Text and photos : Winnie T. Sittón
After several days of heavy rain in the city of Recife, the morning dawned sunny. Our guide decided that it was best to leave the hotel as soon as possible and take advantage of the good weather to visit the Francisco Brennand Ceramic Workshop. It was my first day in the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil. I had landed just a few hours earlier that morning and was still a bit overwhelmed by the journey. Honestly, I didn’t really understand what my driver was suggesting, but I accepted anyway, letting myself be carried away by his promise that we were heading to one of the capital’s most important tourist attractions.
We traveled about forty minutes by car, navigating the metropolis’s heavy morning traffic. We reached the green, tree-lined Várzea neighborhood, where Portuguese colonists set up the first sugar mills four hundred years ago. We got out of the car, went through the ticket office and walked through the main entrance. Entering, I had the impression I had been taken to a sort of sanctuary or monastery, perhaps because of the peace I felt around me, and the greenery that dominated the environment. But after I’d taken a few steps and discovered the first exotic sculptures along the path, I knew this was no religious temple, though without a doubt I was in a mystical place fit for worship.
Francisco Brennand Ceramic Workshop
Shortly after entering, I met a young lady, fluent in both Spanish and English, who was to be my guide on the tour given my total ignorance of Portuguese. Thanks to her, I finally understood that I was on the sacred grounds of painter and sculptor Francisco Brennand, one of Pernambuco’s most revered artists and the man considered the greatest ceramicist in Brazil. Brennand was born on June 11, 1927 on the far-reaching lands of the famous old São João Sugar Mill in Recife, where this monumental six square-mile complex now stands.
It was here, in a former tile factory that was founded in 1917 by his father, Don Ricardo de Almeida Brennand, that Francisco was introduced to the art of ceramics. At age fifteen, he learned from the renowned sculptor, Abelardo da Hora, who worked in the factory at the time. From that moment on, his artistic education advanced under the tutelage of outstanding Pernambuco masters such as painters Álvaro Amorim and Murillo La Greca. His early walks along the path of art soon showed good results: at age twenty he won his first painting prize from the Art Salon of the Pernambuco State Museum for the painting Second Vision of the Earth, a landscape inspired by the São João Sugar Mill grounds.
As we crossed the central garden toward the inner part of the grounds, my guide provided me with details about Francisco Brennand’s personal life. She told me that the artist emigrated to Europe when he was still very young, at the advice of his friend, Pernambuco painter Cícero Dias, who lived in Paris at the time. He spent several years in France and Spain, studying with important painters.
Later, he moved to Italy to deepen his knowledge of ceramic techniques, taking a course in the province of Perugia, where he acquired his early experience in ceramic glaze and firing at varied temperatures. Thanks to these European adventures, he returned to his native Recife better prepared and with a new vision of art and the world. In the 1950s and 60s he was already well on his way to becoming the world-class artist he is today.
The Francisco Brennand Ceramic Workshop opened in 1971. The old factory that once occupied the space closed its doors in 1945 and the land was abandoned for more than two decades, until Brennand decided to restore it and turn it into a huge exhibition space for his work. More than 2,000 ceramic pieces are on display in addition to the sculptures and monuments exhibited outdoors.
The pieces reflect Francisco Brennand’s inner world and his artistic concerns, centering on humanity’s great themes: the creation myth, the origins of life, love, sex and reproduction, death, and eternity.
His work is also engaged with faith, the divine, and solving the enigmas of existence, themes visible in the monuments, sculptures, and fountains that make up the Central Temple, an outdoor exhibition located along one side of the main gallery. Many of his busts reveal a fascination with characters from Greek and Roman mythology and their influence on human beings.
The cultural center has several exhibition spaces, as well as an amphitheater and an events room.
Visitors can tour beautiful gardens designed by the famous Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994), one of the most important landscape architects in Brazil. Brennand’s workshop is also on the grounds. Obviously, visitors don’t have access to that area, but it’s possible at times to find the 91-year-old maestro strolling through the gardens, when he’s not working and is in the mood to greet people.
I can attest to this, because shortly before I finished my tour, the sculptor appeared and chatted briefly with the morning’s visitors. Although it was a fleeting encounter, it was amazing to meet one of Brazil’s great artists in person, just after learning about key aspects of his life and work. And right there in his very own temple.