desert landscape, is more grounded in the material world and in the physical reality of their love, as they tenderly dance and embrace each other.
My impression is that Nery was trying to reinforce the idea that the material world is an integral part of the divine. The two rocks from the right are what ultimately make up the temple. The green grass is also in opposition to the arid landscape, suggesting germination of ideas and the spirit. His main figure is symbolizing an ideal, all-encompassing love, while the couple to the right indicates the physical expression of love. Nery has built a universe of extremes to emphasize the unity for which he deeply longed.