Artist Jorge Selaron may have taken his own life by setting himself on fire on the very steps of his masterpiece, a brilliantly colored public staircase that became a symbol of Rio de Janeiro, the Rio homicide police chief said on Friday.
The body of Selaron, a Chilean who had adopted Rio as his home, was found early on Thursday morning lying charred on the steps he had covered in a rainbow of bright tiles from all over the world as a tribute to the Brazilian people. The stairs, his life’s work, were declared city patrimony in 2005, when Selaron was made an honorary carioca, as Rio residents are called. Next to the burned body was a can of paint thinner, the liquid used to fuel the flames, homicide police chief Renata Araujo said. Inside Selaron’s home, a humble pastel-colored colonial that opens onto the staircase, was the paint thinner’s lid.
All eight people interviewed so far said the artist was deeply depressed over threats by a former friend and collaborator and had asked for help in ending his life.
“He even asked to be taken to the subway so he could throw himself under the train,” Araujo said.
The autopsy showed the highly flammable liquid was poured on his head, which reinforced the theory he did it himself. Also, since Selaron first reported the threats to police in November, he always had friends stay at his house to keep him company, Araujo said.
The night before he died he chose to sleep alone.
The dispute that led the painter into depression was with Paulo Sergio Rabelo, a friend of long standing and colleague who was left in charge of Selaron’s studio when he took a vacation in November. Rabelo, who earned an income making prints of Selaron’s work and was included in his will, fought with several associates in his absence. Selaron was upset and ended their relationship. Rabelo then began threatening him, police said.
Toward the end of the month, the threats escalated and Rabelo attacked one of the artist’s closest friends. Selaron registered a complaint with the police on Nov. 24. Araujo said Rabelo denied threatening the artist and said he only wanted to register Selaron’s studio as a legitimate business. The artist preferred to remain as he had always been, working informally and selling his paintings right there on the steps, Rabelo told police.