The Portrait of the Worker in Art

O Retrato do Trabalhador na Arte

Labor Day

Labor Day is marked this Saturday, the 1st of May. The date symbolizes the joint effort of workers to reduce the workload and improve working conditions. Over the centuries, the pictorial representation of the working class as the main theme is little recurrent in the plastic arts. However, between the 19th and 20th centuries, due to political and social circumstances, this theme became the focus of many artists.

The emergence of neo-realism, with artists such as Júlio Pomar, created a real representation of the precarious social conditions of the proletariat at that time. In order to commemorate this special date, we will analyze the emergence of the neo-realism movement in Portugal and the impact of the works of the artist Júlio Pomar on Portuguese society.

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The return of the market by António da Silva Porto, 1986


realism and neo-realism

In the 19th and 20th century, with the realism and neo-realism artistic movements, there was an explosion in the pictorial representation of the working class. In realism, we see fundamentally represented the ways of life of work in the countryside and the concerns of the bourgeoisie.

In the 1940s, due to the international political and ideological situation generated by the end of the war and the expectations of the Communist Party, a frame of reference was formed for some young painters at the beginning of their careers. Thus, the neo-realism artistic movement emerges, which takes up the aesthetic and social attitude of nineteenth-century realism, while simultaneously demonstrating the new concerns of the twentieth century.

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Gadanheiro Júlio Pomar, 1945


Neorealism in Portugal

Neorealism is a movement present in several fields such as plastic arts, literature, cinema and theater. Due to Marxist theories of historical and dialectical materialism disseminated in Portuguese political and intellectual circles, around the 30s, this cultural movement began to develop in literature. An example of this is the publication of periodicals such as O Diabo, Sol Nascente, Seara Nova and the magazine Vértice .

In the plastic arts, neo-realism flourished in the early months of 1945 and late 1947, mainly with the appearance of a new generation of artists with ideological lines converging with the Estado Novo, who committed themselves to social intervention through art. The new political conditions enabled the opportunity for this new generation to demonstrate their work in collective halls and in the press. During 1945 the supplement “Arte” was published; between 1946 and 1956, the “General Exhibitions of Plastic Arts” were produced.

This new movement follows the lines of realism, but abandons the representation of the bourgeoisie, defending a “useful art” that focuses intensely on social problems and the lives of workers. Between form and content, the themes of the proletariat and its economic condition acquired a mystical and ritualized value, through a dramatic contrast between light and dark, accentuating the suffering of faces, feet and hands. These paintings became icons of the desire to fight social exploitation.

The Portrait of the Worker in Art | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of Art

March of Julio Pomar, 1946


The case of Júlio Pomar in Portuguese neo-realism

One of the artists who stands out in this movement is Júlio Pomar, whose first years of artistic production were entirely linked to the affirmation of neo-realism. The artist was born in Lisbon, in the year of the military coup that imposed the dictatorship (1926) and was introduced to the artistic world as a child by a family friend who was a sculptor. He studied at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts for two years, but in 1944 he transferred to the Porto School of Fine Arts. It prematurely assumed its opposition to the current regime, collaborating with communist youth from 1945 onwards.

The Portrait of the Worker in Art | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of Art

Júlio Pomar 's Trolha Lunch, 1946-1950


Júlio Pomar marked the neo-realist movement in Portugal with the painting O Lunch do Trolha , portraying the socially precarious condition of that time. This work, reproduced in several newspapers, presents the meal of three figures: the troll, the woman and the child. In a game between light and dark, color is dramatically felt, describing this theme in a harsh way. The anatomy of the worker's feet and hands are accentuated, as they are the means of work, survival and struggle. By involving the figures, the painter represents the objects of the hard work of this trolha in order to contextualize the spectator of the space.

This work is distinguished by the geometrical composition, which extends to the construction of figures and expressive deformation. With a strong and textural composition, it also registers a certain expressionist and post-Cubist adaptation, evident in the organization of space and in the figures-background relationship.

Other works such as Gadanheiro (1945), Marcha (1946) or Resistance (1947) transform the anonymous figures of the working world into heroes in an extraordinary and intensely poetic way. The bodies, deformed and with an almost sculptural dimension, threaten to advance towards the spectator for an ethical reckoning. Filling the canvas completely, the symbolic values of the gesture of work, struggle and superhuman strength are reinforced through color. For Portuguese history, Júlio Pomar's paintings from this period are fundamental for their pictorial dynamism and for having nurtured the hope of a progressive transformation in society, later stimulating the fall of the fascist dictatorship.

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