January 10, 2020

Cordel Literature - and Art

        I have just discovered the existence of the Literatura de Cordel, “string literature,” of the northeastern regions of Brazil.  It is a tradition of pamphlets sold by vendors that hang them from lines of string for display (hence the name).  The contents of the pamphlets are poems, usually of folkloric stories of romance, adventure, battles and bandits, and folk tales, but also sometimes about current events.  They are also usually illustrated with a wood block print on the cover.  They come out of the oral tradition and were often read aloud to illiterate audiences, sometimes performed by the authors themselves, who are considered to be in the tradition of troubadours.  The rise of literacy, as well as the internet, has made some shifts to these traditions, but it is still going strong.  When I first heard about this, I was fascinated to discover that there is an active and living version of the
chapbook tradition that was widespread in English-speaking countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but is now extinct there.  But for my interest here today, the important thing is the block prints for the covers.
        You can see that most of these prints, just like those of other chapbook traditions, are pretty crude, both in the carving and in the actual printing.  Most of them don’t have much in the way of perspective or full scenery, focussing on a single image with little or no background.  Many have uneven inking.  On the other hand, the peacock is quite detailed, and the guitarist stands in front of a cityscape with sophisticated angles and shadows.  Even the more simplistic images have their charm, however.  The man picking money from a tree is full of humor, and the goat really pleases
me with its boldness.  As all good covers should do, these tempt me to find out more about the story - although I know no Portuguese, and the internet has not always provided me with plausible translations.  The man in the tree, for example, appears to be dumping something on the jaguar below, but although I can see “adventures,” “ashtray” and “jaguar” in the title, I can’t figure out exactly how they fit together!
        The popularity of the genre is such that some of the artists (many of whom are also authors) can make a living at the craft, and a few have been embraced by Art World dealers and galleries.  I plan to feature some of that work in another post, but today I’ve limited myself to actual cordel literature covers.

[Pictures: cordel pamphlets (Image from Obvious);
A Cabra Misteriosa (The Mysterious Goat), wood block print by José Costa Leite (Image from British Museum);
Pé de Dinheiro do Banorte, wood block print by Jeronimo;
Rodolfo Coehlo Cavalcante, the King of Cordel, wood block print by MFS;
As Aventuras do Amarelo Joao Cinzeiro Papa Onça, wood block print unsigned;
O Romance do Pavao Misterioso (The Romance of the Mysterious Peacock), wood block print by ABA;
Libertaçao dos Reféns Americanos do Cativeiro do Iran (Liberation of the American Hostages from the Captivity of Iran), wood block print by Minelvino Francisco Silva (Images from HERE).]


Rob Z Tobor said...

I dont get to many blogs these days including my own . . . Love the artwork on those prints though so glad I visited when I did

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Greetings, Rob! I hope all is well with you! =)