The monographic exhibition of José Antonio da Silva’s works belonging to the collection of MAC USP can be construed as an unpholding aspect of the issue of authorship in art history. This comes from the fact that we are here confronted with a self-taught artist, whose paintings have been seen as “fruits of his isolation during his youth” (Lourival Gomes Machado), and whose reception in the world of art was due to his rapid incorporation into modernist debate and the presence of his work in important collections, such as that of the former São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM) and São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), just after his discovery by critics Paulo Mendes de Almeida, Lourival Gomes Machado and Pietro Maria Bardi. The “invention” of José Antonio da Silva as a painter took place in the second half of the 1940s, where here and abroad, modernist critics and artists were again taking interest in a dear issue to the notion of modern art, violently attacked in the interwar period in Europe: the idea of “primitive” in artistic creation. In 1948, while José Antonio da Silva was opening his first solo exhibition at Domus Gallery in São Paulo, French artist Jean Dubuffet, for instance, was founding his Foyer de l’Art Brut, in the basement of René Drouin Gallery in Paris, gathering works produced by self-taught artists.
José Antonio da Silva’s works were incorporated into the museum’s collection in two different moments, which identify them with their respective donators. Fifteen of them were transferred to the collection of MAC USP as Collection Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho in 1963, coming from the former São Paulo MAM. Some sources pointed to the acquisition of these works in the context of the promotion of José Antonio da Silva as an artist represented by Domus Gallery in São Paulo, between 1948 and 1951. In a fond of documents of one of the first directors of the former MAM (Carlos Pinto Alves), we find an extensive correspondence and contract drafts exchanged between him and the artist, which suggests that there was a very close relation between the gallery and the former museum, in the promotion of the recently-discovered painter. From the exhibition at the Culture House of the state of São Paulo country-side village of São José do Rio Preto in 1946, to his participation at the I Bienal de São Paulo, in 1951, the correspondence between the artist and Pinto Alves concern is essentially two subjects: the preparation and publication of his autobigraphy, Romance da minha vida [Novel of My Life], sponsored by the former MAM, in 1949; and his agreements of selling his works with Domus Gallery. Particularly interesting is a contract of ending the agreement with the gallery, dated of 1951, in which the artist lists 100 works deposited in the gallery, the great majority of which were to be destined to Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho to settle a debt the artist had with his patron (when helping him to buy a house). The dating of the works of the Collection Matarazzo confronted with this documentation suggests that they came from this settlement, i.e., from the exhibitions at Domus Gallery. Still in this context, José Antonio da Silva had been the star of the exhibition Exposição de Pintura Paulista [Exhibition of Paulista Painting], organized by the gallery in July 1949 for the venue of the Ministry of Education and Health, in Rio de Janeiro. The artist appeared together with Aldo Bonadei, Fulvio Pennacchi, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Flávio de Carvalho, Yolanda Mohalyi, among others, with 63 paintings, as a legitimate representative of Paulista painting. Lourival Gomes Machado’s text on his work called the attention to the fact that Silva’s painting was grounded on color. The same idea would be explored in Bardi’s reviews, on the occasion of the artist’s participation at the 1952 Venice Biennale as part of the Brazilian national representation.
The second set of Silva’s works were donated by critic, poet and psychoanalyst Theon Spanudis to MAC USP in 1979. The collector donated 25 works by the artist, mostly produced during the 1950s. Spanudis’s choices are very different from the choices made for Matarazzo, and reflect a second phase in the artist’s work, in which the critic theorizes over a “Brazilian constructivism”, and searches to link Silva’s experience to that of the group of Brazilian concrete artists. Spanudis’s aesthetic quest served as basis to his attempt to argue on the importance of the “numinous” in artistic creation, and also to identify the geometrical element as being the essence of the understanding of art as a universal language.
Between primitive and concrete, José Antonio da Silva made his way as a painter in the context of modernism of the 1940s/50s. That his work has been seen through one perspective or another is more to do with his introduction into the history of modern art in Brazil, in a moment that seems to mark a turning point of the notion of modernism: the abandonment of realist tendencies and the plunge into abstractionism.