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“If These Walls Could Talk”: A Virtual Tour of the Hispanic Division’s Cândido Portinari Murals

(This is a guest post by Giselle Aviles, reference librarian in the Hispanic Division.)

The magnificent Hispanic Reading Room of the Library of Congress is the only reading room in the Jefferson Building with 20th-century murals gracing its walls. The murals depict four different episodes of the encounter and exploration of the Americas. They are also an important symbol of the historical relationship between Latin America, specifically Brazil, and the United States. The pandemic prevents us, temporarily, from visiting the Jefferson Building and viewing the murals in person, so we have found another way to share these treasured artworks with you.

A portion of “If These Walls Could Talk” virtual tour.

Many of us in the Hispanic Division have spent the past year exploring ways to share the Library’s digital collections with you. As part of those efforts, we have created a Story Map, “If These Walls Could Talk.” It provides a virtual tour of the brilliant murals in the Hispanic Reading Room painted by Brazilian artist Cândido Portinari (1903-1962). The Story Map includes descriptions and high-resolution images of the murals, biographical information about the artist, and numerous Library resources that will guide you to related information.

Why are these murals in the Library of Congress?

Writer and poet Archibald MacLeish, the ninth Librarian of Congress, invited Portinari to paint the four murals. Thanks to a joint commission by the governments of Brazil and the United States, arranged through the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, with Vice President Nelson Rockefeller at the helm, Portinari traveled to Washington, DC and completed the murals in 1941.

A portion of “If These Walls Could Talk” virtual tour.

Amidst the international tensions of World War II, and in concert with the Good Neighbor Policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Library of Congress sought to facilitate a cultural exchange that could help strengthen hemispheric understanding and a Pan-American perspective. These murals in the Library of Congress are evidence of that effort.

Take a virtual tour and share your thoughts!

Research orientations and tours in the Hispanic Reading Room often begin with a brief explanation of the murals—and many questions from visitors who want to learn more about them and the artist who painted them. Our Story Map tour is virtual and is available for viewing all around the world. We would like this blog post to serve as a platform for an exchange of thoughts and comments about the paintings.

The work of painter Portinari inspired his friend, poet Nicolás Guillén, to write a poem in his honor, “Un son para Portinari” (1953). (You can listen to Nicolás Guillén read several of his poems via the PALABRA Archive.) Do Portinari’s murals or the murals of other artists inspire you to create something of your own? If so, please tell us about your project in the comments section below or tell us what you think about the murals: What stories do you see in the paintings? What are your thoughts about the different figures? How about the artist’s technique? Are you a fan of murals? Are there any murals in your city or town? Please share your ideas with us!

Useful Links

Explore the Hispanic Division Research Guides—we’re adding more all the time!

Listen to recordings of writers from all over Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, the Caribbean, and other regions with Hispanic and Portuguese heritage populations in the PALABRA Archive.

Continue your research with the Handbook of Latin American Studies.  HLAS includes descriptions of books, journal articles, book chapters, conference papers, maps and atlases, and e-resources.

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