Visiting the celebrated Brazilian artist Candido Portinari on the eve of his death in 1962, the Italian art critic Eugenio Luraghi noted a remarkable shift in the outlook of his distinguished friend. “Portinari told me how much he admired scientific progress and the most recent discoveries in astronomy, physics, robotics, computers,” wrote Luraghi. “He was delighted with the progress of (his son) João in his difficult studies at the Sorbonne and expressed his suspicion that science had supplanted art, given that the most intelligent people were being absorbed by research and scientific discovery. Thus the evolution of painting, where everything had already been done, was coming to an end, without a future.”
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As if to confirm that deathbed prophecy, the scientific method permeates the spirit of the non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Portinari legacy. Founded in 1979 by the painter’s son and former math professor João Candido Portinari, the Portinari Project sits in some deceptively antiquated digs in the basement of an old manor on the campus of the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). The project can count itself among the frontrunners in international efforts to apply the developments in information technology to the preservation and dissemination of humanity’s artistic and cultural heritage.
Who says so? IBM, for instance. The US multinational tabbed the Portinari Project, along with the Vatican, to showcase its new Digital Library Technology, designed to effectively catalogue and cross-reference images, text, audio and multimedia content. Plus the University of California, Berkeley, and Cambridge University – two among the dozens of institutions that have hosted talks by Prof. Portinari. The Portinari Project uses cutting edge Israeli fine art digital printing technology to produce “replicas” for traveling shows that seem worthy, at a distance, of Hans van Meegeren, the famed Vermeer forger. Speaking of forgeries, the Portinari Project has been co-sponsoring unprecedented research into the use of artificial intelligence to detect forgeries at the PUC-Rio campus in Rio de Janeiro’s southern district Gávea.
The Portinari Project is about to mark a milestone. With the centennial of the painter’s birth looming in 2003, it is preparing a commemorative Catálogo Raisonné listing all of his works. Both print and CD-Rom editions are planned; when broadband technology gets up to snuff, an Internet version may become available.
The Portinari Kid
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, the only son of Brazil’s best-known artist could never be just plain old João. When he and friends would meet strangers, the typical introduction would go: “This is Paulo, this is Pedro, and this is Portinari’s son.” “Ever since I was a kid, I had to live with this pressure,” recalled João.
To escape the paternal shadow, João looked outside his home for role models. A French physicist named Pierre Lucie had married his mother’s sister. Young João became fascinated by his uncle’s magical calculations. By the age of 14, he was fully immersed in the world of mathematics. Four years later, João left Brazil to continue his studies in France.
At the public liceu where he enrolled, the working class students knew nothing of their colleague’s father. João Portinari finally could be just plain João. This anonymity followed him as far as the United States and MIT, where he earned his PhD in a remarkable two and a half years.
As part of a university reform in 1967, the PUC-Rio invited João Portinari and three other U.S.-trained scholars to found its first ever Mathematics Department. The department opened the next year with Prof. Portinari as chairman. The PUC’s graduate math programs soon earned distinction, with students moving on to complete their studies in places like Berkeley and Princeton.
Like many expats when they return home, Prof. Portinari began to dig for his roots. Some had been paved over by the military dictatorship’s steamrollers of propaganda and censorship. Add to that the fact that he was still stinging from defending Brazil against its international reputation – one of irresponsibility, samba, Carnaval and soccer – during his decade abroad. “I started to think about Portinari [as he refers to his father], but not as before,” he said. “I thought of him more as a symbol of Brazil that I wanted to revive.”
At the same time, disinformation about Candido Portinari was emanating from some unexpected sources. Portinari numbered among the sundry artists and intellectuals - including writers Mário de Andrade and Carlos Drummond de Andrade and architect Oscar Niemeyer – who had accepted support or commissions from the 1930-45 strongman government of Getúlio Vargas. An influential school of art historians began to brand Portinari an apologist for that authoritarian government. Cited as evidence of his ideological guilt was the content of certain works – for example, “Tiradentes,” which recalls the execution of a 18th century anti-colonial republican leader known by that name.
Yet “Tiradentes” – again, for example - dated to 1949, four years after the demise of the Vargas dictatorship. Whether by virtue of shoddy scholarship or intellectual dishonesty, facts were being tweaked to fit preconceived theories. Like any good scientist, Prof. Portinari wanted empirical truth to stand for itself. “I wanted to do the research that would provide the original sources to future generations,” said João.
The Art of the Scientific Method
Candido Portinari’s 1962 funeral procession featured Brazil’s artistic, intellectual and political elite (notably an incongruent triumvirate of ex-President Juscelino Kubitschek, Communist leader Luiz Carlos Prestes, and the anti-communist Governor of Guanabara (now Rio de Janeiro) state Carlos Lacerda). But when the time came to resurrect the memory of the man whose murals adorn the walls of both the United Nations General Assembly and the U.S. Library of Congress, artists and politicians looked the other way. When Prof. Portinari approached the federal government’s National Arts Foundation, an official told him to come back in a few months: “We’re out of forms.” He thought: “I’m going to stick to my own neighborhood.”
That neighborhood was the scientific community. Initial seed money came from a federal agency that funds scientific and technological research. “This project was born on campus,” he said. “The people who helped me didn’t know me as Portinari’s son but for my work.”
Art historian Christina Gabaglia Penna signed-on as technical director, and in 1979 the project embarked on an extensive effort to identify, catalogue and photograph the nearly 5,000 works that Portinari produced during his career. Such endeavors are not unprecedented in the art world, but the Portinari Project distinguished itself for its systematic methodology. “The humanities do not have the same kind of rigor as the hard sciences,” said Penna. “What you have here is a reflection of João’s personality and his training in mathematics.”
Eventually all paintings were cross-referenced with some 25,000 documents – including 130 oral history interviews, 3000 letters and innumerous newspaper clippings collected by Portinari’s wife Maria. Said the Portinari Project’s manager of information technology Luiz Tucherman: “Over these 22 years, the researchers have read everything. I think this is unprecedented. This methodological approach permits us to do rich cross referencing.”
Prof. Portinari scoured his contacts in the scientific world in search of technological fixes. One endeavor involved early efforts to digitalize photographs of paintings. Even with the best technology available, the quality of slides will deteriorate. Colors change over time. Though scanners were not yet commercially available and the personal computer was in its infancy, Prof. Portinari pursued digital solutions to storage and reproduction. An old colleague from their student days in Paris, Jean Paulo Jacob – today perhaps Brazil’s leading futurist - had landed a gig as a researcher at IBM. In 1982 Jacob helped figure out a way to do a test scan of a painting called “Bumba-Meu-Boi.” A year later Prof. Portinari traveled to the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) in São José dos Campos, São Paulo state, to see if the technology used for digital satellite images could be applied to paintings. Amid great fanfare and press coverage, the painting “Baile da Roça” got scanned with space technology.
Another groundbreaking effort to harness technology in the service of art is the Brushstroke Project. It represents an attempt to apply artificial intelligence technology software to distinguish between the brush or color pattern of a painter and the “false” patterns used by forgers. Called Autoclass, this program is used the U.S. space agency NASA to classify stars, Autoclass is adept at identifying patterns that human beings might miss. Research is being carried forth by George Svetlichny, a Princeton-trained physicist who teaches in the PUC-Rio math department.
Ever since it managed to slip a much-needed Macintosh past authorities during the notorious market reserve that stifled Brazilian information technology in the 1980s, the Portinari Project has valiantly tried to keep abreast of advances in data storage and management. Yet when Luiz Tucherman left IBM to join the project as IT manager six years ago, some data was not yet computerized and the rest was split between two mutually-incomprehensible platforms. All this data had been compiled and reviewed by project staffers, but little could be readily searched and retrieved. Thanks to a partnership with IBM, everything got migrated to the Digital Library Technology platform. “The most important thing is that we have a consistent, correct and cross-referenced data bank,” said Tucherman. “I don’t know any other archives with this kind of cross-referencing.”
Counting grants and in-kind donations, some $10 million has been invested in the Portinari Project, estimates its director. But since the early 1990s, little if any public funding has been available. João Portinari tried to turn the project’s expertise and assets into marketable commodities (in the form of a graphics company and licensing deals), but he ran aground of bad timing and bad partnerships. At one point, he took out a loan, using as collateral a collection of works bequeathed to him by his father. The loan went bad, and he spent years digging himself out of debt.
But João, ever the optimist, isn’t discouraged. “I’m a college professor, and I don’t have a very good head for business,” he said. “But I’m learning.”
Licensing could be the answer to the project’s funding problems. A bad business deal meant that the project saw little money, but Portinari Licensing has supplied images to over 100 products during the last three years. Deals have been made with such Brazilian corporate blue chip names like cosmetics firm O Boticário and t-shirt maker Hering, and the foodstuffs multinational Nestlé. João Portinari has restructured the operation and hopes that the project can be at least partially funded with those revenues. When purists complain that he is blemishing his father’s image, João pulls out a pair of Portinari ties that were sold by the menswear firm Oggi during the 1951 Christmas season. “He wouldn’t mind,” he said.
Another possible sources of revenue may be the project’s expertise in digital image cataloging and warehousing. There have been some moves in this direction, but project officials prefer not to divulge the details.
If our story were to stop here, the project’s achievements would seem impressive but academic and, frankly, empty. But the goal of the Portinari Project is to disseminate the artist’s work as wide and far a field as possible.
Valuable Portinaris are scattered all about Brazil and the world, and museums can only commandeer originals for shows at great cost and for very limited periods of time. To achieve its aims, the project had to call once again upon digital technology.
The project found state-of-the-art fine art digital printing technology at an Israeli company called Scitex that could produce what it calls “replicas.” An advanced printer called an Iris 3047 Fine Art uses four tubes that lay down six million tiny drops a second. It made eight identical collections of 45 “replicas” – faithful reproductions – each.
Thus the Portinari Project has been able to take the art to shantytowns, prisons and – using riverboats – to far-flung regions of the central wetlands region called the Pantanal. Organizers always tell visitors that they’re viewing reproductions, but the explanation isn’t always accepted. “Sometimes people don’t believe it,” said Suely Avellar, the project’s cultural director, who accompanies many of the exhibits. “They think we’re trying to fool them because the paintings are so valuable.”
While adults are welcome, the focus is on school children. Some 450,000 kids have attended the 76 expositions thus far. Computers generally accompany the shows, and children are invited to use graphics programs to intervene in Portinari originals. The most common addition is to the painting “Futebol,” depicting a pick-up soccer game. At the beginning of the 20th century, poor immigrant kids like Candido Portinari didn’t have goalposts on their soccer fields in rural Brodósqui. Urban kids can’t help painting adding them in 2002.
Asked what his father might have thought of all this, João Portinari paused for a moment and said: “I think he’d be fascinated.”