Roberto Magalhães was born on March 29th, 1940, at Ribeira Beach, on Ilha do Governador, Rio de Janeiro. He grew up by the sea and played just as other children did from that same period and place: enjoying long bicycle rides and rowing boats.
From a very young age, Roberto showed an undeniable talent for drawing, so his father gave him a box of paints and brushes, which prompted him to paint his first ‘canvas’ – a waterfall – on the street, right in front of his house. This was probably Roberto’s way of showing that his paintings and drawings would never portray conventional scenes, but rather his own universe of dreams, fantasy and symbolism, as was confirmed later on in his life.
Still a child, he already contributed drawings to the local newspaper, which published “The Cantareira Ferryboat”, his first pen and ink drawing. At 14, as a student at the São Bento High School, he already began to show his critical and ironic view of the world about him, when his caricatures of students and teachers were published in the school’s weekly newspaper.
At twenty, Roberto decided to abandon his studies to dedicate himself exclusively to drawing. A few professional assignments came his way, such as designing bottle labels and small ads, which in those days were drawn by hand, with great accuracy and detail and were commissioned by an uncle of his who owned a printing company. His work began to diversify and include record and book covers, trademarks and advertisements, which were also drawn by hand.
At the same time, however, he was developing other work unconnected with his commercial commitments and was able to put together a reasonable portfolio of “fantastic reality” pen & ink drawings. In 1962, he took these to the student board of the National School of Fine Arts for appraisal, and was given the opportunity to show them at the Macunaíma Gallery, which was part of the School. This initiated his relationship with the public and with commercial art galleries and marked the beginning of his long career.
Between 1963 and 1965, Roberto took part in several exhibitions, becoming one of the principal members of a group of painters who put on a revolutionary exhibition called “Opinion 65”, at the Museum of Modern Art, in Rio de Janeiro. Together with Antonio Días, Carlos Bergara, Rubens Guerchman and other avant-garde artists who were prominent at this time, he introduced a new visual language to fine arts in Brazil.
During the mid-1960s, Roberto won the prestigious Foreign Travel Award of the 15th Modern Art Exhibition, in Rio de Janeiro, and held an individual exhibition of his watercolors at the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to taking part in other collective exhibitions, Roberto began to exhibit his engravings and drawings abroad.
In 1967, he established his residency in Paris, making the most of the award he had received at the 14th Paris Biennale, fully experiencing the effervescent political climate that preceded May 1968. He took part in other exhibitions abroad, but after two years decided to return to his home country to work and show his art.
In 1969, the questioning and sense of unrest that motivated the avant-garde artists of his generation led him to seek for answers in the world of mysticism and, as a result, he began to study Occultism and Theosophy. When he discovered meditation and the Buddhist doctrine, he interrupted his artistic work to help build the Meditation Center of the Brazilian Buddhist Society, with which he maintained close links over the next four years. For the first two years, instead of taking up his paints and brushes, he worked with stone, bricks and mortar. During the two following years, he dedicated himself exclusively to meditation and during that period also accepted the position of chairman of the Buddhist Society.
The practical duties that had to be undertaken by the leaders of the Meditation Center, though, did not appeal to his introverted temperament and eventually brought him back to his true vocation. A new period in his life began when he felt the need to express his innermost feelings and visions of the world through a medium that was so familiar to him: Art. He left the Meditation Center and resumed painting, which now showed the influence of his mystical experiences, producing works that he himself described as “Esoteric Art”. .
During this period he also wrote four books of fantastic tales. He keept detailed records – in cards and carefully handwritten and illustrated notebooks – on his studies about homeopathy, medicinal plants, Kabala, astrology, nail and palm readings, alchemy and extensive material on alternative medicinal practices.
In 1975, after eight years away from exhibition halls, he reinitiated his artistic career by showing his work and giving lectures at the Museum of Modern Art, in Rio de Janeiro. Demonstrating his singular style, and the influence of his esoteric studies, his work showed human figures, cities, animals and plants in a fantastic and imaginary style, uncovering daily life with humor and irony. Various techniques were used: colored pencils, quill and ink, watercolor, pen & ink, oil paints, pastels and ecoline, amongst others.
In 1982, he married Elizabeth Cabral and together they did several trips to India, the home of spirituality, but his interests were now concentrated on the history of civilizations and archaeology. He began to divide his time between life in the city and the silence of the mountains in the beautiful region of Vale das Flores, in Visconde de Mauá, where he built a studio with an unrestricted view over the majestic Pedra Selada, in the Serra da Mantiqueira. His paintings no longer featured esoteric symbols. Instead, his work portrayed Man, with all his instincts and expectations, his desires and feelings, in an imaginary universe far beyond the limits of reason.
In 1992, after several exhibitions of his work, the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center in Rio de Janeiro put on the largest exhibition ever held of the artist’s work, with a retrospective show covering the previous 30 years. Visited by thousands of people, this exhibition established Roberto Magalhães at the forefront of plastic art in Brazil.
In 2000, the Moreira Salles Institute, which keeps several offices around the country, showed part of his vast collection of drawings in a traveling exhibition that lasted two years. Also starting in year 2000, at the age of 60, the artist began to pour forth onto his canvases the world of abstract images which had been building up inside him since the beginning. That which Roberto Magalhães called the “Atypicals”, we can certainly describe as a new phase and a complementation to his work – a ‘renaissance’ at a mature age.