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Arthur Bispo do Rosário

Brazilian, 20th century.
Born 1909, Japaratuba, Sergipe, Brazil; died 1989, Jacarepaguá, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


The descendant of slaves, Arthur Bispo do Rosario (known as “Bispo”) was born in Sergipe, the smallest of Brazil’s federal states, on the South American country’s northeastern Atlantic coast. As a young man, he served in the Brazilian navy and took up boxing, but he was discharged from military service for insubordination. In 1938, Bispo experienced a psychotic episode, during which, some reports say today, he sensed that his mission in life was to recreate the universe in a form he could present to God for redemption on what Christian believers refer to as “Judgment Day.” He was arrested, hospitalized and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Ultimately Bispo was sent to the Colônia Juliano Moreira, a psychiatric institution in Rio de Janeiro, where he would spend the rest of his life. There, he occupied an attic room.

In isolation from mainstream society, Bispo created a large body of work consisting of mixed-media hanging or freestanding sculptures and other objects, including hand-embroidered textiles with assorted attached elements. As someone who “wandered in a delicate region between reality and delirium,” as Luciano Hidalgo, Bispo’s biographer, has noted, the self-taught art-maker used cast-off materials—buttons, bottles, paper, cardboard, hospital linens, cutlery, old uniforms, rubber boots—to produce his often sumptuous, texture-rich creations for himself, not for an audience. He never sold any of his works, and it remains arguable whether or not he regarded the objects he concocted as art at all. By the end of his life, he had made more than 800 objects, including garments; banners; sculptures shaped like boats, automobiles and a boxing ring; and an “Annunciation Garment,” which Bispo had intended to wear himself on Judgment Day. Bispo made miniature street signs, which he wrapped in bandages, and carts meant for transporting all sorts of found items.

In a 2004 article about Bispo’s work published in Raw Vision, the New York-based art collector and private art dealer Beate Echols noted, “The art world has called him a conceptual artist, pop artist, visionary artist, folk artist and even a psychotic artist. But these labels do not explain the man or his work.

Bispo do Rosario always insisted that he was not an artist and that he had no choice in what he did.” His works, Echols observed, “recall the folk arts of his native region” of Brazil. She added, “Others resemble African decorated graves and the amulets and wrapped healing charms of Congo cultures. Yet others reflect his Christian faith.”

Bispo’s life and art have become the subjects of numerous films, books and theatrical plays that have been produced in Brazil, and his complete oeuvre has been officially recognized as a part of his homeland’s national cultural patrimony.

Bispo, who apparently was aware of the condition that had led to his confinement, is often quoted as having remarked, “Mental illnesses are like hummingbirds. They never land [but] stay two meters off the ground.” Similarly, the meanings of the artist’s creations are ambiguous at best; many appear to props for mysterious, unknown or unknowable rituals. In Rio de Janeiro, the Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporanea houses a permanent collection of the artist’s works in different formats and media.

- Edward M. Gómez


Selected Exhibitions

2013, The Encyclopedic Palace, main group/thematic exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale, Venice

2012, Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

2003, Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris

1995, Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Brazil Pavilion exhibition at the 46th Venice Biennale, Venice

1982, À Margem da Vida, group/thematic exhibition, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro

Selected Collections

Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporanea, Rio de Janeiro

Selected Bibliography 

Denizart, Hugo, “The Prisoner of Passage,” Extract from video documentary made by psychoanalyst Hugo Denizart in 1982 at the request of the Brazilian Ministry of Health to investigate conditions at the hospital Colônia Juliano Moreira, where the self-taught artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário resided. This video clip and brief, written biographical item about the artist available on the website of Victoria & Albert Museum, London, posted in conjunction with an exhibition that was presented at that museum in 2012. See: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/arthur-bispo-do-rosario/

Hidalgo, Luciana, “As artes de Arthur Bispo do Rosário,” Scientific American/Mente Cérebro, Brazil, September 2009.

Riding, Alan, “Creativity As an Ingredient Of Madness: A Wide Variety of Art by Patients In Psychiatric Institutions Is Featured in Paris Exhibitions,” The New York Times, August 6, 2003.

Jusidman, Yishai, “Paris: Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume,” Review of Arthur Bispo do Rosário solo exhibition, ARTFORUM, U.S.A., December 2003.

Echols, Beate, "Arthur Bispo do Rosario," Raw Vision #47, n.d.

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