Why the Brazilian modernist behind the Bandeirinhas (‘Flags’) and Fachadas (‘Façades’) series is now attracting the attention of collectors worldwide
Who was Alfredo Volpi?
‘Alfredo Volpi (1896-1988) was one of the most important Brazilian painters of the 20th century,’ states Leonie Mir, Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s London. He achieved a splendid synthesis between fine art and popular art; between figuration and abstraction; and between European tradition and Brazilian modernism.
Volpi won many awards, including the Best National Painter prize at 1953’s São Paulo Biennial, but during his lifetime was feted predominantly in Brazil. ‘Only in the past few years has his name and fame really spread internationally,’ says Mir.
In 2018, the artist was the subject of a major retrospective at the New National Museum of Monaco, Alfredo Volpi — The Poetics of Colour.
Volpi’s early life, influences and themes
Born in the Italian city of Lucca in 1896, Volpi emigrated with his family to Brazil while he was still a baby. The Volpis settled in a working-class district of São Paulo called Cambuci, where Alfredo would spend most of his life.
His early jobs saw him working as a woodcarver, a bookbinder, and a painter-decorator for São Paulo’s upper class and bourgeoisie.
As an artist, he was entirely self-taught, though his initial work shows he managed to absorb the influence of both Impressionism and Expressionism.
In the 1930s, he formed part of a collective called the Grupo Santa Helena, a set of São Paulo-based artists loosely united by imagery with proletarian themes. Volpi, for his part, was fond of depicting street festivities.
In the 1940s, he made regular visits to the coastal town of Itanhaém, where he became friends with the seascape painter, Emidio de Souza. Volpi produced several scenes of Itanhaém, and his art — under de Souza’s influence — underwent a marked, stylistic shift: he began to simplify his forms considerably.
In 1944 Volpi had his first solo exhibition — at Galeria Itá, in São Paulo — and was one of 70 Brazilian artists who contributed to that year’s Exhibition of Modern Brazilian Paintings, held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (as well as seven other UK venues).
Six years later, in 1950, Volpi returned to the country of his birth for several months, participating in that year’s Venice Biennale and taking the chance to see as many artistic masterpieces as possible. (He visited Giotto’s fresco cycle at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua no fewer than 18 times.)
In 1958, Volpi was invited to paint the frescoes for Igrejinha Nossa Senhora de Fátima, one of the first churches in Brasilia, a city then being constructed from scratch specifically to become Brazil’s capital. The church is considered one of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s landmark buildings.
Some critics suggest the geometrical compositions he saw by the early-Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca would influence the geometric patterning in his own work from later that decade onwards.
Bandeirinhas (flags) and Fachadas (façades) — Volpi’s most famous motifs
Volpi’s most famous paintings, made between the late 1950s and the 1970s, were of two motifs in particular: Bandeirinhas (festival flags) and Fachadas (building façades). To some extent, these were an evolution of his early street scenes, although his art was now characterised by exuberant colour and — more crucially — simple, geometric forms (oblongs, semi-circles, chevrons, etc). The façades and flags themselves were reduced pretty much to abstraction.
These paintings are marked by playful repetition and the rhythmic interaction of colours and forms. Volpi duly heralded the Neo-Concrete movement (a group of Brazilian abstract artists better known than him on the world stage, including Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica).
In 2011 one of Volpi’s flag paintings, Bandeirinhas Estruradas (above), fetched $842,500 at Christie’s in New York, setting a world auction record for the artist that stills stands.
On 4 October 2019, Untitled (Bandeirinhas com Mastros no Azul) — at 1.5 metres wide, one of the largest Flag paintings Volpi ever made — is being offered in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Christie’s London.
The market for Volpi’s art
Volpi died in 1988, aged 92. It is only in the past few years that his star has really risen. The five highest prices for his paintings at auction have all come since 2011 — all of them set at Christie’s. Three of the five works in question were Bandeirinhas and two of them Fachadas.
‘These are definitely his signature motifs’, says Mir, ‘so it’s no surprise that [though paintings from other periods do appear in the market] the Flags and Façades are by far the most coveted Volpis among collectors.
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‘They remind me a bit of Matisse,’ adds the specialist. ‘It’s hard not to fall in love with the rich patterning and colour schemes. These are images that transcend national boundaries.’