Art without borders

Maria Alice Milliet

Art critic and historian, curator of the special room “Art without Borders" at the Biennial of Naive Artists of Brazil 2010

In the flow of modernity

Fifty years ago, pop art ruptured the border between the cultivated and the popular, incorporating images of characters and products disseminated by the mass media. The appropriation by the artists of forms and contents considered kitsch scandalized the conservative elite who resisted the idea that Coca-Cola bottles, soup cans, comic book heroes, movie stars and politicians could figure in works of art. The critics were divided. The defenders of abstract painting considered this irruption of commercial products in art to be in extremely bad taste. However, despite this initial repulsion, pop art triumphed. In a short time, it reached a public different from that which traditionally attended the galleries. The youths found in pop art what they saw on the streets, on television, in advertisements, in movies, in stores and supermarkets, in their houses. These were images with which they were familiar, images from day-to-day life. Soon new collectors arose, confident in the pioneering vision of a few art dealers, and anxious to be seen as up to date.

In the 1960s, pop art – which was born in England and developed in the United States – gained an international presence. This period also saw the consolidation of the North American hegemony, on the rise since the end of World War II. Along with this political and economic influence a new lifestyle was propagated: the american way of life. The North American standard had far-flung impacts around the world and instilled in Brazilian society a desire for modernization. To respond to this challenge, a program of development based on industrialization was implanted in Brazil. In the 1950s and ’60s, the industrial boom in connection with the increasing migration from the countryside to the cities resulted in sweeping sociocultural change. The population that migrated from the rural zone to the peripheries of large urban centers was led to abandon traditional values and practices in an effort to adapt to the urban environment. People with simple habits and modest ambitions began to share a single dream: to consume. It was at this time that the television set gained the place of honor in Brazilian houses, substituting the head of the family in terms of importance. Television’s extensive penetration proved decisive in the acculturation of this population. In half a century, much was lost. Young people left the countryside without looking back, and the customs that had once prevailed in the farmland were forgotten except in the reminiscences of older people.

It is in this instable scenario that art is produced and circulates. Currently, art – including art appreciation, art training and art production – is not restricted to museums and galleries, specialized books, schools and studios. Art is part of our lives, it is in the streets, on Internet and in the other communication media. And it is blended with other productions to the point where it is difficult to say what is or what is not art. The former distinctions between fine arts and handicraft, between cultivated and popular, between art and information no longer apply, especially since in the digital age appropriation, displacement, blending and fusion have become normal procedures for artists and producers of the most diverse areas. As though this situation of “anything goes” were not enough, the nonspecialized public, any one of them, feels that they are authorized to participate in this great collective construction which is the production of meaning, or of nonmeaning, in the globalized world.

In this climate of promiscuity, it is impossible to maintain one’s innocence. Everything is published, broadcast and processed. There is no more secrecy, no more distance. The contents, previously reserved for the few, now circulate through the networks, whether as authorized releases or as pirated copies. In practice, they are distributed to the public, they are consumed and reworked, and then placed back into circulation. When everything is known, being naïve is practically impossible. Nowadays, even people who live far from the big cities or have little or no formal education have access to radio and television, and are increasingly using cell phones. When Internet arrives to everyone, no one is immune to information.

Going back in time, it is worth noting that the word naïve took on a new connotation and entered the field of culture at the beginning of the 20th century, in the Paris of the modernists. When the practice of art no longer required the mastery of technical abilities, artworks produced by people without academic training began to be appreciated. These artists – many from popular backgrounds – were called naïve artists because, far from the academic preconceptions, they created spontaneously. At this time, the painter Rousseau emerged, a retired French customs worker who went on to become an artist admired by the modernist circle in Paris. To have an idea of the prestige that he enjoyed among the modernists, it is enough to remember the words he directed to Picasso during a dinner in the naïve artist’s homage: “We are the two greatest painters of our time; you in the Egyptian genre, and I in the modern.” By asserting his equality of importance with the Spanish painter, at that time already highly respected, Rousseau may appear ingenuous. The fact is, Picasso admired his friend’s painting so much that he kept canvases painted by him until the end of his life, as did Delaunay and Kandinsky.

The modernists did not only admire the naïve artists. They sought inspiration in popular sources, in exotic cultures and in the material culture of industrial society, as can be seen in Picasso’s work from his cubist period. Around 1900, he incorporated formal elements from Roman sculpture into his painting, after this, he began treating the human figure in the manner of African sculpture, and in his synthetic cubism phase he resorted extensively to the technique of collage, gluing to his canvases clippings from periodicals, product labels, letters, printed tickets, photos, etc., thus approximating the art of day-to-day life. His unpretentious attitude is not an exception. All areas of artistic production saw advances of the movement aimed at the renewal of the exhausted European repertoire.

The thinking of the vanguard echoed among the Brazilians residing in Paris in the 1920s. During their extended stays in the French capital, Tarsila do Amaral, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, Di Cavalcanti, Anita Malfatti, Gomide, Brecheret and Cícero Dias were able to perceive how much the European intellectuality was weary of the weight of tradition and open to the “primitive,” the “exotic” and the “other,” wherever it was found. Freed to valorize their own roots, our modernists did not hesitate to take up the challenge of rediscovering Brazil. The trip by Mario de Andrade and his group to Minas Gerais, and the later appearance of the so-called “countrified colors” and of the small-town and countryside motifs in Tarsila’s painting manifest the modernists’ striving in this direction. Parallel to this, the reinterpretation of indigenous myths and culture by Rego Monteiro, the connections that Cícero Dias established with the Northeastern imagetic universe, as well as the characters and scenes from popular life in the paintings by Di Cavalcanti all demonstrate the increasing opening of communication channels between the elite realm and the less-favored levels of the Brazilian population.

After this first advance, other developments in art arose through the hybridization of widely different cultural backgrounds, enriching the panorama of the visual arts in Brazil. Works by Volpi, Rubem Valentim, Oiticica and Samico are the mature fruits of this process whose dynamics have extended until today, recognizable in the works by Adriana Varejão, Beatriz Milhazes, Vick Muniz and the Campana Brothers, to mention only those that are more publicized in the media. A further development took place in the 1940s, when the production by artists from a popular origin began to appear in art galleries, in museums, and at the Bienal de São Paulo, places which up to then had been restricted to the cultivated register. The painters José Antonio da Silva and Heitor dos Prazeres, the ceramic maker Vitalino, and the sculptor Agnaldo dos Santos were the first to gain fame, and to have their works recognized by critics, art dealers and collectors. Just as Rousseau’s paintings are included in the collection of the Louvre, the works of these pioneers began to figure in the best private and public collections, alongside works by the leading lights of Brazilian modern art. Despite this recognition, the inclusion of the “popular artists” in the world of the visual arts still leaves much to be desired. There is prejudice on the part of elite segments whose taste is based on fads promoted by cultural marketing. For these, the art made by the people continues to be subject to a hierarchy: seen as handicraft, it has its place in the country houses or beach houses of the bourgeois, but not within their residences in São Paulo, Rio or New York.

Art without borders

Produced by SESC Piracicaba, the Biennial of Naïve Artists of Brazil has presented a rich panorama of the art that is made in this country. Each edition features close to one thousand works to be evaluated by the jury, which is always faced with the enormous difficulty of reducing this total to around one hundred pieces, the maximum that the exhibition space will hold. The specialists who participate in the selection inevitably discuss the propriety of associating the term naïve to the artworks selected. Up to now, SESC’s direction has opted to maintain the event’s name, as it is known throughout Brazil. On the other hand, the vast gathering of artworks brought about by the Bienal suggests that some thought should be devoted to how this rich set could be used to better advantage, to deepen its study and the interpretation of its meanings.

Invited to act as curator of the Special Room this year, I recapitulated the concerns of the 2006 Bienal’s selection jury. On that occasion, there was talk of a risk of crystallizing a “naïve style” made of saccharine images of rural life. The efforts undertaking by the curatorships commissioned by SESC, aimed at widening the understanding of popular art, have not been sufficient to dissuade the sending of dozens of little canvases showing meticulously aligned plantations, festively decorated town squares, festivals, bands, dancers and religious processions. In fact, this well-behaved painting, this countrified joy has little to do with the current reality of the small towns and the countryside in Brazil’s interior – where progress has arrived, bringing deforestation, mechanization of agriculture, television, land-reform conflicts and the hiring of low-paid agricultural day laborers – and even less to do with the cities inhabited by 70% of the Brazilian population.

The young people leave the countryside without looking back, attracted by the freedom supposedly offered by urban life. The older people, who were once small farmers or agricultural laborers, are left with nothing but memories of a time that will never return. The art produced in this context, as could not be otherwise, reflects the complexity of this movement. The nostalgia, on the part of the artists as well as the public, explains the reiteration of the idyllic rural scenario. However, there are already manifestations arising that reflect urban life, social conflicts, the perception of the human being’s instability in a ceaselessly changing world. If the traditional customs are lost, there are new ways for people to express themselves. And the communication has become fragmented, cut through by other discourses, mixed with other points of view. The power of popular culture grows in the peripheries of the cities, spurring the elites to reformulate their codes and to allow a space for marginality within the dominant culture. The inverse is also true. The acceptance of the cultivated standard is a passport for one’s desired entrance to the labor market, well-being, and material consumption. There is no longer any way to protect the traditional from being contaminated by the new, or to protect the cultivated register from the vulgar influence of the media. Among losses and acquisitions, we have the temporary associations that announce the ruptures and the future innovations.

The foregoing discussion explains the considerations that went into my conception of the show Arte sem fronteiras. The concept was tested at the exhibition Cá entre Nós [Here among Us], held at the Paço das Artes (São Paulo, 2000) in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Brazil’s discovery, and in the selection of the works for the exhibition Acervo da Fundação Nemirovsky: o olhar do colecionador [The Nemirovsky Foundation: The collector’s gaze] which inaugurated the public’s access to this important collection (Estação Pinacoteca, São Paulo, 2006). At SESC Piracicaba, the curatorship is organized in terms of the dialog between emerging artists – who have participated in previous editions of the Bienal Naifs – and artists with established careers in the restricted circuit of the galleries and museums. The diversity of the set serves to illustrate the circulation of images and procedures among the different cultural levels.

In this perspective, the album O meu e o seu [Mine and Yours] (1967) by Antonio Henrique Amaral, composed of seven woodcuts, constitutes a paradigmatic work of a visuality fueled by technical and formal resources appropriated from popular and pop cultures to create what is called new figuration. In the 1960s and ’70s, Brazilian artists made a critical reading of North American pop art, proposing solutions that recover the popular, the rural and suburban, which makes sense in a country lacking in social justice. This approach does not exclude taking advantage of the resources stemming from the world of comic books, advertising and the media. In this case, Antonio Henrique’s graphic work, up to then centered on a personal semantics, changed its orientation and began to converge on social and political issues by way of a narrative figuration inspired in procedures of cordel literature and comic books. While the segmentation of the space within printmaking allows for different actions to coexist, flat images, with strong contrasts, guarantee that a metonymic discourse composed of parts amputated from the body – fingers, hands, mouths, heads, feet – can function with the effectiveness typical of posters and signs.

Antonio Henrique’s woodcuts bear connection to the productions of two artists who have already participated in the Bienal de Piracicaba, namely, Loizel Guimarães da Silva, for the use of matrices made of wood or linoleum (a material also used by Amaral) and Alex dos Santos, who was awarded the Acquisition Prize by SESC in 2006, for the essentially graphic character of his painting.

The most striking elements of Guimarães’s artworks are the fluidity of the drawing and the interweave of plants, animals and humans in large-format compositions that lend visuality to a fabulation at times imbued with exoticisms. Hence the oversized presence of dinosaurs, rhinoceroses, fish, bulls and bees in narrative figurations, perhaps inspired in films and publications of wide circulation. In these woodcuts with outlines and hatchings delineated in white, just one further color – generally black or earth-red – is used in a contrast that recalls the graphic patterns of classical ceramics.

As I observed previously, in Silva’s paintings, the line organizes the space, describes the happenings and subordinates the painting. One cannot help but note the concomitance of the narratives that are not restricted to portraying the exteriority of the objective facts, but also take into account what goes on within people’s bodies and minds. The figuration, which in many cases contemplates situations that are a threat to health and physical integrity, is insistently complemented by detailed statements and descriptions. The accumulation of information in certain artworks derives from the insistent campaigns waged by the government to combat contagious diseases. The communication tends toward entropy, one of the anomalies of our culture. Silva’s boldness in confronting complex themes suggests that his art will come to occupy ever larger spaces, in graffiti or installations.

The city is also the place of the figuration by Vânia Mignone, who creates a painting of resistance that does not give in to passing fads, nor seek to please the market. Its affinity is with street art, not that of the graffiti artists, who are becoming increasingly institutionalized, but rather with the furtive drawings, scribbled in bathrooms, on schoolroom desks or on out-of-the-way walls. There is a sense of urgency, even of desperation in her painting, with its isolated figures overlaid on backgrounds saturated with color, very frequently tinged with crimson. No scenario shelters these youths whose gestures fall into the void. They are characters as helpless as the women filmed by Bergman in Cries and Whispers, an extraordinary essay on the unnatural use of color in which figures consisting of white patches wander through a large room saturated in red.

The paintings by Alex Cerveny and Dalton can be approximated in that they both involve the presence of symbolic content. Cerveny, a drawer and painter, has for years been developing a very personal language that ensures him the position of a very successful outsider in the competitive artistic realm. His originality begins with the tendency to work in small formats, with various techniques and supports, coupled with his own repertoire of images. His painting, formally light but laden with meaning, suggests various readings; the artworks functioning like enigmatic letters. He has brought two sets to this exhibition: one consisting of small panels of ceramic tiles, the other of small-size canvases. Small volatile figures emerge in the paintings wearing strange hats in the vastness of a deserted landscape. Despite that the reference to Paraguay and Solano López’s wife Mme. Lynch would seem to propose a historical narrative, the oneiric climate with touches of Orientalism is equally suggestive of illustrations for the tales of “1001 Nights.” The panels of ceramic tiles – rare in our days – present themes evocative of Arcadia. Nothing is imposing. Cerveny’s art opens doors for reverie.

In counterpoint to these sets, in the paintings of Dalton’s Gemelar series (one of them acquired by SESC in 2008) the climate is more severe, though no less enigmatic. Two or three people are present in an interior setting. These characters wearing green tunics and long red coats seem to be members of a brotherhood. The most curious thing is that the adults are in wheelchairs, as though in a sanatorium. As in the works by Frida Kahlo, the paintings are frontal, technically precise and attentive to details. Also as in Frida, the rigid postures and syncretism of beliefs visible in these scenes approximate these paintings to the ex-votos made as testimonies to extraordinary happenings and pacts sealed with suffering.

Two artists – one from the hinterland, the other from the city – are impressive for the autonomy they have assumed in a society that wants to standardize everything. For them, art and life are inseparable. José Bezerra, in the interior of the state of Pernambuco and Rogério Sena in the city of Belo Horizonte provide proof that the creative imagination serves to recover the human being’s experience of the fatality of destiny.

High in the Catimbau Mountains, Bezerra contemplates the sandstone escarpments with their wind-worn fissures. Implanted in the yard beside his house are strange human and animal figures sculpted in wood, some that look like birds, others that resemble dogs, snakes, or even an anteater. Each one has its place in this sieve of the imagination. There is something tragic in the crude and often tortured expression of these forms that do not deny the nature from whence they have sprung. As stated by Rodrigo Naves, in the catalog of the artist’s first exhibition in São Paulo, in 2009, “José Bezerra belongs to the poorer layers of this population, he works with techniques that approximate him with primitive art and with themes close to rural life. All these aspects conspire toward his being labeled as a popular artist, a dubious and limiting notion, even after modern art restituted to the marginalized arts a status it had never had. José Bezerra is simply a Brazilian artist of great power and currentness.”

As Oiticica was fond of saying, “we thrive on adversity.” Thus, Sena also thrives with his painting of pure energy, vibration and movement. This artist, active in the movement for phasing out the insane asylums, has found in art a path for socialization. With short brushstrokes and contrasting colors he re-creates in his paintings the dynamism of dancing to the sound of drums and ATABAQUES. By capturing the collective emotion, Sena is also syntonizing his Afro-Brazilian ancestry. Atavism is also manifested in Bezerra. The sculptor only perceives the form of the animals in pieces of wood due to his familiarity with the flora and fauna of the region in which his Indian ancestors lived.

Here we find the clearest evidence of art as an activity able to develop man with the capacity to transcend, not death, but the vicissitudes of life.

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