Jose Antonio da Silva
José Antonio da Silva Untitled, 1979. Oil on canvas

Jose Antonio da Silva
José Antonio da Silva Untitled, 1979. Oil on canvas
By Theo Monteiro

Object of the exhibition Duas poéticas, at Galeria Estação, in which his production was placed in dialogue with that of the contemporary painter Cristina Canale, José Antônio da Silva, in which labels such as “primitive”, “naïve” and “ingenuous” weighed, produced work of great complexity and that can offer important reading keys for understanding a great turning point in the history of Brazil, both in socio-environmental terms, as well as in artistic and formal terms.

To better understand the work of this unique painter, it is important to understand his origins in the caipira culture. Born in 1909, in Sales de Oliveira, northwest of São Paulo, he belonged to a family of rural workers. With no possessions, they lived moving from farm to farm, offering their workforce to the landowners in the region. This was the reality of many redneck families of that period. As Antonio Candido showed in Parceiros do Rio Bonito, an extensive study he carried out on the caipira culture, it was formed throughout the colonial period by wandering sertanistas who settled in remote regions of the interior of São Paulo. Living in small towns or ranches, they were based on subsistence agriculture and hunting/gathering. With the expansion of latifundia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, they gradually lost their way of life and were subjugated to work on these large properties. Thus, their culture was progressively disappearing. Not only that. The landscape, previously marked by the presence of forests, cerrados and small-scale agriculture, was giving way to monoculture and cattle herds.

Jose Antonio da Silva
José Antonio da Silva, Untitled, 1966. Oil on canvas.

The work of José Antônio da Silva shows exactly this social and landscape change in the interior of the state. Starting with his paintings never portraying wild or untouched nature. As much as the human figure is sometimes absent, there is always some indication of anthropic action: roads, plantations, livestock, etc. In his monoculture landscapes (cotton fields, cornfields, pastures) signs of devastation are represented, such as dead trees, fallen trees or wooden stumps. The presence of herds passing by, people moving around or working indicates that nothing is stationary there: everything moves and transforms all the time, including the vegetation, which was recently altered and had its original configuration destroyed. Vultures are equally frequent in the artist's paintings, as if they represented death, which stalks everything and everyone. The artist tells us, therefore, the transformation of the Brazilian countryside and the breakdown of an existing type of culture.

Silva's contribution, however, is not restricted to a social portrait. In the history of Brazilian art, his appearance and career took place precisely in the midst of a moment of profound transformation. “Discovered” by critics in 1946, it witnesses a moment when the Brazilian art system begins to become institutionalized: the first museums of modern art appear in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the Bienal Internacional de São Paulo is created and the development of a growing market for modern art. Along with these transformations, trends in abstract art developed in the country, which ended up on a collision course with the figurative art in force until then, with an expressionist bias and with themes focused on the social.

Silva established interesting dialogues with this aesthetic debate prevailing in Brazilian art of that period. At a time when the world was experiencing a kind of post-war “hangover”, the socially engaged theme gained a lot of ground in the field of arts and culture, influenced by a certain expressionism, and which had important representatives in artists such as Portinari and Goeldi. . A great defender of this type of aesthetic was the critic Lourival Gomes Machado, who, not by chance, had a very close relationship with our Silva. Although in a very singular way, the tone of social denunciation appears with some frequency in the work of the painter in question. Scenes of work, everyday life and even moments of suffering and tragedy are recurrent in his paintings, usually with great expressiveness. The very destruction of nature by monoculture is criticized in these works, anticipating the environmental debate by a few decades. As a way of obtaining the necessary expressiveness and drama for his compositions, he uses models from sacred art, possibly originating from a certain popular Catholicism. Some positions and compositional structures are very similar, for example, to paintings of ex-votos. Sacred art itself was also a theme for our artist, and he says in a statement that he would only have started painting after realizing that the images he saw in churches “were made by human hands”.

Jose Antonio da Silva
José Antonio da Silva, Untitled, 1955. Oil on canvas

In a second moment, the theme does not lose its importance, but Silva reduces the pictorial elements to dots, brush strokes or serialized spots, in order to create extremely dynamic compositions. This procedure is very similar to moments of geometric abstraction (although it never completely abandoned figuration) and even received praise from one of the main representatives of concretism, Waldemar Cordeiro. These pictorial choices led to Silva breaking up with Gomes Machado, but coincided with his rapprochement with the critic Theon Spanudis, a defender of a very particular constructive art.

Although read as a naive out of his time, Silva perfectly understood not only his time and the trends discussed in it, but also brought an absolutely original contribution to it. ✱

1 comment

  1. Very interesting paintings!! the hard life of the country man and his dramas!! the lack of regulation of monocultures and the disrespect for the environment represented on the screens!!

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