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Portinari Murals

Four Portinari Murals adorn the vestibule walls of the Hispanic Reading Room

From the time of the dedication of the Hispanic Room, it was hoped that the two vestibules could be decorated by some outstanding muralist from Latin America. Since the Foundation already possessed a mural of the Columbus coat of arms symbolizing the Spanish contribution to American history, it was felt that it would be appropriate to entrust the decor of these vestibules to a Brazilian so that the Portuguese-speaking people of America also might be represented.

Cândido Portinari seemed just the person for the task. Accordingly, in November 1940, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish invited the painter to consider the preparation of sketches for the murals. Portinari, who had just returned to Brazil from his exhibition in New York, knew the space that had been allotted for the project and was enthusiastic. The Brazilian Government, welcoming the invitation, provided funds for his return to Washington in August 1941 to prepare sketches.

In a series of discussions with Mr. MacLeish, Portinari planned the themes of the four large paintings and shortly afterwards presented gouache sketches that were approved by the Librarian and the Architect of the Capitol, David Lynn. To enable Portinari to execute the murals, a fund equal to that already appropriated by the Brazilian Government was obtained from the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.

Cândido Portinari began to paint on the walls of the Hispanic Division late in October, assisted by his brother Luiz. Two months later the work was completed, and on January 12, 1942 it was inaugurated in a ceremony conducted by the Brazilian ambassador, Senhor Carlos Martins Pereira e Sousa, Nelson Rockefeller, Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and Lewis Hanke, the Hispanic Foundation director.

In designing the murals, Portinari himself imposed the restriction that the figures and the objects be so represented as to apply not to one age alone but to the whole succession of periods since the coming of the Spaniards and Portuguese to America. On the first wall he decided to depict the primary event -- the discovery of the land -- but without specifically representing either the Portuguese under Cabral who came to Brazil or the Spaniards under Columbus. Next he showed the great American theme of pioneering, of the conquest of forests and the domination of the land, the act of penetration which had gradually taken place all over Hispanic America, from Patagonia to the Rio Grande. For the symbol of this theme he chose the actual entry of pioneers into the primeval forest. In the third mural he represented cultural beginnings through the basic teaching of the Indians by members of the religious orders. Here again his theme was international. It might have been recorded in Mexico, Paraguay, or Brazil. For his final mural he reserved the theme of work. Specifically he chose mining -- the most spectacular aspect of the economy of Mexico, Brazil, and other sections of South and Central America in the colonial period. In the figures of his murals, Portinari represented the three races of the Americas: the Indian, the black, and the white.

In the matter of technique he faced a choice of one of several processes. The murals could be painted on canvas set in the walls or directly on the walls, either on wet plaster in the true fresco technique or on dry plaster in tempera. Portinari was thoroughly familiar with all three processes, but elected to use the third because it promised the most successful blending of monumentality with luminous coloring, because it seemed the most effective for the relatively small space available, and because it would permit him a greater freedom of experimentation while working with a subject and in an atmosphere hitherto unfamiliar to him.

Mural - Discovery of the LandCharacteristically, Portinari's first painting, Discovery of the Land, is dominated not by captains or the admirals or the priests of the conquest but by the common sailors who manned the fleet. This mural has the most baroque composition of the series. It is divided vertically by the twisting ropes of the ship's rigging and ladders. The sweeping diagonals of the gunwales and the swirling masses of water join with the powerful exultant figures of the men to heighten the movement and excitement of the scene. The wind of conquest and of expectation seems to blow through the picture and the effect is heightened by the Tiepolo-like blues and greys and whites, the true tonalities of the sea, that predominate.

Mural - Entry into the Forest The second painting, Entry into the Forest, is reminiscent of frescoes in the Brazilian Ministry of Education. The idea of representing tropical animals, birds, and insects in a jungle setting derives from the decorations of the dining room Portinari prepared for the Rio de Janeiro residence of Senhor José Nabuco. In both the ink and the gouache sketches for the mural of the Hispanic Room, the composition is square, and the scene is dominated by two large figures at the right. On the wall, however, the picture assumed larger proportions. This mural contrasts with the first in that the composition is more static and the figures more solidly realized. Yet there is the same insistence upon essential things in the meticulous rendering of the hands and arms of the explorers and the almost unfinished aspect of the figure of the drinking man beside the stream.

Mural - Teaching of the Indians The two murals in the larger room present a similar stylistic contrast. The Teaching of the Indians, built around a classic triangular arrangement of figures, follows the sober, contained tradition of Portinari's early work. As with the Discovery mural, the artist originally planned a different composition. An ink sketch on file at the Library of Congress shows a seated priest before a mass of striding Indians who bear a curious resemblance to those of the first of the Mexican José Clemente Orozco's frescoes in the Dartmouth College Library. This the painter found "too regimented."

In the finished mural the theme is international, but the symbols are peculiarly Brazilian. The scene is a 16th-century coastal settlement, a village where such Jesuit fathers as Anchieta and Nóbrega labored in peaceful penetration to instruct the Tupi Indians and save their souls. The painter has carefully grouped his figures to show the trust and affection of these Indians for their devoted preceptos. The intimate spirit of the work is fostered by the warm encircling background tones of the rich red earth, colors that go back to the terra roxa of São Paulo, by the presence of the spotted cow mentioned in one of Anchieta's letters, and by scattered folk objects -- a coiled rope, a shining metal trunk, and a hoary calabash, elements familiar as signatures in Portinari's paintings.

Mural - Mining of GoldThe last mural represents the Discovery of Gold. In it Portinari broke both with the Ministry frescoes and the World's Fair decorations. He abandoned the first idea of many boats floating on a winding river to concentrate on a single boat with a single group of figures. As in the first Hispanic Room mural, he moved from a distant general view to a specific close-up incident. In both paintings there is violent excitement; both represent the tenseness of the moment of discovery; both are exultant. But here the painter introduces a more frenzied pattern through the symbol of the worker's hand, raised, gesticulating, grasping, pressing. Impressionistic in color in the sudden brilliant strokes of unrelated colors on the skiff, in the hair of the miners, in the glint of gold and the tiny gleaming fish, this painting marks the farthest evolution of the painter's mural style toward the dissolution of form and color and derives from a series of experimental oils centering around the theme of a shipwreck, which Portinari made in the summer of 1941.

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  August 17, 2010
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