Ismael Nery


In search of essence

28.10 – 12.12 / 2015

Entrails that can reveal the soul, the cross that does not preclude fun, the body that  seeks the soul. The communion between paradoxes characterizes the work of Ismael Nery (1900-1934), one of the most unique artists in Brazilian Modern art, whose work will be on view in the exhibition ISMAEL NERY – IN SEARCH OF ESSENCE, from 28th of October at the Almeida & Dale Gallery. Curated by Denise Mattar, the show comprises 61 works including paintings, drawings and watercolors, besides selected poems by the artist. The exhibition will run until 12th December and is a rare opportunity to see Ismael Nery´s work, most of which is found in private collections. The show brings together works from São Paulo, Fortaleza, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, some of which have never been displayed.


IN SEARCH OF ESSENCE is the artist´s first solo show in 15 years, since the show for which he won awards from the Associação Paulista de Críticos de Arte - APCA and the Associação Brasileira dos Críticos de Arte - ABCA: Ismael Nery 100 years – The Poetic of a Myth, held on the centenary of his death at the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center of Rio de Janeiro and at the Brazilian Museum of Art (FAAP) also curated by Denise Mattar.



Nery swam against the current of academics and modernists: his work did not seek social aspects, nor beauty; neither did it preach a drastic break with the past. Mystical and catholic when intellectuality defended atheism, he built a universal plastic vocabulary while his fellow artists dove head first into nationalism.

Nery was an enigma. He regarded art as a catalytic medium through which he could express his ideas. He never considered art a craft, but a territory through which he sought to weigh up and conjugate its paradoxes. God-fearing and hedonistic, Nery was a man who enchanted many who met him with his beauty, elegance, intelligence and charisma, but who lived, drew and painted while suffering from the trauma of the deaths of his father, brother and of his mother´s insanity.

Nery´s sole subject matter was human beings.  A human being deliberately stripped of all references in relation to time and space. A human being driven by the search for self and its union with others; which tries to understand by looking at the reflection in the mirror, and who is scared upon seeing an unrecognized face. In his portraits and self-portraits, Nery shows the Divine self and the Satanic self, the male and female self, fusing with his friend the poet Murilo Mendes, and his wife, the poet Adalgisa Nery, one of the great inspirations for his work, as was his tragic family.

Unity was another theme which prevailed in his work. Bodies that intertwined, crisscrossed, respawning into other forms, always in the mythical sphere.

His diagnosis with tuberculosis in 1930 was the great watershed in Nery´s work. The body that tortured him became the center of his investigation. After discovering the disease, his world of seduction was replaced by the presence of death. By exposing his entrails, Nery attempted, in an even more radical fashion, to reconnect with that which was beneath (or alongside? Or within? Who knows) the mass of organs, blood and fluids: trying to touch the soul. Fragmenting the sick body may also have been a way to reconnect it with the sublime.


This was the period in which he wrote prolifically and produced his most acrid drawings and narratives: The story of Ismael Nery and the Miserabilia series.

In the pictures by Ismael Nery, estimated at a mere one hundred oils, drawing was a fundamental component. The freedom afforded by the technique was perfectly suited to the fast thinking of the artist. Notably, in his last works, the artist achieved a causticity and subtlety which made him a precursor of contemporary artists.


Born in 1900 in Belém do Pará, Nery moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro at nine years of age. The arrival in Brazil´s former capital was marked by a life-changing event for Nery: the death of his father, physician Ismael Nery (1876-1909) at 33 years of age (Christ´s age) making the loss even more tragic for the catholic family.

At 17 years, Nery joined the National School of Fine Arts (ENBA). As a student he was known for his exceptional drawing skills and for not adapting to the academic rules.

The ENBA suspended teaching in 1918 owing to the Spanish Flu. The epidemic led to the death of Ismael´s younger brother João.

Her son´s death pushed Ismael´s mother Marieta Macieira Nery, to the brink of madness. Deeply cut up by the two losses, she wore only black, using the habit of the Third Order of Saint Francis and went by the assumed name of Sister Veronica. Describing his mother, Nery stated: “She made me and destroyed me.”

Shortly after the death of his brother, Ismael travelled to Paris where he studied at the Julian Academy. In Europe, the artist came into contact with modernism and the art tradition of the Old World.

He returned to Rio in late 1921 and began working as a draftsman at the Architecture section of the National Heritage Institute where he met poet  Murilo Mendes (1901-1975), striking up a friendship that would endure until his death and influence the work and lives of both of men.  After the Ismael´s death, Murilo became the main guardian and disseminator of his legacy.

In 1922, Ismael married to Adalgisa (1905-1980), with whom he would represent one of the paradigmatic couples of Brazilian Modernism. The future poet´s stunning beauty, then seventeen, became one of his favorite themes.

 Ismael Nery returned to Europe in 1927, together with Adalgisa and son Ivan. He met Chagall, one of his great interlocutors and to whom he dedicated a series of watercolors known as Chagallianas.

The artist was a highlight at the 1931 Salon in Rio de Janeiro, marking his second phase of Brazilian modernism. It was during that same year when Nery learned he had tuberculosis.

The disease led to a decline in output of his paintings up until his death on the 6 April 1934, at 33 years of age, akin to his father who passed in 1909, ending a tragic family history and one of the most unique artistic careers of Brazilian modernism.



His work holds a special place in the history of Brazilian art.

In the words of poet Murilo Mendes his great friend, Nery was always “Ismaelíssimo”(maestro Ismael), and who in 1948 published the series of articles Recollections about Ismael Nery in the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.

The artist´s widow, poet Adalgisa Nery published the autobiography  A Imaginária in 1959, in which the tragic family story of Nery was a central theme.

His first retrospective was held only in 1966, 32 years after his death. The impact on the art market, however, was immediate. In the 1970s, the artist’s pictures were fetching exceptional sums.

In 1973, Antônio Bento published the book Ismael Nery, containing a critical analysis of the artist´s work. In 1984, Aracy Amaral put on a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of the University of São Paulo, of which he was Director, coinciding with the publication of Ismael Nery – 50 anos depois (Ismael Nery – 50 years on).

In 2004, Denise Mattar published the book Ismael Nery. Containing 324 pages, the book provides an extensive review of the artist´s work.

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01425 – 010 São Paulo, Brazil

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