by Arthur Valle (Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro)
In this post, I would like to present a work by the Brazilian painter Belmiro de Almeida (1958-1935), entitled Arrufos (Lovers’ quarrel, fig. 1), dated 1887. Described as “a domestic episode, a quarrel between spouses” (1) by Gonzaga Duque (1863-1911), one of the most important Brazilian art critics of his time, Arrufos has traditionally been compared to a painting by the French painter Henri Gervex, entitled Retour du bal (Return from the Ball, fig. 2). Gervex’s painting had been exhibited at the Parisian Salon of 1879, drawing the attention of art critics, notably Émile Zola, who described it as “a scene of jealousy between a woman in tears and a gentleman in a suit, nervously trying to remove his gloves” (2).
Arrufos is arguably a very sexist painting; but I think it deserves attention regarding what seems to be its ironic response to another form of domination – the one implicit in center/periphery artistic relations. Therefore, instead of stressing the evident similarities of theme and composition between Arrufos and Retour du Bal, here I would like to discuss Belmiro’s work as an example of how the circulation of cultural meanings between centers and peripheries does not usually lead to homogenization, but to a dynamic process of borrowings, reinventions and resignifications, often in the form of parody.
How Belmiro knew Gervex’s painting is a noteworthy question. Although it is known that Belmiro was in Paris between 1884 and 1885, I would argue that an indirect contact is more plausible. Reproductions of Retour du bal circulated in Brazil, especially as engraved versions published in European illustrated magazines (3). Notably, on May 5, 1885, an engraving based on Gervex’s painting (Fig. 3) was published in A Ilustração, a Luso-Brazilian magazine located in Paris, but whose main target market was the Portuguese-speaking public in cities like Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro.
Belmiro was well aware of the content of A Ilustração. In the mid-1880s, he became friends with the editor-in-chief of the magazine, the Portuguese writer Mariano Pina (1860-1899). On April 7, 1886, Belmiro addressed a letter to Pina that was accompanied by a drawing of his own, portraying the Brazilian sculptor Rodolpho Bernardelli (1852-1931), and an introductory text concerning the latter, written by Gonzaga Duque. Belmiro’s expectation was that both the drawing and the text would find their place in the pages of A Ilustração, as Belmiro declared: “For a long time I have cherished the idea of sending you a work for A Ilustração” (4).
But the publication of the engraving based on Gervex’s painting in A Ilustração may have been important for another reason: as the magazine had a significant circulation among Portuguese and Brazilian elites, Belmiro could be sure that the dialogue which Arrufos established with Retour du bal would not pass unnoticed by Brazilian audiences. Therefore, the existence of a previous established community of meaning may explain at least part of the success that Arrufos obtained in Brazil. The painting’s reception was very positive when it was first exhibited in Rio de Janeiro in August 1887; in 1888, Belmiro’s request that Arrufos be purchased by the Brazilian Imperial government for the gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Rio was accepted. Still in 1888, Gonzaga Duque would state that “hitherto a painting as important as this had not been produced in Rio de Janeiro” (5). The critic praised Belmiro’s “accurate understanding of his times and the objectives of modern painting” (6), which was expressed in his rejection of historical and allegorical subject matter and his choice of an everyday theme.
All this should not make us forget the ambivalence of the dialogue established between Arrufos and Retour du bal. Deviations are expressed in several elements: for example, Belmiro’s painting is more sober and restrained in its profusion of detail. More significantly, while the man in Gervex’s work expresses a sharper anguish, the man in Belmiro’s manifests superiority and emotional neutrality, as if indifferent to the woman’s distress. The alienation between the couple seems to be emphasized also by its composition, with its downward diagonal dividing it into two parts – one more decorated, associated with the woman, the other more sober, associated with the man.
These deviations remind “glosa” (7), a traditional form of Iberian poetry in which a poem develops a theme presented in the opening stanza of another poem, usually repeating one or more lines of that stanza. Thinking in terms of “glosa” is interesting here because it highlights Belmiro’s active role in reshaping the theme shared with Gervex. It also may be argued that Arrufos is a kind of parody of Retour du bal: what Gervex treats in a melodramatic manner, Belmiro reduces to the triviality of an ordinary quarrel.
Parody was indeed a recurrent strategy among Brazilian artists of late nineteenth century, especially regarding the reception of European genres and themes. Examples include another painting by Belmiro, Os Descobridores (The Discoverers, 1899, fig. 4), in which “the parody of the historical landscape as a national genre approaches scorn” (8), but also the aforementioned Rodolpho Bernardelli parodying the tradition of nativist poetry and art in his sculpture A Faceira (The Coquette, 1880, fig. 5). In these works, as in Belmiro’s Arrufos, one can see a strategy of appropriation and reinvention of European models made by artists concerned with Brazilian historical and social topics. In conclusion, Arrufos reminds us of the limitations of notions such as passive reception or influence when discussing center/periphery artistic relations and invites us to think, instead, in terms of trade and exchange in different directions and senses.
(1) Gonzaga Duque, A arte brasileira, Campinas 1995, p.211.
(2) Émile Zola, “Lettres de Paris: Nouvelles artistiques et littéraires – Le Salon de 1879,” in: Écrits sur l’art, Paris 1991, p.401-402.
(3) For example, an engraving was printed in: Le Monde Illustré, 10 January 1880, p.21.
(4) Letter from Belmiro de Almeida Junior to Mariano Pina, April 7, 1886. Lisboa, Biblioteca Nacional. Estate of Mariano and Augusto Pina, N17/252.
(5) Duque, A arte brasileira, p.212.
(6) Duque, A arte brasileira, p.212.
(7) As stated by Alexandre Eulálio in “O século XIX – Tradição e Ruptura (Panorama das artes plásticas),” in: Berta Waldman e Luiz Dantas, org., Escritos, São Paulo 1992, p.160.
(8) Luciano Migliaccio, “A recepção dos gêneros europeus na pintura brasileira,” in: Ana M. T. Cavalcanti, Arthur Valle and Camila Dazzi, org., Oitocentos – Arte Brasileira do Império à Primeira República, Rio de Janeiro 2008, p.30.