Letter to My Father

In 1979, for the launch of a new book about the Portinari Project, João Candido, Candido Portinari’s son, wrote a posthumous letter in the preface, recollecting moments with his father:

Self-Portrait, Candido Portinari, 1957, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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This is a book about childhood.
The painter’s childhood and childhood in his work. And since
childhood invites the future, I want to talk about
the painter, us, and the
future. But, first, I need to tell a
story. For it just so happens that the painter,
the “Boy from Brodowski”, was my father—or,
since we are of Italian descent, my “papa.”
The story comes in the form of a letter that
I-son-us write to him-dad-Brazil:

Scarecrow (1956) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

“To João, with a big hug from Papa.”

I look at the portrait you painted of me when I turned 18. It took so many years for me to be able to bring it home. So many years when the mere mention of your name or any memory of you always made my throat close up, my eyes insist on blurring. “But don’t you have your father’s paintings on the walls of your home?,” people would ask me.

Portrait of João (1959-07) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

I tried to run from you, to create my own destiny. Ten years as a foreigner, another ten in Brazil, looking for a path free from your monumental presence.

Until, last year, I started to find you again. Little by little, a need to search for you arose in me. To search for you, to search for Brazil. Our land suffocated in my throat a strangeness, a foreignness, a deaf feeling of missing ourselves: where exactly where we going when we went down this dark alley? Where are the abiu tree, the taioba, the spinning top, the monjolo water mill, the gabiroba fruit, the moon in the backlands, the farm boy?

Where is the “wooden mill” from that poem so simple and so true by Patativa do Assaré? I remember the emotion I felt hearing the country poet for the first time.

Boy with Top, Candido Portinari, 1947, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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This Brazilian soul, capable of moving me to tears just listening to the lyrics Vinicius wrote years ago for “Odeon”: Chorinho antigo, chorinho amigo Eu até hoje ainda persigo esta ilusão Essa saudade Que vai comigo E até parece aquela prece Que sai só do coração Se eu pudesse recordar e ser criança Se eu pudesse renovar minha esperança Se eu pudesse me lembrar como se dança Esse chorinho que hoje em dia ninguém sabe mais

[“Old chorinho, old chorinho / I still chase this illusion / This longing / That comes with me / And is like a prayer / That only comes from the heart / If I could remember and be a child / If I could renew my hope / If I could remember how to dance / This chorinho that no one can dance anymore.”]

But this chorinho is back. And with it, I feel for the whole country an untamed yearning to get back what is authentically ours, after so much forgetting. All that is left is for you to come back, Papa. Come back and bring your huge, generous, suffering Brazil. If, as Jorge Amado said, “from your hands color and poetry, our people’s drama and hope were born,” why is your work still hidden from those same people?

Letter Letter, Candido Portinari, 1930-07-12, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Come back and bring with you our people, with “those clothes and that color,” as promised in the letter where you, a student, talks fondly about Palaninho and Brodowski. Bring our musicians, the balls, and the country weddings; frevo, Carnaval, bumba-meu-boi, and June festivals; Tiradentes and bandits; indigenous people, black people, mulatos; gold-miners, farmers, laundrymen, and cobblers; scarecrows, soccer, kites, seesaws, and spinning tops; folkloric characters like the headless mule, caipora, and saci; the landscape, the cane fields, forests, and coffee plantations; giant anteaters, jaguars, tapirs, and capybaras; mothers, saints, and circus artists; the chests of tinplate and the clay water cooler; the boys from Brodowski and your granddaughter Denise. Let this procession leave the chapel you painted for my Venetian nonna; call upon Saint Francis of Pampulha and the Way of the Cross in Batatais, let it transfigure us, reconstitute us, and shape us. An emergent shape of our own roots, a shape that includes the dispossessed, the burials in hammocks, and the workers. Let no one ever hear someone say again: “Well, look at the feet he painted! What are they going to think of Brazil?”

Coffee Farm Worker, Candido Portinari, 1934, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Let it always be remembered that these feet are a part of ourselves, that their absence makes us smaller and foreign. Bring back your worthy, compassionate heart that had a man’s eyes to see our people’s feet: “… Misshapen feet. Feet that can tell a story. Mixed in with rocks and thorns. Feet like maps: with hills and valleys, creases like rivers. How many times in parties and balls, in candomblé yards, 80 centimeters higher than the ground, feet were exposed, and so many people had fun putting out cigarette butts in the creases of someone’s heel without them feeling it. Suffering feet that marched many, many kilometers. Feet only saints had. On the ground, it was hard to tell them apart. The feet and the earth had the same varied shapes. Rare were the ones with ten toes, let alone ten nails. Feet that inspired mercy and respect. Clinging to the ground, they were like pillars, many times supporting only a frail, sick body. Feet full of knots that expressed something of strength, terrible and patient…”

Frevo Dance (1956) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

It was in Amsterdam, last year. Visiting the Van Gogh Museum—four floors in the presence of the artist and the Dutch—, we saw people coming together and nurturing themselves with their painter’s testimony. Halina and I looked at each other in silence. A feeling of pain, of being sorry for our country: Where is our painter? What nurtures our people? We are tired of dragging our painful consciousness of cultural poverty. We, who paradoxically possess a treasure of popular culture, an immense potential for originality that would have so much to say to a world that is sick and tired of intellectualism and technocracies.

Boys Playing (1955) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

So, I came back for you and, with you, our land. I came back for your childhood, in this journal that I could only read today, in the early hours of this Father’s Day celebrating forty years as a son.

These “Scraps from my childhood life” touch me very deeply. Not only as a son, but as a Brazilian. Scraps that, sewn together through life by the magic thread of your brush, painted Brazil, painted us all.

Portinari pai (1943) by Jean ManzonProjeto Portinari

And it is as a Brazilian that I feel a duty to work so that everyone can reunite with your work and, through it, with themselves.

Then, if this work bears fruit, I shall be able to say to you, like in that portrait when I was 18:

“To Papa, with a big hug from João.”

João Cândido Portinari

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