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Flora, an encounter with the watercolors of Agustín Stahl

Selection of drawings 2013-2014

Flora, an encounter with the watercolors of Agustín Stahl

By Rafael Trelles


With this series of drawings I pay tribute to the memory of Dr. Agustín Stahl (1842-1917) who is considered the first renowned Puerto Rican scientist. This exhibition arose in response to an idea that my friend Francisco Pabón proposed to me several years ago. Pabón dreamed of a group exhibition of several Puerto Rican artists, each presenting a work inspired by Stahl's watercolors. I thought the idea was great and began working on a drawing. However, the creation process took much longer than expected, leading me to complete more than twenty works during 2013 and 2014.


The collaboration of Dr. Pedro Acevedo, who allowed me to use the digital archives of Stahl's watercolors from the Smithsonian Institution's collection, was essential for the project.     


I decided to intervene Stahl's work by introducing symbolic elements to subvert the scientific intention of his watercolors and link them to a mythical-magical conception of nature. 


Stahl's watercolors were made with the intention of illustrating the specimens of the Puerto Rican flora that he collected. His gaze is that of the scientist who objectively analyzes and classifies the natural world. This objectification of nature is based on the premise that there is an external reality that the subject can study, analyze and understand through reason. 


Without denying the usefulness of the scientific method, I wanted to contribute a complementary vision that starts from a holistic conception of reality where everything is united, including the subject and the object. I tried to achieve this by over-imposing an iconography that drags the watercolors into the realm of the symbolic and the mythical. In my works, Stahl's plant representations lose their scientific value to enter into metamorphic processes with humans and animals. Overall, the work presents an interdependent natural world where humans, animals and plants interact as part of an inseparable whole.


On the other hand, the simultaneous use of digital techniques and handmade drawing in the making of my drawings is in itself a metaphor for the encounter of science with the humanities.


But it would be a mistake to reduce Stahl's watercolors to a strictly scientific exercise. Although science was his main motivation, the fine workmanship of his illustrations and the elegance of his compositions reveal the author's aesthetic sensibility. To that sensitivity, to the love of nature and to the tenderness that emanate from these beautiful watercolors, my small tribute is also directed.

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