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  Vitalino, Mestre (1909 - 1963)        

Biography
Vitalino Pereira dos Santos (Ribeira dos Campos, Caruaru PE 1909 - idem 1963). Popular ceramic artist and musician. The son of peasants, still in his childhood he began to model small figurines of animals with clay remnants given him by his mother, who produced house ware for sale at the Caruaru market place. In the 1920s, he founded the Zabumba Vitalino band, featuring him as the main fife player. He moved to the Alto do Moura village, in order to live closer to downtown Caruaru.

Vitalino's work as a ceramic artist remained unknown to the public at large until 1947, when the draughtsman and educator, Augusto Rodrigues (1913 - 1993), organized in Rio de Janeiro the 1st Exhibition of Ceramics from Pernambuco, featuring several pieces by him. A series of events followed that helped to make Vitalino known nationwide, including several articles published about him in the Jornal de Letras [Journal of Letters], in 1953, including those by José Condé, as well as in the Revista Esso [Esso Magazine], in 1959, among other media.

In 1955, he participated in the exhibition, Brazilian Primitive and Modern Art, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The Joaquim Nabuco Institute of Social Research, jointly with the municipal authority of Caruaru, published the book Vitalino, with text by the anthropologist, René Ribeiro, and photographs by Marcel Gautherot (1910 - 1996) and Cecil Ayres. In this period, he met Abelardo Rodrigues, an architect and art collector who amassed a significant collection of artworks by Vitalino, later donated to the Folk Art Museum, currently the Pottery Museum of Caruaru.

In 1960, Mestre Vitalino traveled to Rio de Janeiro and participated in the Night of Caruaru, an event organized by intellectuals like the brothers João and José Condé, with his artworks being auctioned to help the construction of the Folk Art Museum of Caruaru. He participated in TV and music shows, attended events and was honored with the Sílvio Romero Medal, among others. On this occasion, the Radio MEC recorded six renditions by Vitalino's band, released in an album by the Company for the Defense of Brazilian Folklore in the 1970s. In 1961, meeting a request from the Municipal Authority of Caruaru, he donated 250 pieces to the Folk Art Museum, inaugurated in that year.

In 1971, the Mestre Vitalino Museum was inaugurated in the Alto do Moura village in the same house where he once lived. Managed by his family, the museum holds a collection of his main works, apart from personal belongings, work tools and the rudimentary wood kiln where he fired his pieces.

Critical Commentary
Mestre Vitalino became noted for his figurines representing popular beliefs, urban and rural scenes, everyday life, rites and popular imagery from the Brazilian Northeastern backlands. While still a child, he began to model figurines of oxen, goats, donkeys, horses and other animals found in his rural environment. In the 1930s, probably influenced by the armed struggles taking place in the region, he modeled his first sets of figurines, portraying rural bandits, soldiers, lawyers and politicians. At first, Vitalino obtained color by blending clay of different tones, reddish and white; later, he would paint his figures with industrial paint, rendering them a merry and playful character.

Unconcerned with competition, he did not mind that other craftsmen observed him at work or imitated his technique and original motifs. Vitalino left several disciples, like Zé Rodrigues and Zé Caboclo, besides sons and grandchildren who continued to produce ceramic artworks following the same subject-matter and stylistic features developed by him. A great deal of his work focused on the three main rites of passage: birth, marriage and death. The scenes of baptism described a typical feature of rural life. The subject of marriage was also recurring, like in Casamento no Mato [Marriage in the Woods], and O Noivo e a Noiva [The Bride and the Bridegroom]. Burials also yielded compositions that revealed local customs and everyday life. A comparison between Enterro na Rede [Burial in a Hammock], Enterro no Carro de Boi [Burial in an Ox-cart] and Enterro no Caixão [Burial in a Coffin], for example, reveals the different status of the dead. Add to these works the various procession scenes created by the artist, as well as the scenes linked to folk imagery, like A Luta do Homem com o Lobisome (sic) [Man Fighting a Werewolf], O Vaqueiro que Virou Cachorro [The Cattleman who Turned into a Dog] and Diabo Atentando o Bêbado [The Devil Tempting a Drunkard].

Scenes related to law and crime in the Brazilian backlands were recurring in his work. Among bandits, soldiers and policemen, she-goats and chicken thieves, figures of cangaceiros, or rural bandits, such as Lampião, Maria Bonita and Corisco, stand out. Social aspects of the region, like drought and migration, are portrayed in works like Retirantes [Migrants]. Figures and scenes dealing with work are also very frequent, allowing us to relate certain activities to male types - cattlemen, peasants, men carrying water or milking - or female types - washerwomen, lace makers, cooks or seamstresses. Professionals linked to the urban context, like dentists, physicians, veterinarians, barbers, seamstresses and raw-tobacco vendors were also modeled by Vitalino, in part to meet customer demands. It is worth mentioning the figurines representing animals, like ox, donkey, horse, dog and Brazilian wildcat, modeled by the artist throughout his career; the series depicting the artist at work, like Vitalino Cavando Barro [Vitalino Digging for Clay], Vitalino Queimando a Loiça [Vitalino Firing Pottery] and Vitalino e Manuel Carregando a Loiça [Vitalino and Manuel Carrying Pottery], as well as his production of ex-votos.

According to the researcher, Lélia Coelho Frota, author of a book on the artist, Vitalino was a key figure in promoting changes in the region. Motivated by the artistic recognition reached by masters like him, as well as by the commercial success of ceramics in the domestic market, from Vitalino's generation onwards whole families have taken up this craft in the Alto do Moura community, in Caruaru. Thanks to him, the village became a national landmark in ceramic craftsmanship, gathering nearly 200 artisans and being recognized by Unesco as one of the most important centers of figurative art in the Americas. In this process, Vitalino was the main agent of renovation, creating several motifs and developing a unique style, evidenced by the expressive facial traits, corporal gestures and postures of his figures, as well as by the theatrical composition of the scenes. Although all these aspects of his art were enough to justify Vitalino's prestige, in a sense his success was also due to a broader cultural trend that valued popular art forms deemed original and typically Brazilian. Undoubtedly, his work was considered representative of those "authentic" and "simple" art forms chosen as a model by many intellectuals and artists in the first half of the 20th century.



Updated on 01/10/2013