Time Out São Paulo

Alice Brill: a life in paint and photographs

As a teenager, she fled Nazi Germany for Brazil. In 2011, as she turns 90, this grande dame of art is being celebrated for her striking urban landscapes and haunting geometries

Strong-willed and unconventional, German-born painter Alice Brill is – in every sense of the phrase – a São Paulo original: a teenage refugee-turned-founding artist of the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM); a noted photographer of the city’s hustle and bustle, who lay down the camera for paint; and a happily-married mother of four who obsessively chronicled the lonely isolation of the urban experience.

Brill was born to a family of Jewish German intellectuals in Cologne in 1920. Her father was an accomplished painter who achieved local renown for his portraits of the literati, including Albert Einstein. When Hitler assumed power in 1933, the family moved to Spain, then Italy and finally to Brazil as Brill’s mother (separated from her husband) scrambled for work.

Though Brill’s early years in São Paulo were precarious, the teenager lucked out in her first job at a bookstore-cum-bohemian hangout, where she was introduced to the local Santa Helena artistic group, who held lively salons and weekend outings to promote open-air painting.

Half a century later, Brill would write of that time: ‘Art was everything to me: refuge and hope, the dream of a precociously-lost freedom in front of the adversity of destiny.… It was there that I found a sense of life capable of sustaining me despite the insecurity of a world that appeared to be collapsing.’

Earthy tones

Some of these themes – of refuge and imprisonment, isolation and hope – re-emerge in Brill’s lushly geometric paintings from her most productive period from the 1970s-1990s. Hues of deep orange, red, umber and mustard yellows light up vertical urban landscapes dominated by high rises and houses. A brilliant turquoise occasionally winks through; or an enormous red orb sails above the rooftops as lonely figures stand trapped behind windows below.

Many of the scenes Brill painted – of cluttered skylines and churches, branches and red-tiled houses – are visible today from the windows of her sixth-floor atelier in Vila Madalena. However, Brill’s sense of the sprawling, chaotic city was equally informed by her strong decade of work as a photographer: she documented a rapidly industrialising São Paulo in the early 1950s for MASP director Pietro Maria Bardi. ‘There is perhaps no other artist I can think of who succeeds in capturing the landscape, the facades and the isolation of São Paulo in the exact same way that Alice Brill does,’ says Vernaschi.

Defiant brush strokes

In Brill’s candid self-portrait (1942) – painted the same year her father died in the Jungfernhof concentration camp in Latvia (though Brill would not learn of his death till years afterwards) – a young woman in a white blazer with a weary air peers out of the canvas with apprehensive eyes but a determined, even stubborn, expression on her face. Her mouth is set; her chin is fixed; her look dares the world to stand in her way. 

And whether pioneering the use of batik-making as a modern art technique in Brazil, or steadfastly pursuing a doctorate that she finally obtained at the ripe old age of 73, Brill has lived up to the promise of her self-portrait. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000, but continued to paint and draw afterwards. Says her daughter Silvia Czapski wonderingly, ‘It was as if she forgot about darker colours, which she had always favoured.’ Elvira Vernaschi agrees: ‘Her painting turned violent with colours.’

By Grace Fan
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