Guerra e Paz {War and Peace}

In 1952 the Brazilian government commissioned artist Candido Portinari to create a painting as a gift to the United Nations building in New York. From that year until 1956 Portinari worked to complete a pair of incredible and grandiose paintings entitled, respectively, Guerra and Paz or War and Peace. Each work stands 14 meters tall by 10 meters wide, creating presence not only in their stature but also bearing the weight of their powerful emotive qualities. Portinari’s work offers not only a reminder of the desperate hysteria of war but also a hope that is plausible rather than one glittering in the light of a utopian dreamworld. What endures in this work and generates its power is its simultaneous presence in the past and in the future, its tactility bringing the two together into a vision of reality that is present.

Pablo Picasso “Guernica” 1937 O/C 349 cm × 776 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 in)

When in the presence of these two works one can easily bring to mind Picasso’s Guernica in comparison to Portinari’s War painting. At 3.5 by 7.8 meters Guernica is overshadowed by War in size, but War also has a certain specificity that lends itself to having a greater emotional impact. In Guernica the figures are distinguishable but visibly distorted in the cubist style, the body parts disjointed, the faces in unusual shapes, the fervent separation with realism taking the viewer with it in a step away from the reality of war. In Portinari’s version of War one can feel a sense of the artists determination to place on display the very real effects of war on those left behind in suffering and in loss. In the multitudes of figures depicted almost all are on their knees, hands either raised in appeal for mercy or an end to pain, or hands covering faces whose eyes can’t force themselves open to see what remains after the storm. One even senses that this is not a story of the aftermath of war but of the presence of war in the lives of the innocent. There is terror, agony, and a plea for an end that is unimaginable.

Candido Portinari “War” 1952-1956 oil on marine plywood

In the heightened sense of despair that overwhelms one’s vision in the presence of War, the viewer is compelled to seek solace in Peace, Portinari’s second of the pair. In Peace the artists’ brush renders images of contentment and joy in the everyday. There is no heavenly atmosphere or otherworldliness about this work. Portinari offers the viewer an idea of peace that exists in the play of children, in the beauty of music, and in one’s closeness to the earth as a sustainer of life. The images are of everyday people hard at work and hard at play. There are farmers with hats to block the rays of the sun and children on swings and doing headstands, there is a choir of people of every race and color. Each image is both hopeful and realistic at the same time. In contrast with the pain and suffering opposite, Portinari suggests that peace is available in each of our own realities, and that it lies in our contentment with ourselves and others and in our ability to laugh to sing and to work.

Candido Portinari “Peace” 1952-1956 oil on marine plywood

As a person who has stood in front of these two pieces I have to say that it is an incredibly moving experience. Whether the emotional impact had to do with the sheer size of the works, or the power of the narrative and dialogue between them, or the simple fact that I’m a girl and girls are emotional I don’t know, I would guess a combination of the three. The fact remains, however, that I was distinctly caught off guard when I entered the room at the Latin American Memorial in Sao Paulo. I am only somewhat abashed at admitting that I very nearly let a few tears fall upon seeing these two paintings for the first time. Their physical presence quite literally stopped me at the door and I no doubt inconvenienced my share of patrons who couldn’t have anticipated my sudden halt in the entryway. I may have even been in the middle of a sentence to my companion who I proceeded to completely forget about for the next ten minutes. I gaped, completely shamelessly, with glossy eyes that betrayed my firm desire never to be caught teary-eyed in public. For a while I just stood there, unable to move or to even close my mouth. Eventually that dramatic stasis was broken by my body’s simple rotation in space. I must have made eight full spins before my bodily control was released back to me to the extent that I no longer looked insane or mildly dangerous. What is so striking and effective about these works is their ability to absolutely stop a person in their tracks. There is no question of, “please look at me” in Guerra e Paz; its like something takes over your body and brain and forces occupation. It would be inconceivable for any sane person to simply walk past these two paintings with apathy. As works that normally reside in the UN building in New York I think that there could hardly be a better or more striking reminder of both the consequences of war and of the bliss of peace as an attainable reality.

Following Guerra e Paz’s brief return to Brazil (it underwent restoration while the UN building was simultaneously being renovated) the paintings will travel to the Grand Palais in Paris, the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, Japan, the Municipal Auditorium of Oslo (where they will be exhibited during delivery of the Nobel Peace Prize), and finally the Museum of Modern Art in New York before returning to the UN.

for more info (mostly in Portuguese, sorry)…

Guerra e Paz: Projecto Portinari 

Fundação Memorial da América Latina 

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