Popular art reaches a new status

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Gallery owners invite contemporary art labels to sign catalogs; the pieces make up for 15% of the auction bulk

Brought all the way from the Sergipe hinterland to the São Paulovernissage, the sculptor Véio is the image of this movement that has just started to emerge


Wearing leather sandals, a wooden stump in his hands, Cícero Alves dos Santoshas his eyes turned down when the Folha reporter arrives at the Galeria Estação, in Pinheiros. Some seconds go by before he raises his head and, after one last cut into the small imburana stump, he explains: “If I keep still, I become sort of neurotic. I’m always making something or other. I’ve been like this ever since I was a little boy. When I was five, I worked on bee’s wax and, hiding from my father, I fashioned little dolls.”

This way, chatting aimlessly, Santos, known as Véio, shortcuts to the way that leads to the origins of the so-called popular art. Made by self-taught people who come from the simple layers of the population, this difficult to conceptualize art is quite often mistaken for popular craft, or at most seen as a picturesque manifestation. Naive. Primitive.  Well, last Thursday, when conducting a guided visit followed by a cocktail, Véio went on to rid himself free from these words and jumped to another word: art.

“It was an old dream. Treating these artists as artists. And period.” says gallery owner Vilma Eid, fashioner of this movement that seeks to give new status to popular art. She summoned the painter Paulo Pasta to write about former sugar-cane cutter José Antonio da Silva (1909-1996), the curator Rodrigo Naves to reflect on hinterland sculptor José Bezerra and Paulo Monteiro to endorse Véio. “ Through these approaches, we are reaching a new public.”

Thanks or not to this layer of veneer, the prices of popular art have gone up. In São Paulo, where for many years only one specialized gallery existed, Brasiliana, there are today two other ones: Estação and Pontes. “It has proportionally been the art that has increased most in value in the last five years” says auctioneer Soraia Cals. Up until 2005 these works did not even come near the hammer’s sound. Today they represent 15% of the auctioned pieces. But their price is still very low.

Even the most valued names, such as the sculptors Vitalino (1909-1963) and G.T.O. (1913-1990) and the painters Heitor dos Prazeres (1898-1966) and José Antonio da Silva (1909-1996), cost extremely little as compared to the so-called erudite art. A Prazeres painting will not cost over R$ 40 thousand. A good piece by Vitalino, the cotton-picker who watched his dolls leave the Caruaru fairs and arrive at the art salons, costs at most R$ 25 thousand.

“There is a prejudice towards art made by people who are at the bottom of the social pyramid”, says Roberto Rugiero, from Brasiliana. “So much so that often those who buy these pieces still keep them confined to their country homes. But there was a time when this was not so.”

Rugiero is referring to Modernism and to its desire of fusion between popular and erudite. It was the Modernists who welcomed Silva and Vitalino and who let themselves be enraptured by typically popular themes – it is enough to remember the Samba Dancers by Di Cavalcaanti and the Refugees by Portinari.

“I’m simply incapable of thinking in terms of popular or non-popular. What I can think of is good or bad painters”, says Pasta. “Silva had a hunch for matters pertaining to levels, he had eye intelligence, intuition. It seems that the dialogue that existed in the 1930’s and 1940’s and that afterwards disappeared into silence, is back in whispers.”

“We spent a lot of time seeing this art as picturesque”, says the critic Rodrigo Naves, in something like a mea-culpa. “It seems to me that contemporary art is growing ever more academic, repetitive. This is also why Zé Bezerra’s originality attracted me.”

Gallery-owner Edna Pontes ventures another explanation: “Popular art is currently benefiting from the growing appreciation of Brazilianness”. Rugiero, on his turn, recognizes this recent trend as good, but is cautious. “The absence of a critical reference gives room to bluffs. Another risk is that of transforming the artist into a circus monkey and finding authenticity where there is only repetition.”

Nuno Ramos, who had not  really  paid much attention to popular art until having been introduced to Bezerra, liked what he saw, but is wary of generalizations: “We must be careful with misleading populist discourse that claims such ideas as “let us give him a chance” or “look at his incredible story”.

This kind of concern extends to the artists. “Sometimes they only want me to say I worked on the plantation and the such” says the painter Nilson Pimenta who, as a boy, living in the hinterland, drew on fences and trees and nowadays makes a living as an artist. “But if they also see what I paint, then it is alright.”

Source: Newspaper Folha de S. Paulo – Ilustrada Section

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