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Alfredo Volpi

 

Alfredo Volpi was an Italo-Brazilian painter critically considered one of the most important artists of the second generation of modernism. Signature motifs of his works are colorful flags and farmsteads. Volpi was a master colorist who explored form to produce magnificent compositions of enormous visual impact.

The Exhibition

Volpi: a Tribute was a retrospective of 24 works in tempera on canvas, five of which were being shown to the public for the first time. In broad strokes, the works were highly representative of the Italo-Brazilian painter’s different phases, especially a seascape of Intanhaém from the late 30s, a façade scene of houses from the 50s, a Saint Benedict and Saint Luisa from the early 60s and a bunting composition from the late 60s, together tracing the artist’s development arc toward geometric abstractionism.   

 

The exhibition presented to the public was the result of a four-year search for core works by the artist. The exhibition was designed by Pedro Mendes da Rocha and the catalogue text was written by the critic Paulo Venâncio Filho.  

Volpi: Painting's Sunday

Paulo Venancio Filho

 

Alfredo Volpi was born in 1896 and died at the age of 92. He painted until he was 88. More than his physical longevity, his artistic longevity is remarkable. This is seldom the case with Brazilian artists. Could one say that his whole work is contained in each individual work, or practically so? For that is what one sees in the synthesis that is apparent in this important exhibition of 22 canvases. Volpi started to paint before the decade of the 20s, that is, before the Week of Modern Art. Although the artist witnessed the passage of more than a half-century of cultural changes and every sort of influence to which art was subjected, his work did not suffer any great shocks or changes of direction. In Brazilian modern art there have been many with a vocation for rupture and invention. In recent times, artists with this disposition have received most international attention– and here I refer in particular to the work of Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Mira Schendel. The same has not happened to those with a vocation for order, like Sérgio Camargo, Amilcar de Castro, Willys de Castro and, in particular, Volpi, whose greatness still awaits recognition outside Brazil. There is no other corpus of work like his in the world. Volpi’s painting, which is perhaps our most significant example of a corpus of work based on a central point of view that is clear, frank and solid, appears particularly self-confident. If not, how can one explain that for more than half a century it maintained its direction, impervious to fluctuating outside pressures? Part of the explanation may lie in the temperament of the man, the immigrant who settled down so well that he did not want to change – immigration already being a major change. An immigrant who was not exactly a man of great culture, but an artisan. Creating great art out of a relatively modest world (he personally was a man of simple tastes), for him a little was enough. What counted was the  “less is more” of which Mies van der Rohe spoke – a sophisticated way of thinking and, even more, of creating. From early on, Volpi started with things that were simple in themselves, eliminating from the canvas everything that was auxiliary. Far from being a deliberate plan, his way of dealing with simple elements was part of his everyday way of life; there is no need to complicate life in order to live it fully. “Don’t complicate” could be the watchword of his painting. Be simple. Being simple is not for everyone. The simplicity that he achieved does not mean that his art is not complex. It is complex, in spite of appearing effortless, and being generally understood and accessible by all. It is not easy, however, to handle simple things. Take Pelé for example. Seeing him play, football seems easy, very easy – apparently there is nothing so simple as a ball and a person, whether a child, adolescent or adult. Nevertheless, where Pelé or Volpi is involved, the apparent simplicity is deceptive. If this comparison is valid, it shows how the artist enjoys a deep rooted, wide social acceptance and respect, a rarity in Brazilian art. This widespread acceptance – by children and adults – is similar to the pictorial experience that Volpi transmits. Along with his lack of consideration for local color – apparent from the very beginning of his activity as an artist – the absence of any literary element in his work is noteworthy. His is an art, which derives from a direct contact with the world, achieving this by its lyricism – an economic, synthetic lyricism that is free of rhetoric but at the same time is popular and sophisticated – as widespread acceptance was to demonstrate. In a world of overflowing verbosity Volpi is one of those who speak discreetly – but not because he is laconic, for he is aware of the wide range of pictorial possibilities. He says much but with few subjects, acquiring this economy through rigorous selection and practical experience of the materials and methods of his painting, for it is well known that the artist personally prepared his painting materials. A certain interpretation of Volpi has the following theme: the ingenuity of a man of a simple life style, who resists the demands – and perversions – of the modern world; his relative social isolation; the value attributed to simplicity and the craftsman’s routine, etc. Moreover, all this takes place in a specific urban context, often mentioned and discussed: what was then an urban village in São Paulo, the “Cambuci, which of all the old districts of São Paulo is one of the rare ones that has resisted progress. And which consequently has for the most part preserved is old physical appearance”, as the critic Mário Pedrosa has noted. One might say that he becomes a Brazilian through Cambuci. However, with the passing of time, this locus of citizenship was transformed, as was the metropolis, which was growing around him. If Volpi had already painted the doors and windows of the façades of small houses in Itanhaém, why not take a risk scaling this up to the metropolis – at least it was his metropolis – which was in the process of rapid transformation? As a result, in his final paintings we begin to catch a glimpse of an op art vertigo – the ‘little flags’, cadences of repeated musical notes which are scattered among the abstract urban rhythms of his compositions. The artist’s progress becomes more understandable if we observe it through the optic of the evolution of the Brazilian city. His painting extends from the environment of the initial colonization through to the concretist metropolis, from the humble door and windows of the traditional house in Itanhaém to the modern façade. Let me say in passing that the façade (and in this exhibition we have seven), which so attracted him, is to architecture what the frame is to a painting. If the artist is to feel the weight of the work in the world, its very foundation on the horizontal plane of the Earth, Volpi, the “wall painter”, sensed in the wall its material and texture, as well as its verticalness. Volpi also follows the Brazilian tradition of being charmed by the picturesqueness of the sea. The first true “Volpis” are views of the sea and towns – as in Sea View of Itanhaém, which dates from the end of the 30s and is exhibited here – enveloped in the luminosity, which is so present in his work. Mário Pedrosa comments on one view of Itanhaém – and I feel this is true of all Volpi’s painting – “we don’t know whether it is the colors that tell us that it is Sunday or whether it was the fact that it was Sunday – the luminous, long Sunday of all the suburbs of Brazil – that dictated or defined those colors”. Sunday: a day to be in the open air, to feel the sun and the light. A day off, a day for football, the beach and fun – a promise of joy. The Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza once observed, “Brazilian architecture introduced joie de vivre into modern architecture”. This assertion seems to me impeccable. Although I would not go so far as to say the same of Volpi in relation to modern art, I feel that it is certainly true in relation to Brazilian art. He is the inventor of joy in Brazilian painting. Tarsila and Anita are melancholy; Guignard has a certain sad joy; Goeldi can even be distressing. However, the healthy joy of Volpi is practically unique among us Brazilians. In his own way, he is the Brazilian Matisse – the painter of our joie de vivre. It was again Mário Pedrosa who made a highly important, fundamental observation, which in my opinion has not received the attention that it deserves. According to him, Volpi represents “Brazilian painting’s cry of independence in the face of international painting of the School of Paris”. This is a precise definition of Volpi’s originality. His painting demands the clarity which the requirement of fine composition conceals, that fine composition which he eliminates or, better, ignores, but which that informality of the School of Paris, so appreciated by us, insisted on maintaining, though disguised. Only in this way can Volpi be understood as “primitive”, and in this respect he can reasonably be compared him with the pre-renaissance “primitives”: He is “primitive” because he painted before the “science” of painting appeared. That being so, Volpi – see what a revolution was caused by a person who had no wish to innovate – was the first to break with the “science” of painting, which for us, in modern times, was represented by the School of Paris, which, for better or worse, persisted since the French Mission. This seems to me a cry of independence, the Seventh of September of Cambuci: by ignoring the Parisian métier, Volpi passed directly, with no major traumas, to the plane surface of the canvas. The conquest of the plane, the surface free of illusions, made him our first modern painter. The paradox – a Brazilian paradox – is that the traditional, archaic and workmanlike “doing” of a “painter of walls” took on a “being” that was immediately modern, new, original and unmistakable. This painting – fragile, translucent, vibrating – is one of the truest documents of an aspect of Brazilian life which is becoming ever more rare and perhaps today is only to be found in him. Its force is in its fragility, an oxymoron that is very Brazilian. In tempera, the artist’s specific medium, there exists a pictorial quality which seems uncertain, fragile and tremulous but which is achieved with determination and wisdom. Volpi is at the borderline of Brazilian contructivism ; he is not a concretist nor a neoconcretist in the strict sense of the term. He was not at the centre, but to one side. For this very reason, in positions that were heterodox but not programmed, he revealed unique aspects of the constructivist experience. Without him something would be lacking in this movement. If the urge to be in the forefront, the concern with theory, the desire to make a break are absent in Volpi, nevertheless he did not fail to represent a true, authentic aspect of our difficult, rapid path to modernity. Geometric abstraction was the work of people who were relatively young, who were at home in the world of techniques and materials derived from industry. This was not so with Volpi. Constructivism was an art form for those who accepted the youthful spirit of “progress”. Here too he did not fit in. However, the painter from Cambuci did not reject the new times: his work possesses something of a timeless character. There is no positivity in Volpi’s painting, in the sense of the insertion of art into industrial society, following the pattern of orthodox concretism. His pictorial work, like that of Milton Dacosta – like him at constructivist at the margins – is the antithesis of industrial labor. Not that Volpi was opposed to the urban, industrialized world. His paintings, like few others, affirm the inalienable value of doing and of specialized, specific knowledge. They are abstract, and show the impersonality that is characteristic of the modern artist. However, his deep experience of traditional artisanship – which the constructivist vanguard eliminated and abandoned – in his case is irreplaceable: without it, the painter ceases to exist. The Volpi equation could probably find a solution only in our archaic/modern disfuncionality. Later, when his painting turns to a kind of sequence of architectural façades, one can feel the weight of the great metropolis. With an allusion to the prismatic vision of urban volumes, which take over the canvas completely, he suggests planes that at one moment advance and at the next recede, reminding one of a façade where one does not know whether the window is a whole or just one frame in great panes of glass which repeat themselves, as in the so called ‘international style’ of architecture. The artist returns to a fragmentation and reflection of light that is constructivism, in a fully ‘architectural’ structure, with no beginning and no end – the experience of the great metropolis. If Volpi’s painting is a joyful Sunday, it is also the affirmation of a tireless life of work.

 

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