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 grantedafter more than 30 yearsan 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 Florencethe capital of Renaissance artthat 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.