martedì 18 marzo 2014


As a teenager, she fled Nazi Germany for Brazil. In 2011, as she turns 90, this grande dame of art is being celebrated for her striking urban landscapes and haunting geometries. Strong-willed and unconventional, German-born painter Alice Brill is – in every sense of the phrase – a São Paulo original: a teenage refugee-turned-founding artist of the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM); a noted photographer of the city’s hustle and bustle, who lay down the camera for paint; and a happily-married mother of four who obsessively chronicled the lonely isolation of the urban experience.
Brill was born to a family of Jewish German intellectuals in Cologne in 1920. Her father was an accomplished painter who achieved local renown for his portraits of the literati, including Albert Einstein. When Hitler assumed power in 1933, the family moved to Spain, then Italy and finally to Brazil as Brill’s mother (separated from her husband) scrambled for work.
Though Brill’s early years in São Paulo were precarious, the teenager lucked out in her first job at a bookstore-cum-bohemian hangout, where she was introduced to the local Santa Helena artistic group, who held lively salons and weekend outings to promote open-air painting.
Half a century later, Brill would write of that time: ‘Art was everything to me: refuge and hope, the dream of a precociously-lost freedom in front of the adversity of destiny.It was there that I found a sense of life capable of sustaining me despite the insecurity of a world that appeared to be collapsing.’
Earthy tones
Some of these themes – of refuge and imprisonment, isolation and hope – re-emerge in Brill’s lushly geometric paintings from her most productive period from the 1970s-1990s. Hues of deep orange, red, umber and mustard yellows light up vertical urban landscapes dominated by high rises and houses. A brilliant turquoise occasionally winks through; or an enormous red orb sails above the rooftops as lonely figures stand trapped behind windows below.
Many of the scenes Brill painted – of cluttered skylines and churches, branches and red-tiled houses – are visible today from the windows of her sixth-floor atelier in Vila Madalena. However, Brill’s sense of the sprawling, chaotic city was equally informed by her strong decade of work as a photographer: she documented a rapidly industrialising São Paulo in the early 1950s for MASP director Pietro Maria Bardi. ‘There is perhaps no other artist I can think of who succeeds in capturing the landscape, the facades and the isolation of São Paulo in the exact same way that Alice Brill does,’ says Vernaschi.
Defiant brush strokes
In Brill’s candid self-portrait (1942) – painted the same year her father died in the Jungfernhof concentration camp in Latvia (though Brill would not learn of his death till years afterwards) – a young woman in a white blazer with a weary air peers out of the canvas with apprehensive eyes but a determined, even stubborn, expression on her face. Her mouth is set; her chin is fixed; her look dares the world to stand in her way. 
And whether pioneering the use of batik-making as a modern art technique in Brazil, or steadfastly pursuing a doctorate that she finally obtained at the ripe old age of 73, Brill has lived up to the promise of her self-portrait. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000, but continued to paint and draw afterwards. Says her daughter Silvia Czapski wonderingly, ‘It was as if she forgot about darker colours, which she had always favoured.’ Elvira Vernaschi agrees: ‘Her painting turned violent with colours.’ timeout

Alice Brill Czapski (Cologne, Germany, 1920- ). Photographer, painter, engraver and draughtswoman. Came to Brazil in 1934, as a refugee from Nazi Germany. She frequented the Santa Helena Group in São Paulo, in the first half of the 1940s. In 1946 and 1947, while in the United States, she attended courses at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, and at the Art Student's League, in New York. After returning to Brazil, she worked for the magazine Habitat, for which she photographed architecture and works of art from 1948-60. In 1953-54, at the invitation of Pietro Maria Bardi (1900-1999), director of the Assis Chateaubriand São Paulo Museum of Art (Masp), she executed a major photographic project on daily life in the city of São Paulo. Her activity as a photographer was carried out principally between 1948 and 1960. In parallel, she devoted herself to oil painting in works taking the urban landscape as their theme, while approaching abstraction in her later work. In 1976, she graduated in philosophy from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC/SP). She completed a master's degree in 1982 and a doctorate in 1994, both at the University of São Paulo (USP). She published various works, including Mario Zanini e Seu Tempo [Mario Zanini and his Time] (Perspectiva, 1984) and Samson Flexor - Do Figurativismo ao Abstracionismo [Samson Flexor - From Figurativism to Abstractionism] (MWM/Edusp, 1990). In 2005, a retrospective was held, O Mundo de Alice Brill [The World of Alice Brill], with the exhibition of part of her work belonging to the collection of the Moreira Salles institute.
Critical Commentary
Born in Cologne, Germany, Alice Brill migrated to Brazil with her family in flight from the Nazis in 1930. She established herself as a photographer in 1948, when she accompanied a delegation on an official voyage to the centre of Brazil, where she photographed the Carajás Indians of the Bananal island. During the 1950s, she did reportages for the magazine Habitat, photographing subjects linked to the visual arts and to architecture. At the request of P.M. Bardi, Director of the São Paulo Museum of Art, she realised an extensive photographic project on the city of São Paulo between 1953 and 1954. In these images, the artist revealed the urban space and the daily life of the city, as in Movimento na Rua Direita [Movement in the Rua Direita] (c.1953).
Since the start of her career, Alice Brill devoted herself in parallel to painting in oils, also exploring urban landscape. During the 1960s, her notable canvases portrayed human figures in groups of houses or flats, revealing the solitude of the metropolis. The artist allied the refined use of colour to the marked structure of her canvases, creating unexpected formal relations in the landscapes. In subsequent paintings, she has maintained a dialogue with Abstraction, exploring texture in works of a tonal richness. Throughout her career, Alice Brill has also carried out research on Brazilian artists, including texts on Mario Zanini (1907-1971) and Flexor (1907-1971).

All images ©Alice Brill

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