Drawing by J. Carlos. PHOTO: Eduardo Augusto de Brito e Cunha Collection / IMS Collection

If the visitor enters the room at Instituto Moreira Salles where works by J. Carlos are on display (J. Carlos: Originals, until January 26, 2020), and heading to the left, towards the illustrated chronology of the artist's life and career, you should not fail to notice an illustration placed right at the beginning: the reproduction of the magazine cover The avenue, of June 25, 1904, one of the first works published by J. Carlos. Examining that image, it becomes clear how the designer seems to have as one of his parameters the production of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, born in 1860, who died in Prague in 1839.

It is true that Mucha's presence in J. Carlos' production seems to be punctual and concentrated mainly in the beginning of the Brazilian's career, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1884 and died in the same city in 1950. If we go through the chronology, and then through the exhibition itself we perceive how, little by little, J. Carlos begins to develop a language that distances himself from what must have been one of his first models, until he forges his own place in Brazilian visual culture. This place, in turn, can be approximated – although not in an absolute way – to the scope of what is conventionally called Art Déco, a tendency that, having absorbed and swallowed certain teachings taken from the historical avant-gardes, especially from the Cubist strands (that is: there were some and not just a Cubist strand), spreads its geometric delirium to everything that is object, from magazine covers to buildings, from perfume bottles to automobiles and so on.

Carlos absorbs here and there some principles of the Art Déco in the impressive amount of works he produced, but, before continuing the comments about his production exhibited at IMS da Paulista, my idea is to draw attention to the exhibition that takes place on the same Avenue, at the Fiesp Cultural Center: Mucha: the legacy of Art Nouveau (until December 15th).

Amazing how São Paulo is prodigal in meetings, or rather, concomitance. As I have already mentioned in another of these “conversations”, São Paulo had, in the same period, exhibitions by Marc Ferrez and Man Ray (read here); now we have, at the same time, the exhibition of J. Carlos and that of Alphonse Mucha. What an exceptional experience to visit the works of the two artists, separated only by a quick walk between IMS and CCFiesp, on Paulista! Mucha and J. Carlos, despite having manifested themselves through the graphic arts, followed different paths, due to the difference in generation (although they were contemporaries), the aesthetic affiliations and the environments they frequented. Even so, the comparison between the works of the two is worth a visit to the two retrospectives.

The exhibition dedicated to Mucha's work, at Fiesp – in itself, an event to be honored – is divided into three segments. The first, the one that presents the works produced in his Parisian period, when he helped to forge, consolidate and expand what was the first great aesthetic aspect of (and for) the masses, the art nouveau. Being able to observe, face to face, the excellence of his posters, posters and other graphic products (magazine covers, perfume and cookie labels, etc.) even taking into account its intrinsically commercial meaning, it aimed, in the same way, to expand a certain concept of beauty that – whether we agree or not – sought to naturalize technique, industry and commerce, making the metropolis less stepmother, perhaps, and its least orphaned inhabitant of the affectivity of form.

What draws attention is how, in the artist's Parisian production, the image of women is used for the sale of the most different products. In Mucha's posters, the logos of the most diverse merchandise are mixed with the hair, hands, arms, all parts of his highly idealized female representations, ending up confusing the names of the products with the shapes of women.

The second segment of the exhibition presents the continuation of Mucha's work, now in Prague, after almost 25 years living in Paris.

If in the French capital the search for a fusion between the image of the woman and the logo of the product to be marketed was achieved within a serpentine lightness and a delicate eroticism (no, bolsominion, it is not a pornographic exhibition), in Prague these characteristics give way to more solemn compositions, committed above all to the social and political issues of his country. Visiting this part of the show, one misses the image of Paris that Mucha and his posters, labels and posters helped to create. Not that the works produced in Prague are not interesting, far from it, but they carry an ideological commitment that ends up imposing itself in a way, perhaps, too forcefully, differing from the previous period when more efficient resolutions were perceived in the interplay between form and contents.

The third and final part presents the spread of what the organizers of the retrospective called the expansion of the “Mucha style”, a phenomenon that spreads from the United States to South Korea, passing through England, India and other countries. This is another highlight of the exhibition, especially for the posters produced in London and San Francisco. In them, Mucha's presence is fundamental and totally wrapped in a psychedelic atmosphere that, despite everything, still maintains his aesthetic interest there. (On the other hand, this production leads us to think about the ironies of the history of images: after all, as typical forms of an art forged to sell consumer goods, after a few decades they manage to dominate the visual universe of parts of the world. underground International?).

If someone asked me if, when I left the show, I missed something, I would say yes. I missed, above all, a Brazilian segment, which would inform the public about Mucha's presence in productions by important Brazilian artists, such as Eliseu Visconti, Theodoro Braga and J. Carlos himself, among others. This absence of Brazilians who, of course, had Mucha's art as a parameter, would only be possible, in fact, if the Fiesp Cultural Center did not only function as a reception space for good exhibitions (many of them coming from abroad, like this one, whose origin is the Mucha Foundation, in Prague), but that it would also act as an institution committed to research and the deeper training of the São Paulo public, deepening issues raised from the exhibitions that matter.

Reviewing the contributions of the artists who helped to expand the “Mucha style” in Brazil would undoubtedly work for the retrospective to gain more significant roots with visitors. It is clear that this unproposing stance of CCFiesp may change. It just depends on a choice by the institution to want to become even more important and significant than it already is.

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The perceived gap in the exhibition dedicated to Mucha's work can be at least partially filled with a visit to the retrospective dedicated to J.Carlos' work at the nearby IMS. Not that this exhibition clarifies how much J. Carlos may have owed to Mucha in his early career (in fact, this is a hypothesis yet to be proven and was not part of the exhibition organizers' objectives), but at least , J. Carlos: Originals can lead the public to compare the two shows, to reflect on how the graphic arts developed in a plural form from the end of the XNUMXth century to the middle of the last century.

J. Carlos: Originals, in my view, starts from a problematic premise: despite the care taken by the curators, in the catalog (excellent, by the way), to warn that, with the exhibition, they did not intend to contribute to the “cult of the single object”, J. Carlos: Originals, already from its title, values ​​preparatory drawings for magazine covers, comic strips, etc., to the detriment of published images.

From the title, an unnecessary valuation of the concept of “original” subsists, which understands that the preparatory drawing is better or more significant than its final graphic resolution. Now, holding an exhibition by one of the most interesting Brazilian artists of the first half of the last century, who manifested himself through the graphic arts, and not reinforcing that in this field there is no “original”, that the work exists as a printed form, is to confuse the public.

Holding an exhibition of an artist who manifested himself through the techniques of the cultural industry and, at the same time, emphasizing the “originals” is, consciously or unconsciously, inducing the public to review the situation of J. Carlos in Brazilian art, so that he is no longer understood, supposedly, as a “mere” illustrator, a “mere” caricaturist, a “mere” comic artist and can be seen as a “true” artist.

Nothing is more problematic than thinking, today, of an exhibition with such a purpose, because, in the case of J. Carlos, it is essential to insist that he has his importance in the history of art in the country because he produced a work that, through the graphic , took his production to an incalculable number of viewers who would never have had the opportunity to get to know his talent and humor (sometimes debatable, as will be seen), if he were restricted to the production of his “originals”.

What exactly are preparatory drawings, if not propositions that help the artist to conceive and develop his visual or verbal-visual contribution and that will only gain fullness when printed on the cover or page of a magazine?

Fortunately, the exhibition organizers had the wisdom to present both the preparatory drawings and the final printed result. And that's why J. Carlos: Originals becomes another unmissable exhibition in São Paulo.

Going through the immense production displayed, always comparing the preparatory drawings with the effective images on the printed pages, is, in fact, a privilege that allows the visitor not only to understand the deep ingrained ingrained poetics of J. Carlos with the daily life of Rio, but also the various language strategies used by him, not only to comment on the life of the former Federal Capital, but also his dialogues with Brazilian and international graphic production.

It is in this journey through his work that it is more clearly understood how J. Carlos was updating his way of drawing, expanding his references: from that possible initial dialogue with Mucha, we can see the artist surpassing the graphic mode of Angelo Agostini - a reference coming from of the mid-XNUMXth century – and bringing to Brazilian art the resonances of the national and international aspects of the Art Déco.

In fact, these dialogues between J. Carlos and the visual culture of his time, extremely qualified by his own production, was an aspect that was little explored in the exhibition and in the accompanying catalog, a gap that I hope will soon be overcome with another shows, now more attentive to this aspect. The curatorship preferred to invest in the image of J. Carlos as a chronicler of Rio de Janeiro, and in this regard he did very well, by the way.

In fact, the exhibition faces a discomfort that, at the beginning of the show, the most attentive visitor begins to feel when faced with numerous images in which J. Carlos' serious prejudices are made explicit: the various pieces in which the artist gloats against women, Jews and, above all, blacks. It is interesting how the curatorship tackles this very thorny issue, explaining the problems in some texts spread throughout the exhibition.

The various prejudices of J. Carlos will be discussed in greater depth in the exhibition catalogue, in the text, “The modern and the archaic in J. Carlos”, signed by the scholar Rafael Cardoso. In it, the author faces with respect, but without mincing words, above all the issue of prejudice against the black population of Rio de Janeiro, on the part of the artist, paying attention to the fact that J. Carlos, with his racist drawings, not only “ reflected” the racial prejudice of his time, but intensified it, due to the force of his images, as well as the power of penetration of the same.

It is for these and other reasons that J. Carlos: Originals presents itself as one of the most important exhibitions on the São Paulo circuit this year, an exhibition that should be visited, not only by those interested in Brazilian art and visual culture, but also by all who are interested in Brazilian social issues.

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Finally, I once again emphasize the privilege of having, separated by a few blocks from Paulista, retrospectives of two artists indispensable for Brazilian visual culture (in the case of J. Carlos) and internationally (in the case of Mucha). Visiting the exhibitions means getting in touch with a series of stimuli so that we can reflect, both on issues of affiliations and aesthetic overcoming, but also on the fundamental role that the cultural industry has played in our daily lives over the last few hundred years.

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