March 27, 2002, Wednesday
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
ARTS ABROAD; From Brazil's Backlands, a Master of a Folk Tradition
By Larry Rohter (NYT) 1326 words
BEZERROS, Brazil -- For an artist whose work has been exhibited in the Louvre and the Smithsonian Institution, José Francisco Borges labors in humble surroundings. His studio occupies a corner of a
drafty adobe warehouse that has crumbling walls, smells of printer's ink and lies just off a dusty highway here in the arid interior of northeast Brazil.
Then again, nothing about Mr. Borges's background is conventional. After dropping out of school at 12, he was an herb seller, a bricklayer, a farmhand, a carpenter and a potter before discovering woodblock
prints, the medium that has made him one of Latin America's most celebrated folk artists and his simple workshop a magnet for collectors and curators.
Working with just a knife and a chunk of wood, Mr. Borges proves that ''low-level technology often yields very powerful, moving and sophisticated results,'' said Marion Oettinger, director of the Nelson A.
Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. ''Thanks to Borges and others like him, the popular graphics tradition is alive and well in Brazil in a way that you don't see in
From Dürer and other European artists of the Renaissance to Hokusai and Hiroshige in Japan, woodblock printing has an honored place in the history of art. Early in the 20th century, Picasso, Munch and
others helped revive and extend the form.
The woodblock prints of northeast Brazil began as an offshoot of a folk art known as literatura de cordel, or string literature. Since the 19th century, unlettered folk poets have roamed the remote backlands of
this region, which is larger than Alaska and home to 50 million people. They recite elaborately rhymed verses about real and imaginary events and characters, like the Mysterious Peacock of folklore, and sell
the same poems, transcribed, to an attentive peasant audience.
''That's how I started, hawking my poems at markets and fairs,'' Mr. Borges said in his workshop, which is dominated by an old-fashioned hand-pulled press and whose walls are decorated with the hand-carved
woodblocks he uses to make his prints. ''No one ever taught me how to do that, but I've got more than 200 cordel titles to my name, and I'm still writing them.''
Originally the prints illustrating the poems were small and used only as covers for the poets' chapbooks, which vendors hung from lines of rope. But in the 1960's Mr. Borges and others realized that a market
was developing and that by enlarging their black-and-white prints to folio size or larger, they could have a freestanding art form.
At first, sophisticated Brazilians in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo regarded the regional prints, called xilogravuras in Portuguese, with disdain. Now, though, such works are increasingly valued, both in
Brazil and abroad.
''Whether dealing with sacred material, local politics, culture heroes or folklore in general, the perspective these artists offer is something really special and wonderful,'' Dr. Oettinger said. ''These are vibrant
artists who work confidently and purely and remain true to their subject matter.''
More than a score of woodblock artists, most of them concentrated in the northeastern states of Pernambuco and Ceará, practice the form. But Mr. Borges, 65, ''seems to be the star who has risen above the
rest,'' said Barbara Mauldin, curator of the Latin American collection at the Museum of International Folk Art, a branch of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe.
''His sense of composition is superb, and his imagery is bold, with such a strong and informative narrative message, one that is very humorous and lively,'' she added. ''My whole house is full of his prints. He is
just fabulous, a genius really.''
Mr. Borges's appeal is evident just from the whimsical titles that he often gives his bold, naïve prints, which sell for less than $20 at his studio here but can fetch hundreds of dollars at galleries in the United
States, Europe and Japan. His subjects range from slices of local color, like ''The Hillbilly's Honeymoon'' and ''The Goat Herder,'' to fanciful images like ''The Woman Who Put the Devil in a Bottle'' and ''The
Monster of the Backlands.''
''I carve what I see, not just legends and imaginary things that come to my mind, but also scenes from daily life or working in the fields, things that are linked to religion or society,'' Mr. Borges said.
As befits a folk art, woodblock printing often attracts entire families. Mr. Borges's brother Amaro and cousin Joel are also highly regarded masters of the form, as is his adopted son, José Miguel da Silva.
''I always wanted to learn,'' Mr. da Silva, 39, said of the art. ''It seemed so beautiful to me, and now that I do this for a living, I love it even more. But I still consider myself my father's pupil.''
Mr. Borges speaks especially highly of an eccentric, retiring poet and artist named José Ferreira da Silva. (He is not related to Mr. Borges's son.) Using the name Dila, he consistently turns out brilliant and
disturbingly apocalyptic prints. Seeming oblivious to worldly concerns, he barely ekes out a living by running a small print shop in Caruaru, a market town 25 miles west of here.
''Dila is unique in many ways, considered by traditional collectors to be someone very, very special,'' said Candace Slater, author of ''Stories on a String'' (University of California Press) and a professor of
humanities at the University of California at Berkeley. ''He is a dreamer whose imaginative life is totally caught up in a vision of the Northeast that is populated with heroes and outlaws. He is like van Gogh
when he gets on a sunflower kick, and you can't get him off it.''
Mr. Ferreira da Silva, 64, admits that he is obsessed with Lampião, a Robin Hood type of bandit who was hunted down and killed by police in 1938, and Padre Cícero Romão, a priest who lived around the
same time and is now regarded as a saint.
''My work is full of strange and frightening things, but I am a religious man, and so I believe in dreams and signs,'' he said. ''That's how the ideas come to me. The themes are always the same because that is
what people want to buy.''
As its popularity grows, the woodblock print art form continues to evolve, sometimes to the discomfort of collectors. Mr. Borges now makes multicolored prints and has recently begun working with marble.
He also does illustrations for books and is stamping his designs on T-shirts.
The medium also continues to serve practical purposes. A recent exhibition of northeastern woodblock prints at a museum in São Paulo included record album covers, newspaper advertisements, logos for
businesses, political campaign posters, labels for beer and soft drinks and fliers for restaurants and taverns.
Much of the innovation in the form is coming from a younger generation of artists, including Stênio Diniz, Francisco Correia Lima, Hamurabi Batista and Erivaldo Ferreira da Silva (who is not related to the
other da Silvas mentioned). To the experts, these artists' activity suggests that the woodblock print tradition is likely to remain fresh and vital.
''The younger artists live in a hybrid world, and their work reflects an amalgam of styles,'' Dr. Slater said. ''They have taken art courses, and they are in no way ignorant of who Picasso is, but at the same time
they are drawn to traditional themes like the Mysterious Peacock and Lampião. I take a long view: their work remains immediate and deeply felt because the creative force and energy is still very much there.''
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