ROBERTO MAGALHÃES . CURATED BY FELIPE SCOVINO
This exhibition presents an overview of the nearly 60-year career of artist Roberto Magalhães (1940). His poetics is characterized by a distortion of the real, through which he makes us perceive how grotesque and yet paradoxically hilarious reality can be. The shapes of his characters, portraits, self-portraits, objects and landscapes appear dissolved, extended, contracted, funny and notoriously out of order. They are fictional characters and scenes that nonetheless construct a strong associative link with reality. In effect, there is no evident distinction between fiction and reality in his work; they blend together, even as they complement and feed off one another.
His art career began in 1961 when he attended courses at the National School of Fine Arts (ENBA) for three months on an auditing basis. There, Roberto got to know professor and artist Adir Botelho and was introduced to woodcut, a technique that provided a new path for his production. In 1962, he held his first exhibition, at Galeria Macunaíma. From then on, he received awards and participated in key exhibitions in the history of Brazilian art, such as Opinião 65 (1965) and Nova Objetividade Brasileira (1967). While still a young artist, he participated in the 4th Paris Biennale and the 8th Bienal de São Paulo, as well as various group shows abroad. His works from that period, including the woodcuts shown here, are characterized by graphic violence, with the increasing presence of monstrous beings in a taciturn environment – a reflection of the tension which then reigned in Brazil.
After winning a travel prize, in 1967 Roberto went to Paris, where he spent one year. When he returned to Brazil he found a country bearing the brunt of the oppressive Institutional Act #5 (AI-5) – an even more turbulent, violent and repressive place. He turned eagerly to occultism, Theosophy, and, above all, Buddhism. In the district of Santa Teresa, in Rio de Janeiro, he helped build the Meditation Center of the Buddhist Society of Brazil and resided there. He donated his material goods and suspended his artistic activity, not showing anything for six years. In October 1975 he wrote the text “Algumas considerações sobre a arte do futuro” [Some Considerations about the Art of the Future]. He positioned himself as a “mystic artist,” and, in an interview, argued that his production at that time “is not art in the traditional sense of the word,” and continued, “I only use the abilities I have to represent spiritual things in drawing. Because form and color in the traditional manner they are used in art have lost meaning for me.” From that moment onward, symbols such as talismans began to appear more intensely in his art, along with written passages from ancient treatises of alternative medicine, often in Latin.
The exhibition is divided into various zones, each reflecting an interest the artist has reflected in his art over the course of his career: the face as a space of dysfunction; masking; mysticism (and not precisely surrealism); imaginary machines and their absurd dynamics; and soft architecture.
Ministro do Tempo [Minister of Time] (1976) and Ninguém [No One] (2008) are works that represent the idea of dysfunction. In the former, the details of a man’s face are displaced by 90°, in keeping with the overall tone balanced between the uncanny and the comedic. In Ninguém, a man’s face seen in profile lacks eyes and eyebrows, thus revealing a state of blindness. Commenting on dysfunction – when, for example, the eyes no longer tell us clearly what is before us – is also an allusion to the times of violence, repression and fear.
Cidade do futuro [City of the Future ] (2017) belongs to the zone of soft architecture. What is tragic – twisted buildings – takes on a cartoonish air, depicting a world where no one ever suffers injury or death. The buildings may wobble but they do not fall. And the passersby in the soft city are totally unconcerned. Incoherence is an integral part of everyday experience in the big cities. We get used to what is irregular (aligned with the unreal or the fictional) without any awareness of doing so.
Roberto invariably resorts to the allegory of a fragmented body. The face formed by parts that convey an aspect of monstrosity in Homem estupefato com o caos do mundo [Man Stupefied by the World’s Chaos] (2017) is profoundly anonymous. Nothing is entirely revealed, in an atmosphere of uneasiness and euphoria. Abstração andante [Walking Abstraction] (2018) evokes the body of an imaginary creature made of a patchwork of parts. The body’s fragmentation alludes to a traumatic event, which, in the case of the artist’s work, is dealt with through a language steeped in acid humor.
Roberto’s recent works have headed off toward a fantastic and mechanical universe. In some, we see the choice of an industrial environment, with shapes set loose in space, creating their own rhythms, associating chaos with randomness. In recent years the artist’s work has reflected this ungroundedness, the choice to leave the forms floating as though they had a life of their own, associating the world of the machine to an organism.
His most recent production involves more than the theme of abstraction. Mutant animals, fantastic architectures and useless objects have often appeared, along with those linked to mysticism, as in O passado não volta [The Past Does Not Return] (2022). In a recent series of works in ink, the artist seems to return to the theme of his sculptures from the mid-1960s, like the large wooden revolver he showed at the exhibition Nova Objetividade Brasileira. Máquina fragmentadora [Fragmenting Machine] (2013) and Estrutura simbólica [Symbolic Structure] (2012) convey a sense of war and catastrophe, despite their playful mien. These drawings that lean toward annihilation inevitably allude to the harshness of contemporary life.
Roberto has constructed an autonomous place in Brazilian art, aloof to spectacularization and trends that would otherwise delineate a style for his work. The smile – a recurring element in his work – is converted into a sneer, often at himself, as we see in an extensive production of self-portraits. In the 1960s the smile was a powerful device for reflection on a society living under a regime of terror, and in the 1980s – when Brazil was beginning its return to democracy – the smile continued to be a weapon for raising awareness. And every comparison of those circumstances with the present time is fitting. Roberto’s work, and his jesting, therefore, move along this tightrope balanced between tragedy and the smile, violence and mockery.