Breathing Krajcberg

Breathing Project
23rd edition
september 15, 2018 – february 17, 2019


For Rebeca and Betina, my daughters

Why Breathing Krajcberg?

At the age of 15, I heard of Noel Nutels1 and became fascinated by his personality. I managed to get hold of his phone number and, intrepid adolescent that I was, I called him and said I wanted to meet him. And he, generous and probably curious in his wisdom, invited me to visit him. The reason I wanted to speak to him was the Vietnam War. I remember being agitated by the war, but I cannot remember and do not know why I thought he would have something to say about it. Life is made of encounters: intuitive, occasionally impulsive, or even untimely, with the power to mark us forever. And that is what happened.

I set foot timidly in his house on Rua Pires de Almeida in Laranjeiras [Rio de Janeiro]. As I recall, there were other people in the room. I sat on a sofa, stranded somewhere between fear and embarrassment. And he, so very simple, direct, hospitable, and kindhearted, left everybody else for a moment to pay me attention, making me feel comfortable and trying to help me in my awkward adolescent anxiety.

In his affable way, Noel said, “So, you want to know about the Vietnam War? All I can tell you is that there are two ways of putting an end to a people. One is the Nazi’s ‘final solution,’ like in the Second World War, when the idea was to exterminate people physically in the concentration camps, and the other is what was done in Brazil by the Portuguese colonizers, putting an end to the culture of the indigenous peoples, making them convert and leaving them at the mercy of acculturation. What sustains a people, whoever they are, is their culture. Either you wipe them out physically or you put an end to their culture. Murder can be physical or cultural. Without a body there is no culture, and without culture there is no body.”

I have never forgotten that precise, precious lesson in the human spirit. Today, many years later, this is the thinking that has guided me in my reflections about and creation of BREATHING KRAJCBERG.

Krajcberg is an artist who lived through the Second World War. His family were scattered and killed in the concentration camps and the family home was confiscated by the Poles. He fought against the Nazis in the Russian army and with the Polish resistance. After perambulating through Leningrad, Stuttgart (where he studied engineering and fine art), and Paris (where he met Chagall), he found himself in Brazil, knowing nothing about the country or its language. Here, after spending time in Rio and São Paulo, where he worked at the Modern Art Museum and in the first São Paulo Biennale, he discovered the compelling landscape of Monte Alegre, in the state of Paraná, where he worked for the Klabin industries and built his first hut in the woods. There, he found joy: “Nature never asked me where I came from, whether I was naturalized, what religion I was. It was a source of great joy.”2

However, this encounter with “paradise” was soon tainted by a different form of destruction. The state of Paraná was consumed in flames. The forests were burned down to make way for coffee plantations. He was literally smoked out. And so he returned to his nomadic ways: Rio, Paris, Ibiza, until he found the mine of Cata Branca, in Itabirito, Minas Gerais, where he encountered the pigments with which he started to work, and finally Nova Viçosa, southern Bahia, on the recommendation of Zanine,3 where he was attracted by the mangroves and first realized just how fragile the relationship with the natural world was in Brazil and just how much it was and still is constantly under threat. For him, Nova Viçosa was a place of shelter; his home.

Throughout his life, Krajcberg faced two radical forms of destruction: the destruction caused by war and the destruction we inflict on nature. BREATHING KRAJCBERG is about shining a light on this course of destruction and how his art, in contact with nature, provided the potency that helped him tackle the question of his own life.

Krajcberg’s trajectory speaks of the honing of a consciousness of destruction. He was a force of resistance—like all great artists—and his resistance was, quite simply, his insistence on not giving up on what he believed in: that the forces of physical and cultural destruction we have endured for centuries, especially the twentieth and twenty- first centuries, must be resisted. His insistence: the constancy of consciousness. His legacy: the certainty that we must always confront and rise up against the destruction of nature.

This is the first time the name of the Eva Klabin House Museum’s contemporary art program—the Breathing Project—has been incorporated into the title of a solo exhibition. As I see it, there could be nothing more fitting for an artist who did not always call himself an artist, but was a tireless champion of the environment and a vehement opponent of the destruction of nature, than to indicate that the most important thing is to breathe. Preserving the natural world essentially means preserving the right to breathe, the right to life. Preserving what allows us to breathe. And so: BREATHING KRAJCBERG.

“I hate the word ‘happy.’ I’d like to know how to feel happy. I’m more aware of the things I do, more aware of my outrage. From the letters I receive, it feels like awareness of destruction is growing. I cannot say more than that. It would be ridiculous of me to say that I am happier.”4

“It feels like I’m closer to the force that gives me the peace of mind to live: nature.”5

What is Krajcberg’s territory and nationality?

“Nature never asked me where I came from, whether I was naturalized, what religion I was. It was a source of great joy.”

It is elucidative to consider the concepts of territory and nationality in Krajcberg’s case. We normally think of culture from a historical perspective, as an accumulation of experiences and actions from the past which, taken together, delineate a contour, a profile of a people or nation, which we recognize and identify with. Nutels was right in the sense that culture is fundamental for the survival of a people; it is what gives meaning to the existence of a group and each of the individuals from that group. But we should also pay attention when he speaks of physical elimination. The physical body is fundamental. Nothing exists without it because it is what keeps us alive. So it is living people who assure the possibility of new cultural events by establishing other values, other cultural knowledge based on a constant rearrangement of the lines of force at the time of the living event of the instant. And this is why individuals who survive the past are a necessary precondition for becoming.

Bodies cannot be separated from the physicality of the world; there must be a territory to receive these physical bodies. Thus, if the becoming of culture needs living bodies and living bodies need a territory to exist, there can be no becoming without territory. Even in deterritorialization and territorialization, as in the case of the Jewish people or the Romani, who carry their culture with them like baggage, taking it wherever they go, territory is necessary. In other words, by carrying around a culture of a spirit ingrained over millennia, these peoples need a territory so that with each new territorialization the cultural body can be reinvented, updated by becoming, which is indissociably associated with the variants of the places and times of each event in their movements.

The situation for indigenous peoples bears similarities and differences, even though they are also errant. There is something missing in Nutels’s equation. Thinking of culture as territory. What I mean is that the Portuguese colonizers deprived the different indigenous peoples of their culture not only when they set about converting them, but also when they forced them from their lands, just as we Brazilians did in the twentieth century with the creation of the Xingu National Park. It was through both these means that indigenous culture was impoverished. The cultural death brought about by this displacement was due to the fact that the different indigenous peoples, more than any other, built their culture around nomadism. Theirs is a culture that moves about a territory without physical frontiers, but which has cultural frontiers that are established by their recognition of the territory of nature, from which they construct the knowledge that is fundamental for their survival. Therefore, expelling them from their lands or segregating them in unfamiliar territory they had never before passed through or reconnoitered of their own volition or on the impulse of some natural necessity meant stripping them of their culture. It meant their cultural death. It made them strangers to their own knowledge, their own culture.

So when Krajcberg tells us that nature never asked him where he was from, what his religion was, or whether he had naturalized, and that this brought him joy, it gives us a key to understanding him and also to perceiving how Brazilian culture has evolved. He was a foreigner and he felt foreign because of everything he had gone through and because he was always being reminded he was foreign. He complained that he was not regarded as a Brazilian artist. Indeed, he was better known as a Brazilian outside Brazil than in it. There is a sense of discomfort in him. And that is where his outrage comes from and his oftentimes harsh and defensive manners, which expressed his real decision to affirm his values, protected him from corruption, and armed him against the inertia and idleness of others, which often conspire to mediocritize the values of an individual. But also because his discomfort in regard to national, religious, and cultural conventions was genuine. This outrage of his was necessary. He needed to feel foreign to get closer to himself and feel more Brazilian than those who took it for granted and did not recognize him as such.

In a way, albeit on a different scale, he reminds me of the traveling artists who came to Brazil, where they helped build a Brazilian identity based on a foreign gaze. Although Brazil is, like all nations, an invention, this question became even more evident and explicit in the Americas because something had to be built with an idea of territorial domination and systematic confrontation with other cultures that had been territorialized much earlier without any national concerns, for which reason they were felt and deemed to be inferior. It was not a clash of equals, but approximation through annulation. But the fact is that what is now known as Brazilian culture was built and constituted with  the foreign gaze of peoples from Africa, Europe, and Asia, which determined its fate, since the cultures of the indigenous peoples were anational.

What stands out in the case of Krajcberg, who was obviously not concerned with the idea of domination and whose values actually had more to do with the territorial concept of different indigenous peoples, is that his quest was also not national, but territorial, and as such it helped strengthen the question of a Brazilian culture. To put it differently, his itinerancy made him a national nomad, so when he felt displaced or ill at ease in Brazilian national territory (and, I would imagine, in any other national territory), he was able to recognize the only place where he felt at home: in nature (the natural landscape). Likewise, in fighting for the preservation of nature, he sketched out a true potential meaning for Brazilian national culture, indicating its power to express the clash between the lines of force of nature and the destructive capacity of men. He restated the compact between man and nature, reinstating his pact with nature and purging all anthropocentrism to establish a new becoming: becoming-nature.

Looking at Krajcberg’s work from this perspective gives it a different dimension. It frees it from the parameters of traditional history and puts it in Braudel, Deleuze, and Guattari’ line of thinking that history is geohistory and philosophy is geophilosophy. To which I would hazard to add geoart, which breaks away from the shackles of traditional art history, setting new parameters.

Geography is not confined to providing historical form with a substance and variable places. It is not merely physical and human but mental, like the landscape. Geography wrests history from the cult of necessity in order to stress the irreducibility of contingency. It wrests it from the cult of origins in order to affirm the power of a “milieu”. […] Finally, it wrests history from itself in order to discover becomings that do not belong to history even if they fall back into it: the history of philosophy in Greece must not hide the fact that in every case the Greeks had to become philosophers in the first place, just as philosophers had to become Greek. “Becoming” does not belong to history. History today still designates only the set of conditions, however recent they may be, from which one turns away in order to become, that is to say, in order to create something new.6

It was the natural landscape that lured Krajcberg to the physical “Brazilian” territory; it was this that prompted him to leave behind the canons of art history and come back, reinventing himself and feeding back into the historiography of Brazilian art. Even if he was upset at not really being regarded as a Brazilian artist, he is today part of this history and an important part at that.

For an artist to truly be a creator, he or she must break away from art history. Break away from the need, which naturalizes processes after the event, to emerge from “geoart,” which justifies the “irreducibility of contingency,” releasing the indeterminate, the unpredictable, the imponderable, and the untimely, which is where the expressive potency of art comes about and which only the environment—more than the origin (so dear to history)—allows because it does not mystify or liberate becoming as a concept distinct from the idea of past future.

In a way, Krajcberg benefitted from being “foreign” or feeling foreign, even though he chose to take Brazilian nationality. He was able to forge his own artistic territory due to the “irreducibility of contingency” he came up against in the territory of Brazil, without feeling burdened by the local history of art. It is as if he had come out of the history of Brazilian art and had returned to it. The history of Brazilian art does not derive from any founding origin, but from multiple lines of force that resist history and bend to the needs imposed by the radicality of the real of its environment/territory (the “irreducibility of contingency”). Despite (or thanks to) being foreign or feeling foreign or being seen as foreign, his body of work helped constitute what is now conventionally referred to as “Brazilian art.”

I am sure that if he had not experienced that joy at nature’s indifference to his origins, he would not have come into contact with the experience of freedom that was germinal for the becoming of an art—something he could never have imagined in his native town of Kozienice in Poland. His expressive power could only reveal itself to the world when he experienced this encounter that aroused it. As such, without this geoart, without this lived contingency, the need would not have presented itself and the history of Krajcberg’s art would have been different.

Schelling formulates some very important thinking about nature that helps us better grasp Krajcberg’s work: “The Greeks lived and thought in Nature but left Mind in the  ‘mysteries,’ whereas we live, think, and feel in the Mind, in reflection, but leave Nature in a profound alchemical mystery that we constantly profane.”7

Krajcberg is Greek-Brazilian in that he called on us to stop profaning nature and leaving Mind in the “mysteries.” He needed to be foreign in Brazil to help Brazilian culture constitute itself as such. It is anthropophagy8 turned inside-out. This is therefore one of the possible meanings of Brazilianness and history of Brazilian art that he helped to construct. It is often the “foreigner,” or the sense of being foreign, that indicates the reality of becoming, because it has no debt to the present past and, untrammeled by history, is able to perceive becoming, that expressive energy intimately tied to the radicality of the moment, and can deflect any thinking about a necessary origin.

Art history thinking invents origins, while art is done with becoming, shifting thinking away from origins.

Why the Rio Negro Manifesto of Integral Naturalism?

The Rio Negro Manifesto is basically a manifesto against the tradition of realism in the visual arts and the exaltation of the Amazon as the potency of “original nature,” capable of bringing about a “cleansing of perception and mental oxygenation: an integral, gigantic catalyst and accelerator of our faculties of feeling, thought, and action.”9

It is against realism because it rejects the metaphor. To my mind this is one of its key points. Pierre Restany states in the manifesto that “realism is the metaphor of power. Religious power, the power of money at the time of the Renaissance, then political power, bourgeois realism, socialist realism, the power of the consumer society with pop-art.”

This statement is very striking, because it completely disarticulates the idea of the history of representative art. It completely shuns any artistic expression that is a metaphor of power, which the author saw as being instrumentalized by realism. As such, it does not speak of naturalism in the sense of realistic representation or the classic naturalistic tradition.

Integral Naturalism takes one step beyond New Realism, the movement Restany and Yves Klein had theorized in the early 1960s. Unlike pop art, it was not about exalting consumer society or representing it, but presenting it directly, transposing the accumulation of objects it produces and disposes of into the language of art. The works of Arman, Dufrêne, Spoerri, Tinguely, Raymond Hains, and others come to mind, as do Yves Klein’s himself, who did the same thing with color, appropriating it as color matter (creating monochrome works) and absolutely divorcing it from representation and eschewing its use as a material artifice to deceive the gaze, as had been done for four centuries as of the invention of the Renaissance.

New Realism prized the radicality of the real, stripping it of the mediation of representation. Similarly, Krajcberg—now close to members of the New Realists— produced works, including his output in Ibiza, in which he directly reproduced the material expression of nature. In them, he transferred the surfaces of rocks, plants, and sand from the beach onto paper, forming a kind of “realism” that evaded the mediation of representation because it was not metaphorical. These are works designed to capture real matter directly and radically, not the reality of the appearance of matter.

There is nothing metaphorical in these actions. The importance of this attitude is that it thwarts any idea of a transcendental metaphysics of Nature. Krajcberg related directly with the immanence of nature without losing its metaphysical consistency, which was assured by art itself, the production of sensitive and therefore metaphysical objects, by connecting directly, freely of metaphors, with the mysteries of the world. Again, calling on Schelling’s thinking, we could restate that Krajcberg, like the Greeks, lived and thought in Nature, but left Mind in the mysteries.10 What mattered to him was being intimately involved with the potency of nature, bringing it directly into the register of art and presenting it as such to the public.

One consequence of this expressive attitude is that the artifice of mimesis is broken down. There is no imitation, no representation, no copy. What exists “is the spirit of pure beholding” and “sensitive information about nature.” What remains is the affirmation of the real radicality of matter, which is not probed spiritually, but presented in its ultimate splendor as a force of nature itself. In other words, the artist refuses to compete with nature. It is all there. What he proposes is to surprise this beauty contained in nature and show it to us, warning us that all this beauty we identify with is being destroyed, is endangered. That is why in many interviews he called himself more an advocate of nature that an artist per se.

As it is not metaphorical and does not reproduce or mediate any will to power, Integral Naturalism aims to mediate, in the words of Restany, “a different state of sensibility, a greater opening of consciousness.” And that is precisely what Krajcberg did with his art and championing of nature until the end of his days.

To borrow Krajcberg’s own words:

– The Amazonian nature calls my modern man’s sensibilities into question. It also calls into question the scale of traditionally recognized esthetic values. Today’s artistic chaos is the logical corollary of urban evolution. Here (in the Amazon) we are confronted by a world of forms and vibrations, the mystery of continuous transformation. We should know how to make the most of it.11

The radical experience of this moment was lived by Restany, Krajcberg, and Baendereck when they crossed the Rio Negro river. It was then, surrounded by the immensity of the Amazon forest, that Restany was able to piece together his ideas about Integral Naturalism: a quest to awaken a planetary consciousness that aims to fight “far more against subjective pollution than against objective pollution—the pollution of the senses and the brain, much more than that of the air or the water.”12

The “irreducibility of contingency” to which Deleuze and Guattari refer and what I call the “radicality of the real” are boundary states with which culture and art deal. The geography of the Amazon does not just supply a location for this to happen. It was not just a historical landmark in Restany’s and Krajcberg’s trajectories; it supplied a milieu (a mental landscape). It wrested them from the “cult of origins in order to affirm the power of a ‘milieu’,” which is superimposed on the historical need, affirming the relevance of a time-place to give rise to a new meaning, a new history. The “irreducibility of contingency” and the “radicality of the real” in this experience connected them to becoming.

The crossing of the Rio Negro and the overwhelming presence of the Amazon forest were so extraordinary that they transformed and expanded their consciousness: Restany wrote the Rio Negro Manifesto and Krajcberg reinforced his commitment to and advocacy of the environmental cause.

Integral Naturalism is the realization that man is no longer the center of the planet or the center of the animal kingdom, and puts nature back at the heart of our concerns. It attributes us with our true dimension as one of a whole host of living beings, relativizing our position. In the place of an individual consciousness, it gives rise to a planetary consciousness and sensibility, for “ultimately nature is, and it exceeds us in the perception of its own duration. Yet in the space-time of a man’s life, nature is the measure of his consciousness and his sensibility.”13

I believe that this is what Krajcberg brought into play during his lifetime and that his works are an attempt to translate this sentiment that, in the face of cosmic time, we are nothing, and in the short space of time reserved for us, nature supplies us with consciousness and a measure of our sensibility. I believe that this is what Krajcberg tried to do with his life, fighting against the destruction wrought by war and the destruction we inflict on ourselves and on the planet by constantly denaturalizing our personal and environmental relationships through the perverse logic of work, rampant urban development, and the logic of power (Nutels and Réstany) to the detriment of the other powerful ways of galvanizing our connection with the meaning of life, like art.

For me, Krajcberg is an inventor of sensitive objects that affect us because, without wishing to imitate Nature, they put us face-to-face with the potency of its beauty, because they do not interpret or represent it, they just simply and humbly accept that, faced with the impossibility of competing with natural beauty—which, indeed, would not make any sense after modern art’s separation of aesthetic beauty from natural beauty—he could devote himself, like an archaeologist of the future, to inventing works that retain, by retrieving from the rubble of destruction, the memory of a planet that one day destroyed the environment and of which these precious relics of natural beauty remain, which are his works.

1 Born in Ukraine in 1913, Noel Nutels was a Brazilian physician and indigenist, who was devoted to the indigenous cause.

2 A consciência da revolta da destruição. Interview with Mario Sergio Conti. Folha de S. Paulo, caderno

+ mais !.  Febuary 10, 2002. Available at 3 José Zanine Caldas was a self-taught architect, cabinet maker, sculptor, model maker, and landscape designer, who also worked as a teacher in Brazil and abroad.

4 A consciência da revolta da destruição. Op. cit.

5 Ibid.

6 DELEUZE, Gilles and GUATTARI, Félix. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 96. In order to better elucidate this question, I cite a comment by Deleuze and Guattari about Nietzsche, who was responsible for establishing the importance of thinking about the “unhistorical”: “Without history, becoming would remain indeterminate and unconditioned, but becoming is not historical. Psychosocial types belong to history, but conceptual personae belong to becoming. […] The unhistorical, Nietzsche says, ‘is like an atmosphere within which alone life can germinate and with the destruction of which it must vanish.’ It is like a moment of grace; and what ‘deed would man be capable of if he had not first entered into that vaporous region of the unhistorical?’ Philosophy appears in Greece as a result of contingency rather than necessity, as a result of an ambiance or milieu rather than an origin, of a becoming rather than a history, of a geography rather than a historiography, of a grace rather than a nature.” (ibid., p. 96-97).

7 Ibid., p. 102.

8 Translator’s note: This is a reference to the Anthropophagy Movement during Brazilian Modernism, which proposed acting like the indigenous cannibalistic tribes, who would feed off outsiders to strengthen themselves. The idea was for Brazilian culture to feed off European colonial culture and thereby strengthen and constitute itself as Brazilian national culture.

9 Manifesto do Rio Negro do Naturalismo Integral de Pierre Restany. Alto do Rio Negro, quinta-feira, 3 de agosto de 1978. Na presença de Sepp Baendereck e Frans Krajcberg. In: FERNANDINO, Fabrício. (R)evolução Frans Krajcberg, o poeta dos vestígios. Rev. UFMG. Belo Horizonte, 21(1e 2):260-277, jan/dez 2014, available at:

10 DELEUZE, Gilles and GUATTARI, Félix. What is Philosophy?, op. cit., p. 102.

11 In FERNANDINO, Fabrício. (R)evolução Frans Krajcberg, op. cit., p. 267.

12  Ibid., p. 276.

13  Ibid., p. 275.

Text: Marcio Doctors

Photos: Mario Grisolli

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