Buenos Aires

On February 2, 1536 Pedro de Mendoza founded Ciudad de Nuestra Senora Santa Maria de Buen Ayre on the eastern shores of the Rio del Plata. The name literally means “City of Our Lady of Saint Mary of the Fair Winds”.  Nowadays we know it simply as Buenos Aires, which translates as “fair winds”.  The people here are known as Portenos, or people of the port.

Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires
Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city; it has the mighty Rio Plata on one side, tall palms, spreading shade trees and bright flowers thrive under its blue skies, radiant sunshine and, of course, in its “fair winds”.  The Spanish colonists spared nothing, it would seem, in creating a city with magnificent buildings, fine monuments, lovely parks and gardens and grand avenues.

Over the centuries settlers from a myriad of cultures have added a humbler, but no less vibrant beauty.

Buenos Aires is  a city that has seen turbulent times and dark, hard days. They are not forgotten. In a short walk across the city, I see grievances scrawled on the walls of buildings. I pass a camp of veterans from the Falklands war, surrounded by banners which speak of the blood of sons and the tears of mothers. They are still campaigning for compensation. I pass a line of Police in riot gear and a few blocks further on I meet a posse, wielding banners emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara. I stop for a drink in a cafe called Resistenza, where Che Guevara look-alikes huddle in corners beneath posters of their hero.

But for all its beauty and its passion, Buenos Aires is a tragic place. The homeless and dispossessed are everywhere. Young families camp on mattresses in doorways, under trees and in the shelter of monuments in the parks. Their ragged clothes, laundered in the fountains, hang to dry on the ornate wrought iron fences. I follow a pair of skinny shirtless waifs along street and see them snatch the food from the plates of tourists lunching on a cafe terrace.  Outside a church I meet a young mother begging. Her newborn daughter Priscilla lies in her lap, dressed in the hot, unsuitable clothes of some distant charity. In the market stalls of San Telmo the trappings of better, richer lives are up for sale.

Beauty, passion, a complex mix of cultures and a rich history make Buenos Aires one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

Ibirapruera Park, an oasis in Sao Paolo

It’s relatively short distance from Avenida Paolista down to Ibirapruera Park, but it’s a long journey, both in terms of the country it covers, and in terms of the land that lies at the end of it. Between the noisy, fast-paced, crowded, densely built-up avenue to the quiet green spaces of Ibirapruera lie the fenced wilds of Trianon Park, smart blocks of luxury hotels, mean streets lined with the cardboard shelters of the homeless, a perilous roundabout and a massive stone monument to the building of Brazil.

The city looms in the background of a  tranquil pond in the park
The city looms in the background of a tranquil pond in the park

Ibirapuera Park is to Sao Paolo as Central Park is to New York – an escape to nature in the middle of the city. I visited it at dusk and its paths and tracks were still teeming with joggers, skaters and cyclists. Kids played on its vast lawns. Couples strolled by its lakes.  Its car parks were still filled with tour buses and tourists’ cameras flashed desperately in the fading light.

Ibirapuera is one of many Brazilian parks and gardens designed by the prolific and multi-talented Ernesto Burle Marx, whose career as a sculptor, painter, designer and landscape architect spanned almost the entire 20th century. It is for his gardens, however, that he is best known. Featuring indigenous plants and trees, Burle Marx created landscapes that were truly Brazilian. He often collaborated with the patriarch of modern Brazilian architecture Oscar Niemeyer, creating a lush, green setting for his somewhat stark buildings, like the Museu Afro Brasil which sits against a tiny slice of rainforest in Ibirapruera Park.


Candido Portinari, a great Brazilian painter

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.

Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo
Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo

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.

Avenida Paolista

Twenty three kilometres of the Castelo Branco Highway link peaceful, protected Alphaville to frantic, edgy downtown Sao Paolo. Avenida Paolista is the main drag and the hub of South American commerce. It’s a parade of 21st century global business towers interspersed with the occasional beautiful colonial relic.

Avenida Paolista
Avenida Paolista

Trianon Park, a legacy of old Sao Paolo, occupies a block roughly halfway down the Avenue. A small slice of the wild, it looks oddly out of place in this concrete jungle. Palms and plants of Triffidian size and appearance press against its wrought iron fences as if straining to escape and retake the city. Armed guards defend the park against invasion by the poor skinny, ragged homeless kids who run wild in Sao Paolo’s streets.

The street kids are never far away. They hold noisy and chaotic court, across the road from Trianon Park in the open space under the Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo.

Designed by Lina Bo Bardi, MASP, as it is familiarly known, is a Sao Paolo landmark and a star among modern Brazilian buildings. The concrete and glass cube, supported on massive red beams, dominates the mid-section of Avenida Paolista.

Founded in 1947 by “the King of Brazil” philanthropist and Media Magnate Assis Chateaubriand and Italian Professor and Art Critic Pietro Maria Bardi, the Museum houses the largest and most impressive collections of art in South America. It includes centuries of European Art along with African and Asian collections. There are also antiquities and decorative arts from around the world. The South American and Brazilian collections are highlights of MASP. All the Latin American greats are there, including personal favourites Torres Garcia and Diego Rivera, Di Cavalcanti and the poignant and beautiful Candido Portinari.

MASP is a non-profit making private institution and its entire collection is listed as Brazilian National Heritage.