Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Oficina Cerâmica Francisco Brennand

Tile panel of a lizard on a monumental wall in the Oficina Francisco Brennand 
Brazil is a vast country, the 5th largest in the world, covering 3.2 million square miles in area (8.5 million square kilometers).  I spent 3 winters there, 9 months in total between 2005 and 2007.  While I partied away a hefty chunk of that in the amazing city of Rio de Janiero, I did cover a fair amount of ground, ranging south as far as Porto Alegre, west to Iguassu Falls, and north to the dunes of Jericoacoara beyond Forteleza.  Brazil has a partying culture (hence my decadent behavior in Rio), and carnival is its apex.  I did my first two carnivals in Rio, and my third to the north in the city of Recife and the nearby colonial town of Olinda, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  These are decadent affairs that I fully emersed in.  I went to Samba Schools every week while I was in Rio, and learned to dance really fast.  Recife and Olinda have the largest carnival in Brazil.  This video shot in Olinda will give you an idea of how crazy it all is!

I made costumes in my guest house room to wear in the parades, which have a different style of music and dance called Frevo.  Rather than the stadium spectacle of the Sambadromo in Rio, the street parties in Recife are all inclusive and really fun, and at times overwhelming.

Batman and Robin (me)
Most of Brazil's population lives near the Atlantic coast, in a bioregion called the Mata Atlântica.  This is a richly biodiverse ecostystem under great pressure from human development.  Recife is the fourth largest city in Brazil with a population of about 1,700,000 people.  It and nearby Olinda were the first slave ports in the Americas, fueled by the the production of sugarcane, which rapidly became the largest export product for the country.  The surrounding hills were stripped of jungle and replaced by an endless sea of cane fields.  This brought great wealth to the region.  Today much of the sugar cane crop is used to produce ethanol for vehicle fuel.  Brazil leads the world in the production and consumption of ethanol.

Olinda is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The Convent of São Francisco is the oldest in Brazil
Before I came to Recife I had met an extraordinary ceramic artist by the name of Renaldo Eckenberger in the city of Salvador de Bahia to the south.  I was walking down a street in the historic city center when I stumbled upon his studio.  He spotted me peering in the window of this magical space and came to the door.  Inside was a world unto itself, populated by a perverse and hilarious array of ash grey blue eyed characters with protruding pink tongues.

A small menagerie of the hundreds of figurines in Renaldo Eckenberger's studio
We became friends and I returned daily for tea or cachaça (fermented cane sugar), sitting on the balcony looking out towards the sea.  He was the one who told me about the artist Francisco Brennand and his compound outside of Recife.  I have one of Renaldo's pieces, a pram carrying a very large headed baby sticking its tongue out at me, and a lithograph he called "Lesbians on a beach by the fort", both of which I treasure as a memory of that time.

Remaldo Eckenberger and his dog in the garden two flights down from his studio and flat in the historic downtown of Salvador de Bahia
Francisco Brennand was born in 1927, the son of financially successful parents decended from an Irish immigrant who arrived in Recife in 1820 from Manchester, England, that married in to a family that ran sugar mills there.  His family had built a a brick and tile manufacturing factory outside the town of Várzea on what was once an 8 square kilometer property.  This was the site where the first sugar mills in Brazil were built over 400 years ago, 11 miles from the center of Recife.  As a boy he developed skills as a ceramicist at the factory, studying under the resident sculptor Abelardo de Hora at the age of 15.  He also studied painting with prominant Pernumbuco artists and at the age of 20, was awarded a prize at the art salon at the state museum for a work called "Segunda Vicão da Terra",  that was inspired by the landscapes around the São João sugar mills.  He married Deborah de Moura Vasconcelos, who he met while attending the Colégio Oswald Cruz in the city of Goiânia.  They then traveled to Europe to continue studies of art and architecture in Spain, France, and Italy where he was exposed to the ceramic and artistic explorations of reknowned artists of the time, like Miro, Picasso, and Legar.  In Perugia Italy he took a course in ceramics where he learned about glazing and firing at different temperatures.

Ceramic works and a photo mural in the Museé Picasso in Paris
In 1950 he traveled to Barcelona to see the work of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi, who's work had a substancial impact on me as well.  I taught myself how to cut and set tile mosaic after my visit first visit to Barcelona in 1987.

Undulating tile mosaic benches in Parc Guell in Barcelona were decorated by Antonio Gaudi's assistant Josep Maria Jujol
The Brennand family's factory in Várzea had shuttered it's doors and fallen in to ruin by the time that Francisco returned to Recife.  It was there that he began to produce his own line of decorative tiles, reopening the workshop in 1971. He branched out to produce a facinating array of ceramic sculptures that would elevate him to be considered Brazil's most famous ceramic artist.

Boxed tiles in a warehouse at the Oficina Cerâmica Francisco Brennand
I was in for a spectacular treat today.

Being a thrifty traveler, I opted to take a bus to Várzea.  This can be a lot of work, and the equatorial heat made it a sweaty adventure.  After navigating the chaos of the bus stand in Boa Viagem.  I managed to find the one I was looking for.  A priest in brown robes sat next to me on the ride, perhaps foretelling the divine experience that awaited me.  I was dropped at the entrance to a long drive and started walking down the palm lined road flanked by lush humid jungle.  A nice cool air conditioned taxi came to my rescue and took me the rest of the way.

The factory is an expansive complex with a long white stuccoed building with red tiled roofs and a towering chimney at its entrance.  There are a number of structures, including a chapel, and handsome old warehouses with landscaped areas surrounding them.

The constructions here, like the compound itself are monumental.  A long tiled arcaded wall topped with worm like sculptures encloses a lawn bisected by a straight path.  Beneath each arch is a glazed tile panel depicting a menagerie of creatures.

The wall is beautifully detailed with plain and relief tiles.  Phallic heads protrude from gear wheel like shapes above each arch, blending the industrial with the natural and profane.

Pelican like birds on accordian bodies stand on pedastles framed in aqua tiles with open mouthed snakes centered in the arches between them.  It appears that the surrealist movement in Europe had a strong influence on Brennand's work.

A tile panel depicting Mãe Terrà, Mother Earth

Chess man like characters stand like markers in the dramatically architectural space.  The scale of this beautifully detailed wall is astonishing and rich with meaning.

Ligia, a strong, seductive woman in Latin culture
The straight path ends at a beautifully paved patio framed by anthropomorphic sculptures with segmented worm like bodies and animal faces.  Directly ahead is a domed square shrine scaled by reliefs of lizards framing an arch on each side that perfectly compliments the arcaded wall.

Hatching eggs centered on plinths symbolize birth
Inside is a blue tiled light well from which a glazed speckled egg is suspended.  Mounted tusks protrude from the walls.

Ceramic tusks protrude above arches of the shrine to creation
Erotic figures tell a story of life, sex, and fertility
Totemic lifesize statues of Adam and Eve stand at attention in niches in at the end of the wall, he being more modest than her as he clutches his hand over his genitals.

Prominently placed in contrast to the Biblical characters, Venus, depicted as a pair of legs wearing black pointed slippers, lies on her back like an exotic dancer, decapitated at the waist, with a prominent pink vagina and a tongue protruding from one hip, reminding me of the tongues on Renaldo Eckenberger's little sculptures back in Salvador.

Themes that resonate with me are expressed in Brennand's work.  The full cycle of creation, life, sexuality, death, eternity, and mythology are conveyed, with a lusty attention given to the sexy aspect of humanity.  Brazil is known for it's sexual freedom, and many of the sculptures are exagerated to focus on the erotic.  I'm reminded of prehistoric fertility goddesses and satyrs from more carnal prechristian times, like those you would see around Pompeii preserved from destruction and privatization by the church after being buried for centuries by ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

A cornucopia of sexualized busts and eggs ornament a pool and fountains
This is an extraordinary and beautifully executed court, balancing the sacred and the profane in a perfectly proportioned space.  The pond is a simple rectangle but is ornamented with a variety of interconnected sculptures, like nymphs in a Roman bath or Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli.  Thin fountain jets and gliding black swans bring elegant animation to the space.  As a person who has built gardens and studied landscapes all over the world for many years, I have a very critical eye, and I feel that the attention to meaning, scale, composition and detail here are exceptional.  The expression comes at a time when Brazil was shedding the domination of Europe and developing a style of its own, blending European, colonial, and the contemporary into an innovative form that speaks of where the culture and natural history of this vast country is going artistically.  All the bases and emotions are covered, from ancient past to eternity.  It is no surprise that Brennand collaborated with the great Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who pioneered a new movement for garden design.

The arcaded wall holds your attention as you approach, and the plaza and pool provide a threshold to the old factory buildings, which holds a vast collection of over 2,000 ceramic and mixed media sculptures.

Strange vaginal creatures emerging from the pond
Delicately disected foliage and a nicely detailed pathway flank the studio

The open layout and simplicity of the interior, punctuated with symmetrical arches houses a gallery of ceramic forms on simple white evenly spaced plinths.  Larger more significant works are sited in the center under the handsome dark trusses of the roof.  There is a lot here, showcasing a productive artistic life.  The works are prominently titled and signed and dated.

The former factory converted in to a beautiful gallery, open to the outdoors through a series of arches

Caligula and what looks like an ice cream cone share a pedastle in the gallery

A fair amount of fetish is expressed in the designs, that seems to combine industrial motifs with sexual themes.

I found this interesting trailer for a film about Brennand, in Portuguese of course.
It gives you a glimpse of the artist at different times in his life.  It seems the Oficina was a life unto itself, reclusive and all encompassing, a fantasy existence in the jungle, detached from the city a mere 11 miles away.

Front and back views
There are still active workshops here and I was surprised to see Brennand himself walk past me and in to a meeting, his hair and long beard a brilliant white.  I didn't have an opportunity to speak to him though.  I studied Portuguese for 3 years and was starting to get a grasp on the language, which is very lyrical, nasal, and shooshy sounding.  Its easier to understand in the north of the country than in Rio and the south, perhaps because for me it sounded clearer, with less slang.

Artisans working in the Brennand workshop
Eventually it was necessary to build new galleries for the ever expanding collection.  In this building there are more ceramic sculptures and a selection of paintings on display.  I found that the themes can be sexually controversial.  There were a series of paintings based on the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, where a rather seductively vulnerable looking Little Red was being solicited by Brennand depicted as the Big Bad Wolf.  As inappropriate sexual behavior draws worldwide condemnation he would be treading on dangerous ground today, and he was criticized for the content of many of his pieces.  But this is a privately owned institution and Brennand has been able to display his provocative work without censorship, and hopefully his fantasies were satiated by his art and not acted upon.

Dick Heads ;-)

A modern Venus de Milo
The interior walls are tiled with a variety of panels arranged in perfect compositions and framed in the brown tiles used clad the architecture throughout the Oficina.

A sunken section of the floor is also tiled in a mandala like design.  The galleries double as a showroom, displaying the potential use for the tiles and objects that are made to sell.

A tiled floor in the Gallery
Its interesting to see the date of when the work was done so prominently featured.
The glaze colors are very natural and organic in pallet.  Nothing is garish or flash.  These are the colors of the Earth, and have a very mineral quality about them.  On the website the names of various tiles are connected to the landscapes that the colors come from.  Verde Amazonas, Azul Caribe, Vermelho Andaluz, and Ouro Várzea are some of the spectrum of speckled, mottled tiles on the website.  There is a plan but no key to tell you what the numbers are on the map.
http://www.brennand.com.br. The menu is in Portugeuse but its not hard to navigate, and well worth doing.  In addition to several lines of tile, there are gorgeous dishes and decorative objects, including ash trays!  Click on Revestimentos Cerâmicos to see tile, and Objetos Utilitários for decorative ceramics.  It would be a luxury to work with such materials.

This piece has an explosive energy to it, perhaps a metaphore for drive to create.

The symbol for the Brennand brand with abundantly laden ceramic fruit bowls 

Everything is ceramic
There is a pleasant cafe on site with good food, beautifully presented with an artistic flair.

Carambola, or Star Fruit used as a garnish in a delicious Batido, or fruit smoothie

An anthropomorphic segmented worm wearing work boots
Being in an equatorial climate, it is possible to successfully use ceramics in an outdoor setting.  I have done some outdoor tile mosaic work on projects in the Pacific Northwest and have found that certain glazes will exfoliate when temperatures, combined with humidity cause the tiles to expand.  My outdoor tile work has held up better on vertical surfaces than horizontal ones, and prefering matte tiles over glossy.

I tile mosaics inspired by Pietra Dura designs on the Taj Mahal covers a concrete retaining wall 
One of my favorite fountains in the gardens is a niche with a water spout cascading over a tile panel depicting fish and a pyramid.  Ferns grow from the moist grout joints in the panel.  Its wonderful that these are not removed, allowing life to colonize art.

The water in the pool engeniously flows in to the open mouths of two fish rising to the surface.

This grouping of figures is remeniscent of chessmen in a societal game of the class system and levels of control.

A wonderful fountain of spouting serpents surrounds a columner fertility goddess in a round, walled pool.
A Fertility Goddess surrounded by 12 spouting serpents
Spouting snakes are a wonderful thing to behold.

In the year 2000 the Praça Burle Marx was constructed using a design that was gifted to Brennand by his friend, the great Brazilian landscape architect and horticulturalist Roberto Burle Marx.  On occassion Brennand constructed works for designs implimented by Burle Marx, who also worked with ceramics and created iconic murals for various garden installations.  On my two previous trips to Brazil I spent a fair amount of time visiting and studying gardens designed by  this visionary man.  You can read about it here:  https://jeffreygardens.blogspot.com/2011/10/gardens-of-roberto-burle-marx.html

Praça Burle Marx, a composition of shapes, colors, and textures punctuated with sculpture

Another view
A surreal tiled wall forms the backdrop for a pool with fountains and sculpture

A full view of the tiled wall

Sanseveria rise like a bed of tongues by the pool
A Fertility Goddess and spouting phallic tusk like fountains ornament the pool, with the added grace of black swans

Red Iresine is clipped to create a bold circle of blood red color

Everywhere there is sculpture
The back side of the panel in the Praça Burle Marx is just as beautiful as the front but, so that the road you come in on is as beautiful as anything I've ever seen in a garden.  A feathery stand of Papyrus softens the end of the pool and wall.

 Spouts that look like turtle heads spill water in to a trough along a driveway
Nephrolepis exaltata is a tenacious fern that grows over an enormous range, from South America to Africa

Burle Marx plans were abstract paintings and plants are frequently used as paint would be

Sanseveria makes a wonderful pattern in front of a tile wall
The influence being here had on me this day, along with visits to the Sitio Roberto Burle Marx outside of Rio the previous two years is one of the reasons I built the wall I have in my garden, the one on the header on this page.  Knowing how much work it was to build that makes the Oficina Francisco Brennand all the more amazing.  This was a huge undertaking requiring an unrelenting desire to create and a vast array of knowledge to make it happen.  The refinement of the spaces that resulted were for me, a lifechanging experience.  It rose the bar for what I now know is possible and desire to achieve.  There is nothing mediocre going on here.  There is plenty of mediocrity around, why make more?

Even the parking is elegant
The Templo do Sacrificio was inaugarated in 2005.  It utilizes an old structure who's roof had collapsed.  It contains a caged bust of the last Inca Emperor Atahualpa, who was captured by the army of the conquistador Pissaro in Peru, and Moctezuma, emperor of the Aztecs who was conquered by Hernan Cortes in Mexico.  The conquest of the New World was in effect the subjugation and destruction of a multitude of cultures.  Recife was the first slave port in South America.  The impact of colonization is still evident in society and the diversity of peoples here.

A stark tableau addressing the conquering of indigenous cultures by Europeans
Bust of Atahualpa, behind bars
 There is such a large volume of sculpture that it can be used in repetition as an architectural element, that I find to be quite decadent and wonderful.  The influence of ancient temples is apparent in the layout of many spaces.

Drooling open mouthed faces punctuate the top of a wall
A twisted column tells a story of man interacting with nature
A dragon with a rattlesnake tail emerges from a lawn

A starkly contemporary structure mirrors architectural elements found in the many older structures at the Oficina
A Sundial
A pearalescent glazed orb banded with spikes
Brennand created works on a number of projects around Brazil and the world.  90 sculptures dot the jetty at Marco Zero in Recife commemorating the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of Europeans.  The park was dedicated in the year 2000.  The centerpiece is the ceramic and bronze Torre de Cristal, or Crystal Tower.  It looks like a giant asparagus spear.  Locals call it the Picão do Brennand, or Brennand's Prick for its phallic nature.  Other columns along the strip of stone mimic ancient Greek ruins.

The 32 meter tall Torre de Cristal is part of a sculpture park populated by 90 works created by Francisco Brennand.  They are displayed on a jetty, commemorating the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in Recife
Clay from the Earth, shaped and bisqued, and then glazed with minerals and refired to become magical embellishment for architecture, objects of art that inhabit it.   All together they weave the tales of man and woman, humanity, nature, and the universe into a sensory journey that I am so grateful to have been able to experience.

Spaces are structured and framed by straight lines
The Oficina is surrounded by a lush densely forested preserve.  The Mata Atlantica is one of the most diverse forest ecosystems in the world, but the pressures of human development have reduced it by more than 90%.  A glimpse of what was is a densly verdant environment.

Sphinx like busts line a wide paved axis that terminates at an column on a tiered pedastal at the edge of the forest

And then along came Adão, Adam
A shallow lake emerging from the forest along the road walking out
When it was time to leave, I found a man sleeping in the only taxi in the otherwise empty but attractive parking lot.  But he was waiting for people he had brought there, so I had to walk back to the bus stop.  It was an opportunity to distill the world that had just been revealed to me.  Little Red Riding Hood walking alone in the forest.  If we are the creators of our own personal universe, mine had just expanded in to new frontiers.  Its the main reason I travel every winter, to step outside the bubble of life at home and explore inspiring new realms.  To step in to the world manifested by this artistic genius was a earthtone jewel in the necklace that is the path of my life.

The one sculpture I sketched in my journal
No prizes from the Art Salon for me
Francisco Brennand passed away from complications relating to pneumonia on December 19, 2019 at the age of 92.  It is unknown to me what will become of the tile factory.  It is my hope that it carries on, and that the Oficina remains open to the public, as it is a truly magnificent and controversial monument to the ambitious artistic expression of a remarkable man.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

1 comment:

  1. A friend shared this article with me. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I wanted to note that as far as ceramic mosaics for outdoors go, you should have good luck in any climate as long as you fire to cone 6 and use the appropriate clay. The ceramic is no longer porous and won't expand and contract. I have had exterior mosaics with handmade ceramic look the same a decade later. I achieve a wide range of colors using underglazes and 3 coats of clear gloss glaze (Sahara zinc free clear). Because it's the pandemic I actually am writing this long comment (having experience with public art mosaics). Happy creativity!