Ambassador of the Arts for the Masses
Romero Britto added the final thick, black brushstrokes to a densely colored cityscape in his Miami studio, while Madonna’s “Get into the Groove” played from a small radio on his work table.
“I was commissioned to paint her portrait for her 50th birthday,” said Britto, 44, a self-taught neo-pop artist and philanthropist.
He has also painted the images of Princess Diana, Michael Jordan, and Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. Such are the commissions of this rare breed of artist – the kind that enjoys the success of his art during life.
He’d just arrived from his summer home in upstate New York, where he’d spent some time with his son, Brendan, a film student, and his wife, Cheryl, a former nurse.
This visit to Miami was merely a hiccup in his busy schedule. Soon he would be in Chicago at an exhibition, and then in Basel, Switzerland, teaching students about painting, and then attending yet another show. His mind was swimming with philanthropic obligations, and projects still unfinished.
His art is not only visible from every corner of Miami; it’s now showing up in cities across the world, such as London, Tel Aviv, and Paris.
But things weren’t always that way.
As a child growing up in Recife, a very poor area of Brazil, Britto painted on whatever scraps he could find, including newspapers. “My mother was crying all the time,” he said.
There was no food, and he and his eight brothers were growing up without a father.
His luck changed, however, when he applied for a scholarship to attend a private school, and got in. “I started seeing the world differently,” he said. In Brazil, he said, people think that the world they’re born into is the world they must die in.
“I thought: this is not possible. I want to change my life. I would love to get out of here. And then, I did.”
Britto left for Miami in 1987, after attending three semesters of Law school in Brazil. “I wanted to be an ambassador, and travel the world, and somehow make a difference,” he said. But instead, he left to the United States to pursue a career in art.
“I love this country,” he said. “Everything started happening when I arrived.”
His first big break came when he was commissioned to paint an ad for Absolut Vodka. Michel Crillon, the marketer for the company, saw Britto’s work at his studio in the grove and hired him on the spot.
“My wife usually says that I have this Forrest Gump effect, that everything starts happening around me,” he said laughingly. Titled “Absolut Britto,” the ad was featured in over 60 magazines and newspapers, and catapulted him into mainstream success. “It was the best thing that ever happened,” said Britto, who counts Matisse, Picasso, and Warhol among his influences, “because for an artist to reach out to so many people, so fast, was a dream come true.”
Since then, his style has become iconic. Framed in thick, black lines and saturated with bold colors, most people who have seen his cartoon mosaics once, will always be able to spot “a Britto” thereafter. It is both his blessing and his curse.
The general public tends to embrace the joyful, familiar pop images, while the art critics can’t help but cringe at the “simplicity” of his work.
“Martin Margulies once said that ‘What Romero Britto makes is art-like,’ and I think that sums it up perfectly,” said Paula Harper, the corresponding editor in Miami for Art in America magazine. “Art is something which is constantly changing and redefining itself,” she said. “Britto has enormous skill, but he doesn’t have any idea about redefining art.”
Joel Hollander, professor of Modern Art History at the University of Miami, agrees, “My concern is that stylistically he’s found a niche that he hasn’t been willing to push or experiment with. It’s kind of a neo pop formula that he’s come up with.”
Many others disagree.
“What is art? What defines art?” said Alina Shriver, a close friend of Britto’s, and wife of Anthony Kennedy Shriver, founder of Best Buddies International. “There are a lot of intellectuals that say: ‘this is what art is to me,’ but I tend to think that if the majority of people are attracted to what you’re doing, then obviously you’re doing something right.”
Seymour Stein, vice president of Warner Bros. Records, and avid collector of Britto’s art, agrees, “Doesn’t success in some ways speak for itself?”
Britto isn’t fazed by the criticism, however, “The vocabulary that I have is a universal one,” he said. “For that reason, there are more people in the world that understand what I do than there are people who don’t.”
Britto makes a conscious effort to paint things people can easily relate to. “I paint our cat, I paint my chair, I paint friends, I paint my mother’s house in Brazil,” said Britto. “I only paint things from this world.”
For Britto it’s simple. Since everyone is looking for happiness and his art is about happiness, many people want to bring his art into their homes. “That’s why I’m very successful,” he said.
His $12 million a year art empire confirms that he delivers what the public wants.
Some artists would shy away from commercial success, but not Britto. To him, quantity is very important. “If there’s not a lot being done, it’s not gonna stick,” he said.
His studio is found behind a pair of huge red doors within a warehouse called Britto Central, a veritable Wonka Factory where all of his art is produced and shipped across the world.
One part of the warehouse contains all of Britto’s reproductions, ready to be signed by the artist. One room is where all of the sculptures are produced and stored. Another room is filled with Britto’s assistants, who painstakingly apply 8 layers of colored paint to his black sketches, in order to achieve the vivid colors that Britto’s work is known for.
“I travel a lot. Because of that, I can’t spend as much time in the studio,” he said. Once his assistants fill in the colors he’s chosen, the original black lines disappear. Britto then adds the outlines back in, and here is where he takes creative liberties. “I have different ways of doing my work,” he said. For example, he is now using black glitter to create the outlines in some of his paintings. “I have so many ideas, it’s just a matter of time.”
Right now, he’s especially excited about “Journey,” a painting he will present at the Salon Des Arts Exhibition at the Louvre Museum on December 11th. The painting depicts a genderless, colorless child, reading in a park. It’s called Journey because he feels that the quality of one’s journey through life is determined by one’s level of education. “I want people to pay attention to education, and how important it can be for the success of a child,” he said. Of the ten Brazilian artists that will be there, Britto is the youngest.
“In addition to being a wonderful artist, he’s also a wonderful asset to our community,” said Norman Braman, a local automobile dealer and prominent art collector. Heavily involved in philanthropic endeavors, Britto has made over 150 donations so far this year, totaling over $350,000.
“I see the kids in the streets of Brazil, and I feel really bad. I wish I could make more of a difference,” Britto said. In 2005, former Governor Jeb Bush presented Britto with the honorary title of “Ambassador of the Arts.”
Back in Recife, Britto always dreamt huge. But, “I never thought I could do what I do today with my work. It just happened,” he said.
Britto compares the accessibility and inclusiveness of his art form to that of Coca Cola. He recently saw Bill Gates drinking the soda at a convention. “You can see a guy from the worst slum drinking Coca Cola, and Bill Gates,” he said. “Because it’s not just for a few, it’s for everybody,” and this is exactly what Britto aims to achieve in his work – universality.
Photos by Geraldine Alvarez
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