It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to hang a painting like War and Peace (Guerra e Paz), the immense diptych by the Brazilian artist Candido Portinari, on show until April 2012 here in São Paulo in a major exhibition at the Memorial da América Latina. Seen daily by some of the most important diplomats on the planet, the two 14m-tall panels are usually set at the entrance of the General Assembly of the UN headquarters in New York in an area closed to the public, in a stark reminder of the contrast between dark times and happier ones. In War, people cover their faces with their hands, falling to their knees in supplication for the nightmare to end. In Peace, children play and people dance without a care in the world.
And for the first time ever, the works have left the UN to return to their origin. Following a period of restoration and an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, they arrive at the Memorial da América Latina, accompanied by a hundred never-before-seen sketches and plans before they continue on to other international destinations.
In 1950, the Brazilian government asked Portinari to paint War and Peace as a gift to the UN, which had requested art donations from member nations. At the time, Portinari’s name was already well known outside Brazil. As part of the Modernist school, he had had solo exhibitions at New York’s MOMA in 1940, and at Galerie Charpentier in Paris in 1946, and had painted murals in the Library of Congress in Washington.
|'Menino com Arapuca' ('Boy with Trap')
Disobeying medical orders – the 50-year-old artist was suffering from an illness caused by the lead in his paint – Portinari rose to the challenge. According to João Portinari, the painter’s son and also a specialist in his work, he was fiercely dedicated to his art. ‘My father considered himself like a craftsman, like a shoemaker,’ he says. ‘He didn’t believe in inspiration, only in hard work, and he worked from morning until night.’ That helps to explains his prolific output, which includes more than 5,000 pieces, including paintings and sketches.
It doesn’t, though, explain the unusually diverse styles he used in his work. A glance at his oeuvre is enough to confirm what Antonio Callado, his biographer, says: that his paintings might have been done by six different artists. For example, Mestiço, part of the Pinacoteca do Estado collection (see below) – shows a strong African–Brazilian farm worker painted in a figurative style, in bold colours; while Favela com Músicos (Shantytown with Musicians) – part of the Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano collection – is all abstract forms and musicians who seem to fade into the background. ‘He didn’t even like to talk about his influences because they were so many,’ says João Portinari. ‘He was a tireless researcher.’
A passionate believer in the transformative power of art, Portinari poured feeling and meaning into his paintings: ‘His work always had dual strands: drama and poetry; tragedy and lyricism; fury and tenderness,’ explains his son, adding that War and Peace is particularly special because it synthesises those strands in one piece. But despite the universal nature of this, one of his best known artworks, Portinari’s work is also thoroughly Brazilian in its subject matter, encompassing everything from the hardship of life in Brazil’s rural North East to carnivalesque scenes of celebration. João Portinari sums it up: ‘He created an emotive and critical portrait of our people and soul.’
War and Peace is at the Memorial da América Latina, Avenida Auro Soares de Moura Andrade 664, Barra Funda (3823 4600, memorial.sp.gov.br), until 21 April 2012.
|A panel from 'Palácio'
Where to see Portinari paintings in São Paulo
Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano Meninos e Piões (Boys with spinning-tops), Favela com Músicos (Shantytown with Musicians) and Menino com Arapuca (Boy with Trap) are on permanent show at this beautiful foundation in Morumbi. Pick a sunny day for a visit to the house and its gardens, and enjoy the equally sunny colours and wildly varied styles used by the artist. Avenida Morumbi 4077, Morumbi (3742 0077, fundacaooscaramericano.org.br).
Palácio dos Bandeirantes Just across the street from the Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano, Palácio dos Bandeirantes is the home of Tempestade Acalmada (The Quieted Storm), in which sailors seem to be recovering from a storm at sea. Avenida Morumbi 4500, Morumbi (2193 8282, acervo.sp.gov.br).
Pinacoteca do Estado The bold, beautiful Mestiço (Mestizo Man), in which a young man stares out from the canvas with a powerful gaze, is part of the Pinacoteca do Estado collection, along with fifteen other pieces. Praça da Luz (no number), Luz (3324 1000, pinacoteca.org.br).
MASP Seventeen of Portinari’s works can be seen at the MASP, including perhaps the most famous: O Lavrador de Café (The Coffee Farm Worker) – which is lucky, since the painting was stolen in 2006, along with a Picasso, before being recovered three weeks later. Avenida Paulista 1578, Bela Vista (3251 5644, masp.art.br).