Carybé – The Death of Alexandrina (1939)

Although he was born in Argentina under the real name Héctor Julio Páride Bernabó, few artists have managed to capture as well as Carybé (1911 – 1997) the spirit and effervescence of Brazil.  Enamored with the country’s rich culture and its people, the artist spent the second half of his life in Bahia, Brazil’s fourth largest state, using his colorful palette to capture a world of wonder and celebration.

Carybé - The Death of Alexandrina
Carybé – The Death of Alexandrina (1939), oil on canvas

The Death of Alexandrina (1939) is an oil painting completed after Carybé traveled for 6 months across South America, while hired by a newspaper to draw sketches and give reports about the places he was visiting. Once he reached Salvador, the capital city of Bahia, he knew he had found his home. He returned to Bahia two more times before deciding to settle there for good in 1950.

The scene depicted in the painting shows Alexandrina – a young black woman lying down – stabbed, with her abdomen bleeding. Except for a woman leaning down to clean her wounds, everyone else seems indifferent to the situation. Three other people nearby, a young woman, a man and an older woman, are all looking away, in three different directions. High above, like a colorful cloud, Alexandrina’s spirit is floating, signaling her death.

There is a certain rhythm and music to this scene: the boy to the left has a similar body pose to the girl on the right; the young black woman’s tilted head is mirrored by the woman smoking in pink; in the background there are two women thrusting back their hips in similar fashion. There are many other fascinating details about this painting, including the discrepancy between the high life on the hill – with music and servants – and the poverty of the people living down below in shacks.

It seems that we’re witnessing the scene of a brothel, where one less life is of no consequence. In the 1930s prostitution was rampant in Brazil. Bahia was a region where, due to poverty, many former slaves had to sell their bodies to support themselves. This left a strong impression on Carybé who focused extensively on Afro-Brazilians in his paintings. Fascinated by their culture, history and daily struggles, it didn’t matter whether they were fishermen, prostitutes, launderers, capoeira fighters or priests – they all had a place in his art.

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