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In this pocket-sized catalogue for an exhibition of recipients of the Leirner Prize for Contemporary Art in 1960, Benedito Peretto describes the “proletarian” landscapes of Mário Zanini. Born in the working-class São Paulo neighborhood of Cambuci, Zanini’s family immigrated from Italy. When he was just thirteen he began taking courses at the Liceu de Artes e Ofícios, painting “the melancholic beauty of the humble neighborhoods of São Paulo” and exhibiting with the Família Artística Paulista and the Grupo Santa Helena. A lifelong practice of “meticulous learning,” Peretto writes, is evident in the “balance and natural nobility” of his paintings. Zanini’s images—ships, the harbor, regattas, favelas, washerwomen, forgotten streets, still-lifes—are unconcerned with fashionable art movements or public relations; “he paints for pleasure, for the joy of painting.”
Mario Zanini (1907–71) was born in São Paulo, and, as Peretto notes, began studying art at a very young age, notably at trade schools: the Liceu de Artes e Ofícios [Lyceum of Arts and Crafts] and the Escola Profissional Masculina do Brás [Men’s Professional School of Brás]. He met Alfredo Volpi in 1927, and the following year studied with the painter Georg Elpons. Beginning in 1936, Zanini shared a studio with Manoel Martins and Clóvis Graciano in a Praça da Sé building named the Palacete Santa Helena—the critic Sérgio Milliet later gave the name “Grupo Santa Helena” to the artists who frequented the building, mostly first or second generation Italian immigrants, such as Volpi, Fulvio Pennacchi, Aldo Bonadei, Alfredo Rizzotti, and Humberto Rosa. The working class origins of the group’s members were often reflected in scenes of everyday urban life. Peretto highlights a trip Zanini made in 1950 to Europe, with Volpi and Rossi, to study the mosaics of Ravenna, the greats of the Renaissance, the masters of Spanish painting and Impressionism. He continued making paintings as usual, Peretto writes, reflecting “sensitivity, austerity, good taste.”
This exhibition, of fifteen landscapes in watercolor and gouache, took place at São Paulo’s Galeria de Arte das Folhas in March 1961. When, a few year earliers, art patrons of São Paulo felt that important figurative artists had been excluded from the Concrete-focused biennial, the industrialist Isaí Leirner (who, at the time, was director of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo) sponsored an alternative exhibition of 12 São Paulo-based artists. This initial exhibition, which became known as the Premio Leirner, was held in the lobby of the office building of the newspaper La Folha. Leirner eventually founded a space dedicated to this cause, known as the Galeria de Arte das Folhas, which operated from 1958–62 and hosted not only exhibitions but also debates and conferences that promoted a wider array of tendencies than those backed by the organizers of the São Paulo Bienal. Leirner and the other patrons who coalesced around the Galeria Folha often bought the exhibited art themselves and donated it to museums, thus driving the institutionalization of the showcased artists. In its four years of operation, the gallery exhibited many emerging talents, including Franz Weissmann, Regina Silveira, Maria Helena Andrés, Mário Silésio, Di Cavalcanti, Willys de Castro, and Hermelindo Fiaminghi.
This catalogue also accompanied exhibitions of Italo Cencini, Anatol Wladyslaw, Edith Jiménez, and Antônio Henrique Amaral, fellow recipients of the Leirner Prize for Contemporary Art in 1960. It includes a photograph of one of Zanini’s watercolors, Peretto’s essay, a biography, and a “checklist” of the 15 works shown.
[For complementary reading on Mário Zanini, the Grupo Santa Helena, and the Família Artística Paulista, see the following documents in the ICAA digital archive: by Paulo Mendes de Almeida “Familia Artistica Paulista: 1.a exposição do grupo dos artistas plasticos – catalogo” (doc. no. 782825); by Stella Teixeira de Barros “Associações de artistas: precárias porém persistentes” (doc. no. 1110676); (unattributed) “Artistas de Sao Paulo e Rio pleiteiam modificacoes no regulamento da Bienal” (doc. no. 1307093); by Mário de Andrade “Esta paulista familia” (doc. no. 780722); by Sérgio Milliet “Luz - paisagem - arte nacional” (doc. no. 784060); by Lourival Gomes Machado “Rebolo” (doc. no. 1091476); and by Yoshyia Takaoka “Depoimento de Yoshyia Takaoka” (doc. no. 1110642).
For more on the Prêmio Leirner de Arte Contemporânea, see by Oswald de Andrade Filho “Prêmio Leirner de Arte Contemporânea, 1960” (doc. no. 1232976), and “Murilo Penteado” (doc. no. 1309128); by Gerardo Ferraz “Anatol Wladyslaw” (doc. no. 1317311), and “Paulo Rissone” (doc. no. 1322939); by Luis Martins “Samson Flexor” (doc. no. 1316704); by Wolfgang Pfeiffer “Moacyr Rocha” (doc. no. 1309168), and “Niobe Xandó” (doc. no. 1309188); and by Décio Pignatari “Raul Porto” (doc. no. 1309108), among others].