NEW YORK, NY.- "I paint to teach my people what is wrong," Portinari once remarked, and his body of work speaks powerfully to the social upheaval and injustice that he witnessed in his native Brazil. Recognized as one of his country's foremost modern artists, he plied his painting as a form of protest and critique, portraying the working and immigrant classes that he knew firsthand from a childhood spent among the coffee plantations of São Paulo. The son of poor Italian immigrants, Portinari left home at the age of fifteen to study at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, and in 1928 he was awarded a scholarship to study in Europe. His return to Brazil in 1931 coincided with sweeping nationalist sentiment that would span two decades, and his iconic paintings and murals from these years embody the racial and social politics that helped to redefine, and diversify, the country's national identity.
The 1930s and '40s marked a defining moment of nationalism in the arts, and Portinari aligned his practice with that of a group of like-minded intellectuals, including the critic Mário de Andrade and the composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, who "[strived] to give their work an essential national expression--in subject, in spirit, and in style." There was new political acknowledgment of Brazil's indigenous and African roots during the Getúlio Vargas regime, and Portinari's brand of social realism effectively portrayed these marginalized classes in an integral historical and national light. Such characteristic early paintings of Afro-Brazilian life as The Mestizo (1934) and Coffee (1935) gave way in the 1940s to more universal and transnational subjects, as seen in his important murals for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (Discovery of the New World, 1942) and the United Nations in New York (War and Peace, 1956).
Portinari's contemporary oil paintings kindle the intense human emotion of his murals on a more intimate scale, and the present work depicts a foundational episode in the history of Brazil. Navio negreiro traces the African presence to the colonial-era slave trade, recalling the forcible origins of the modern Afro-Brazilian community in a dramatic image of slaves bound for Brazil's fazendas. Indeed, Portinari may have found a valuable point of reference in a number of widely circulated eighteenth-century woodcuts that illustrate the conditions of the Middle Passage through similarly graphic and expressive forms. Like Tiradentes (1949), Descobrimento do Brasil (1954), and the "Retirantes" series, which spanned the 1940s and '50s, Navio negreiro participates in a broader national project that sought to shed light on Brazil's history from the first moment of contact and colonization through the present day. Here, densely clustered masses of slaves fill the brightly sunlit deck, their anonymous forms overshadowed by the immensity of the ship and the sails, which compress the space of the painting and amplify the exploitation and injustice of the scene. An homage to Brazil's African roots and, at the same time, an indictment of the conditions of the slave trade, Navio negreiro is a powerful national acknowledgment of Brazil's past and, no less, a testament to the diversity of its present.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park