Around Christmastime in 1938, Arthur Bispo do Rosário was confronted by a dazzling vision of Jesus surrounded by angels bathed in blue light. It was an episode that would define him: either, as he believed, as a messenger from God or, as he was diagnosed, as a paranoid schizophrenic who would spend the next fifty years as a resident of the psychiatric ward of Rio de Janiero’s Colônia Juliano Moreira.
Bispo do Rosario believed it was his spiritual task to represent the universe through the objects he made, which would then be presented for salvation on the Day of Judgment. Secluded from the world, never mind the art establishment, he worked tirelessly with the materials that he could procure from his immediate surroundings – threads from hospital gowns, bed sheets, old uniforms, buttons, and such – fashioning everything from small, soft, talisman-like miniatures, to models of boats, embroidered banners and ceremonial decorated jackets.
The V&A’s exhibition contains over eighty items from an 800-strong collection left behind after Bispo do Rosário’s death, as he continues to gain recognition as one of Brazil’s most prominent artists. Regarding his work as a religious duty rather than an artistic pursuit gives a fascinating viewpoint onto these works.
With his miniatures, do Rosário recreated everyday objects; binding them meticulously with grey-blue threads from hospital uniforms, they have a soft, toy-like appearance. The large-scale banners on display alongside them are embroidered illustrations of his world, packed full of information in imagery and text that has been painstakingly embroidered onto discarded bedding. He was raised in Japaratuba in the North-East of Brazil, an area of vivid culture of folk art and religious traditions, where men would painstakingly embroider clothes and banners for processions of the Madonna. This hands-on relationship with textiles and almost meditative concentration on creating intricate objects to show religious devotion was thus instilled in him from a young age.
Arthur Bispo do Rosário, 21 Sail boats, 1938-1982, Photo; © Rodrigo Lopes.
Other allusions to Bispo do Rosário’s life outside of the institution come in such ways as the more obvious form of the ships he assembled out of found pieces of wood, textile, cardboard, coloured plastic and metal which echo his time in the navy. The uniforms of this period of his life, as well as the decorative belts awarded in his days as a professional boxer, shine through in his highly embellished ceremonial jackets, detailed with tiny stitches, ribbons, medals, epaulettes and chains into a glorious combination of theatricality and formality.
There is a whole wall of scepters and sashes too, which on closer inspection are dedicated to the ‘Miss Universe’ contestants from countries around the world. To Bispo do Rosário these symbols of each country come together in an expression of idealized unity throughout the world’s nations and the celebration of female beauty.
Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Four Flags, 1938-1982, Photo; © Rodrigo Lopes.
A selection of photographs of Bispo do Rosário accompany the works, along with a video of the artist discussing his life’s mission, but he was so gifted in transmuting his inner thoughts and beliefs into tangible objects that his work hardly needs explaining. Although we’re only seeing a small portion of what he created over his fifty years of physical confinement, there is such a singular sense of purpose in these works. Through the soft grey-blue and faded mustards of reused hospital overalls, the beige of salvaged wood, the tarnished lustre of old metal, the flashes of colour in scraps of ribbon or plastic, all of these humble and overlooked materials, he created works that collectively form a vivid single expression of what he believed to a much higher purpose than that which he was allocated by society.
(Image on top: Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Fights, 1938-1982, Photo; © Rodrigo Lopes.)