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Obituary: Ibere Camargo

Ibere Bassanti Camargo, artist: born Restinga Seca, Brazil 18 November 1914; co-founder, Grupo Guignard 1943; married 1939 Maria Coussirat; died Porto Alegre, Brazil 9 August 1994.

IBERE CAMARGO was one of Brazil's greatest artists this century. He was both a painter and a printmaker; he was a teacher and he was a militant in the Brazilian arts world.

Art to Camargo was a compulsion; he said that pencil and paper were his first toys. This obsession compelled him to work until his last moments of consciousness. Although in severe pain in his hospital bed, he requested pencil and paper and made several figure drawings. The last painting he completed just before his death last week is his own requiem - a work called Solidao ('Loneliness').

Loneliness marked him throughout his life; he was always a solitary. He was uncorrupted by the 'isms' and fashions of art. Nevertheless it was his fidelity to painting that led him to Expressionist art - through his research into the expressivity of colour, through his readiness to abandon himself to his own memories of his childhood in the countryside in the vastness of Brazil's interior. It was this that made his work so distinct and particular.

Camargo was born in Restinga Seca, a small rural village in southern Brazil. He studied painting in a local art school and, in 1939, moved to Porto Alegre to attend the technical course of architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts. Three years later he received a grant from the Federal Government of Rio Grande do Sul and moved to Rio de Janeiro, the former Brazilian capital. He studied at the National School of Fine Arts for a year, but in 1943, with other painters, he founded the Grupo Guignard, named after their art teacher. He began his career as a printmaker, and he became an exemplary etcher. In 1947, he was awarded the first prize of the National Salon of Fine Arts which gave him a grant to study in Europe. In Paris, he studied painting with Andre Lhote and in Rome with Giorgio de Chirico; there too he studied printing, with Carlo Petrucci.

Camargo returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1953 and became the inaugural teacher of printmaking at the Institute of Fine Arts of Rio de Janeiro. In the early Fifties he started a lifelong battle to free up imports of foreign paints - Brazilian paints were of very poor quality. The government considered paint a superfluous item, and set import taxes on paint at the same rate as on champagne and caviar.

He left figurative art for a flirtation with Constructivism in a series of Carreteis ('Reels', ie cotton-reels), in 1958, before he found his own style. When asked in an interview about the change in his work from the period when he was still a painter of landscape and still-life to the period when he was producing the 'Reels', Camargo said: 'I assumed the reel as a model, which is in essence a geometric form. I displayed the reels on top of the table as a still-life painter does with oranges, fruit, objects and all sorts of things usually found at the studio. At one moment the reels were the only model. But then there was still the table left behind. After, the table vanished and the last visible sign of it in the painting was the horizontal line. Then the reels too disappeared. They lost integrity, weight, a kind of realism and levitated. In doing so they assumed another dimension for me.

'I was painting a reel that had been very important to me as an object, because it was my own childhood toy. It was impregnated with my own reminiscences, my own childish records, my personal experiences.

'I have no sort of intellectual pretension of becoming an abstract painter.'

Camargo's work developed naturally from the landscapes of the 1940s to the non-objective work - a vigorous explosion of forms and shapes encrusted with heavy paint that cover the surface of the canvas with large brush-strokes. The canvas assumed enormous proportions. The colour lost its lightness and become dirty, covering the surface in a chaotic manner. The violence of his gestures, his painterliness, remind one by their extravagance and force of the paintings of de Kooning. From this menacing mass of oil paint emerge anthropomorphic forms, monstrous figures. Camargo once said that his work was not a source of happiness to the viewer, and that he himself was a cyclist cycling against the wind. Cyclists were among his favourite themes.

Ibere Camargo considered himself a follower of Maurice Utrillo, of Goya among the older masters, and of Francis Bacon and de Kooning among the modern ones. He himself enjoyed a successful career. In 1961 he was awarded the prize of best painter at the VI Bienal of Sao Paulo. In 1966 he painted a mural for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. He showed his work at International Biennials in Venice, Tokyo, Mexico and Sao Paulo; at group exhibitions in the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in the National Museum of Osaka, in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. He had several one-man shows, at the O'Hana Gallery in London (1973), for example, and Gallery Debret in Paris (1979), and two major retrospectives at the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo and Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro in 1986. During the Eighties he became increasingly reclusive, and returned to live in his home town, Porto Alegre.

Camargo's work was not shown in the last retrospectives of Latin American art presented in Europe and New York, mainly because it did not conform to the Surrealistic-inspired Fantastic art and to Brazilian Abstract and Conceptual art. The European audience has missed the greatness of a painter who is considered by many to be, with Oswaldo Goeldi, the greatest Brazilian Expressionist and the only one who explored abstract Expressionism to its limits.