Artist

Mestre Vitalino

Mestre Vitalino
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Biography

Mestre Vitalino
[Vitalino Pereira dos Santos]
1909, Ribeira dos Santos - PE / 1963, Caruaru - PE

Vitalino was born in vicinity of Caruaru and died, poor and famous, at 54 years of age after contracting smallpox. When he was nine he would pick castor beans and cotton on his father’s farm. He learned from his mother how to make “pretend earthenware”, miniatures that he would sell to children at the market. From these little creatures he moved on to composing separate figures with the piece O caçador de onça (The leopard hunter). And then to the groups of figures that portray life of the peasant’s farm work in the countryside until his exile, in portrayals where the migrants from drought adapted to his dramatic, sympathetic and Expressionist language. He also recorded life’s events – birth, marriage and death – and created from the clay mythical figures of outlaws, oxen, and werewolves bleeding men. After the growing popularity, both local and national, of his innovative work, exhibited and sold in the market, he moved to Alto do Moura, in Caruaru, the second town in the backlands of Pernambuco. Urban scenes, such as doctor and dentist consulting rooms, amusement park, and a radio station were added to his theme. Vitalino was a religious extrovert man who enjoyed life, and liked to chat with his public in the market, drink with his friends and play in the band of the fife players. This communicative happy behavior, in contrast to the hardships of his material life, is reflected in the groups of Homem foliando samba (Samba reveler), Violeiros (Fiddlers), Queda de braço (Indian wrestling), Banda (Band), showing how the artist enjoyed being in the world among people.

He began painting his compositions with natural pigments, from different hues of clay. He next used industrial paints, but since this was expensive, began to deissolve pitch in kerosene and add the commercial enamels for orders from public with a higher purchasing power and continued to sell to his regular pals in the market the figures that had been treated with his pitch preparation, so that they too had a chance of buying them. Lastly, he left the small sculptures in the natural clay color, due to the pressure from an outside market interested in giving a more “rustic” and “pure” look to the master’s production.
Vitalino’s painted phase shows how he considered color not as a decoration but as an element integrated to the volume, accentuating the dramatic aspect of the figures by dosing and selecting somber tones, broken by white and red stains. His authorial trademark appearing in his work accompanies both the change in the expansion of his awareness and being an artist as his career in the market of the urban universe. The first single figures are not signed. Later he would write his initials V.P.S. in pencil on the back. It was as late as 1947 when he began using a stamp with these initials, and finally in 1949 printed his name on the compositions.

A ceramist school was created around him. “Vitalino being the inventor, see?” said Zé Caboclo to Hermilo Borba Filho and Abelardo Rodrigues (1967). The master developed what we would call a style, in which his “Expressionism” is revealed by a formal cast of his own, as his great biographer René Ribeiro (1972) commented: ears always like an interrogative; the knees bent at right angles in the seated figures; mouths clear cut but reserved; noses tending to be turned up. Vitalino was a familyand brotherly man, and would transmit to his colleagues in the profession his new technical achievements, and let them watch him working. And he also learned from them, such as, for example, the wire used internally to support the figures, invented by Zé Caboclo. As mentioned in the introduction, it was the exhibition organized by Ausgusto Rodrigues in 1947, in Rio de Janeiro, which put Vitalino in the limelight. Then another individual exhibition was held in the São Paulo Art Museum. After that “the inventions of dolls motif”, Zé Caboclo would call them, were now regurlarly appearing in the pages of newspaper and magazines, and he became nationally known. Poets Manuel Bandeira and Joaquim Cardozo, for example, wrote about Vitalino. His work was widelyaccompanied by social scientists from the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation in Recife, where he is today very well represented in the Museum of the Northeast Man. The Castro Maia Museums in Rio de Janeiro also have a remarkable collection of his small sculptures, and have held regular exhibitions to disseminate it. The National Fine Arts Museum in Rio de Janeiro has many of his pieces, such as Boi e Onça (Ox and leopard). The Casa do Pontal Museum with the Jacques van de Beuque collection also. The National Coordination of Folklore and Popular Culture of Iphan, which safeguards and preserves a collection of the master, inaugurated a gallery with his name in his honor. In 1988 Lélia Coelho Frota published the book Mestre Vitalino, a study on his life and work. In 1995 Paulino Cabral de Mello published Vitalino, sem barro: o homem (Vitalino, without Clay: the man). Of Vitalino’s six children – Amaro, Manuel, Maria, Antônio (who died young but managed to do good copies of his father’s work), Severino, Maria José -, only the first three continue with his art. Today, his grandsons Silvio, Vitalino and José work in the trade. In Alto do Moura, Caruaru, considered by Unesco to be the top center of figurative art in the Americas, one hundred and seventy families today earn a living as ceramists.

Little Dictionary of the Brazilian People’s Art – 20th Century, by anthropologist and poet Lélia Coelho Frota




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