Teachers of a modern generation
23 Feb 2021, 12:14 pm
On display in the pandemic-occupied São Paulo, two silent retrospective exhibitions cast light on the trajectory of two essential figures for Brazilian art: the Polish Fayga Ostrower (1920–2001), at Pina Estação, and the Rio de Janeiro-born Ivan Serpa (1923–73), in the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Each of the shows presents more than one hundred works in the different medias explored by the artists — drawings, paintings, watercolors, illustrations and engravings of all kinds. Although they had very different practices from each other, both thickened the same cultural broth of a generation that, from the 1940s and 1950s, continued to pursue the “novelties” of an increasingly international modernity, while opening more autochthonous paths for visual arts in a persistently conservative Brazil.
Ostrower and Serpa lived most of their lives in Rio de Janeiro and had a teacher in common at the beginning of their studies, the Austrian multi-artist Axl Leskoschek, who lived and worked intensely in the Brazilian capital after fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939. “Lesko lesko” brought with him a huge repertoire as an engraver, introducing a series of techniques with paper, wood and stone, classes on painting, drawing and composition, always immersed in poetics linked to expressionism. It was from there that the self-taught Fayga Ostrower opened up to the exercise of printed and abstract art, and so remained until the end of her life.
“Engraving interests me as an art form, only to the extent that it serves as a means to externalize an artistic vision. All technical or aesthetic problems for me relate to this point, and, therefore, before the engraver, I am interested in the artist, whose graphic action becomes expression.”
Fayga Ostrower (1957)
Not without resistance from critics and the public, who sought regionalism and social realism, the Polish-Brazilian artist played a fundamental role in repositioning printmaking within the arts, valuing its handicraft complexity and its reproductive character. The lines, colors, shapes and gestures preserved in their matrices and impressions safeguard a methodical and demanding performance — the numerical names of the works refer to the year of their making and the order number of the matrix — while the abstraction opened up to a deep and fearless lyricism. From applied and industrial arts, experimenting with the creation of prints on fabric and even with the composition of graphic posters, Ostrower was an artist absolutely modern and consistent with her principles.
Between 1954 and 1970, the artist taught at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, an institution that, at that time, was a creative hub with several teachers-creators working actively in the formation of a free and experimental artistic community. It was in this environment that many names of Brazilian art emerged and consolidated themselves, setting a varied theoretical and aesthetic stage for the national scene. Artist Anna Bella Geiger (1933) is the greatest living heiress to the lessons of Fayga Ostrower. Even after turning to the new figuration and the conceptual uses of new media from the 1960s, Geiger never lost a certain line of reasoning in her printing compositions, a characteristic that is reflected in an inverted sign, for example, in the countless drawers of iron with maps and diagrams she made in the 1990s.
From 1952, the same MAM-Rio had the young Ivan Serpa as a pioneer teacher and one of the main cultural agitators of this museum that was in constant construction. Both he and Ostrower had been awarded prizes at the I Bienal de São Paulo, in 1951. Serpa developed free courses for children and adults, carrying out the notion that modern art was not just a language, but an agenda for society. A whole group found in the artist an axis that helped to systematize and put into the world the modern geometric abstract program that marked the interest of many at that time. Together with some students and colleagues, Serpa led the “Grupo Frente”, a bastion of concretism that had lain its foundations in Brazilian art. Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Franz Weissmann and Abraham Palatnik would not be the same without Serpa’s influence.
From the Swiss artist Max Bill to the group of in-house artists at the Pedro II psychiatric hospital, coordinated by Dr. Nise da Silveira, there were many sources from which the artist drank. His artistic production spread through multiple research to the point of being classified as incoherent. However, Serpa preserved his own creative freedom by exhausting the possibilities of the mediums and themes that interested him. He experimented with rhythm and rigor with the geometry of concretism, mixed op and pop art, and even the moths in the National Library, where he worked as a restorer, taught him to work with paper and leave impressions that revealed his sensations about the technique. Serpa’s main figurative shift took place in the 1960s, with the establishment of Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship and the Vietnam War. His series “Negra”, or “Crepuscular”, as the artist preferred, gave rise to internal and external monsters.
“I can only paint what I feel.”
Fayga Ostrower and Ivan Serpa never separated life and the world from their creations, immersing body and soul in the issues of their time. Their legacies highlight perseverance, courage and freedom as the main allies of an artist. For both, any and all artistic navigation, even when solitary or apparently individual, had the ultimate mission to reveal treasures to and from a larger collective.