Julio Martins da Silva
I start penning this short text about Júlio Martins da Silva thinking: are we going through a period of regression? Let me explain. Almost unknown to the artistic community in general, born at the end of the 19th Century, Mr Silva – who tells us this story is Lélia Coelho Frota in her Small Dictionary of the Art of the Brazilian People – has had several individual exhibitions in art galleries in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (including the Paulo Vasconcellos Gallery in 1989, the period during which I was one of the partners), including one at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, in 1975; participated in the Biennal Exhibition in Venice in 1978; and also had an individual exhibition in Washington, in 1984. His work is in the collections of important national museums and also appears in international publications.
I am nearly out of breath, and I imagine that you are too. With this curriculum, with this track record of artistic life, how can he be practically unknown, as I mentioned at the beginning of the write-up?
Once again, our work in command at the Estação Art Gallery comes to rescue and show, with utmost pride, the work of a man from the people, of humble origins and simple lifestyle, who has left us a delicate and sensitive artistic heritage. This world is very different from the one we live in. On contemplating her paintings, we start to smile and also wish to spend some time in front of the photographs, discovering subtleties and also the joys which, we assume, are contained in those landscapes and those characters.
Paulo Pasta, a great painter, had for times been trying to talk me into having this exhibition. Those who know me know just how jealous I am about the collection that I have collected over the years. Júlio is one of these cases. Showing the pieces and not putting them up for sale would not be generous. Leaving the people with their mouths watering is not a “politically correct” attitude (I don’t like this term…). In addition, I think that it was really the time to go back in time a bit and we ask: why is an artist of this magnitude (participation in the Biennial Exhibition in Venice!!!) is never remembered on the national artistic scene?
Julio Martins da Silva: A gift-wrapped world
Julio Martins da Silva is a painter who has been almost forgotten. This, without deserving it, it must be said. Born in 1893, he died in the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1978 at the age of 85; since then, no critical review or exhibition of his work has been made. As a popular artist – which, in itself, would put him in a rare and distant plane -, his work survives only in a few collections, some specialised art galleries, and also in the taste of a handful of diehard admirers.
I remember when I saw his work for the first time. Initially, some reproductions printed on the book by Lélia Coelho Frota, Mythopoetics of nine Brazilian artists; then, in a beautifully made film about him, by Carlos Augusto Calil, by the name of You can’t see what I see, of 1978. Finally, at the Estação Art Gallery, by Vilma Eid, who has a significant collection of the painter’s works. At this, my most recent reencounter with Mr Silva’s works, I reaffirmed by admiration for his painting, and then got enthusiastic to such an extent that I bought a small work by the artist.
I have been happy with it since then. The painting is on the wall, cheering me up with a delicateness from another world. Yes indeed, because it seems that the world created by Júlio Martins da Silva is very far from the world we live in, and promises to be, without a shadow of doubt, much better than the real world. We are far from disorders, dissensions and the brutality that permeate our daily lives.
This is one of the typical landscapes. It has no date and no name. In perfect symmetry, two trees enframe a house, a two-storey building. In front of it, a garden with very well organised and blossoming flower beds. The garden lanes, in tones of pink, also show symmetry in relation to a small protuberance. In the window of the house, a girl considers this sweet nature, and only this fact – her contemplative solitude – seems to want to trigger off a less happy note.
The most characteristic features of the paintings by Júlio Martins da Silva are written there: organised and compound nature, the smooth touch of the brush, calm and harmonious colours, a prevalence of hues of green – her favourite colour – being a complement to the pink which is nearly always present.
Every time I take a longer period of time looking at this painting, I imagine the author as being the most delicate painter in our history. Could this be an exaggeration? Maybe, but I do not remember any other where the delicateness of theme, colour and shape could find the same correspondence in delicateness of feelings.
This delicateness could find a very strong counterpoint, for example, in Guignard – without any doubt, a master of subtleties, creator of a world almost without weight, of an aerial and a luminous world. However, this same lightness, present in Guignard, is eloquent because it reveals, through its firm presence, exactly the opposite, the lack thereof, in our place where the skies and the Earth do not meet, as the spatiality constructed in many of his paintings. This feature of the works of Guignard also makes him one of our most important modern artists.
However, the paintings by Júlio Martins da Silva follow a different path. He was a late painter. When he was asked about the reason behind this postponement, he mentioned the practical difficulties of life, giving them as the main impediment for this enhancement. He said that only with retirement could he really “enhance” his art. It would be very difficult, for example, to think of modernism or a modern creator, along these lines based on enhancement. A “modern” artist could create something “around” this issue, but Júlio Martins da Silva intended to create by means ofthis quality. Something like a wish to bring together technique and world projection together, with perfection. This ideality is present in all his paintings. I would even say that this could be its main feature and still the mainstay of delicateness, of Edenic beauty, incorruptible.
There seems to be a close and symbolic relationship between the fact that his painting is established and has gained poetic density in his retirement and the way in which these paintings have invoked and represented the world. I think that, at this stage of his life, he could create a break, a kind of hiatus between the universe of work and that of mind-wandering, if we can say this. The painter needed this pause, as a kind of convalescence of the world, to be able to rescue it in another way, creating a suspension of needs and conceiving this idyllic place, full of jubilation, love, order and silence.
This all seems to be born from a kind of vengeance, a need to create a new place that is different from the places he has always lived in since he was born. Júlio Martins da Silva, born in a city of the countryside of Rio de Janeiro State, Icaraí, at the end of the 19th Century, was a grandson of African slaves and the son of illiterate parents. After his father passed away, he was taken over to the capital of the state and there he was raised by families to whom he provided menial tasks. He said in an interview: “I was beaten up a lot but not by mother, rather by other people’s mothers”; it was also these women who taught him how to read – which was a requirement set by his mother, so that he could stay at his jobs. He moved back to the countryside for a short period and then, orphaned and at the age of seventeen, he returned to the capital on a permanent basis, to always live alone. He was a cook and also a labourer; he slept in the streets and went hungry. Several times he tried to complete his literacy studies and general education, but always gave up school, because of the need to work or the lack of money. In this same interview, he also said that he liked poetry, especially Castro Alves and Casimiro de Abreu, and that his wish to learn now to read property was mainly due to the desire to read the works of his favourite poets. He also said that he always liked music, singing serenades, and also going to the cinema and to the theatre. We must not forget that the Rio de Janeiro of these days, when the painter was living his youth, was going through the city’s “belle époque”, a city with concert cafés and a sociability that, in a way, was less aggressive than that of today, which significantly favoured the Bohemian period of the painter’s life.
Working as a cook, at the age of 29 he started drawing using crayons, “as he had the inclination”; at the age of 47, he started to paint with colour pencils. “The first thing I painted was a landscape, my works have always been landscapes.” Oil painting, which was part of his process of enhancement, was started when he definitely retired. At this time he was already living in a shack in the Morro da União slum, in the State of Rio de Janeiro.
This contrast between a life of adversity and shortages and a production in which this element does not appear, or better, where the exact opposite of this condition is established, is, as I have already tried to show, one of the main contradictions present in the works of Júlio Martins da Silva. Lélia Coelho Frota, in her aforementioned book, says: “The individual has overcome the obstacles of his personal adventure of a poor, skin-melaninated and family-deprived background, to become a transcendent creature which can thus create his own likeness in a perfect image of the world, transubstantiated in the characterisation of the landscape.”
These landscapes also have highly singular characteristics. Rarely do we see the representation of a wild type of nature, devoid of rules. Very few times is there the presence of woods. When this does appear, it is also prepared in soft and ordered ways. There are some pictures where the artist paints wild animals – a panther, for example – and the trunks of what was apparently a forest. However, there we would be closer to imagination than to reality. For them to be compared to those of Douanier Rousseau, these pictures would also lack the presence of exoticism. They are not fantasious, and would be closer to invocations or pictures of places out of the appropriate time. I believe that the garden would really be the archetype of the landscapes. In these, Júlio M. da Silva seems to have found his ideal subject.
A garden is a cultivated form of nature, put in order. Its symbology also represents paradise, a transcendent and spiritualised location. The gardens created by Júlio Martins da Silva create a cohesive scenario for all actions that are developed there. In these gardens, people are dedicated to the sweetest of tasks. Everyone and everything seems to seek a lyrical and romantic effusion. Some verses by Casimiro de Abreu could easily be a caption for such actions. A girl waits for her boyfriend, who walks along the garden’s tree-lined paths. Another person, absorbed by love, opens his arms to his beloved who looks at him through the windows. Birds fly, and some take small letters in their beaks. The mother walks enchanted with her son, under flowering trees, while others go on picnics. In the middle of the garden, nearly always there is a fountain in the middle of a small lake. Small bridges on the streams create a musical rhythm in the landscape, and nothing in them reminds us of the sapping routine of work. All the characters that permeate the compositions of Júlio Martins da Silva seem to be simply absorbed in the happiness of being. These idyllic issues also find correspondence in the way they are painted. Its appearance is also mild, the colours are distributed with parsimony and happiness, but without any kind of excess; the shapes are constructed with the slowness of patience and also due care.
In nearly all these landscapes, we can also see the presence of houses. They appear almost invariably in the centre of the screen, helping to compose a scenario for the order. These are two-storey houses, many with symmetrical windows – a resource that is commonly used by this painter -, and with an architectural style very close to that of the end of the 19th Century and start of the 20th Century. There is the presence of elements such as platibands and lambrequins. They are light in colour, typically white, and are a bit like temples and castles. They are present in this location without any opposition to nature. Before, they were a part thereof, as an extension of the garden; other times, they appear in a group, in sequence, as if they were housing estates, but without any of the marks that would remember anonymity or the ordinary life of the suburbs. Much to the contrary, these are shapes that mention a world that has been made better through human actions.
It seems to me that Júlio Martins da Silva saw progress in a good light. In some paintings there is even the presence of cars. I feel that this factor is part of the same way in which he regarded his trade: as an exercise intended for an “enhancement”. In his view, progress would be a kind of enhancement of the world, a Utopian union between technique and nature, as if the technique could be an attribute as natural as the flowers of your garden.
Also due to these factors, many times in the work of Júlio Martins da Silva there seems not to be any difference between the world that is dreamt of and the real world. He mentions this himself when he says, in the film as already mentioned, that he really liked dreaming, that he imagined his landscapes in his dreams. Then, when he woke up, he would try to remember whatever the real transformed into “something else”.
He often left home to “collect motifs”. This was the name that he gave to his strolls around squares and gardens, with notebooks and pencils, to draw what he could see, from observation; and what he saw was not that distant from what he had dreamt. These notes for future paintings were far from a realist statement. They already contained the seed of transfiguration of the real, which he would use to create his paintings. He would choose the elements of his preference and then put them in a different order.
His work, also for that reason, seems as if made from an aerial substance, jubilous, showing places where a spectator more interested in strong and agile expressions of the world could get frustrated. His hope arose from this place which is hardly identified with strength. His own strength came, surely, from his enormous delicateness, his grandiose suggestion for the creation of a candid location without any cracks.
Some stories that I heard about Júlio Martins da Silva make this knack of his very close to his life, very authentic. I particularly remember one case. They say that when he was given a present he did not like to unwrap it. The package would be the present, perfect. Along these lines, the disassembly of the package would be like polluting the situation of perfection. Opening the present would be the ability to include a more modern and more encompassing notion of perfection. I believe that he would not like to think that all ideas of perfection would be somehow false, or that any sense of harmony would necessarily include mystery and imperfection.
His paintings are this gift-wrapped present – a promise, an ideal. Something that one would always like to get, and not what is in fact given.
I also feel that the price of all this perfection would be that of conjecturing a world that could only exist in the beyond. There is another episode in the aforementioned film by Carlos A. Calil which can be considered as a kind of correlate and which is a complement to this story. In this episode, the painter appears in his own home, being interviewed. When asked about why he never got married, he replied that he has never earned enough for this. However, he rebuts by saying that he is engaged right now, and takes a piece of paper out of his wallet. We thought he would show the photograph of his betrothed, but what we see is a representation of Death – an allegory, with the characteristic scythe and cloak. He then says, pointing to his draft: “Now I have a fiancée who is very close to me. It is she who sets the wedding date, which must be on the day she wants”.
What union could be closer to his desire for “enhancement” than marriage to this fiancée? Thus he got “married” on an obscure day in 1978. Maybe this way he could have achieved the accomplishment of his ideal of work and love – the dream of inhabiting a paradise that has always been denied, this splendid garden, from which we can only envisage a few aspects through his statements: the countless paintings he has left behind.
Paulo Pasta, setembro de 2012
Exhibition: A gift-wrapped world. Júlio Martins da Silva | paintings. Curator: Paulo Pasta Opens 13 November at 7 p.m.?
A gift-wrapped world: Júlio Martins da Silva | paintings
JULIO MARTINS DA SILVA
A GIFT-WRAPPED WORLD
AT THE ESTAÇÃO ART GALLERY
On the first floor of the gallery, artist Aline van Langendonck shows the results of his residence period at the Acaia Studio
Opens 13 November, runs through to 19 December 2012
As its last exhibition of the year, the Estação Art Gallery presents Júlio Martins da Silva (born Icaraí, State of Rio de Janeiro, 1893; died Rio de Janeiro, 1978), an artist who is almost forgotten but who is very important within Brazilian popular art. Apart from participating in the Biennal Art Exhibition in Venice in 1978, that same year he was the subject of the film What I am seeing, you cannot see, by Carlos Augusto Calil, a professor at the School of Communications and Arts (ECA) of the University of São Paulo, and now the Municipal Secretary for Culture of São Paulo. Now he has his work recognised through the viewpoint of Paulo Pasta, who is the curator of this exhibition with 19 works from the gallery’s collection.
Júlio Martins da Silva, a late painter, only started to use oil paints when he had definitely retired. His main area of interest was nature, especially landscapes. His paintings, always showing an organised scene, with light strokes of the brush, and calm and harmonious colours, are counterpositioned against a life beset with difficulties. “This contrast between a life full of adversities and a production in which this does not appear, or where the exact opposite of this condition is established, appears, as I have already tried to show, as one of the main contradictions of the work by Martins da Silva”, the curator said.
According to Paulo Pasta, the artist’s landscapes have unique characteristics, closer to the imagination than to reality. The curator also shows how rarely one can see, in his works, the representative of wild nature, without rules; also, the format, when it appears, is also constructed in mild and ordered manners. “I feel that the real archetype of his landscapes is the garden, where Júlio M. da Silva seems to have found his perfect theme”, he completes.
About the artist:
A grandson of African slaves and a son of illiterate parents, Júlio Martins da Silva was born in the countryside of Rio de Janeiro and started to work while still a boy, in order to survive. At the age of 17, already an orphan, he relocated to Rio de Janeiro where he worked as a cook and also as a manual worked. Despite his difficult social condition, he always sought to complete his literacy, mainly through reading Castro Alves and Casimiro de Abreu, his favourite poets. He was also a lover of the arts. Apart from drawing with crayons since his youth, he also liked to compose serenades and whenever possible would go to cinemas and to the theatre. According to Lélia Coelho Frota in her Small Dictionary of Art of the Brazilian People, the artist had several individual exhibitions in art galleries in Rio de Janeiro and also in São Paulo, including the exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, 1975; participation in the Biennal Exhibition in Venice, in 1978; an individual exhibition in Washington, 1984; and the individual exhibition at the Paulo Vasconcellos Gallery in São Paulo, in 1989.
Exhibition: JULIO MARTINS DA SILVA
Runs from 13 November at 7 p.m. (for guests) to 19 December 29012, from Monday to Friday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. – admittance free.
Estação Art Gallery
Rua Ferreira de Araújo, 625 – Pinheiros SP
Telephone: ++ 55 11 3813-7253
Pool de Comunicação – Marcy Junqueira
Contacts: Marcy Junqueira and Martim Pelisson
Telephone: ++ 55 11 3032-1599