Santa Helena Group

Elza Ajzenberg

AJZENBERG, Elza. Grupo Santa Helena. 19&20, Rio de Janeiro, v. III, n. 4, out. 2008. Disponível em: <>. [Português]

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1.       The art that is widely developed in Brazil since 1930 is not so theoretical but a lot practical and far from the daring features of the pioneering phase of Modernism. Based on a direct perception of the natural, human and social environment, this art is part of a historical context of restricted policies in relation to cultural freedom. On the other hand, there are gains in the national process of plastic revitalization as well as in social aspects. This statement is based on the artists’ spirit of cooperation that led them to create relevant groups for the trajectory of modern art, which was facing the opposition from the academic trends[1]. Among these groups one of the most consistent is the Santa Helena Grop.

2.       The Santa Helena Group is formed during a period of socio-political transformations due to the Revolution of 1930. The 1930s and 1940s influenced the historical and artistic trajectory of the artists from this group. It was a period of growth and modernization for São Paulo because of the coffee plantation expansion, and later, because of industrialization and development of the banking and financial sectors. Trains, streetcars, electricity, cars, pavements, squares, overpasses, parks and the first skyscrapers, changed the city’s aspect.

3.       From 1934 on, in different moments, these artists started coming to the Santa Helena Palace, an office building located at the old Sé Square, 43 (later number 247), where they shared experiences in rooms that were transformed into studios until the end of the decade. They had no intention of creating a movement. They started getting together spontaneously, motivated by certain identification with each other because of their social origins and their experiences in art or handcraft art.

4.       At the Santa Helena Palace, artists who used to do works such as wall painting or house decoration got together in order to share and improve their knowledge and practice. They worked on drawing with fine art models - including in the studios of the Santa Helena - and attended the free course of the São Paulo Society of Fine Arts (SPBA). At that place friendships started getting consolidated. It can be easily noticed that since the Group was created, the personal efforts for improvement added to the gains of working in group predominated among these artists.

1.       In this context it is possible to observe the wall painters who used to stay at Sé Square and nearby. One of these painters, Rebolo Gonsales, who had just left his professional soccer activities, started running an office in the room 231 of the Santa Helena Palace. Soon after, another artisan, Mário Zanini, did the same by moving to the room 232.

2.       In their free time, some of them were amateur artists and attended the free course of the São Paulo Society of Fine Arts at night. In the course, supervised by Lopes Leão, they met other artists-artisans such as Alfredo Volpi, Clóvis Graciano and Manoel Martins. Soon after, these painters and other ones started to meet periodically in the Santa Helena Palace to draw or exchange ideas about art. That is how the so called Santa Helena Group was created. Its members were Rebolo Gonsales (1902-1980), Mário Zanini (1907-1971), Fulvio Pennacchi (1905-1992), Aldo Bonadei (1906-1974), Alfredo Volpi (1896-1988), Humberto Rosa (1908-1948), Clóvis Graciano (1907-1988), Manoel Martins (1911-1979) and Alfredo Rullo Rizzotti (1909-1972). Later, Rebolo himself explained the origins of the group: “The Santa Helena did not start as a movement: it was transformed into a movement by the intellectuals”. It was a group formed by some friends whose characteristic in common was disapproving the academics and aiming a “real painting” that should not be anecdotic or narrative. “The painting for painting”[2].

3.       On the basis of this Group was the contribution of the immigrants and their descendents. According to Flávio Motta, for example, the immigrant’s work contributed to the improvement of the work and production relations in Brazilian life, with “consequences referring to the history of painting, architecture, etc”[3].

4.       The Santa Helena’s artists corresponded to the social and cultural situation of a metropolis in fast expansion, with an intense Italian presence. Most of the Group’s members belonged to the big colony that was settled in São Paulo state. Volpi and Pennacchi were Italian, while Bonadei, Graciano, Rosa, Rizzotti and Zanini were immigrants’ sons; Rebolo was a Spanish descendent and Manoel Martins a Portuguese one. Almost all of them had a profession to maintain themselves. Volpi, Rebolo and Zanini were wall painters; Rizzotti was a turner; Bonadei an embroiderer; Pennacchi a butcher; Graciano an ex-railroad employee and an ex-smith; and Manoel Martins was an apprentice goldsmith.

5.       Besides their immigrant and poor origins, the members of the Santa Helena Group had certain specificities in their professional training background: some of them studied abroad, other ones attended classes at the São Paulo School of Fine Arts and there were also the ones who were self-taught. However, the main characteristic of these artists was the personal efforts for improvement.

6.       The companionship they used to cultivate was a great ally. Volpi and Zanini had already known each other before meeting at the Santa Helena. Zanini and Rebolo were close to each other since the beginning of the 1930s. Pennacchi and Rebolo became friends during the III São Paulo Salon of Fine Arts (1936).

7.       The artists worked with decorative house painting, among other tasks, and this professional connection became a deciding factor for their bonds, which remained stronger until the beginning of the 1940s. Without any preconceived ideas, they created a communitarian existence among them. They sought the improvement of their knowledge in relation to artistic materials and techniques. From the aesthetic point of view, it is possible to notice spontaneous or indirect new readings of Impressionism, of Cézanne’s constructed forms or Van Gogh’s incisive traces in their works [Figure 1 e Figure 2].

8.       This way of learning cannot be compared to the international experience of the first modernists, who lived in Paris or other cities or were immerse in the European artistic atmosphere. The professional training of these “painting workers” happened in São Paulo’s environment and absorbed mainly the Italian and French cultures.

9.       Concentrated, in search for technical improvements and without the critics’ recognition, their approach was different from the avant-garde manifestations promoted by the members of the Pro-Modern Art Society (SPAM) and the Club of Modern Artists (CAM) in 1932 and 1934. However, they had vocation for the arts and were guided by a creative instinct that led them to professionalization and, in the future, to the art criticism recognition.

10.    In this sense the term “worker artist” is used by the art critic Mário de Andrade. These artists focused on their professions, on associative needs, with an objective in common that was “making paintings” or, on Rebolo’s words, “making genuine paintings” and, considering the lyric consequence of the fact that these workmen used to make a living as painters, then they can also be called “painting workers”. Besides the debates about the attitude of artists that in order to survive dared to begin their carreers from a basic learning by taking “studio lessons” is the commitment of each participant that, as a group, combined efforts in order to overcome economical and professional limits and opted for the “genuine painting”, from which they lived as workers of their own art[4].

11.    In its trajectory the Santa Helena Group felt the effects of the development of the applied arts. In this second phase of Modernism, the liking for living with the new is not diffused. The modernist artists rarely survived with the money coming from their artworks. Only a few were interested in broadcasting art, and at that time there were not institutions or museums with this purpose. Consequently, the artists and the public did not have the support of a cultural infrastructure. Many artists had other jobs in order to survive.

12.    However, they had the merit of contributing for the maturation of a kind of artistic expression concerned only with aspects related to the technique or with the métier - an aspect not always valued by the avant-garde painters. Or, as Sérgio Milliet wrote, this group represented “a reaction of the painting of shades and atmosphere against the most advanced, but less handmade artistic trends”[5].

13.    It is important to highlight that the Santa Helena Group’s artists never promoted a collective exhibition of their artworks. However, they participated in three exhibits of the São Paulo Artistic Family[6], held, respectively at the Grillroom of the Esplanada Hotel, in November, 1937; at the Automóvel Club, on Líbero Badaró Street in May-June, 1939; and at the Palace Hotel of Rio de Janeiro - an invitation of the Association of Brazilian Artists with the sponsorship of the magazine Aspectos (Aspects) - in August-September, 1940.

14.    The first exhibition of the São Paulo Artistic Family did not reach the aimed repercussion. In the exhibit catalogue Paulo Mendes Almeida highlighted the Group’s repudiation of academicism and the fact that it was not among the “most advanced trends”[7], but integrated with the “genuine traditions of painting”. In the second presentation, Mário de Andrade’s article, of 1939, Esta Paulista Família (This São Paulo Familiy) was more resonant[8]. Finally, in the last version of the Artistic Family, ended in September, 1940, the members of the Santa Helena Group were already dispersed. Some of them met again during the activities at the Osirarte.

15.    At the Osiarte, Paulo Rossi Osir (1890-1959) and Vittorio Gobbis (1984-1968). were two important influences, but not always recognized. Vittorio was from Italy and moved to Brazil in the 1920s, bringing with him the mastery of the figurative painting, which was barely renewed. In Rossi Osir’s works there is a realistic accuracy, deeply related to the Italian visuality that kept untouched stylistic quality and coherence. His artistic training happened in different European countries between 1908 and 1927.

16.    Apart from the initiative of promoting the exhibits of the São Paulo Artistic Family, Rossi Osir founded the Osiarte firm that aimed the revival of the art on tile. Its first order was the decoration of the walls of the Ministry of Education, to which Portinari offered his cards. Focused on national themes, the Osiarte lasted until 1959. Artists from the Santa Helena Group such as Alfredo Volpi and Mário Zanini took part of it.

17.    To sum up, about the contributions of the artists from this Group and the context they were immerse, as a starting point, it is possible to value the economical and cultural issues emphasized by Mário de Andrade.

18.    The social origin, the professional and handcraft art affinities motivated Mário de Andrade to call them “worker artists”[9]. The author remembers that it was in the beginning of the 1940s that the late-eclectic building[10] located at the old Sé Square started to designate the Santa Helena Group[11]. They recorded, as stated Mário de Andrade, life contents, “a silent pain”[12]; above all they produced a pictorial work with high sensitivity, disciplined by the strict métier.

19.    By commenting the role of the “new representatives” of the São Paulo Artistic Family, Mário de Andrade emphasized the most known characteristic of these artists: their social condition. He used to refer to them as belonging to common people, sometimes “directly proletarians”, “at least belonging to a working class or people with limited economic and cultural resources”. This condition was determinant in their careers. This factor corresponded to the recent aspects of a society marked by a “progressive influence of the middle and working classes”, in addition to the influence and participation of immigrant artists or their descendents[13].

20.    The influence of the Italian painting is relevant and was naturally motivated by their origins. Without the daring features of the modernist avant-garde, but, at the same time, keeping certain distance from the academic rules, almost always using small canvas or “windows for genuine painting”, these artists chose a moderate Modernism. Their works reflected at first their social condition that is visible in their “proletarism”, quoting Mário de Andrade’s term.

21.    Today, it is possible to reread or even add new issues to the signalization or terminology used by this art critic. However, the mark of the social context in the Group’s point of view is incontestable. In their representations there is a prevalence of walks in the “open air”, simple landscapes, the anonymous working class environment, the coast, still-lives, the popular human figure, religious themes and some other motifs and records of the way of life of the Group’s members.

English version by Eliany Cristina Ortiz Funari


[1] ZANINI, Walter. A Arte no Brasil nas décadas de 1930-40. O Grupo Santa Helena. São Paulo: Nobel e EDUSP, 1991, p. 13.

[2] That can be understood as “the painting itself is enough”. AJZENBERG, Elza. Rebolo. São Paulo: MWM, 1986, p.32.

[3] MOTTA, Flávio. A Família Artística Paulista, Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, IEB (Magazine of the Brazilian Studies Institute), São Paulo, v. 10, p.138, 1971.,

[4] BRILL, Alice. Mário Zanini e seu tempo. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1984, p.32.

[5] MILLIET. Sérgio. Rebolo e Mário Zanini. O Estado de São Paulo, n. 188, 193, August and November, 1941.

[6] A name inspired in an Italian association of Milan, according to ALMEIDA, Paulo Mendes de. De Anita ao Museu. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1976, p. 123 and followings.

[7] Idem, p. 133.

[8] ANDRADE, Mário. Esta paulista família. O Estado de São Paulo. São Paulo, July,2, 1939.

[9] Idem, ibidem.

[10] A building constructed in the 1920s and demolished in 1971.

[11] Sérgio Milliet is one of the first critics to make such a specific reference to the Santa Helena Group. See: MILLIET, Sérgio. Rebolo. O Estado de São Paulo, n.188, August, 1941. Mário Zanini. O Estado de São Paulo, n.193, November, 1941. Suplement in Rotoengraving.  

[12] Mário de Andrade. Essay about Clóvis Graciano, 1944. Apud MOTTA, Flávio. A Família Artística Paulista. Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, IEB (Magazine of the Brazilian Studies Institute), São Paulo, v.10, p. 157, 1971.

[13] Mário de Andrade. Essay about Clóvis Graciano, 1944. Transcript in MOTTA, Flávio. A Família Artística Paulista. Offprint of Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, IEB (Magazine of the Brazilian Studies Institute), São Paulo, v.10, p. 157, 1971.