Ferreira Gullar (1930–2016)

Ferreira Gullar, 2015. Photo: Greg Salibian.

ALTHOUGH FAMILIAR WITH HIS WORK FROM MY UNDERGRADUATE YEARS, I never had any reason to reach out to Ferreira Gullar until 2010, when I was preparing the exhibition “Specters of Artaud” for the Reina Sofía. In my research interview with him, we reviewed some well-trodden history: his Concrete poetry of the 1950s and his authorship of the 1959 “Neoconcrete Manifesto” that marked his and his cohort’s break with the rationality of Concrete poetry and visual art. Around the turn of the decade, he also penned a series of newspaper articles titled “Stages of Contemporary Art,” a programmatic and particular vision of art’s progression that culminated in the Brazilian Neoconcrete movement. At the time, I was interested in Surrealism, a movement omitted from his “Stages,” and more specifically in his exposure to the work of dissident Surrealist Antonin Artaud. When prompted about Artaud, Gullar revealed his more complex poetic origins and varied investments. He was indeed familiar with Artaud’s poetry, the book on Van Gogh, as well as the scathing To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1948). Gullar even made mimeographed copies of some poems to distribute to his friends when he first discovered Artaud in the 1950s. Gullar was deeply influenced by what he described as Artaud’s “question of the body,” a complexity Gullar explored by disintegrating verbal syntax to the point of imploding it in the concluding poems of his seminal A luta corporal (The Body’s Struggle, 1954). In this first meeting, which continues to live on with me both for what emerged in conversation and for the collaboration that ensued, Gullar expressed displeasure about one historical fact: In the 1950s, he loaned a magazine with Artaud’s poems to a friend who never returned it. When I asked him about the specific publication, he explained: “It was French, dedicated to Artaud, had a yellow cover and square format, and was published on thick paper.” I promised to track it down, and his otherwise firm and unyielding features gave me an incredulous smile.

In the month that followed, I mailed him a copy of the spring 1949 issue of Les cahiers de la pléiade, hoping that sixty years later he might rediscover in its pages what had so inspired him initially. In return, I received a postcard with the words “quero manifestar-lhe minha gratidão” (I want to express my gratitude to you); when we spoke by phone he enthusiastically added, “que maravilha” (how wonderful). But my interest in Gullar’s exposure to Artaud was more than literary, it was also psychiatric. Like his mentor Mário Pedrosa, Gullar publicly supported the work of Dr. Nise da Silveira, who had opened a painting studio for her patients in the Rio neighborhood of Engenho de Dentro in 1946 (although Gullar did not know her at that time). In 1996, he published Nise da Silveira: Uma psiquiatra rebelde, which included an interview with Silveira in which he asks about her use of Artaud’s definition of madness: os inumeráveis estados do ser (the innumerable states of being). He also wrote on patients’ work, as when he contributed alongside Pedrosa to Silveira’s “Os inumeráveis estados do ser” exhibition catalogue in 1987. Given this history, it is perhaps somewhat paradoxical that in the face of psychiatric reform and deinstitutionalization in Brazil, Gullar—as if in mirrored inversion to Artaud—publically affirmed the necessity of hospitalized psychiatric care, pointing out the ways in which the absence of such sustained care affected families with limited resources and also openly criticizing psychiatrists like Silveira. Gullar himself had two schizophrenic sons. But when it came to art produced in so-called normal or schizophrenic circumstances, Gullar repeatedly spoke to how artistic talent existed independently of such conditions. On this subject, and for the generosity he displayed, I reserve my final lines for him: “I have never mistaken madness for artistic talent, though, and I have always refused to see Artaud’s works or the works of the Engenho de Dentro painters as the fruits of madness.”

For additional Ferreira Gullar Passages, see the forthcoming April issue of Artforum.

Kaira M. Cabañas is associate professor in global modern and contemporary art at the University of Florida, Gainesville.