For two years, 28-year-old Otávio Roth, the Brazilian Rauschenberg, spent long Norwegian winter nights researching a new graphic language based on the highly inventive drawings of Ben Shahn, a master of engraving, and of his teacher Paul Pitch. When he returned to Brazil in 1979, the country was in full political turmoil and Roth, once again influenced by Pitch – who is considered one of the exponents of political graphics – undertook an ambitious work for the Brazilian Amnesty Committee: a rather unconventional calendar, in woodcut, bringing together thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore, Pedro Tierra, Charles Chaplin, Che Guevara, Carlos Marighela and even St. Augustine.
In addition to the calendar, the graphic artist devised magnificent posters with implicitly political themes, among them the famous "Freedom for Political Prisoners", or the one he created for the Flávia Schilling prison release campaign. However, one year before the Amnesty Committee calendar, Roth, who was a tireless activist for Amnesty International, had unveiled his most ambitious project - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – precisely on December 10, the day when those acclaimed but seldom respected rights are celebrated.
That was in Sweden, in 1978, when Menachem Begin was receiving his Nobel Peace Prize. Roth remembers that the exhibition took place at the same time and in the same venue where Begin would receive the award, which he shared with Muhammad Anwar Al Sadat. Sadat didn't even bother to go, but Begin was there, steady as a rock, waiting for the homage. As it turns out, the international community was not very pleased with the award and, in protest, left the Nobel Peace Prize winner waiting, standing there with his hand outstretched. Roth's exhibition, on the other hand, was a great success.
Early this year, the exhibition crossed the Atlantic Ocean and ended up at the hyper-fashionable gallery created by pop artist Rauschenberg in New York, the Automation House. One of the visitors, Jay Long, who was advisor to the Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission at the UN, was impressed with Roth's work and invited the artist to display this woodcut series at the organization's headquarters in New York.
The exhibition will be inaugurated today to celebrate the 33th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations. "On several occasions", says Roth, "I had the opportunity to have in my hands the conventional text of the Declaration, which is a cheap and unreadable paper. I realized that the text would never have much repercussion that way, so I had the idea of turning it into a graphic work of greater impact."
It took him two years of work, but it was worth it – not only for the artist himself, but particularly for the protagonists and readers of the Declaration. The series was published by CJS Graphics printing house – the same that has been publishing the works of Milton Glaser, the greatest graphic designer of this century – and is selling well. No wonder. The American ambassador, who had attended the exhibition in Sweden, was the one who recommended the artist to the CJS editor as a sort of successor to Ben Shahn.
Shahn became famous with a graphic rendering of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in 1927, and – coincidentally or not – 50 years later, when Roth was still studying at the Hornsey College of Arts in London, he was invited by Amnesty International to create his version of the injustice committed against the two Italian immigrants.
As it can be seen, Otávio is decidedly engagé (actively involved). But not enragé (furious). He participated in every libertarian movement during the dark times of repression, but he still manages to keep the sweet smile of the righteous. His works, which were never seen in the city's posh galleries, are produced in a modest workshop behind the Brazilian Comedy Theater, at the sound of Baroque and Renaissance music, but no one who has fought for a more just society in Brazil has failed to see, at least once, one of Roth's engravings.
"When I go to a gallery to show my works, the owners tell me they are not artistic enough", he uses to say. How ironic: Roth's work have been displayed, among other places, at the Oslo Informasjonssenteret (1978), at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris (1978) and at the Automation House in New York, to name just a few.
Though graduated in Advertising, the artist never exercised this profession. He chose to leave for London in 1974 to study animation drawing with Paul Pitch.
"Before dedicating myself to the fine arts, I was a full-time photographer. I even participated in some exhibitions in São Paulo (in biennials and galleries), but then I abandoned photography forever. Now I am researching new kinds of handmade papers."
He even received a scholarship for that from the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq). This interest on non-industrialized types of paper arose when Roth moved from London to Oslo. "Norway was not exactly the sort of country with many options for graphic artists; I had to import paper from France, and that was quite expensive. I decided to research handmade paper, and today I develop several lines, based on cotton, linen, banana leaves, jute, bamboo, and even onion peel."
Next year, the artist will exhibit his new types of handmade paper at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). Until then, anyone who wants to get better acquainted with Roth's work can visit Brasiliense Bookshop and buy (or just peruse) books from the Primeiros Passos collection, some of which had their covers designed by Otávio, the Rauschenberg of political graphics.
Antonio Gonçalves Filho, ONU expõe xilos do brasileiro Roth, "Folha de S.Paulo", Ilustrada, p. 33, São Paulo/SP (Thursday, December 10, 1981).