Lasar Segall – A visionary for the sufferers

With changes in places and circumstances, Lasar Segall demonstrated striking alterations of artistic approach. But all throughout his oeuvre, his subjects remained the same, maintaining his identity as an original visionary for the sufferers.

A Visionary for the sufferers since childhood

Lasar Segall was born on 21st July 1891 in Lithuania. In the streets where he spent his early childhood, he saw a lot of inhabitants who were suffering. Segall kept these images in his memory. When he started painting, they haunted his young mind, which he interpreted in his works. Additionally, his Jewish backdrop vastly influenced him. Thus, from these early days, he demonstrated a unique artistic individualism. While academic norms guided him in his teens, they could not damage this original vision.

In 1906, he moved to Berlin where he trained in German impressionism and Flemish expressionism. During his early twenties, he created paintings where his brush strokes showcased his newly acquired skills. The strokes were a combination of free and firm movements, which indicated German impressionism. An instance of this can be observed in the painting considered below. It evokes a liveliness through strokes that depict the free movement of light and figures loosely connected to one another.

Asilo de velhos (c. 1912) by Lasar Segall

Before moving to Brazil, Segall visited Holland where French impressionism further influenced him. French impressionist artists depicted landscapes more frequently to evoke the effect of light. While Segall preserved his trademark style of featuring the interior, he portrayed light in an absolute impressionistic style. The next work, Leitura (c. 1913), showcases this blend of original and acquired styles. While Segall kept his characteristic focus on human beings, he also emphasizes highly on the effect of light.

Leitura (c. 1913) by Lasar Segall

Geometric influences and the poor

In his early 20s, Segall also drastically shifted his approach by incorporating geometric influences. He preserved his focus on the poor and depicted them through a geometrization of shapes. Aldeia russa (1912) is an oil on canvas work by Segall that was the first of this kind. It shows his hometown Vilnius. Segall features two people from the region in the foreground with the town in the background. He makes the entire scene geometrically distorted, which indicates the suffering of the neglected ones.

Aldeia russa (c. 1912) by Lasar Segall

Thus, even with a change in style, he still consistently remained a visionary for the sufferers. His works depicted their pain which he himself experienced through his religion and financial hardships. Additionally, he was inclined towards discerning and interpreting the devastating outcomes of the first World War. Visits to exotic carnivals, colonial exhibitions, and ethnographic collections pushed his vision towards the marginalized. Segall studied African art in the Folkwang Museum, which heavily inspired his approach.

Also, this inclination would symbolize his rising apathy for the prevalent German art and culture, which on one hand regarded him as a true artist, contrastively also targeted him for his background and religion. The government regarded him suspiciously during the first World War and the emerging political and cultural bodies refused to accept him because he was a Jew. Therefore, his subsequent human subjects would get inspirations from African tribal figures while they signified the outcomes of economic and social hardships.

An example of this is A família enferma (c. 1920). It displays characteristic traits of Segall like human figures and interiors. Through figures that appear distorted within a cramped space, Segall evokes the struggles of the poor during the economic crisis post World War I.

A família enferma (c. 1920) by Lasar Segall

New brotherhood and New Challenges

In 1923, Segall shifted to São Paulo. He did so because of his economic difficulties and rising xenophobia in Germany. In Brazil, he quickly inculcated the style of Brazilian modernism, joining the first wave of avant-garde artists who experimented in literature and visual arts. The group also included poets Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade, journalists Geraldo Ferraz, Manuel Bandeira, and Sergio Milliet, and painter Tarsila do Amaral. More importantly, in Brazil, he felt a sense of brotherhood that his isolated years in Germany failed to provide him.

The artistic culture of Brazil was completely in contrast to what Segall experienced in Europe. Brazilian modernism strived towards rejection of European influences and instead focus on aspects that evoked the essence of Brazil. The movement tried to claim a cultural identity that was authentically Brazilian. To achieve this, the leaders of the movement entrenched a rationale that consciously guided the artistic atmosphere of the nation. This rationale systematically chose those 19th-century artworks that depicted Brazilian traditions. The modernists then encouraged the new generation to follow the parameters established by those earlier paintings to further concretize the idea of Brazilian arts.

A key such parameter was to ensure that the subject of Brazil is appropriately presented. This erased possibilities of abstract interpretations. During this period, Segall’s greatest challenge then was to forget the sense of tragedy that his European artworks evoked. Instead, he would have to create subjects that energetically spoke for those who truly represented Brazil. The movement greatly opposed the functional academic dictates since they were Eurocentric. The pioneers of Brazilian modernism endorsed the original social dynamics of Brazil which essentially was composed of the aboriginals. The movement then artistically revived a recurrent social war that strived for upholding aboriginal values against foreign European invasions.

Brazilian modernism meets African tribes

Therefore, the visionary for the sufferers had attained a new objective which he pursued through a renewed search for a new style. Lasar Segall studied African artworks to create a form of subject and approach that spoke for marginal African descent. During this period, he created a work of heavy importance. This was Encontro (c. 1924). Segall had the habit of making self-portraits. While this too was a self-portrait, it was extremely different from the previous ones. This is because, unlike those, here his skin color is dark. The work, which is based on a photograph that was taken in Germany, shows him standing beside his first wife whose skin is white. The painting signifies the transition of Segall from European influences to integration into the Brazilian culture. This is further evident from the fact that geometric distortion of shapes is absent here.

Encontro (c. 1924) by Lasar Segall

Segall stated that in Brazil he realized a revelation of the interplay of light. He was deeply influenced by the society of São Paulo. His eyes still found those who suffered and his key subjects were prostitution, the poor, and the slums. Additionally, the region’s vegetation appealed to him. An example of this is Paisagem brasileira (c. 1925). Contrastive to his European works, here the colors are more reserved. Most notably, geometric interpretation is still functional here, but in a more controlled manner so that the subject gets highlighted more than the style. Finally, the work noticeably lacks a definite sense of perspective, which renders it to be completely different from Segall’s previous paintings.

Paisagem brasileira (c. 1925) by Lasar Segall

Therefore, Lasar Segall adopted diverse contrastive styles as his backdrop changed. But a common theme of the plight of the poor governed his overall oeuvre. This rendered him to be a truly original visionary for the sufferers.


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