Art in Pernambuco, Brazil: Vitalino and Brennand

If you ask about influential artists from Pernambuco, Brazil, you’ll likely hear the names Vitalino and Brennand. But despite both hailing from the same region and working with ceramics, they couldn’t be more different. I’ve just had the chance to check out the work (and museums) of both.

Mestre Vitalino was the first to create the figurinhas (figurines) that are synonymous with northeastern Brazil. The colorful, beady-eyed, orange-clayed figures have become the region’s modern-day folk art–the kind that would seem to have a much longer history. Vitalino was only 6 years old when he modeled his first figurine–an animal–and his art eventually expanded to include soldiers and musicians, then doctors and lawyers. Vitalino would’ve been 100 years-old this year on July 10th, although he passed away at the age of 54 in 1963.

I visited his former house in Alto de Moura, Caruaru; a modest four-room house made of–what else–clay. Made by–what else–Vitalino’s own hands. It’s there that one of his six sons, Severino, welcomed me to what’s now the Museu do Mestre Vitalino. Severino is also a clay artisan (it runs in the family); one of the 1,000 in Caruaru. I left the museum wondering what it was like for a man who lived a poor and simple life to eventually have his work featured in the Louvre.

Although Francisco Brennand’s gallery is just as antiquated–it’s in an old sugar refinery–the artwork inside is not. (He’s so with the times, in fact, that he’s displaying a huge Obama banner outside.) The son of an artist, Brennand started out as a painter (often depicting himself as the wolf in the Little Red Riding Hood fable with semi-clothed protagonistas). But what he’s most known for is his work as a ceramic sculptor.

His art that’s displayed at Oficina de Ceramica Francisco Brennand–more than 2,000 ceramic pieces, from sculpture to tiles–is often abstract and erotic, sometimes broken but intentionally left that way. Outside is a sculpture fountain with nods to both the female form and Salvador Dali’s work, and a sculpture garden designed by the landscape architect Burle Marx. Not a stranger to controversy, Brennand has been known to buck the system through his art, like figuring statues of soldiers in opposition of the military rule of Brazil’s past (from 1964-1985). As an artist who’s appreciated in his time, at 82 years-old, he’s coming full-circle and beginning to return to his painting roots.