MASP, or Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo, on Avenida Paolista, was one of the highlights of my visit to Sao Paolo. And the highlight of my visit to MASP was a small exhibition in the echoing subterranean gallery. It was showing a selection of works by Candido Portinari, one of Brazil’s most important painters and an influential figure in its neo-realist movement.
Most of the paintings were narratives of old bible stories – The Justice of Solomon, The trumpets of Jericho, Jeremiah’s Lament, Job and The Massacre of the Innocents – with universal themes of justice, triumph, suffering, despair, resignation and terror vivid in the lines of the figures and the faces. Other paintings showed Portinari’s own country, life and times. Profoundly moving, shocking even, nothing of the terrible existence of the refugees from the drought and famine in the North-East of Brazil in the 1930s was hidden in the paintings North Eastern Migrants, Dead Child and Burial in a Hammock.
The son of Italian immigrants, Portinari was born on December 29, 1903 and raised on a coffee plantation at Brodowski, near Sao Paolo. He studied at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro, where, in 1928, he won a gold medal and a scholarship to study in Paris.
Returning to Brazil in 1930, he set about producing the huge and wide-reaching body of work which can be seen in galleries, both in Brazil and around the world. Portinari’s murals range from the family chapel in his childhood home in Brodowski to his panels Guerra e Paz (War and Peace) in the United Nations building in New York. His paintings cover and enormous range of subjects; his childhood, labourers in the city and countrside, refugees from Brazil’s north-east, colonial history, portraits of family and leading Brazilians, book illustrations and decorations for tiles.
In 1947, Portinari stood as a senator for the Brazilian Communist party but fled to Uruguay during the persecution of Communists that followed shortly after. He returned to Brazil in 1951. After a decade of ill health he died of lead poisoning from his paints in 1961.
Portinari lived and worked in one of the most artistically fertile periods in Brazil’s history. His contemporaries included the architect Oscar Niemeyer, with whom he collaborated, as well as the great master of Brazilian gardens Burle Marx.
Sadly for us, Portinari’s family have forbidden the production of any of his works, so there are no prints of his paintings and no books about him.