In the 1920s and 1930s, Brazilian modernism established a close relationship with so-called popular and non-European sources. After the 1930s, however, artists with no formal training — such as Djanira da Motta e Silva, Heitor dos Prazeres, and Alfredo Volpi — started to gain visibility. Art critics and art institutions began to refer to their work as “naïf” and “primitive” which are problematic and insufficient terms to label artists whose practices were pushing elitist conventions.

The self-taught painter José Bernardo Cardoso Jr., also known as Cardosinho, offers a unique case. Unlike his peers, he was less interested in African, Indigenous, and mestizo cultural expressions; rather he chose to depict landscapes, genre scenes, curious characters, and still lifes in an almost anachronistic manner, reminiscent of the nineteenth century. The artist painted from postcards and photos cut out from old magazines and meticulously depicted insects from live specimens, which he collected. Cardoso’s still lifes juxtapose the commonplace with a sense of absurdity that approaches both scientific illustration and surrealism.

Despite the rigidity of his drawing and use of color, Cardosinho’s work fascinated contemporary writers and artists, perhaps by provoking a simple question: Who is (or isn’t) an artist?

About the artist

José Bernardo Cardoso Jr.
Born in 1861 in Coimbra, Portugal.
Died in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

At age three Cardoso moved with his family to the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His early life is narrated in detail by the writer Rubem Braga in a biographical profile included in Três Primitivos (Three Primitives, 1964). According to Braga, at age twelve Cardoso survived a shipwreck in which his mother and siblings died. After ecclesiastical studies in Brazil and Rome, he abandoned his religious vocation to dedicate himself to teaching Latin and French in high schools. He started painting at age seventy and was encouraged by the painters Cândido Portinari and Tsuguharu Foujita. He participated in the 38th General Exhibition of Fine Arts (1931) in Rio de Janeiro, which became known as the Revolutionary Salon and is considered a counterpoint to the elitist tendencies of the Modern Art Week of São Paulo held in 1922. Cardoso’s paintings also were included in Exhibition of Modern Paintings of Brazil (1944) at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and 20 Artistas Brasileños (1945), which traveled to different venues in Argentina and Uruguay. Fabled ballet master turned curator Lincoln Kirstein, through the Inter-American Fund, acquired Cardoso’s Still Life with View of the Gunabara Bay (1937) for the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the painting was included in the museum’s recent exhibition, Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern (2019).