From Portinari's murals to Brasília's spaces

Image: Patrick Heron


Commentary on the book by critic Mário Pedrosa

Haroldo de Campos once said that whoever writes for a printed newspaper sends his texts to the grave. Now in digital form, it is still possible to recover, at least partially, such writings. Trying to disprove this assertion (or prophecy), Aracy Amaral patiently organized this volume of criticism and works by Mário Pedrosa (1900-1981), mostly published in the daily press, encompassing a period situated between 1942 and 1969.

The collection features more than 70 articles (50 of which were originally published in newspaper of Brazil) by Mário, divided into two main parts: Visual Arts and Architecture. The first is dedicated to individual artists – painters, sculptors, draftsmen and engravers – while the second, dealing with Brasília, “confers a whole singular significance to the historical, cultural and political drama of the creation of the new capital” (p. 4).



The author himself recognizes that his writings cover a wide variety of subjects that, in these almost 30 years of activities, he arrives at “pure eclecticism”. However, this characteristic is not negative; on the contrary, because this book provides a critical balance of the plastic arts and architecture (through the analysis of individual and collective exhibitions, ideas and projects) that were conceived and circulated among us, from the beginning of the 1940s to the end of the 1960s.

The volume begins with “Portinari: from Brodósqui to the Washington Murals”, a long work written in 1942 on the occasion of the inauguration of the painter's panels at the Library of Congress in the US capital. It talks about Portinari's poor childhood, spent in Brodósqui, the preliminary contacts with the art that would consecrate him and the successes and failures that surrounded him in his early years.

It follows his career after his return from Europe – a trip made possible thanks to a prize won in 1928, with the portrait of the poet Olegário Mariano –, throughout the 30s, stressing that this “did not reach the fresco due to a simple exterior incident ” and that his muralism was not just a delayed echo of the enveloping Mexican movement.

Observing the inner development of his art “one can see that it was, so to speak, organically, as the problems of technique and aesthetics matured in him, that Portinari came to face the inner aesthetic problem that he first encountered. approached him” (p. 12).

Mexican muralists aimed mainly at expressing, on the aesthetic or spiritual front, the ideals of the Mexican Revolution, and such painters often ended up sacrificing “the intrinsic structural qualities of realization to the interested needs of extra pictorial intention, propaganda, proselytizing zeal; the Brazilian painter never sacrificed plastic requirements to the element that in him was always external to the subject” (p. 15). Complete the study with very detailed observations about the aforementioned murals.

Even in this first part of the book, dedicated to the Visual Arts, almost nothing escapes the critic: there are articles on the first two São Paulo Biennials (in 1951 and 1953), comments on exhibitions by Volpi, Lívio Abramo and Lasar Segall, dedicates himself completely to the “down-to-earth” and sensorial painting by Di Cavalcanti and studies the 20 years of Milton Dacosta's career.

It soaks in the “contempt for details” of Djanira's features, speaks quickly of Pancetti, Fernando Lemos, Flexor, Krajcberg, Manabu Mabe, Tomie Ohtake, Millôr Fernandes and Darcílio Lima, in addition to dedicating two articles full of admiration to Lígia Clark and Helio Oiticica. Admiration (and emotion) that intensify in the text about Ismael Nery (1900-1934), his great friend since the 1920s, who “was, in idea, everything, dancer, painter, architect, poet and philosopher, moralist, reformer Social". A non-professional painter, total artist – “hence having lived mainly in potentialities” –, a man full of contradictions: this is how Mário's eyes and heart manifested themselves on Ismael Nery, who died prematurely.



“Brasília is much more than urbanism, it is a hypothesis for the reconstruction of an entire country” (p. 334). This is how Mário Pedrosa expressed himself, in 1959, regarding the new capital, which was being built in the Central Plateau of Brazil, at a thousand meters of altitude and a thousand kilometers from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – the two metropolises of the country. Being, perhaps, the only Brazilian critic to be excited by the creation of Brasilia, he understood that the construction of the city would be the culmination of an entire architectural process that had begun a few decades earlier with Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Carlos Leão, Jorge Moreira, Affonso E. Reidy and Ernani Vasconcelos.

Such young people merged their doctrinal inspirations with Le Corbusier's ideas, creating among them a revolutionary and, consequently, transforming state of mind. However, architecture in the 1930s, despite all its revolutionary conception, contradictorily ends up collaborating with the dictatorship that had recently been implemented. Lúcio Costa is appointed to direct the School of Fine Arts, there is the construction of the Ministry of Education building – where Le Corbusier’s theories were put into practice for the first time – and, almost simultaneously, the Pampulha complex is built .

The real social concerns would only appear later, after the war, when “re-democratization” is slowly contaminating almost all of society. “It is evident, therefore, that Pampulha could only be a result of the dictatorship, while Pedregulho (popular residential complex, designed by Reidy) is the work of an already democratic era” (p. 259).

As Brasília is a city built in the conditions in which it was built, the author does not hesitate to consider it “an essay in utopia”, taking the word in the sense of an oasis “or a colony founded on artificial foundations”. This at a time when utopia becomes a plan – it is precisely this relationship between utopia and planning that constitutes, in his opinion, “the most profound and fundamental aesthetic thought of our time” (p. 356).



Mário Pedrosa, however, does not lose his capacity for criticism in the face of what he considers of fundamental importance: he constantly makes amends for deviations in the execution of the original plan, fears that the fever of immortality that attacks Juscelino will put everything to lose and does not spare criticism of the economic policy from the government. He considers that in the situation in which the country found itself (the article is from 1958), a financial catastrophe seemed to be approaching and the offensive against Brasília would tend to increase. And if its construction stopped, he prophesied, a military dictatorship would be implanted to stay.

Mário Pedrosa: journalist, art critic, professor, political activist, author of several books on art and politics, director of cultural institutions, died in November 1981, aged 81, after facing with dignity many years of forced exile, motivated by his political stances, always anti-authoritarian.

*Afranio Catani He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution. Visiting professor at the Faculty of Education of UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus.

Originally posted on extinct Jornal da Tarde, on August 14, 1982.



Mario Pedrosa. From Portinari's murals to Brasília's spaces. São Paulo, Perspective, 1982, 416 pages.



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