Naive artists, almost always

Geraldo Edson de Andrade

Professor, art critic and writer. President of honor of the Brazilian Association of Art Critics /ABCA-AICA

Within Brazilian painting, the so-called naïve artists have been the least praised by the critics. Inexplicably. As they are now relegated to a restricted space in the exhibition environment, absent now for years from the recent editions of the Bienal de São Paulo, where they always had a strong presence, and from the rare art salons that still dare to take place in this immense country, it is cause for celebration that in Piracicaba there is a biennial dedicated exclusively to these popular artists.

It is to SESC’s great merit that it is sponsoring this Biennial of Naive Artists of Brazil, to which artists are being invited from all regions, with a highly positive response. In this 2010 edition, 22 states are represented, bringing together 378 painters in a very auspicious development, demonstrating that even without backing from the critics, Brazilian naïve art has artists at work, carrying forward the flame of their aesthetics and the veracity of their creation. The biennial moreover ensures that every two years renewed stimulus is provided to successive generations of artists, and new artists are revealed who would otherwise remain restricted to their regions.

It was not always like that however. We all know that since colonial times the self-taught artists born in this country painted mainly to ornament the churches of our prosperous provinces, such as Minas Gerais, Bahia and Pernambuco. Going further, what could be said of the indigenous inhabitant that already created his handicraft and painted his body on the most solemn occasions? And how to classify the ex-votos painted anonymously and left at churches of popular devotion and at the crosses erected at roadsides?

The organizers of the Modern Art Week of 1922 – held in São Paulo as a rupture between the academicism that prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century and the new perspectives of art that had already made great strides in the world’s main capitals – could not even imagine including so-called primitive painters in their event. This fact was indeed felt by researcher Pietro Maria Bardi who, in his work História da Arte Brasileira [History of Brazilian Art], regrets that the mentors of the event “had forgotten the primitivist painters, who created the very nationality they themselves sought to exult.”

At first, these spontaneous artists without academic training were known as primitive artists. Later, the definitions changed in a succession of terms such as ingenuous, spontaneous, imaginative, regional, folkloric, innate, through which our most authentic artists of this language passed.

In the 1930s, names such as Cardosinho, as the Portuguese-born school inspector José Bernardo de Cardoso Jr. was known, arose with a painting that evinced a powerful poetics, supported by artists from cultivated registers, such as Cândido Portinari, and with critical support from leading intellectuals such as Celso Kelly and Carlos Cavalcanti, two of their great encouragers. On this same path emerged the São Paulo farmworker José Antonio da Silva, discovered in an art salon in São José do Rio Preto in 1946.

The attention of the specialized critics was intensified in 1951 with the holding of the I Bienal de São Paulo, which awarded an honorable mention to the painting by Heitor dos Prazeres, a brilliant composer of Carnival sambas and marchinhas (he also worked in partnership with Noel Rosa) who brought to his canvases the fascinating world of the samba of the Rio de Janeiro favelas. The painting of the three artists was the subject of a monograph by writer Rubem Braga entitled “Três Primitivos” [Three Primitive Artists], the first essay published in this country about popular painters.

Curiously, the Beinal de São Paulo, in all its editions up to 1969, always reserved a generous space for our ingenuous painters, even conferring them awards, as was the case with, for example, the painters Elisa Martins da Silveira from the state of Piaui, and Grauben de Monte Lima, from the state of Ceará, who began her painting career at the age of 60 after retiring from her position as a public servant.

It was these artists, along with some others, who opened the way for important artists of the same language, such as the artist from indigenous ancestry, from the state of Acre, Chico da Silva, who won an honorable mention at the 1966 Venice Biennale, with paintings and drawings populated by fish, birds and animals from the Amazonian visual universe; Pedro Paulo Leal and his son Manuel Faria Leal, as well as Rosina Becker do Valle and Silvia de Leon Chalreo, all from the state of Rio de Janeiro; Gerson and Elsa Oliveira Souza, and Manezinho Araújo, from Pernambuco; Agostinho Batista de Freitas and Iracema Ardit, from the state of São Paulo; João Alves and Edelweiss, from Bahia; Zizi Sapateiro, from Minas Gerais; and Maria do Santíssimo, from Rio Grande do Norte. It should be noted that there did not yet exist rivalry, nor prejudice between cultivated art and ingenuous art.

An artist such as Ivan Serpa, an important name in Brazilian modernist painting and one of our first constructivist painters, taught a course at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro where he sheltered with the utmost respect many of these painters, whom he guided in their most evident qualities, such as purity of color and the crude manner of drawing and composition. In short, each artist’s own vocabulary.

Every two years, the Bienal de Artistas Naïf presents the visitor with an artistic universe of irresistible charm, translating through its interpreters a language of painting imbued with great existential experience. There is nothing of conceptualism, aesthetic juggling, nor artificial intellectualism, but rather art that speaks indistinctly to everyone, cultivated or not. The freedom with which it seeks to show its reality, actually the poetry of the day-to-day life that surrounds it, reveals another facet that cannot go unnoticed by the researcher and the public: most of the naïve painters come from smaller cities, towns or the countryside, from contacts with humble professions, many of which emerge when transferred to larger centers. They thereby reveal that their creation often springs from a sense of nostalgia, as a sort of settling of accounts with themselves in light of the loss of regional roots represented by Christian and pagan festivities, linked to regional folklore, themes that are constant in the popular (or naïve, if one prefers) oeuvre.

It is to be expected that naïve painting is more appreciated by the tourist who sees in it the portrait of a country through a folkloric lens, or in terms of how one imagines life to be on this other side of the tropics. However, as English anthropologist R.R. Marett has pointed out, art is not linked to any special kind of human culture; it is, rather, a tough plant that flourishes in all climates and all seasons.

The Bienal Naïfs do Brasil, held by SESC-Piracicaba, therefore fulfills an important role in the development of art in our country insofar as it stimulates, encourages and raises awareness about the most real production of popular creation. This event is every bit as Brazilian as our traditions and our music. More Brazilian would be impossible.

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