Clashing Colors

    Clashing Colors

    Considered by some one of the best Brazilian painters, Cândido
    Portinari has also been the center of inflamed criticism about the artistic value of his
    work. Some have accused him of plagiarizing Picasso and lacking any originality. He was a
    walking contradiction. Communist, he made the official portrait of dictator Getúlio
    Vargas; atheist, he didn’t shy from painting saints. With more than 4500 works to his
    credit, Portinari’s popularity remains high though.
    By Rosemary Gund

    Cândido Portinari, considered by many as the major artist of Brazilian modern art, is
    finally granted—after more than 30 years—an exhibit retrospective of all his
    work. The exhibit, entitled "Drama e Poesia," opened in São Paulo on December
    25th of last year at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) and was coordinated by the
    Projeto Portinari, created by Portinari’s only son João Cândido Portinari.

    The São Paulo exhibit had more than 200 works by the artist, which is not a lot when
    we talk about Portinari, an artist that worked incessantly and produced more than four
    thousand and five hundred paintings, many of which could not be relocated.

    The exhibit was launched together with a catalog with texts by the late writer and
    close friend Antônio Callado, and also reproductions of some of Portinari’s paintings.
    After São Paulo, the exhibit was planned to go to all major cities in the country and
    then travel to Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Zurich and possibly New York.

    The great novelty of this exposition is the fact that its great majority is composed of
    works of Portinari that belonged to private collections to which the general public had no
    access. According to the actual curator of the exposition, Christina Penna, the title
    "Drama e Poesia" is associated to the "parallel between the lyric and the
    tragic present in Portinari’s work."

    In fact, more towards the end of his life, the painter revealed this divided facet that
    is the idea of the title of the exposition. The artist unfolded himself through his images
    and poetry. His posthumous book entitled "Poemas" was published in 1964 and
    revealed his need to invoke his childhood through another form of expression, the written
    form, with which, according to his friend Callado, he felt he was a bit clumsy.

    Art as a Tradition

    Portinari was born in an little town called Brodowski, in the state of São Paulo, on
    December 13, 1903. He was the second out of 12 children from a family of Italian
    immigrants from Florence—the capital of Renaissance art—that had gone to Brazil
    to work on the coffee plantations.

    The town, formerly known as the "Pineapple Land," today is more of an art and
    culture center inspired on the legacy of its most noble citizen. Even if Portinari lived
    there just until after he completed 15 years of age, when he moved to Rio, his image will
    always be associated with his hometown that he subjectively represented in the series of
    paintings "Meninos de Brodowski" (Brodowski Boys).

    Portinari’s family lived there until 1958 and he visited them every Christmas. The
    white colonial style house with blue windows, located in the central part of town, has
    been the museum Casa Portinari since 1970. There one can find many personal objects that
    belonged to Portinari, his first murals, religious paintings and some pencil, crayon and
    ink drawings. His studio and the little steps found by the big canvas remained as a
    testimony of Portinari’s short stature.

    Some of the furniture and everyday utensils also remained, like the stove, iron pots,
    porcelain teacups, armoires and beds. Every child in Brodowski today knows a little about
    Portinari. Apart from the museum, his legacy involves community projects that promote
    expositions, courses, workshops and painting sessions for children in front of the museum.
    On top of all that, his work is often used as a historical and cultural reference in
    schools.

    Nevertheless, the city has only one Portinari oil canvas exposed. Finished in 1942, the
    painting of Santo Antônio, exposed in the little church at the Cândido Portinari square
    in front of the museum, apparently extracted some tears out of two Italian priests from
    Rome when visiting the town.

    In the Capela da Nonna ( Grandma’s Chapel), a little church linked to the museum and
    place where his grandmother used to pray, the pictures he made of the Sacred Family in
    1941 show the faces of his wife, father and brother.

    A Much Disputed
    Modernism

    Even if nationally recognized, Portinari has been the center of inflamed criticism
    about the true artistic value of his work. Accused by many of having developed an art that
    is merely an interpretation of Picasso’s cubism and that therefore lacks in originality,
    this revisionist exhibit served to reignite the debate over the modern character of his
    work.

    This essentially emotional artist of divided character is defined by some as a
    "regretful academic" that never had any modern talent. They cite as an example
    all the pictures he made of celebrities and socialites to illustrate the nature of his
    supposedly "emotionally appealing" communism and connect them to the fact that
    he felt more comfortable with this form of expression than in the "Picassean"
    form of socio-critical tone.

    Portinari however has always provoked some polemic. Communist, he was the one who
    painted the portrait of then dictator Getúlio Vargas, which rendered him the fame of
    official artist of the Vargas regime. A self-declared atheist, Portinari painted more
    saints than maybe his party comrades would have approved, fact that could be explained by
    looking at his own ethnical roots. Son of Italian immigrants from Florence, known as the
    cradle of renaissance art, his artistic formation may very well have been heavily
    influenced by Catholicism and the religious Italian art tradition or maybe simply his own
    passion for his art did not allow him to limit his themes. 

    But in the view of art critic Rodrigo Naves, as expressed in an article for magazine Veja,
    Portinari has a sentimental style that tried to appeal to "socially innocuous"
    emotions, used with the specific purpose of attaining recognition.

    "When confronted with these works it is practically impossible to avoid a response
    of a sentimental order. They provoke, in a irremediable manner, piety, indignation,
    sadness, desolation and revolt," declared Naves.

    Art historian Annateresa Fabris said in an interview published by the Estado de São
    Paulo that his paintings contrasted with the ideology of the authoritarian government
    of that time and according to her "this contrast can be seen by the presence of
    blacks in his paintings, in a moment when blacks were accused of many evils."

    Picasso’s influence in his work is for many a natural response, because Picasso was the
    great neoclassic model to be followed. Portinari was therefore modern under the
    limitations of a Brazilian reality that did not synchronize with the European movements.

    Art coordinator Fernando Cocchiarale explained in an interview to the newspaper O Estado
    de São Paulo that Portinari’s modernism is according to him "a modernism of
    return to the order, through the reutilization of the perspective, of volume affirmation
    and the use of all the surface of the canvas. Portinari resisted a plastic renovation and
    provoked a delay in the development of Brazilian art." Nevertheless he recognizes his
    importance as modern, according to the conservative limits in vigor in the Brazilian
    society of that time.

    Portinari lived in fact trying to conciliate the contradiction of being man of leftist
    ideas, who could nevertheless fit into the totalitarian regime of the government of
    Getúlio Vargas. For many , like the curator of São Paulo’s Modern Art Museum (MAM), his
    avant-garde was one of return to order, extremely conciliated and symbolizing of the
    authoritarianism of the government.

    Portinari’s work also won’t appear in the next São Paulo Bienal according to its
    curator Paulo Herkenkoff. In his view, Portinari "did not develop a cultural practice
    but a strategy of power… What has been done up to this point wasn’t a revision of his
    production but a revision of the myth created around the artist," he said in an
    interview to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

    Portinari’s Line

    Besides all the dispute, Portinari, who produced more that 4500 canvas, remains with an
    immense popularity even though his art was scarcely present in the quotidian of most
    Brazilians. Based maybe on the simple recognition of this fact, the Portinari
    Licenciamentos, managed by the economist Dora Kauffman, is launching products inspired on
    his work that vary from stationary articles and children’s games to decorated china and
    jewels.

    The licensing of a plastic artist brand name is new in Brazil and Kauffman affirms that
    she did an intense research in other countries before she started working on this project
    in Brazil. "We are doing a rigorous selection of commercial partners to guarantee the
    high quality of products and maximum fidelity to the characteristics of Portinari’s color
    and style in the licensed objects," affirmed Kauffman in an interview to O Estado.

    The products are carefully finished and aim a public of higher acquisitive power.
    According to Kauffman, to each product there was a detailed study to avoid a vulgarization
    of Portinari’s work. Some products like lingerie and sleepwear will not use the brand
    name, for example. Instead, the company made deals with great corporate names like Hering,
    Nestlé and H. Stern to launch lines with the artist’s name. Apparently this business
    strategy was not always very popular. In June of last year the then curator of the
    exhibit, Annateresa Fabris, abandoned the project because she did not appreciate what she
    called "invasions in the curatorship". According to Kauffman, the academic did
    not interact well with the project and Penna then assumed her position.

    The Work

    According to his son João Cândido, his father’s work is a "letter to the
    Brazilian nation; a letter that was portrayed through his eyes and that until recently it
    had not reached its destination." Among the works never exhibited to the general
    public, the visitor will see "O Baile na Roça", his first work of Brazilian
    theme made in 1923, which was censored in the Fine Arts Gallery in 1924. The painting
    "São Pedro e o Galo," influenced by Mexican muralism and created during the 40s
    is also in the exhibit.

    Penna points out the collection of six "Maria Rosa" drawings that the artist
    made for the book of the American Vera Keley and that were never seen in Brazil. Another
    fundamental work was the wall set up with portraits made by Portinari of his best friends,
    among whom are the writers Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rêgo, Graciliano Ramos and the
    poets Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Vinícius de Moraes.

    It is also exhibited his first work, a portrait of Carlos Gomes that the painter had
    copied from a pack of cigarettes and that he made when he was only 10 years old. His last
    canvas, left unfinished, is a painting of the Carajá Indian, from 1961 and that is also
    on the exhibit.

    The exhibit is not chronological but divides the work of Portinari in phases. That owes
    partly to the fact that his extensive production involved a problem of space for the
    organizers of the event. The series "Retirantes" that portray the tragedy of the
    migrant trying to escape from the northeastern drought is a good example of this emotional
    side of the artist that has been criticized so much in allegations of being insincere and
    coldly created to appeal to the public’s emotions.

    Portinari died when he was only 59 years old, as a result of intoxication by the lead
    on his paints, especially in the yellow and white, that he insisted in using even though
    his doctors had advised him not to. The paintings and panels he made for the church in
    Batatais in 1948 were created using, in its majority, a Dutch paint of extremely toxic
    composition that contained arsenic. His insistent use of this paint cost him a serious
    hospitalization in 1954, due to a grave hemorrhage, and eight years later his death, when
    he was preparing an exhibit for the Royal Palace in Milan.

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