Hailed as one of Brazil’s most influential 20th-century creatives—an esteemed tier which includes Joaquim Tenreiro and José Caldas—Geraldo de Barros was a São Paulo-born artist prolific across a range of media. Renowned most for his trailblazing midcentury abstract photography, De Barros was also active in the fields of engraving, graphic arts, painting, and furniture design. A relentless experimenter with utopian ideals, De Barros, while undoubtedly Brazilian, drew much of his aesthetic influence from European avant-garde culture, from De Stijl and Bauhaus to Gestalt psychology.
Born February 27, 1923, De Barros began his creative output at age 16, when he started taking photographs with a camera he himself made. In 1945, he detoured into figurative and landscape painting at São Paulo’s Associaçião Paulista de Belas Artes (the Paulista Association of Fine Arts), where he was first exposed to the abstract constructivists, like the De Stijl’s Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Thomas Rietveld. While he drifted back toward photography at some point amid his studies (1945-1947), painting remained a post-grad creative focus for De Barros. In 1948, he established Grupo XV, a collective mostly comprised of Japanese post-impressionist artists.
Through the 1940s, De Barros explored Gestalt Theory, via Brazil’s preeminent art critic, Mário Pedrosa and the abstract work of Bauhaus pioneers Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, among others. Klee and Bauhaus, specifically, informed what would become De Barros’s breakthrough Fotoformas exhibition at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 1950. Showcasing photomontages heavy-handed with scraped negatives and multiple exposures, the exhibition garnered De Barros national decoration and led to a series of European residencies—studying lithography and engraving in Paris, and afterward graphic design at the Ulm School of Design under Max Bill—that transformed his aesthetic.
Upon return in 1952 to Brazil, De Barros became a central figure in São Paulo’s Concrete Art movement, forming Grupo Ruptura with other revolutionary Brazilian artists. Soon after, his focus turned to furniture design.
In 1954, De Barros joined forces with Dominican friar João Batista Pereira, engineer Justino Cardoso, and ironworker Antônio Thereza to found Unilabor, a worker-owned cooperative that produced modernist furniture. Often crafted of rosewood (Jacaranda, in Portuguese), their pieces were characterized by the myriad influences De Barros himself had cultivated over the years; Ulm school minimalism and the geometric rigor of concrete art, for instance, appear unmistakably in Unilabor’s Estante Bookshelf, constructed sometime in the 1950s.
De Barros continued to produce for Unilabor into the 1960s, a tenure which included exhibiting in formal showcases; namely, the 1956 Exposição Nacional de Arte Concreta in São Paulo and the 1960 exhibition Konkrete Kunst, 50 Jahre Entwicklung, organized by Max Bill in Zürich. De Barros left Unilabor in 1964 after the cooperative was beset with financial and managerial difficulties. He pressed on with furniture design and soon after founded Hobjeto—from the Portuguese “Hoje” (today) and “Objeto” (object)—a privately-owned venture that produced pieces a bit more industrial than the Unilabor catalog but still redolent of De Barros’s constructivist-style (and often featuring of Formica). He stayed with Hobjeto before retiring in 1989.
Amid failing health in the late 1990s, De Barros returned to photography, culminating his career arc with Sobras, a series of collages that incorporated family photos and negatives taken in the 1950s. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 75.