Marks and memories:
Almir Mavignier and the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro
Lucia Reily, José Otávio Pompeu e Silva and collaborators
Almir Mavignier and the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro
José Otávio Pompeu e Silva
Periphery of Rio de Janeiro, year 1946: during these postwar times, Brazil was experiencing a wave of democracy. A young employee at the asylum presented himself to Nise da Silveira who had recently resumed her duties as a public servant after almost a decade in hiding. After her period of incarceration, she had remained off the radar in the interior of Bahia for many years, afraid of political persecution. A young man of humble background planning on following a career in art approached her about establishing a painting studio for the asylum patients.
The young man’s name: Almir Mavignier. In the catalogue Mavignier 75 (Mavignier, 2000), the artist reports he was born on May 1, 1925 in Rio de Janeiro and, at the time, his family lived on Souza Cruz Street, in the neighborhood of Tijuca. He was born to Margarida da Silva Mavignier, from Maranhão, and Melchizedeck Eliezer Mavignier, from Paraíba, who was a cargo ship captain of a Brazil Lloyd shipping company (Amaral, 2000). Almir was the youngest of five children. His brothers and sister were Walter (lawyer), Delmar (physician), Gladys (she studied at the normal school to be a teacher) and Nilton (civil servant). Almir Mavignier went to middle school at the Colégio Vera-Cruz and graduated from Rabello High School in Rio de Janeiro. After finishing mandatory military service, he applied for a post at the Bank of Brazil; he also applied to study architecture, but was not successful in either objective (Amaral, 2000). In 1945, he landed a job as a typist at the National Department of Coffee, but he proved to be unsuitable for the job. Public examinations for government posts and bureaucratic jobs were not meant for this young man who as a teenager defined his vocation would be art; being an artist was the goal he endeavored to achieve.
In several interviews, Mavignier stated that he was not self-taught. His first formal course was in drawing live models at the Associação Brasileira de Desenho. From 1946, he studied under Arpad Szenes, Axl Leskoschek and Henrique Boese, three European teachers living in Brazil.
It was in the context of these courses and in drawing and painting lessons that he met Ivan Serpa, and also Ubi Bava (Amaral, 2000). Abraham Palatnik, on the other hand, was presented to Mavignier by Renina Katz several years later, when Palatnik’s family came back to Brazil after having lived from 1932 to 1947 in Tel-Aviv, Israel. Newly arrived, Palatnik began to participate in collective showings, where he exhibited his work and met a generation of young Brazilian artists (Osório, 2000). Mavignier, Serpa and Palatnik were very close and they established ties of friendship at an important time in their formative years in the visual arts world.
Regarding the early years of the painting studio at the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional, Mavignier reports that at the beginning he worked in the bureaucratic services sector of the hospital. In his eagerness to find a way to develop his art, after witnessing a party that had been organized at the Occupational Therapeutics Section, he proposed to Nise da Silveira –the psychiatrist who had set up several workshops there–to begin an art exhibit or painting studio. The psychiatrist agreed and told him that she had not done anything along those lines up to that point because she didn’t know anyone prepared to carry out the task; there wasn’t an employee available that could take on studio activities. At that point, Almir Mavignier was transferred to the new Occupational Therapeutics ward, with the support of Paulo Elejalde, the hospital superintendent (Mavignier, 2004).
When he was 64 years old, on one of his rare visits to Rio de Janeiro, from whence he had moved away to set up residence in Germany in 1951, Almir Mavignier (1989) offered his version of the beginning of the painting studio in 1946, when he was a young 21 year old:
My encounter with Nise was a very good one, because I needed her and she needed me. I came to work at the hospital because I needed a job that did not have long hours, like regular 8 to 6 jobs, and the hospital hours here at that time were, I think, from 10 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, which gave me time to work afterhours as a painter, because I was a painter and I wanted to paint. Now, I came as a dayshift employee, a dayshift handyman, basically to calm the patients, to work in the wards, and since I had a high school degree, Paulo Elejalde, who was the superintendent at the time, didn’t want me to do this; he said “he cannot calm the insane, he doesn’t have the stamina for that.” So I just calmed myself, because there was nothing to do all day long. Until I saw a party organized in the therapeutic ward, the praxis-therapy section, and there was a doctor in charge, and that is when I had the idea of asking if she was not also interested in setting up a painting studio [emphasis added].
Honestly speaking, deep down, I wanted my own studio, because I did not have the kind of idealism that you have today. I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I asked Nise if she wasn’t interested in starting up a studio, and she said: well, I have been waiting a long time for someone who can do that.” So we understood each other perfectly, and she got Paulo Elejalde on board and he gave his support, he let us use all that area on the ground floor level of the hospital and we began working. The relations between Nise and myself were the best possible, because she taught me, she instructed me, she told me how to work with the people, about how not to influence them, not to meddle with anything, how to just give them technical orientation. She thought it was a good idea if I painted as well, and not acting like an inspector that is observing the mentally ill, who is directing them and watching over them like an attendant. So we started working (Mavignier, 1989).
Mavignier’s intention was to work with painting and Nise da Silveira had already read about the use of painting in treating psychiatric patients, and she knew of the work Ulysses Pernambucano and Osório Cesar had done. So, the contact between them enabled them to create the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro that was inaugurated on September 9, 1946 (Funarte, 1980).
Almir Mavignier, who had a very outgoing personality, began inviting artists and art critics to see the work early on. His first visitors were friends and young artists such as Ivan Serpa and Abraham Palatnik. They accom panied Almir on visits to the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro on weekends, and that is when they came into contact with the visual production of the patients that had begun working at the studio with Mavignier. “The studio participants did surprising work that contributed to a fascinating environment of admiration and respect.” (Mavignier, 2004).
When he highlighted in his statement: “Honestly speaking, deep down I wanted my own studio”, Mavignier revealed his desire to produce art anywhere he could. The place open to him at the time was inside a psychiatric hospital. In 1989, Mavignier was explicit about the motivation behind his decision to begin working at the painting studio:
I’m sorry if I’m destroying your illusions. I didn’t intend to come to great conclusions and I didn’t think about occupational therapy. Nothing like that was on my mind, it was completely different. I only thought about one thing: a job where I would have time to paint; if possible, a studio at the workplace would be ideal (Mavignier, 1989).
Mavignier reported that at this time, he lived in Vila Isabel, a working-class neighborhood renowned in the history of the carioca samba and the place where Noel Rosa, the great composer, was born. His family did not have any means and young Almir had to find a paying job to maintain himself and to help him continue his professional development (Mavignier, 2006). In order to pursue a career in art, Mavignier would have to overcome barriers in accessing the art world, he would need a place to produce art and he needed to find the right people to teach him. In the following account, Mavignier tells about his initiation into the art world:
Actually, I have never told anyone this before, I never wrote this, but my first remembrance is from middle school, I was the drawing teacher’s assistant. At Vera-Cruz middle school. I helped the teacher, I mean, when he couldn’t teach the class, I taught in his place. The second contact I had was painting postcards and some pictures I later found out were good Italian paintings. Eventually, I decided, I knew I had to do something useful, purposeful. I had to do something to make money. Not painting or art, a problem that all young artists face, how to live off of art? (...)
I knew an architect, Ubi Bava. He was an architect and a teacher at the Escola de Belas Artes [School of Fine Arts]. He scheduled an appointment with me and I took a portfolio of drawings. He said to me: “before you show me what you are doing, I have a question: when you draw, what do you feel?” “Well, I feel something very, I don’t know, I’m fascinated...” “Ah, that is it? If that’s how it is, you are talented.” From this question and my answer, he told me I was talented. “Yes, so now show me your work.” This was something fantastic that I used with my own students as well, when the issue of talent arose. The moral of the story is that if a young artist has pleasure in his work, if he has passion, he has talent. If there is no passion, there is no talent. That gave me strength to devote myself (Mavignier, 2006).
Ubi Bava’s observation about talent being connected to passion for painting was pursued by Mavignier when he selected the participants of the Painting Studio at
Engenho de Dentro, as he looked for patients that manifested the desire to paint. He looked up the Benedictine monk, Dom Gerardo, who was well known in Rio as a friend of the arts. He said to young Mavignier:
“You need a teacher, a good teacher. In Rio, we have three painters: One is Portinari, the other is Leskoschek, and the other is Arpad Szenes. Let’s go, there happens to be a vernissage, an exhibition at the Ministry of Education. So let’s go, let’s go together. The first that we meet will be your teacher.” And we went together and we met Vieira da Silva, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva and Arpad Szenes (Mavignier, 2006).
An aspect that I would like to highlight that seems to be an important element in Almir Mavignier’s life is “chance”. Dom Gerardo proposed that the first artist they were to encounter among Portinari, Leskoschek and Szenes was to be Mavignier’s teacher. The young man didn’t think twice, he followed his destiny and, in the section that follows, he recounted his meeting with his future teacher, Arpad Szenes.
And Dom Gerardo talked to him and Arpad Szenes didn’t agree; he needed money, he had to live here, they couldn’t afford to do charity; they had come from Europe after the war etc., etc. They made money from rich students. I could not pay anything at all. So he told me to go to the International Hotel, because he wanted to get to know me better and Vieira da Silva said: “no... take the young man. He’s a very pleasant young man.” So it was because of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, an exceptional painter. A very important painter–Portuguese. And she convinced her husband, Arpad Szenes to be my teacher. So you see those four paintings, those three I did at Arpad Szenes’s studio, with complete freedom. But those were my first (Mavignier, 2006).
Another characteristic of Almir Mavignier is his capacity for creating a network of contacts that opened up opportunities for him. That is how he started working at the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional at Engenho de Dentro.
Now, in order to study art, only art, I had to work to make money, but it had to be at a job that gave me time to paint. There was a neighbor who worked at the Praia Vermelha psychiatric hospital [the old Hospício de Pedro II]. And she told me: “Look, there is a vacancy for a dayshift employee, a warden, to calm the insane, at Engenho de Dentro. You won’t make much, but the shift is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m..” Well, the working hours were fantastic. I showed up there. Paulo Elejalde, the director, saw me: “Fine, but a little too skinny to calm the agitated insane. But O.K., O.K. Anyway, you start and then we’ll see.”
(...) Even back then, I knew how to find the right people. (...) I noticed a party going on at the service for occupational therapeutics, with an embroidery exposition, women’s embroidery. The women did embroidered crafts, they held a showing and sold their work–handicrafts that were meant to occupy the patients (Mavignier, 2006).
At this time, the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional was a psychiatric hospital complex. During the years between 1946 and 1951, patients of the hospitals participated in art activities at the collective studio, supervised by Mavignier. According to his statement, painting activities were also carried out with children with disabilities that came to the Engenho de Dentro complex, but he was mainly in charge of the adults. He set up his own studio in a room next to the large art room. While the others had to stay in the common room, one person was allowed to share the privacy of Mavignier’s studio with him: Emygdio de Barros, who had been a lathe machinist in the Brazilian marines before he was admitted several years earlier to the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional.
In Figure 3.3, a scene of the everyday life at the studio is portrayed. Mavignier explained that from left to right, the first person is Isaac Liberato, the fourth Emygdio de Barros, the fifth Vicente, painting a mural, and the last would be Abelardo, painting a canvas. Abelardo also liked to go as Autin.
As in other hospitals, such as Juquery, the studio was not open to any person indiscriminately. A very few were invited. Mavignier, who had never worked before as a monitor or as a painting teacher, developed his own criteria for inviting “colleagues” to the studio. First, he looked for patient artists, that is, people who had had previous training or who had a background in art before they had been admitted to the hospital. That is how he found Raphael and Adelina. In the early days, the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro was limited to the painter Almir Mavignier and the colleagues he invited.
So I started walking. I went into the courtyards and looked at all those people, naked men and women, sweltering heat, that kind of thing. I observed: “that guy looks like an artist [emphasis added], that guy
doesn’t” something completely crazy, stupid, but that is what I did, reading people’s faces, maybe there is one there... I mean, one can also read a certain sensitivity, it’s written on their faces, and that’s what I looked for. One time I went into one of the wards, it was very clean, spotless, because the courtyards were full and the wards were well kept. That was the philosophy and the concept of the caretakers. So I asked one of the nurses: Do you know someone here who paints? [emphasis added].” (Mavignier, 1989).
In Mavignier’s accounts one notices the intuitive criteria he used to choose the participants (“reading people’s faces”) and criteria related to previous artistic background (when he asked about those who already produced artwork). Looking at the quality of the work of those that aimed to paint and express themselves–be it on the walls or even on squares of toilet paper, Mavignier chose the participants that were to share the painting studio with him. Other criteria included the desire to paint, that meant to Mavignier that the person had artistic talent.
In 2004, Mavignier answered questions in an email interview;
at the time, I was working on my master’s research project. He explained how he conducted the selection of the first participants in the painting studio. according to patients’ records, looking for them in the courtyards and in the hospital sectors, by chance, by intuition. Chance led me to discover talents and chance could also conceal talents that were left undiscovered. There was no selection because it was about therapy (Mavignier, 2004).
In another email posted on October 14, 2006, Mavignier added to this account:
Chance led the bookbinding monitor Hernani Loback to discover Emygdio. He did this for his bookbinding section, the proof is on page 47 of a book he is brousing: there is Emygdio with no interest in participating, which was the reason they took him to the painting studio, which happened even though Nise da Silveira had not suggested it. The monitors had a degree of freedom to act for themselves. However, it was not chance that uncovered Emygdio as an artist. This time, it was my own experience in painting that led me to recognize in Emygdio’s first watercolors and oils a chromatic potential similar to impressionist paintings. I knew immediately that I had before me a great painter. What distressed me, though, was to imagine that there might be other painters “waiting” for chance. To state that these artists existed at this time in the hospitals is more likely than to say they did not. They remained unknown (Mavignier, 14/10/06, e-mail).
At this early time during the search for the patients that might take advantage of an opportunity for artistic expression, Mavignier used subjective criteria. He found the Engenho de Dentro painters by drawing on his intuition, chance, and information from caretakers and nurses who indicated patients that might be interested in drawing.
It is interesting to follow Mavignier’s account of his encounter with Carlos Pertuis, guided by a hospital attendant:
“There is a madman here, and under his bed he fills a box full of toilet paper squares with strange things drawn on them.” It was Carlos Pertuis. So he said: “Don’t you take him away from me, because he is a good worker, he’s very good, efficient, don’t take this man away from us.” So I saw the boxes with the fabulous drawings on toilet paper, variations of fruit transformed into faces... I made one of these drawings into a poster for the exhibition at Zurich, an exhibition of the Center. So, Carlos was a fact (Mavignier, 1989).
The way Adelina was found also shows how the search for artists–or people with manual skills–inside the hospital was carried out (Mavignier, 1989):
Very well, there was another hospital here. So I looked for another patient there and I was told: “Yes, there is a woman here who makes dolls. Yes, but she is very aggressive, quite dangerous; you are taking a real risk with her.” That is exactly what sparked my interest. “And why is that?” “Oh, she mistreats everyone, she beats up her colleagues etc.”, and he showed me her dolls. And her dolls interested me greatly [emphasis added]. That was Adelina. So I saw her: huge, fat, threatening features, and everyone said “she is aggressive.” I said, well, this woman needs someone, she needs kindness, delicate contact, caring etc. So I went to pick up Adelina with my hat on, Nise, maybe she remembers, she saw me from a distance. It was raining. I brought Adelina in protecting her with my hat, with an umbrella [emphasis added]. That must have won over Adelina, that’s what delighted her, she laughed a lot and walked around with a balloon. She would laugh. In the courtyard, she sat down, she was a gem, never did anything, wasn’t aggressive at all, she always went to work, she would laugh, she was charming, with great interior beauty, Adelina. Well, that was Adelina... (Mavignier, 1989).
Nise da Silveira had had contact with Adelina: on one occasion, after several visits to the hospital ward where the patient stayed, she offered her cheek and was promptly acknowledged with a kiss. So, Nise had already realized there was a docile side to Adelina and she may have suggested that Mavignier seek her out (Silveira, 1990).
Mavignier gave the following account to Cristina Amendoeira at the time of her doctoral dissertation:
She went there every day, not to paint, she went to work. She worked, because work could be sculpture, painting, modeling...
My contact with her was resolved from the start, there was never a problem, she was sweet, docile, very friendly, sometimes she would smile, she was always occupied, I knew I didn’t have anything to worry about. For Emygdio, I was obliged to give him big empty canvases for him to learn how to finish, to finish his experiences, and to start again on a new canvas. For Adelina, that wasn’t the case, it was right there on paper: Adelina would carry on, and she also painted in oil (Mavignier, 2005).
In Mavignier’s description, we are able to pinpoint one of the aspects that Nise da Silveira discussed later in her writings: Adelina’s aggressiveness. In the film No reino das mães, directed by the filmmaker Leon Hirszman in partnership with Adelina Gomes between 1983 and 1986, Silveira points out the difference between the views of psychiatrists and employees that observed Adelina at the painting studio and in other occupational therapeutics activities. Though Adelina was described in her record as aggressive and dangerous, she was always pleasant and calm during the many years she attended the painting studio.
During the same interview, Mavignier stated that he didn’t remember how Fernando Diniz showed up at the studio. We discovered that the psychiatrist Alice Marques dos Santos,1 one of Nise da Silveira’s true allies, referred him to the studio in 1949.
In Almir Mavignier’s interview recorded in 1989, Gladys Schincariol read a statement by Fernando Diniz about the time he had spent at the studio under Mavignier’s supervision:
“I was with Mr. Almir for a year, I was learning things. As time passed, he would be smiling, already. He liked his students very much: Isaac, Adelina, Carlos, Raphael, Brasil, Geraldo, Quintanilha, Alicia. He only liked those students. Then I arrived like: ‘no room for you’; but then he became friendly–‘come closer young man; no one is the boss, this is public’, and he bought everything there. ‘Look, this is my studio here, come see my picture, everyone belongs. I win the greatest awards; you can win awards as well.’”
“What about you, did you like Mr. Almir?” “Well, Just a smile means everything to me. If it hadn’t been for the monitor, there wouldn’t have been the organizations, they set everything up. Mr. Almir said that painting was a profession too, he was the teacher. At the end of the year 52, Mr. Almir went on a trip to be a professor at a university in Germany, a very good thing, too. He said: ‘I’m going, but I’ll be back to visit all of you every year’, and he came every year. Now, this year, he came again to see us. It seems like the same day back in 52.” (Mavignier, 1989).
Fernando Diniz recognized Almir Mavignier as a teacher, a title he achieved only after he crossed the Atlantic at the end of 1951; his career as an important figure in the Hochschule für Gestaltungat in Ulm, Germany was many years in the making.
In the 1989 interview, he also mentioned how Isaac Liberato came to the studio in the company of a woman. He became interested in the piano and went over to play the instrument:
marvellous music, somewhat impressionistic, he laughed, and then he began making brushstrokes, that was Isaac (Mavignier, 1989).
Isaac Liberato was admitted to the hospital in the company of his mother who followed him closely at all times. Many years later, Nise da Silveira carried out a series of studies on images painted by Isaac that symbolized relationships between mother and child.
Mavignier told about a special feature of one of the other patients, Vicente, who painted a mural:
Then Vicente appeared, and he was a man who was very [keen on painting]... Not as much as Raphael, he wasn’t so deeply involved, but he started painting. He made that gouache painting, a waterfall, people bathing, which was a scene he had actually witnessed in Bahia, he had seen it, he told me he had seen it. And I realized that he had possibilities as a painter, which was my advantage there; as a painter, I was able to foresee and I felt he could do the painting. So I gave him a huge wall to work on (Mavignier, 1989).
This statement about Vicente’s painting of the large mural deserves further investigation. The wall might still exist at the old building and the work could possibly be rediscovered. The fact that a patient of a psychiatric hospital would be capable of directing other patients in creating a large mural, with figures that he elaborated is unparalleled in the history of artistic production of the insane.
Another discovery episode refers to Raphael. While researching his medical records, Mavignier discovered he had studied painting:
Next I looked for people who had studied painting earlier [emphasis added], which was a way of finding someone who had a background in painting. (...) So I read about one that had done art school I don’t know where, that was Raphael. He paints, he draws things no one understands, he draws and makes those stereotypical structures. That is how Raphael appeared (Mavignier, 1989).
Mavignier set into motion a veritable human archeological survey, researching into an enormous heap of patients deposited in wards, infirmaries and various sectors of the many hospitals that were part of the psychiatric complex that housed more than a thousand patients at the time. Even though the literature emphasizes that the focus of the work at the studio was primarily therapeutic and that there was no systematic selection of participants, the reports on the early period when the first group was constituted show that Almir was intent on looking for traces of artistic expression among his “colleagues”. He swept the pavilions and dormitories searching for hidden talents and a kind of intuition alerted him about the immense responsibility all this entailed.
Emygdio is an example of a patient discovered by chance. Hernani Loback, the bookbinding monitor, noticed that Emygdio might enjoy painting, because of the way he looked out “from the corner of his eye”. He mentioned this to Nise da Silveira, who answered with her usual sharp wit: “Interpreting the ‘corner of an eye’ is an advanced science, so take the client to the studio.” Thus was Emygdio found–who is deemed by Ferreira Gullar to be perhaps the only genius of Brazilian painting (Silveira, 1982, p. 67). Mavignier also reported that many patients sought him out because they wanted to paint, but “they were not comparable to the familiar names who wanted to work in painting. There was never a refusal [to accept anyone in the studio] for ‘lack of talent’. Those who know the collection will verify that there is a large quantity among the hundreds of artworks that are of psychiatric interest, though not artistically valuable.” (Mavignier, 21/10/06, by e-mail)
The one constant person at the studio was Almir Mavignier, who was there every day from eight o’clock in the morning to three o’clock in the afternoon, except on Sundays.
What was the daily routine at the asylum? For the fewer than 10% of the patients that went to the Occupational Therapeutics ward, there was work and expressive art activities to do. What about the others?
One can guess at the daily routine from the description of a patient that was transmitted in the media the same year Mavignier left for Europe:
A day of the [female] psychopath.
They wake at 6 o’clock. They have breakfast, wash up and get dressed (their miserable mixed thread dresses) and the morning is almost fully occupied by treatment. It’s time for doctor rounds and for application of electrotherapy, insulin, etc. Depending on the state of the patient and on the doctor’s prescription, they go to their occupations until 11:30, and then they eat lunch. They go back to work at 1 o ́clock. Afterwards, dinner at 5 o ́clock, when they are brought back into the sad infirmaries (Eneida, 1951).
Mavignier offered a more precise description; he said that he began his work at 10 o’clock, the sick arrived at 10:30 a.m. and stayed until 2:30 p.m., because at 3:00 p.m., a bus came by to take them back to their respective hospitals. Mavignier (2005) explained that, were it not for this schedule, “an artist such as Emygdio would have liked to go on painting until I don’t know when.”
In the painting studio, the materials were basic, according to Mavignier: water for gouache, watercolors and turpentine for oil paints. He showed the participants how to mix paints and how to wash the brushes. Paints and canvases were bought and he realized that he needed to provide ever larger ones for Emygdio, because he was aware of the importance and the quality of what he was painting.
I knew I had to help him, give him better materials. For Emygdio, I always bought larger canvases. (...) They were large because Mavignier the monitor was completely crazy and: “he’s a genius, we need better and larger materials.” I didn’t identify with the person, I identified with the importance of a painter, an artist. I told myself, this is a van Gogh. I need to do whatever I can to buy better canvasses, the best materials that I can buy. Buy paints, the same paints that I bought for myself. (...) But for those that did things, I gave them the best materials, of course. For Emygdio, I provided canvases, for another that was not Emygdio, I could not afford money for canvases, there wasn’t any money (Mavignier, 2006).
So Mavignier was unable to buy quality materials for all the studio participants. One can infer that the material was insufficient, since the monitor used creativity to enable the artistic expression of the studio participants. Evidence of this can be seen in some oil paintings on cardboard that required much extra work from the team that carried out the restoration and conservation of the collection. Another important aspect is that Mavignier learned some techniques with Arpad Szenes that enabled him to lower maintenance costs at the studio, by using water, vinyl and turpentine which Szenes had developed to circumvent problems that emerged during the time of the great wars.
In a letter dated June 29, 2004, answering an email with 10 questions, Mavignier reported that
Emygdio painted by himself, also in my studio, where the environment was quieter than in the common room. He painted “experiences” of his earlier life. He was a painter of remembrances that accumulated across the picture frame from left to right. Overpainting, he covered over moments of great beauty. On the large canvases, other paintings are buried underneath his pictures, which contributed to the pasty consistency of the surface. For an observer such as myself who was not supposed to interfere, I literally suffered actual pain, watching him cover over his work, so I gave him new canvases. He understood and started to finish (Mavignier, 2004).
Nise da Silveira’s therapeutic sensitivity complemented Almir Mavignier’s artistic sensibility. Nise told Almir not to interfere in the work of the Engenho de Dentro painters.
Often Mavignier took his patients to the gardens outside among the various hospitals that formed the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional, so they could paint in the open air. Also, he was able to organize transportation on several occasions for them to paint at touristic venues in the city of Rio de Janeiro, such as the Mayrink Chapel and the Tijuca Forest.
For instance, he and Palatnik took Emygdio to the Municipal Theater. Several days later, Emygdio painted the picture Municipal, in which he added old automobiles from his youth to the scene of the Municipal Theater set in the last years of the 1940s. He also took them to the studios of friends and teachers. An example of this is the time he took Raphael to visit the engraver Leskoschek at Santa Teresa.
This process enabled a dialogue in art to ensue among Mavignier’s young friends and the Engenho de Dentro painters. During this postwar period, the modern art of the vanguard had worn down and artists were seeking a language capable of answering to the new reality.
Afterwards, I took Emygdio to Ivan Serpa’s studio, and Emygdio said “Ah, this is how one paints nowadays.” Because I painted more or less like Ivan Serpa. We were both concrete-abstract painters, with geometric shapes. “How so, Emygdio?” He said “color against color;” he understood perfectly (Mavignier, 1989).
Ivan Serpa followed the activities that were carried out at the painting studio and sometimes he drew alongside the patients. Abraham Palatnik was introduced to Mavignier after he got back from Israel and he was so impressed with the production of the schizophrenics that he started visiting the studio every Saturday. I heard this account from Palatnik himself at his apartment on Pasteur Avenue, in Rio de Janeiro during an interview in 2003.
I know that when I arrived, I realized that that room couldn’t possibly be a studio. It was a very simple room where Emygdio, Carlos, Diniz, Isaac, Adelina, were working. I know that I was shocked, I was devastated, because, after all, they had not spent four years in art school, they hadn’t spent even a day, or an hour there. And what fantastic artwork, the density, the colors! And I started asking myself, all of my work was based on outside stimuli, and I realized that their work didn’t have anything to do with the outside, even though the works were figurative, but they came from within, it could only be the result of consciousness, there was a wealth of images, it messed with me...
I felt my castle come crumbling down. I felt that. And I don’t know... All of a sudden, I had this feeling that I had to abandon painting, I couldn’t paint anymore, it wasn’t real, it was all an illusion, because it was totally based on outside stimuli. (...) My conclusion: it had to come from within. Now, I was very young, I was 20 years old, my subconscious was rubbish, I had nothing to draw on from within. (...) With that decision, I abandoned painting, but I met Mário Pedrosa (Palatnik, 2003).
The feeling that hit Palatnik was amazement, uneasiness. This feeling of disquiet can lead an artist to formulate questions and it can make them look for new solutions. He actually contemplated abandoning painting and art.
Mavignier decided to take him to Mário Pedrosa’s home, and Palatnik presented his drama. With wisdom and understanding, Pedrosa laughed and said (according to Palatnik’s account): “Ah Palatnik, it’s not the end of the world. It is very important for artists to know other aspects of form.”
Hearing this, Palatnik realized that form was not such a simple issue. Pedrosa lent him books and recommended that he study the psychology of gestalt. This contribution helped him give a new meaning to what had happened. He decided to resume his artistic work, but he abandoned the style of representation he had learned in Tel-Aviv. Palatnik embraced other aspects of form other than figuration.
This decision led him back to his earlier experience in the field of mechanics and electricity–he surrounded himself with cogwheels, motors, articulations that began to move, objects that stimulated his creative process at that time. Palatnik decided to leave conventional painting behind. In his own words:
I discovered luminous color, light and colored shadow: projected color, making a shadow, another color illuminating the shadow, giving it a new tonality and movement, through cogwheels and articulations (Palatnik, 2003).
Using the gestalt theory, Palatnik concluded that everything in conventional painting was illusion. He realized that everything he had learned in the Escola de Belas Artes was a representation of reality, because of the use of colors and form that were meant to identify figures and movements. He made the difficult choice of renouncing illusions in order to dive into virgin and unexplored territory of using light in its raw state in artistic compositions.
After two years of research, in 1949, Palatnik created the Kinechromatic Device, a path finding experience in kinetic art in the world. The first Kinechromatic Device was named Azul e roxo em primeiro movimento [Blue and purple in first movement] and it was exhibited in the 1st International Biennial of São Paulo in 1951.
Another important issue was the time the participants at the studio spent painting and doing artwork. Different from the fragmented and accelerated time that we currently live in, the studio was a veritable collective workshop, where the participants spent long hours, sometimes for decades, producing and reinventing their art, in a daily and continuous work process. Carlos Pertuis produced over 21,500 pieces of artwork; Adelina, approximately 17,500 works.
In the introduction to the book Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente (Funarte, 1980, p. 13), Mário Pedrosa mentions a visit he made with Almir Mavignier to Raphael’s home, during a time when he had been absent from the painting studio:
With pleasure I cite the name of Almir Mavignier with whom I sometimes went to visit Raphael at his mother’s home, under the arches; after “work”, the whole family would go: Mary [Vieira], driving a Citroën, me, Almir and Raphael.
With the voracity of an artist, a thousand miles from the bureaucratic employee, Almir would barely arrive at Raphael’s mother’s house, he’d run and get the easel that he had providentially taken on another occasion, and he’d get the rest of the equipment; and then he would call Raphael, quite decked out in his striped pajamas as if he were on vacation at his mother’s house, completely engaged in mischief which his mother was quite familiar with, such as hiding the keys to the front door in the drinking water jug in the kitchen–and sit him down on a chair in front of the easel. I have already told some of these episodes about Raphael creatively at work, or better yet, at his post in front of us. He was jovial, he would get lazy, he complained about the heat, the stuffiness, he’d undo his pajama waistband and, finally, when he was good and ready, he would start working, but he would finish by giving indications that he didn’t want to continue, too tired.
Pedrosa didn’t comment on whether Mavignier used live models or still lifes to orient Raphael’s drawing; he merely highlighted the importance of creating freely. Nevertheless, today we know that Mavignier did propose models for painting, among whom, on occasion, were Pedrosa himself, Murilo Mendes, Palatnik and even Raphael’s mother.
In several segments of the interview Mavignier gave in 1989, he explained that he followed Nise da Silveira’s orientation on not interfering directly in the patients’ artwork, in order to enable them to freely express images of the unconscious. When recounting his work with Raphael, he disclosed that he didn’t consider that he was challenging the approach he was supposed to follow when he proposed drawing from observation the still lifes he had set up or drawing portraits based on live models.
In order to provide an outlet for the potential of the studio participants, he used different resources for each person: he knew what to do in order for Raphael to paint portraits and still lifes; he bought ever larger canvases for Emygdio to create his works, and so forth. Mavignier was faithful to the maxim he had learned at Engenho de Dentro and he used it during his life as a professor and artist: “my message about the importance of the works and of the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente is that the artist must seek to discover his own personality.” (Mavignier, 2004)
We found no mention in Silveira’s texts about the methodology she used in her orientation of Mavignier’s work. Nevertheless, she did recognize that after Mavignier went to Europe in 1951, Raphael’s artwork suffered a decadent period, and he returned to his earlier stereotypical forms and scribbles.
The position Almir Mavignier adopted in 1946 in the early days of the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro determined the later development of the exhibits and laid the groundwork for the creation of the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente. He took on the role of curator of the works that were produced in the painting studio, inviting critics, artists and professionals managing art museums to visit the studio. He sought the support of important figures of the art world, in order to widely circulate information on the pictures at the Engenho de Dentro studio.
The first exhibition opened in December, 1946, less than three months after the activities at the painting studio had begun, and it was held inside one of the buildings of the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional. Almir Mavignier participated in organizing the exhibition of works from the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro. Included among the works shown at the first exhibition were artworks by children, highlighting paintings by Wilson, that drew the attention of people such as Helena Antipoff.
The exhibition was a success and it generated so much interest in the media, especially because of the slightly sensationalistic article “Os loucos são pintores” [“The insane are painters”] (1947), published in O Globo, on January 9, 1947, that it was moved to the prestigious Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio de Janeiro. This was a modernist building, considered at the time a privileged spot in the city for art exhibits, as there was a specific area where art showings were held.
The exhibition was open to the public for almost three weeks (from February 4 to February 23, 1947). Mavignier (1989) reported that he met Mário Pedrosa in front of Raphael’s drawings at this 1947 exhibit of the studio’s artworks at the Ministry of Education and Health, and he promptly invited him to visit the studio. He mediated Pedrosa’s encounter with Nise da Silveira. This meeting changed the history of the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro. Pedrosa was a staunch defender of what he came to call virgin art.
Naturally, I was recording with great interest all who went, who looked, who didn’t look, who visited, that curiosity, what impressions would this artwork provoke outside. And there was a man squatting down, and there was one by Raphael and he was there, so I started talking to him, an intelligent guy and he was Mário Pedrosa. And thus our friendship was born, Mário Pedrosa and me, because of Raphael, Emygdio. He said, “ah you’re the one doing this... Fabulous, fabulous, fantastic. And where is this? Because I want to visit.” “Well then, please come, come visit... We are at Engenho de Dentro.” “I’m going to visit tomorrow.” So I said “look, Nise, tomorrow we are going to have a very important visitor who is an art critic, and he’s coming here, he’s very interested.” “Who is it?” “Mário Pedrosa.” (Mavignier, 1989).
Interestingly, when Nise da Silveira founded the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente, in 1952, Pedrosa was one of her great supporters. He was an intellectual and political activist who, in the 1930s, paved the way for Trotskyist thinking, going against mainstream Communist Party ideas at the time. Nise was deeply involved in the Communist Party during the 1920s and 1930s, for which she was incarcerated by the Vargas police force in 1936. Intellectual independence was a trait of Pedrosa’s personality and it was reflected in his innovative art criticism that challenged other dominant positions: he divulged the thinking of Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Max Bill and others, and he was a forerunner in Brazil of the studies of the psychology of gestalt applied to art. Mário Pedrosa offered a decisive contribution when he considered the visual production of the Engenho de Dentro painters to be on the same level as other artistic expressions of that time, such as expressionism, abstractionism and concretism. In 1995, the Museu de Belas Artes opened the Mário Pedrosa Gallery, based on a fraction of his ideas. When the great Brasil +500 exhibition was held in 2000, that aimed to reconstruct a temporary exhibit of the Museu das Origens3 that Pedrosa had idealized, one realizes how ideas he laid out still reverberate. The main idea of this museum is the preservation of artwork and national identity.
Raul Pedroza (1947), a renowned artist at the time, wrote an extensive article in the journal Ilustração Brasileira about this exhibition and on the Painting Studio at Engenho de Dentro. The repercussion was so favorable that the Associação dos Artistas Brasileiros requested another exhibition at the Associação Brasileira de Imprensa (ABI) that was held from March 24 to 31, 1947 at the institution headquarters, closing with a memorable conference by Mário Pedrosa with the title “Art as a Vital Necessity”. In this speech, Pedrosa recognized the presence of abstract art in Brazil. The speech was published in part in the April 20, 1947 edition of the Correio da Manhã (Pedrosa, 1947). The full conference was published in a book by the same name in 1949, at which time Pedrosa aligned the Engenho de Dentro painters with artists such as Calder and Kandinsky.
Pedrosa and other art critics wrote about the 1947 exhibition of visual artworks of the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional patients at the Ministry of Education and Health building, and later the exhibit at the Associação Brasileira de Imprensa. At this time, art criticism played an important role; every major paper had an art critic and columns dedicated to the theme. Pedrosa dared to look at the art of the Engenho de Dentro patients as related to modernity, in the transformations that were going on in artistic movements in the 1940s.
An important exhibition was held in 1949 at the Museu de Arte Moderna in São Paulo, later transferred to the Municipal Chambers in Rio de Janeiro. This exhibition was conceived on a different argument than the first, with Mário Pedrosa’s active participation in idealizing the event as well as in the selection of the artwork with Almir Mavignier’s collaboration.
In 1949, the Ministry of Education and Health held an exhibition of abstract paintings called Do figurativismo ao abstracionismo, MAM-SP’s opening exhibition. The Belgian critic Leon Degand, who was the first director of the museum, organized the exhibit, that assembled 51 artists with a total of 95 pieces, including five works by Wassily Kandinsky, and works by Alexander Calder, as well as three Brazilian artists, among them Waldemar Cordeiro.
Mavignier went to the opening with the purpose of inviting Leon Degand to visit the studio. Degan went to Engenho de Dentro with his wife, and, according to Mavignier, was quite impressed with the artworks. Mavignier reported his story in his 2004 correspondence; he explained that during the visit he suggested holding an exhibit of the works at his museum.
Degand promptly answered: “I do not hold exhibits of the insane, but rather an exhibition of ‘the artists of Engenho de Dentro”. That was how artists from the periphery were introduced into official places for art.
When Degand went back a second time in order to arrange the exhibition, he told Mavignier that when he had returned from his first visit to Rio in São Paulo, he had participated in a banquet in which he had declared: “I have just seen the most important artists in Brazil” (Mavignier, 2004). With this speech, he instigated the other guests who began to wonder which artists the renowned critic had discovered. Degand, then, surprised his guests, who were expecting a well-known name: “They are the artists of Engenho de Dentro, at the Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional.”
Back at Engenho de Dentro, Degand, Mavignier and Mário Pedrosa selected the artworks to be displayed. The task of giving the title to the exhibit went to the MAM-SP director: Nine Artists from Engenho de Dentro.
That is how this exhibition was organized by two internationally renowned critics. Sérgio Milliet added his support. In one of his articles, Milliet (1949) presented an interesting point of view. Comparing the Engenho de Dentro works with those produced at the Juquery workshop, under Osório Cesar’s supervision, he concluded that the aesthetic and artistic quality was quite distinct and he ventured that there had been a more refined selection at the Engenho de Dentro studio.
In the middle of 1949, Leon Degand had to return to France. Even so, the opening was maintained and the exhibition was inaugurated at the end of that year according to schedule.
While the exhibition was being held in São Paulo, one of the participants was lobotomized in Rio de Janeiro. Despite the recognition of the artistic quality of his sculpture and Nise da Silveira’s struggle to oppose this clinical conduct, Lúcio Noeman was submitted to a lobotomy and his artistic creation collapsed.
Nise da Silveira later wrote an article on the disaggregation of Lúcio’s personality and the deterioration of his artistic creativity. Two other studio participants were lobotomized: Laura and Anderson. The comparative studies that Silveira conducted on the artistic production before and after the lobotomy were mentioned by Iracy Doyle in her article “Egas Moniz e o espírito do tempo” and by Robert Volmat in the book L’art psychopathologique and in the article “La création et la lobotomie” (Melo Junior, 2005, pp. 106-7).
After being displayed at MAM-SP, the exhibition Nine Artists of Engenho de Dentro went to the Municipal Chambers in Rio de Janeiro with the support of the house president, the prestigious Jorge de Lima (1949a, 1949b), who wrote about the quality of the exhibition, with critical acclaim.
In Rio de Janeiro, the exhibition incited hot discussions on the quality of the works between the two most influential critics of the time. On one side, Mário Pedrosa talked about the importance of this artwork, and on the other Quirino Campofiorito aimed harsh criticism about their aesthetic quality. It is worth mentioning that in an earlier article on the 1947 exhibit, Campofiorito had praised the quality of some of the works, but in 1949, he had changed his mind, though he reaffirmed his respect for Nise da Silveira’s therapeutic efforts.
This discussion continued for over a month in the Correio da Manhã, in which Pedrosa wrote and in the Diário da Manhã, Campofiorito’s battleground. This polemic awakened public curiosity about the work and encouraged more people to become aware of the works and take sides in the debate. There was wide circulation in the media as other newspaper and magazine articles on the artwork and the Occupational Therapeutics Section. The articles in the press and the controversy–with opinions for and against–helped to draw attention to the Engenho de Dentro painters; from the periphery, at the asylum and featured in psychopathology conferences, this kind of media attention enabled this production to be seen as legitimate contemporary artistic production.
At the end of 1951, Almir Mavignier left for Europe looking for new adventures and new possibilities. His intention was to be away for one year with a scholarship from the French government, and to learn about European art. As the day of his journey approached, he found Emygdio de Barros and asked him:
“Well, Emygdio, I’m going to Europe. Do you want anything, do you want me to bring you anything?” and this guy said: “yes, a bottle of Chambertain wine [sic]...” (Mavignier, 1989).
To understand the context in which this trip was set up, and how he acquired a scholarship to go to Europe while maintaining his ties as an employee of the Engenho de Dentro hospital, it is helpful to listen to his account:
I did not leave Engenho de Dentro. I received a scholarship to study in France. My studies coincided; they were compatible with my situation as a monitor that was in the service to paint. Not with my level as an employee, but with my level as a monitor, yes. So I left with the scholarship. I spent six months in Paris, Italy, and then I got an extension on my scholarship, and that is where Nise’s great quality comes in, because she tolerated that, she didn’t just tolerate it, she sustained it (Mavignier, 2006).
Mavignier goes on to talk about how he felt before the trip and that the opportunity for going to Europe changed his life:
this trip opened doors for me. I was very raw, very raw, I still am. Someone who is born a savage stays that way. You don’t get better, freeze and go back to Brazil. Leaving Europe, I knew I could only stay six months; I had no money to live there. So later my scholarship was extended, but at that time, well, I couldn’t go back to Brazil without seeing the Prado. Without seeing Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, without seeing the museums of Italy. So I started going to see the museums, before returning to Brazil. Then my scholarship was extended. So before my extension was up, I started going to the museums. That’s what I did. Went to see the museums... (Mavignier, 2006).
After a season of going to museums, he worked in Paris as a painter and poster designer. Next he set up residence in Germany, where he studied at Hochschule für Gestaltung, in Ulm (Mavignier, Silveira, Cunha & Mello, 1994)
Living in Germany, he was invited by Nise da Silveira to set up the exhibition A esquizofrenia em imagens–displaying the Engenho de Dentro painters at the II World Congress of Psychiatry to be held in Zurich, Switzerland from September 1 to 7, 1957. The Brazilian exhibition, inaugurated by C.G. Jung on the morning of September 2 filled five rooms in which iconographical material was displayed organized by themes. The last room was devoted to Raphael’s drawings. Mavignier photographed Jung’s visit to the Brazilian exhibition at the Congress.
This exhibit was then transferred to the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich, where it remained from November to December, 1957. After that, it followed on to Paris where it was displayed at the Hôtel de Ville.
In conclusion, we present an episode that we consider to be especially significant to this study because it shows Mário Pedrosa’s tremendous involvement in the painting studio and also because it reveals the painter’s mischievous side. The artwork that came about as a result of this event is emblematic of the intense aesthetic exchanges of Mavignier’s encounter with art produced in the asylum setting. Mavignier reports:
Emygdio stayed at my house for a week, he came from the interior to Rio and he stayed by himself with my mother for a week. I mean, I had to work, so he kept to himself painting. So Mário Pedrosa said: “great, let’s try something out with Emygdio so, for instance: ask Emygdio to make a portrait of himself, a selfーportrait.” Well, a self-portrait is impossible, even for a person that’s normal. A self-portrait is a dialogue with oneself, so even if a person wants to do this, especially for someone who is ill, you can’t just say: “could you do your self-portrait?” That would be absurd.
And Mário, the great critic, had this absurd idea. So I said:
“Mário, I don’t think it is possible”;
“It is possible, you just ask him...”–something fabulous.
So I decided to make Emygdio’s pkortrait, and tell Mário that Emygdio was painting his self-portrait. I made a very good portrait, I still have this “self-portrait”, it is Emygdio. So I tried to use Emygdio colors, red and green.
Pedrosa was very anxious, he called me every day to find out how the portrait was coming along, and what he was doing. I said “fine, he’s working on it.” “And what colors is he using?”
“Well, his typical colors, blue and green and [red]...”
“Bring it, bring it.”
“I can’t, I can’t separate the portrait yet, it’s not ready.”
“But why not? I’ll go see it, then.”
“No, you aren’t going to see anything, because you will interrupt his subjective process of making a [selfportrait].”
And I kept egging him on, teasing him, and later, after some time, I don’t know, maybe ten days, I said: “Listen, Pedrosa, it’s finished” and
“Bring it, bring it.”
“I can’t bring it, because the paint is wet... I’m not going to take a wet portrait and mess it up.”
And the picture really was wet, and then it dried and I took the picture. Palatnik witnessed this, and I showed him. He jumped up and down:
“But what a beautiful portrait! It’s marvelous, oh, there is no Portinari, no Segall, nothing like it.”
And I asked him: “what about ‘what’s his name’?” “Ah, that idiot, he can’t paint.” “What about that one?” (...)
“Now Mário, you tell me, maybe you are too enthusiastic, look objectively at the portrait and tell me if it is a good painting.”
“Of course it is a good painting, you are just an idiot and you don’t know how to see a painting, but it is a good painting.” So:
“Look here, Mary”–his wife –, “look here.”
And Mary: “hum, is it Emygdio’s?”
And he said: “look, Vera, come here.”
And so Vera: “it is strange, but it is a good picture.”
So then: “look, Mário, you say this is the greatest portrait of Brazilian painting, can you put that into writing and sign it?”
“Well, then I have to thank you, thank you very much.”
“What do you mean ‘thank you very much’?”
“I am the one who painted it.”
“You are an idiot, you can’t have painted that!” Poor guy! That was the first time I [tricked him]. The portrait exists, it’s there with me (Mavignier, 1989).