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The Greatest Artist Brazil Has Ever Produced: Candido Portinari

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In our quest to feature a different artist from a different country in each installment of "Feel Art Again" this month, today's post highlights "the greatest artist Brazil has ever produced," Candido Portinari (1903-1962). Reader Mateus Fonseca suggested Portinari, whose life—and death—was "fascinating."

1. In 1948, Candido Portinari painted panels for a church in Batatais. The paints he used were an "extremely toxic composition" that contained arsenic, which caused a hemorrhage that sent Portinari to the hospital. His regular paints, especially the yellow and white, also contained high quantities of lead. Doctors advised the artist to stop using the paints, but Portinari stubbornly continued to paint. He died from lead poisoning in 1962.

2. Brazil's government commissioned Portinari in 1952 to interpret the United Nations' objective "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" as two giant panels: a "war" one and a "peace" one. Portinari created the two 14 meters by 10 meters panels in four years, after making more than 150 studies in preparation. The murals were presented to the UN as gifts from Brazil on September 6, 1957, and installed in two prominent locations. "War" greets new arrivals to the UN building, while "Peace" is passed on the way out; the idea being that countries may enter the UN at odds, but leave reconciled.

3. Portinari, who once stated, "I decided to paint the Brazilian reality, naked and crude, as it is," is sometimes seen as a symbol of Brazil. According to his son, Portinari's work is "a letter to the Brazilian nation." He was so successful in capturing the spirit of his country that he and his work attracted prominent politicians from vastly different ends of the political spectrum. His funeral procession included ex-President Juscelino Kubitschek, Communist leader Luiz Carlos Prestes, and the anti-communist Governor of Guanabara, Carlos Lacerda. (Guanabara state is now Rio de Janiero.)

4. Over the years, Portinari's nearly 5,000 works of art became scattered throughout Brazil and the rest of the world, residing mostly in private collections. In 1979, his son founded the Portinari Project, embarking on a 26-year effort to identify, catalogue, and photograph Portinari's entire oeuvre. The paintings were all cross-referenced with 25,000 documents, including oral history interviews, letters, and newspaper clippings. An estimated $10 million has been invested in the project, which has employed state-of-the-art technology to not only scan, analyze, and catalogue the paintings, but also to bring Portinari's work to the citizens of Brazil, especially schoolchildren.

5. Apparently, Portinari was so short that he had "little steps" in his studio for him to stand on when painting large canvases. His studio—complete with little steps—can be viewed by the public in Casa Portinari, his family home that became a museum in 1970. In addition to his studio, the museum contains personal items, early murals, and other works.

A larger version of "Flora e Fauna Brasileiras" (1934) is available here.

Fans should check out Projeto Portinari (in Portuguese, with an English option) and Museu Casa de Portinari (in Portuguese).

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday and Thursday and once on the weekend. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

It's not too late to submit suggestions of artists from around the world!

We've been especially lacking in African and Australian art.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]