Among Brazil's foremost modern artists, Portinari plied his painting as a form of protest and critique, giving graphic expression to the oppressed working and immigrant classes who toiled on São Paulo's coffee fazendas and in the drought-ridden states of the Northeast. "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 at first hand. 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 paintings and murals from these years encode the complexity of the social and racial fabric of his country as it began to modernize under the Getúlio Vargas regime.
Portinari's work of the 1940s encompasses his most strident polemics, voiced in paintings that recount a national history of cruelty and corruption from colonial-era atrocities to twentieth-century perpetuations of social and economic inequity. Distraught by the onset of the Second World War and discouraged by what he considered the government's indifference to civil unrest in the Northeast, Portinari took an activist stance during this period, even running (unsuccessfully) for political office on the Communist Party ticket in 1945 and 1947. Major works from the contemporary Retirantes series--e.g., Migrants of the Northeast, Dead Child, and Burial in the Hammock (all 1944)--speak movingly to his sympathies for the rural classes and to his ongoing militance against crimes of inhumanity.
Lampião e Maria Bonita recalls the infamous, and near instantaneous folk-legend that arose around the banditry and storied downfall of Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as Lampião ("The Lamp"), and his girlfriend Maria Bonita. An outlaw hero sometimes referred to as the "Robin Hood of Brazil," Lampião cut a violent and increasingly sadistic path across northeastern Brazil between 1922 and 1938. With his cangaçeiro band, Lampãio plundered towns and battled authorities with self-styled revolutionary zeal (and well-documented savagery). Brutalized and beheaded in 1938, Lampião and Maria Bonita have been posthumously remembered as pioneers of agrarian land reform and as romantic symbols of the rural sertão.
In this double portrait of the "King of the Backlands" and his companion, Portinari commemorates their lives, bathing them in the glow of richly mottled color and painterly geometries. Lampião is shown in his characteristic upturned hat, out from under which a single, wide-open eye stares uneasily into the distance; behind him, Maria Bonita looks on with an expression of watchful concern. Subtle undertones of blue and purple impart a meditative quality to the painting, connecting the crisscross patterning of Lampião's shirt, his and Maria Bonita's softly gleaming skin tones, and the geometric pattern against which they stand. A humanizing and intimate portrait, Lampião e Maria Bonita immortalizes the lovers as national icons, bonding their history to that of northeastern Brazil and its long struggle for social justice.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1) Cândido Portinari, quoted in Sarah Lemmon, "Cândido Portinari: The Protest Period," Latin American Art 3, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 32.