Key to Portinari’s aesthetic project is a deep love of Brazil and its people—a driving force in his creation of a new national artistic style that would launch Brazil into the forefront of global modern art. He believed “Brazil needs to look at itself and stop imitating foreigners… Our nature and our people are full of surprises. Our people come from all races; our country has many different climates; distinct national characteristics…art should convey that restlessness, that strength of race, the Brazilian moment within humanity” (Cândido Portinari, quoted in João Portinari, op. cit., vol. V, p. 281). The ethos of antropofagia (translated to cultural cannibalism, the idea that driving Brazil’s culture was an impulse to consume its influences and create a new aesthetic borne of that fusion) that had governed the beginning of the modernist movement in Brazil gave way to a new social consciousness in Portinari’s art. In his masterworks of the mid 1930s-40s, he synthetizes the aesthetic vocabulary of modernism with thematic matter designed to “impact the artistic world according to a progressive ideal and within the social and economic conditions in which we live” (ibid., 284). His arrestingly powerful depictions of Brazil’s rural laborers and their families attracted global attention and skyrocketed him into a larger artistic arena in the early 1940s: by 1943, the year the present work was painted, Portinari had returned from an exceptionally successful tour of the United States, during which he sold important works to The Museum of Modern Art in New York and completed a mural commission for the United States Library of Congress.
In the present work, Baiana com crianças, Portinari depicts a baiana, a woman dressed in costume typical of certain women from the northern state of Bahia. The baiana’s traditional garments represent not only a blend of Portuguese colonial and West African influences; they also hold a religious significance. Baianas traditionally dress all in white as a part of the practice of Candomblé, a syncretic religion born in northern Brazil of the blending of deities and spiritual practices from several different West African religions with the saints and religious beliefs of Catholicism. Although repressed in Brazil throughout much of its history, adherents of Candomblé gained protections under the Vargas military regime (1930-45), as “the ideologies of national identity and the New State (Estado Novo) began to embrace Afro-Brazilians and mulattos as distinctive facets of Brazilian society and culture” (Clarence Bernard Henry, Let’s Make Some Noise: Axé and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music, Jackson, 2008, p.47). The baiana’s status as a symbol of the racial and cultural mixture that came to define Brazil’s identity in the 1930s and 1940s led her to become a national icon to this day. In 2005 Bahia’s baianas were declared intangible cultural patrimony.
Portinari depicts his baiana with extraordinary tenderness and lightness of touch; the brushy folds of her rosy skirt shimmering and the light playing across her softly smiling face and carefully wrapped hair. The jewel-toned dresses of the young girls at her feet sway gently as they reach up toward her, inviting the viewer into this intimate scene. Light diffuses from the bright sun behind her into a deep turquoise sky; the kite of a boy far in the background rises up toward the heavens just beyond the baiana’s head. The scene is universal in its poignancy, capturing the joys of childhood as fleeting as the early morning light dancing across the small family. Simultaneously, it is specific in its Brazilian-ness; Portinari’s baiana stands in for Brazil itself, nurturing her children of many races (clothed in the colors of the national flag). It is a hopeful portrait of a youthful nation, one that brings to life Portinari’s ambition “to paint, to bring to life … the mission that each of us carries inside” (Cândido Portinari, ibid., p. 297).
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