Vinicius de Moraes, a Bossa Nova legend (and composer of “The Girl from Ipanema”), met Oscar Niemeyer at the Café Vermelhinho in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s. They first worked together on de Moraes’ play, “Orpheus of Conceição,” in 1956 (Niemeyer designed the set). In light of Oscar’s death, we bring you this short text, translated from the original Portugese, that Vinicius wrote in the 60s about his dear friend, Oscar.
There are few testimonials I have read that are as exciting as Oscar Niemeyer’s account of his experience in Brasília. 1 For those who know only the architect, the article could pass as a self-serving defense – the justified revenge of a father who, despite his gentle temperment, fought for his child[, his Brasilia - a city] at the mercy of the world. But for those who know the man, the article takes on even more dramatic proportions. For Oscar is not only the opposite of an activist, he’s one of the most anti-self-promotional beings I’ve met in my life.
His modesty isn’t, as it so often is, a shameful form of vanity. It has nothing to do with his down-to-earth expertise, which Oscar has thanks to his professional value and possibilities. It is the modesty of a creator truly integrated with life, who knows that there is no time to lose, that we need to build beauty and happiness into the world, because the individual is fragile and precarious. This poignant sentiment, of the fragility and precariousness of things, plays in Oscar in a higher key (only further highlighting the dignity of this man and artist); it’s never been a self-serving sentiment, but one for mankind in general, for whom he hopes to make a better future.
Oscar doesn’t believe in a God in Heaven, nor that he’ll one day build the basilicas of angels or the green pastures of Paradise. For him, a real man puts the happiness of his fellow man and the green pastures of Earth first; he labors for the common good; he creates urban and rural conditions, interconnected as they are, that stimulate and work toward one noble end: making man happy in the short time he’s been given to live.
I believe the same, and when I see that belief reflected in the testimony of Oscar Niemeyer, my dear old friend, how could it not thrill me? It’s good to see yourself among friends, friends whose views coincide with your own; who, instead of becoming absent-minded or close-minded over the years, rather rejuvenate, renew, and re-invigorate; whose visions of the world and of man could never despise a dimension of poetry. The truth is that most people, when talking of politics, only open their mouths to say nonsense, and defend themselves from the increasingly arduous problem of human responsibility with the armor of the most selfish reactionary. And the worst is that, even then, we can’t stop liking them …
The great Aeschylus once said that “everything that exists is just and unjust, and in both cases equally justifiable.” Dialectically, it’s perfect -at least if you analyze the sentence from the standpoint of history, of man’s extraordinary fight to get where he can. But, humanly, going more slowly … Hitler, who was historically justifiable, shall nevertheless always be a hideous monster. Fulgencio Batista, who was historically a Judas at the hands of the Supreme Priests of the Philistines and of sugar, never ceased to be an infamous traitor to his country and one of the most disgusting reprobates of the Latin American community.
Therefore, dear Oscar, don’t heed your detractors too much. Most of them are nay-sayers. As you once said so well, there are those “who lack a more realistic view of life, who lie within the fragility of things, making them more simple, human and detached.” And we should, as you do so well, try and “understand them without resentment.” But there are also, unfortunately, rogues, cheaters, bullies, cops. With these, you need to be more careful. Because they are there, and they’re parties of ignorance. 2
1 Later published in book form under the title “My Experience in Brasilia.”
2 With the title “Oscar Niemeyer,” this post is available on the official website of Vinicius de Moraes.