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Hildebrando de Castro

Hildebrando de Castro was Born in Olinda, Pernanbuco, in 1957 and recently lives and works in São Paulo.  From the artist’s most representative solo exhibitions, we selected: Casa Triângulo, São Paulo (2004); Faygold Gallery, Atlanta, US (2003); Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro (1998); Galeria Camargo Vilaça, São Paulo (1997); Earl Mcgrath Gallery, NYC (1996); and Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro (1995).  From the group shows, it is worth to mention the ones at Léo Bahia, Belo Horizonte, Itaú Cultural and Arte Viceral, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro (2004); Subversão dos Meios, curated by Maria Alice Milliet, at Itaú Cultural, and Casa Triângulo, São Paulo (2003); Desenhos, Galeria Camargo Vilaça, São Paulo (2000),  Haus der Kulteren Der Welt, Berlin, Germany, and Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro (1998);  Coleção Gilberto Chateaubriand, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador; Excesso, Paço das Artes, São Paulo (1996);  A Figura Humana Além das Artes Plásticas, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro (1995).  From the awards received: Prêmio Acquisição, Instituto Brasileiro de Arte Contemporânea Rio de Janeiro (1995); First Prize (1986), Faber Castel Exhibition, at Museum of Art in Nuremberg, Germany; First Prize (1985), Salão Carioca, Rio de Janeiro.

To understand the art of Hildebrando de Castro

The artist is interviewed by Maria Alice Milliet (São Paulo, December 2004)

MA: Next year you will be celebrating 25 years of activity as a visual artist.  Don’t you think this would be the right time to think of a comprehensive catalogue to survey your career?
HC: I loved the idea of the interview, precisely because of that.  This might be the beginning of a book that I intend to prepare.

MA:  When did you first start seeing yourself as an artist?
HC:  It was back in 1980 and I was 21.  My first exhibition took place at Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.

MA:  How did you get there? What was your formative background?
HC:  I enjoyed drawing, like all children. When I was a kid, I used to scribble and doodle on copybooks, notebooks or whatever piece of paper I could lay my hands on,  and I liked very much what I did.  More than that, I thought it was wonderful!  I’ve always cherished what I do. In the beginning, I had no technique whatsoever – it was just the sheer pleasure of doing it.  I learned it by myself after a lot of hard work.  I’m a self-taught artist.

MA:  The high technical standard of your work suggests it’s the work of a perfectionist.  What is your inner motivation?
HC:  I’m always trying to improve, to get better and I still haven’t got where I intend to. There were times when I thought I had already attained technical perfection, but then I realized I still had a long way to go.  It has already happened to me to think a certain series of works that I did was the top and that it seemed impossible to do any better.  But as I went on with my work, I ended up by being surprised with what came next.

MA:  Do you feel the urge to outdo yourself?
HC:  Improvement comes with continuity.  In fact, it’s the work itself that indicates the possible solutions, and it takes a lot of persistence.  By late ’99 I started using oil paint and it was a real tough job.  After years using nothing but pastel crayons, you can well imagine what happened.  I tried to find a teacher that would unravel the hidden secrets of oil painting to me.  I got in touch with a lot of people,  but couldn’t find anyone to satisfy my needs.  So, I set out to do it on my own and I kept on doing it.  I finished one painting and started a new one.  It was hard, but I insisted, and suddenly something happened: my God,  I thought to myself, I managed to do it better!  And there came a time – it was in 2001 – when I really found peace.  I felt I was capable of the same quality standard that I had managed to achieve with pastels.

MA:  Switching to another technique when one already masters a certain medium is always like starting all over again.  No doubt, it was very daring of you, this desire of yours to attain in oil painting the same level of excellence that you had reached with pastel.  And, incidentally, have you ever had any qualms about possibly being considered and anachronistic artist for using pastel, a technique that is practically abandoned nowadays?
HC:  Well, I’ve never viewed my work from this angle.  For me, making art is closely linked to pleasure.  Without the parameters imposed by formal learning, my view of art history is neither chronological nor progressive.  I’m in search of affinities, I don’t have that anxiety of the “new” for the mere sake of the newness itself.  Perhaps what saved me was exactly the lack of academic education.  I obeyed my inner impulses that drove me to draw and to paint.  I just followed my sensitivity and, along the way, I perfected my skills and explored issues that are internal to my own work.

MA:  Tell me how it all began.
HC:  Well, I started drawing with black graphite and color pencils as any schoolboy does.  At first,   my drawings were graphic and linear.  Then, color broke in.  My first exhibition was held at Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro in 1980.  I showed a series of drawings from 1977, where the figures are depicted as theatrical characters.  It has to do with theater and mise-en-scene – the world as a stage.

MA:  And how did you get to pastels?
HC:  Color pencils imposed their limitations and, as works kept growing bigger, the difficulties increased.  When I discovered the pastel technique, I went out of my mind.  I started doing large-sized works.  For around 15 years I dedicated myself exclusively to pastels.  You know that in Brazil people do not usually by works on paper.  The fragility of this support drives buyers away.  On the other hand, everybody wants oils paintings.  My friends kept advising me to quit paper and start doing oil paintings on canvas, but to all of them I replied that I would not turn to painting until I felt the time was ripe.  And, in fact, painting came as a requirement of the work itself. 

MA:  At a time when artists do not usually gibe much importance to discipline, your endeavor, in the sense of attaining technical mastery, is admirable.  This achievement takes time and demands a great deal of persistence and endurance.  All the more so, when someone is riding on the crosscurrent of an easily acceptable art as you are.  Why did you then risk a change when you had already gained recognition for your pastels?  Why did you switch to oil painting, a technique you were unacquainted with?
HC:  It was purely due to technical reasons.  There were certain effects that I managed to achieve with color pastels that I wasn’t able to obtain when using only black and white.  To solve this problem, I decided to try oil painting and I had to start from scratch.

MA:  I remember that in 1995 you presented a successful exhibition at Centro Cultural Banco do Barsil in Rio de Janeiro.  I wrote an essay for the catalogue and this gave me the opportunity to get to know you better.  Soon afterwards,  I got the news that you were quitting pastel drawing for oil painting and that you intended to spend some time in the U.S.?
HC:  Right,  that was a transitional moment.  I could have taken the easy path sticking to pastels.  Instead,  I proposed a challenge to myself:  I had to learn how to paint. It is always important to keep this kind of restlessness alive and kicking.  This is what makes me persevere and also what drives me to change.

MA:  One thing that is a constant component of your work is the accuracy of analogical representation.  Nonetheless, in whatever phase of yours, what one sees is not just a mere copy of reality.  There is always a certain sense of weirdness that dislocates the perception of reality but it’s also closely connected with photography.
HC:  You’re quite right.  My painting is entirely based on photography. I am fascinated by the light-and-shadow contrasts.  I used to take black and white photos of my would-be characters and then transferred their enlarged images onto paper and in color.  Since then, light and shadow have always been the most important things for me.  Now, I take color photos and transfer them onto canvas in black-and-white.

MA:  When did photography come into your work?
HC:  Right from the start, my reference has always been photography. I started taking pictures of people who would later be my characters only because it was a convenient thing to do.  And not just owing to the fact that I was working with models who were 70-80 years old, for the same thing occurred with the younger ones too, the thing is that it was impossible to keep them at my disposal, posing for me for a period of 4 to 6 hours.  So, I organized the set and the lighting and in half an hour I took a sequence of photos and then the model was free to go.  The photos allowed me to work at any time.  I could stop and then take it up again, disposing of my time as I wanted to.  It’s a long process and it requires patience.

MA:  One could say that your painting possess a photographic quality.  At a distance of approximately 4 meter, it is almost impossible to figure out if that picture on the easel is a painting or a photo.  Have you ever thought of exhibiting your photographs?
HC:  Well, my projects run along other lines.  I develop my photos into painting using paint and brush to develop what the film registered, and I think this could well be considered as a manipulation of the photographic record, anyway.

MA:  By observing what goes on in the art market, I realizes that a great deal of the current affluence of photography derives from this nostalgic feeling that people nurture for paintings, and I am now thinking of figurative painting in its various configurations: portrait, landscape, still life, narrative and genre painting, etc.  Over the last decade, we have witnessed the replacement of painting that used to decorate homes of the bourgeoisie for enlarged photographic reproductions.  By the way,  the landscapes that you recently showed in São Paulo at Casa Triângulo (2004) are good examples of the relationship between photography and painting, in a nostalgic key.  Do you agree with that?
HC:  In our days, nature taken as subject matter certainly arouses nostalgic feelings, and one could blame it on the ongoing process of deforestation, water pollution and other related predicaments, and what this loss represents to humankind.  This feeling of irrecoverableness is linked to the very lives of all the beings that grow old and die.  In my paintings, prior to the landscapes,  I had already tackled the subject of the passing of time and its effects.  After having completed the series of pictures portraying people’s faces in their youth and in their middle age displaying all the traces of time (for magnifying lens over a young face may bring back the past), I found myself one day browsing the Antiques Fair at Praça 15 in downtown Rio, where I spotted a collection of vintage photos lying on a stand.  I was mesmerized by the panoramas os Igassu Falls.  I immediately visualized those images transferred to a large-sized canvas.  From then on, landscapes started to appear in my paintings.  My points of departure were nineteenth century photographic postcards and later, images appropriated from the internet.

MA: Was that some sort of a turning point?
HC: It just happened.  The exhibition dates had already been settled and I insisted on changing course.  After so many years dealing with human figures enclosed in indoor spaces, it was like going out to see the world.  For me, it was like an opening door.

MA:  Could this interest in nature be possibly related to the end of your long stay abroad and with your homecoming to Brazil?
HC:  I spent seven years abroad, mostly in the U.S. It’s nice to be back. I enjoy very much living in São Paulo now.  As for the landscapes, my primary concern has never been the accomplishment of an accurate representation of the photographs, but that of engrossing the viewer.  That’s why they are large canvasses measuring around 1.50 x 2.00 m or 1.70x2.30 m.  They’re like big black-and-white screens.

MA:  Recapping the various phases you have been through in your artistic experience, I noticed that after the fat ladies, the dwarf, and the woman-mermaid, following all those weird characters that populated your large-sized works on paper (exhibited in 1994 at Galeria Camargo Vilaça, in São Paulo), there came the hearts, and the doll’s heads and legs, still using pastel.  You switched from full sized figures to hearts.
HC:  The truth is, every time I went to a barbecue place and laid my eyes on those little spit-roasted chicken hearts, it always stirred something inside me and they ended up by invading my works.  I started visiting butcher’s shops to pick the better looking ones, those with less fat, or with the veins slightly or explicitly visible, things like that… Then, I took pictures of them in the studio.

MA:  There is a somewhat morbid feeling in this phase of yours.  As you approached the end of the series, the heart appears clearly associated with Catholic iconography.
HC:  That’s when I created that parody of the heart with the two little doll’s arms that looks like a crucifixion.  Some time later, I made a representation of a heart surrounded by thorns, as in the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

MA:  I see here a decorative plate on the wall with a heart at the center.  The odd thing about it is that it is surrounded by barbed wire.  As far as I know, you have never exhibited this object.
HC:  I did show another place using the same motif in the traditional auction sale for the benefit of Museu Lasar Segall. When that piece was about to go to the kiln I had the idea of doing this other one that you are seeing now.  Because it is oval-shaped and not round like the first one, it brings about an immediate analogy with the popular cliché print of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose oval frame is ubiquitous in the homes of the common folks.  The material presence of the barbed wire piercing the plate imparts a higher dramatic quality to the piece and eliminates any possibility of functional use.  It’s an art object.

MA:  In your output,  eroticism is often associated with religion. Your works at the same time disturb and seduce the viewer.  Strangeness and repulsion are blended with attraction and fascination.  No one remains indifferent before those unconventional images and their crude rendition.
HC:  Yeah, that’s what happens, although lately these aggressive components are somewhat diluted.  But I am not fooling myself, for I know that this toning-down of the erotic component is transitory and it will certainly reappear further on with all its might.  The same thing happens with the subject matters.

MA:  Among the signs that integrate your repertoire, the heart is a recurring icon.  It has recently come back in that acrylic piece with a holographic effect.  I could easily notice that the public that visited the show A Subversão dos Meios (The Subversion of the Mediums), exhibited in 2002 at Itaú Cultural in São Paulo, was highly attracted by the piece.  How did you achieve that effect?
HC:  Well, one could call it a primitive holograph.  It consists of two juxtaposed printed images: a normal heart underneath and an inflated one superimposed onto it.  Over this double printing there comes a lenticule, which is a sheet of transparent grooves acrylic.  And that’s it!  When you move around, the heart acquires motion.  It’s a simple trick with a great visual effect.

MA: How was the creation of this multiple?
HC:  Well, practically no one works with this kind of thing. In New York City there was only this crazy guy and I eventually got in touch with him.  To start with, he showed me a belly dancer bending and raising herself, like in a movie – 31 different movements in one sole picture! I got really impressed and we ended up by working together.

MA:  When did you first show this piece?
HC:  The throbbing heart integrates a set of works exhibited in 2003 at the Faygold Gallery in Atalnta, and at the Galeria Laura Marsiaj in Rio de Janeiro in 2004.  The show was entirely conceived upon the concept of motion.  On one of the two parallel walls in the installation, the visitors can see the hearts and on the other one there is a sequence of paintings where a feminine face appears initially with her eyes closed, and then she slowly turns and stares at the viewer.  The idea is to link motion and emotion.  As visitors walk past, they simultaneously see the throbbing hearts and the face that turns in their direction.  At the entrance, on an isolated wall, there’s a big heart – a panel approximately 2 meter high, composed of nearly one hundred fragments or tablets mounted on a wooden support where one of them sticks out.

MA:  This apparently simple assemblage successfully unites two recurrent themes in your artistic output.  Tell me more about the erotic-religious connection in your works and the presence of a recognizable face in many of them.
HC:  Numa Ciro was my first model and she became my inspiring muse.  She is very important to me as a person and as a character, besides being a close friend.  As a performer she is a cult figure.  Fifteen years ago we did a performance together at Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Literary Academy) that included erotic poetry.  Since then, I have been creating theatrical sets for her presentations.

MA:  Have you had any religious upbringing and to what extent does this influence your work?
HC:  When I was a kid, those images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary, with the open chests and their hearts coming out – that made a great impression on me.  And at the same time that bothered me too, for I couldn’t really understand that.  Anyway,  religion was a household item for me.  Outside the family universe, I knew very little about Catholicism.  Once in a while my mother threatened to send me to a boarding school if I didn’t behave well.  Deep down inside, that was my wish!  I used to hear stories of sexual perversion happening at Catholic boarding schools and, for a boy who seldom left the house, that seemed like a fascinating world… I ended up by not being sent anywhere and I only got to know more about religious iconography when I visited the Vatican for the first time.  I was stunned – wherever I went I saw plenty of beheaded, hanged and crucified people.  It was blood and gore all over the place like in a gallery of horrors and I was in a church.  In a place supposedly visited by people in search of spiritualization, I saw naked, tortured bodies.  I realized at once the erotic appeal of those images where saints and martyrs seemed to experience orgasmic climaxes in their martyrdom like Saint Sebastian who, although transpierced by arrows, wears a joyful expression on his face.  The erotic content is very intense and my work is crisscrossed by this so-called perverse eroticism, devoid of any religious sense.  These images integrate my fiction.

Maria Alice Milliet is an art historian critic and curator.  She holds a Masters in Art History from Universidade de São Paulo (School of Communication and Arts), and a Doctorate from the same university (School of Architecture and Urbanization).  She was director of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo (São Paulo State Gallery) from 1989 to 1992 and Curator of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, locally known as MAM-SP) in 1993-4 and from 2002 until 2004.  She is currently the director of the José and Paulina Nemirovsky Foundation in São Paulo.  As an independent curator, she has worked on exhibitions for many institutions including the following:  Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, and a number of art galleries.  Her published work includes the books Lygia Clark: obra-trajeto (Edusp, São Paulo, 1992) and Tiradentes, o corpo do herói (Martins Fontes, São Paulo, 2001) as well as several essays and reviews in catalogs and periodicals.