From his early years until his death, Athos Bulcão was a shy man. Behind his timid character, however, he was a powerful artist with a unique presence in Brazilian public spaces. His artwork on tiles, wood panels, and concrete decorate the corridors of government buildings in Brasília – the city is home to approximately 261 of his pieces. Few artists have made such a mark on a single place as Athos Bulcão did in Brasilia. Today would have been his 100th birthday.
If you’ve never seen his work in the flesh, you may have seen it while browsing on your go-to search engine. Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Athos Bulcão.
Since his early years, Athos Bulcão was an assiduous visitor of art galleries and exhibitions, thanks to his family’s cultural interests. In 1945, at 21, after dropping out of medical school, he became an assistant to Candido Portinari, one of Brazil’s most important painters. With Portinari, Bulcão learned about drawings and colors.
Following the example of countless Brazilian artists at the time, he went to Paris between 1948 and 1950 to study art, with a scholarship offered by the French government. Back in Brazil, he worked with illustrations for books and magazines in Rio de Janeiro. His big breakthrough, though, would only come in 1955, when he started collaborating with architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Two years later, Bulcão joined the team of designers that worked on the construction of a new capital city in the heart of the country: Brasília. He moved to the new city, where he became a symbol and where he lived until his death, in 2008.
Athos Bulcão & Brasília
Bulcão and Niemeyer were a perfect match. One complimented the other in a way few artists manage. Today, it’s impossible to imagine the geometric architecture of Brasília without Bulcão’s tiled murals and stained glass illustrations. His legacy is spread throughout the capital’s main buildings – including the Congress and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – and remain modern to this day.
Thanks to Athos Bulcão’s work, Brasilia today is an open-air museum. His style was defined by the idea that art should be made public, and not confined to galleries and museums. But it was not only the city that the artwork had a dialogue with. The panels were conceived in a way that the rotation of a single tile was able to create a whole new pattern of shapes. Therefore, the workers who installed the tiles of Bulcão’s murals became co-creators of his work.
If you don’t feel like going to Brasília, the Athos Bulcão Foundation launched an online collection in 2017, with 238 of his works.