PRINTS: 1957-1971

Maria Alice Milliet

2004

 

Not many people know that the painter Antonio Henrique Amaral began his career as a print-maker. And this period was more than just a beginning. He spent ten years working only on prints. Since he is best known for the tropical themes and his lively palette of his large canvases – for example the series depicting bananas and bamboos – it is difficult to think of him being shy of colour. However, his development towards a greater use of colour was gradual. During the 1950s he experimented with using colour in a few watercolours, drawings and woodcuts, while for the most part keeping to the strict contrast of black and white. This is why, when we look back on his work, we can say that in essence colour was absent.

In 1967, in the prints of the O Meu e o Seu collection, colour appears as a precise addition to a predominantly graphic construction. This edition represents the high point of his work as an engraver. From this point onwards he concentrates on painting. The lithographs and silkscreens that appear after this time are subordinated to the production of paintings, while the preceding work established a repertoire and language that would serve the painter well.

Of all the techniques of printmaking, Antonio Henrique preferred the hard impact of wood. From 1957 to 1967 he made more than a hundred woodcuts, of which many blocks have been preserved, most of them in wood cut with the grain, a few across the grain. For an unquiet character like Antonio Henrique, the discipline required by printmaking gave him the measure of professionalism he needed: nothing was possible without persistence, without the constant practice needed to master the different techniques. By frequenting the studios of Lívio Abramo in São Paulo and later that of Shiko Munakata in New York, the young man, still undecided as to whether to study Law or Art, acquired and improved his technical knowledge. Even today Antonio Henrique talks enthusiastically about what these years of training meant to him. From these relationships he drew lessons that go beyond those of a conventional apprenticeship: he saw that for these masters workmanship and creativity, aesthetics and ethics, came together in a philosophy of life.

In 1957 he joined what came to be called the MAM School of Print-making, headed by Lívio Abramo, in the centre of São Paulo. There, “he started the furious cutting of his first lino-cuts and his images – losing the trace of mannerism that had appeared in his drawings – gained strength, even, perhaps, a certain violence and aggression that give them this special atmosphere”. There is no better testimonial than that of the master concerning the print-maker he was training. In the introduction to Antonio Henrique‘s first one-man show in the MAM, Abramo pointed out the “fervid fantasy”, “his innate sense of composition”, his enthusiasm” and “the markedly expressionist framework” of his linocuts [1]. We may observe the extreme contrast between the areas of chiaroscuro, the ‘primitivist’ stylisation of the figures outlined in black or white, shapes that are often resolved into male and female, parts of animals and plants combined in a symbiosis of the soul. This organic universe is sometimes presented in such a complex way that the relationship between figure and background becomes indistinct. This occurs when cross-hatching and dots fill countless areas of the composition, creating the grading of grey, which, together with the black and white elements, results in a rich texture.

 Another group of linocuts contains a composition that I would call mechanistic. The allusions to the figure remain, although deprived of voluptuousness.  The couple return in increasingly more aggressive poses, as if in a ballet of robotic beings. The images are occasionally fragmented across the surface; there is no illusion of volume or depth.

 There then came an extensive production of woodcuts in which the same elements stand out: the aim of keeping to the two-dimensional nature of the canvas and borrowing from African art certain ways of modelling figures. This is not surprising since the leaders of modern art – mainly Picasso – had introduced the idea of breaking away from illusionism in painting and looked for inspiration in so-called primitive cultures. We should remember that Tarsila do Amaral had been to this source and that, at that time (December, 1950), Picasso was dominating the world of art. Antonio Henrique was definitely sensitive to the work of these two artists.

 His woodcuts benefited from the period he spent studying at the Pratt Graphic Institute in New York. He needed a little boldness and some luck to get there. After his MAM one-man show, Antonio Henrique left college and travelled to Buenos Aires and from there to Chile. The positive reaction to the exhibition of his prints in Santiago resulted in an invitation to exhibit in Washington. Out of this came a grant from the Pratt, where he had the chance to work and live for three months with Shiko Munakata, an internationally recognised Japanese printmaker. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a big city, he met a zen master. From him he learned that there is no need to be fashionable; the important thing is to concentrate on oneself, on personal experiences and daily life. He saw how Munakata could work quickly without being too concerned with mistakes, without stopping to analyse his composition. Munakata taught that if the artist starts engraving by making incisions at any point in the wood, and does it intensely, using the ‘heart’ or hara (abdominal brain), the whole result will be as it should be.

These teachings gave Amaral a greater freedom in printmaking. In his woodcuts from the late 1950s we find a gradual humanization of the figures, with an emphasis on the woman, who appears singly, or in twos or threes. We also find a marked change in the forms, with the gradual loss of geometrical stylisation in favour of more sinuous lines. Looking at these prints is like sinking into a world of anguish and fear, of amorous conflicts, of affection and aggression, without the help of the filter of convention. Expedients such as the subdivision of space in the composition, juggling with the relative sizes of the elements in the composition and contorting the shapes of the figures, suggest that the artist has broken away from logical discourse and has allowed himself to be guided by his emotions.

Then came the military coup d’état. At this point, when Lìvio Abramo heard of the difficulties his pupil was having and the obstacles he was facing in order to dedicate himself to print-making full-time, his reaction was direct and blunt: “Look, Antonio Henrique, if you’re going to wait for things to become easy before you start work, you’ll never get started! People have to learn to work in the middle of mess and confusion, because everything tends to get more complicated”.[2] In 1966 Amaral left the advertising agency where he worked during the day, to become a full-time artist.

The dictatorship brought social and political crisis in its wake. A strong wave of cultural agitation on a world level cast its shadow over events in Brazil. A large number of artists and intellectuals turned to questions that went beyond the sphere of the individual and dealt with socio-cultural matters. While pop art was having its day in the United States, taking over the means of production and the systems of mass communication, countries such as Brazil tended to appropriate the ways of making popular culture their own. In visual arts, cinema and music this appropriation happened as a reaction to imports from abroad, as an instrument of protest and a sign of bringing the intelligentsia closer to the great mass of people on the margins of the consumer society. Antonio Henrique was not immune to what was going on around him. The focus and language of his prints change. In the series called Os Generais satirising the military government in the O Meu e o Seu album, the cutting style and the graphic structures are reminiscent of the narrative woodcut booklet tradition that still exists in the northeast of Brazil. For those who are not familiar with them, these homemade booklets illustrated with woodcuts by untaught artists who travel from fair to fair, sold at prices affordable by local people, are known as literatura de cordel. The incised pieces of wood, the master blocks, are known as tacos.

The rich iconography of cordel shows how an image can summarise a story and how economic drawing can have an immediate impact. In the woodcuts he produced between 1966 and 1967, Amaral moves in this direction. The intimate themes give way to social topics dealt with in a popular, almost grotesque way. This desire to communicate on a wider scale also led to the introduction of speech balloons containing words and phrases like those in comic books. For example, the print Consensus says more than a public speech would. The foot, the mouth, the hand and the hoof on the flag of Brazil, together with a few words, give a meaning to an entire political situation: while everyone gives an opinion, one discourse is dominant. Domination by force is represented by the horse’s hoof (reminding the observer that it was mounted police who suppressed parades and protests), my conclusion is that it might be the hoof of an ass. The use of metonymy, that is, making the part represent the whole, is mainly employed in this and other woodcuts, which leads to elements of nonsense and irony that join with the proverbial sense of humour of the Brazilian people, who can make jokes even about disasters.

This exhibition of a selection of prints from Antonio Henrique Amaral’s pre-painting period brings together both for experts and the general public this significant collection of graphic work, which has been rather eclipsed by the impact of the large canvases that came later. At the time of writing, an impressive amount of prints will be placed in the collection of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo thanks to the generous donation of Bea Systems, sponsor of the event, and the Lei Municipal de Apoio à Cultura.

 

 

 

[1] Lívio Abramo, MAM Catalogue, São Paulo, 1958.

[2] Antonio Henrique Amaral, interview with the writer, São Paulo, 2004.