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Brazilian Contemporary Art — Portrait

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January 2011

PHOTO: RODRIGO RODEMBUSCH

La Grande Dame of Contemporary Art

Living in a Contemporary Art gallery:Liba Knijnik’s apartment, in Porto Alegre, gathers one of the most representative collections of Brazilian art of the last decades - fruit of curiosity, passion and interest for different cultural expressions (on the wall on the left, art work from Hilton Berredo and on the right, from Antonio Dias)

my face against the cold wind. I also remember my grandmother’s he delicate features of Liba house and herself,” she says. For Juta Knijnik, 89 years old, religious reasons Liba’s grandhide a strong woman with mother was forbidden to go to many facets: the mother of three school. “And my great-grandpardaughters, a widow still in love ents had to pay a fine to the govwith her husband, a political acernment because of that. To the tivist, an art collector, and a beorthodox Jewish, however, womloved great-grandmother. In her en were not supposed to learn, apartment, in Porto Alegre, south only the prayers, in order to unBrazil, she does not live alone. She derstand their responsibilities as has a special company - one of the wives and mothers”, she justifies. most relevant private contempoAnother vivid memory Liba rary Art collections in the country. has is related to her mother. “She The more of 400 art works was a special woman and had a are a result of the feeling of disstrong character. At the age of quietute toward Art she and her 12, after losing her father, she husband, Rubem Knijnik, had. Enwas sent by my grandmother to tering her home New York to live is nothing less her brother,” Culture is the inheri- with than being surshe adds. In Amerrounded by a syn- tance we take every- ica, she learned thesis of Brazilian and exwhere we go. Nobody English art production of perienced a new can take it from us the last decades. reality, but after A feeling that one decade misstakes Liba herself by surprise ing home, she came back to Eusometimes: “It is not unusual rope. There, she got married. At for me to find new things. I live that time, people tried better life together with these pieces and conditions in other countries and with time I do not see them anyLiba’s family did not think differmore. Then, in one day, I discover new details,” she confesses. By  Rodrigo  Rodembusch

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not suitable for business, but he tried hard”, she laughs. Although Liba’s adaptation in school was a very slow process, it did not influence her about her dream: to become a teacher. “My mother told me that at the age of 5 I used to gather the children from the neighborhood and pretended to the their teacher. So, I think it was in my blood,” she confesses. Her path to become a teacher was not easy. Liba struggled with the first years at school dealing with the foreign language (Portuguese) and although the money was short, her father hired a tutor to help her. On the admission exam to the teacher’s formation course she had an extra luck: “We had to write a composition and I prepared myself with one about the Brazilian flag. Faith or not, that was the topic asked in the exam. I passed,” she comments. At the age of 16, Liba began her professional career. Years later, already married, with three daughters and working, Liba decided do study Pedagogy and fulfiled one of her biggest dreams: to teach teachers. The

The Top 3 Museums of Contemporary Art

Gold: The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Founded in 1929 is recognized as the most influential museum of Modern Art in the world

PHOTO: DAEXUS

The contact with Contemporary Art through the decades helped Liba Knijnik to build a ranking of the hot spots of Art. According to her, the three first places in the podium go to the USA, France and Great-Britain (see in this box). Liba is clear when the topic is Contemporary Art: “The Americans still dominate the world”. Continuing with the ranking, the passionate art collector gives Germany the fourth position and China, the fifth.

PHOTO: JONATHAN MOREAU

She was born Lieb Jütte Weissblüth in a small village in 1921, near Lemberg, which belongs today to Ucraine - at that time territory from Poland. From an orthodox family, Liba remembers her childhood years before embarking on a ship to Porto Alegre. “I went to school and used to speak Polish. At home the language was Yiddish, my mother tongue,” she recalls. “The memories I have from my past is that we had harsh winters and I was always looking for something I could use to protect

PHOTO: WALLY GOBETZ

The origins and the new world

speak English too and that faciliently. The men were the first to tated our situation,” she explains. emigrate, being followed later by The first stop in Brazil before their wives and kids. “My mother Porto Alegre was Rio de Janeiro had a cousin in Rio de Janeiro (Braand Liba remembers her mother’s zil), who sent my father the offiwords when they were close to cial invitation to travel,” she comthe arrival: “You plements. After a period of time, My husband was are about to see the most beautiful Liba’s mother and the three daugh- a very special person, landscape of the world.” She reters left Europe open to the world ferred to the Baía in an 18-day jourand an eternal de Guanabara (in ney through the English, GuanaAtlantic Ocean. apprentice bara Bay), one of “To be an imthe city’s postcard views. “So, the migrant is a special situation, Guanabara Bay, in Rio, was the first because nobody, who has a Brazilian element I met,” she tells. good life abandon his country. To emigrate is too much sufferThe persuit of a dream ing. I came to Brazil in 1931 at the age of 9,” she says. Inside the Once settled in Porto Alegre, the ship, the only food they could family had to deal with the lack eat was fruits, baked potatoes of money, but even though, did and onions, the rest was not konot let the difficulties to be an sher, which means not allowed obstacle. Liba’s father had no by the regulations of the Jewish profession when arrived in BraHalakhic law framework. But the zil, because until the age of 18, English knowledge her mother he studied the Talmut (the colhad helped them to survive the lection of Jewish traditions and long trip to the exotic country. laws) in Polen. Now, in the new “The captain of the ship could land he had to work. “He was

Silver: The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. A complex that houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne, and IRCAM, a centre for music and acoustic research

Bronze: The Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London is the most visited Modern Art gallery in the world, with more than 4 million visitors per year


Brazilian Contemporary Art — Portrait

(see box below). For that puryoung girl, almost as tall as her pose, Liba sold some prints from own students (see on the right). famous artists (Miró, Chagall, An immigrant, who became a Léger, Braque, Max Ernst and Piteacher, a wife, a mother and a casso), bought during the trips respected art collector and intelabroad she did with her husband. lectual in Brazil. Decades passed She needed money to continue but the smile in the pictures is the to invest in her collection. “I lent same and represent one feeling the prints for an exhibition in CuLiba has towards life: joy. As a ritiba (capital of the state Paraná) perfect hostess, she insists to offer and after that I sold them. I had the Jewish specialties she ordered to have courage to sell them. I for that special evening: the celdid not ask my daughters, beebration of the end of the year cause one could say yes and anwith her long-term German colother could say no,” she confesses. legues. Any question about art is In the process of choosing a answered with an example in her new item to purchase, Liba follows walls, shelves and rooms. In every her curiosity and feeling acquired corner of her apartment there is with the years dealing with new an art object. That is Liba’s eleexpressions of art. “Sometimes I ment. And she matches perfectly look to the piece and ask myself: with it. “I still follow the develWhat does the artist want to say?” opment of Art and keep an eye she explains. The Brazilian market, on what I am interested in. Few according to her, is better than in days ago I was in São Paulo, at the past, with important names of the Biennale,” she says proudly. international reputation. When About the future and the apasked about the exact number proximation of the 90 years old, of art works she posesses, she has Liba shows no fear. “Maybe this to reflect. “There are more three Biennale was my last, maybe houses, which not. I will not die host the objects: before time,” she I want my great- says clearly. What my daughters’ houses,” she justimakes Liba grandson to be a man also fies. The collection feel alive is her will be digitalized, with values, somebo- family, in spealthough each art- dy people can bene- cial the 3-yearist already have old Antônio, her a specific file in fit from, when in his great-grandson. one of the many “I would like to presence bookshelves Liba leave with him has at home. “My the relation to intention is really to digitalize the Art. We see each other twice art works I have. I just need vaa week and for each one of cation for that,” she concludes. these occasions I prepare myself,” she confesses. When he The future and her new plays, she tells him stories. “I passion do not want to be his teacher, but I am. Once he was here in In her sofa during the interview, the apartment and I asked him Liba reflects about the past, the what he was doing, and he told present and the future. A basket me he was admiring art,” Liba full of old pictures selected by adds full of pride. Maybe the herself tell part of her story. The perfect answer the great-grandblack-and-white photos show a mother was expecting to hear.

Impressions of a daughter

Fleming Building, General Vitorino Street, end of the 60’s. My “mission” was to check if one employee of my company was sick. The doctor was a man called Rubem Knijnik. Because I was afraid of meeting this unknown person, I decided to visit Avatar Moraes, who had his atelier one floor below, in order to know if he knew him. He not only knew Rubem Knijnik, but he told me he was an art collector. After meeting the doctor and talking about soccer and politics he interrupted me abruptly and asked me: “Don’t you collect, too?” That night and all the other visits I paid to Porto

PHOTO: RODRIGO RODEMBUSCH

I was born how difficult was to live from art. and raised My mother has a great inin Porto terest in music, the visual arts Alegre. I am and the movies. She has a tight the oldest schedule. She takes Art History daughter of classes and continues studying a teacher English and German, although and a docshe is already fluent in these lantor. I have two sisters. We grew guages. But for one “appointup in an environment, where ment” she gives the highest things related to art were deeply priority: the two visits she pays cultivated. My parents first met per week to her great-grandduring piano classes. I do reson Antônio. The relation of member one episode that sumlove between them is moving. marizes my father’s My mother is really sensitivity in relatiaware about what My mother is is going on in the on to art: the first time they traveled one example of world and about to Europe together, the political events. woman and he decided to go Until today she folto the cemetery, lows my academic intellectual where Ludwig van life, commenting Beethoven was bumy writings, and ried to pay honor to the classometimes defending her points sical composer. He left flowof view. She prepared the 4 ers in his grave, thanking him grandchildren to the admissifor the moments of pleasure on exams at the university and his music provided to his life. with them enjoys the ContemI lost my father too early. porary Art in Brazil and abroad. What he left was his vibration and enthusiasm towards life. *Gelsa Knijnik has her academic life connected to the Mathematics, Here, in Porto Alegre, there is an Science she taught for 20 years at avenue named after him. In the the Federal University of Rio Gransign it is written: “Rubem Knijde do Sul. After retirement, she joinik, humanitarian doctor and ned the post graduation program protector of arts.” He dedicated in Education from the Universidade himself intensely to his professido Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos), on and, at the same time, supporinstitution she works until today. ted new artists, because he knew

Moments of Liba’s life: (from top to bottom) with a gift from her grandchildren, who tinkered with the idea of a concrete-poetry card (behind her art works from Waltércio Caldas); in one of her many travels to Europe to visit her favourite museums (here in Germany); with two of her students, as a teacher; and a recent picture in her apartment (behind her the art work from Dudi Maia Rosa)

T H E   C O L L E C T I O N   L I B A   A N D   R U B E M   K N I J N I K  By  Thomas  Cohn*

by  Gelsa  Knijnik*

PHOTOS:  LIBA’S  ARCHIVE

principal of the Instituto de Eduseums. She jokes about her alphacação (a famous school in Porto betization in the Contemporary Alegre) called her offering a Art: “I entered in the Museum position in the teacher’s formaof Modern Art (MoMA) and saw tion course. “I left home for the a sign with the saying – Do not interview jumping of happiness. try to understand this exhibition I was not only studying Pedagowithout being prepared to it. It gy at the Universitiy, but also in is just like a chemical formula, my dream job,” she adds. “With which you must be prepared to time I realized we could have a understand it. I read it carefully, a better educadid not undertand tional environit, but respected I have a vital and it,” she laughs. ment. Therefore, I proposed a new lively interest in Art. “I saw that kind pedagogical expeof art at MoMA The art objects talk and thought to rience at the Institute, and parents myself: Some to us and coordination spots on the wall. accepted it,” exWhat is that?” plains Liba. The revolutionary In order to get an answer, Liba project aiming the development approached two ladies close to in class with a new system of her and asked what was special evaluation turned into a book about those paintings. She relater. “I formed primary school members until today the answer: teachers. It was my passion. My “They spoke about the colors and Master thesis was about somethe nuances, difficult explanathing I really defended in my life tions to give because you need to – the creativity in the teaching learn how to see it,” she justifies. process. The new teachers usually Liba also has vividly in her mind forget that all children are pothe moment her collection was tentially creative,” she concludes. born. In one travel to Rio de Janeiro in the 60’s, the couple deHer lifetime companion cided to acquire one piece of art. and the collection From a casual meeting with Érico Veríssimo (an important BrazilSix years dating and thirty-three ian writer) came the suggestion years married. That is the time to buy a painting from Glênio Liba had Rubem beside her. The Bianchetti, entitled “O Gato” (in 89 years old of life gave her wisEnglish, the cat). “When my olddom and tranquility to talk about est granddaughter celebrated the loss of her husband. “He was her 15th birthday, I gave her the the only boyfriend I had. We had piece,” she tells. In the 70’s, Liba a life together. We developed and Rubem took an important ourselves together,” she says. step towards the collection: they According to Liba a great part chose to focus the purchase of of her inner growth was due to objects in one specific expression: him. They studied and learned Contemporary Art, especially Bratogether how to understand Art. zilian. But life showed Liba its sad The first contact Liba had with side and Rubem died unexpectedthe Abstract Art happened in the ly in 1978. “He worked until late at beginning of the 60’s. Her husnight and died at 2am,” she tells. band spent three months in New The intention to continue the York and during his working time collection was taken in 1981 after in a hospital she went to the mua phone call with Thomas Cohn

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Contemplative exercise: the drawing Kiko (19x13cm), from Trindade Leal, is one of the art works from the collection

Alegre I was invited to have dinner at the Knijnik’s. First question: “What do you think about the collection? I do not want compliments. I want an answer from an art collector to an art collector”. Shy answer: “Well, I think it’s too regional. It could have a national approach.” When Rubem died, less then ten year later, the collection had art works from Lygia Clark, Antonio Dias, Waltércio Caldas, Tunga and Cildo Meirelles. I had just separated from my wife, Myriam, and when Rubem got the information, he told me: “I am with my daughter at the Operation Room, but I will go to Rio (de Janeiro) and fix it.” “Never mind, Rubem. I am the one, who goes to Porto Alegre.” “Ok, let’s meet Tuesday at 7pm.” I went. I went to hug Liba. He was not there anymore. Apart from the fact that Liba cooked marvelously, I must say I used to see her as a “co-star”. During three years, we barely spoke to each other. In 1981 (three years after her husband’s death), she called me and said: “Thomas, you know what? I’d like to go on with Rubem’s collection. What do you think about it?” From that moment on, I realized the huge mistake I had made. Liba not only had her own light, but used it to focus the partner. So, she decided to

continue with the collection on behalf of Rubem. It was hard to convince her to call the art collection by its correct name, Rubem and Liba Knijnik. She did not see the importance of her dedication to what is today the most significant reference point of Brazilian Contemporary Art outside the Rio - São Paulo axis. *Thomas Cohn is a gallery owner in São Paulo and a close family friend.

PHOTO: RODRIGO RODEMBUSCH

January 2011

Printed Art: In order to share the art works with the public, four exhibitions were organized so far. The first in 1966, at the Museum of Art from Rio Grande do Sul (MARGS), was followed by two others in 1981 (Espaço N.O.) and 1986 (at MARGS, again). The last exhibit in 2001 (also at MARGS) resulted in the book (above), which presents part of the 400 art works from the Knijnik couple


Rodembusch