JOSÉ ANTONIO DA SILVA
The work of this extraordinary painter was the starting point of my passion for popular art, for the spontaneous art.
I went to meet him in the 80s. He lived in the São Paulo neighborhood of Cambuci, in an apartment whose walls had been completely lined up with his canvasses. With no modesty at all he welcomed the visits saying that he considered himself a great artist: he, Picasso and Van Gogh would be the great painters of the world…everything was very authentic and real and held much grace for he was an innate story teller and knew that his work was really good. He had already been recognized and his career was successful. I went on visiting him from time to time and always left his home carrying a painting under my arm. It was pure enchantment!
When Maria Eugenia and I met we immediately realized that we shared the same dream, the same ideal.
“I had always wished to open up my collection of Silva’s works – built up from my love for the simple life of the rural area in the State of São Paulo – to a major audience, mainly to children, needy of this experience and knowledge”, said Maria Eugenia, who also called the attention to the need of preserving the memory of life in the fields.
Her son Alvaro joined her. He was a flower vase collector, a theme that the artist had started to produce at a certain moment of his life and never stopped. The collections were generously made available for this non-for-profit exhibition as well as the means necessary to perform it.
Paulo Pasta accepted to be the curator and it made me very happy! Here we have a contemporary artist with a consolidated career in addition to his deep knowledge of painting.
For the Educational Project, something quite unusual in Art Galleries, Claudio Cretti, yet another contemporary artist, came to add his expertise to the team.
To complete the group of contemporary artists interested in the spontaneous artistic production, Germana Monte-Mor designed the layout and all the printed material for the exhibition.
Thus the IIPB - Institute of the Brazilian People’s Imaginary – continues, step by step, fulfilling its mission which was established at its creation: to publicize the arts and the culture of the Brazilian people.
By Paulo Pasta
“I was born wrong, and I am right.” 1
José Antônio da Silva
The story about painter José Antonio da Silva is well known. Paulo Mendes de Almeida, Lourival Gomes Machado and João Cruz Costa, the three intellectuals coming from São Paulo for the opening
ceremony of the Casa de Cultura at São José do Rio Preto (a city in the west of the State of São Paulo, counting 5,000 inhabitants then in 1946), would have to judge and award the artists of the inauguration’s group exhibition.
Paulo M. de Almeida still remembers: “I walked slowly across the hall. Practically all of the canvases hanging there were painted in a rancid academic style, copies of chromes or decrepit prints copied from oil paintings, with flowers, birds, dead birds, copper tins, in summary, all of the worst paraphernalia of the beaux arts exhibitions (…)”.
However, in the midst of this predictable collection, he was taken by surprise by a painter with “a certain spirit, a certain grace”, whose canvases, – certainly belonging to a primitive and spontaneous
artist, stood out for their originality. Back to the hotel he rushed to his jury companions to say: “Painter ahoy” 2
The painter, José A. da Silva, 37 years old at the time, against all odds: his family, the social community, his destiny as ex-country worker and now a hotel employee, had decided to buy paints, some meters or flannel cloth, do some paintings and send them to the Exhibit. He was thus following a vocation already manifested in the many drawings he had sketched since he was a child, most of them depicting memories of his life in the countryside. The three canvases he sent to the gallery also witnessed this experience of his.
Despite him being the favorite among the judges, they weren’t able to award him the first prize. The Exhibit’s organizing committee annulled the jury’s verdict leaving Silva in fourth. But this group of intellectuals eventually took him to São Paulo where the artist was able to present his first individual exhibition. His paintings were all sold, his name was on the newspapers and his circle of admirers increased.
All this marked the painter’s imagination in an indelible manner. It must have been actually the most beautiful moment of his career, his effectively glorious moment with facts coinciding and converging: his discovery as an artist, confirming his vocation and the possibility of exceeding his social condition.
Silva, who knew how to respond to this opportunity very well, was also useful, at that moment, to the demand of an artistic community anxious for an autochthon value, a value in which they could satisfy and identify the old issue of what would be a national art and an essentially Brazilian artist.
The expression used by Paulo M. de Almeida, “painter ahoy”, contained then an unequivocal sense of “land in sight”. We were wasting time in the dilutions of Cézanne and the School of Paris. There were not yet the projects of a more modern Brazil, that of the representationists, neither the Biannual art shows. Volpi – tempera painting façades – had not yet achieved a more autonomous pictorial space. I believe that this craving for “origins” made Silva’s artistic success feasible at first, but obviously would not have been capable of explaining it completely.
On his turn, Silva found great support on this notion of primitive painter, and not only during the first years of his career. Intelligent as he was, he accepted himself as the artist that the milieu wanted to see.
However, if on the one hand the primitive epithet granted him an identity, on the other it stripped him exactly of what he held dearest, the progress of his own work.
I think that this contradiction accompanied Silva during his entire trajectory. Not rarely in the reviews about him one finds arguments challenging his ingenuousness, his candidness, precisely because he had suffered some influence or because he had decided to transform his work. Would it then be the case of saving Silva from Silva himself? Nevertheless there is no doubt that this type of claim could hardly disguise a repressive ordering.
Silva responded to this questioning angrily. And because of a critic that said he was copying Van Gogh, he interrupted and destroyed paintings of a series in which he used a technique similar to pointillism. He painted canvases where his detractors were depicted as hanged in an efigie execution or otherwise, found vengeance by writing insults in the various novels and stories of his life.
In spite of this ambivalent regime – where what nurtured him also paralyzed him – Silva achieved to grant his work an unquestionable movement where the restless artist he was is evident. He always learnt through his experiences and never forgot to explore every aspect he unveiled at doing. These qualities made him authentic, far beyond the simple label of “candid painter”. Perhaps this was his best reaction, the same that responds for the characteristic quality of his production.
Theon Spanudis, who according to Olívio Tavares de Araújo3 would have been the “inventor” of Silva’s geniality, divided the painter’s work into four phases.
The first would be characterized by the use of darker, leaden colors, dense with mystery. The second, starting in 1948 suggests another lyricism, with lighter and more vivid colors. The third would be the pointillism, already mentioned, and the fourth, and most lasting, presents more crude and violent colors, more agile, simplified and concentrated forms 4. The most part of the paintings in this exhibit belong to this last phase which in my opinion would also be the phase in which Silva reaches his maturity, mastering his expression fully.
Although the artist shows to be always willing to incorporate new themes and even surprising with their oddness, Silva’s motives are also the most recurring in the gender painting: landscapes, still life, portraits, self portraits, religious and allegoric subjects.
One may also gather these themes however over a common backdrop, which is Silva’s life as a country man and worker. His solutions, his composing findings, his colors, contain a mark of one who experienced what he was now representing, because the intimacy of the painter with his themes is outstanding. And if Silva portrayed the transforming countryside, the exchange of forest for plantations, for example –, this same transformation dynamics is somehow metabolized and processed in his manner of painting.
I further believe that José A. da Silva’s painting doesn’t simply feature an inventory of habits and uses. It holds no conformism or simple remembering. What makes the difference is exactly an inner movement, a want for progress,– understanding progress here as a question for the forthcoming of his own work. In a renowned text,5
Antonio Candido refers to a duality, greatly present in countrymen, which he called “transfigurating longing”. It would be something like transforming the past into a golden era, a utopia, since the present, although it brings some benefits, would be always identified with a notion of crisis, where culture values would be under threat.
In his pictures Silva sometimes writes words of memoirs longed for. Most of his subjects also refer to a time passed. But it seems to me that this is yet much restricted to the realm of the theme. He had in fact a great need to narrate his life and his deeds, which he accomplished in several books. It’s exactly the difference between his books and his portraits that help clarify the aspect at stake.
What I mean is that when Silva painted, he did it in the present tense and, if I may say so, also granted his works a “present”. He greatly identified with Van Gogh and admired the expressionists.
His colors and his making contain a strong presence and may reveal this influence. Straightforward and luminous they are also the protagonists, helping give sense to what is being painted.
His formal solutions obey the plain space of the canvas. They are autonomous and are not subservient to the theme.
It is interesting to notice how his research evolves in this direction. He makes painting elements serial and repeated, carrying them with an ambiguously abstract significance. He has a sharp intuition to perceive the plastic autonomy of forms, and likewise Volpi he also knew how to turn figurative content into more simple schemes. His way of painting woods and clouds, for example, shows this. The fires and cotton plantations as well. (His need of unfolding his themes in series is another aspect of this distancing from the theme).
In my opinion, the cotton plantation landscapes are among the best works of this artist. When I saw them for the first time, I was reminded of the landscapes of Guignard, the ones that portray the mountains and churches of Minas Gerais, where it seems that the painter wants to bring heaven and earth together.
In Silva´s paintings, this visionary construction gains a unique inflection. The long whitish, strings of the “rows” of the cotton plantation are planted over the remains of extinguished forests.
The only remains are the trunks, of trees that had been slashed and burned. The tree trunks are dark, they´re lying on the ground and lead to the clear suggestion of death. The rows of cotton plants, that do not hide the trunks, converge in perspective to the top of the canvas in the direction of the sky and the clouds, merging into them. For a brief moment – when looking at this point in the canvas – we have a feeling of completeness, of inhabiting a lost dimension. This timespace unity, which materializes on the canvas, now suggests a mode of resurrection. And, once again, we can verify that, for the painter, the world´s transformations did not only have a meaning of lament.
The work environment is present in most of Silva´s work. The characters in his paintings are always busy doing something. They all seem to be moving around, even during their leisure time. This is also the case in the still life paintings. Several such paintings show an action emphasized by the unexpected presence of a knife which, together with the other elements, seems to suggest that nothing there is safe. Volpi had several still life paintings by Silva hanging in his studio.
A watermelon, whose extremities had been cut off, and the center, from where a huge slice had been cut out. This is an astonishing composition. The pieces of the watermelon that had been cut out are lying next to the fruit, together with the knife, a threatening object.
The huge slash is seen in the center of the watermelon. The painting has none of the characteristics of a still life. To the painter, the fruit, as a suggestion of the composition, did not seem to matter; it is important to show the possibility of how objects can be transformed. This painting shows other possibilities of being interpreted. In addition to reminding one of the same death rituals as the one I mentioned in the series of paintings portraying the cotton plantations, this painting also clearly alludes to sexuality – given the presence of the knife, the instrument of the action, and the slash made by the knife. In this sense, we can also understand the painter´s preference for Picasso, who, together with Van Gogh, were his favorite masters.
Another artistic resource frequently resorted to by Silva is the repetition of some elements that comprise the painting. When He drew a herd of cattle, for example, he always put the cattle in an endless single line. He did the same with sequences of houses. The houses were repeated, attached one to the other, getting smaller and smaller until infinity. The train wagons multiply through the entire extension of the canvas. The processions also get lost in the horizon. This ploy emphasized even more the expressive nature of these compositions, a kind of hyperbole of reality. This is akin to transcending that which is real because of the desire to be very realistic. Many of the figures on his canvases raise their hands to the skies. Desperate or beseeching the heavens, as if they needed this exaggerated gesture to better express the circumstances they are subject to. I think that this desire for eloquence – beyond being a powerful creative resource – corresponded to an enormous need for attention, linked to the desire for the recognition of his qualities as an artist.
The works shown in this exhibition can attest to many of the traces referred to above. This is not an art show that intends to entirely deplete the painter´s poetic world, especially because the choice of the works was restricted to only three collections.
However, the exhibition is appropriate for Silva´s creative intensity and for an indication of its variety of contents. Of the themes I commented on above, only the cotton plantations will be shown, but it will be possible to observe the artist´s fondness for repetitions and the exaggerated gestures in the countless landscapes and everyday scenes. The still lives will include a number of his famous vases with flowers (one of the collections is comprised mostly of this genre). But it will be revealing to note that these flowers also contain a rather nostalgic detachment. They have a clear materiality, bringing on the carnal aspects of the paint to the canvas, offering themselves like an invitation, a celebration of the present.
Another painting in the show (in fact, it is more of a drawing on canvas than a painting) shows an environment that could be a painter’s studio – but actually it is not, because there are vultures flying in the sky – where an easel, which shows a landscape painted by Silva, is being looked at by a crowd of bizarre creatures. Everything turns into a staging, like in a fable: the painter seems to have summoned his interlocutors – many of them with blindfolds – their ghosts and characters (including animals), to a kind of judgment of the work itself. The creatures at this strange meeting now seem to observe those who have always observed them. Is Silva portraying a parody of the time when he was not granted the first prize?
As I dwelled upon this painting, I could not help but remember the famous painting by Courbet, A studio, where the painter, (also in the setting) conducts a celebration, an allegory of the seven years of his artistic life, turning his studio into a laboratory of his own work, that, is, an unexpected testimonial of that which is real.
It goes without saying that Silva´s painting is light years away from the painting of the famous French painter, but it is also witness to his ability to extend the limits of reality, in a strange movement through which the painter, by moving away, seems to give in to doubt and self-observation, in a rare example, in his work, of the rise of a question as to what is real and what is representation. Perhaps this is the reason for the more graphic and analytical execution, without a profusion of paints and colors.
When looking at this painting, I also recall another text written by Antonio Cândido, – in fact, it was the preface the critic had written to the novel Maria Clara, by Silva. He says: “In this enchanting and authentic book, the reader will find many traces that highlight the admirable paintings of Silva. As in his paintings, there is a clear contour of things, which can barely contain the explosion of fantasy. In the manner of his paintings, this work gets stronger if it is viewed less – that is, the more the artist applies himself to a meticulous transposition, which becomes an invention at each step. Therefore, let us not think of documents, let us think about life at a creative pace.” 6
But I truly believe that Silva´s outstanding characteristic was his ability to breathe life into this “creative pace.” When looking at his paintings, it is impossible not to see his suggestion of metamorphosis and his expressive dynamics, able to update the forces that act in the present. However, this does not mean that the artist had a naive faith in the pace of the world. Like a true backwoodsman, he was not a trusting person. The same skill with which he elaborated on this in his paintings also led him to write with acuity: “(...) So our planet is a round globe – understand? – supported in the air. Supportedby whom? By nothing. So, there is no nothing, a nothing cannot exist, because there is nothing. And if there is nothing everything isnothing, understand?”7
* * *
If everything were to depend on the evaluation of José A. da Silva himself, he would be one of the foremost Brazilian painters.
Everybody who knew him, or has had some contact with his texts, novels and interviews, knows that he totally lacked any modesty. He said that, if everybody agreed that he was a genius, it would be dumb not to agree with this as well. Without any regard to mythology, perhaps this opinion helped him paint the way he did: a lot. But in an irregular manner. An ideal exhibition of his works would be one that would “clean” the excess with which he stained himself.
This cannot be the ambition of this small exhibition. But I hope it awakens an echo – in those who are still unfamiliar with Silva´s paintings – of the expression used by Paulo Mendes de Almeida: “painter ahoy!”
1 - José A. da Silva. Catalogue of individual show at Casa Grande Galeria de Arte art gallery. São José do Rio Preto. 1976. Text reproduced in the book Silva: Quadros e Livros. by Romildo Sant’Anna. Editora Unesp, 1993.
2 - Paulo Mendes de Almeida. Folha de São Paulo newspaper, 22.2.1976. (Article reproduced in the book by Romildo Sant’Anna).
3 - Olívio Tavares de Araújo. “Silva”. Retrospective exhibition catalogue. Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo museum. 1998.
4 - Theon Spanudis. José Antônio da Silva. Helmut Krüger Verlag. Düsseldorf. Distributed by Livraria Kosmos Editora. 1976.
5 - Antonio Candido. Literatura e Sociedade. São Paulo, Companhia Editora Nacional publishing company, 1965.
6 - Antonio Candido. Prefácio a Maria Clara, by José A. da Silva. São Paulo, Duas Cidades. 1970.
7 - José A. da Silva. Referred to by Emanoel Araujo in “Silva”, by Olívio Tavares de Araújo, catalogue of retrospective exhibition of the painter´s works. Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo Museum, 1998.
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