Last August I was at Fabio Baroli’s studio, in Uberaba, Minas Gerais. Seated on the floor, I set about viewing his paintings and felt as though I were in a movie theater. But, far from being a black box, it was the light streaming through the windows that drew my eye to the artist’s detailed brushstrokes.
In recent years Baroli has been exploring the pictorial features of characters normally called “matutos”, “caipiras” or “capiaus” (which meaning resembles the words “rustic”, “hillbillies” or “rednecks”), an archetype that has been built up in Brazil since the 18th century, but most systematically by 19th century intellectuals. It is interesting to recall, for instance, that, in a text published in 1917, the art critic Monteiro Lobato commented on the work of the then deceased painter Almeida Junior, famous for his images of country folk from the interior of the State of São Paulo. According to this text, the artist “does not paint men, but a man–the son of the earth, and thus creates a national style of painting that contrasts with the dominant international trend”.
The similarities between the two painters, however, are exclusively related to the subject matter of the paintings. In the work of Fabio Baroli, even though the viewer is also presented with a clear preoccupation with a kind of painting in which the human body looms large, there is also a richly diverse exploration of color in certain parts of the paintings. Furthermore, the groups of people brought together here tend to do something rare in the history of painting: they laugh, show their teeth, distort their faces and bodies in an improvised manner based on the poses in digital photographs.
Viewed in this way, the somewhat melancholy tone of Almeida Junior’s rustics gives way to something that is more joie de vivre, a “riotous explosion of life” proud to have only the cultural heritage of the rustic life. If Santa Rosa is an “activity center for the rural woman”, the very idea of the rural has changed a lot in Brazil in recent years.No more of the horses and carts that frequented our imagination for decades; walk around Uberaba and other cities in the “interior of Minas Gerais” and you will find luxury and popular cars side by side, reflecting the different scales of agricultural production that exist in the region.
The 131 years that separate the birth of the two artists and the 434 kilometers between the cities of their birthshow us that, just as painting has changed, so country people, and above all Brazil itself, have seen dramatic transformations.
Still at Baroli’s studio, my attention was drawn to the beige tone that accompanied the actions of his characters. Just as hebrings together narratives in a single large-scale horizontal canvas, the color also has the effect of fragmenting the narratives into small areas. This is the color tone that allows the irregular contrast with a panoramic landscape or the emergence of foregrounded figures throughout the ‘background’. This beige struck me then, as it still does, as being the“color of a mule on the run,” a Brazilian expression we chose for the title of this exhibition.
Aware of the importance of the relation between image and text for Baroli, both in the writing within in the canvases and in the titles based on neologisms and turns of phrase from everyday life, I thought this title apt. I then started looking into its origins and I came across a group of characters as rich as the variety of poses and situations depicted in the artist’s images.
I went to the pages of CâmaraCascudo’s “Traditional Brazilian Idioms” to no avail – there was no reference to the expression I was looking for. Google, in turn, that new fount of fatherly wisdom, simply repeated the same story over and over – that there once was a man called Antonio de Pedro Lopes, a Rio Latinist, who wrote that the expression came from something like“flee like a mule”. In other words, the repeated use of one expression had given rise to another with a different meaning. Sitting in the National Library with this scholar’s “Origins of Proverbs” (1893) before me, I found nothing.
Disheartened, I came across a compilation of essays by the Curitiba writer Zulmira Braga, all based on proverbs. Some phrases consoled me: “People who make things upchange color more than a mule or a cat in the dark: they are blood red with anger, sickly green with fearand, when everything goes wrong, yellow, blue, and gray as a fleeing mule!”.
I thus realized how research into the Portuguese language sparked by observation of a painting had taken me from Minas Gerais to Paraná, from the initial country folk to an encounter with another character, thejacu bird. It appears to me that Fabio Baroli’s painting is situated within this flux of cultural and everyday nuances – amongst the various colors attributed to a ‘fleeing mule’, but always based on an emotional connection to the people that surround him.
The flight here is only in the title–the images pay homage to connecting with people and to the passage of time.