Botafogo Bay, 1928, by Ismael Nery, ink and watercolor on paper. Collection of the Murilo Mendes Art Museum.
Botafogo Bay, 1928, by Ismael Nery, ink and watercolor on paper. Collection of the Murilo Mendes Art Museum.

While scholars and researchers prepare for the series of events that, as of this year, kick off the centenary celebrations of the Modern Art Week, which took place in São Paulo in February 1922, the celebrations of another centenary are passing in white clouds. , from another event (if we can call it that) also fundamental for art and culture in the country, which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1921: the meeting and the beginning of the relationship between the artist Ismael Nery and the poet Murilo Mendes.

Botafogo Bay, 1928, by Ismael Nery, ink and watercolor on paper. Collection of the Murilo Mendes Art Museum.
Botafogo Bay, 1928, by Ismael Nery, ink and watercolor on paper. Collection of the Murilo Mendes Art Museum.

This profound friendship that united both of them until 1934, the year of Ismael's death, interests everyone in Brazil in different ways. Among them, it is worth noting the strong libidinal charge that involved the two friends and that made, for example, Murilo Mendes become the first great collector of his friend's works, the one who – as Adalgisa Nery, the painter's wife, recalled – rescued from the garbage the production that Ismael threw away, recovered its physical integrity and cataloged it.

On the other hand, it is known that this collection, while the painter was still alive, gradually became one of the only and most important collections of modern art in the former Federal Capital, a collection that allowed several intellectuals - among them the then young Mário de Andrade – to get in touch with the work of Ismael.

In addition to the importance of more specific studies on this collection of works by Ismael formed by Murilo (which well exemplifies the young poet's desire to keep at least part of his friend for himself), it is worth noting the transformations he would undergo after Ismael's death, transformations that began during his wake, when Murilo was taken to a true mystical ecstasy, having been possessed by Jesus Christ through the spirit of Ismael Nery – an episode narrated by Pedro Nava in his memoir, the perfect candle [1].

This experience, which would lead the then young anarchist Murilo Mendes to Ismael's Catholicism, would also have another consequence: from the mid-1930s (after the death of his friend), Murilo falls in love or lets his passion for Adalgisa fully emerge, who rejects him several times. 

These few data seem to me of sufficient interest for a biographical study of Mendes, from a psychoanalytic point of view. After all, if at first he wants to retain his friend by preserving the works he threw away, with his death the poet (after the possession process at the wake) seems to have become his own friend, assuming his religion, his aesthetic preferences (such as will be mentioned further here) and the widow. 

But, despite all the interest in this story, in my view, the only importance of this friendship that this year completes one hundred years since its beginning lies in it. Although it has been little studied until today, it is known that Ismael Nery promoted several meetings at his house, where he developed his rhetorical talents, lecturing on philosophy, religion, aesthetics, etc., having as listeners a group formed by friends who, later, would become references for the art and culture of the country: Murilo Mendes himself, but also Jorge Burlamaqui, Mário Pedrosa, Antonio Bento, Alberto da Veiga Guignard and Jorge de Lima, among others.

“Glory of the Artist”, 1933. Alberto da Veiga Guignard.

It was during these meetings that Ismael Nery had the opportunity to explain his philosophical postulates, which were subsequently recorded by his “disciples” Mendes and Burlamaqui. It is within these postulates that an original and, at the same time, bizarre connection between surrealist aesthetics and Catholicism is perceived, a proposition that already had its first deepening in the book by Thiago Gil Virava, A nook for surrealism [2].

By joining essentialist/Catholic speculations to his pictorial practice, marked by surrealism, Nery will develop a poetics in which the concept of surrealist beauty – “the fortuitous meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table”, by Lautréamont – would gain a mystical dimension, a fact that makes him unique within the general framework of Brazilian art.


An interesting fact is that the articulation between certain surrealist postulates linked to “Catholic” essentialism will also be perceptible in Murilo Mendes' poetic production. To this poetry, marked by the teachings of the artist friend, however, Mendes will link a peculiar prosaism that, equally, will singularize his poetic production in the universe of Brazilian lyricism.

Photomontage of the book "Painting in panic", by Jorge de Lima.
Photomontage of the book “A Pintura em Panic”, by Jorge de Lima.

This connection between the practices of Nery and Mendes with the assumptions of “Catholic” surrealism will gain ramifications after the painter's death. If his “presence” is visible in the pictorial production of the then young Guignard (and will still be present in his photo-collages in the 1940s and 1950s) [3] , impossible not to notice how it is also present in the work that the poet and painter Jorge de Lima would produce in the mid-1930s. Mendes as a partner.

Unfortunately, copies of these photomontages made in partnership by the poet and the poet/painter do not seem to have survived, which does not, however, invalidate the joint action of both, in the sense of expanding the production of surrealist works in the country. It is only known that Jorge de Lima will continue to produce new photomontages alone and that, in 1943, he will publish the book of photomontages the panic painting, with a preface by Mendes himself.


One hundred years after the beginning of the fruitful friendship between Nery and Mendes, it is clear that there is still much to be studied and written about, not only about the particular relationship that united them, but, above all, through the bias – or breach! – which both opened up to the particular development of surrealism in Brazil, with clear resonances in the productions of Guignard and Jorge de Lima.

This fact alone would be reason to commemorate such an important meeting that took place in 1921 and which now completes one hundred years.


[1] NAVA, Peter. The perfect cirio. 3. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Fronteira, 1983.
[2] VIRAVA, Thiago Gil de Oliveira. A nook for surrealism. Sao Paulo: Alameda, 2014.
[3] On Guignard and photomontage, read – CHIARELLI, Tadeu (cur.). Appropriations/Collections. Porto Alegre: Santander Cultural, 2002

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