Yesterday morning, the Brazilian poet and art critic Ferreira Gullar died of pneumonia at age 86 in Rio de Janeiro. On the same day, an article was published in his name in the Folha de São Paulo, where he had a column for the past 11 years. It was disjointing to hear his voice — lucid, engaged, and critical — and reconcile it with his passing. Titled “Why does anyone need to have millions of dollars at their disposition?,” the article touches upon topics that had consumed him of late: the Marxist dream he once believed in but no longer could, and the pitfalls of idealistic and populist parties.
In art, Gullar is perhaps best known for penning the Neo-Concrete manifesto in 1959, a movement in Rio de Janeiro spearheaded by Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, both good friends of Gullar’s, which rejected the more formal, rationalist approach of Concrete Art in favor of participatory sculptures and installations. Gullar shifted from writing poems riddled with puns that designed shapes and patterns on the page, to ones that you could actually inhabit: in “poema enterrado” (“buried poem”), the viewer steps into a cube about 9-feet deep to find three smaller cubes stacked within each other like Russian dolls. Beneath the small cubes, which the viewer can unstack, lies the word “buried.”
In 1964, the year of the military coup in Brazil, Gullar abandoned the Neo-Concrete movement, deeming it elitist. A member of the Communist Party, Gullar went on to be persecuted by the military dictatorship and fled the country for Moscow, Santiago, Lima, and Buenos Aires, where he wrote what many believed to be his masterpiece, “Dirty Poem” (1976), recently re-published into English by New Directions with a translation by Leland Guyer. Like many Brazilian artists living in exile at the time, Gullar expressed intense longing for and disappointment toward his native country in “Dirty Poem,” at once a reminiscence of his childhood in the northeast of Brazil and an evocation of the nightmarish repression and injustices he witnessed and experienced. When he returned to Brazil in 1977, he was once again tortured and imprisoned.
Last year, Gullar said he didn’t think he would write poetry anymore. The last poem he had written was in 2009, which was inspired by a moment in the middle of the night when he saw a different version of himself in the mirror; it was the last time something had shocked him into writing poetry. “Today I have the impression that I won’t write [poetry] anymore, because I only write with amazement,” he said. Instead, he had taken up collage, combining vibrant geometric shapes that lifted and flapped open in ways that recalled the Neo-Concretists.
In his column at the Folha de São Paulo, Gullar continued to write about art. He struggled to communicate with contemporary art, claiming it had broken down familiar language to the point of lacking one (a notable exception, in his opinion, was graffiti, which spreads the “magic of the painted image” over city walls). In his article, “The end or new beginning?” he writes: “Some people, with reason, see me as an enemy of contemporary art. I say with reason because, most of the time I’ve written about this topic was to accentuate its more negative aspects.” But Gullar preferred not to be stubborn in his opinions, and didn’t always want to be right. “I do not consider myself the master of truth and, for that reason, I am constantly questioning what I affirm,” he writes. He was by no means nostalgic for past art, but tried in his way to get a grip on the present. “Contemporary art might be a transition to a new form of art that this new world is demanding,” he concludes.
For Gullar, “art exists because life is not enough“; humans are incomplete and attempt to reinvent themselves with their creations. This, he believed, is what distinguishes us from other animals and the natural world. Their autonomy is almost cruel, an observation that comes up in his poems, particularly those written about death, which I revisited and noted their significant number yesterday. In one written on the day of the writer Clarice Lispector‘s burial, he realizes from his taxi ride that “the rocks and clouds and trees / in the wind / happily showed / that they are not dependent on us.” And in another, written for the death of the poet Oswald de Andrade, Gullar sees him as “another name to mix in with our tropical vegetation.”
His poems about death are stark, honest, and unsentimental, making painfully clear that the sensory pleasures of everyday life, which punctuate much of his poetry, will one day drain and disappear. In “To Die in Rio de Janeiro,” Gullar imagines dying in March, in its “thick light” and heat, the “breeze smelling of the sea,” the landscape disregarding his death and the city “completely working / with its noisy avenues.” Toward the end of the poem, he asks himself when he will “deteriorate” and concludes that it’s better he not know, so that he continue to delight in the “breeze of this day” and the “symphony of summer.”
Gullar died on the verge of Brazilian summer, and much political and social upheaval; yesterday was also the day of massive protests across Brazil in response to a series of corruption charges in government. Gullar was one of the few surviving poets and artists of the military years, a time that has been rekindled in this political climate. In a way, his death reinforced the sense that the past is being handed over to and confronted by a new generation.
I imagine Copacabana, where he lived and where, yes, it continues to be beautiful, with giant rocks soaring between views of buildings and green canopies hanging over the cobbled sidewalks. But it’s hard to believe this city will easily forget about him. In “The Dead and the Alive,” Gullar writes, it’s “Useless to … / say / what comes / from your heart / The dead don’t hear.” It’s true, we can no longer ask him the questions we may have wanted or should have, but I can’t imagine our conversations with him are over yet.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that New Directions published “Dirty Poem” (1976) in its entirety for the first time. The translation had previously been published in 1990 by the same translator. This has been amended.