I first got to know her work back in the 1980s. I have always referred to her as Mirian. All I could feel was that her work fascinated me, bowled me over with emotion! The themes, the colours, sometimes the sensual element, other times the lightness of style, everything took my breath away and made me hunt for the paintings at auctions, whenever the paintings came up for sale.
I slowly started to amass these works, as much as possible. It has never been easy to find them available on the market. I got to have many of them, and would proudly show them off to those sensitive people who were ready to look.
But I didn’t want to sell them. I got into a sticky wicket many times... There were people who were also captivated by the works, so I had to apologise; I would say: “They are not for sale. I am keeping them for an exhibition” – yet the day of the exhibition never arrived. The problem was the intensity of my jealousy! I realised that I would like to have them all to myself, locked in my home or at the art gallery, but away from greedy eyes. That’s the end, don’t you think? An art gallery owner who does not want to sell... Sometimes people think this is a marketing pitch for sales, but it is not. Those who know me well know that this is really not the case.
I calmed down somewhat when, in 2013, I moved into a spacious apartment and took my private collection with me. I bedecked a whole wall with Mirian’s works. I believe there must be between 25 and 30 works in all, all of which are very much admired by anyone who visits my home. You think this is a lot? Well, I know some collectors who have 50, 80 or even 100 of these works... What envy!
However, now I feel that it is no longer possible to keep this collection of works out of the reach of the mainstream public. This artist deserves to be known and also appreciated, and it should be possible to go from one house to another and travel along other walls of people who shall also rejoice in coexistence with her painting.
Miguel Chaia, our guest curator, was one of the people who were not aware of this artist and her work. He saw some works at my home and fell in love. His text is the very first I know to have brought Mirian’s work to light, by embarking on an analysis of her work.
I hope you agree with me, and that you enjoy the exhibition of her work as much as I have.
Mirian: beyond figurative painting
Mirian Inêz da Silva (1939-1996) developed a career path which has been marked by some ruptures and significant tense situations, which have imprinted greater interest and sophistication upon her artistic work. Born in the city of Trindade, in the Brazilian State of Goiás, where she studied at the local art school, the Escola Goiana de Artes Plásticas, she later relocated to Rio de Janeiro where she took part in the course given by Ivan Serpa, at the local Museum of Modern Art, the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM), in 1962 and 1963. She thus moved from a popular culture of the Brazilian countryside, with its religious festivities, oral myths, ex-votos (offerings to a church in exchange for a vow) and children’s folk dances and songs, over to a metropolitan society permeated by a mass culture based on music, theatre, cinema and comic strips.
The artist started her career as a singer immediately acclaimed by the institutional circuit, and as such she participated in the São Paulo Biennial Exhibition (Bienal) of 1963 (the VII Bienal) also in 1967 (IX Bienal), and also the 1st and 2nd Exhibition of Young National Engravings (Exposição da Jovem Gravura Nacional) at the Contemporary Art Museum of the University of São Paulo (MAC-USP).
If Mirian moves from a popular culture to a mass culture, next she shall also move from the night-time environment of engravings to the sunlit environment of paintings. The wood cuttings that she produced in the 1960s had significant technical quality, strictness when carving and also an organic suitability of the shapes, in line with the contingencies of wood. The results well justify the acclaim with which she has been received on the circuit of plastic arts both in Brazil and abroad. Based on common themes, linked to the visual appeal of daily objects such as a dog, a car, a woman outside her home, a boat, and images of Catholic saints, the artist has managed to create a frightening universe in which the predominance of black, with small streaks of white, produces a dialectic game between pauses and movement. The strong Expressionist influence, the firm strokes, and also the treatment and control of scarce light reminds one of Oswaldo Goeldi. When she started out, Mirian already established a conflict by imparting a nocturnal expression upon things that occur by day. Daylight is therefore transmuted into darkness. Indeed, other tense clashes shall occur in future paintings.
Mirian gives up woodcuttings at the end of the 1960s and then, in 1970, she organises her first painting exhibition at Loja Residência, in Rio de Janeiro. In the same way that she was a famous singer, her performance as a painter is also quite impressive, so much so that, in 1983, at a particularly proficuous moment in her artistic production, she got to run an exhibition at the Bonino Art Gallery, also in Rio de Janeiro.
An article in the O Popular newspaper from Goiânia, capital of the state of Goiás, on 20 December 1983, brings out her prominence on the national scene and also transcribes the artist’s own opinions: “For me, painting is my life. I paint what I love, and also what I feel in my heart. For me, the Brazilian people, and Brazil itself, are a very big attraction indeed.
I like to listen to anecdotes, popular music and, even more importantly, I spend a lot of time with people, regardless of the social scale. My painting owes a lot to the great masters that I have had in the state of Goiás, and also Ivan Serpa in Rio de Janeiro”. This statement allows the highlighting of the issues addressed in her painting (and also in the woodcuttings): aspects of sociability in both rural and urban settings; mass culture; and also religious and mythical representations. The paintings take us back to what is lively, festive, pulsating and commonplace.
In Mirian’s work one can envisage a concern with a certain degree of Brazilianity, sought in nature and also in culture. In her paintings, these two aspects are typically represented by vegetation, by the sea, by circuses, festivities and children’s play and joking activities.
On moving over from engravings to paintings, Mirian recovers sunlight, which had been hidden by the darkness of her woodcuttings. In her paintings on a white background, the small orange disc, the sun, makes a point of often appearing. There is even a painting in which, on the left-hand side, there is a crescent moon and, on the right-hand side opposite, a luminous sun.
Her paintings are shown in single and also repetitive compositions, on carved wood, this being heritage from her woodcutting days. However, this apparent simplicity also warrants analysis based on an approach internal to the work. If the tense situations already annotated were not enough, both along the path and in the language of the artist one can see new situations of conflict, hidden on the apparently calm surface of their paintings.
To start with, one can highlight tension which is always present in her paintings, which is the coexistence between an abstract and geometric order, on the one hand, and a figurative order, on the other. All Mirian’s paintings have geometric structure along the edges of the painting (lower, upper and also at the sides) and also plenty of white space available for the narrative, in the centre of the picture. This means that the paintings comprise two distinct pictorial orders, two visual territories, which go side by side; the geometrical abstraction of the edges and the white space for figurative elaboration. In this sense, Mirian is more than just a figurative artist, and here it is convenient to stress her sensitive geometrical construction, close to concrete art. (Considering the emphasis that Mirian has given to her master Ivan Serpa, a question is appropriate here: could the artist also have had contact with the members of the Grupo Frente, that also attended Mr Serpa’s lessons?
On visually confirming the presence of these two simultaneous orders, of these two movements involving shapes and colours, we see that these mutually complete each other, while at the same time they deny each other, and move apart. As a spatial composition, one part needs the other; however, as a discussion of language, each one brings its own specific and different problematisations. In Mirian’s paintings, this conflict is not solved, but becomes an essential element in order to understand the particularities and the aesthetic sophistication of her works.
The four bands (which can unfold to create others, as we shall see later) are free of representations and have their own significances, even though this could lead to the concept of windows, curtains or frames. However, if these were the equivalences between the different bands, they could occasionally appear.
There are some paintings with curtains lying against the bands, distinguishing between them. This means that the bands are not equivalences or representations, but rather autonomous and permanent forms that impart a certain structure of painting, thereby creating the whole. We can also see that the bands are not only formally different from the visual events of the white plane, but also that, as the great colourist that she is, the artist gives different colour treatments to these two aesthetic orders. The bands are in dark colours and low tones, while the shapes and the appearances of the white plane have light, vibrant and shiny colours. In addition, the bands attract and repel light. Mirian is dealing with two spheres, distinct and opposite, that structure the pictures in a conflictuous manner.
For purposes of approximations, we see that the palette of colours of the geometrical bands is similar to the works of Iberê Camargo, while the colours used for the figurative plane – where bright colours contrast with the background – remind us of those two great Brazilian painters, Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral. In addition, Mirian seems to take from Tarsila the volumes and the curved and synthetic strokes used to create the mountains, vegetation, clouds and sea waves present in Mirian’s works.
When the narrative of the white space occurs externally, Mirian places two small blue semicircles at the top corners of the painting, representing the sky. In this way, some compositions remember a niche or a type of Byzantine architecture that shelters the characters of the narrative. In this way, due to the small curvatures, an environment of spirituality is created.
One can see the use of bands as a constructive effort to put the paintings together, giving value to the plane and to the lack of perspective. Both the bands and the elements of the painting are within the same pictorial plane; they are all created with control and also with the exact definition of the borders between shapes and colours. For this reason, without the presence of an escape point, the images (drawn with apparent simplicity) are normally frontal, as also are the bands. These two orders and these movements are so equivalent that we soon take in a unit based on the geometry of the bands, which have an impact on figurative order, making this minimum and also doing away with naturalism and realism as an element of painting. The specificity of Mirian’s language progresses in a constructive direction.
We can therefore state that there is a hybrid unit, with coexistence between different elements, imprinting particularity upon her works. The geometrical dimension can be reinforced on noting that many of Mirian’s paintings are created based on superimposed horizontal spaces. On starting observation with the lower part of the painting, the first layer is always the autonomous band, and then normally there can be the horizontal band of the floor/or earth. Sometimes this second band can also be the one that represents the sea or the air. Finally, we arrive at the last band, which is normally autonomous, and the sky is suggested by the small blue semicircles at the sides.
Faced with the immobility of the bands and the white background, in the scenes that the artist has created the characters are always in action. Mirian captures a moment where dynamic events unfold: trips, parties, relationships, religious acts, dancing, bar tables, and a variety of shows. There is a certain element of tragedy in the confirmation that the passing, mutable and fleeting movement of the figurative element occurs together with an inflexible, rigid and permanent world of the geometric dimension. Different from the visual perception of movement that can be seen in daily records, in the religious scenes we can see that a perception of stability prevails.
In the society and in the structure behind Mirian’s painting there are irreducible and agonic conflicts. Maybe one can think that her paintings do not portray just the happiness of life or the celebration of life. Why not consider, from a tragic perspective, that Mirian creates her transparent, hollow and floating participation, like a desire for full life, in the confirmation or suspicion that strong and permanent structures may be obstacles or limits to the good transmission of what occurs in daily life? Maybe for this reason there has been the rejection of perspective, naturalism and realism. Maybe this is also why her figures normally float in the white background. This could be why it is necessary to move away from daily activities and seek help in the religious or mythical spheres – bringing mermaids to life, accepting the possibility of flying or gliding in the air, seeking the pleasures of a bar table or a game of cards, balance on a wire or on a galloping horse. In mythologies and religion, Mirian seeks an exit so that Icarus may continue his flight or so that Adam and Eve may proceed with their pilgrimage. The loss of paradise is an element that can be felt in many of her works.
Having to establish a position among different conflicts, Mirian’s work is also permeated by some paradoxes. One of them is centred on the “woman in the red dress”. As there are many pictures with a religious content (one example of this theme is the painting Crucified Christ, where Christ is accompanied by two angels, from 1981), the issue of the feminine can also be highlighted. Many times the artist intertwines the issues of religiousness and sensuality, as in the paintings depicting Adam and Eve, nude and sensual, as shown in the painting Adam and Eve (1992). The artist also insists on the issue of the meeting of couples, as in Gabriela and Nassif  and Casal ). However, this issue becomes much stronger when Mirian presents the woman in the red dress, ostentatiously present in bar scenes, dancing scenes and festivities. For example, take a look at Mirian’s work Geni and the Zeppelin man (1981), in which the woman in the red dress takes up a decided, proud, and challenging position, willing to tackle man and machine. This issue of the feminine, which is often approached with a touch of humour, also passes through the work with the mermaid theme.
The posture, the sensuality and the scene involving the woman in the red dress are a hint to bring Mirian’s paintings closer to theatrical resources.
The exhibition at the Bonino Gallery, in 1983, included several paintings with theatrical references: They don’t use black tie, Gabriela Clove and Cinnamon, Little Blue Theatre and The Flying Circus. In addition, Mirian has produced several paintings depicting popular Brazilian singers, such as Dalva de Oliveira, Elba Ramalho, Gal Costa, Ney Matogrosso (in highly sensual ways) and Chico Buarque (in an intellectual manner).
The closeness between Mirian’s works and the theatre is further strengthened on noticing that the faces of the figures painted by the artist look like theatrical masks. Human beings and animals bring a frozen and repetitive mask, with a lot of makeup, rosy cheeks, and prominent lips. Her paintings also show the world, happening at the front of a stage. The figurative action given in the white and luminous space is not real, but rather a possible representation. The climate is oneiric, floating and playful – everything is desire, in a quest for visual expression. This means that we have a Brechtian paradox: Mirian does not want to mislead us with her paintings, as they are allegories and do not intent to be realist or naturalist. Starting out from the conflict between the abstract geometric order and the figurative order, Mirian’s work can be understood as an intermediate dimension so that one can think about art and also about life. Her paintings allow the establishment of a problem regarding language within art and, at the same time, transmit the vision of someone observing the daily lives of people and of Brazilian society.
São Paulo, January 2015