Cícero Dias (1907-2003) came from a family of sugar plantation owners from the state of Pernambuco, in the northeast of Brazil. In his teenage years, he left behind his birthplace and its archaic rural economy to go to Rio de Janeiro and, later on, to Paris, where he spent most of his life. Throughout his career as an artist, Dias carried with him the colors and themes that he kept from his childhood in Pernambuco.
In 1921, Dias moved to Rio de Janeiro. It was there that he did his most well-known work, Eu vi o mundo...ele comecava no Recife (I Saw the World...it Started in Recife), 1931. This long panel (approximately 8 by 49 feet) was shown in the Salon of 1931, at the School of Fine Arts of Rio de Janeiro. It shocked the public and the critics of the time for its bold visual vocabulary, combining dream-like images and folktales from the artist's memories.
Dias's style soon became associated with the Russian-born French painter Marc Chagall for its whimsical and lyrical qualities. Despite the similarities between the two artists, Dias denied any influence by Chagall and, moreover, insisted that he did not know much about Surrealism at the time. His hallucinatory images--with figures usually floating freely in the air--were vestigial impressions from the landscape of the Brazilian northeast--its luminosity, women, flora and fauna.
A friend from Pernambuco--the famous Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre--coined the term Surnudismo, meaning "surreal nudity," to characterize Dias's style from the '20s and '30s. Freyre was referring to the magic and erotic overtones of the female figures depicted in the artist's early work. Around this time, Dias also illustrated the first edition of Freyre's celebrated Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), published in 1933--a landmark book about miscegenation during colonial times in Brazil.
In 1937 Dias left for Paris. There he saw Picasso's Guernica and later he was instrumental in convincing Picasso to show this monumental work at the II São Paulo Biennial in 1953. Later Picasso became the godfather of Dias's only daughter, Sylvia, whom he had with his French wife Raymonde. Dias also befriended the poet Paul Éluard.
In Paris Dias worked for a while at the trade bureau attached to the Brazilian consulate, and when Brazil entered the war against Germany and Italy, he, along other members of the diplomatic corps, was detained by the Nazis in Baden-Baden in 1942. After six months there, he was released in exchange for German prisoners that were being held in Brazil. He soon left for Lisbon where he stayed for the next two years. There he incorporated traces of Picasso and Matisse into his Surrealist-tinged canvases, combining flowing feminine figures with flowers and fruits, and giving them vibrant and colorful tones.
After returning to Paris in 1945, Dias transformed his style radically, abandoning figuration to become the first Brazilian artist to move into geometric abstraction. In so doing, he became one of the forerunners of the so-called Concrete art movement in Brazil. In Paris, he exhibited periodically at Galerie Denise René. His move from a figurative mode into an international style did not appeal to some renowned Brazilian critics of the time, such as Antonio Bento, who always saw the landscape of Pernambuco as a reference in his abstract phase. Bento argued that through the vivid colors of his geometric shapes, the atmosphere of the Northeast would always be present through its architectural facdes, its coconut and banana trees, its women and the carnival.
During the '60s, Dias went back into figuration, emphasizing once again the female figure, its sensuality and sexuality. Being at the same time regional and international, local and worldly, abstract and figurative, Dias always kept an aura of fantasy and lyricism about his work. He lived in Paris until his death in 2003 when he was buried in the Cemetery of Montparnasse--along with Baudelaire, Man Ray, Brancusi, Cortázar, Sartre, and Beckett.
Claudia Calirman, Ph.D., New York.