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"Masks", 1938, Lasar Segall, oil on canvas. Photo: reproduction

In view of the discussions on modernism and the 1922 Modern Art Week, an issue that remains outside the debate concerns the use that painters of modernism made of the photographic image. Jealous of a supposed purity, both of the photographic and pictorial medium, our scholars, insofar as they do not find any artist who has exercised the function of “real” photographer, leave aside precisely the use that many have made of the photographic image. .

This lack of interest leaves significant questions in limbo to understand the consumption of the photographic image by the modernists, which was obviously not limited to photos taken as souvenirs of trips and/or events.

In this column I already had the opportunity to write about the use that Tarsila do Amaral made from photographic images for the realization of some of his main paintings. Of course, more studies on the subject would be welcome, and while they don't emerge, I share with you some considerations about the use that Lasar Segall made of the photographic image.

There is no doubt that the observations that follow are added to studies already carried out on the painter's relationship with photography, but I am sure that, even if short, the comments that follow can encourage scholars to let themselves be seduced by such an interesting subject and that So much is needed to, in fact, broaden the debate on the art of modernism.

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Masks is an oil and sand on canvas made in 1938 by Lasar Segall, measuring 80 x 90 cm. In its composition, a triangular area stands out that goes from the upper vertex of the triangle to its center. Both the end of the vertex and the rest of the geometric figure are outside the composition. What structures the geometric figure is the light that emanates from a lamp that casts light and shadow on the various objects that are in the foreground of the painting. There is in the image a balance between earthy tones, black and white, a solemn stability and a tone of mystery that permeates the entire work.

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“Masks”, 1938, Lasar Segall, oil on canvas. Photo: reproduction

Masks should not be defined as the record of a space and time in which Segall was inserted and had decided to immortalize. It acts as an allegory, a field of rhetoric that associates painting with the tradition of ut pictura poetry (just as painting is poetry). Even in the midst of modernism, for many, painting remained a kind of silent poetry. Producing an allegory in the late 1930s might still make some sense, at least for Segall.

Strictly speaking, “allegory”, in poetry or painting, represents abstract concepts using figurative forms: representing b to signify a. Thus, Segall would have produced Masks with the intention of transmitting a concept or idea that was outside the painting, and the images that appear there, and the treatment given by the artist when putting them together, give us, observers, only a clue of what he wants to communicate. And this is due to the fact that the relationship between the images represented there and the concept he wants to convey to us is not direct.

Noting Masks slowly, it is possible to notice similarities with Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, painted in 1937, as a protest against the bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica by German planes, in support of General Franco, during that country's Civil War.

There is also a triangular shape in the work that seems to throw light on the right side of the painting, structured in gradations between black and white. However, if in Masks what prevails is the solemnity and mystery of the scene, in Guernica there is something like a stridency in the demarcated and contrasting forms – which increases the drama of the composition.

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. Photo: reproduction

The tragic feature of Guernica seems to have been achieved by some strategies used by Picasso which, although they belong to the scope of painting, have a kind of urgency much closer to photography: white and black and their gradations and, above all, the act of bombing killing people and animals. .

There is in it the concept of “fruitful moment”, theorized in the 18th century by the German philosopher Gotthold Ephrain Lessing, in which the author expressed that, when conceiving a composition based on a historical fact, it was necessary for the artist to find in this narrative, the “fruitful moment”, that is, a single scene that synthesized the entire subject discussed there. This is because, for Lessing, painting was the art of space, not time, like poetry.

In the 20th century, the concept of “fruitful moment”, would gain a survival in the context of photography with the formulation of the concept of “decisive moment”, coined by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.[1].

Guernica is closer to the concept of the “decisive moment”", by Cartier-Bresson, than by Lessing's “fruitful moment”, both for the sensation of “blatant” that emanates from it and for the emphasis given to the various gradations between black and white. Masks, in turn, does not seem to be tributary to any of them. On the contrary: even if it can lead us to some kind of destruction, there is no “fruitful” or “decisive” moment. What is represented there is a kind of still life, a moment after any action, the end.

From a purely sensorial point of view, what we perceive when we observe a still life is the record of the assemblage of various objects in a given place. And it will depend on the point of view chosen for the recording (as well as the objects that compose it, the lighting and the pictorial treatment given to the scene), the ability of still life to transcend the condition of mere recording of a situation. The symbolic potential of this genre of painting, therefore, even if confined to description, tends to transcend it, if the artist manages to print indices that elevate the scene beyond the circumstantial, the ephemeral.

Returning to Guernica, despite its so “photographic” characteristics, it can, as Masks, be understood as an allegory. In it, the light – reinforced in its symbolic aspects by the three items – the glare that goes to the right, the lamp and the lamp/eye – acts as the story itself condemning that barbaric act of man against his fellow man.

Concluding this quick comparison, I think it is possible to say that, both Guernica as Masks, are two allegories produced in the late 1930s. Guernica has a clear objective – to be an allegory of history condemning barbarism –, Masks, as it does not use the same strategies, it is less permeable to such a direct interpretation. Its designs are mysterious, its signifiers seem to pulsate more freely, referring to several possible meanings.

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In 1938, Segall declared his displeasure with Guernica. Having returned from Europe[2], the painter gives an interview to the Diary of São Paulo in which he informs about his impressions of that work:

I saw Picasso's celebrated painting - Bombardment of Guernica. It didn't impress me as I expected. Furthermore, I have the impression that the artist's intention has failed. Precisely because he had an ideological intention, so to speak. The painting in question is intended to be a message against the bombing of an open city. But it's unclear, the intention is very subjective, it's unclear. I much prefer to feel the clear drama of a Van Gogh. His emotional testimonials are clear and perceptible. I remain, as always, faithful to the concept that I have imposed on myself: art should have no intentions other than art itself. It should not place itself at the service of ideas, nor be worked on by various convictions. Let the antagonisms take advantage of it, come on… But art, it must be pure, independent and free from any strange influences.[3]

This statement, coming from an artist who, as early as 1938, had painted works with a strong denunciatory appeal, such as Emigrants III (1936) and Pogrom (1937) and who, between 1939 and 1940, would paint Emigrant Ship.

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“Emigrants III”, Lasar Segall, 1936. Photo: Reproduction

A hypothesis to understand Segall's position may lie in the fact that Picasso, for the realization of the work, chose to use the “decisive moment”, so dear to photography in the last century – an option that differed from Segall's predilections. What for Picasso might have meant a shock strategy to bring out the viewer's indignation at the slaughter sounded to Segall like a negative example of a kind of painting in the service of something that was outside of it. Picasso, from this point of view, would not have succeeded in turning the bombing of the Basque city into a pictorial subject.

Evoking “pure painting”, in Segall's case, did not mean being a supporter of a non-figurative painting or just focusing on the discussion of questions inherent to pictorial language, but knowing how to translate all kinds of subjects into the pictorial field.

If we observe Pogrom, for example, we will see that Segall works the composition as if it were a still life, not opting to capture any massacre scene. On the contrary: the artist prefers to configure the scene full of corpses, victims of barbarism, with a meticulous pictorial treatment, with a kind of resolution that involves the figures in a kind of dome that protects them. Already in Emigrant Ship, he paints the human figures in a state of rest and silence, contrasting with the violent beams that cut the scene and with the sea full of waves.

“Pogrom”, 1937, Lasar Segall. Photo: reproduction

It is in this sense that I consider Masks, an artist's response to Guernica.

Back in Brazil, Segall seems to have been motivated to show Picasso what a painting that sought to reflect on the barbarism that was then beginning to take over Europe should look like. AND Masks, despite using certain strategies perceived in Picasso’s work – the lamp and the light beam – as if to “correct” these tactics, seeking a solemnity that only tenuously refers to barbarism, respecting the bases of pictorial language[4].

In addition to watching her on the spot[5], the painter must certainly have made use of photographic reproductions of Guernica to process your “correction”. It would be important to research the artist's archives to try to find images of Guernica's work that may have served as instruments for the elaboration of Masks.

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Segall's entire work (and not just her) is proof that allegory was not removed from modern art, as some wished.[6]. During his career, he made use of this rhetorical resource to produce paintings with themes of strong emotional appeal, without, however, giving up the focus on the properly pictorial elements, so that they could help him to translate the themes that concerned him.

In this sense emigrant ship should be understood as yet another example of the artist's ability to transfer issues dear to all human society to the realm of painting, even when pressed by circumstantial and urgent facts.

Celso Lafer, a scholar of Segall's work, at one point in his text on emigrant ship, points to the importance of the photographs found in the painter's archive. Lafer states the following: “The photographs are important because the snapshots captured in them are points of support for his memory, instigators of aesthetic solutions that integrate the composition of the work. emigrant ship.[7]

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“Ship of Emigrants”, 1939, Lasar Segall. Oil on canvas. Photo: Lasar Segall Museum-IPHAN/MinC

It is remarkable how this, which is one of Segall's most important paintings, seems to be conceived from photographic supports, starting with its general configuration, based on a typical composition of photography and cinema: the vision in diving from the deck of the vessel: from the top of the mast, as if through a photographic camera, the artist recorded the travelers below.

Seen from above, the figures on deck, apathetic and melancholy, seem out of this world, situated beyond circumstances, as part of a monstrous still life. And this impression seems to be reinforced both by this “photographic” point of view of the composition and by the emphasis that Segall gives to the opposition between the uneven horizon and the triangular prow of the ship, with the grid formed by the beams that run through it. The vessel's triangle, reinforced by the beams, creates a kind of dome for the emigrants, protecting them from the uncertainties of the sea, transforming them into silent indices of the misfortunes of human society.

As Lafer pointed out, the photographic images found in the artist's archive seem to have served as “support for his memory” during the conception of the monumental work. They helped him to trace the strengths of the composition, ensuring its balance and the solemn dimension of the whole.

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Another of Segall's best paintings is from 1929: an allegory entitled end and beginning On a sober background, painted in low tones from rectangular areas closed in on themselves – an enlarged grid reinforcing the two-dimensional character of the painting – Segall superimposed two figures: the head of an old man with a beard, eyes closed, and a baby. holding the head of a toy horse. The two images are juxtaposed and, although materially they are paintings, they function as collages. The old man's head was based on a drawing that the artist produced in 1927. The child's figure was based on a photograph of one of his children, which also received a drawing version, dated 1926.

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“End and Beginning”, 1929, Lasar Segall. Photo: reproduction

interesting how end and beginning, despite the synthetic forms and imbued with a “classical” modernist circumspection, is part of a long tradition within Western art of paintings that intend to circumscribe the various stages of human life in a single composition.

Most of these works have the irrevocable character of life towards death and are usually composed of at least three figures, representing childhood, adulthood and old age. In case of end and beginning, Segall further closes the narrative, focusing only on two images. On the other hand, note that the title does not indicate a linear chain. Instead of proposing the observation of childhood towards old age, he preferred the opposite.

This option, based on the identities of the figures portrayed there (the father and the son, or the grandfather and the grandson) supposes, unlike other paintings of the type, a positive vision of life, emphasizing the fresh start, investing, not in finitude, but in the perpetuation of humanity.

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Concluding these considerations, I call attention to another painting that emerged from yet another translation of a photographic image: Boy with hobby horse, oil on canvas, 1928, depicting one of the painter's sons. Although he did not earn in the artist's career the same status of the other works commented here, it seems to function as a compendium on how Segall translated into painting a simple snapshot produced in non-ideal conditions and in a somewhat amateurish way.

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“Boy with a Wooden Horse”, 1928, Lasar Segall. Photo: reproduction

It is not known whether the author of the photo is Segall himself, his wife, or someone else close to the painter. But what really matters is that the child is sitting on a kind of swing decorated with the figure of a horse whose head only shows the region of the ears and the knee of the left front leg is missing. The child, with the left leg well bent, holds what would be the horse's bridle with the arms flexed at chest height. She, with her head lowered by the incidence of sun on her face, which prevents the visualization of her expression. In the background of the scene, pieces of indistinct constructions. It should also be noted that the image as a whole tends to appear flat, due to the strong incidence of light on the photographed objects.

The translation of this photograph into painting seems to have begun with Segall structuring the plane with a grid, tending to the orthogonal, joining figure and ground. It promotes a kind of zoom in on the figures of the child and the toy in the foreground, bringing them closer to the observer, which ends up bringing not only the figures closer, since the background also approaches the observer, reinforcing the two-dimensional character. of the painting.

The figures of the child and the toy, in turn, gain a new configuration, as they are adapted to the structure that now receives them. The child starts to have the leg and arms less flexed, in an attitude of rest, while his head is suspended so that he can be admired. It is remarkable how the artist integrates the figure of the child with the areas that indicate the background of the painting by the juxtaposition of white areas, lands, oranges, etc. which, in turn, dialogue with the soft yellow and orange tones of the child's figure. The toy, on the other hand, is treated not in chromatic conjunction with the other figures, but in opposition. With shades of gray that oppose most other areas of the painting, it pretty much loses all decor. The horse's left eye, absent in the photograph, appears in this new configuration, at the same time that it loses the indication of the legs, practically absent in the painting.

As for the imbalance that the horse's color could cause in the composition in warmer tones, Segall resolves it by juxtaposing three gray areas at the top of the painting to the left of the child's figure, and a small area to the right, in the upper half of the canvas, with a strong gray, almost black.

This work, painted the year before end and beginning shares with her the same tendency towards stability, typical of this “classical” phase within the synthetic realism that will characterize the entire work of the painter.

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The study of the relationship between Segall's painting and photography is yet to be deepened. Certainly the artist did not use this “memory support” only in the works discussed here. Other paintings must have been based on photographs produced by the artist himself or someone close to him, or obtained through the most diverse publications.

The same occurs with other modernist painters who used photography not as a means of expression, but as a tool for the production of their works. A use that, unfortunately, does not seem to mobilize art scholars of that period. I believe that only with research on the presence of the photographic image in Brazilian painting in the first half of the last century, will we arrive at a more exact dimension of the role it played in that environment.


[1] – This is how Cartier-Bresson places himself on the act of photographing: “In photography there is a new type of plasticity, a product of the instantaneous lines woven by the movement of the object. The photographer works in unison with the movement, as if this were the natural unfolding of form, how life reveals itself.
However, within the movement there is an instant in which all the moving elements are in equilibrium. Photography must intervene at this moment, making the balance immobile”. CARTIER-BRESSON, Henri. The Decisive Moment.  CARTIER-BRESSON, Henri. 1a edition ed. Gottingen: Steidl Dap, 2015. 
[2] – Segall participated in Paris at the International Congress of Independent Artists, as a representative of the Ministry of Education of Brazil.
[3] – “The representative of Brazil at the International Congress of Independent Artists has returned from Paris”. Diary of São Paulo. Sao Paulo, 20.4.1938.
[4] – On the subject, see: “Realistic Segall: some considerations on the artist's painting”. Text produced for the catalog of the “Segall realistic” exhibition, on display between 2008 and 2009 in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba. Republished in: CHIARELLI, Tadeu. A modernism that came later. São Paulo: Alameda, 2012, p.87 et seq.
[5] – A survey is needed to know where the work was being displayed when Segall was in Paris.
[6] – In the introduction to his important essay, “The allegorical impulse: toward a theory of postmodernism”, the critic Craig Owens makes pertinent comments about the negative view that many artists and theorists linked to modernity had about allegory. In WALLIS, Brian. Art after modernism: rethinking representation. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. P. 203 et seq.
[7] – LAFER, Celso. "Emigrant Ship: “a very thoughtful picture. IN D'HORTA, Vera (and others – curators). Lasar Segall. ship of emigrants (cat.). São Paulo: Lasar Segall Museum/Official Press, 2008, p. 39.

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