THE ARTISTIC TRAJECTORY OF MARIA THEREZA NEGREIROS
M.A. Art Historian
Maria Thereza Negreiros’ professional background has been extremely coherent. Always a dynamic researcher she is stubbornly determined to work endless hours until obtaining the results she seeks, no matter what. Her work is governed by ever present qualities: Superior sense of color, rich textures and a powerful American language that fully belongs to the most demanding parameters of universal art. Her art has become stronger and richer and abstraction has progressively drifted towards realism. Quoting painter Maurice Denis: “It is important to remember that a painting, before a horse, a nude or any other subject, is first of all a surface covered with colors in a specific order”. These words help us understand much better Maria Thereza Negreiros’ determined personality that, if governed by her passionate and vehement temperament, is way over the possibility of creating anecdotic, informal, abstract, lyric or traditional paintings.
Maria Thereza was raised to become an artist. Her first 8 years of life were spent at the hacienda of her father Don Manuel D’Oliveira Negreiros, surrounded by the workers’ children and in the middle of the Amazon Forest. A few years later, she was sent to live in a nunnery where she spent her time filling sheets and sheets of paper with drawings. After High School she went to Rio de Janeiro to pursue her career in fine arts. She was very fortunate to have professors such as Quirino Campofiorito, a notable artist, known for his keen eye on potential artists and who immediately identified Maria Thereza’s talent and placed her under his strict discipline. She will never forget his words to her: “You have a great talent, but I do not want to tell you this in front of the group. An artist does not have to learn how to win, we all know how to win. You will have to learn how to loose. You have great talent, but a real artist needs strong discipline and I am going to expose you to the strongest possible one”. And indeed, it lasted five years. Later on, Professor Galvaó understood her tremendous talent and her innate sense of color and nicknamed her “Miss Pororocas”, that means violent crash of sea and Amazon River that creates huge strong waves: he was describing Maria Thereza’s amazing artistic power. Enrique Caballero, as other former teachers, knew well how to guide her vivid sense of color and expressionism.
After her graduation, she traveled around the world to nourish her spirit and her senses with art. She was part of the Brazilian leading group of artists and art critics and interacted with renown artists that came to the São Paulo Biennales. It was an extremely important period for her artistic education that helped her get rid of the academicism inherited from her earlier studies.
Maria Thereza married the architect Ernesto Patiño Barney and came to live in Cali. She was violently impacted from the very moment she arrived and does not want to remember her first year in Colombia. She felt stranded. In 1960 she started painting with discipline and enthusiasm, knowing exactly the goals to achieve. Her research became extensive and intensive. Artist Hernando Tejada, Maria Thereza’s husband childhood friend, who later became her true companion and friend, introduced her to other local artists. It was then that Group El Taller was created with artists Maria Thereza, Lucy and Hernando Tejada, Jan Bartelsman, Ernesto Buzzi and Tiberio Vanegas. El Taller, an old, big house in front of the railway station, became the meeting place of all those interested in artistic activities such as lectures, group shows and art related activity.
1961 brings forward the result of a year of intense research and study. With an abstract expressionism language, she created her first series Butterfly Wings. At that time Maria Thereza and her family lived in the countryside. Her two children used to bring their mother butterflies at twenty cents each. But to be worth the price, the butterflies had to be alive and intact. With a magnifying lens she carefully observed the multiple colors, the shades, fragility and tried to paint the bright transparency of their wings. To obtain the effect she wanted, she decided against the use of brush since the hairs create a shadow between each brush stroke. She applied the paint on the canvas directly from the tube, spreading it with the spatula and then softly caressing it with her hands, fingertips and palm, thus achieving an extraordinary sensuous quality. With the interaction of verticals and horizontals, the paint appears fluid, creating large transparencies where the color is stretched.
1961 brought Maria Thereza the First Prize in Painting during the First Cali Arts Festival. One of the Jury members was artist Alejandro Obregón, who became one of her closest friends.
Maria Thereza works on her Butterfly Wings a relatively large series, up to mid 1961, when she travels to Tulcán on the south of Colombia. The difficult trip is rewarded with the magnificent nature awaiting her. Maria Thereza, used to a country with no mountains, the Andes were for her a violent impact. This experience gives birth to her Series Magic in the Mountain. Her painting became thicker and the white shades that have always obsessed her are in contrast with the dark shades of the mountains, a bright sky stressed by violent reds. The horizontals and verticals remain in the composition but appear more free and broken.
Maria Thereza associates this overwhelming splendid sight with music, with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Both are profound, religious experiences. Years later, Maria Thereza will experience this same bond in a different situation. Her painting is much more terrestrial. Nature strikes her, working with it deeply and emotionally affects her. A strong deep green surges from the first time as a premonition of the Amazonian Series, piled-up greens that remind us of Obregón’s Gran Tauri. Maria Thereza’s painting has always been linked to her life and her sensibility is permanently marked by events and experiences that surround her. In 1962, she grew a magnificent field of sunflowers that revived her passion and admiration for Van Gogh, as well as her own memories. Her feelings came alive in her new Sunflower Series. Bright, intense shades of yellow color attack the canvas and break the solid integrated compositions of her former paintings.
A prevailing quality of the Sunflowers Series is their tremendous brightness, sensuous texture, rich and intense color. The canvases are invaded with luxurious yellows, oranges, greens, that according to connoisseur X-504, are like “Two hundred-volt Sunflowers that set the brush on fire”, referring to the series that in 1962 were exhibited at El Taller.
During the XIV National Colombian Artists Exhibition, her painting Composition was awarded the prize Cartagena Museum of Modern Art. Artist Alejandro Obregón’s painting Violencia, obtained the First Prize.
At the end of 1962 a major exhibition of Spanish Abstract painters took place, with Tàpies, Guinovar, Valles, Manrique, that shook up the Colombian art world. Maria Thereza felt her own artistic beliefs were upset and from then on, she questioned her own work. She admired the complete freedom of these artists in their use of unusual materials. Thanks to her open mind and readiness to be influenced, she captured these new forms of expression. Then she felt the need to revisit her own roots, her father, Brazil her homeland, to think and re-evaluate her artistic path. She then clearly saw the relation of matter with the Amazon, with the beginning of the world, with creation. Her attention drifted towards the bottom of the rivers, sands and stones. In 1963 she started her new Genesis Series: The onset of something, a beginning that is emptiness, white emptiness. She then produced white, grey paintings with black lines. Slowly, color came in, pure white turned to grey and step by step, ocher shades, a few yellows and oranges. Textures became stronger, bolder, powerful, bulging, blown up until it became a very organic paint. Her painting became daring, new materials such as river cobbles, sands, mineral pigments and lacquer gained importance. Her series became a world apart that sacrifices color in favor of matter.
Genesis No.13 was awarded the First Prize during the First Salon Grancolombiano of the II Art Festival of Cali. The complete Genesis Series was exhibited in the Pan- American Union in Washington and obtained excellent recognition.
In 1964, the influence of the Pop Art and of the New Figuration started to arrive in Colombia and Maria Thereza, with her open mind immediately showed interest in these new artistic tendencies, although she was not an American Pop Artist herself. She wanted to develop a new figuration from popular culture. And, again, in Pasto, she found her inspiration in the typical rag dolls.
She was feeling the need to change her traditional techniques. Maria Thereza, always a researcher, went to Chemist George Kloetzner looking for help. He assisted her enthusiastically and generously in every chemical aspect helping her in the rag doll process of immersing them in a special chemical product and supervising the drying - hardening process. She spent all year producing a large Rag Dolls Series, using corrugated card board, hardened with chemical products, adding cobbles and handcrafted ceramics. Unfortunately, she did not feel satisfied with the results and destroyed most of the paintings, except The Spinsters and The Last Supper of Misiá Tomasa, two mordant remarks against society. At the center of this work, there is a figure with the arms extended reminding us of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
Not feeling comfortable with the results of her experiments and once again worried and inspired by the human condition: “my work is strongly linked to my life, my aesthetic beliefs and my profound respect towards man”. Next, came a short series Are you Man, or Machine?. The most important thing is that her painting regains color, strong warm colors mixed with strong textures, and among it an abstraction, an enveloped shape: man-machine. Here the colors shine as in the Sunflowers Series. She is decidedly marching towards Battle of Men and Iron, gigantic works where the artist exactly knows what she wants with astounding assertiveness. She combines sands, small marble fragments, wood shavings and plastic resin to obtain volume.
In Battle of Men and Iron No.1, the artist comes back to oil, with the blue, so scarce in her painting, but deeper. This work obtained the Second Prize during the Primer Salon Panamericano, V Festival de Arte de Cali. First prize was awarded to Jesús Rafael Soto.
In Battle of Men and Iron No. 2, Maria Thereza Negreiros introduces environmental light into the canvas. The paint looks like a war shield, the protruding rings have a very precise objective: to integrate light as part of the work and create the illusion of rotation on the axis.
In 1966 she comes back to the Rag Dolls she had abandoned in an embryo stage, but this time the work is deeply influenced by three artistic manifestations: Quito’s Colonial Baroque, mainly Caspicara’s work and Carajás’ ceramics, very different at first glance, but with a common denominator: the richness of Baroque, its intense reds, its voluptuousness, the flesh finishing and luxury of Caspicara. The Carajá tribe is located at the central western area of Brazil and Maria Thereza visited it during one of her trips to her homeland. Carajá Indians paint stripes on their bodies and faces as part of a ritual. Stripes have been present in the artist’s work for a long time: stripes of the Indians and stripes in the Baroque Church altars. This gave birth to the Angels Series. It is important to observe that the Angels Series do not have a religious meaning, but they are instead satiric and ridicule. The Series started with Rag Angel, a doll with plump, cherub cheeks, round protruding eyes, disheveled hair. After extensive research, the artist mixed silver and golden metal scrapes with plastic solutions to obtain the rich and lustrous aspect of Baroque Art. Many effects of this new expression are in Bullfighter Angel. The rings she used in the Battles filter light and change the expression of the Angel face. The hairless head outstands over the richest baroque red. It looks like a bullfighter’s hat and the silver nest can be seen as a sumptuous bullfighter costume.
Angel with a Striped Pijama is inside a circle. Even if Maria Thereza worked with extreme professionalism, she also had a good time working on this painting, most of all with the final result that shows a rather unusual figure with one breast, five legs, two heads and no mouth. This is the angel that shows the strongest Carajás influence, not only because of the stripes but also in the masque-like eyes, owls eyes that have a profound meaning in primitive cultures. The protruding nose is extremely evident. Mastering the technique gives the artist confidence to increase volumes.
Fallen Angels have the hair ripped off the scalp, one of them has a pleated monk habit like the ones we see on the entrance of gothic churches. This is a memory of the drawing exercises during her student years. The cross is the only Christian symbol that identifies the figures as angels.
The artist tends to outline the figures centering them as if inside a niche, emphasizing emotions. We will see this many times along her work. Sign Eight Angel seems to whirl around himself as do our colonial baroque columns. The scarf is like the cloak under the wind in Baroque statues. She stubbornly tries to recreate the bright quality of flesh found in Caspicara’s work, reaching perfection in Cheeky Angel with very a similar baroque sensual finishing.
In 1967 the Angel Series is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá, and IBEU Gallery in Rio de Janeiro. This new depiction of rich and splendid textures was a requirement in Maria Thereza’s new manner of expression, as observed by the critics at this time.
Returning from Brazil in late 1967, she created two unexpected paintings without the usual optimism found along her work. Mysterious, dazzling forms centered within themselves that occupy almost the totality of the canvas surface, that the artist named I Looked at a Face in memory of an oceanic song that says: I Looked at a Face and only saw sadness, I looked at a heart and found chaos, I looked inside a mind and it was empty.
I looked at a Face No.1, depicts a bewildering enigmatic image with reddened eyes that follow her. This is the first time we see in her work the red eyes with black pupil, the color of guaraná. The form does not fit, the traditional canvas looks too small. We forsee a major change in her artistic expression. I looked at a Face No.2 has the same characteristics, but with a completely different palette. The shape appears restrained inside a red space. The only obvious object is the nose on the lower side.
During another trip to Brazil, the Amazon river mesmerized her. She spent endless hours looking at the river, her river, as she calls it, its slow movement, its tranquility and above her, the night and the shining stars. And she feels coming what she had foreseen: the rotation time-space-time- space and man inside this rotation and inside time. The idea for Series Man and Space appeared clearly: “We are definitely living the space era where leading countries in the world are fighting for space, man is fighting to keep his own physical space and each one of us, our inner space”. Those were the artist’s words at that time.
Fragment gained importance over the whole. Maria Thereza believes that man is more eloquent if we look at him in fragments: eyes, hands, mouth, teeth. Man is more real and his image is more clear to us. Many of the works of this Series are in Canada. At the beginning the canvases were small, but each time she needed more space. She went on with her research on new materials, the canvases are now harder, rigid almost, her work needed more volume, more textures and then the frame became part of the work.
At the beginning of 1968 she found a new path: Breaking a Space depicts her feelings at that time, she felt the need to be free, to break the space where she was imprisoned. The strong, vivid pink, and blue of this work come from the native indians of Silvia, Cauca, (Colombia). Initiating the research process, she used wood as support for the work, obsessed as she has always been with the adequate conservation of her paintings, she only used black cedar that was too heavy, especially for the larger work. Again, with the help of Dr. Kloetzner she found the appropriate support to express what she had in mind. Fiberglass was the supporting material for Woman on the Rolling Stairs. This work is a witness of the anguish she was going through at this time, not only her, but also the world in general. Dilemmas, incertitude, hippy movement, drug use, loss of traditional values, a youth lost and disoriented. This is a cry of protest. Maria Thereza was inspired by a news she read on the paper describing how a woman with long hair fell on a rolling staircase in motion and her hair was caught up inside the mechanism and ripped off from her scalp. The artist depicts how human beings are trapped by machines, by never-ending mechanical movement, like the rolling stairs, that has engulfed man in a dramatic living machine inside a dehumanized space. We see a shapeless woman with large protruding abdomen and breasts, a face that reminds us of the Angels with owl eyes, large nose and no mouth. At the center of the work where the two diptych modules come together, we can see a red and pink grinder that separates the two levels. The woman disintegrates into a shapeless matter. The colors are fluorescent. The first time this work was exhibited, it was dramatically lit with black light that was very popular at that time in bars and disco places. Maria Thereza’s intention was to shock the viewer, make him shout, protest.
The artist has so far mastered the technique, but she has not yet found the ideal support: She needed to obtain much more volume, “to come off the wall”. Fiberglass was not transparent enough, and she started experimenting with acrylic sheets. Still searching for the ideal she had in mind, she produced With Tight Fists where the protruding shapes are blown acrylic sheets, cut on the reverse side. The base was finally bulging out from the wall towards the viewer who has to step back to fully appreciate the work and feel he was suddenly punched. This is exactly what the artist was looking for: total realism.
She went on with her realism pursuit and inspired by the beauty of a Patiño family ancestor she found on a old daguerreotype; she produced in 1970 the work called, Memory of an Ancestor, Catalina. Over a shaped acrylic sheet, she painted a woman’s face surrounded by Carajás’ stripes. On the reverse side, a steel sheet reflects back the image and projects it towards the viewer. The stripes create the illusion of movement and a new image with each change of perspective. This is with no doubt an interactive kinetic work of art. The results she was obtaining with steel and paint were so gratifying that she felt motivated to produce a similar work, but larger and more impressive she called Great Spring Lens, Homage to Botticelli - a steel cylinder of 150 cm diameter, 90 cm depth and in front a convex blown, painted acrylic sheet. Three fractioned naked women figures make reference to Botticelli’s famous work. Polished steel works like a mirror. The strong pink on the edges reflect a pink light on the figures reminding Springtime.
Determined to explore figurative realism and always trying to depict man’s true reality, Maria Thereza searched photographic techniques to obtain the results she wanted, as the most real and accurate technique. During the year of 1971, she studied the complete photographic process with photographers Mario Ponce and Fernell Franco.
She felt strongly interested in the mouth, especially
the teeth, as being particularly expressive. Finally, her art emerged from the walls with A Cubic Meter for a Man where she makes evident her obsession towards space,
and her rejection of present living conditions trapped within a reduced space. She then needs to create a clean, enchanted inner world as a psychological escape for man. She creates the teeth forest, a grinder made of jaws and teeth that grind
us. Light becomes a theatrical fundamental element.
Convinced as she was that only one fragment of man’s body can be more expressive than the complete being, she started the large series The Language of the Senses. Mouth, teeth, nose, eyes were the key elements of her work.
The work entitled Mystery of a Laughter, finished in 1973, opened for her the world of photography. One of the techniques she used was imprinting high contrast large photography sheets on a transparent plate.
After many trial and errors, the artist found the model with the laughter she was looking for: a hysterical laughter, full of anguish, that blended in space one after another, and another on a never-ending sequence. Her interest towards teeth increased producing Grinding a Space. On a photographic sheet a jungle of grinding teeth appear destroying the space.
She was also interested in eyes and worked on the subject during 1974. She had the idea of blending together the photographic film between two blown acrylic sheets. She took endless photos of her son’s eyes and the result of her extensive research on man fragmentation and senses gave birth to the series Multitude - Eyes, that included mobiles, boxes and cylinders in black, blue and deep pink.
The photographs that were no simpler means to reach her purpose, became the nucleus of the work. The technique was challenging, but she mastered it. It was an interaction of different lenses reflecting their own light and giving the eyes an enigmatic, captivating and fascinating gaze that follows the viewer in every direction, like chasing him. Individually, the eyes seem harmless, but in fact they are aggressive allies. The title in itself, Multitude - Eyes, is a conceptual proposal.
Maria Thereza explains her concept: “each one of us is an individual, an independent walking module, at first sight we all look the same, but the difference is in the nucleus”. As men, each painting is different from the others, for it has its own individual nucleus.
At the end of 1974, after the death of her father, the artist came to Brazil, her homeland and remained there for almost five years. It was a very difficult time, “half paradise, half nightmare”. Her life in permanent, intimate contact with the forest changed abruptly and the many personal problems she had to deal with affected her creative process. When she returned to Cali, she felt that all those years in the Amazon had been for her “like an earthquake” of powerful experiences and feelings that ultimately gave birth to the major Amazonian Series. She spent endless hours in her studio listening to Sinfonía de
la Selva by famous Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Maria Thereza felt she could translate into painting the magnificence of Villa-Lobos’ musical composition.
In order to transmit her feelings, the artist came back to oil on canvas. Maria Thereza thinks “oil is the utmost painting medium, trustworthy, reliable, with unique elasticity, that gives us the freedom to make any changes in the painting”. In 1979 she created three paintings: Igapó No.1, Selva No.1 (Jungle No.1), and Las Quemas No.1 (Burning Jungle No. 1) that are the beginning of the Amazon recreation and that were exhibited for the first time in Bogotá, Meindl Gallery, at the end of 1979.
The large Amazon Series is formed by several sub- series: Igapós, Selvas (Jungle), Quemas, (Burning Forest) Correntezas (Swifts), Ocasos (Sunsets), Incendios (Fires), Ciénagas (Swamps), Río y Canaranas (River and Canaranas), Incendios en la Noche (Fires in the Night), Anavilhanas y Selvas Floridas (Blooming Jungle). This large group of paintings, is agressive yet mystic. The artist’s distinct qualities stand out: her world of harsh shadows and piercing light, the deep enigmatic perspective full of magic, the strong sense of color, the splendid never-ending range of colors. Her painting is poetry itself and has always been linked to her life, her personal experience, and is the response to provocation. The Amazon Series is an homage to her river, the river that saw her become a woman. “I grew up with the river before my eyes, the sky above my head and the forest behind me”. Today, a mature artist, she wants to honor her homeland, her own people, and the grandiosity of the Amazon. “I paint my homeland, the Amazon to immortalize it because I sadly know deep in my heart that it will soon disappear....”.
The artist paints according to her impulse and sensibility, according to her quiet yet passionate personality. During the painting process, her mood changes from calm to rage and each painting is a battle for her. Her palette is wide and rich. When she uses blue, all the scale is there: Cobalt, Prussian, Ceruleum, Saxony, Indigo, Ultramarine. The same range is applied for greens, reds, yellows…“ I feel powerful using some colors”.
Obidos, was Maria Thereza’s family home in Maués by the Apoquitaua river bank. She spent endless hours looking at the reflection of the trees and flowers smoothly undulating on the river surface, feeling its quietness and tranquility, trying to engrave its essence and mystery in her memory. “It was my Igapó, the one that saw me come to life…..it does not have a beginning or an end, it is a world of water and sky, sky and water. The first painting of the Amazon Series is a homage to my Igapó. To me, the word does not have possible translation, although it could remotely remind me of a mangrove swamp, but without the poetry and mystery, without its splendor and magnificence….It would be like comparing a cathedral to a chapel….”.
Maria Thereza feels her Igapó has the same atmosphere Monet created in his water gardens. Igapó is the absence of Amazonian arrogance and pride; Igapó, on the contrary is silence, quietness, mystery, solemnity. The huge trees build imposing gothic cathedrals, its curved branches forming the vault. The light that finds its way through the foliage or the fog and that reflects itself on the still waters is the same that goes through the stained windows of medieval cathedrals: it is a spiritual light.
Maria Thereza paints her Igapós in semi- darkness and quietness to captivate its true essence, its chiaroscuro, its splendor. The hues have to be discreet, quiet, full of magic and mystery; the texture strong, dense, the brush stroke energetic, the vegetation undulating rhythm glorifies the light vibration; the planes become transparent with the brilliance coming through the leaves and reflecting on the quiet waters. The lightly colored, ethereal atmosphere envelops the Igapós. We can perceive the presence of shapes dissolving on the morning mist.
The Correntezas or River Swifts drag everything and anything, like large portions of sandy, gritty soil that fall into the Amazon River like green islands being carried away. Maria Thereza believes that Correntezas resemble life that hauls us very fast to a point of no return.
The artist paints one layer of paint over another, and another, creating a transparent atmosphere of profound perspective and wide areas through which vivid light erupts. A delicate, tenuous vapor that appears at sunrise over
the water surface, envelops and makes nature disappear. When the sun starts shining it evaporates uncovering the magnificence of nature.
The artist also paints the river banks, those magnificent fields that after remaining six months under water, start blooming once again.
She compares Amazonian nature with human nature: Igapó and Correntezas are two stages of nature and spirit. Igapó is quiet and mysterious, Correntezas are nervous, excited, overwhelming, always running. It is a green world, with all the shades of green, a dazzling green as poet Alvaro Maia described it: “The mud is green, foam is green, death is green”.
Maria Thereza discovered solitude immersed in the green forest: “The Amazon, always in command, and bestowed with fantastic, crushing power, makes you feel insignificant”. During her stay in the Amazon, Maria Thereza witnessed two induced fires. Feeling the earth getting warm beneath her feet, hearing the trees crackling like in pain, was an indescribably painful experience that left her full of anger and powerlessness.
Great Fires, Offering, are a series of very large modules in sequence that form one imposing, enveloping painting, reminding us of Monet’s Pond of Water Lilies. The artist releases her intense mixed feelings: love, rage, pain. She identifies herself with fire and air.
Each Fire is the artist’s own battle against destruction, that she liberates with the painting. We can feel the fire burning with rage, the wind blowing, the forest crackling, the smoke blocking your lungs, and finally the ashes remain mute as a witness to the action of fire. There is a feeling of failure, of loss and of a lost battle against criminal hands.
The Fire Series are fantastic, yet undeniable visions of a terrible truth. Fires are a praise to polychrome movement, light and strength, with a powerful concentration of energy. The overlapping curtains of asphyxiating, wrapping smoke contrast with the volumetric mass of burning trees. The Fires are dynamic compositions, irrational, yet painfully true.
The Informalism so strongly imbued in Maria Thereza Negreiros’ paintings of the 60’s, appear again in the Fires. Sections of the canvas are slightly stained with thinned oil leaving the canvas texture in the open, are in contrast with other sections heavily covered with extremely textured, dense pigment. She applies the oil directly from the tube, spreads it with the palette knife and always finishes it with her fingertips and hand. This rubbing action creates an extraordinary effect of sensuous softness. The hand palm and fingertips have always been her best brush.
Series Igapó, Correntezas, Burnings and Fires, are very different in style, even if the subject and the emotional content, color, atmospheric and luminous effects are the same. Correntezas and Igapós are life; Fires death. Maria Thereza Negreiros has been so far the only artist capable of transmitting the Amazonian nature with such poetry and strength at the same time, never before the heaviness and density of the atmosphere were so accurately depicted. All this brings us back to Claude Monet. Both artists have similar expressive qualities, their paintings are radiant poems, musical variations that differ in tonality, rhythm, tempo and color. The perfect affinity of realism and lyricism reach perfection in Maria Thereza Negreiros’ Amazon Series: Burnings, Great Fires, Rainforest, Dusk, Swamps, Rivers and Canaranas, Night Fires, Anavilhanas and Blooming Jungle. Without any doubt whatsoever they are a turning point in her artistic career.
ArtNexus magazine, Art in Colombia, 2013
Artists who migrate to new countries and join a given artistic group have been greatly beneficial for those collectives. Think of the Bauhaus, the Paris School, Abstract Expressionism in the US. Latin America received the influx of such visitors that, for many reasons, settled here: Buenos Aires, México City, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro are all superlative examples.
Colombia also benefited from these flows: Guillermo Wiedemann and Leopoldo Richter from Germany; Jan Bartelsman from The Netherlands; Juan Antonio Roda from Spain; Armando Villegas from Perú; Jim Amaral from the US, these are some of the pioneers around the mid-Twentieth Century. Maria Thereza Negreiros hails from Brazil. She was born in 1930 in the Amazon rainforest town of Maués, to a family of big landowners. She studied fine arts at the University of Rio de Janeiro. In 1954 she arrived in Colombia and settled in Cali, where she initially encountered a small arts community formed, essentially, by siblings Lucy and Hernando Tejada, Jan Bartelsman, and later Pedro Alcántara. Her first solo exhibition took place in 1961, at the Luis Ángel Arango library, featuring twenty-two oil paintings that evoked natural themes, which she approached by means of abstraction. The show comprised two series: Magia en la montaña and Alas de mariposas o Cromatismos. Abstraction was a risky gamble and a contribution to new Colombian art in the nascent decade, and Negreiros was saluted in just those terms by Marta Traba, who reviewed the show for Nueva Prensa.(1) Two years later she presented a group of matteric works titled Genesis, where sand, rocks, and synthetic fluids formed the surface of the painting, revealing a manifest interest in informalism as a vehicle for expression. The sequence referred to the cosmos' perpetual, threatening motion, and conceived of painting as a territory for the questioning of pictorial procedures and of representation itself. Again it was Marta Traba (2) who noted the importance of this reflection on display at Bogotá's Galeria de Arte Moderno. For his part, Walter Engel referred to the artist and her work with these words: "Afterwards she goes from one find to the next, all conquered honestly, in a constant explosión of new materials and their combinations." Negreiros' previous proposals celebrated light and color as central ingredients; the paintings in Génesis appeared monochrome in yellowish-earthen hues, and the sensation of a primordial magma was produced by the flow of action and altered skin. From that starting point, the artist became interested in surfaces, an exploration of her materials, the three-dimensionality of painting, all of which will drive her later towards the production of objects. In that sense, she was a good sensor for the concerns that dominated Colombian art in the 1960s. In this way, Maria Thereza Negreiros also joined the group of female artists who in that decade staked their independence and made important contributions: Beatriz González, Norma Zarate, Ana Mercedes Hoyos, Beatriz Daza, Feliza Bursztyn, Olga de Amaral, to name some of the most relevant.
Genesis, which reflects about its own physical condition, seems to culminate on two large canvases, two square meters each, titled Batalla de hombres y de hierro, where oil mixes with mineral paint, indralit, sand, and sawdust, generating alterations that were as desert-like as they were evocative. One of them, a petrous and arid landscape, is now in the collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno la Tertulia, in Cali, and received an award at the Pan-American painting Salon in 1965.
Many abstract artists also practiced figurativism, and vice versa; the examples of Willem de Kooning in the US or Juan Antonio Roda in Colombia could be cited as reference. Maria Thereza Negreiros was equally intermittent, and in 1966 she presented the series Angeles in an individual exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá (3). She took the initial idea from images of the colonial period, so loaded with cherubs and seraphim, as well as archangels. Her proposal incorporated three-dimensionality, molding caricaturesque and abstracted faces that responded to other tendencies present in the period, namely neo-figurative painting. A critical version of representation, with questions about the human condition. Think of her contemporaries such as Pedro Alcántara, Leonel Góngora, Carlos Granada, Luis Caballero, Augusto Rendón, and Norman Mejía, among the most audacious and anti-establishment. The reinterpretation of referents, the idea of revisiting and citing an artistic argument, and the expressionistic, ironic, humorous treatment given to the Angeles sequence reaffirmed the important presence of Negreiros' reflections in Colombian art. This series was presented in Rio de Janeiro, the city where the artist had completed her studies. The show received critical attention. Antonio Maia wrote: “Her angels, in a complete or fragmentary figuration, take over almost the entire surface in a geometric distribution, expanding to reach the edge of the canvas. At other times, they fit together in an arbitrary fashion, as if it were a puzzle” For his part, Marc Berlowitz said: “A vigorous and personal artist who employs new materials with admirable technique and who understood the true spirit of the new figuration, which is not the academic figure with some modern condiments. Maria Thereza Negreiros presented one of the year's most important exhibitions.” By then, Negreiros had already represented Colombia in group exhibitions in the US, Argentina, and Brazil (4).
The synthetic materials and forceful colors present in these new matteric works seemed to culminate in a large diptych from 1968, titled Mujer en la Escalera Rodante, which participated in the first Salón Austral y Colombiano de Pintura, the inaugural exhibition for the La Tertulia museum in Cali. Already Negreiros' art carne in entirely three-dimensional work, dependent on the wall. The project's sizable scope moved her proposal forward towards questions related to the multi-dimensional expansion of what was known as painting, thus interrogating its integrity and reach. We should remember that the same Salón included Bernardo Salcedo's boxes, Hernando Tejada's works in wood, and Beatriz González's laminates and painted metal objects. Maria Thereza Negreiros was interested in provoking reflection, questioning formats, and presenting conceptual propositions supported on new formal solutions.
The decade of the 1970s defined like no other the new attitude in many respects that are contemporary to us today. The passion for psychotropic drugs. Rock music, the struggle for civil rights, the Cuban revolution and the Cultural Revolution in China, youth power, and the tyranny of consumerism. Of course, we had our own local heroes, such as the guerrilla priest Camilo Torres, a local version of Che Guevara, and a non-conformist movement interested in the arts in general: Nadaísmo, helmed by Gonzalo Arango. Colombian society began to reflect on itself and artists contributed to change in that perspective. As a woman and as an artist, Maria Thereza Negreiros took part in that revolution. She was close to Nadaísmo, of which Cali was the epicenter, not only for the Avant-Garde Festivals they organized but also as a sustained presence made visible through a number of actions. She intervened in the debates of the period, centered on abstraction and figuration as well as form and contení, with an art that was eloquent and to the point, risk-taking and forward-looking.
Towards the end of the 1960s we find works like Recuerdo de un antepasado-Catalina (5), a Plexiglas box on which the schematic face of a woman is reflected, dated in 1969, and Misterio de una carcajada from 1970 (6), a large photographic fold displaying a sequence of open mouths printed on acetate. As the new decade dawned, her attention centered on objects: rectangular of cylindrical boxes showing real photographed eyes that vibrated under the silver light of their background. She titled these Multitud or Lenguaje de los sentidos. The perfect industrial finish of the works and their metaphysical aspirations marked an ultimate interest in non-conventional formats. These small- and medium-format works had their precedent in a larger object from 1971, Metro cúbico para un hombre (7). Towards the end of the decade and given the impact of a prolonged visit to the Amazon River region, she began once again to think about painting on canvas. In a way, Negreiros returned to the idea of her early paintings of 1961 and 1962, when she produced a series of Girasoles and the groups already mentioned like Magia en la montaña.
The work of Maria Thereza Negreiros has been built on the basis of sweeping shifts and her artistic practice has been based on questions she has posed and attempted to respond to by means of a variety of formal and conceptual adventures, including the exploration of diverse techniques. Surely this last period of her career, when she has encountered the rainforest as a motif, is the longest and more constant. It has unfolded over the last thirty years. In 1982, Marta Traba wrote an introduction for Negreiros' first retrospective. From Washington, where Traba lived, she wrote: “Divided, then, between rational experiment and lyrical communication, her work has turned out more convulsive, less stationary, than others where an idea is given from the start, then transferred to a convenient sys-tem of forms, and the process of the work unfolds on a single channel, perfected or modified always within its self-imposed limits. I would not say that Marie Thereza Negreiros experimental will has been a drive to be at the vanguard, be it in terms of images or the use of different materials. Rather, I would say that such a quest was in ever instance motivated by the same desire: to say something important and profound that widens the public as visual register and allows them access to a new territory of the imagination.”
Negreiros became interested in the Amazonian landscape, but not in order to reconstruct it and turn her painting realistic or narrative. She intended to capture its chromatics, immensity, drama, and overwhelming presence. To achieve this, she has focused since the 1980s in certain specific themes. The green forest and its vastness; the flows of water in the great river and its tributaries; fluorescence and awe-inspiring fires. This she has done in canvases of a variety of formats and also in large, enveloping oil-on-canvas poliptychs. The diluted material allows for and facilitates controlled accidents and a fluidity of evocative and ambiguous forms. Also, impastos. The artist has described her experience in that region: “I thought I knew the Amazon region, but I didn't. Living there is a challenge, even a challenge to physical endurance. My true encounter with my own culture was returning to my town and visiting the cemetery where my entire clan rests. Finding my identity, carrying my backpack on my shoulders and saying 'here I am with all my baggage, positive and negative: this is me discovering that I would have been much more useful in the forest had I been an engineer or an agronomist, not a painter. Feeling the happiness of giving, because however little you give is needed in that desperation, in that cold that breaks your bones at night on the riverbank. I advise people to travel to the Amazon as a school of humanity.” (8) With these arguments the artist not only explores her own memories, but also warns us of and protests against threats to the survival of this great life preserve. Ideas about ecology are not alien to Negreiros, in the same measure in which she trusts the subjective power of her symbolic abstraction with multi-directional implications.
1. Marta Traba, "Negreiros, Mateus,Vanegas", La Nueva Prensa magazine. Bogotá, December 1961
2. Marta Traba, "Se numera el Génesis", La Nueva Prensa magazine. Bogotá. October 1963
3. The same show was presented at La Tertulia in Cali. Ángel Signo was part of the 18th Colombian Artists Salón in Bogotá.
4. 30 Colombian Painters, an exhibition originated in Fort Lauderdale that traveled to other US cities (1963). 2nd Córdoba Biennial (Argentina) and 7th Sao Paulo Biennial (1964).
5. Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno la Tertulia, Cali.
6. She participated with this work in the Pan American GraphicArts Salón, Cali, 1970.
7. This work was exhibited for the first time in the exhibition 10 años de arte colombiano, Museo de Arte Moderno la Tertulia, Cali, 1971.
8. Maritza Uribe de Urdinola, Testimonios de la Artista, Catalog of the retrospective 1961-1981, Cali Chamber of Commerce, 1982.
Marcio Souza, Brazilian writer, Manaus, Brasil
The first time I came across Maria Thereza Negreiros art during the Teatro Amazonas centennial celebration, left me mesmerized. I was in front of an unrestrained overflowing talent and some of the strongest art produced by an Amazonian Artist. The second time, during a major overview at La Tertulia Museum of Modern Art in Cali, Colombia, was for me a subjugating experience. These personal feelings are the result of Maria Thereza Negreiros radical and committed art that fill the spirit with visceral audacity and amazement, which is a quality rather scarce among contemporary South American artists.
La Tertulia overview allows us to analyze in depth Maria Thereza's work in the past and present. Such should be the purpose of an overview and I must add that not every artist put up with an analysis of their work in time and space. María Thereza Negreiros not only holds up, but she reasserts all the technical and formal audacity of the 60's, leaving behind the dense pigmented abstractionism of American painting at that time, in an effort to diminish the political contents of Latin American art. In the 60´s and 70´s with the use of synthetic and plastic materials, María Thereza Negreiros reinvents artistic participation proposing an experimental work, with sculptural qualities of volume and sinuosity, honest and true meditation of the suffocating events we were experiencing in Latin America. At this very moment she encounters her guides and objectives, even though she never allowed her art to fall under the influence of political events. The proof to it is that we can still establish a communication, a dialogue with her art of the 60´s finding neither any anachronism nor obsolete aspects to it. On the contrary, her paintings have new connotations that new generations can identify and interpret without difficulty.
Going over the sensuality of the 60´s we find a return to the abstractionist Project, in fact, a return into the Future, since we are in front of a new abstraction that the artist will name Sunflowers (Girasoles) and she will looked into the raison d être of each particularity, of the dream and the delirium, the representation of a sense of humor that would explode into colors.
From Sunflowers (Girasoles), and without abandoning her abstract drive, María Thereza Negreiros, will find a geography, the one pertaining to her homeland, the fabulous and wounded Amazon. It was for me the most shocking moment in this exhibition, especially being aware I was dealing with an artist with so much talent, in the peak of her creativity and strength. The Blooming Forest (Selvas Florecidas), Igapós, and Fires (Incendios) contain and barely restrain the erupting volcano embodied in María Thereza Negreiros. In the flowers that bring color to the forest, we see explosions, like premonitions to the unavoidable fire that will destroy and that the religious peace of the Igapós will not be able to refrain. The Series Fires in the Amazonian Forest (Incendios en la Selva Amazonica) does not merely reproduce the crime that each day attacks and destroys the amazing forest, it is the vivid portrait of agony, with all its cruelty present in the tortured brushstrokes of deep green against aggressive reds. María Thereza Negreiros offers us the huge reality of destruction, where our emotions and our eye remain stranded and we feel condemned by our rigidity, our impossibility to act, and we feel suffocated by the ashes and the uselessness of gestures. There, amid vegetation and fire, there is no room for words, nevertheless there is no useless moaning, since Artist María Thereza Negreiros was raised by the river of deep waters and her artistic language will always bring poetry to death and destruction.
Valerie Fraser, England
At first glance Negreiros paintings of the 1980 might be considered direct descendents of the Abstract Expressionists – the canvases consist of large areas of color, softly suffused around the edges in the manner of Rothko, and with the paint applied with great confidence and obvious enthusiasm. On closer reading these apparent abstractions are revealed as representations, dramatically vivid representations of forest fires. The aim of this paper is to use these relatively little-know works to raise some more general points about recent Latin American art.
Maria Thereza Negreiros series of paintings of the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest bring together number of issues which preoccupy contemporary Latin American artists. First there is the sense of place, the theme of the land invaded, transformed, destroyed, and more specifically, the theme of the tropical jungle, an image which a number of other Latin American artists have claimed back from the fantasy world of European artists like Le Douanier Rousseau. Then there is her direct confrontation with the problem of modernism in Latin America, of how to use s language developed in New York, in a context utterly different from the one in which she worked, end yet be able to use it to say something coherent and honest. Her solution is exceptionally appropriate to her theme: the trees, usually very small and insignificant at the bottom of her large square canvases, appear to be sucked up into the atmosphere of head, smoke and gases and at the same time they are transformed into color and paint. Hers is a vision at once beautiful and terrifying, where modernist debate, where discussion of the merits of figuration or abstraction appears trivial.
Born in the Brazilian province of Amazonas in 1930, Negreiros moved to Cali in Colombia in her twenties. After a tentative series of explorations into different styles, typical of Latin American artists seeking a mode of expression witch they can feel at home, an extended in her Amazonian birthplace gave her the impetus to turn back to that most unquestionably Old World medium, oil on canvas, take the equally traditional theme of landscape, and produce something modern and Latin American. Abstract Expressionism was exported from the US to Latin American in the 1950 precisely because of its apparently apolitical character: it could evoke general, universal themes untainted by mundane reality; Maria Thereza Negreiros inversion could not be more powerful: the trees, the word, become an abstraction. Her art is unquestionably both political and of truly universal concern.
Marta Traba, Washington
On writing a brief introduction to the Retrospective Exhibition of Maria Thereza Negreiros, I can do no more than repeat all of the opinions that, to me, her work has deserved since her first exhibition in 1961 until today. I confirm that the words of the critics have been as tenacious as her works themselves. There has never been a period when I didn’t feel the obligation (and the pleasure) to accompany her, even when certain stages, predominately experimental, were not as interesting to me or as valuable as others.
The impressing part about this pursuit, very evident in a retrospective exhibition, is that the sensitive and violently chromatic works that Maria Thereza Negreiros presented at her first individual exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá, that I directed, had much to do with the present Quemas (Forest Fires) and Paisajes (Landscapes) derived from the images of the Amazon. A reconstruction of its origins and questioning of the forces of nature has been a recurring topic. Eyes, throats, screams, that seemed to belong to another cycle of different visual experiences, are also transmitted, regardless of their origins. Discover, inquire, and dive into the bottom of things, giving that activity a philosophical feeling that should finally explain the very existence of the visual image, has been the central dedication of Maria Thereza Negreiros.
Over the years, the intensity of this pursuit has never ebbed; she ran the risk of becoming entangled in her own epistemology, and that the visual force of her work would cool off as a consequence of that excessive intellectualism. But it was precisely the interior poetic violence, her personal and unquenchable combustion that prevented the occurrence of that cooling.
Thus, divided between rational experiment and lyrical communication, her work became more convulsive, less stationary than others, where an idea exists from the beginning, this idea is transferred to a convenient system of shapes, and the process of the work develops in only one canal, improving or modifying itself, always within its chosen limits. I wouldn’t say that Maria Thereza Negreiros’ experimental urge, has been, exactly, a passion for being in the forefront of a new image, and the use of different materials. I would say, instead, that this desire always had the same motivation; to say something important and profound that would widen the visual register of the public and allow it to enter a new imaginary territory.
Meter by meter, her work is now, effectively, a large territory. It bears her name but also her mark; warm, sensual, deeply disturbing, nonconformist.
Marta Traba, An Open History of Colombian Art
María Thereza Negreiros starts working with photography in 1971. She searches irrevocable realistic images of eyes, teeth, mouth, to turn them into magic objects enlarging or duplicating them into a transparent photographic sheet. She insists on filling the objects (boxes, cubes, mobiles) with meanings that surpass the mere technical problem solving, without ever losing her goal: define and censure the subhuman nature of the space assigned to man. All María Thereza Negreiros experimental efforts are based on her concern to free the man and to elucidate the “condition problems of actual space”, according to her own words.
Marta Traba, Art Critic
Introduction to the Catalogue for the exhibition at IBEU Gallery,
Rio de Janeiro, 1967
Maria Thereza Negreiros, a Brazilian painter living in Cali, Colombia, is one of the most disquieting young figures of today’s Colombian art. Disquieting is an ambiguous qualifier that needs to be more precise. I want to say that she works with the constant preoccupation of investigating shapes, materials, decisions about color, and composition.
Her work is a long multi-faceted inquiry that never loses sight of the fact that experiments do not permit distraction or losing track of the content.
Maria Thereza’s first concern was to mix the new views of technique of painting with the desire to interpret a Latin American reality. The problem was difficult; it separated, right at the beginning, any anecdotal solution of such a reality. Thus, Maria Thereza needed to define what her vision, her perception or her feeling about things American consisted of. She began, with Genesis scrutinizing the beginning of shapes and of things, with lacquers, resins, sands and new paints that distanced her from the luminous color of her first oils, and led her work into relief, into the third dimension. More figurative forms came from Genesis: not satisfied with painting a figure, she included it, in the shape of dolls, simple, crude, trivial, that became part of the painting. After that she discarded the figures that gave an excessively decorative expression to the painting, and discovered her own creatures, angels with extraordinary strength, implanted in the grotesque and the monumental.
These phenomenal and absurd creatures expressed themselves with unusual materials, worked with noted meticulousness. It was the moment of the deepest interpenetration between the material and the image; also the point at which experience left off being excessively evident, and the content imposed itself strongly. Over these periods, Maria Thereza Negreiros’ work developed like a human being, passing from infancy to adolescence, to maturity. A maturity full of power and now without the anguish of many issues within the new experimental zones of painting. It is notable that, being work full of deliberate intentions, it continues to be inflexibly organic. It doesn’t separate itself from its passion for life, nor does it lose this vitality. On the contrary, it nurtures itself with ever more daring solutions, with more daring materials. It bravely positions itself between truth and fiction, but doesn’t lose sight of the fact that any of its esthetic structures is born from passion, as well as a mental process of investigation.
I classified this work as disquieting for all of these reasons. Young artists usually establish themselves in a field discovered by others; it is easier and avoids the almost insurmountable effort to discover something new in the esthetic world, where something more original than what preceded it, is announced all the time. Young people accommodate themselves in categories, they rely on labels, and their greatest effort consists of modifying the appearances of something already known. Maria Thereza Negreiros is an unusual case of revolt against that way of working. She is beyond categories, systems and models. It is difficult to find someone who is more personal, more alert about her own processes, and more unsatisfied with them. She does nothing more than declare herself and improve herself; she doesn’t dwell upon her discoveries. It isn’t just about honesty and self-criticism. It’s more than that; its an unending obstinacy within the resolve to advance, sniff out, discover. As regards the process of the deterioration of all contemporary art, she suffers with all of the intensity that this entails in a particular manner. It’s possible that due to this exceptional quality of her work, this style will become stronger, and losing timidity, until the value of speaking and expressing oneself without circumlocution, becomes established.
Reinauguration of “El Taller”, Cali, Colombia
Abril de 1962
The outstanding paintings in this exhibition are those of Maria Thereza Negreiros. On this occasion she exhibits various sunflowers overflowing with her enthusiasm for light without limits: they are, after all, sunflowers. We are dealing with abstract paintings where light is everything, paintings which must be viewed with sunglasses. 200 watt sunflowers that burned the paint brushes. They are not stains, which would be easy. This is authentic painting which has progressed immensely since its initial presentation in the National Artists Exhibition. The distribution of light in her paintings seems executed with glass brushes… but this commentary is not a critique but a chronicle already long enough. Better to cut it short.
Walter Engel, from the book: 25 years of fine arts in Colombia.
María Thereza Negreiros, with her lyrical abstract expressionism, imposed herself immediately on appearing for the first time in Bogotá with her 1961 exhibition at the Luis Angel Arango Library. In spite of its note of fresh spontaneity, the series, Magic in the Mountain carried within it the unmistakable pictorial strength of the oils. The artist soon stood firm, and did so progressively, as one of the most magnificent personalities that emerged in the seventies. She passed through a period related to informality that culminated with the Genesis series, exhibited first in Bogotá and later at the Pan-American Union in Washington.
Later she moves from one discovery to another, each one conquered honestly, in constant exploration of new materials and their combination. She first experiments with doll heads as part of the pictures, (reminding one of pop art), later with layers made from plastic sheets, on wood. The human being becomes a central motive, but fragmented, showing only a pair of hands, a face, a female torso with voluptuous breasts, all in absolutely free configuration and daring combinations of luminous colors. María Thereza Negreiros is today one of the most expedient creators, the most inspired and most consistent within Colombian contemporary art.