A VIEW FROM ABROAD
Edward J. Sullivan
Antonio H. Amaral is an artist whose profile on the international art scene is easily distinguishable. His first one-person exhibition outside of Brazil took place in Santiago do Chile in 1958 when the precocious artist was only 23 years old. The following year he had a show at the Pan American Union in Washington D.C. Other early exhibitions took place in Argentina, Canada, England, Mexico and Colombia. Amaral proceeded to garner prizes and accolades at various international competitions. His presence in group shows has also helped to define the personality of contemporary Brazilian art for many people — even though his style is highly personal, idiosyncratic and not really linked to any of the trends that have characterized the last several decades of the twentieth century. In many of these ambitious thematic exhibitions (including the controversial Art of the Fantastic in the United States and Modernidade in Paris ) he has been cited for his famous series of banana paintings. Critics, as well as the general public, have been enormously impressed by these pictures and praised them in eloquent terms. As early as 1971 the Washington art critic Benjamin Forgey stated that “The best of the paintings suggest multiple levels of interpretation: An ambiguous sexuality, a powerful organic life force, an inexorable cruelty”.1 Bélgica Rodríguez wrote of the banana series (on which the artist began to work in 1968 and had completed by 1975) that “... the tropical fruit was readily converted by the artist into a model not only for the state, but the Brazilian State of mind. The artist sought to express his pessimism, criticism of Brazilian society, a terrible existential anguish, and a spirit torn by the conflict he saw around him.”2 Jacqueline Barnitz describes the banana paintings with reference to what she sees as the stylistic precedent for them: “The pseudo-primitivizing style of some of these works... has precedents in the art of his namesake Tarsila do Amaral, who was credited with having originated a pictorial language in the twenties focusing on Brazilian themes in a colorful exotic style... his representations of the bananas in ever increasing proportions, brutally compressed within the painting’s format with only close-up details visible, reminds one of the over-sized objects by Oldenburg.”3 Finally, the critic Roberto Pontual persuasively described the banana paintings in the following way: “He created his... paintings by fusing fervor and irony, in a just encounter of force against subtlety, by means of delicious, artificial images... Solitary bananas or bananas in a stalk levitate uneasily within their voluminous isolation to form a dubious still life... ambiguous fruits of a recognizable geography... they may burst forth and flourish like uncomfortable giants... with a sourness of unrepentant humor, capable of causing harm to laughter.”4
Each author who has treated Amaral’s famous series of banana paintings has invariably commented upon its highly politicized content. This is only correct, of course, as they were done (both in Brazil and when the artists was residing in New York where he arrived in 1973) during a time of great social, moral and psychological strife in the country. They certainly represent a sense of anguish, pain and stultifying repression. Yet, it is important to see these pictures from another angle. They must inevitably be viewed as studies in pure form, in heightened palpability and “realness” of an everyday object — an object so ordinary and unexalted in our lives as if to be go unnoticed.
Although it has not often been stated, Antonio H. Amaral has a keen sense of the past. This cognizance of traditions and interest in transforming them in his art has been overlooked by many who have turned their attentions to his paintings, prints and drawings. It is important, I think, to suggest certain of these links in the work of this artist. They are often unclear because Amaral is so adept at assimilating and transforming the influence and inspiration he has received from other artists and from other places and times. As both Roberto Pontual and Aracy Amaral have pointed out, Brazilian artists still innately adhere to the concepts expressed in the Manifesto antropofágico (Anthropophagite Manifesto, 1928) by Oswald de Andrade by which artists are engaged in a constant process of both appropriating and digesting what they see in the work of others.5 I believe this to be the case in much of the work of Amaral. Concerning the banana paintings it might be instructive to relate them not only to Brazilian traditions but also to the work of many artists of the past — both European and North American — who have depicted natural objects as carriers of mood, as vehicles for experiments with volume, form and light and as manifestations of natural life to be categorized and classified for their essential characteristics. In a certain way I am reminded of those extraordinary still life paintings of the Dutch Baroque painter Albert Eckhout painted during (or just after) his crucial Brazilian experience of 1637-1644. In these paintings (now in the National Museum at Copenhagen — and exhibited in 1991 at the MASP, São Paulo) the fruits and vegetables of Brazil taken on powerful proportions (in both the physical and the psychological realms). Assuming a communicative urgency, these signifiers of the plenitude of the New World undoubtedly exerted great fascination for those who beheld them in the small, even claustrophobic salons of the houses of Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague in the seventeenth century. These still lifes (as well as Eckhout’s famous portraits of the native population of Brazil) are authoritative and forceful records of the facts and the tenor of life in the far-away colony. Eckhout and his compatriot Franz Post, another creator of pictures of life in Brazil, transcribed their subjects with a minute and exacting eye, in an analogous manner to that of their contemporaries, Saendredam, Vermeer and many others, who made essentially mundane things take on a force of life and energy far beyond that which, in normal reality, they actually possessed.
In contemplating Amaral’s depictions of bananas I am also compelled to think of the hauntingly moving images of some of the Iberian Baroque renditions of quotidian objects which, in the hands of the masters of Madrid, Seville and Lisbon, are raised to the heights of the transcendent. Francisco de Zurbarán, Juan Sanchez Cotán and the Portuguese painter Josefa de Ayala created not mere depictions of lemons, oranges, pewter vessels and candies — but, rather, true portraits of these objects. Transitory in their own physicality, they become monuments — symbols — signs of existence in the hands of the artists who fashion a time, place and personality for them in their work. When looking at Amaral’s bananas I also think of another artist in whose work angst and pain are ever present. Although Francisco de Goya created some of the most wrenchingly disturbing images of warfare and suffering of the modern era, it was, I think, more in some of the still lifes done fairly late in his career (around 1812) that we observe the greatest poignancy and melancholy of existence. A dead turkey, a salmon steak, a decapitated sheep’s head all speak with the utmost eloquence of the inherent anguish that is so necessary a part of the human experience on earth.
In the later twentieth century many fewer artists have concentrated so consistently upon a single element in their work as has Amaral with the bananas (and, for a shorter time, with bamboo plants). Nonetheless, the inner life force and urgency which the bananas have in his work also seems to be analogous to the power inherent in some of the still lifes of the contemporary Spanish artist Antonio López García. Although López García does not concentrate specifically on one component, he works very slowly and deliberately depicting such things as a single branch of a tree, a lemon, a dead animal (such as a rabbit) that he paints over a long span of time, studying it with an almost obsessive consideration and attention in order to extract from it its most essential qualities. The things painted by López García have no political messages yet in the gravity of their description they assume a life force analogous to that of the bananas of Amaral. I find that Amaral’s kinship with artists like these is essential to understanding the roots of his modes of discourse and expression.
Having concentrated, like many other critics, on the banana pictures, it is necessary to continue any discussion of this artist’s work by following his own caution that the banana subjects are by no means his only, nor even his most important vehicle for the articulation of his ideas. The political content of his art cannot and should not be denied. While we can certainly make the obvious connections with his paintings and the specific repressive regimes of modern Brazil through which he has lived, we never observe anything in his art that can be described as topical or relating to certain locally important events. Amaral has said “I reject all repression,” thus making a statement about the universal concerns of his philosophical outlook. On the other hand, his art is also a vehicle for other concerns — those of color, weight, volume, mass. Here I am not simply referring to formal values for Amaral is anything but a mere formalist. Like the art of the great names in the modern Brazilian tradition (Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and others) form becomes a metaphor for an intellectual, political, ethical stance — revealing layers of meaning as the beholder contemplates the work with an ever greater desire to discover the essential reasons for its creation.
Amaral holds a pivotal position in the history of twentieth century Brazilian art. His links to the Modernist past are obvious. His familial associations with Tarsila do Amaral are much less significant than the aesthetic and creative affinities which he has with her work. Amaral is, on one hand, a master of figuration but, at the same time, possesses many elements that link him to the constructivist urge that is so powerful not only in Brazilian art but in that of many other Latin American nations.
During Tarsila’s first trip to Paris (1920-1922) the course of her work remained faithful to the conservative vision that was inherent in Brazilian artistic life up until that time. Having taken courses with the conservative Pedro Alexandrino in São Paulo in 1916, she began her studies in Paris with Emile Renard and others at the Académie Julian. She was almost certain to have sorely missed the grand events of the famous Semana de Arte Moderna in São Paulo (February, 1922). After her return to Europe with Oswald de Andrade she experienced a fundamental change in her artistic personality and quickly absorbed the tenets of Cubism and certain of the elements of Futurism. Her work of the later 1920s and 30s is, of course, fundamental to the establishment of a new artistic canon in Brazil. Antonio H. Amaral evidences an analogous interest in the simplicity and integrity of form that was seen in Tarsila’s work and was also essential for such other key modernists such as Alfredo Volpi, Ismael Nery and others who manipulated geometric form while always working within a basically representational idiom. I tend to see the art of Amaral not as an atavistic, retardataire continuation of this early modernism but rather as a renewal and reaffirmation of its most significant aspects.
I have also mentioned the work of Amaral in connection with the art of the heroic generation of Concrete and Neo Concrete artists who flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. Some readers may be surprised at my insistence on this relationship. On the surface at least the lush, colorful canvases and drawings of Amaral appear to represent a sensibility far distant from that of artists like Clark, Pape, Franz Weissmann, Ivan Serpa, Rubem Valentim, Waldemar Cordeiro and others. Yet Constructivism is not far from the realm of aesthetic issues dealt with by Amaral. In a close reading of his work there often emerges a strong consciousness of geometric form. Volumetric substance and weight vary considerably from picture to picture. One of the almost-constant features of Amaral’s paintings, however, is his interest in outlining and shading to create structures (both representational as well as non-objective) which appear to interlock with their accompanying forms to establish an architectural whole within the picture place. In some of his works the artist creates frames within frames for his abstracted forms. They appear to be made of intersecting pipes, reminding us of the ‘tubular’ approach to volume that can be seen in works by Tarsila who in turn was inspired in this regard by Fernand Léger. A good example of this technique might be found in the 1981 painting “Estrutura metálica”. In this oil on canvas there exists a cacophony of shapes in a wide variety of colors vying for our attention. In this midst of this seeming visual chaos there is an monumental structure imposed upon the composition by the presence of an arch of what we could imagine to be welded steel. A similar solid organizational component is present in another painting from the same year. “A passagem” [p. 19] contains two blue arches, one superimposed upon the other, which appear to rise up from a landscape of spiky leaves, serving as a strong stabilizing force in the picture.
At times the viewer has the impression that he or she is witnessing the deconstruction of a building when examining certain of Amaral’s paintings. The tightly interlocking forms are often just on the brink of coming apart, exposing their structural underpinnings for the scrutiny of the observer. In the 1980 “Árvore II” [p. 17] such an explosion appears to have just occurred. Shapes which may have once been solid are now dispersed throughout the canvas, creating an all-over effect of scintillating rhythms. The force and dynamism portrayed here reach beyond the plane of the picture and suggest continuation into infinite space. Indeed, from 1977 until the early 80s Amaral executed a series of pictures to which he gave the general title “Expansions”. Rarely has his art experienced such an aggressive and vigorous push and pull feeling. The tensions in these pictures (such as the 1977 “Axis e fragmentação” [p. 153] or several paintings entitled “Figura/fundo” created in 1979) are almost at the breaking point. I find that in certain cases the “Expansion” paintings bear a kinship with a mood of painterly vision that was developing simultaneously in the United States. The Pattern and Decoration movement became a significant force in the New York art world in the late 1970s and is characterized by work which is often composed of geometric forms painted in optically active colors. As described by the art historians San Hunter and John Jacobus, Pattern and Decoration “came as part of the accelerating reaction among younger artists against the perceived tyranny of Minimalist values... it... brought a sense of resurgent energy [to] the art scene.”6 Among the most active artists in this movement in New York were Joyce Kozloff, Miriam Schapiro, Robert Kushner and Rodney Ripps.
When commenting upon Amaral’s “Expansions” it is also interesting to examine his affinities for what we might call a Neo-Cubist approach to painting. Many of these works evidence an interest in experimentation with the cubic (or otherwise geometric) form. By no means is the artist simply repeating the conventions of the painters who first developed this manner in the heritage of such masters of Picasso, Braque and especially Léger. The geometric constructions are created with a finely tuned palette of bright colors. They often suggest mechanical elements but go well beyond the coldness of the modernist mechanizations by a painter such as Léger, adding to them a warmth and vitality which makes them pulsate with vibrant energy.
Several critics have analyzed the work of Amaral in relation to Pop art of the 1960s. The question of the development of Pop in Latin America is a very complex issue. There were indeed certain Latin American artists who participated in the initial discourse of Pop in the United States (such as the Venezuelan Marisol Escobar), just as there are other artists who remained in their respective countries and associated themselves with the Pop sensibility as it developed in the 1970s in South America (such as Maria Paz Jaramillo in Colombia — to choose only one example). In a very superficial way one could make a case for a relationship between Amaral’s bananas, for example, and the over-sized images of hamburgers other such mundane objects by Claes Oldenburg, the Coca-cola bottles of Andy Warhol or the paint cans of Jasper Johns as well as many other similar manifestations of the Pop discourse in North America. In each of these cases, however, there is a spirit of the cool and the detached that is not present in Amaral’s work. In fact, Amaral at times exaggerates his forms not in order to ironically magnify the commonplace but to heighten the palpability, the presence and the realism of an object which is charged by the artist with a sense of urgency and symbolic content. Instead of relating Amaral’s imagery to that of the Pop artists of North America and Europe I would prefer to see a certain kinship with painters like Fernando Botero or Ana Mercedes Hoyos who inflate the things they paint in order to heighten their inherent sensuality as well as the nobility which resides in them because of their very physical existence.
By the mid 1970s Amaral had decided that the trajectory of his career should change course. The banana imagery no longer fully satisfied his creative spirit. The artist has labelled the period from 1975 to 1977 as his years of transition. During this time he created a number of fascinating variations upon themes on which he had previously touched. The bananas per se were mostly banished from the canvas but the tines of the fork (which, in earlier pictures had pierced the flesh of the bananas) remained. The imagery of the artist at this time became somewhat more overtly menacing. Depictions of forks piercing less easily identified flesh-like substances, forks present among a think covering of leaves, spiky plants in a jungle, forks juxtaposed with knives — all themes which tend to evoke the most sinister aspects of their creator’s inner mind now became a part of the inventive process of Amaral. Soon, however, he came upon another subject which, while not possessing the intensity of the banana theme, became a motif that he used over and over again in a equally fruitful fashion. Bamboo stalks, shoots and leaves formed the subject of numerous canvases by Amaral during the period 1977 to 1988. In many cases these paintings represent some of the most interesting experiments in hard-edged geometric form juxtaposed with soft, leafy textures. In the bamboo paintings the viewer is again confronted with a direct and close-up view of the plant. When confronting these paintings we are reduced to the size of an ant or other forest creature who lives among the trees and vegetation of the jungle. This strange faltering of proportion has a mesmerizing effect upon us for suddenly we, like Alice in Wonderland, are radically diminished in stature and are forced to scrutinize a substance in terms unlike those we normally utilize in our day-to-day perception. In the case of the bamboo pictures — as well as the banana series — I am again reminded of Amaral’s relationship with some examples of art of the past. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many artist illustrators of both the Enlightenment and the Romantic periods exaggerated or drastically altered the scale of things they portrayed for a specifically symbolic effect. The North American painter Martin Johnson Heade created haunting scenes of humming birds and orchids in which both the animal and the flower were immense in proportion to the rest of the scene. Even the works of the naturalist painter John James Audubon may be brought to mind in this context.
With regard to the bamboo and other related images of the late 1970s and 1980s we might think of the experiments in geometric form of the North American painter Al Held. Held has consistently moved into the area of hard edged abstraction in his work from he 1950s until the present. By the 70s his paintings became complex webs of interlocking forms including geometric shapes: arcs, parabolas etc. while Amaral almost always remains in the realm of the representational he shares with Held the fascination for the vast potential of visual experimentation with the hard edged form.
Also during the 1980s Amaral embarked upon a strikingly impressive series of canvases depicting fruits. In some of them the banana reappeared. However, it did not occupy center stage. These works unlike the politically motivated banana pictures are examples of what we might call “pure painting” — or the depiction of these oranges, watermelons, pears and other fruits for the sake of their sensuous color and form. In many of these still lifes the watermelon, cut into wedge shapes, is the dominant form, again allowing the artist to experiment with geometric principles even in the context of this traditional painting format. It is interesting to note the affinities of spirit with some other grand practitioners of still life in Latin America of both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The artists who most readily come to mind are certain of the great Mexican painters who reveled in the grandeur suggested by a profusion of fruits. One of the past century’s most outstanding examples was Agustín Arrieta, whose art prefigured that of some of the great modernist painters of still life like María Izquierdo and Rufino Tamayo. For the latter artist the watermelon was both a personal symbol and an emblem of the artist’s Mexican national identity.
Antonio H. Amaral is an artist of great inventive power and is also aware of the importance of constantly striving for new effects — both visual and psychological. Although representation is a significant aspect of his art, abstraction plays an important role too. During the mid 1980s (especially in 1986) he painted a series of works in which lyrical, gestural abstraction is the principal force. In these (almost all of which were given the title “Opus”), the linear precision of the earlier paintings gives way to a surprising fluidity. Instead of the solidity of other works, these paintings show a new softness. There is an organic alive-ness to these pictures not unlike the spiritually fervent compositions of Wassily Kandinsky executed during the first and second decades of the century. In these works strong color plays as significant a role as it did in other compositions yet it too seems to have undergone a tempering and lessening of its sometimes strident intensity. One of the most beautiful of these paintings is an oil composition entitled “Azul no 20 de novembro” (1986) [p. 190]. In this work the amorphous forms create a web of lines that suggest languid movement from one corner of the canvas to the other. The predominant blue of the canvas adds an elegiac tone to the work, veiling the painting’s impression in melancholy. “Novembro vermelho” (1986) [p. 25] is a related composition in which the abstracted lines created the impression of ethereality and highly charged spirituality.
In some of Amaral’s paintings of the mid 1980s there is a marked sense of humor. Humor has rarely been commented upon with reference to this artist; most criticism of his work tends to concentrate on the solemn aspects of his art — especially when discussing the political commitment of the banana pictures. Nonetheless, we see in several of these paintings a gentleness of spirit as in “Segunda carta” in which letters of the alphabet mix with abstracted
forms on what appears to be a blackboard.
It is in many of Amaral’s drawings done in the medium of oil pastel on paper that we observe the most interesting and uniquely personal experiments in abstraction. In a recent exhibition catalogue the North American critic Shifra Goldman quoted Frederico Morais’s words regarding Amaral’s drawings, stating that they are “graphic registrations of the unconscious.”7 Goldman further remarked that “[Amaral’s] small sketches are spontaneous, rich and joyful in color, highly erotic, and playful. Even the landscape, suggested by Rio’s beaches and incredible pointed mountains, is a record of sexual desire.”8 In Amaral’s drawings there is a definite reveling in the sensual. There is a hint of the hedonistic, bacchic pleasure of life, yet I also find the drawings somewhat mysterious; especially those which are principally abstract. In certain of them spiky, knife or scissor-like forms seems to be woven throughout the compositions. In certain instances we are reminded of some of the santería references in the paintings and drawings of artists like the Cubans Wifredo Lam, Manuel Mendive or Carlos Alfonzo. In the more representational drawings, Amaral occasionally appears to connect himself back to the ancient Romans for whom explicit erotic references were so important. In a drawing like “Partes voando” (1985) [p. 26] with its profusion of vaginas and phalluses we are reminded of the graffiti on the walls of Pompeiian brothels as well as the highly prized erotic paintings and sculptures of the Romans in which such elements played key roles.
Sensuality and eroticism also figure prominently in a number of Amaral’s paintings executed in the 1980s. The year 1984 witnessed Amaral’s concentration on the theme of the breast. This corporeal element is, in many compositions, transformed into a monumental pictorial form such as in the painting “Navegante” [p. 27] where a boat bearing the Brazilian flag sails before a landscape composed of fleshy mountains of breasts. In several compositions entitled “Terra” breasts are enlarged beyond all normal proportion and loom up before the viewer as gigantic shapes which have lost all of their erotic appeal. We are again reduced to an infinitesimally small psychological state — like an infant confronting his mother’s breast before being fed. As viewers of these images we are forced to question ourselves about the meaning of the breasts and why they seem to have lost their erotic urgency.
Sexuality is invariably found at the root of much of the art of Surrealism. Amaral’s relationship to Surrealist art is not overt but should, in any case, be pointed out. In a number of instances Amaral’s vision of sensuality and eroticism (repressed or overt) combines with a sensuality of form that is to a certain extent reminiscent of that of some of the principal members of the European Surrealist group such as Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí. René Magritte’s erotic imagery may also be called to mind. In the end, however, I believe that such invocations of the European Surrealists does not truly contribute to our understanding of Amaral’s work (albeit a tangential relationship cannot be denied). In Amaral sensuality and eroticism is usually more direct and confronted in a more frank and less cerebral way. In perhaps more vulgar terms we might even say that in the art of Amaral eroticism is less neurotic or repressed than in that of the Surrealists whose fantasies were more masturbatory than actualized.
Several critics have, in their discussions of Amaral’s work, cited the importance of the term “fantasy”. This “fantastical” element — emphasizing a heightened reality, a not always rational approach to everyday life is undoubtedly an element present in the artist’s aesthetic. As Frederico Morais has justly pointed out, the “fantastic” here is not a way of avoiding or hiding reality (as may be true in the case of the European Surrealists) but it is a means to incorporate reality into art by transforming it into a language more readily understood by each of us in symbolic terms. In Amaral’s imagination reality is distilled into a “fantastical” language — a discourse of signs and symbols that is comprehended not necessarily by the rational, analytical mind but is understood by the viewer as a “given”. When looking at many of the images created by Amaral we have an instant awareness of certain concepts, emotions and psychological states of being that the artist is trying to make us understand. He has developed a language of symbolic form that is ingeniously able to transmit his thoughts without having to go through the normal, mundane (and inevitably fruitless) channels of explicitness. This is not to say that the principal value of Amaral’s art is purely visceral. I believe that he has found a dexterous road which allows him to cut a clear path through the obfuscation of normally perceived “reality” which enables him to enter his viewers’ subconscious rationality through a visual vocabulary which is not always in need of the rational an intermediary. However, we must be very careful with our use of the term “fantasy”. In the late twentieth century this nomenclature has entered the realm of Latin American culture. We have heard so much about “fantastical” literature and “fantastical” art that we no longer know what these terms mean. For many the notion of fantasy and the non-rational has come to characterize Latin American artistic production, serving to create pernicious stereotypes causing grave misconceptions regarding the essence of cultural creation in the Latin world. We must be clear in our understanding of the term “fantasy” as a means and not an end to the conveying of a wide variety of concepts.
Many of the latest paintings by Amaral repeat, re-examine and re-define themes that have interested him at other times and in other contexts. On the other hand, much of the work of the late 80s and 90s evidences the artist’s continued experimentation into new realms. In 1989 Amaral created his most ambitious work, a monumental oil on canvas painting, “Painel Bandeirantes” [p. 198/199] for the Government Palace in São Paulo. Measuring 4.5 by 16 meters it represents a re-affirmation of his commitment to color and pattern but also to dynamism and energy. Bamboo and other vegetal forms are present here as are the abstract elements that have played such significant roles in other contexts. It is clear that in this major contribution Amaral is utilizing the floral forms as metaphors for growth and forcefulness in a specifically Brazilian context. This painting conveys to the viewer a positive message, reinforcing a sense of pride and optimism with regard to the region and the nation as a whole. Not all of the most recent work has such positive connotations.
Since the early 1980s Amaral has been associated with Japan. In 1981 he participated in the exhibition Contemporary Latin American Art in Japan at the Museum of Modern Art in Osaka. His art formed a significant part of several other group shows in 1985, 1990 and 1991 and found a highly appreciative audience there. Japanese art itself has had a certain impact upon the sensibility of Amaral. I detect a particularly strong effect of the art of the Japanese print as well as the medieval hand scroll. Several of Amaral’s paintings of the early 1990s contain references to the burning of what we understand to be the Amazonian rain forest. Great waves of smoke and fire rise from below and roar across the surfaces of the canvases. The closest prototype for this movement and visual excitement is found in the late thirteenth century scrolls known collectively as the Heiji-monogatari which describe the burning of the Sanjo palace during a coup d’état. Many of the late works utilize both iconography and pictorial devices that the artist has dealt with before. Yet the stylized patters that represent the jungle floor (as in “Palmeira” of 1991 [p. 29]), the smoke rising from destructive fires (as “Greens & Smoke I”, 1991 [p. 30]) as well as such elements as forks, knives and palm trees are often seen in a series of frames. Many of these works have the look of stop-action cinema. Their distorted realities make us focus more closely on their messages of despair. In these paintings from the early 90s Amaral intensifies the language that he had already begun to use several years earlier, as if to caution the viewer in an even more clear and deliberate way. These paintings also display a return to a more rigorous geometrical/constructivist treatment than some of the works of the 1980s. When we look at these paintings we observe pernicious actions frozen in time. It is as if for a single moment the destruction of the jungle (which is, in truth, the devastation not only of the resources of a geographical area but symbolic of the gradual ruination of our global assets) had stopped and the viewer were given a moment to contemplate this horror. It is as if the artist had given us a reprieve for just an instant from the tragedy that we are inflicting upon ourselves. In its ecological consciousness, Amaral’s work shares many of the same concerns with that of some other of the most respected names in Brazilian art today: Siron Franco, Waltercio Caldas Jr., Cildo Meireles, Tunga and others.
Not all of these ecologically-aware images deal directly with realities afflicting the Brazilian rain forests. Some have an even more transcendental relationship with the human condition. Among the most arresting works are those in which the artist depicts knives and forks in juxtaposition with bones, parts of skulls and other reminders of the transitory nature of the existence of mankind. “Blue Meal” or “A ameaça: fase III” [p. 55] both of 1990 inevitably produce a shudder of fear in the viewer for their grim reminders of the consequences of our actions.
Antonio H. Amaral has produced an impressive body of work which has meanings and messages in numerous contexts — from the specifically political, humorous and joyful to the sober and cautionary. He is an artist who in all the media in which he has worked has shown a distinct interest in the art of many times and places and a highly developed ability to digest (or, as his illustrious artistic ancestors in Brazil would say — to cannibalize) elements from other traditions and masters and to make of them something uniquely his own.
1 Quoted in Bélgica Rodríguez, “Antonio Henrique Amaral”, Latin American Art, spring, 1989, p. 20.
2 Rodríguez, p. 20.
3 Jacqueline Barnitz, Latin American Artists in New York since 1970 (exhibition catalogue), Austin, The Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery (University of Texas), 1987, p. 9.
4 Roberto Pontual, “Antonio H. Amaral”, in Art of the Fantastic: Latin America 1920-1987 (exhibition catalogue), Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1987, p. 237.
5 See the essays by Aracy Amaral, “L’Art et L’Artiste Brésilien: Un Problem d’Identité et d’Affirmation Culturelle”, and Roberto Pontual, “Anthropophagie et/ou Construction: Une Question de Modèles”, in Modernidade: L’Art Brésilien du XXème Siècle (exhibition catalogue), Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1987, pp. 35-46.
6 Sam Hunter and John Jacobus, Modern Art. Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, New York, 1977, p. 375.
7 Shifra Goldman, “(Re) Marking the Line: The Hidden Landscapes of Latin America,” in Latin American Drawings Today (exhibition catalogue), San Diego Museum of Art, 1991, p. 15.
8 Goldman, p. 15.