2018

Maureen Bisilliat

Instituto Moreira Salles

Images of Brazilian literature 

THE BACKLANDS,  MAUREEN
Born in Englefield, England, Maureen Bisilliat has constructed a solid photographic investigation of the Brazilian soul since the 1950s, when she moved to the country, using her foreigner’s eye impregnated with a profound respect for her subjects – sertanejos and Indians above all – and a search for conceptual support in anthropology and great works of Brazilian literature. The daughter of an Argentine diplomat and an English painter, Maureen led a wandering childhood between England, the United States, Denmark, Colombia, Argentina, and Switzerland. This cultural rootlessness began to end when she moved to São Paulo in 1953, accompanied by her first husband, Spanish photographer José Antonio Carbonell.  After a few seasons abroad – in Paris in 1955, where she studied painting with André Lhote; in New York two years later, where she frequented the Arts Students League; and in Venezuela in 1959 – Maureen returned to Brazil.  She turned increasingly to photography and would eventually abandon painting altogether. The latter would provide her expressionist fascination with chiaroscuro, however, as well as the surprising ways in which she framed her images. 
To João Guimarães Rosa

"I was born here. My father’s fate.
I live, and fight...
All within me, my courage:
my person, the shadow of my body
upon the ground, my bulk.
That which I have thought
in strength a thousand times:
that I would wish to win;
wishing quietly, as a tree in all its stature!"

"I will speak to you.
I speak of the sertão.
That know not!
A great land! I don’t know!
Nobody as yet does,
only the very fewest people...

Sertão, land of ages:
sertão, being of the sun.
A space for those lost to reason."


"I began to know the backlands by its paths. It all began in 1963, when I won from a friend a copy of 'Grande sertão: veredas', by Guimarães Rosa - not without the remark that perhaps I could not understand the author's very special language. Not only did I understand how I plunged into the waters of that sea of ​​words - would not the sertão turn to sea? -, instigated to investigate the direct relation of Rosa with the backlands of Minas Gerais region.I went there and, returning from every trip, went to visit the writer, then head of the Itamaraty Border Demarcation Service. On each occasion I carried a collection of photographs taken in the lands of the author of "Sagarana", who, behind each one, wrote down details - name, age, single, married or widower, place of meeting, how and when, etc. -, receiving, through the images, messages from the backlands.At the end of our meetings he would always accompany me to the elevator and wish me a good next trip, saying that he was certain that I would understand the poetic effluvia because of similarities between that region and Ireland ("Gypsy Irish "Was, incidentally, what he nicknamed me, perhaps because of my long hair, ample clothes, sandals on?).Years after our meetings, I went to visit his widow, Mrs. Aracy, in the building where they had lived, in Copacabana, Posto 6. There, she led me to a small room. Between the cliffs and the sea, she told him that it was there that Rosa had written his "Grande Sertões". "Night after night," he confided to me, "I would bring him two or three pijama changes, for as he wrote, he perspired a lot, bathing himself in sweat. He told me that he received the blowing work, and he was only a receive". Maureen Bisilliat

"The sound of things breaking
and falling, deafening
and helpless from within:
Sertão!"

"The world was empty.
Cattle and cattle.
Cattle, cattle and country.
It was a different world,
half-crazed, a lagoon of sand.
One wondered where to place
the limits to its largeness.
The sun.
The endless sky uncouth to see,
the chequered green.
The hard sands. The bushes – spoiled – yet mine."

"I know.
I really always know,
that what I wanted all the time
and fought to find, was one thing only –
and that the whole – the significance and awe
of which I see to have always known.
That being:
that a way existed, along a straight
and narrow path, for each to live –
the secret each one possesses –
yet cannot find;
for how could anyone, alone,
find out and understand?"


From the intense contact with Guimarães Rosa´s lands and characters, Maureen continued to seek a communion with the literary sertão until closing what she calls "literary, mystical, telluric, mythical and sertanejo triangle - Guimarães, Euclides, Suassuna".

Euclides da Cunha, Maureen Bisilliat: One Sertão
"The cowboy was created in a intermittence, rarely disturbed, of happy hours and cruel hours, of abundance and misery - over the head, as a perennial threat, the sun, dragging in the coming and back of the seasons, successive periods of devastation and misery. He became a man, almost without being a child (...)"   Os Sertões, by Euclides da Cunha

"(...) He understood himself involved in combat without respite, imperiously demanding the convergence of all energies. He became strong, smart, resigned and practical. He got ready early for the fight. His appearance recalls, vaguely, at first glance, that of an ancient warrior exhausted from the fray."

In 1982 is published "Sertões, Luz e Trevas", an photobook inspired by two parts - "The Earth" and "The Man" - from the Brazilian classic "Os Sertões" (The Backlands), released 80 years earlier.

Ariano Suassuna, Maureen Bisilliat: warriors of the imaginary
In 1982 Maureen Bisilliat unveils the "Novel of the Stone of the Kingdom" (1971), written by Ariano Suassuna. Enchanted with the Iberian-Sertaneja language of the author, she invites him to preface the book "Sertão, light and darkness". Suassuna accepts, but instead of a preface, returns 100 pages of a fiction starring Maureen herself, "Maurina and the magic lantern", imposing a condition: "or publish everything, or nothing." The writing remains saved, as well as the confirmation of a deep connection with the realism at the border of fantastic by Suassuna. Later Maureen would identify the photo essay "The Shining Courtship", a portrait of the Reisado feast participants in Alagoas, 1970, as a visual representation - at the time only intuitive - of the armorial universe. Her "sertanejo triangle" was closed.

"Ave Musa incandescente,
do deserto do Sertão!
Forje, no Sol do meu Sangue,
O Trono do meu clarão:
cantes as Pedras encantadas
e a Catedral Soterrada,
Castelo deste meu chão!"
"Novel of the Stone of the Kingdom and the prince of the blood of the back and forth", by Ariano Suassuna.

"(...) he told of a trip he had made through the Sertão, and said that the stones and stones flooring of our sacred Cariri sometimes can form kind of clusters that look like fortresses or ruined castles. From then on, every time I remembered the twin rocks of the Stone of the Kingdom, it was as if they were, besides the Sovereign Cathedral that the Kings, my ancestors, had revealed, the Fortress and the Castle where our blood is made of."
Novel of the Stone of the Kingdom

In 1960 Maureen met Jorge Amado, who inspired her the idea to carry out a work of "photographic equivalence" on national literary works. A few years later, as he traveled through the hinterland of Minas Gerais in search of images that would dialogue with "Grande sertão: veredas", masterpiece of Guimarães Rosa, Maureen had already become naturalized Brazilian.

From 1964 to 1972, a contracted photojournalist for Editora Abril, she worked for magazines such as Realidade and Quatro Rodas which became famous, among them "A batucada dos Bambas", about traditional samba in Rio de Janeiro, and "Caranguejeiras", depicting women collecting crabs in village of Livramento.

Tireless publisher of her own work, Maureen also released two notable volumes on the Xingu National Park, both called Xingu, with the subheadings "Details of a Culture" (1978) and "Tribal Territory" (1979). Also on the region, which he visited several times, he co-directed with Lúcio Kodato the feature film documentary "Xingu/ terra". The passion for the video began to absorb her more and more from the 1980s, but in the 1990s Maureen still published books with photographic essays on trips to Africa, Lebanon and Japan.

In 1988, with Jacques Bisilliat, her husband, and Antônio Marcos da Silva, she was invited by Darcy Ribeiro to create the collection of Latin American popular art, the origin of the Pavilion of Creativity of the Latin American Memorial Foundation. She was curator of the space until 2011.

In 2009, IMS launched the exhibition and the book Maureen Bisilliat- Photography, a panoramic view of her career, with the participation of Maureen Bisilliat herself in the curatorship.


Apart from Amado, Guimarães,Euclides da Cunha and Suassuna, Maureen Bisilliat had strike up dialogues with the brazilian writers João Cabral de Melo Neto, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Adélia Prado and Mário de Andrade, the latter inspiring a photo essay that she displayed at a special hall during the XVIII Bienal de São Paulo, in 1985, based on his book "O turista aprendiz".

Credits: Story

Maureen Bisilliat - images of Brazilian literature.
Edition: Rachel Rezende

The three visual essays of this exhibition are part of the Maureen Bisilliat retrospective show and its catalog, both produced by Instituto Moreira Salles.
Curation: Maureen Bisilliat and Sergio Burgi

To João Guimarães Rosa exhibition
Curation: Maureen Bisilliat

The complete Maureen Bisilliat works, part of the Instituto Moreira Salles’ collection, is a total of 16,251 images that includes photographs, black-and-white negatives and color chromos.

Guia do IMS - Cadão Volpato. Tradução Flora Thomson-DeVeaux.
Tradução para o inglês dos trechos de Guimarães Rosa: Maureen Bisilliat e

Acknowledgements: Maureen Bisilliat, Thaiane Koppe e Felipe Lafé Isidoro Alves

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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