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SMOKING MIRRORS: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF MIGUEL RIO BRANCO

THEY SAY THAT CARAVAGGIO ground up flesh to make his colors. They also say he didn’t draw, but of course he did draw, only with paint, alla prima. He didn’t make drawings beforehand because he didn’t have time—only thirty-nine years to live, love, fight, outrage both clergy and humanists, and blast European painting out of the sinkhole of a tired and didactic Mannerism.

Born fifty years ago in the Canary Islands and later transplanted to Brazil, Miguel Rio Branco has had a little more time, but he doesn’t act like it. Like Caravaggio, he’s a hell-bent verist with a renegade baroque sensibility. Rio Branco’s realism reminds us that the Portuguese word barroco originally referred to pearls that were irregular and rough, not perfectly round. When French critics picked up the term at the end of the eighteenth century they used it to describe an art they considered “grotesque” and “decadent.”

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