Long after Bordalo Pinheiro passed away, the factory that holds the artist’s legacy is making sure his satirical spirit, embodied in the character of Zé Povinho, lives on.
As the saying goes: when in Rome, do as the Romans. If you happen to be in Portugal these days and really want to feel like you belong, making the classic manguito – a more elaborate way of giving the finger, by bending one arm in an L-shape, crossing the other over it with the hand close to the elbow and swinging the former upwards –, the way Zé Povinho used to do, is almost certain to make you blend in with the 11 million disgruntled locals. The obscene gesture immortalised by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro’s iconic character is as Portuguese as it gets.
By now, Moody’s must also be getting a piece of mind – or finger – from the Portuguese, courtesy of one of the country’s most iconic ceramic factories. Shortly after Moody’s downgraded Portugal’s credit to junk status, the Bordallo Pinheiro Artistic Faience factory put out a new Zé Povinho especially aimed at the credit rating agency, which is being sold with a postcard addressed to Moody’s to make sure everyone can speak their mind about the downgrade.
The idea emerged when someone in the factory questioned what would master Rafael do, if he were alive today, to challenge the rating agencies’ recent decisions which are harming Portugal. He would, most probably, make a Zé Povinho with a clear message for Moody’s”, explains Nuno Barra, the factory’s marketing director.
Zé Povinho is the most iconic character created by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, 19th century Portuguese artist extraordinaire, who used this working-class man throughout his lifetime of humour, sarcasm and satire. Ever since his first appearance, in May 1875, this “Joe of the People” has been a symbol of contempt for the social and political elites and resistance against the injustice of those who try to overpower the people. “Zé Povinho rebelled against the injustice and suffering which he sometimes felt without being able to defend himself or make his voice heard”, explains Nuno Barra.
Even today, Zé Povinho is still engraved in the collective memory of the Portuguese and pops up every once in a while to show his disdain for the likes of Moody’s. In the 125th anniversary of the Bordallo-Pinheiro factory, seven artists were invited to reinterpret the artist’s body of work, using his original moulds. “A Banca“, a piece by Catarina Pestana that shows Zé Povinho mocking the banking industry, is one of those crafted for the occasion.
The man behind the character
Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro is one of the greatest names in Portuguese popular culture, who left behind not only the renowned figure of Zé Povinho but also a vast oeuvre that comprises caricature, illustration, ceramics, pottery and plenty more. A true one-man show, the arts and crafts artist was also responsible for introducing images to newspapers, which up until then consisted solely of text, and helped found the first critic daily newspaper, A Lanterna Mágica.
Glazed pottery, along with the caricatures he fully explored in the press, features prominently in his body of work and encompasses his most recognisable objects. In the factory he founded in Caldas da Rainha, in central Portugal, Bordalo Pinheiro crafted both utilitarian pieces – vases, plates, platters, tureens – and purely decorative models – tiles, giant-sized animals, social characters. Animals and vegetables were his most recurrent themes and you will be hard-pressed to find someone in Portugal who does not recall the presence one of his swallows, cabbage-shaped tureens or sugar bowls from their youth.
The hundreds of original moulds created for his pieces are still kept by the Bordallo Pinheiro factory, which carries on his work.
The artists’s material legacy
Despite the vast legacy held by the factory, in December 2008 it was on the brink of bankruptcy and was forced to close down its production line as it had no orders to fill. In those dark days, the factory’s 170 workers feared they would never produce another cabbage-shaped plate, and master Bordalo’s legacy was at risk.
In March 2009, however, Visabeira Group, a Portuguese holding with operations in the ceramics industry, decided to save the day and buy the majority of the factory’s capital. While bringing a touch of contemporaneity to Bordalo Pinheiro’s work, Visabeira also bet on elevating his pieces to the status of cult objects.
The strategy paid off and the factory is now back on its feet and rapidly making progress, says Nuno Barra: “The factory is registering 50% more orders than last year, having garnered important clients in Germany and France. The financial situation is taking swift steps towards a balanced position”.
With ideas like the Moody’s piece, which sold out on the same day it hit the stores, the factory is well on its way.
If you want to know more about Bordalo Pinheiro you can visit:
Address: Rua Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro, 53, Caldas da Rainha
Open Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 7pm and Sunday, from 2pm to 7pm.
Museu Bordalo Pinheiro
Address: Campo Grande, 382, Lisbon
Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10am to 6pm
Jardim Bordallo Pinheiro
Address: Campo Grande, 245, Lisbon
Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10am to 1pm and from 2pm to 6pm