Italian-born Alfredo Volpi moved to São Paulo in 1898 and became one of the leading Brazilian modernist painters, despite the fact that he was self-taught and was never actually naturalized as a Brazilian citizen. Volpi began his artistic career as a young boy in 1914, first as a decorative painter, working on houses and building façades, and only later during the 1930s as a participant in the Grupo Santa Helena (or Santa Helena Group) of painters, where he was one of several prominent artists of Italian origin. During the 1940s, he frequently visited Itanhaém, a scenic colonial town located on the São Paulo coast where he indulged his passion for Brazil's colonial art, producing numerous works with folkloric and religious themes. His first exhibit at the age of 48 was in Galeria Itá in São Paulo in 1944, and Mario Schenberg's text accompanying the works described Volpi as in search of a Matissean purity of color. Volpi would later confirm this search stating, "For me there is only color" The exhibit was a huge success and the paintings sold out. It was during the same year that Volpi gave up oil paint adapting instead tempera paint whose opacity became a hallmark for his most well known work.
In 1950 he first traveled to Europe to participate in the 25th Venice Biennial and spent time in Italy, where he was captivated by Giotto frescos from the 14th century. It is only after his return from Europe that Volpi gradually moved toward abstraction in a series of naïf compositions that straddle the figurative and the abstract. It was through his depictions of façades and banners that Volpi began to experiment with a different spatial organization of the canvas, one that was in line with the reigning constructivist tendencies. In 1953 he won the Best National Painter award (he shared this prize with fellow painter Emiliano di Cavalcanti) at the 2nd São Paulo Biennial. He was later invited to exhibit at the First National Exhibit of Concrete Art in 1956.
The 1960s are generally considered to be his most fruitful decade. Fachada is an exemplary work from this time, depicting the thematic, technical, and chromatic variations that are immediately recognizable as Volpian. Rather than represent a façade, the artist breaks it down into its essential modular parts, prioritizing a composition that relies on the playful repetition and interaction of forms and colors. His signature treatment of tempera on canvas, make visible the layered brushstrokes, declaring the presence of the artist's hand against the dominance of an industrial and mechanical aesthetic often favored by other concrete artists.
Elena Shtromberg, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah
1 Vanda Mangia Klabin, Seis perguntas sobre Volpi (São Paulo: Instituto Moreira Salles, 2009), 10.