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(Painter: 1903 - 1962)

by Cristina Vaz

Translated by Márcia Cardoso


Cândido Portinari by him self.



1903: Cândido Portinari is born in Brodósqui, São Paulo, Brazil - 1912: Collaborates in the painting of the Church of Brodósqui. - 1918: Moves to Rio de Janeiro to study painting - 1921: Is admitted to the  School of Painting of the Academy of Fine Arts. -1922: Exhibits his first work. -1928: He is awarded a European Fellowship. - 1930: Marries Maria Martinelli. - 1935: His oil painting "Café" wins Second Honourable Mention in New York. - 1936: Paints his first murals.  He is appointed  Painting Teacher. - 1937: Starts the murals of the Ministry of Education Building. - 1938: The Museum of Modern Art, in  New York, acquires his painting "Morro" - 1939: His son, João Cândido, is born. - 1940: Exhibits in the United States. - 1943: Runs for the House of Representatives. - 1945: Finishes the murals of the Ministry of Education Building. Becomes a member of  the Communist Party. - 1946: Exhibits in Paris. - 1947: Runs for the Senate. Exhibits in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. - 1950: Visits Italy. Participates in the Venice Bienal. - 1952: Brazilian Government invites him to paint two panels to be donated to the United Nations’ headquarters in New York. - 1954: Suffers a hemorrhage, due to an intoxication caused by  paints. - 1955: Illustrates "A Selva", a novel by Ferreira de Castro. - 1956: Travels to Israel and Italy. - 1962: Dies, due to an intoxication by painting materials.



"Mestiço" - 1934, oil on canvas


The State of São Paulo is the region of coffee. It is not enough just to produce coffee, it is also necessary to transport it to towns that will enable it to reach the most remote areas.

Brooswisqui is the Polish engineer in charge of the railway construction in that State. It is a work of such a magnitude that one could never forget this man. In order to perpetuate his memory, a small village adopts his name with an easier way of spelling it - Brodósqui.

The village is not large, it is similar to many others: a church and a group of white houses. The village is surrounded by plantations where many people work – blacks, half-breeds and whites – some of them being immigrants.

Mr. and Mrs. Portinari arrive from Italy, dreaming of having a better life. They will be rich, as far as having children is concerned - they will have thirteen - and among them a special one will be outstanding.

Three days before the end of 1903 Cândido Portinari is born.

His early years are spent between the village and coffee plantations, enjoying the serenity and routines that will never be erased from his memory.

At the age of 9, he collaborates with other Italian artists to restore the paintings in the Church of Brodósqui.  It is said that he is in charge of painting the stars. Anyway, whatever he does  is quite enough to have his skills noticed. The boy should learn how to draw, but there is no place for it in the village. He must  still wait a little longer.

He is only 15  when he moves to Rio de Janeiro, traveling alone since he is no longer a boy who needs company.  His parents don’t have enough money to pay for his studies and lodging, so he works in a boarding-house during the day which will guarantee him a place to sleep, even if it is only in the bathroom. 

In his spare time he attends classes at the "Escola de Artes e Ofícios".  Later he applies for the painting course in the School of Fine Arts, where he is admitted in 1921. Impossible for him to stop. The following year he takes part in the "Salão Nacional de Belas Artes".  From now on, he will never miss an exhibition.   In 1925, when he is awarded a silver medal, he already attracts the attention of the critics:

"Cândido Portinari is a 23 years old painter from São Paulo who has a magnific talent for portrait painting... his technique is extensive and sharp. He captures  very well the models' resemblance and character. 

Manuel Bandeira

His aim is to win  first prize at the "Salão Nacional de Belas Artes" - the European Fellowship. Portinari knows very well what kind of painting pleases the jury. He changes slightly his way of painting and does a portrait of the poet  Olegário Mariano in keeping with the preferences of the Academy.  And so he wins the best prize of the "Salão" in 1928. The European Fellowship goes to him.





"Café" - 1925, oil on canvas, National Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro.



Europe has lots of  things Portinari wants to know. He spends a great part of his time traveling around, he visits England, Italy, Spain and finally decides to settle down in Paris.  

Portinari feels the need to observe more than to work. 

He is fascinated by the Italian renaissance artists  Giotto and Piero della Francesca. In Paris, he enjoys Matisse and Cezanne. Everything is of great value to his apprenticeship, everything gives him another way of seeing things:

From here I can see my homeland so much better  - I can see Brodósqui as it really  is.  Here, I don’t feel like doing anything.  I am going to paint "Palaninho", I'm going to paint those folk...  and when I go back I will try to paint my native land.

As a matter of fact, in France he will not paint very much, only three canvas will come in the luggage.  A very limited output production for someone who spent so much time in Europe. Something else is far more important to hims - his marriage to Maria Martinelli, who will be his companion for the rest of his life.

In Rio de Janeiro it is said: what good was the fellowship if  he has so little to show for it? Portinari pays no attention to such comments. He is now more intent on applying everything he learned while he was abroad. Academic rules are left behind. He wants to find his own way of painting, his own way of seeing. 

He is deeply devoted to the work, but sometimes he lacks the money to buy canvas. He improvises by making use of his bed sheets. This is the only way he is able to produce as much as he wants. As for the themes, he choses all those things he had dreamed of in France - the village, the children at play, the coffee plantation.  The coffee plantation is so dear to him that it becomes the subject of a painting entitled Café. At the same time he begins his attempts at mural painting using the walls of the living room of his parents’ house in Brodósqui.

In 1935, the  International Exhibition of Modern Art, sponsored by the Carnegie Institute, is held in New York.  For the first time, Brazil takes part in this event and some Brazilian artists send their work. Portinari exhibits the oil painting he had done some time before - Café. It is awarded  Second Honourable Mention and is widely praised by American critics: "Cândido Portinari's Café is the spectacular presence of Brazil.” Soon, he will reap the fruits of what he has planted.




“Portinari and figurative painting...”


































"Portinari's granddaughter, Denise, with white lamb, oil on canvas, 1961"


After the market crash in 1929, American art is influenced by social conditions. The economic recession affects many people, particularly the underprivileged population -  peasants and workers.

Artists will not remain indifferent to what is happening around them. New concepts come forth. Art for art’s sake, so much to European taste, is no longer enough.  It is necessary to show reality - the social conditions of the times. There is nothing better than the human figure to express such reality. Figurative painting comes into its own. Large murals are painted throughout America, more easily understood by a  larger number of people.  In Mexico, Rivera shows the better way to be in touch with the common people through large wall paintings.  

Portinari expressed much of this social reality in his Café. Men’s bodies deformed by heavy loads of bags over their shoulders. The feet of his figures, enormously shaped, are planted on the ground,looking as if they are part of it. America was able to understand him. Brazil can not be indifferent to this international recognition. After all,  he is now a renowned artist. When the Arts Institute is established, Celso Kelly invites Portinari to assume the Painting Department. In the following year, Gustavo Capanema, minister of Education,  contracts him to make the wall paintings for the Ministry. The purpose is to show the role of education in the workplace, through an economic and, in a certain way,  historical perspective covering the various cycles that occurred in Brazil: the cycles of pau-brasil, sugarcane and gold mining. Portinari studies these topics, asks a lot of questions.  Then he draws his own conclusions – alongside the people who, like himself, work from sunup to sundown. He could never forget his own roots, himself a peasant, born into a family of peasants.

And so I had to tell them: my painting is the painting of  peasants; if you  accept my peasants, that is fine; if you do not, then get another painter. It was then that I painted, in historical order, the series based on subjects such as  gold, tobacco, cattle, etc.

 The building of Ministry of Education and Culture is a project by the architect Oscar Niemayer, with the collaboration of Le Corbusier. Portinari decides to make a detailed previous study. For a period of time he devotes himself to preparation studies for the murals. In 1937, he begins to paint. The task is very intensive and he usually works 16 hours a day.  He can rightfully repeat his favorite phrase:  I am a monster when it comes to work.  In spite of that, he will have to work there for a few years. He finishes the mural only in 1945 and, in the meantime, he engages in a number of other projects.

In 1939, he is commissioned to paint three large panels to be shown in the Brazilian Pavilion at the New York World's Fair. By this time he also makes his first individual exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. In this same year, his wife gives birth to João Cândido, his son – this is sweetness. World War II breaks out in Europe – this is a scourge.

The echos of war arrive slowly, it is only the beginning. Portinari is fascinated by his son. He paints the boy’s portrait inspired by parental tenderness . Possibly believing in a better future.

From New York comes the invitation to an individual show, to be held at the Museum of Modern Art. It is an important event where hundreds of guests will be present. The results could have been good, after all every one of the paintings in the exhibit is sold. However, Portinari will returns with a feeling of sadness:

In America, an individual exhibition is a very serious event. Opening day calls for  tailcoats and great luxury. The exhibitor is allowed to invite only eight or ten people. So I indicated ten black men to be my guests. Not one of them received the invitation. 

Portinari will not lose the chance of doing something against this situation. In 1942, he gets his opportunity. He is invited to paint murals in the Library of Congress, in Washington. The themes will deal with American History – if they did not want black people at the exhibition in New York,  now black people will always be present in the Library so that they will never be forgotten. There is still much to be done regarding social conditions and painting will probably not be enough. 




"Os Retirantes" - 1944, oil on canvas. Permanent collection, São Paulo Museum.














"Dead Child" (Cycle of "Os Retirantes"), 1944/45, oil on canvas.


During his stay in New York, Portinari sees a painting which impresses him deeply – Guernica. The war as seen by Picasso, in a cubist form, without the use of color. He is astonished by it. 

The Nazis are now in power in Germany. Uncountable tragic reports are arriving continuously from Europe. The world is at war and people suffer its conseqüences. Death is everywhere. 

In Brasil, the suffering is caused by the natural elements. The northeast region is afflicted by great droughts with terrible consequences for the peasants.

Many artists and intellectuals use their art to portray the reality around them - Jorge Amado, Érico Veríssimo, Graciliano Ramos.  Portinari does not shy way from exposing these conditions. He reflects them, he expresses them in his paintings. Colors vanish,  tragedy is present on the canvas. The paintings show the "Retirantes" (T.N. fugitives from the droughts), present in some of his works. They are the disadvantaged, deprived of everything, no work, no life, whose only expectation is death, as expressed in his painting Criança Morta (Dead Child). 

In 1944, Portinari begins painting the murals  for the Church of Pampulha – first he paints S.Francisco, then the Via Crucis. The paintings are very expressionistic.

But Portinari has interests other than painting. It is time to explore other activities - his political side. Everybody knows him, everybody listens to him. He becomes a member of the Communist Party and presents himself as a candidate for Congress, so that he can better spread his message describing the conditions he knows so well.  His political campaign includes an exhibit of his work in S. Paulo, but the exhibit is prohibited by local authorities.  In the meantime, the Archbishop of Belo Horizonte refuses to consecrate the Church of Pampulha alleging that the murals are much too materialistic. Perhaps there are stronger reasons, as Portinari’s political tendencies are beginning to displease many people, especially since they are so clearly expressed.

Portinari does not give it up and goes as far as running for senator. Brazil is facing difficult moments and the Communist Party displeases the authorities. Portinari, as well as many others intellectuals, is interrogated by the police. More controversies for a man who had once been accused of being the Government's official painter. He'd better leave for a while, and besides there is an exhibit to attend to in Uruguay. He returns the following year, on time to see his Party being dissolved by the Government. Gradually, he begins to withdraw from political activities.  Anyway, there is always his painting to express a lot of things.




"WAR" - 1955 - Panel at UN Headquarters in New York City. 



The world is concerned with establishing peace. The headquarters of the organization that will prevent the return of war, the United Nations (UN), is located in the United States, a nation which helped to end World War II.

The Brazilian Government decides to donate two panels to the UN. Portinari is again invited to do the paintings. In 1952, he starts to work on them: one panel will be “War”, the other will be “Peace.” It will take him 4 years to finish and show them for the first time in Brazil; soon thereafter they are sent to their final destination.

While painting the panels, Portinari falls seriously sick. The diagnosis is not promising. The disease is the result of poisoning caused by the toxicity of hispainting materials. He must stop painting. This is impossible for someone to whom painting means life. In fact, painting has been his greatest concern, now that art seems to be taking a different path which does not at all please Portinari, as he says in an interview:

Painting, which used to be the best  means of propagating ideas, today needs an enormous amount of publicity to survive. In the past, it  served religion and the state, now it serves no one. It has been replaced by other more effective and direct means, such as the movies, TV, radio, newspapers... Will painting survive as a means of expression and as a profession?  

Portinari believes that his painting is still the best form to disseminate ideas, even though these might , sometimes, get him into trouble.

A tireless crusade against communists is now rampaging across the United States. Everything and everyone is a suspect. Portinari’s leftist tendencies are not at all accepted, so how can anyone show any admiration for him?

The panels arrive at the UN, but their exhibition to the public is postponed. In Rio de Janeiro there are protests against this situation - send the panels back! Later, diplomacy steps in. Finally, in 1957, they are exhibited to the public in the exact location they were originally meant to be shown.

In the late 50s,  he begins to make illustrations for several books, and among them is "A Selva", by Ferreira de Castro. He travels to Italy and Israel, creates a portfolio of drawings of Israel, and keeps taking part in various exhibitions.

In 1960, Portinari holds his last exhibit. His canvases express a little of his new influence - geometric abstractionism, some will say. But some of the critics do not spare him – they find his paintings academic, perhaps led by his statements, such as:

... As for the rest, those who paste pieces of gunnysack, pieces of glass, scraps of paper, etc. on canvas,  proclaiming themselves as modern artists, that is nonsense: it has nothing to do with the people, and much less is it modern...

In spite of it all, Portinari goes on painting; neither the critics nor medical advice can make him stop. In 1961, he paints a portrait of his grandchild - Denise.

In the following year, in February, he has another bout with poisoning caused by painting materials and, this time, it proves to be fatal.

Painting did not kill him; he just gave his life for it.



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