Portinari in the Ema Klabin Collection
The gradual arrival of works representative of Brazilian modern art in the Ema Klabin Collection started in the 1960s, when Ema looked to her contemporaries searching for a modernity within the construction of a national identity, especially after the progressive Getulio Vargas years and Juscelino Kubitschek’s great undertakings. Klabin supported significant cultural events and collaborated with various institutions and museums which were then committed to legitimizing the work of Modernist artists, in particular those involved with the Modern Art Week of 1922, which ended up being reflected in the future of her collection.
Ema Klabin in front of the garden facade in Portugal street house (1958/1958)The Ema Klabin House Museum
In 1961, having recently moved into her new house in the Jardim Europa neighborhood, in São Paulo, Ema Klabin took on a more significant role in the city’s culture scene. Though she was already on the board of the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP, in the Portuguese acronym) and the Modern Art Museum (MAM), since 1955, this was when she decided to become more actively involved in these institutions, as well as in creating the São Paulo Biennial Foundation.
Ema Klabin delivers document to Albert Einstein hospital representative (1957-07-25/1957-07-25)The Ema Klabin House Museum
Her greatest effort was to take part, in the same year, in the organization of the 1st Art Auction to benefit the construction of the Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital, an entity she supported since its creation and of which she was honorary chair
Regulation of the II Pro-Construction Contemporary Art Auction of the Albert Einstein Hospital. (Dezembro de 1963) by Albert Einstein HospitalThe Ema Klabin House Museum
This auction, as well as its subsequent editions in 1963, 1965, and 1967, took place in the MASP salons on Sete de Abril Street, and were important in consolidating a market for Brazilian modern art, disseminating it among São Paulo collectors, which was essential for the full development of the art community. It wasn’t a coincidence that auctions took place in the same years as the São Paulo Biennial, with the participation of its organizers, or that many of the works offered by artists and galleries were the same as the event’s awards and special rooms.
Art Auction in favor of Albert Einstein Hospital (1961-10-29/1961-10-29) by Newspaper "Diário de São Paulo"The Ema Klabin House Museum
Ema, along with other ladies from the São Paulo Israelite community, was involved with these events, collaborating in the acquisition of works from artists, galleries, and collectors from all of Brazil. It is possible that the direct contact with artists, the visits to their workshops, and the talks with critics, curators and collectors aroused Ema’s interest in getting close to Brazilian modern art.
Rio de Janeiro (Sugar Loaf) (1923) by Tarsila do AmaralThe Ema Klabin House Museum
From that moment on, clearly influenced by the consecration of Modernist works in big retrospectives of the time, Ema started to form a small cluster of works by these artists. A lot of these shows were also the result of the first studies about modernism within the University of São Paulo graduate program, which added the academic approval to the critical one. This was during the so-called “Brazilian miracle,” and the art market reflected the euphoria, with works being sold for increasingly higher prices. Having at least one canvas by an artist from the Week of 1922 in one’s collection, thus, became obligatory, although this choice from buyers was still somewhat immature, only favoring already established names, with no profound appraisal of the work’s quality or historic value.
Portrait of mulata (1955) by Emiliano Di CavalcantiThe Ema Klabin House Museum
According to Aracy Amaral, in an article published in 1967:
“Society? People acquires paintings sporadically, more out of whim than out of love, since here we have art buyers, but collectors are very rare. … Art buyers in São Paulo bid without knowing the works’ artistic value, only really putting themselves out there when the investment is safe. Few have ever entered an artist’s workshop; the majority of them buy Di Cavalcanti because their friends already own pieces by the artist, the same way that it was elegant to have your portrait painted by Portinari 20 years ago.”
Roosters (1940) by Cândido PortinariThe Ema Klabin House Museum
Portinari’s canvas Roosters was acquired in the beginning of 1971, soon after the MASP show One Hundred Portinari Masterpieces.
In the show’s catalogue, P. M. Bardi writes about the feeling of strangeness caused by the artist’s works in his first retrospective, in the then recently inaugurated museum, in 1948, especially due to the heavily political Dispossessed series.
He goes on to describe the artist’s career, saying he would start to get more successful among collectors if he portrayed street scenes, with their popular, joyful characters, pets, and popular festivals, finally classifying him as our “new Debret.”
Sales receipt (without indication of value) of Portinari painting (two roosters on a blue background) (1971-04-13/1971-04-13) by Marcelle Hirschberg de BarrosThe Ema Klabin House Museum
Ema’s interest in this painting, specifically, came because it was in the collection of businesswoman Helena Rubinstein, who owned a set of works by Latin-American artists, including various canvases by Portinari acquired when the artist was the highlight of various shows and events in the United States. This happened particularly after he did a portrait of Rubinstein, in 1939; his show Portinari of Brazil, in the New York Museum of Modern Art, in 1940, was praised by critics.
Receipt of sale in the amount of Cr $ 95,000.00 referring to Portinari painting (1971-08-28/1971-08-28) by Simão WaissmanThe Ema Klabin House Museum
In 1964, the Nemirovsky couple, looking for works to highlight in the 3rd Einstein Hospital Art Auction, visited Rubinstein in her New York apartment and got her to donate another Portinari painting, Coffee Growers. Ema was interested, but this one was eventually bought by another collector during the auction. Later, in 1971, she became aware that Marcelle Hirschberg de Barros, Rubinstein’s niece and heir (the businesswoman had died in 1965), included Roosters in the inaugural auction of the Bolsa de Arte do Rio de Janeiro gallery. Rubinstein’s collection had been auctioned during busy sessions in Sotheby’s New York in April 1966, but most of the works by Latin-American artists weren’t included, since they weren’t at the time of great interest to the North-American market. At the Bolsa de Arte auction, Ema was finally able to buy her Portinari, thus completing another cluster in her collection.
Text: Paulo de Freitas Costa
Research: Wipsley Mesquita and Henrique Godinho