FIt was in the late 1970s that two fine arts students, upon entering a gallery, realized that art is not just about creation. “What caught our attention the most was the price of the work. It was a business that was totally unrealistic, from the reality of Brazil at that time. It’s not possible, it doesn’t cost that, it must be wrong!”, says Luiz Zerbini, now ironically one of the most expensive Brazilian artists, remembering his visit with José Leonilson to an exhibition by Antonio Dias (1944-2018).
The statement, however, serves as a preamble to the friendship that would eventually develop between Leonilson (1957-1993) and Dias, in Milan, shortly thereafter. These were such strong ties that, decades later, the then valuable artist would buy works from his friend who had prematurely died as a result of AIDS, making it possible, today, to exhibit Leonilson by Antonio Dias — Profile of a collection, which between November 11 and December 14 is on display at the Pinakotheke São Paulo (Rua Ministro Nelson Hungria, 200), after visiting the Rio de Janeiro headquarters.
If it all started with the shock of high values, as Zerbini narrates in the exhibition catalogue, it was in the autumn of 1981 that Leonilson would actually meet Antonio Dias, at his home in Milan, on the recommendation of another Brazilian, Arthur Luiz Piza (1928–2017). ), who lived in Paris.
In another statement in the exhibition catalogue, now by Paola Chieregato, she tells how Dias influenced the then young artist who had just arrived at his home in Milan, who was already ready to return to Jericoacoara — Leonilson is from Ceará — with a briefcase full of drawings under the arms. “It was there, in that house in Milan in front of the castle, that Leonilson was encouraged by his mentor to finally take the reins of his profession as an artist in his own hands and, thus, with courage and determination, he was presenting himself on the Italian scene” , says Paola, Dias' widow.
It was he, in this context, who recommended the Enzo Cannaviello gallery to Leonilson, who bought his works and included him in some shows, in addition to the father of Transvanguarda, Achille Bonito Oliva. The friendship grew stronger and, even though Antonio Dias lived in Europe, both met regularly. A letter dated May 3, 1993, sent shortly before Leonilson's death, shows Dias' appreciation for his friend, when talking about two works by Leonilson that he had brought to his permanent residence in Cologne, Germany: "Now, I think on you every day. (…) I would love to see you again and say again that I really like having you as a friend”.
There was no time, but after Leonilson's death, Dias began to seek to acquire his works, especially those sold in Milan, with the help of Paola, the “garimpeira”, as he called her. The exhibition at Pinakotheke thus brings together the 38 drawings and paintings from the Antonio Dias collection, an exhibition that began to be planned in 2015, when Dias was preparing his solo show at Galeria Multiarte, in Fortaleza. Four works belonging to other private collections complement the exhibition.
It is, therefore, a somewhat unknown facet of Leonilson, taking into account the recent exhibitions dedicated to him in Brazil, a clipping of his early career, with most of the works from the years 1981 and 1982. There is only one embroidery from the 1990s, for example, a technique that gives him greater projection and recognition, especially for the autobiographical character that he imprints on his later years.
The works in the show are more experimental, such as a polyptych on colored paper, reminiscent of certain works by Antonio Dias himself. On the other hand, sculpture Bridge, from 1982, already brings an image that will be recurrent in his career.
The works on display in fact present a joy, which contrasts with the melancholy of the end of his career, partly seen in this way by the tone of the tapes left by the artist. In this recorded diary, which generated two films, Leonilson projects an image contested by Zerbini in the catalogue, which led him to plan the destruction of the tapes, together with Antonio Dias: “We thought, and I still think, that they propagate an image that does not correspond to the reality. Leonilson was one of the funniest, smartest and quickest thinking people I've ever met. Owner of a tearing, cruel humor.” And Zerbini concludes by defending that “the suffering caused by the disease must not contaminate his work, but, for that, we should not have repercussions, overvaluing the moment when he appears most fragile”.