Vasco Prado

Vasco Prado, Negrinho with Sun, bronze, 1970. Photographic Reproduction Romulo Fialdini
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By GERD BORNHEIM

The dimensions of your sculpture

The question of art is all about its measure: from where to understand it? And it is precisely at this crucial point that the density of the multiple questions that plague the art of our time is concentrated and, consequently, also the intense aesthetic work that seeks to think about this art. In the past, perhaps because it was too obvious, the question was not even asked: the measure was, evidently and visibly, in the simple presence of the Virgin Mary. Then, art could have no other object: it bore witness to the splendor of Truth, and the Virgin was Truth.

With the advent of bourgeois culture, that obvious little by little loses its splendor, and even the very status of truth is transmuted. Why couldn't the good Flemish painter simply portray the corner merchant's wife? It is still unsettling: can it be measured? But measure of what? From the Renaissance onwards, all of art began to move on the horizon of this type of question, even though the remote implications of this new problem only manifested itself in the art of the XNUMXth century.

Hegel could see, in his Aesthetics, the death of art, because he understood very well that that splendor of Truth no longer worked: the last manifestation of religious art, as an “objective substance”, apart from the baroque. What escaped Hegel – but it was too soon for this to be realized – is that the so-called death of art in fact only covered up a much more fundamental death – that of that splendor of Truth.

For Hegel, if art fails to be an expression of the divine Idea, it simply loses its raison d'être, as its measure fades away. What is verified, however, through the evolution of bourgeois art, is the questioning of the very notion of measure, even reaching an extreme answer: why would the measure not be shrunk to the proportions of the painter's modest brushstroke?

Let's say that art starts to move in the distance between its “materiality”, or what it is in itself, and what it says, even in spite of itself. Art is situated within the boundaries of this space, and nothing manages to escape the intricacies of its limits. This distance configures the place of art, and therefore also the place of Vasco Prado's art. We intend to elucidate here some of the coordinates of our sculptor. But let us continue, first, in the consideration of some generalities.

In the past, already in Greece, the core concept that allowed access to the meaning of art was that of imitation. Everything was in this: what should be imitated? This concept runs through Plato's dialogues, and usually doesn't even cause major fuss. It is observed, however, that from the outset – and not only in Plato – it comes equipped with a considerable self-defensive charge: imitation is constantly opposed to the concept of copying – this would represent the bad step that would result in the denial of art itself. Everything stems, therefore, from the clear delimitation between imitation and copy.

It is observed, on the other hand, that at this same time and with the same Plato, a new meaning of truth, unknown to the pre-Socratics, emerges: truth starts to be interpreted as adequacy. The analogy between the two themes is striking – let's say that imitation is for art what adequacy is for truth. The real becomes explicit within a triangular scheme: the world of objects, that of subjects and, substantiating this dichotomy, the Absolute.

And what matters there is the Absolute: truth and art would become legitimate and possible through their exchange with the Absolute, either directly or indirectly (by essences, for example). This explains the “going the same way” that would be adequacy (ad-aequalites); in the equality of equals lies the very possibility of truth. As long as we remain restricted to the subject-object dichotomy, and we do without God, there cannot be true truth, at most a simulacrum of it; the condition of science would depend on reaching the essence.

The same scheme was applied to art. Art produced within the exclusive limits of the subject-object dichotomy would be nothing more than a copy, without deserving the epithet of art. Imitation, on the other hand, would manage to break the fence of that dichotomy and would somehow bathe in the world of essences. Or of concrete universals, such as gods, saints, kings, heroes and a few other figures.

The normativity of traditional Aesthetics guarantees the existence of such essences, the possibility of their imitation, and even provides the practical rules that make imitation possible – see the phantasmagoria of statues in any traditional art school. Let's say that the copy fails to transcend the horizontal appearances of the dichotomy, while the imitation rises to the verticality that leads to that splendor of Truth mentioned above.

Thus, just to give an example, the tragedy of Oedipus is not only intended to reproduce the overwhelming mishaps of a family; that would be a copy. Rather, it is about imitating the verticality of Oedipus' relationship with the goddess Justice (a concrete universal); Oedipus is necessarily king (another concrete universal), and it is precisely through imitation that tragedy achieves its political-pedagogical purpose. In this short review, I only hope that the poverty of the exposition is compensated for by its clarity. But let's continue.

Then, with the rise of the bourgeois world, came the crisis. Crisis of what? Exactly those concrete universals. Beneficial crisis. The Death of the Gods traces the disaster of tradition. Necessary and irreversible crisis: there is no plausible reason that could foster nostalgia for the old gods. For what is at stake is nothing less than the settlement of man on this earth – and there is no longer any alternative. It should be noted that, within such a context, what ends up losing validity is not only the foundation of imitation, but its very possibility. And in this case, having removed the gods and their godchildren, what could now be the object of art?

Precisely what had always been execrated by tradition – the copy, now exempt from the protection of the universal. An example: Beethoven paints the episode of a spring storm, or exposes his simply individual soul in chamber music. At the level of copying, then, two possibilities remain, that of objectivity and that of subjectivity, or art reproduces the object, or else expresses the subject. Romanticism is the great laboratory through which this transformation takes place. Later, a third alternative will emerge, that of purely formal research, the exploration of plastic language in itself, below or beyond the subject-object dichotomy. And there are no other possibilities.

In the plastic arts, the appreciation of the copy came to produce excellent results: think of still life, landscaping and even ornament. It is even worth saying that the object, for the first time, is seen in its condition as an object, alien to universal categories and value judgments. But the new paths soon manifested a certain weariness and ended up leading to their antithesis. A publication should be published reproducing the paintings made with the beautiful model that was Jaqueline, Picasso's wife; it would soon be seen that the text becomes a pretext, what interests the figurative artist Picasso comes down entirely to the exploration of plastic language. The copy ends up generating a certain discomfort, and, in a way, leads to attributing validity to the old Platonic argument: repetitive, it invalidates art, makes it superfluous and external to itself.

Ultimately, even if for reasons outside the traditional arguments, copying is not feasible. This can be seen precisely in the school that knew how to take the praise of copying to its most extreme consequences: naturalism and its derivatives, such as social realism. In the theater, Brecht's example is completely illustrative. Of course, its most significant root is in naturalism; he himself went so far as to exaggerate this influence, to the conscious detriment of the various formalisms that were popping up at the time. And yet, all things considered, it turns out to be impossible to understand Brecht without the formalist experience, especially that of German expressionism.

His initial intention is to restrict theater to the social issue, and everything is radicalized at the level of the object category – the subject's feelings are reserved for Brechtian lyric. For this reason, in the spectacle, copy and object tend to be identified. In truth, however, this pre-eminence of the copy proves to be unsatisfactory, and Brecht resorts to various expedients to metamorphose it. Thus, for example, in some of his best writings he uses the parable, transports the dramatic action to the East, and makes the scene exotic. Or he makes use of science, which ends up lending a very special emphasis to that sovereignty of the object. Strictly speaking, there is only one text by Brecht in which he is submissive to copying, and that is for strictly political reasons: Terror and Misery in the Third Reich. Procedures analogous to the Brechtian ones are found in all the arts, and, by all indications, and despite the success of still lifes, the historical path of copying has already exhausted its possibilities; it was even transmuted into abstract art because it was merely decorative.

Vasco Prado

Vasco Prado is undoubtedly an artist of our time. And I understand that the ideas exposed so far form the general coordinates that allow us to situate his work. Then let's see.

Social realism imposes itself as the major presupposition of Vasco's work. Here we approach a theme that was already controversial, that of knowing whether or not the work of art should be political. It turns out that the evolution of the arts in the XNUMXth century ended up disavowing any normative pretension of Aesthetics. Precisely the kind of social realism that makes politics the raison d'être of art, the ultimate criterion of its own validity, has almost always led to the worst, and made the demand that all art must be political anachronistic.

Note, for example, the impressive identity of the art produced by Stalinism and Nazism. Or take this other major example: where is the political work of communist Picasso? After all, even in Guernica, the policy is mainly in the title of the board. Such findings, however, are far from resolving the issue. If the work of art rebels against any norm, refuses political commitment and has the full right to withdraw into the silence of the apples – this undoubtedly applies to the work, but not to the artist. As a human being, and like any other individual, the artist is obliged to have his political options, he must have, and cannot fail to have, a clear awareness of his situation in the world in which he lives. And from there, a lot can happen in art, including social commitment.

The Vasco man always defended unequivocal political positions, but in his work there is no political theme in a narrow or pamphleteer sense. It is his political positions, however, that are at the base of the social realism that animates all of his work – social realism, it should be added, of a very broad content, which does not exclude that lyrical counterpoint that is the female presence; or again, the rude virility of men and beasts. Social realism means, primarily, that our artist's work is essentially figurative.

Everything depends, then, on correctly interpreting the limits of this figurativism, or its scope. Here again the social dimension of the artist intrudes, or that necessary human fatality that is dialogue. As in everything, things happen within the dated horizon of possible influences. Youthful enamorations – Rodin, Bourdelle – soon give way to the itineraries inscribed deep in Vasco's eye. Dialogue becomes practical, and takes place at the level of work instruments, between pointers, chisels, bojardas. Realism marries, around, the formalist concerns that run through the plastic researches of our time. It is even worth saying that, to a greater or lesser degree, our sculptor lends an abstract treatment to his figures. Nor would it be possible to gain access to the artist's fertile creative imagination without this dialogue with the world of forms, this openness to a game of lines that, at times, is already registered in the very material Vasco uses.

Thus, his work has two roots. On the one hand, his acute social conscience and his gaze seduced by everything human; but on the other, the mastery with which he lets the line run free, obedient to an internal need derived from the formal. The nerve of Vasco Prado's aesthetics lies precisely at this point: at the confluence of these two roots – and this is where the whole issue of copying is aggravated, as this concept was discussed above. Let us ask, then, what is the verifiable trade between, say, the copy and the other than it, between the sameness of the copy and its difference.

The question turns out to be complex, since it coincides with the entire body of the sculptor's work; everything takes place in the interplay of that double root, it is through it that the copy abandons its so-to-speak natural status. Let's complicate things with a new question: if everything takes place within the horizon of those two roots, if the work traverses the distance between the two, does this journey become creative precisely through the freedom with which the artist makes use of a plurality of resources – and the question now is: what resources are these? In the space of that distance, how far do your possibilities extend? And in the first place: is the openness of this space able to give some shelter to the universal, to what we previously called the concrete universal?

Perhaps with some hesitation, the answer must be affirmative. I immediately think of the imposing sovereignty of the five meters high Tiradentes with three mouths, located in a public place in Porto Alegre. Its enlargement clearly manifests the universal-revolutionary, and stands out as one of the master's best achievements. But it should be noted that Tiradentes configures, in a way, an anti-hero, a victim, and this sort of strips away the universal. Be that as it may, the cultivation of the positive universal, in the old sense, is nowadays at least suspect, close as it is to a certain rhetoric that does not exist in authentic artists.

The presence of the universal, however, deserves more attention, as it will assume other forms, new contours in Vasco's work. I am thinking here, in particular, of the figure of Negrinho do Pastoreio, one of the author's favorite themes and to which he dedicated several versions. But Negrinho, a universal? He is not free, but a slave; he is not white, but black; he wears no garments, for he is naked; he is not active, but passive victim; devoid of political conscience, he is a mere result of the social conjuncture; the opposite of light, it is a symbol of inscience. And just like that, a universal – it paradigmatically synthesizes the consequences of slavery.

The alienation is not so much in Negrinho's marginality, but in those who light candles at his feet. A universal, yes, but with a completely revealing addition: it is a negative universal, or the reverse of the universal, and, for that very reason, a strongly politicizing figure. It is even possible to state that the invention of the negative universal characterizes to a large extent the very nature of art in our time.

Still within the limits of the space opened by the distance between those two roots, let us ask: what resources does Vasco Prado use to define his creative standards? I do not intend here to catalogue, but to draw attention to some of these resources, in order to better clarify our theme. They are resources through which our artist distances himself from the copy itself, even though the plan on which the copy takes place is safeguarded. It is as if transformed, without this process orienting the work towards the incorporation of the universal-model, in the manner of traditional art. The most that could be advanced is that such resources would be like a kind of categories, in the sense of more general names, and that in a certain way guide the creative effort. What resources, then, are these?

The very first, already mentioned above, is in the trade with the abstract element, with the demands that spring from the purely formal line. Of course, in this procedure, the figurative plane is never completely abandoned. This resource tends to be established within certain lines, focuses on a certain repetitiveness, and it is precisely this that ends up shaping the artist's style. Through this formal element it is possible to follow the evolution of his art, and it is important to point out that only through formal elaboration is it possible to properly verify the evolution of language, it is through this that art becomes historical, and not by its possible contents. The formal transforms the given, and it is mainly based on this that one can speak of contemporary art, of historicity: through its form, art assumes a historical aspect and becomes precisely art.

A second feature, closely linked to the first, is its monumentality. It is not exactly a matter of quantity here, the monumentality has nothing – or everything – to do with the size of the pieces. I am referring rather to an intrinsic characteristic of the artist's own line, of his base drawing. This is often present, for example, in small pieces of ceramics. The monumentality is established above all by the curved line, in the rounded shapes, both in the human figure, especially in the female one, as well as, and strongly, in the animal figures. Furthermore, a sensual component is associated with this monumentality. I am not thinking here of specifically erotic pieces, but of a sensuality that pervades the sculptural body itself and installs itself in the extension of the surfaces. This sensuality establishes the conviviality between the piece and the palm of the person who sees it – the desire to touch it. Marc Berkowitz, with his penetrating vision, wrote very well that Vasco “has the ability, typical of the great sculptor, to imbue all his works, even the small ones, with that spirit of monumentality, which is the true proof of the sculptor who knows how to think big. ”.

A third resource can be seen in the archaic. I emphasize here the extreme simplification of the form, there is nothing rococo in Vasco's work, he rarely gives in to the sinuosity of the ornament. His line is sober, with a simple and necessary path, all concentrated on a theme that would be said to be essential and prior to civilizing processes: the man, the woman, the horse. Thus, the archaic trait combines with also archaic, almost prehistoric themes.

Fourthly, this archaic dimension is linked to the presence of folklore. This relationship is perhaps deeper than a first contact with Vasco's work allows one to assess. A man of the land, a gaucho without the apparent need for compensation, all of his work exhibits a notable telluric character. Nor am I thinking so much here of the specifically folkloric themes that part of his work presents: folklore is one theme among others. I think more about this desire to be people, to stick to the roots, to assume the politics of the public square. In this more radical sense, folklore ceases to be an option, and becomes a way of being, of expressing oneself, of getting closer.

Finally, it would be appropriate to mention the use of typification, a characteristic that fits perfectly well with the previous items. The peculiar individuality, the biographical element, the portrait, the accident along the way are practically non-existent in Vasco's work. The artist's cast is stubbornly and healthily restricted: the man, the woman, the horse and few other things, always with the article well defined. It is up to us to speak here – and not only here – of expressionism. For it was this German movement that introduced leitmotif the typification.

The difference between the German expressionists and Vasco is that the former are attached to end-of-novel themes, to the death throes of civilization, to the extreme diversity in which historical figurations crystallized, while in Vasco's case the typification presents the taste of origins. In a sense, it is a pre-social order, with no affinity for mundane halls and constituent assemblies. No hint of decadence, just unrestrained life-affirming simplicity.

The indicated topography could serve, perhaps with additions, as a reference for a broad analysis of the vast work of Vasco Prado. It should be noted that each of these resources is an indicator of a complex of themes and that the suggested terminology is still lame. Thus, for example, folklore has nothing to do with the specificity of so-called folk art, or the archaic does not intend a return to the past – we are always in the present. Furthermore, what matters are not possible references or categories, but the creative verve of our artist – this verve, it should be noted, which cannot be reduced to human subjectivity: it is this, on the contrary, that is constructed from the finished work: the creation in the work is what matters. It contains, in its own peculiar way, the measure of the world and of Vasco Prado.

* Gerd Bornheim (1929-2002) was professor of philosophy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Art philosophy pages (Wow).

 

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