The Social Painter

Portinari – An Endless Subject: Men

Cowboy from the Northeast (1943) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

“A painting that doesn’t speak to the heart is not art, because only the heart can understand it. Only the heart can make us better, and that is the greater function of Art.”

Candido Portinari

Indian Woman and Mulatto Woman (1934) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Portinari (1947) by Gisèle FreundProjeto Portinari

In 1947, Portinari exhibits in Argentina. It is his first Latin-American show outside Brazil. Buenos Aires is going through a very intense artistic-cultural moment. The newspaper Crítica says: “In Buenos Aires, high expressions of Art and Science from all the people of the world are taking place.”

Conferences by George Duhamel and André Maurois, concerts by opera singers, musicians, actors, and artists from every country. In opera, Beniaminio Gigli and director Erich Kleiber. Arthur Rubinstein and José Iturbi play in crowded theaters. The songs of Josephine Baker and Charles Trenet. Poets Rafael Alberti and León Felipe (Spanish), Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral (Chilean), and Nicolás Guillén (Cuban) draw the crowds.

Lectures are given by international personalities in various fields: medicine, history and archeology, and so on—cafés, restaurants, and cabarets in feverish effervescent until dawn give testimony to the exceptional strength of porteña life at that moment.

Woman Crying (1944) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

And it is in this port of artistic and intellectual frenzy that Portinari disembarks with his "Dispossessed" and the lyricism of his children.

El arte que reclama justicia necesita la expanción del muro [...], porque un muro es como un mitin, nos dice Portinari El arte que reclama justicia necesita la expanción del muro [...], porque un muro es como un mitin, nos dice Portinari (1947-07-28)Projeto Portinari

Burial in a Hammock (1944) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

In his luggage, he brings works shown the previous year in Paris, leading René Huyghe, the Louvre’s director, to declare: “I consider Portinari one of the greatest painters of our time. His strength is enormous. The morning I saw a group of his works, I felt such emotion that I was held prisoner to a veritable nervous fatigue. That afternoon, I could not work, I was really tired.”

Germain Bazin, also from the Louvre, wrote: “Let’s salute Portinari, this Brazilian Michelangelo, one of the creative forces of the new generation.”

Jean Cassou, director of the Paris Museum of Modern Art, added: “Portinari is, without a doubt, the greatest painter in Latin America and one of the greatest contemporary painters.”

Coffee (1935) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

In fact, the Brazilian painter was in full international ascension from 1935, when he sent a canvas to the international contest of the Carnegie Institute, in Pittsburgh, USA. Portinari was young (32), practically unknown outside his country. But his Coffee painting deserved the Second Mention of Honor in the Carnegie Award, one of the world’s most prestigious.

Sitting Settler Woman (1935) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

“I was impressed with the feet of the coffee plantation workers. 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…”

Candido Portinari

Slum (1933) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

In 1938, the New York, Museum of Modern Art acquired his screen Hill. In 1939, he showed three big panels in the Brazilian Pavilion by Oscar Niemeyer at New York’s World Fair. The next year, his solo show, Portinari of Brazil, at MoMA, was very well received by critics and toured several American cities. In 1941, the University of Chicago published the first book about his life and work, prefaced by Rockwell Kent.

Portinari na América Portinari na América (1942-02-07)Projeto Portinari

In 1942, Portinari was invited by the prominent American poet Archibald MacLeish to paint four big murals for the Library of Congress, in Washington.

Sugar Cane (1938) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Portinari’s international recognition was simultaneous with his most significant work. Between 1936 and 1946, among an abundant creation of murals, canvases, studies, and drawings, he did the series of frescoes Work in Brazilian Land or Economic Cycles, for the building of the Ministry of Education and Health, in Ro de Janeiro, a landmark of the country’s modernist architecture.

Cocoa (1938) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Cotton (1938) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Rubber (1938) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

Boy from Brodowski (1946) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

From that time come the famous series "Dispossessed" and "Children of Brodowski", portraying kids from his homeland, in São Paulo’s countryside.

Boy from Brodowski, Candido Portinari, 1946, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Boy from Brodowski, Candido Portinari, 1946, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Boy from Brodowski, Candido Portinari, 1946, From the collection of: Projeto Portinari
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Three Children (1945) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

“I exalt them because I paint and draw that which, in their world, lives and dies—though amplifying it until reaching the worlds of others—, as well as what hurts unstoppably, with an ever-open sore of anguish, their Lent and salvation. And because it doesn’t end with the manly protest, but runs to the future in a lyrical, song of hope.”

Jorge Romero Brest, 1948.

Portinari na Argentina Portinari na Argentina (1947)Projeto Portinari

This impressive trajectory of little over ten years, as well as his decisive human rights activism can explain the extraordinary reception and profound sympathy experienced by Portinari in his first visit to Argentina. In this occasion, Portinari stated: “My purpose by showing my paintings in Argentina is to bring this message from my country’s people to the ones from here, brothers in fate and common ideal.”

Obra profunda y vital es la de Candido Portinari Obra profunda y vital es la de Candido Portinari (1947-07-18)Projeto Portinari

Portinari y su imborrable pasaje por Montevideo Portinari y su imborrable pasaje por Montevideo (1981-12-20)Projeto Portinari

It is surprising to search, in Project Portinari’s documents, the numerous cutouts of newspapers, letters, old photographs, statements, dedications, movies, and so on, all of which composes a picture of true commotion experienced by the painter at that time and, soon after, in Uruguay.

Alcances de la muestra de Portinari Alcances de la muestra de Portinari (1948-05-07)Projeto Portinari

Exposicion del pintor brasileño Cándido Portinari Exposicion del pintor brasileño Cándido Portinari (1947-07-06)Projeto Portinari

Candido Portinari, el pintor del pueblo,... Candido Portinari, el pintor del pueblo,... (1947-07-30)Projeto Portinari

Candido Portinari en Montevideo Candido Portinari en Montevideo (1947-09)Projeto Portinari

Even before his arrival, the papers announced it, as shown in this excerpt from an article by Raúl Navarro:

“Behind him is his irrevocable lineage. ‘I am a peasant,’ he says. Behind him is the land. Mother and stepmother. And this big, passionate adventure of his art. Once, he was asked: ‘Why do you prefer to paint the desolation, suffering, and poverty?’ To which Portinari replied: ‘Because that is the truth.’ This is Candido Portinari. Painter and man who Buenos Aires will soon meet.”

Exposição Portinari no Uruguai (1947-09)Projeto Portinari

In the day of the inauguration, accounting for the presence of Portinari, Raquel Forner, Enrique Amorim, Nicolás Guillén, Rafael Alberti, Bigati, among many others, the Clarín newspaper wrote:

“This should be the chronicle of a vernissage—another one in Buenos Aires—, but is now a passionate praise by one who can’t be a critic and settles for being a man who feels and experiences from the paintings by this amazing Cândido Portinari an overflowing river of deep human sensation. And… nothing else. Just that the exhibit—at Salón Peuser, Florida 750—presents the public with a miraculous 90 works. Oils, drypoint, lithography, etchings… The magic of Portinari is glued to the canvas, and we don’t know why this strange magic stays there, but is dynamic nonetheless.”

Letter Letter (1947) by Victoria OcampoProjeto Portinari

Boy with Tray (1947) by Candido PortinariProjeto Portinari

The Crítica newspaper adds: “… Since yesterday, this Portinari painting dazzles Argentinian eyes at Peuser’s rooms. Never could one employ as properly the word ‘dazzling’ ...”

Portinari no Uruguai (1948)Projeto Portinari

Nicolás Guillén wrote the poem “Un Son para Portinari” [A Sound for Portinari], later made into music by Horacio Salinas, from the Chilean band Inti-Illimani and masterly interpreted by Mercedes Sosa.

In the newspaper "La Razón" [The Reason], Ricardo Gutiérrez writes: “The show … has created a great interest among Argentinian visual artists and writers, who have shown the visitor painter a demonstration like no other …”

Exposición Portinari, Salón Peuser, Buenos Aires (1947)Projeto Portinari

Portinari no Uruguai (1948)Projeto Portinari

Exposição Portinari no Uruguai (1947-09)Projeto Portinari

Invited by the Center of Fine Arts Studies, Portinari gave the lecture “Social Meaning of Art” in the French Institute of Superior Studies, Florida 659. There, he spoke about his view of art and life, his fight through his work—“my weapon is painting,” he said—and his political activism for peace and against social injustice, poverty, and violence.

Portinari no Uruguai (1948)Projeto Portinari

“The archives of Project Portinari bear witness to the coherence of this activism in his daily life until the last years of his life. Among this documentation, there is a text in which he speaks of Argentinian artists and intellectuals:

Exposição Portinari no Uruguai (1947-09)Projeto Portinari

"It is very hard for an artist to speak of painting, especially in public, for his medium of expression is the painting, not the word. Poussin, once writing to a friend, lamented not being able to express himself well and, to justify himself, added that for 40 years he had professed a mute art. It really is hard for a painter, I repeat, to speak of painting when he is aware that, by using another language, he can’t convey his thinking. To this, we add that we know what painting is. That is why it is a huge sacrifice for someone who for more than 30 years has only expressed himself through his paintings to appear in front of an audience and have to use another way of expressing. But when this is asked by colleagues who wish to know our reasoning about such and such problems, and when we believe these debates can be of interest to people, all these considerations vanish.

Here I am to say that painting that distances itself from the public is not Art—it is a past-time, a color play with a message transferring from epidermis to epidermis—and its reach is limited. Even if it is done with intelligence and taste, it will say nothing to our hearts—a painting that doesn’t speak to the heart is not art, because only the heart can understand it. Only the heart can make us better, and that is the greater function of Art. I don’t know of any great Art that isn’t intimately connected to the people.

Things that move other people are deathly painful to the artist, and his only salvation is to re-convey the message he receives. I wonder: What moves us in the world today? Is it not the tragedies of war, the tragedies of injustices, inequality, and famine? Is there in nature something that screams louder than this to the ear? …”

Portinari, el pintor del pueblo brasileño Portinari, el pintor del pueblo brasileño (1962-02-10)Projeto Portinari

In the occasion of Portinari’s death, Hernandez Rosselot, art critic for La Razón, wrote:

“… the 27 tears of Jeremiah, drawn in rough traces like a cluster of pearls, would not be enough of a cry for a people who have lost its painter. Brazil is hurting, and for good reason. The news we get say that Portinari has died because of a hemorrhage due to being poisoned by the paints he used. To such passion, such death. Painting also has its martyrs. Yesterday, there was Aleijadinho; today, Candido Portinari.”

Imagen auténtica de Brasil en los dibujos de Cándido Portinari Imagen auténtica de Brasil en los dibujos de Cándido Portinari (1948-06-22)Projeto Portinari

The emotion of this eulogy is a testimony of how engraved Portinari’s presence was in the Argentinian soul. His return to Buenos Aires is more than just an event. It is a meeting of two cultures that, with art and erudition, are able to describe to the world the identity and value of their people.

Exposição Portinari no Uruguai (1947-09)Projeto Portinari

This brief evocation of accomplishments and feelings allows us to think that Portinari’s “broad and porous humanity” (Drummond) will speak today, as in 1947, to the bottom of the heart and spirit of our Argentinian friends. It can again create new bonds among our Latin-American sensitivities and relive the hope that we will always be united in the fight for human values of justice, fraternal solidarity, and peace.

Portinari no Uruguai (1948)Projeto Portinari

“How did you come to take a political stance?
“I don’t intend to understand politics. To my deep convictions, I have arrived because of my poor childhood, my life of work and plight, and because I am an artist. I feel sorry for those who suffer and would like to help remedy the existing social injustice. Every artist who is conscious feels the same way…”

Candido Portinari
(Interview given to Brazilian poet Vinicius de Morais, published in March 3rd, 1962)

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