Emiliano Di Cavalcanti

18.03 – 28.05 / 2016

Di Cavalcanti  once said, “I am my own person”. Nothing could have defined him better. Self-taught, illustrator, designer, caricaturist and painter, among all of the Modernist painters, Di Cavalcanti was the only artist that remained active from the start of the modernist period through to its conclusion (until his death in 1976) and the artist who best captured the nuances and lyricism of the Brazilian culture and people. More than two decades of this rich output, spanning from 1925 to 1949, will be on display in the exhibition Di Cavalcanti - Conquistador de Lirismos (Conqueror of Lyricism), with the curatorship of Denise Mattar and consultancy of Elisabeth Di Cavalcanti. The show will take place between 17 March and 28 May and comprise some 50 works by the artist – including oils, watercolors, gouaches – as part of the institutional initiative of the Almeida & Dale Gallery, which has previously put on exhibitions of Fernando Botero, Aldo Bonadei, Alfredo Volpi, Alberto da Veiga Guignard, Willys de Castro, Candido Portinari and Ismael Nery.


In the next step of their institutional project, on 8 April during SP-Art the A&D Gallery will launch the book Di Cavalcanti - Conquistador de Lirismos (Di Cavalcanti - Conqueror of Lyricism) by publishers Capivara. Also under the curatorship of Denise Mattar and consultancy of Elisabeth Di Cavalcanti, the edition is especially significant because, although one the most well-known and prominent Brazilian artists, there have been few publications on his work to date. Most publications are now dated and out of print.


1925 and 1949

The period of focus from 1925 to 1949 marks a period of maturing, transformation and a turning point in the work of the artist. 

1925 was the year of Di Cavalcanti´s return from his first trip to Europe of two years during which he worked in Paris as a journalist. In the French capital, he frequented the Ranson Academy, visited museums and became enamored of the German expressionists. He befriended artists such as Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Eric Satie, Jean Cocteau and other French intellectuals. He travelled to Italy to take in Tiziano, Michelangelo and Da Vinci. This contact with the vanguard of Europe and grand masters of the past was fundamental for Di Cavalcanti, who returned to Brazil reinvented and aware of what he wanted for his work, saying “Paris made its mark on my intellect. It was like creating a new nature within me and my love for Europe changed my love of life into love for all that is civilized. And now civilized, I began to get to know my homeland. (...)”.


In 1949, during a trip to Mexico, Di Cavalcanti came into contact with painters and muralists Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and José Orozco (1883-1949). The experience with the Mexican muralist opened new avenues for the artist who, from 1950 started producing panels and murals for the new architecture featuring simple bold lines embodying the dream of Brazilian modernity.

During the 24 years spanning the two comebacks, Di Cavalcanti elected the main themes of his work: everyday suburban citizens depicted in shanty town, corner bars, docks, brothels, popular festivities and women, mulattoes, black, white, rich and poor, brunettes and blonds, portrayed in a lyrical and sensual atmosphere, melancholic and languid. He juxtaposed opposites – lyricism and sensuality, the real and fantastical, the everyday and extraordinary, reason and emotion –, conjuring an artistic universe he classified as magic realism.


Di Cavalcanti was born Emiliano de Albuquerque e Mello on 6th September 1897 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil´s capital city at the time. The son of Rosália and Frederico Augusto de Albuquerque Mello, both descendants of the Cavalcanti family in Paraiba state, adopted his artistic, effective and resonant name early on as a kind of trademark derived from his nickname “Didi”.

He spent his childhood in the neighborhood of São Cristóvão. Despite having a life of limited means, his family ties with the abolitionist José do Patrocínio (married with his aunt Maria Henriqueta) exposed him to music and literature as a child.


The death of his father in 1914 was probably a factor in his not studying at the National School of Fine Arts (which he would definitely have hated). At the age of 17, Di Cavalcanti had to engage in paid work and this need to make a living would persist throughout his life, an aspect that distinguished him from other modernists and kept him in touch with the realities of life.

Di Cavalcanti began his career and training as an artist through the press working as a caricaturist and illustrator. In 1916 he took part in the I Salon of Humorists, at the Liceu de Artes e Ofícios (School of Arts and Crafts) in Rio de Janeiro. The following year he went to São Paulo where he studied at Law School for three years.

With little money but good references and much talent, the artist quickly became part of the circle of intellectuals who had connections with the São Paulo and Rio newspapers. According to Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti helped convince her to hold the famous 1917 exhibition, which made waves in São Paulo and was considered the genesis of the 1922 Modern Art Week, at which the Rio artist was a central figure.

Di Cavalcanti claimed the idea of holding 1922 Modern Art Week as his own, and particularly winning over Graça Aranha to join the modernist fold. This claim has since been refuted, with Marinete Prado being credited for the idea of the event, although nobody contests Di Cavalcanti´s key role in holding it. He was a participative, outspoken, active member of the São Paulo group of modernists.

The artist produced the catalogue and program for the Week, arranged the participation of Villa-Lobos and invited a number of different artists, including Ferrignac and Martins Ribeiro. Twelve of his works featured in the exhibit, including Café Turco (Turkish Coffee), Retrato (Portrait), O Homem do Mar (Man of the Sea) and A Piedade da Inerte (Mercy of the Inert).

Devoted to visual arts in 1918, Di had the opportunity to learn painting at the atelier of George Fischer Elpons, learning the craft without the strictness of the “fine arts” and gleaning information about  the European movements which he could not find among most Brazilian artists.


Another influential name in his formative years was journalist and chronicler Paulo Barreto, known as João do Rio. A famous chronicler, translator of Oscar Wilde and author of  A alma encantadora das ruas (The enchanting soul of the streets), João do Rio introduced Di to the Rio underworld, stifled by the urban reforms imposed by the city mayor Pereira Passos.

Di Cavalcanti´s work was halted in the 1930s owing to political persecution. He was arrested as a Getúlio Vargas sympathizer in São Paulo and as a communist in Rio. Di satirized Brazil´s social and political behavior in a series of 12 caricatures entitled Brazilian Reality.


In 1936, Di managed to flee to Paris where he stayed for four years working for Radio Diffusion Française. Over this period and throughout the 1940s, the artist´s paintings are imbued with lyricism and languorous sensuality. “Di was the first to depict on canvas people from the shanties, suburbs, the cradle of Samba. The most Brazilian of artists, he was the first to sense that amidst the countryside, plantations, brush and the avenue, the “civilized center”, there existed a zone of mediation – the suburbs. It was in the suburbs that the true autochthone of the big city resided. No longer country-dweller, yet not cosmopolitan. What one finds there is authentic in origin and sensitivity”, wrote art critic Mário Pedrosa in the Jornal do Brasil on 6th of September 1957.


In his mural work, which began following his return from Mexico in 1949, the artist experimented with undulating forms, stripy patterns and prints, in a profusion of visual information and predominant stylizations. A vibrant, colorful and multiple esthetic characterized his work during this period, in which some surrealist elements can also be distinguished. Among the more well-known works are the tapestries of the Alvorada Palace, the large panel of Congress, the Descobrimento (Discovery) panel now housed at the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the four works for the Caixa Econômica Federal to illustrate Lottery tickets. In 1964, his met his last wife, Ivete Bahia da Rocha.


The 1950s was a period in which the artist went through some of the most recognized phases of this work and which, at times, detracted from its merit: the mulattoes:


The sensuality, indiscipline and bohemian style of Di Cavalcanti, “an antidote against moodiness”, according to Vinicius de Morais, led him to being considered with reservation by a contingent of art critics, despite his work up to the 1950s.


However, more than any other artist before him,  Di Cavalcanti managed to express in his paintings the lyricism of the Brazilian people and their sentimental and sensual sensitivity.  His languid women, sweaty laborers, musicality emanating from gafieiras - honky tonk dance halls; all transcends poetry. His landscapes exude the scent of wild flowers, wrought iron latticework reflects a transparent blue sheen which blends with both sky and sea. This love is reiterated in a poetic and embracing form in the books Viagem de minha vida (My life´s Journey) and Reminiscências líricas de um perfeito carioca (Lyrical reminisces of a perfect carioca).


Painter-cum-poet, friend of many friends, lover of many women, his own person, Di loved Brazil with a passion.

Rua Caconde 152

01425 – 010 São Paulo, Brazil

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