"Redenção de Cã", 1895, oil on canvas, 199 x 166 cm, signed M. Brocos Rio de Janeiro. 1895. National Museum of Fine Arts/Ibram Collection Photo: Rômulo Fialdini

UOne day someone should write a book, or even an article, about the titles of works of art. Knowing whether or not those by which we recognize them today have always been their original name can provide interesting data about the work itself, its author and the moment of its first reception.

I myself have become interested in the subject by publishing a text about Paradise (1917), painting produced by Anita Malfati and today belonging to the collection of Pinacoteca of São Paulo. There he drew attention to the fact that, initially, the work was called Bahian black woman and which only later became recognized as Paradise[1].

Some time after the publication of the article, and in the continuation of my studies on São Paulo modernism, I found data that pointed to the fact that, from the beginning, the title Paradise was used in conjunction with Bahian black woman. This last piece of information, however, did not remove the validity of what I wanted to draw attention to in the article: for some time, Malfatti's painting – together with the artist and her admirers – oscillated between a naturalist/nationalist proposition (the portrait of a black-skinned woman, born in Bahia) and an allegory (the painting as a figurative synthesis of the torrid regions, between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer).

In my opinion, such oscillation says a lot about the construction of the very image of São Paulo's modernism, which tried to respond to the naturalist/nationalist demand of the city's artistic debate and, at the same time, sought to create works that, by the title itself – Paradise – claimed responsibility for creating a body of paintings and sculptures conceived within the great tradition of art, but a “renewed”, moderately “modern” tradition.

***

These questions came to mind while rereading an important study on the relationship between Brazilian playwright and journalist Arthur Azevedo and the visual arts.[2]. There, following the series of chronicles/criticisms, in which the intellectual reflected on Rio's production and artistic environment at the end of the 1894th century, I came across an article, published in August XNUMX, in which Azevedo said he had found, in studio of the brothers Rodolpho and Henrique Bernardelli (then in Europe), “three of our painting masters”: João Zeferino da Costa, Pedro Weingärtner and Modesto Brocos, who gathered their work there and produced new works.

When commenting on the paintings of the Spanish artist, based in Rio, Modesto Brocos, the playwright, after referring to the landscapes that the artist had produced on his most recent trip to Minas Gerais, states that, in the garden of the Bernardelli studio, Brocos was finishing the painting Ham's redemption, from the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Rio de Janeiro.

Azevedo describes the work:

[…] In the garden of the open-air studio, Brocos is completing a large painting, The evolution, which he has been working on for a long time. Don't be scared by that title: the evolution we are talking about [is] the evolution of races in Brazil. The painting shows us an entire family: the African mother, black – the daughter, Brazilian, mulatto – her husband, European, white, and the fruit of this couple, a tiny pinkish blond.

The work that this painting has given the artist! As we know, Brocos is one of our most conscientious painters, and has absolute respect for his art. The lack of professional models, who are willing to docilely pose during long sessions, puts him in real trances [sic]. However, the work will be complete, and readers will have the opportunity to admire it at the next fine arts exhibition.[3]

In fact, Ham's redemption It was presented at the General Exhibition of Fine Arts, at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, in 1895, winning the Gold Medal at that event. Thus, the work would be recognized as one of the main works exhibited there and, very quickly, it became one of the most significant paintings produced in Brazil at the end of that century. Such significance, however, was not given (and still is not) due to its supposed technical qualities, but because it practically opened, in the field of high art in the country, a niche of works whose themes adhered to the racial issue in Brazil.

***

Before continuing on this issue, however, be aware of a fact that readers must have already noticed: Arthur Azevedo, when describing the famous painting, does not refer to it by the title that would accompany it for the rest of its career. He calls it The evolution.

It may be that the intellectual used this title because, at the time he published the article, Brocos was still painting it and, despite being well advanced, perhaps he had not yet received the solemn title of Ham's redemption. Such a hypothesis is likely. However, seven years later, in 1901, when Azevedo comments on an engraving produced by Brocos, which portrayed the poet Gonçalves Dias, he states:

It is an etching worthy of being appreciated in London, although it naturally goes unnoticed in Rio de Janeiro, where public curiosity is only aroused by the scandal. The applauded painting of A Evolution and A Debulhada gave the great poet a penetrating look, with a profound expression that reflects, one could say, the work of the thinker and the artist. I don't believe that the engraver's instrument would yet produce, in Rio de Janeiro, a print as worthy as this portrait..[4]

"Cassava mill" (1892), oil on canvas, 59 x 75,5 cm, signed M. Brocos, 1892. National Museum of Fine Arts Collection/Ibram Photo: César Barreto
“Cassava mill” (1892),
oil on canvas, 59 x 75,5 cm, signed M. Brocos, 1892. National Museum of Fine Arts Collection/Ibram
Photo: César Barreto

 

Even after a few years, Azevedo continued to refer to Ham's redemption as The evolution.

In fact, it may be that he absorbed the first title granted to the painting, perhaps by Brocos himself, to be referred to informally while it was still being produced. It may be that, even though a certain period has passed, Azevedo has not assimilated his new name.

Regardless of how long the work was known – among the painter and his friends – as The evolution, and also regardless of the fact that, apparently, only Arthur Azevedo continued to call it as such, what would be interesting to emphasize is that the same thing happened with Brocos' painting that, a few years later, would happen with Paradise, by Malfatti.

The title The evolution, so explicit, revealed what a portion of the intelligentsia thought about the solution to the racial issue in the country: miscegenation – the “natural” path to the whitening of the population, the goal to be sought for the “evolution” of Brazilian society.

Conceived based on aesthetic values ​​that emphasized both the ethnic description of the characters and their surroundings[5], Brocos' painting, due to its composition and initial, self-explanatory title, synthesized a direct response, produced in the field of art, to the debate that was taking place at the time about the destinies of the Brazilian “race”.

However, at the time, the good reception of works of art in the Rio environment required the approval of the National School of Fine Arts – the core of the power to legitimize the field of arts in Brazil, also for being the organizer of the General Exhibitions. Brocos could not use that direct title to subject his painting to the School's rigorous scrutiny.

After all, despite some “modernities” absorbed, whether in terms of technique or themes, the institution was still the guardian of principles about the role of fine arts in a society, principles considered noble and above any circumstance. In other words: no matter how effective the painting was in its scope – including due to its original title – it was necessary for it to acquire a moralizing, exemplary dimension, as every work of art should be, or try to be, in order for it to be accepted in that environment. fundamentally traditional of the School.

It is for this reason that, apparently, Brocos sought, first in the biblical tradition, then in common sense, a title that would suit the great tradition of exemplary art, even if his painting, through technique and theme, tried to break those ties.

***

As is known, Ham, Noah's youngest son, had his descendants cursed by his father for having caught him naked and drunk. Noah predicted that Ham's son, Canaan, as well as his descendants, would forever serve his other two sons, Japheth and Shem. Tradition states that Japheth and his heirs would populate Europe, Shem's sons, the countries of the Middle East, and those of Ham and Canaan, the African continent.

This legend, for many years, justified, for many, that Africans were seen as cursed and born to serve the descendants of Japheth and Shem, that is, the European and Middle Eastern peoples.

This is what Modesto Brocos' painting is about. From secular and “scientific” The evolution, she now aims for an absolute and exemplary transcendence, based on the appropriation of the biblical text.

The story of the black lady, descendant of Ham and Canaan, on the left of the screen, is saved, is redeemed, by the miscegenation of her offspring. Her descendants are no longer enslaved, but she also ceases to be black.

By changing the title of the painting, The evolution for Ham's redemption, Modesto Brocos covers the “scientific” desire to erase the presence of black people in the country’s history with a veneer of biblical morality.

***

It is clear that the importance of Ham's redemption It does not reside only in the existence of this other denomination. However, I believe that, taken into account in the reflections on what was, as mentioned, one of the most important paintings of the XNUMXth century, that small secular “lapse” – soon corrected – can contribute to further expanding discussions about Ham's redemption and its role as a catalyst for the racial issue in the country, during the beginning of the Republic.

[1] – CHIARELLI, Thaddeus. Tropical, by Anita Malfatti. New Studies CEBRAP, vol. 80, 2008, p. 13 et seq.

[2] – SILVA, Frederico Fernando Souza. Arthur Azevedo: the art critic as a collector/the collector as an art critic. São Paulo: Doctoral thesis. PPGAV ECA USP, 2016.

[3] – AZEVEDO, Arthur de. Column Gym, Rio de Janeiro: Jornal the country, 12 of August of 1894. apud SILVA, Frederico Fernando Souza. Arthur Azevedo: the art critic as a collector/the collector as an art critic. Op. Cit. Page, 236.

[4] – Idem, p. 291. The work referred to by the critic as The threshing, would be recognized as Cassava mill, 1892, today at the Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.

[5] – This description is close to that used by the painter Almeida Jr., although not with the quality of the latter’s “hillbilly” paintings.

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