I started my field research about Brazilian art during the military dictatorship in Porto Alegre, the capital of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Porto Alegre is a symbolic place in the history of the regime.
In 1961, when the then-president Jânio Quadros renounced his charge, the military, sustained by the United States, tried to prevent the vice-president João Goulart (Jango) to take office. At the time, Jango was in China. The military feared a leftist government and, as Jango was visiting a communist country, they asserted that they wanted to prevent a bolshevist dictatorship. The governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Leonel Brizola, organized a civil resistance to maintain the juridical order and assure the respect of the Constitution, called Movement for Legality.
Many artists participated in the resistance and a group of visual artists, musicians, writers, journalists, actors, and newscasters signed the Manifesto de Intelectualidade contra o golpe (Manifesto of the intelligentsia against the coup) that called the Brazilian artists and intellectuals to unite in defense of the constitutional order.
Thanks to the support of the General José Machado Lopes and other politicians, the campaign was successful. Nevertheless, Jango was overthrown three years later, on March 31, 1964 by the military coup that installed the dictatorship.
And it is at the Colegio Militar, the military school of Porto Alegre, that all the five dictators who governed during the regime studied.
I decided to do my first interview to Carlos Tenius, the sculptor who created the Monument to Castelo Branco, one of the organizers of the coup and the first president of the military regime. The monument was commissioned by the businessmen of the area who thought that Castelo Branco had saved the country from communism. The project had to pass the censorship of the military.
Several artists who were asked by the committee refused to do it. Among them the sculptors Vasco Prado, who was a member of the Communist Party and Xico Stockinger, whose name was the first on the list of artists who signed the Manifesto of the intelligentsia in 1961.
Carlos Tenius accepted to create a project for the monument. His statue is 28 meters high and is composed by four standing figures made of iron. They are warriors with over-sized legs, holding shields and standing in circle, as to attack or to protect themselves. The huge statue is located in Parcão, a park in one of the central neighborhoods of the city.
During our meeting, Tenius told that the artists of the left harshly criticized him for designing a statue in honor of a dictator. “Nobody understood what was the message. Art has the fundamental chance of revealing an era. And I was aware of it. I wanted to represent in a subtle way the period of time in which we were living. Instead of participating in demonstrations, being taken by the police, being tortured or killed, I decided to do something symbolic. Subtleness is very heavy.” According to the artist, the monument marked an era. “People need perspective to judge events (and works of art) that only time can give. History needs distance to be comprehended.”
The monument was inaugurated in 1979 at the presence of the last dictator, Figueiredo, after the harshest time of the regime had passed, and the statue is still standing.
With its huge dimensions it transmits a feeling of subjection to the people walking under it. It can perfectly be the representation of the brutality of the dictatorship, of the atmosphere of tension and the sensation of being constantly under control that reigned at that time.
Most of the people who I talked with in the Parcao did not know that the sculpture was a monument to a dictator. However, this year on the night of March 31, the 50th anniversary of the coup, a banner with written “Ditadura nunca mais” (Dictatorship never again) appeared on the statue. Interpretations of the meaning of the statue and the intentions of the artist can be diverse. For sure the monument remains a symbol of an era of violence and limitation of freedom that needs to be remembered in order to be avoid.
Posted by Camilla Querin – MA Candidate at CLACS / Museum Studies