The artist and the executive, not necessarily in this order. A play on words related to the title of one of his first and most emblematic works, The Hunter and the Executive, from the 1980s, puts René Agostinho’s dual and remarkable personality on display. His pragmatic and expressive work reveals a frenetic and precise vision of an intense journey through the universe of creativity.
Rich in nuance, precise cuts, and fluidity, the kaleidoscope of ideas present in each of René Agostinho’s compositions is stunning. Their interpretation depends on the viewer’s state of mind. The feelings aroused by surrealist art—in a re-reading and pragmatic contextualization of the movement for the twenty-first century—change each time you take another look at the same work.
The visual narrative follows an orthodox logic; it is usually composed in a sequence of rhythmic images that tell a story when put together. Following a Robert McKee-style Hollywood model, it has a beginning, a climax, and an ending. There are a hero and an anti-hero. Agostinho’s work seems to subvert the logic of the narrative generation itself. A single scene collects a set of intentions that seem to spring from different sources, in a beautiful analogy to Gilles Deleuze’s rhizome. Connected by memories, reflections, and intuitions, the assembled scenes kindle a series of possible readings. And this is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most surprising aspect of Agostinho’s work.
He says that his initial obsession with hyperrealism gradually gave way to daring and free experimentation. He found inspiration in the freestyle lines of comic strips along his quest for references and escape from the literal reproduction of photographic records. The line reference definitely left a mark on the formal result of the artist’s work. But this inherent aspect in the comic strip niche is precisely focused on the action and feelings of the main character, as well as on subtle and carefully chosen supporting actors for the composition of the script. This protagonist occupies a clear presence in Agostinho’s work.
For an accurate analysis of the artist-advertiser’s works, the best approach would be to take the part for the whole. In other words, fragments or excerpts of the compositions are analyzed individually and subsequently connected to the whole. Ana Júlia, a work from his Irmandade (Brotherhood) series, is a clear example of adapting the fragmentation strategy to this study: the birth and rebirth are both captured through the phoenix’s representation whose lines and colorful image are noteworthy. However, the wealth of details, spotted by only the sharpest, through discoveries, they appear in such elements as the texture of the “hand of God” that seems to rise from the nebula that emanates from the protagonist.
The gloomy vision represented by Agostinho is noticed in every line in his compositions. They are replete with visual synecdoches, and trying to identify them is both the fun and the challenge.
Read an exclusive interview with artist René Agostinho below. Learn more about the artist’s significance at www.reneagostinho.com
Your work started spontaneously in childhood. Could you talk about the influence comic strips had on your visual language?
René: I started by drawing, not painting, and this path requires that your image remain faithful to reality to a certain point. At first, I was obsessed with hyper-realism, but little by little I understood that reproducing a photograph was not the kind of art I wanted to make. So, I started dappling, experimenting, searching for my line. At the time, my imaginary universe was full of superheroes from comic strips, and they were always accompanied by a clear narrative within a mythical universe with oversized characters, existential crises, and plots that intertwined with the lives of ordinary people. This tangle of plots and simultaneous events has been a part of my work since I started. Another significant feature of my compositions is the presence of a protagonist, which references the narrative in comics.
In many aspects, your works are marked by a surrealistic visual narrative. Could you talk about this tendency?
René: My art is automatic. I can’t plan the entire piece. Generally, I know what the central image and context will be. The other elements show up organically. These connections add up and produce the final result, either on canvas or on paper. In fact, I discovered that I was a “surrealist” when I studied modern art, its schools, and the mechanism for creating each one of them. When I understood what automatic creation in painting and literature was, I clearly recognized myself in that process. During my training, I carried out several exercises from different schools and in different genres. All this helped me compose the pictorial space in my works. I don’t mean to ascribe any magical or divine aspect to my art, though. Any form of artistic expression is achieved like everything else in life: study, a lot of training, practice, technical accuracy, consistency, and resilience. I don’t know any other way.
How does Portuguese modernism influence your representative language?
René: I’ve always been interested in learning about my background. I’m basically the descendant of indigenous people, probably the Terena, and the Portuguese. I gained citizenship a few years ago. I felt compelled to research and get to know the Portuguese modernists, and came across fantastic artists such as Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, Paula Rego with her strong powerful characters and gloomy colors, not to mention Almada Negreiros, and of course Nadir Afonso. Portugal’s modernist work is very rich, but it was all created in a small and until then far-flung country and was barely appreciated by the Portuguese themselves for many years. Discovering these fantastic artists was significant for understanding the paths I had tread for me. It was also a way to be influenced by others besides the big names in painting.
Before migrating to the strategic advertising and management market, you were a part of creative teams. Did that time have any influence on your design process?
René: My time in advertising taught me that the seemingly logical path is not always the best. It seemed that the creation done in advertising would be an obvious path for those with artistic aptitude, skills, and creativity, but actually, I discovered that this was not what I wanted to do with my life. Advertising demands pragmatic creativity, specifically geared to a product or service, and I quickly realized that I didn’t want to do it. Furthermore, I found myself in the editorial environment, where I have always dealt with culture. For many years I worked at Editora Abril, the largest magazine publisher in Brazil. Besides working on several magazines, I had the opportunity to work in fields like entertainment, books, the internet, and even toys. This diversity of experiences had a great influence on my world view and eventually on my art.
Since you brought it up, what are the main stages in your creative process? How do you plan the final result of your compositions?
René: I start by packaging an idea, an insight that may have come up in a casual conversation, a film, a photo, a book, anything. Then I do image research, look for references, study the context in which the character will be placed, and get busy sketching, starting with the protagonist. I like to compose several narratives at once as if it were a moment frozen in time. I try to portray several things happening at the same time, far beyond the first glance. It’s as if I were alerting the viewer: look around and pay attention. In this sense, the main character may often be less important during the creative process. The idea refers to life itself: we see ourselves as the main characters of our lives, but our story, joys, and sorrows disappear in the bigger picture. We are much less important than we think we are.
Your art is analog, in the sense of the line itself. Could you talk about your drawing, color and finishing techniques?
René: Everything for me starts with drawing the line, both in figuratively and in the details that drawing allows but playing with the color and shadow of the painting is where I really have fun. I like to combine the two; the drawing helps me a lot in studying a particular character, in the initial composition of the scene, and in the perspective that I will adopt. Then I apply the paint over it in several layers and lose the line. In this process of applying layers, the composition can totally change from what I initially expected in the sketch. Personally, I like water-based paints like watercolor and gouache. The fluidity seduces me, their transparency, and the possibility of working with several layers that mix and allow nuanced color. I like to work with lots of water and let it do its way into the work. Of course, technique is fundamental, but letting go of total control is part of my process. At the end, I go back to the drawing, but with the brush, to work on the finishing touches.
Somehow, this handmade composition process composition goes against the grain of your corporate career, where you are even an investor in technology companies. In light of what appears to be a paradox, could you talk about your feelings while developing your artistic work?
René: I like to talk about this subject. For some time, I got lost in the frustration at the thought that I was doing something I shouldn’t, and I felt compelled to follow a path I didn’t want to follow, but that was necessary if I wanted to survive independently. At the time, it was practically unthinkable to live off of making art unless you had a wealthy family to support you. I come from a typical new middle-class family, a product of the “economic miracle” of the 1970s, during the military dictatorship. I graduated in the mid-1980s, and starting my career in a third world country straight out of the dictatorship with an inflation rate of over 80% per month was very frustrating. At the beginning of my executive career, I gave up on my artistic aspirations. This was a very hard choice for me. However, I discovered that I could be good at it, and I learned to enjoy my work and living with interesting and intelligent people in a challenging and creative environment. Being an editor and later an executive in top positions tapped into my rational and strategic side, which today is as important as my artistic side. I developed a pragmatic approach that helps me deal with the concrete issues in my career as an artist and allows me to distance myself to also look at art from a business perspective. I have a segmentation of the market, where I have identified “artistic clusters.” I tried to discover how each ecosystem generates value, how specialized outfits fit in with each other. Now, I am unraveling the main virtual communities with hundreds of thousands of followers, their geographic coverage, demographic data, and so on. I have always developed the ability always to have my radar on, capturing, and filtering for what might be of interest. Executive life is a fundamental part of who I am and flows as naturally as my artistic life.
From a visual narrative perspective, your work elicits a series of interpretations in viewers. Where do you get your inspiration? How do you graphically translate feelings, intent, and messages?
René: I often say that in my art, the only worthy point of view is that of each viewer. I believe that everyone has their own personal journey, and it is the set of these experiences that leads one to identify (or not) with my art. In the end, I am painting for myself, and I humbly hope to find other eyes that also identify with what is portrayed, but through their interpretation. I am pessimistic when it comes to the path tread by humanity, that idea of that “man-animal” is the only animal that hunts for pleasure, that can kill its own mate and children, that destroys its habitat, wages wars, and eliminates members of its species and can distort the facts to rationalize its actions. Frankly, it seems that ours is a meaningless existence and my works put this gloomy view on display.
Talk about the work The hunter and the executive. In what way is the anguish portrayed in the mid-1980s similar to these two characters’ feeling today, in 2020? What has changed and what remains the same in the artist René Agostinho in that period and today?
René: This work is significant to me. It’s old, and technically I don’t like it, but it portrays how tormented I was. I painted it in the mid-1980s, when I was graduating and already working in an advertising agency and realized that the world wouldn’t be, not even by a long shot, what I had imagined. Nothing seemed promising at the time. Inflation was on the rise, we were living in the lost decade, civilian governments were butting their heads, and I had to decide what my life would be like: follow my dream or “surrender” to the status quo of the time? It was all very complicated for a young man in his twenties. I chose this work to be on my homepage because of how powerful and meaningful it is to me. This is my only autobiographical work. I am starting a new project where I pick up where I left off with this work, I want to see what The hunter and the executive have become after so many years. I still don’t know what came of them.
Since you mentioned the passage of time, could you talk about the Brotherhood Series? Why promote this “impossible” meeting among your four children?
René: This series hatched from my desire to make a portrait of my children. Being a father is the most important part of my life. Four years ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing the birth of my youngest child. Being a father of a young child after raising three older children who are now living independently has had a significant impact on me and is very rewarding. Of course, I started to look back at what I did with my eldest children, and the memories started popping up in my mind. That’s when I decided to produce the series of portraits of them at almost the same age. It was an attempt to capture a moment that only exists in my memory. Basically, that was the concept I had in mind. I started with Pedro, and, as usual, I had a blank sheet of paper before me with the face of my son drawn in the upper right corner. The composition gradually flowed and, when I finished, there was my gloomy vision of the human condition again. When I finished the portrait of Pedro, I decided to place each child in a particular environment.
César is in an urban space, kind of cyber-punk. Ana Julia, the eldest, is portrayed in deep space and gets mistaken for the nebula in “Pillars of Creation” and for the phoenix. The birth and rebirth all at the same time. The last portrait was of Maria Clara, the only child in the group suggested by the playground where she usually plays. She is portrayed at the bottom of the sea, with the dark oxygen-less sky of space reflecting lights that do not exist. While working on Ana Julia’s portrait, I decided that there would be a common thread—outer space, cold, dark, the lack of oxygen and life—and so, I had to change the background of the first two, which were cut out and placed onto a new background. Observing the four works together, I realized that I had used the image of what is most important and dear to me to juxtapose the smallness of human existence in the face of perennial forces against the brevity of human life.