Darcilio Lima – Artist, Prophet, Time Traveler


“My work is the extension of a truth which, like a permanent stain, accompanies man through space at the dawn of a psychological age.” (Darcilio Lima) [i]

In April, 2000, São Paulo becomes the venue of the largest and most ambitious exhibition of Brazilian art, culture and history ever. This mega-show, commemorating the “re-discovery” of Brazil 500 years since the first colonial encounter and subdivided into multiple separate parts, will attract almost 2 million visitors during its 5-month run, and many more as it travels through other parts of the country. It is documented in fourteen separate catalogs.

To us, the most compelling part is Images of the Unconscious which showcases works by psychiatric patients. We are immediately drawn to a group of weirdly frightening and strangely beautiful engravings and pen-and-ink drawings depicting winged, feathered and scaled creatures, shamans and crowned goddesses, erotic beauty-and-beast scenes, Bosch-ian aspects of hell, Dali-esque apocalypses. Gargoyles and heraldic figures mix with lionesses. Snakes and fishtails intertwine. Chimeric monsters give birth to and devour themselves in a terrifying orgy of violence. Orifices morph into sexual organs, suggesting a physicality that is erotic and inviting but also shocking, threatening, repulsive. Scaly serpents grow wings and limbs. Priest-like figures stare vaguely into space. Medieval torture scenes create a terrifying tension. Battles of good versus evil alternate with strangely calm scenes of conquest and resolution. Embedded in this imagery are Masonic symbols, scientific drawings, sketches of imaginary planetary systems, mandalas, geometrical projections, United Nations symbols, encoded texts and formulas, and, perhaps, religious messages. Each work is claustrophobic and troubling where dense, tense spaces in black and white, cross-hatched, dotted, coiled, circled and otherwise patterned, become oppressive to any viewers, only to relieve them by the calm, white, uncovered areas in the rest of the frame.

The artist’s name is Darcilio Lima, 1944-1991. There is little background information on him. The works date mostly from the early 1970s.

On a visit to Rio de Janeiro the following year, strolling through a Saturday antiques market, we stumble upon one of Lima’s engravings, and, the following week, another. Eventually we discover more works which are suddenly surfacing from old collections. A friend sees one of his pen-and-ink drawings at an auction. Later we see another in a dusty antique shop. We still do not know who Darcilio Lima was, and we want to find out.

Internet searches add little information except speculative labels: Darcilio Lima the surrealist/the symbolist/the mental patient/the outsider. We learn next to nothing about his life. Old newspaper clipping files[ii] yield only skeletal information about his life and work without providing a three-dimensional image of the man or the artist.

He is born in Cascavel, Ceara, one of the poorest states in Brazil, in 1944. The name of his town is the Portuguese word for the South American rattlesnake. Even as a young child he draws incessantly. Is it a coincidence that snake and serpent-like monsters populate his works throughout his artistic lifespan?

At the age of ten he has his first art show at school. At 15 he works with gouache, at 20 with oils. By then he is living in Rio de Janeiro. There is no mention of any teachers. His style changes from an idealized realism to “something beyond reality”. [iii] He studies science fiction. A mental breakdown ensues soon after, leading to his introduction to the Casa das Palmeiras, an outpatient facility providing creative studio facilities for schizophrenics.[iv] During the year he spends there, which he will remember as “the year of full acceptance of my truth”[v], he paints nudes and explores what he calls erotic-fantastic realms. In this context the figure of the “Bicho-Rei” (animal king) first appears: a lizard-like figure representing a mysterious ruling power which becomes an icon in many of his works. He reads obsessively, from Sartre to the New Testament. Through Dr. Nise da Silveira, the visionary founder of the Casa and of the Museum of Images from the Unconscious [vi], he meets the well-known painter and designer Ivan Serpa (1923-1973) who takes him into his home to foster his talent. There, undisturbed, he paints, reads and writes. His themes blend science fiction, mythology, sexuality and religion.

In 1967 Lima, the unknown self-taught artist, unexpectedly wins the gold medal at the Contemporary Art Salon in Campinas (in the state of São Paulo). The next year he has his first commercial gallery show. By 1970 he works with the Brazilian surrealist Marcelo Grassmann who teaches him engraving techniques. More prizes follow, including a foreign travel award which takes him to Europe to work and travel between 1971 and 1974.

Only sketchy details emerge about Darcilio Lima’s time in Europe. He works with surrealists in France where he lives for a while. In England, The Image magazine celebrates him in the 1972 article “Contemporary Vision” as an “erotic metaphysician”.[vii] He lives in a Scottish castle. He works with artists, designers and magazine editors in various European countries. He lives in Germany for a while. He travels to Russia, Egypt, Turkey, New York. We learn little more about that time, and no details about his movements.

By 1974, Darcilio Lima is back in Brazil where he is included in the Mostra da Gravura Brasileira (1974), the prestigious Bienal de São Paulo (1975) and the Bienal Nacional (1976). His engravings and pen-and-ink drawings are exhibited in galleries in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere. Newspapers and magazines write about him now, speculating about his visual struggle with a mystic new world order, his erotic-religious metamorphoses, his hermetic universe which defies classification, the terrifying conflicts and processes of the unconscious laid bare in his works, the panoramic visions of the metaphysical landscapes of our time, and so on.

Since his youth, Lima is fascinated with science fiction, mysticism, cosmology and astrology. The dawning of a new era, or world order, is a constant theme. “Some day He will be born who will tell the story of all stories and turn awareness into wisdom. For my work the 20th century is the vehicle leading into the third millennium in the Age of Aquarius”.[viii] Lima tells a reporter that he himself is merely the vehicle in an ongoing process that began long ago and still goes on.

In 1975 Lima also has a solo gallery exhibition in Rio de Janeiro which features 25 of his engravings. The show is accompanied by a special edition of a coffee table-size book, or album, Diafragma. The book includes reproductions of these works and commentary by leading Brazilian and European art critics. The edition is limited to 500 copies, each one numbered and signed by the artist. Darcilio Lima is at the pinnacle of his success. But after that, a black hole.

By 1980 the art world seems to have lost track of Darcilio Lima. A friend, prompted by rumors that Lima had become “insane” and was destroying many of his works, finds him only five years later. By then, Lima is living in the back of a church back in his home town, surrounded by immense murals and colorful drawings of dotted outlines which are less aggressive, softer, and “even more beautiful” than the earlier works.[ix] There is no record of these works. Had he destroyed some of his earlier pieces? No one seems to know.

Eventually, Lima is back with his family who declares him mentally ill and bars him from any contact with strangers. While his works fetch top prices in the galleries in the nearby city of Fortaleza, Darcilio Lima, the artist celebrated in the salons of Europe less than a decade earlier, is now living in dire poverty and quasi-incarceration, spending his days drawing on computer paper on a dirt floor.

With the help of friends Lima relocates to Rio de Janeiro in 1986 where he shows new material along with works from the 1960’s and 70’s at the prestigious Ipanema art venue Centro da Cultura Laura Alvim. We find no record of this body of work. In 1990, he moves to the coastal resort town Buzios, working mostly with oils on canvas. The following year he dies there at the age of 47. The cause of death is said to be head trauma caused by a fall. No one seems to know what has happened to his paintings.

Who was Darcilio Lima, the man? In 2006 we visit the Italian-born painter, art dealer and collector Giuseppe Baccaro at his home in Olinda, in the state of Pernambuco. Baccaro, who has lived and worked in Brazil for close to 50 years, seems to know everybody and anybody in Brazil’s art world. Did he know Darcilio Lima? Of course! He still has some of Lima’s engravings from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He gives us a poster-size, somewhat beat-up reproduction of a photograph of Lima. According to Baccaro, Lima, in São Paulo, kept mostly to himself and was a loner, a depressive. Baccaro attributed that to Lima’s homosexuality from which he “suffered a lot”. Yet during the same years, Rio de Janeiro artist Marilia Krantz, an art insider for decades, knew Lima as well. Darcilio, depressed, or a recluse? Not at all! “He was the life of the party”, she tells us. Was he gay? She laughs and merely jokes that in those days in her circles “everybody was gay”. Are Baccaro and Krantz describing the same man? The picture of Lima remains fuzzy.

Between 2006 and 2008 we try to contact people who had known or worked with Lima in the 1960’s and 70’s. Dr. da Silveira, who knew him well, is no longer alive. Luiz Carlos Mello, who continues her work and research, has curated exhibitions of Lima’s works but had not been there at the time. What he does remember is Lima’s mental health diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia. Mello tries to put us in touch with a photographer who had been a close friend. We have three different phone numbers, yet our attempts to contact him remain unsuccessful.

The art galleries which showed Lima’s work in the 1970’s are long gone. We get in touch with the curator of the 1986 exhibition at the Laura Alvim gallery. Bingo! She enthusiastically responds to our email and promises answers to any questions we may have about Darcilio Lima. After that she no longer responds to subsequent emails. We contact the art center directly to find out more. Had there been an exhibition catalog? Were there any files about his life and work? The response is inconclusive. No one remembers, and nothing remains in the archives. Along with his post-1975 body of work, Darcilio Lima once again seems to have vanished, and it almost appears that he does not want to be found.

We recently discovered an old listing for a 2001 exhibition at Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Fine Arts. Its title was The Unconscious and Creation and it featured 15 paper drawings by Darcilio Lima from 1966 when he was an outpatient at Casa das Palmeiras. In the listing, found through an internet search, he is called “a representative of Brazilian surrealism.” Lima himself, whoever he really was, had once said this about his art: “My work is a journey towards the truth.”[x] Where that journey has taken him, no one knows.

[i] Quoted in the Correio de Manha, August 14, 1971, translation by Beate Echols

[ii] Courtesy of Luiz Carlos Mello, Museu das Imagens do Inconscente, Rio de Janeiro

[iii] Journal do Brasil, February 2, 1968

[iv] see Beate Echols and Mariarosa Soci, Images from the Unconscious in Rio de Janeiro, Raw Vision #20

[v] Journal do Brasil, February 2, 1968

[vi] see Beate Echols and Mariarosa Soci, Images from the Unconscious in Rio de Janeiro, Raw Vision #20

[vii] Sources: Correio da Manha, September 8, 1972 and Veja, November 29,1972

[viii] Veja Magazine, November 29, 1972

[ix] “Darcilio between Poverty and Madness”, Jornal do Brasil, August 29, 1985

[x] Veja Magazine, November 29, 1972, translation by Beate Echols

Note: This article is based on personal interviews (Giuseppe Baccaro, Marilia Krantz, Luiz Carlos Mello), newspaper and magazine articles (1971-1991), exhibition catalog texts and internet searches.

Beate Echols is a collector and researcher who has written, lectured and curated exhibitions on Latin American art since the early 1990s. Michael Shub is research mathematician working in New York City and Buenos Aires, and a collector of works by Latin American and self-taught artists. They live in New York City and BuenosAires.




  • EIL

    Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  • joao machado

    Hey, My dad was a friend of Darcilio and he was at my parent’s wedding in 1976. He was dressed in a military outfit and was standing inside the swiming pool with just his head above water. People asked him why he was dressed in a military outfit and he replied that he needed discipline that day. He would wear different attires depending on what he though he needed. Pretty amazing character and a hell of an artist. I have a good friend who met him and who has a portrait made by darcilio. Probably one of the only color works. I have his diafragma book and one of his prints which I really need to get restored as the paper is covered in mold.

    Anyway, thanks for raising awarness of this terrific and mysterious artist.

    if you ever need to reach me, you can contact me through my website.
    http://www.joao-machado.com
    cheers.

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