Aurora Cursino dos Santos was an unrecognized artist, despite having painted more than 200 paintings and developing her own style, in permanent dialogue with the avant-garde of her time.
Throughout her life she could not get rid of two stigmas: being a prostitute and suffering from psychiatric disorders.
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All of his work took place in a mental institution, where he was diagnosed with paranoid psychosis, amoral psychopathic personality, paraphrenic schizophrenia, and severe autism.
Dozens of her paintings have just been collected in the book “Aurora: memories and delusions of a woman of life” (Editorial Veneta), the result of a study carried out by Silvana Jeha, a doctor in History from the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Rio de Janeiro, and Joel Birman, professor at the Institute of Psychology of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
The authors see in their own research an opportunity to confront a certain social imaginary of the country.
“Prostitutes have always been placed in the same category as murderers, drug dealers and thieves,” Jeha tells BBC News Brazil.
“This is part of a larger problem, against women who claim freedom over their own bodies. It’s as if they were killing, stealing, seriously injuring some human law.”
For Birman, Aurora’s case synthesizes a martyrdom inherent to every individual violated by the judicial system: “They are lives documented by clinical and police histories, among other supposedly critical-negative readings,” says the psychoanalyst.
“In this way, we seek to remove Aurora from the terrain of infamyendowing it with a luminosity that explains the impasses of their history and also of ours. He is a very current character, if we take into account the emphasis of the Bolsonaro and far-right discourse on the question of customs “.
Aurora Cursino dos Santos was born in 1896, in the municipality of Sao José dos Campos, in the state of Sao Paulo. The daughter of a small businessman, she married against her wishes, forced by her father.
The marriage, however, would last less than 24 hours. The day after the wedding, the young woman chose to separate. She did not love her husband and she attributed the origin of all her torments to the lightning marriage.
Between 1910 and 1930, she worked as a prostitute on the streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. With the money from sex work she traveled to Europe. She had only studied up to third grade, but appreciated literature, plastic arts, and popular and classical music.
There are indications that, in addition to painting, he also played the piano. Zequinha de Abreu, composer of the Tico-Tico no Fubáhe dedicated a waltz titled At Night Desce (Night descends). In Lapa, the epicenter of Rio’s nightlife, she was a neighbor of the drag queen Madame Satã and the poet Manuel Bandeira.
His coexistence with big names was not always peaceful. In 1919, he denounced a journalist who had been introduced to him by José Eduardo Macedo Soares, owner of Diário Carioca.
Aurora, by not responding to the wishes of the prospective client, suffered hair pulling, her blouse was torn off and her lips were bitten. Saved by a friend, she reported the attacker to the police station, without knowing her name.
A physical examination would confirm the attack. However, Macedo Soares refused to testify and the case was closed.
Get away from the bohemian life
The Penal Code of 1890 was then in force, whose article 268 imposed up to six years in jail for those who raped “honest” women, but if the victim was a “public woman or prostitute”, the sentence did not exceed two years. Disillusioned, Aurora progressively moves away from the bohemian life.
In Sao Paulo, she enrolled in a nursing course to care for entrenched soldiers in the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932, an armed movement that occurred in Sao Paulo with the aim of overthrowing the provisional government of Getúlio Vargas and the promulgation of a new Constitution for Brazil.
Later, she worked as a maid in various houses, but did not stay in any of them. With no money, she ended up sleeping in the city’s night shelters, until she finally She ended up admitted to psychiatric centers.
In 1941 he entered the Perdizes Psychiatric Hospital in Sao Paulo. Three years later, he was admitted to the Juquery Hospital Complex, 27 kilometers from the city of Sao Paulo.
There he frequented a improvised workshop by psychiatrist Osório Cesar, pioneer of art therapy in Brazil. For a decade, she vented her most intimate torments with brushstrokes of oil paint on sheets of cardboard.
“The art work expanded the inmates’ symbolic capacity,” explains Birman.
“They were linguistic practices that stimulated the self-expression of the patients, their conflicts, their pains. It was based on the fact that art had been fundamental in the construction of the human spirit and that, therefore, it would be equally important in the reconstruction of that spirit in cases of severe mental disorders,” he says.
“Aurora was thus able to develop certain abilities, to discover in herself a pictorial talent. And the way in which she worked on the themes of her own life signals a radicality, an existential desire to rebel against patriarchy.”
pictures that scream
Osório Cesar’s studio, opened in 1949, gave rise to the Juquery Free School of Plastic Arts, whose activities would end in 1964. The following year, the Paraíba doctor was exonerated by the military dictatorship.
Osório was a communist militant and, along with other leftist intellectuals, he was one of the first authors to investigate the relationship between art and madness.
Beyond the therapeutic routine, his investigations became books, articles and curated works in important museums.
“There are works here (…) that not only resemble the artistic productions of primitive peoples, but are also closely identified with the so-called avant-garde art,” he wrote in 1948, regarding an exhibition he organized at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP).
“We also have paintings of impressive surrealism, presenting the most suggestive ideas.”
In 1950, Aurora’s work was exhibited for the first time. Osório had taken some of her works to the International Exhibition of Psychopathological Art in France.
They are paintings of strong colors, marked by an unusual combination of text and image. Aurora’s handwriting is thick and her letters, usually in capital letters, surround the human figures, overwhelming them with bombastic phrases.
In other works, personal memories and persecutory delusions are mixed with references from the outside world: the writers Anatole France, Émile Zola and Alexandre Herculano; composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin; European kings, popes and emperors; Brazilian delegates and politicians.
Jeha interprets them as blurry images from a past time, real or imagined.
“I don’t know very well what is fiction and what is reality in all this,” says the historian.
“But it doesn’t matter, because Aurora offers us a Testimony on the condition of women in the first half of the 20th century. It addresses femicide, gender violence and other issues that are only now being mentioned. Today there is a whole new vocabulary to designate what women have always suffered.
Much of Aurora’s work is made up of pictorial records of her life in the asylum. In some paintings, institutional barbarism is mixed with old memories of prostitution.
This is the case of a painting that portrays the interior of the Piratininga Hotel, in the center of Sao Paulo. Aurora and the Brazilian composer Zequinha de Abreu have sex on a dirty bed, while a doctor watches them in a corner of the room.
The woman is penetrated by cables that turn on multicolored lamps in a kind of giant radio. The machinery seems to remove her limbs and internal organs, with specific gears for her heart, stomach, lungs, liver, head, neck, belly, breasts, legs, and feet.
“The painting exposes, in the smallest details, the destruction of his body by technology,” says Birman.
“During a love affair with Zequinha, she sees her privacy annihilated by the abominable practices of psychiatric power. But this woman did not tolerate abuse, neither as a sex worker nor as an inmate of a psychiatric institution.”
In 1955, Aurora was lobotomized. She died on October 30, 1959, at age 63. Before the scalpels mutilated his brain, he had suffered other lashes: electric shocks and injections of drugs that caused comas and seizures.
Similar methods unleashed pain and anguish, evoked in a painting in which she is portrayed with an afflicted physiognomy.
Her arms give way and the health workers observe her on a stretcher: “This is what older women suffer,” announces the caption. “Cocaine, venereal diseases, children, tuberculosis. We have to pay and others don’t.”
In addition to her, the network of psychiatric centers would have other victims. “Free women were largely drawn into the workhouses,” Jeha explains. “Aurora’s work is based on a permanent rebellion against this, without any self-censorship. She had nothing to lose.”
The shamelessness appears in a series of sexually explicit images, addressing rapes and orgies with male authorities as protagonists.
“These paintings are like very private diaries, full of things we wouldn’t tell anyone,” Jeha argues.
In one painting, the artist even represents her own vulva, surrounded by terms that allude to Mediterranean geopolitics: “Italy”, “Republic”, “crossing ports”, “aristocracy”, “prince”, “president”.
“I believe that Aurora is heir to an unconscious that dates back to the 19th century, when thousands of supposedly hysterical women were interned, under a collective experience of oppression modulated by Christianity…”
An anticlerical cry, lost among the pornographic clumsiness of the screen, seems to confirm such impressions: “I went there, to Italy, without knowing it, to kill the Pope”, says the artist.
Be a mother
In a mixture of denunciation and fervor, Aurora professes Catholicism, at the same time that she attacks the representatives of the Church. She thanks the Virgin Mary and draws the coronation of Our Lady of Sorrows, but she does not canonize religious leaders, quite the contrary. One of her most striking paintings shows us a cleric who, with a smile on his face, slides his hand under the skirt of a child, who vomits blood.
Maternity and Calvary seem inseparable. Aurora is portrayed giving birth, miscarrying, being assaulted in full pregnancy. However, she always eludes her children, who are kidnapped by judges, delegates and courts.
Paulo Fraletti, a psychiatrist from Juquery, commented in 1954: “In front of us, she once portrayed herself naked, with her belly open and her uterus carrying a pregnancy and exposed, referring to the nine children she had borne, one in each year.”
The painting had an identifying effect on Jeha: “I remembered my son,” she says. “It is a painting that speaks of affection, food, housing, all at the same time. Nothing better than that to translate maternal obsession.”
Madness, the historian recalls, is a trait attributed to most women: “When people insult us, what are the most common terms? P*** and crazy. So I’m going to re-mean that for myself It is an assumption of the drama, of the feeling, of the emotion, of something that sticks to us with an extremely pejorative charge. Aurora is an ancestral woman. It concerns us all”.
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