Apocalyptic scenes of forest fires, reddened atmospheres thick with ash, scorched earth, and people in flight have filled our news media recently. I was particularly awed by a photo published a few weeks ago of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, also known as a cumulonimbus flammagenitus cloud, which formed over the devastating California Creek Fire located just outside of Fresno, CA, and which Nasa reported as the largest such cloud ever observed over any U.S. territory.[i] At the time of this writing, the Creek Fire has been burning for over three weeks and destroyed nearly 300,000 acres; it is currently only 36% contained. Sadly, the Creek Fire does not stand as an isolated event but is merely the latest in a startlingly frequent sequence of wildfires. One California fire chief noted that twenty-five to thirty years ago, a 10,000-15,000-acre fire was considered to be a huge conflagration, but today we are experiencing 100,000-400,000-acre fires regularly, evidence that we now live in the age of the mega-fire.
Beyond the photograph of the pyrocumulonimbus, I have been equally moved by the images of human suffering associated with these recent fires disseminated through news outlets as well as on social media. On September 21, 2020, the Deseret News published a story about the damage caused by the Almeda Fire located in southern Oregon that destroyed 2,357 homes “making it one of the 10 most-devastating American fires in 50 years.”[ii] As I read the story and viewed the images of desperate residents standing over the charred remains of their homes, I couldn’t help but feel my own emotions welling inside me. It is a poignant story in a year of poignant stories.
These photos of charred landscapes and human sorrow call to my mind a series of paintings produced in Brazil nearly seventy-five years ago by the Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari (1903–1962). The series is called simply: Retirantes (1944). I have been thinking about these paintings recently not merely because of the fires but also because of the COVID pandemic. Portinari was born to a family of Italian immigrants who lived in the rural community of Brodowski, a small city located in the interior of the state of São Paulo amid large-scale coffee plantations. Portinari demonstrated a precocious talent for painting, and as a young man he received an invitation to move to Rio de Janeiro and receive formal training at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes. In 1919, on the day of his scheduled departure for Rio, however, Portinari’s entire family had been struck by the Spanish flu pandemic, which was still circulating in Brazil at the time, and they were too sick to accompany him to the train station. Portinari stood at the door of his home, uncertain of whether to leave his family or stay. According to an autobiographical account written decades later, Portinari moved to stay in the home with his family when his sister interrupted:
“Vai, bobo … aqui não há possibilidade.” Num impulso saí correndo, tive tempo ainda de apanhar o trem em movimento. A última imagem que me ficou gravida na memória foi a de meu pai; levantara-se para se despedir, ainda posso vê-lo: de capote escuro, atravessando o largo da estação. Não teve tempo de me dizer nada….”[iii]
[“Go, you fool … there’s no future for you here.” In an impulse, I left running with enough time to catch the train just as it was starting to leave. The last image that was engraved in my memory was that of my father; he stood to wave goodbye. I can still see him: with a dark cloak, walking across the station plaza. There was no time for him to say anything to me …”]
I believe this dramatic moment of uncertainty and decision resonates strongly with the conditions we all find ourselves in during this time of COVID. How long should we wait before committing to a specific course of action amid uncertain circumstances?
Portinari arrived in Rio and began his formal training in academic painting. He excelled in his work, especially in portraiture, yet to the chagrin and outright displeasure of his instructors, Portinari could not leave his rural upbringing behind and he began to experiment with rural themes in his painting. One such theme that appears again and again is the figure of the retirante.
In Portuguese, the term retirante is most commonly translated into English as refugee, though that is not the most common term for refugee in Portuguese, which is refugiado. A retirante connotes migrant as much as it does refugee, and perhaps a more accurate translation might be “migrant refugee.” During his adolescence, and especially in the year 1915, Portinari witnessed many migrant refugees passing through his rural community to escape a devastating drought cycle that decimated agricultural production and occasioned the internal migration of tens of thousands of rural works, who fled towards coastal cities to escape drought and starvation. Portinari began painting retirantes in earnest in the 1920s and 30s during another period of severe drought. In 1944, on the heels of yet another terrible drought, Portinari again witnessed a new wave of retirantes fleeing the sparsely populated dry and rural regions of the Brazilian northeast, and it was in this context that he painted his now famous 1944 Retirantes series.
In the interest of keeping to the limited space of this blog entry, I’ll include here only the first painting from the series, titled simply Retirantes.
The painting presents a group of migrant refugees standing closely together in the foreground of an arid landscape. The figures huddle together in a single human mass, making it difficult to differentiate between the four adults and five children, while several dozen black-feathered birds, presumably vultures, circle far overhead waiting for death. The natural world in this painting functions as more than mere setting. Rather, the painting suggests an intimate and bodily relationship between human and natural forms. The charred and wasted landscape extends to the bodies of the migrants themselves. Appendages, arms and legs, appear as logs that have been burned and scorched. The angular rocky forms of the earth mirror those of the migrants’ own bodies. The woman ostensibly holds a bundle of belongings over her head, but the shape of the bundle is indistinguishable from the rocky outline of the mountain lying distantly behind her. It is as though she carries a burden – the weight of the world. Though the image expresses the sadness of despondency, no tears can be seen in the eyes of any character in the group – there is not the slightest hint of moisture. Just as the sky and earth are dry and sterile, so too are the migrant refugees themselves. Apart from a few ragged articles of clothing, the migrants stand bared to the world, the bony forms of both children and adults exposed, bones that might be interchangeable with the stones underfoot. The painting’s human tableau thus suggests a kind of humanscape of environmental disaster resulting from drought.
In 1944, in the midst of a world war and the domestic calamity of a devastating drought, Portinari expressed his solidarity with the people and place he loved by painting an image of an unfolding environmental and social tragedy. Seventy-five years later, I cannot help but think of Portinari’s work as I contemplate the ongoing environmental and social crisis we are now experiencing. We may well ask, “What role does art and literature play in helping us to understand such crises?” To that question, I believe Portinari’s response is insightful: “Uma pintura que não fala o coração não é arte, porque só ele a entende. Só o coração nos poderá tornar melhores e é essa a grande função da arte” [Painting that does not speak to one’s heart is not art, because only the heart can understand. Only the heart can make us become better and this is the great function of art].[iv] Portinari’s enduring legacy resides in paintings that continue to speak to our hearts, teach us empathy, and ask us to be better by seeing the world anew.
This post was written by Rex Nielson, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.
[i] Mishanec, Nora. “‘Fire-breathing dragon of clouds’: Formation over Creek Fire said to be biggest in US history.” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 10, 2020. https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/The-fire-breathing-dragon-of-clouds-15557949.php.
[ii] Walch, Tad. “50 homes in one Latter-day Saint ward destroyed by fire, and that’s only part of the story of loss and resiliency.” Deseret News, Sept. 20, 2020. https://www.deseret.com/faith/2020/9/20/21445803/almeda-fire-oregon-washington-mormon-latter-day-saints-homes-burned-forest-tinder-dry-drought
[iii] Portinari, João Candido. Portinari, o menino de Brodósqui. Livroarte Editora, 1979, 59
[iv] Fabris, No ateliê de Portinari, Museu de Arte Moderna, 2011, 70.
What a beautifully written piece. Thank, you Rex. And you provide an excellent example of how the humanities do advance the cause of “social justice” by reaching us through such poignant emotional portrayals.
[…]  I have written about Portinari’s work previously for the Humanities Center: https://humanitiescenter.byu.edu/facing-drought/. […]