Popular Portinari is the 12th exhibition organized by the Museum, and does not aim to offer a comprehensive overview of the artist’s oeuvre; rather, it presents a specific cross-section. The show’s title meanings — referring not only to the artist’s popularity (his 1944 canvas Retirantes [Migrants] is the work in our collection that is most often posted in social media), but also to his popular, commonplace background, thematics, iconography and diction.
The focus is on the paintings with themes, narratives and figures of popular Brazilian culture — workers in their various activities (agricultural workers on coffee plantations or other sorts of farms, washerwomen, musicians, wildcat gold miners), popular characters and types (the cangaceiro bandit, the migrant, the woman in traditional Bahian dress, the Carajá Indian) and common folk of non-European ethnicities and races (Afro-Brazilians, mulattos, Indians). The characters appear in different geographic and social contexts (in Brodowski, the painter’s city of birth in the interior of São Paulo State, in impoverished landscapes, or in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro), having fun or playing games, dancing or playing music, watching a circus or attending popular festivals, but also feeling pain — in misery, in death. Portinari painted hundreds of portraits of the Brazilian elite, which are not included here, with one exception: Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), an important interlocutor of the artist, the first great interpreter of his work, and a pioneer in the study and valorization of Brazilian popular culture.
The exhibition brings together different representations of popular themes that recurred in Portinari’s work over the decades, thereby evincing his commitment and determined engagement with them. It should be remembered that the artist himself was the son of Italian immigrants who worked in the coffee harvest. Thus, many of the images that Portinari painted over the course of his career are scenes from his own life experience. This extraordinary selection constructs a wide-ranging, profound and sensitive panorama of Brazilian visual history, outside the fashions, tastes and protocols of the dominant classes.
The exhibition design is based on the one used for the 1970 show at MASP entitled Cem obras-primas de Portinari, conceived by Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992), the architect who designed the museum’s building. Portinari popular begins a program of the revision of the production of some key Brazilian modernist artists such as Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) and Vicente do Rego Monteiro (1899–1970), based on contents and narratives related to elements of Brazilian popular culture, thereby fostering discussions on race and the country’s social reality and cultural identity. MASP’s interest in popular culture is not new, and this exhibition dialogues with the restaging of The Hand of the Brazilian People, beginning September 1 in the gallery on the museum’s first floor. Why Portinari Popular today? We still suffer from precarious and prejudiced representations of African, Indian and popular cultures and subjects in Brazilian media, politics, society and also in art. It is necessary to deepen the reflection about these strategies of representation, something that the artist’s work anticipates, hence its urgency and relevance.