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The universal painter of the brazilian soul

Paintings by Portinari, revealing his love of peace, return to Brazil

REPRODUCTION“Mother and dead child”, one of the studies for the diptychREPRODUCTION

“The struggle for peace is a decisive and urgent task that brings together all of the peoples of the world, not only through words, but also through actions, to achieve the final victory of the quest for Peace, Culture, Progress and the Brotherhood of Men,” wrote Cândido Portinari (1903-1962) in 1949. Invited to participate in the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, held in New York, the painter’s entry visa request had been denied by the U.S. Embassy, which led him to send this message to be read in his absence. Two years later, Portinari was contacted by the Itamaraty, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations, which was commissioning a painting to be donated to the new headquarters of the United Nations Organization. Portinari did not think twice about accepting the commission when he was informed that he could chose one of three themes suggested by the Ministry of Foreign Relations for the painting. He chose war and peace (the other two themes were Brazil and the Americas and Brazil’s contribution to universal peace).

The result was the diptych War and Peace, which is coming back to Brazil this month to be restored by researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The painting will also be on show. An event will be held in 2011 to exhibit the diptych and the painting Quarto Retirante – Criança morta [Fourth emigrant – dead child], currently at the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, in Paris. This painting (from 1944) is part of the Retirantes [Emigrants] cycle. The three other paintings from this cycle are at the São Paulo Art Museum/MASP. Criança morta has never been shown in Brazil, as it was purchased by the French Government in 1946, after an exhibition of the painter’s works at France’s Galerie Charpentier. War and Peace and Emigrants show the enormous influence of Picasso’s Guernica, both in terms of the formal aspects and of the theme, on the work of Portinari, who had seen the work by Picasso in the United States in 1942.

“Under the impact of Guernica, Portinari dismembers and carves out his figures until they are reduced to an expressive essentiality. The migrants who provoke fear in the boy from the town of Brodósqui, with their burials in hammocks or bed sheets, becomes a symbol of an unfair society and of humanity torn by war in the eyes of the adult,” says historian Annateresa Fabris, from the School of Communications and Art (ECA) of the University of São Paulo (USP), who wrote the book Portinari, pintor social [Portinari, the socially aware painter] (published by Perspectiva). “The War and Peace panel doesn’t portray weapons, tanks or soldiers – it only shows the pain, which Portinari portrayed as the harshest suffering experienced by any human being ” expressed in the image of a mother who has lost her child. The panel has six to eight such figures, which resemble the Pietà. The Emigrants series, painted in the 1940’s, also portrays a mother and her dead child, also resembling the Pietà, which is inserted into a Brazilian drama. The War and Peace panel depicts the universal drama,” said João Cândido Portinari in his lecture at the opening of the exhibition at FAPESP, which will run until the end of the month and is dedicated to the painter. Visitors have the opportunity of viewing 25 works by the artist that illustrate the 2009 FAPESP Annual Report.

“Portinari, whose aesthetics focused on the monumental, was the most important Latin American muralist in terms of portraying war and the suffering of civilian populations. He painted mothers with dead children and nearly 70 misplaced people whose facial features resemble those of the emigrants from Brazil’s Northeast,” says Celso Lafer, chairman of FAPESP. The analogy between the diptych and the Fourth Emigrant seems obvious. “In Dead Child, the painting is no longer a drama exclusive to Brazil; it is transformed into a more universal cry of pain: it is the anguished cry of war-torn humankind,” says Annateresa. “In War and Peace, to escape from a time-specific interpretation, Portinari veers away from time and concentrates on the consequences of war on humanity instead of concentrating on war and peace.” In the words of the painter: “It is not the weapons that provoke the horror; it is the effects of wars: the desperate mothers, the orphans, the destroyed crops, the crippled children and everything else.”


The two paintings were produced during two different political periods when Getúlio Vargas was in power and reveal controversial aspects of the painter’s personality. Portinari was viewed by many critics as “the official painter of the State,” because of his success during these two periods. Prior to the Emigrants series, Portinari was viewed as overly “optimistic” in his portrayal of labor-related themes, as if he had accepted the populist ideology of the Estado Novo [New State] regime. “This ‘optimistic’ view of labor disappears when he paints Emigrants, whose second series, in 1944, clearly denounces the populist pact. To depict the miserable life of rural dwellers, ignored by the Getulio Vargas’ reforms, he portrays the reality of the migrants, the deaths along the way, the hostility of the environment,” says the researcher. “Forgotten by the social laws, the migrant is repelled by nature, and death flourishes where life should flourish. The migrant is the other face of the worker, he is the other face of social progress, he is the true face of the populist façade.”

According to the researcher, if we view the series as a crescendo (Dead child, Dead boy, Family of migrants, Burial in the hammock) we will see a breach in the resignation: the clenched fist and the spreading hands in the last painting of the series seem to send us to a dimension in which death is no longer passively accepted. In the so-called “Fourth Emigrant,” says Annateresa, the tragedy continues – it can be seen on the migrants’ faces and is also emphasized by the formal treatment of the canvas itself, in which a thick, vigorous brush stroke brings the painting’s texture closer to that of a sculpture. “The canvas, though painted, conveys the impression that it was carved out of wood. The main figure, holding a child, has a religious air: the despair of the man, more than a human drama, seems to evoke the pain of Mary looking at the dead body of Christ.”

“The series is the most significant representation of the expressionistic tendency adopted and developed by Portinari at the time of the Second World War. The painter, who did not witness the conflict directly, sought parallel manifestations, having been exposed to cruelty and misery as a child,” says historian Elza Ajzenberg, coordinator of the Mário Schenberg Center for the Documentation of Art Research of ECA-USP and author of Portinari: três tempos [Portinari: three moments], to be released next year by the Edusp publishing company. “Portinari’s attention centers on man – not the abstract entity, but the Brazilian man, with his problems, dreams, and discoveries. This is why he focuses on the needy, the miserable man. The situation of the “evicted” migrant is portrayed on the canvas as a piercing scream of protest against a social-historical situation and a plea for a more dignified human condition. “The root of this movement is the influence of Guernica, which, as Mário de Andrade pointed out, provided the painter with an “artistic solution, which does not mean a blind incorporation of a stated influence.” “Portinari was torn by the drama of war, he was facing a personal crisis due to his reputation as the ‘official artist’ and was trying to solve, by coming closer to Picasso, the turmoil that had taken over his life,” points out Annateresa. “Picasso, fulminate me,” said Portinari. This could have resulted in a loss of direction or in a qualitative leap forward. “Portinari believed that he had taken this leap forward with the Emigrants series,” says the researcher. In October 1946, when an exhibition of his latest works opened in Paris, the painter was hailed as “the artist who has continued the tradition of Michelangelo in up to date ways, something which Picasso attempted to do in vain,” as stated by French art historian Michel Florisoone at the time. Dead Child was acquired by the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris.


“He was a restless painter who often changed the external aspect of his work, concerned about depicting the style of the time, but always maintaining the sign of an unmistakable personality, defined by the permanence of that which was popular,” Elza points out. Thus, three years after the ” leap forward” of the Emigrants series, the painter focused on a new trend: mural art, which he felt was the best instrument of social art, because “as a rule, the mural belongs to the community and tells a story that interests a large number of people.” “The artist is supposed to be an interpreter of ordinary people, the Messenger of their feelings; the artist should desire peace, justice, freedom, and the participation of everyone in the pleasures of the world,” Annateresa states. “The greatness of the work of art, the meaning of art in public areas and the political awareness of the masses were the issues at stake. According to Portinari, the function of mural painting was the desecration of the work of art; the intent was to take the work of art out of museums, biennales and art galleries; in other words, to take it away from the places frequented by the elite, which would allow the flourishing of works of art without the rituals dictated by the art circuit,” explains historian Maria de Fátima Piazza, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), who wrote the article Arte e política: Portinari e a estética realista [Art and politics: Portinari and realist esthetics]. Thus, in 1952, having accepted an invitation from Itamaraty [the Brazilian Foreign Office], and during the “democratic” government of Vargas, Portinari began working on the cartoons for two gigantic panels (each panel measured 140 meters; both panels are bigger than Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel). This was War and Peace, commissioned to decorate the headquarters of the United Nations, a building designed by the architect Le Corbusier, with the participation of Oscar Niemeyer.

Ironically, the original site had almost been taken up by a Picasso tapestry based on “Guernica.” For four years, Portinari worked on 180 real-size studies, sketches and cartoons for the murals; of these, 18 were large paintings representing the details of the murals in their actual size. Each hand, foot and face was the subject of a detailed study, to the point that the material was allocated a special room at the III São Paulo Art Biennale. “A pile of drawings in different formats was stored in a single closet; these were studies for each figure of the panel under way. They reminded me of the conversations I had had with Portinari, during which he explained how to build bird traps and how to draw a foal in the proper proportion (‘All you have to do is shorten the horse,’ he would say). In these studies, he also determined that the gestures, the position of the body and the changes in the facial expressions should express a specific feeling,” says Maria Luiza Leão, who worked as Portinari’s assistant when he was working on the diptych.

“These panels, which synthesize Brazil’s vocation for peace, carried a message: the state of war that the United Nations should eliminate and the peace that it should promote,” points out Lafer. “For war, he took his inspiration from the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. He didn’t focus on weapons or on the protagonists of conflicts. The climate of war emanates from a deep blue; three repugnant, big ugly cats are portrayed in one of the corners of the panel, warning us about the dangers of vitalism of the aesthetics of violence.” The theme that inspired the peace panel was the remembrance of childhood innocence. “It is the recollections of the boys from Brodósqui on seesaws, a choir of children of all races, young girls dancing and singing. Two goats dance in the center of the panel, because ‘peace is a natural state of dance on the face of the Earth,’ as Carlos Drummond de Andrade wrote,” says Lafer. The diptych is coming to Brazil because of the renovation of the United Nation building. The diptych will travel to various state capitals and will be restored, in public, at the Palácio Capanema building, by experts from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Center of Scientific Methodologies Applied to Art and Archaeology at Italy’s University of Peruggia.

REPRODUCTION“Woman crying”, another study for the panelREPRODUCTION

It is appropriate to add a comment about technology at the service of the art of Portinari, an enthusiast of technological modernity. “He loved scientific progress and the latest scientific discoveries. He spoke enthusiastically about his son’s progress in mathematics and would state that science would supplant art, as the majority of the most brilliant people were being absorbed by scientific research. He believed that everything had already been done in painting and therefore painting had no future – it was doomed to die,” wrote Italian art critic Eugenio Luraghi in his memoirs of the painter. This is shown in the scientific method that permeates the Portinari Project at PUC-Rio, coordinated by João Cândido Portinari. The Project’s techniques of conserving the paintings and its publication on the internet are considered by IBM as being on equal footing with those of the Vatican when it comes to the cross reference of images and texts, and the multimedia content.

Among the major achievements of the group is the Pincelada [Brush Stroke] Project, a technology developed to attribute the authorship of paintings based on a totally new technology developed by physicist George Svetlichny of PUC-Rio. “He submitted samples of brush strokes to automatic classification algorithms, through artificial intelligence techniques, especially Bayesian methods, by means of the Autoclass program used by Nasa. The program defines patterns that the human eye cannot identify,” says João Cândido. Up to that time, techniques used to verify the authenticity of works of art were based on the expertise of experts or on specific techniques that were basically physical-chemical tests of the canvas and of the physical support of the paintings, in the hope that the tests would reveal contradictions that might invalidate the pretension of the attribution (existence of materials that did not match the era, level of aging of the pigments, etc.). “There are some famous cases, such as the fake Vermeers of Van Meegeren, which show the limits of these techniques.”

Thus, Brazilian researchers decided to use samples of “brush strokes” as the starting point to establish the authenticity of a work of art. “Macro photographs are taken of the brush strokes in works of art recognized as being by Portinari. Then, the researchers use an image processing program to obtain the profile of the brush strokes. These profiles have the ‘characteristics of authorship,’ which, analyzed using Autoclass, reveal if a painting was painted by Portinari or not.” This technology makes it possible to preserve Portinari’s epic vision of ordinary people for posterity. “This is not a vision lost in the hollow theatricals of grand gestures; it is an epic vision achieved by enhancing the worker,” says Annateresa. According to the researcher, except for the emotional and “pessimistic” explosion of the 1940’s of the Emigrant series, a “utopian project” can be identified in Portinari’s art, which focuses on a free worker who is the master of his destiny; here, death is no longer a fatality, but the final stage of the human journey. “His work is not an ode to the Getulio Vargas model; it depicts the myths of power, by integrating the people on the sidelines who – as portrayed in the paintings – are the source of development, thanks to the strength of their muscles.” He did not paint only ugly figures in a somber environment of poverty (with the exception of Emigrants) because he believed in the vitality of the common people and in their ability to create a better future, says Annateresa. Hence the kinship between the social paintings and the diptych: “In such a mature reflection, life and death confront each other with tenderness and drama, but life, with its luminosity, prevails.” Portinari used to say about War and Peace: “This is my life’s work.” It should be a fine encounter.