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(Painter: 1903 - 1962)
by Cristina Vaz
Translated by Márcia Cardoso
THE LAND OF PLANTATIONS
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.
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.
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
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.
days before the end of 1903 Cândido Portinari is born.
early years are spent between the village and coffee plantations, enjoying
the serenity and routines that will never be erased from his memory.
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
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.
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:
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.
|FROM THE SEED TO THE FRUIT...|
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.
feels the need to observe more than to work.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Portinari and figurative painting...”
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.
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
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.
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.
so I had to tell them: my painting is the painting of peasants; if
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
...FROM THE FRUIT COME THE BEANS...
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.
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.
Brasil, the suffering is caused by the natural elements. The northeast
region is afflicted by great droughts with terrible consequences for the
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
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.
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.
...THE BEANS TO MAKE THE COFFEE...
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
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.
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:
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
believes that his painting is still the best form to disseminate ideas,
even though these might , sometimes, get him into trouble.
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
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.
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.
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...
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.
the following year, in February, he has another bout with poisoning caused
by painting materials and, this time, it proves to be fatal.