The Portinari Project was one of the initial MITH Networked Associate Fellowship projects. MITH worked with João Candido Portinari, son of the late painter Candido Portinari, on a digital resource to make his work and legacy available broadly on the web.
The late Candido Portinari is considered to be the greatest artist Brazil has ever produced, yet by the year 2000, all but a few of his 4,000 paintings were out of public view. They had become dispersed in private collections in so many places that his biographer compared their fate to that of Brazil’s 18th-century revolutionary hero Tiradentes, whose body was dismembered and strewn along a 300-mile turnpike. The inaccessibility of Portinari’s work was particularly vexing to his enthusiasts because his own dedication to producing an epic view of Brazil for his countrymen was such that he continued painting even after doctors warned him that exposure to paint was killing him. He died of lead poisoning in 1962 at the age of 59. In a pioneering effort for Latin America in 2000, a team of experts in Rio began assembling the far-flung pieces of Portinari’s oeuvre into an exhaustive digital archive, where images as well as descriptive texts would eventually be fully searchable.
João Candido Portinari, the painter’s son, coordinated the group of researchers who made their headquarters on the leafy campus of Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University. A telecommunications engineer with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former chairman of the university’s mathematics department, Mr. Portinari brought exacting technical standards to the task. The 14-member team compiled photographic, technical, historical and bibliographical records on 3,800 of the paintings.
Portinari’s personal habits and the scant attention that Brazilian society has traditionally paid to preserving its heritage have added a dash of challenge to the team’s work. Portinari himself often didn’t sign of date his paintings, he gave many of them away, and he failed to keep records on some of those that he sold. Art dealing was long a haphazard affair in Brazil; the first commercial gallery in Rio de Janeiro opened only in 1960. Researchers have worked from some of the 8,000 pieces of correspondence and scores of photographs they have gathered to ferret out dates, titles, and sometimes the existence of previously unknown Portinari paintings.
During its development, the project benefited from Brazilian Government grants, appeals abroad by Brazilian diplomatic missions, a contribution of free film and photographic equipment from Eastman Kodak, donations and the use of a computer from the International Business Machines Corporation, free tickets on the Brazilian international airline Varig and 30-second calls over the country’s major television network, TV Globo, that João Candido estimated had reached 30-million Brazilians. The search for Portinari’s paintings took the research team to 13 Brazilian states and to countries as wide ranging as Argentina, Finland, Haiti, and Bulgaria. The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) was proud to host and help develop the early version of an online catalog and image display of Portinari’s work.