Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1918, Athos owes his name to the well-known character from The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. With a financially stable household, Bulcão was raised by his older sisters after their mother died shortly before he was five years old. Both of his siblings made sure his world was enriched by cultural events and intellectual gatherings. Therefore, it was not surprising that, as a young adult, he dropped out of the Faculdade de Medicina Fluminense after his first three academic years to pursue other endeavors.
The turning point for Bulcão’s interest in tiles as a creative, authorial medium came to be upon his work as an assistant to the painter Candido Portinari at the early age of 21. The execution of São Francisco de Assis panel, in the Igreja da Pampulha, Belo Horizonte, stands out from that early period. Bulcão would credit his internship with Portinari as crucial for his interpretation of color and the development of his drawing skills.
With such a heightened sense of modernity, backed by the scholar thinking of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright, the 1940s embraced Athos with the vision of architectural art as a holistic one. More precisely, 1942 marks another turning point for him. He takes side with Os dissidentes (The Dissidents), aiming for the Rio de Janeiro educational system renovation. The movement featured two crucial names for Athos’s future narrative: Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, both of which also defended the dialog between architecture and the arts.
In 1944, Niemeyer invited Bulcão to present his first individual exhibition on the main building of the Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil. The partnership with Niemeyer continued when Bulcão was included to author a tile project on a panel of the Teatro Municipal de Belo Horizonte. Even though the piece was never made, the two shared a bond, where art and architecture were meant to complement each other.
Upon a period of intense study and productivity in France, Athos returns to Brazil. He finds a much more diverse cultural scene than the one he left behind. 1951, the year he visits the first Bienal Internacional de São Paulo, marks a shift in his perspective, based on the event’s statement: Brazil’s modernity cannot simply defy its foreign counterparts but seeks a permanent dialog to exchange ideas.
Indeed, the 1950s would unveil the most important work of his career: the creation of Brasília. Teaming up with Oscar Niemeyer was already a natural choice, after Bulcão’s initial collaboration with the architect: providing the tilework for the renewed Hospital da Lagoa in Rio de Janeiro – his first display of leading talent with tiles as an artistic medium.
Athos became one of the first citizens of Brasília. Moreover, he quickly was seen as the chief artist to provided infrastructures with panels, murals, dividers, and many other complementary attributes to Niemeyer’s opulent work.
One could summarize and encompass Bulcão’s traits and artistic style simply by its innovative boldness. Firstly, he gives continuity to the tradition of “azulejaria luso-brasileira” with forward-thinking. The maiolica, an ever-present whiteness; a preference for cobalt blue, and, on later periods of his work, yellow and green, are all key elements of his large-sized panels or overall covering. Secondly, Athos displays an irreverent tone as he uses a traditional, industrial associated and perhaps unlikely medium, the tile, to encapsulate modernity. Not only through style but also in substance, his work stands as ideological. In Brazil’s modernism, the religious and scientific dichotomy or the labor class struggle are pivotal themes. Bulcão’s take on such concepts are abstract, an optimistic view of future progress and wellbeing. His approach is subtle and sets the mood for social peace, interaction, creativity, and groundbreaking ideas.
Contrary to suprematist abstraction or constructivism, in the likes of Malevitch or Max Bill, Bulcão leaves more fertile ground for the imagination, a dream-like state of immersion with the surroundings. A maestro conductor role, his sense of harmony and rhythm are empathic towards the artist’s tastes and sensibilities, not only through a musical approach to art but also as a constant homage to the sequencing of cinema.
In conclusion, even though Niemeyer has a more active presence in today’s collective memory, Bulcão has left his mark on Brazil’s Capital in his own right. The outer cladding of the Igrejinha Nossa Senhora de Fátima, the tile panel on the Brasília Palace Hotel would eventually become some of his most recognizable work to date, cementing his importance for future scholars to unfold.
OLIVEIRA, Adriana Anselmo. Athos Bulcão e a moderna azulejaria brasileira. Vitória: Centro de Artes da Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, 2010.
WANDERLEY, Ingrid Moura. Azulejo na arquitetura brasileira: os painéis de Athos Bulcão. Dissertação de Mestrado. São Carlos: Departamento de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo, 2006.
Athos Bulcão. Edição Colaborativa. São Paulo: Fundação Athos Bulcão, 2001.