Sitting in my office a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Brazilian artist Antônio Henrique Amaral. We’d never met in person, so this Skype conversation–a discussion in which I found the artist to be generous and witty with a keen sense of the absurd–was our first and, sadly, last. Amaral passed away April 24 at age 79, something of a shock to his family, friends, and loved ones. A key work in the Walker’s International Pop exhibition, Amaral’s painting Homenagem séc. XX/XXI (20th/21st-Century Tribute) (1967) combines a graphic Pop palette with a forceful political statement and a heightened sense of the basic drives that underpin human psychology. These last come from Amaral’s engagements with advertising and surrealism, both areas that understand the visual triggers that can shortcut to various human emotions and desires: the gaping mouths and frenetic tongues of a military general spew forth rhetoric against the backdrop of a US flag.
Brazilian art of the 1960s was extraordinarily vital, developing from the country’s avant-garde movements of the 1950s and early 1960s. The decade began with the opening of Brasília, a modernist capital city built in just five years. By 1964 a coup installed a military dictatorship, and by December 1968 a period of intense censorship scattered Brazilian artists across the globe or forced them to adopt less public forms of art-making. Amaral is perhaps best known in a US context for his large, near photorealistic paintings of bananas, which he pursued from about 1967 to 1977. In addition to being wonderful paintings, they were also a pointed critique of the military dictatorship, inferring that they were turning Brazil into a banana republic. This body of work is perhaps one of the preeminent examples of the ways artists contend with climates of censorship and repression while eking out a contingent space for critique. A viewer of Amaral’s works could have no doubt of their motives, yet as he told me, “They can’t censor bananas.” Amaral’s long career encompassed work in multiple media, including–as with a number of other Brazilian artist’s in the exhibition–a foundation in woodcuts. His work post-dictatorship took on more interior subject matter, forms of lyrical abstraction with a subjective and personal feel. In 2014 Amaral was the subject of a major retrospective at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.
We’d like to share some of that conversation with this important artist. Here he begins by describing the context from which the painting 20th/21st-Century Tribute emerged. Co-curator Darsie Alexander and I, together with colleagues here are the Walker Art Center, extend our sincerest sympathy to the family and friends of Antônio Henrique Amaral. May he rest in peace.
The 1960s was a very turbulent decade all over the world, and Latin America was no exception. We saw political turmoil all over the continent, with military coups and forced regimes in Brazil, Argentina, Chili, Paraguay. These were all countries where young people were struggling with the situation, because none of us accepted this military rule. The military agenda was not in our interest: it was repressive, there was censorship. We were all at that time under military dictatorships, and my painting illustrates that, the General as a universal idea of military force, of military intervention. This work is from 1967, and our military coup was in 1964. There were troops on the streets. It was a regime of exception. Also at that time in my private life I was undergoing some important changes. I was divorced, and I had to support myself and a daughter. I worked for Grant Advertising, an American advertising agency in São Paulo. By night I made my drawings and my artwork. So I was completely schizophrenic at the time. In ’66 I changed my life: I left the advertising world. I had been a copywriter and PR rep; I never made art within advertising because I didn’t want to use my graphic skills in service of advertising. I didn’t think there was much merit in that. I had guilty feelings with regards to working in advertising, as everybody who is in advertising has guilty feelings. Everyone wants to be an artist, but we all have to make money.
At that time in Brazil, politics was the most important thing happening. Pop culture was in the air, and many artists were considering information we received about Pop art that came from England and the United States. This had an influence on the work of many–including, perhaps, myself. This painting we’re talking about is very flat and very explicit, like one finds in advertising, in commercial communication. I wanted to sell ideas. But visual culture was a kind of a universal thing in the air, you know? With popular culture, of course, our relationship with the United States was much closer than with any other country. Not only in that period, but still today. American culture has a great presence in all manifestations of culture in Brazil. So Brazil was more close to the United States than to England for instance, but in the beginning of the ’60s England had a certain influence via English Pop. After that came the big presence of Americans like Warhol and Segal who were very popular here and very present in all the media of the art world. Many American Pop artists were featured in the 1967 São Paulo biennial.
The American flag is in the background of the painting because the United States at that time didn’t have a very sympathetic image, internationally speaking–because of Vietnam, because of some support that the American government was giving to the dictatorships. So it was kind of an ambiguous situation. America had this sympathetic image throughout the country via Hollywood movies, the press, and the arts, but politically had a bad presence because it was supporting the regime.
When I made the work, the “blah-blah-blah” of advertising was a very strong presence in my head. As an artist I wanted to discover my language, what I wanted to say in my paintings and my drawings and my woodcuts. And so the “blah-blah-blah” was one of the things I kept with me, and I made a complete one-man show in ’67 of all these mouth paintings: generals with mouths, figures with mouths, a big mouth on the telephone. It was the “blah-blah-blah” that communicates, and at the same time does not communicate; it creates problems for communication.
In effect, it was combining advertising and the language of propaganda. Advertising tries to give information, but at same time induces people to buy, to [participate in] a consumerism that is sometimes not good for the people. Advertising is only a commercial weapon to force people to consume, right? So it’s good and bad for the human being as everything in life. I was impressed by these dualities.
The work was shown at Galeria Astreia in São Paulo, my first real painting show (I had been making woodcuts for ten years before that), and it caused great tension and criticism in the press. It had a certain impact on the moment because much painting in Brazil at that time was very well behaved: landscapes and very sweet sentiments and so on. And then come these mouths screaming at everybody, and then later the big bananas… very strong and enormous bananas. The work was something very absurd: at the same time pop and surreal.
But I was learning how to paint, and many people said, “Oh, you learn to paint through the banana, through mouths and tongues?” And I would say, “Yes, we learn with everything.” I used oil paint and palette knifes. I started with some sketches and, because my formation was graphic with woodcuts and drawings, I started painting in a very graphic style.
Antonio Dias was a contemporary of mine; he is a friend. He lived in Rio and I lived in São Paulo, but we were in touch, participating in several group shows at the time. We were part of a loose group of artists who pursued a form of new figuration. Abstract art was having an impact at that time, but there was a group of artists in Rio and São Paulo that was using figurative and explicit images that were direct, strong, crude even.
I titled the painting 20th/21st-Century Tribute because it was about the emergence of American power. It was the beginning of the American era–the US taking over after the Second World War and becoming the big power of the 20th and 21st centuries. For me it was obvious that the United States was becoming a sole power. Not that we predicted the fall of the Soviet empire, but it was obvious that the politics of democratic rule in America would open doors and be much more accepted by everybody in the world than other kinds of repressive regimes; that was my personal impression.
I get at the duality of our relationship to the United States at the time in another painting, Good Neighborhood (1968) which features a banana with the American and Brazilian flags. It was a famous political goal of the U.S throughout Latin American to achieve a “good neighborly presence,” so the painting points to that. Meanwhile the Brazilian flag has “Order and Progress” inscribed on it in Portuguese, so I changed that to the oil company ESSO to emphasize the great influence that America had financing the military regimes in Latin American.
My banana paintings had an impact because the image was so unusual. There were no leaves or stem to the banana. It was only the banana [laughing]. There was no landscape of banana plants; it was just the banana on the plate with the fork and the knife, you know? The banana was born as a gesture, a satirical approach. Because what did the military dictatorship do in Brazil? In 1964 Brazil was an optimistic place with the building of Brasília, for instance, and a vital automobile industry. We had a kind of a future, and suddenly the military transformed us into a big banana republic! It was something I wanted to show sardonically. It was subtle. I was not going to jail–forget about that. Because it was ridiculous to censor bananas! [laughter] It was something that they wouldn’t dare. It’s like, “Why are you censoring this painting?” “Because it’s a banana.”
So I put them in a situation. In 1971 I made a big show in Washington, DC in the gallery of the Pan-American Union exhibition room. A military attaché, General Montanha, from the Brazilian embassy, came to me and said, “But tell me Antonio, what do you mean by this banana painting? What are you saying here?” I used a lot of coded art language: I said, “This is about the experience of language; I am researching language,” and so he gave up talking to me because he wasn’t understanding anything.
In some ways the repressive attitude to the arts by the military in the 1960s and ’70s gave force to the work of artists–it was a very rich period of creativity. The pressure on us all was a very good stimulus to make work. … It was bad but good at same time [chuckles]: out of pressure one can create something. It was a leitmotif. After that we didn’t have anymore motive. So we had to search in our own interior in our subjective world. That’s what happened to me: after I closed the banana period in ’76/’77 I started to look for some interior images. I stopped working with realistic images and I gave myself freedom to just go on searching with no single direction. I became more lyrical and more free in a way.
“When I made the work, the ‘blah-blah-blah’ of advertising was a very strong presence in my head. I made a complete one-man show in ’67 of all these mouth paintings: generals with mouths, figures with mouths, a big mouth on the telephone. It was the ‘blah-blah-blah’ that communicates, and at the same time does not communicate.”