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Paranoia or mystification

Aleijadinho, if he existed, served many ideologies

St. João Evangelista

reproductions from the book, ‘O Aleijadinho e sua oficina’ St. João Evangelistareproductions from the book, ‘O Aleijadinho e sua oficina’

In the millionaire art market critics hotly argue to prove whether a work is by Aleijadinho, or not. After all, works of art, like shares, are only worth as much as they are believed in. In both cases there are risks and more than one “truth”. In the case of Aleijadinho, he has already served for many of them: for Mário de Andrade and modernism he was the great “nativist forerunner” of Brazilian identity, resulting from a mixture of races; for Gilberto Freyre he was the “master of Brazilian caricature, producing less out of devotion than because of his anger at being a mulatto and sick, and because of his revolt against the white masters of the colony”. There were even those, like arch-chauvinist, Count Affonso Celso, who in 1901 stated that “Aleijadinho carved an instrument similar to an airplane with which, as a predecessor of the glorious Santos Dumont, he managed to lift off from the earth and ride in the inconsistency of space”, like a Da Vinci from Minas Gerais.

“Idealization and mystification of him began around 50 years after his death, made him a national hero and the topic of different programs for constructing a ‘Brazilian cultural identity’. Aleijadinho is an image that was reinvented to adjust to the political objectives of each age”, is the assessment of historian Guiomar de Grammont, author of the PhD thesis Aleijadinho and the airplane defended in 2002 at USP, and who has just launched it as a book, published by Civilização Brasileira. “If the person of Antônio Francisco Lisboa , associated with the so-called Aleijadinho, did not exist he was invented in the 19th century. Most probably, ‘Aleijadinho’ is a mental construction of the discourses that resound in history and with which they made the figure of artist Antônio Francisco Lisboa coincide.” He will serve many masters other than the Church, even after his death: the ideological project for inventing national and regional traditions, from the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute (IHGB), patronized by Pedro II; the modernism of São Paulo that reinvented the figure of Aleijadinho as an “alchemist hero who, brilliant mulatto that he was, came to bring about the impossible unity of Brazilian races, a rediscovery of the roots of national culture”; and the authoritarian project of the regime of Vargas who wanted to make traditional Catholicism and the cult of symbols and leaders of the fatherland the mythical basis of a strong and powerful nation State. “In fact, there is no document that refers to Francisco Lisboa as ‘Aleijadinho’. What we have are statements from travelers, like Saint-Hilaire or Richard Francis Burton, and others, based merely on popular memory; or references to documents that today have disappeared, if they truly ever existed”, notes the researcher. “The only documentary records that would lead us to suppose that the artist was sick are payments made to people (“blacks”) who for an unspecified reason carried him so he could review his works.”

The first text talking about a sculptor called “Aleijadinho” and the source of practically all the subsequent texts about the issue is that of Rodrigo José Bretas, a partner of the IHGB, and which was published in 1858 in Correio Oficial de Minas. Bretas was actively involved with the “romantic and nationalist” wing of the institute that preached interpreting history as the “mistress of life”. “Their main concern was the integration of groups, like the Indians, and of regional history, in a national construction project, with which to reaffirm the organic link between the regions and the center of the Empire. An important aspect was the so-called ‘biographic notes about regional celebrities’ which would allow the IHGB to erect a pantheon to national heroes.” The myth of a deformed genius from Minas Gerais was perfect. Bretas, like the Emperor, liked Victor Hugo and found inspiration in the hunchback of Notre-Dame for molding the character in his “biography”. “From 1838, uses of the colonial past affirmed the unity, originality, identity and tropical authenticity of the white, land-owning and Catholic elite. Later, they would serve the positivist chauvinism of the republican State and also the patriotism and civism of the New State and the military dictatorship of 1964”, in the analysis of João Adolfo Hansen, thesis tutor. The portrayal of Bretas, the “original sin” of the myth, will not only serve as the romantic invention of the artist as a monstrous genius, made solitary and taciturn by illness, but will also generate interpretations of the work of the “monster” as the expressive portrait of his tormented personality. “It is common to apply ‘psychologizing’ concepts to his works that are totally alien to the universe of the artisans of the 18th century, in which issues like ‘authenticity’, ‘authorship’ and ‘originality’ were not raised”, observes Guiomar. It would therefore be more coherent to talk about an “Aleijadinho style” than the style of Aleijadinho. “If this figure existed he’s not thought of as one of the artisans who came from an artistic tradition that started in Pernambuco and Bahia, in the 16th and 17th centuries and continued into the 18th.”

St Manuel

reproductions from the book, ‘O Aleijadinho e sua oficina’ St Manuelreproductions from the book, ‘O Aleijadinho e sua oficina’

It was necessary to completely cultivate the singular, self-taught genius, whose talent had “sprung out of nothing”. “Even his illness is a counterpart to the extraordinary gifts he received at the hands of God; he is the typical hero, whose virtues are always accompanied by a fatality that characterizes his humanity and allows everybody to identify with him”, he observes. Unfortunately, the whole discussion about the empirical existence, or otherwise, of the person of Aleijadinho is as based on the myth as are the texts that simply reinforce Bretas’ version without questioning it. To all this was also added with a degree of perfection the historical construction of the “cultural baroque hero”, that was developed in Spanish American countries and reached Brazil, transforming the concept of baroque into an “art of counter-conquest”, a culture of resistance that faces up to the imperialism of hegemonic cultures. “He is the Adamic hero, capable of bringing about a cross between the Old World and the New, the humble demiurge who in art will recreate a hybrid world, formed from contradictory elements from Europe and the Americas”, explains the author. “Aleijadinho as an ideal figure, formed in this imagined world of the genius hero: because he was a mullato he is the product of the crossing of the races that formed the country, an aspect that the Modernism of 1922 raised to a paroxysm. His illness puts the finishing touches to the tragedy that was Aleijadinho.” To create the myth, anything goes: the isolated genius, who appears without any training or education in the midst of tenebrous difficulties, a magic appearance in a slave society in which there was no room for such a supposedly profound “artistic autonomy” that was attributed to him. “The devastating affect of the illness is amplified and the collective work becomes a blurred background against which the figure of Aleijadinho emerges as the bearer of this creative power from the gods.”

There is, however, absolutely nothing that proves this myth. “There’s not even any documentary proof that Antônio Francisco Lisboa drew the plans of the churches of São Francisco, Ouro Preto and São João Del Rei. There’s not even a document that states that he ever worked in São João Del Rei. There are just unfounded inferences”, he states. Ironically these churches are today seen in Brazil and abroad as symbols of the country, in the same way that tropical forests, soccer and samba are. Another important point is the contradiction between the social statutes of the “artisan” and “artist”, which at the time were antagonistic forms of production warning us of the danger of accepting contemporary values or romantic notions of “genius” and “originality”, alien to the historical individuals involved in the production of the time. Art was the production of an almost anonymous group of people, of workshops. “In Minas it was possible that the foreman of the workshop was not the most gifted of the members of the group in his workshop, or even, who knows in this society in which work is naturally anonymous, it might be that there were foremen who just finished off works that were going for auction to delegate them to helpers or outsourced services.” Might this have been the case with Antônio Francisco Lisboa?

“There’s a possibility that the wood carver had under his orders one or more extremely brilliant and expert slaves, whose ‘authorship’ has disappeared over the course of history. Who knows if the ‘authors’ of the most interesting works attributed to Francisco Lisboa were not his slaves?” When constructing “Master Aleijadinho” modernists opted for another view. “The idealized figure of the artist will fit like a glove the personalist image of the national artist coming from the model of nascent cultural syncretism. This is the Aleijadinho who emerges from the voyage of the modernists to Minas Gerais from 1917 on in search of the so-called roots of Brazilian art, which emphasized racial and cultural miscegenation. This vision was also largely a reaction against an extreme and often depreciative look at all this and the internalization of this look on the part of Brazilians”, he analyses. It was necessary to “save Brazil” in journeys around the “old towns of Minas” in order to give more meaning to “Brazilian creative awareness”. “It’s interesting to observe how the Aleijadinho of  Mário de Andrade, a paradigm of mixed races, is different from the Aleijadinho of Bretas, a paradigm of the solitary, tragic, wretched, albeit noble, in the sense of ‘son of something’ or someone, an artist, or someone white and honored.” The idealized artist, like the “baroque one”, who justifies his existence, notes the researcher, is a representation that originates from the concerns of each context in which it is proposed. “However much it seems there was a real Aleijadinho to whom all these texts referred, a less hasty interpretation reveals the differences in the various figures of the artist that follow one upon the other in his story.”

St. Madalena

reproductions from the book, ‘O Aleijadinho e sua oficina’ St. Madalenareproductions from the book, ‘O Aleijadinho e sua oficina’

So, leaving aside the Byzantine question of the existence of an Aleijadinho, how can this style that so many art critics make an effort to recognize, by valuing some works in the millions and others for a few reais, be understood? “An integral part of the mystical body of the Church and the Portuguese Empire, Aleijadinho’s style is not illuminist, nor classical, or baroque, but pathetic, an emulation of the artistic authorities that reached Minas via engravings and the artistic practice of learned sculptors, like the subtle  Francisco Xavier de Brito”, Hansen believes. Whatever it was, observes the researcher, unlike the romantic hypothesis that artists from Minas were directly “influenced” by European engravings, which they appropriated anthropophagously with “extreme originality”, what we see is a close affiliation with what was being done in Portugal. “What we can definitely say about this whole Aleijadinho question is that there was an intense circulation of techniques and proposals, suggesting an even greater effervescence than the one we know nowadays. Far from being closed by the colonial monopoly, the Spanish American colonies reveal an extreme creative vitality, brought about by a circulation of knowledge that is just as dynamic or more so than the exchange of material wealth”, says Guiomar. In a world of privilege and hierarchy, art served as ostentation and therefore technical and artistic knowledge was one of the most sought after and valued goods.

In 2006 Pirelli do Brasil discovered the high cost of the risk of being surprised by the suspicion of a falsified donation it made to Masp of a painting by São Francisco de Paula, attributed to Aleijadinho. The company had bought it for US$ 350,000 in 1985. When it decided to donate it, it valued the item at R$ 2 million, an amount it would ask to be offset against income tax, using the benefits afforded by the Rouanet Law. A valuation by the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan), requested by the Ministry of Culture, questioned the work’s authenticity. Not recognized as being by Aleijadinho, the item was valued at R$ 120,000, less than half the purchase price and 16 times lower than the value intended with the donation to the museum.