Visions of Brazil: Reimagining Modernity from Tarsila to Sonia
By: Fawz Kabra
Bridging almost a century of Brazilian art, Visions of Brazil: Reimagining Modernity from Tarsila to Sonia at Blum & Poe in New York (30 April–22 June 2019), hosted in collaboration with Mendes Wood DM, offers a rereading of Brazilian Modernism through the works of artists practising at different times, from the 20th century through to the present day. Curated by Milan-based scholar Dr Sofia Gotti, the show navigates ideas of modernity and its relationship to modernist movements, as anchored to a definition of modernity put forward by Argentine semiotician and scholar, professor Walter Mignolo, as a 'historical process in which Europe began its progress towards world hegemony', which 'carries a darker side'—'coloniality'. 'If we understand Modernism as the cultural output of modernity,' writes Gotti, 'then using this label when analysing Latin American art becomes problematic due to its colonialist connotations.' Yet, as Gotti notes, the consequences of colonialism and its resulting dictatorial governments influenced an entire generation's way of thinking and artistic philosophy. The show thus proposes to reimagine Modernism—the cultural artefact of modernity—through issues of race, power, and economics.
Each gallery floor presents a room with compelling conversations between 14 artists, including Tarsila do Amaral and Mira Schendel: a presentation of different chapters of Brazilian Modernism that offer a cross-temporal reading of the movement across time that highlights each artist's creative process to achieve a distinctly Brazilian—and decolonised—aesthetic vocabulary.
Setting the tone for this curatorial project is a presentation of works in the first gallery by three women, Tarsila do Amaral, Sonia Gomes, and Lygia Clark: a juxtaposition that demonstrates the idea that Brazilian Modernism transpired differently among generations of artists who were concerned with society and community. Terra (1943), a stylised oil on canvas painting by do Amaral, depicts a giant female figure lying naked across an arid desert with arms and legs spreading into the landscape, her left hand appearing to clutch the earth, with a single cactus sharing this timeless space. The painting is contextually linked to a particular time in Brazil; when the artist made the work, she was involved in revolts against the dictatorship of the populist Getúlio Dornelles Vargas, who was in power from 1937 to 1945.
Though do Amaral came from a wealthy family with a coffee plantation-owning background and studied in Paris for some time, she identified as 'profoundly Brazilian' and made it her task to represent the culture's complexity, confronting the legacy of slavery and depicting the land and its indigenous communities in her work. Terra reflects an aesthetic move away from do Amaral's previous Antropofagia-inspired paintings, which were bold and sharp in their rendering, though the conceptual core remained. Antropofagia was coined by do Amaral's husband, Oswald de Andrade, in reaction to her visual language; the idea focused on the notion of 'devouring Europe'—the former coloniser—rather than being devoured by it, and provided an important discourse for artists that came after do Amaral, who were also driven to merge their roots with international influences in their practices.
An admirer of do Amaral, Lygia Clark's geometric abstractions sought to democratise the task of viewing, which eventually focused on activating viewer participation with the artwork as a way of disrupting passive engagement. Hung on a crimson red wall are two of Clark's geometric pieces made of painted wood. Planos em Superfície Modulada (1958), from the series 'B no3', is a painting divided into two colour fields, black and white, with a horizon marked by the coming together of both colours that divides the surface at the centre in a jagged line. Untitled (1954), from the series 'Quebra da Moldura', is a square within a square, painted in a smoggy flat blue and maroon, whose muted colours play with perceptions of depth.
Just like do Amaral, Clark visited Europe and was influenced by the abstraction she saw there. Moving away from figuration to experiment with geometric forms and picture planes, she eventually developed modular forms that would only activate upon a viewer's manipulation. Examples of those works are included in this show, encased in a vitrine in the centre of the room. Both from 1964, Livro Obra and Obra Mole/Trepante/Bicho de Borracha show Clark's concern with tactility and interaction. Obra Mole/Trepante/Bicho de Borracha, which translates to 'soft work/climbing/rubber bug', is a circular form of black synthetic rubber made for viewers to handle and manipulate.
Sonia Gomes's sculptures, made between 1997 and 2005, destabilise the earlier works of do Amaral and Clark on view. As Gotti points out, though they are concerned with the Brazilian vernacular—utilising stitching, binding, fabrics, lace, and wire—Gomes is the only artist in the exhibition with Afro-Brazilian roots, who did not go to Europe to train but instead developed her practice in Belo Horizonte, where she took courses at the Guignard School. She did not turn to landscape painting or geometric abstraction as a form of expression, either. Instead, she uses fabrics that she finds or are given to her, not to mention the histories and associations of the people that these fragments once belonged to, and transforms them into twisting, organic constructions, as with Untitled, from the series 'Patua' (2005): a mashup of conceptual thinking and popular art that references both the artist's African ancestry and contemporary Brazil.
The second chapter of the exhibition, 'Interior Landscapes' continues with works by Alberto da Veiga Guignard and Alfredo Volpi, two artists who drew from Brazilian popular culture, including Guignard's Paisagem Mineira (1952), a vertical scroll-like oil on wood painting of a rural landscape, with cultural and traditional symbols populating a hazy paysage. Also on view are Mira Schendel's subtle, phenomenological analyses of abstract space—stark and bare in comparison to Guignard's romantic representation. Schendel's Sem Titulo (1964), for instance, is a square within a square made of concrete; the work is shown alongside the black and grey tempera painting Untitled (1960), which invokes the outline of a bare floor plan.
The materials that mark Schendel's prolific career—including brick dust, talc, and wet charcoal—were a result of paint being too expensive; a reflection of the artist's precarious background. Jewish-Swiss, Schendel moved through Switzerland and Austria after fleeing Fascist Italy, where she was studying philosophy in the 1930s, living in Sarajevo throughout the war before returning to Italy and finally emigrating to Brazil in 1949.
'New Ways to be Modern: New-Concretism in Rio', the third section in this exhibition, showcases champions of the Neo-Concrete movement, including Raymundo Colares, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica, Willys de Castro, and Sérgio Camargo—all hung together in salon-style fashion on a vivid blue wall. The geometric abstraction on view demonstrates a preference to play with space, time, and movement, from de Castro's Pintura (1957), a gouache on paper depicting a vertical pattern of yellow, green, and purple triangles on an indigo background, to Camargo's Relief #285 – Paris (1970), which hangs on the opposite wall, a large painting made of countless miniature white cone shapes on wood.
Pape's Untitled (Livro dos Caminhos II) (1963/1976) is an acrylic and latex painting on wood of black and white squares, while Untitled (Relevos) (1954/1956) is a tempera on wood painting in which blue and white chevron patterns rendered in three dimensions run down the centre of a square surface. Both pieces are aligned with an example of Oiticia's blue and maroon square cutouts of different sizes mounted on cardboard paper on view, Metaesquema, part of a group of works he made between 1957 and 1958.
The final gallery brings together three artists—Jose Leonilson, Rubem Valentim, and Antonio Dias—under the title 'Coming to Terms with Marginality'. A cigana que me olhava (1984), by Leonilson, who died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 36, is a delicate composition of handwritten text, drawings, and swathes of white, grey, black, and blue acrylic paint on unprimed canvas. The drawings, which appear as recordings of fleeting thoughts, depict a figure hurriedly riding a bicycle, two volcanic islands joined by a bridge among sheer smudges, splatters, and opaque circular forms. These are shown alongside three of Valentim's untitled (and undated) tapestries, which are composed of geometric and angular forms depicted in contrasting colours that source their abstract imagery from deities and emblems found in Afro-Brazilian traditions. Symbols include the double-bladed axe of the orisha Shango, and the arrow of Oshosi, known as the 'divine hunter and embodiment of justice'.
Completing this grouping is Dias's large acrylic on canvas Ambiente para o prisioneiro (1970), which seems to outline a floor plan, or a kind of 'environment for the prisoner', as inscribed in stencilled block letters in the top left corner of the painting. The work forms part of a series that were inspired by Dias's interactions with Arte Povera, and meetings with artists such as Gilberto Zorio, Luciano Fabro and Giulio Paolini. The monochromatic surface's representation of abstract space, which does not locate a specific place, could well reflect the artist's experience of living in self-imposed exile.
As a whole, the uniqueness of Visions of Brazil: Reimagining Modernity from Tarsila to Sonia, lies in the exhibition's intimacy, with groupings that feel like a convivial gathering of artists—as represented by their artworks—from different generations. The curatorial considers the possibility of a Brazilian Modernism that is horizontal, complex, and cross-temporal, in which concerns beyond form encapsulate the struggles and realities of each artist's background and sociopolitical perspectives. Bringing these varying circles of artists and artworks closer in time allows for a broad yet nuanced reading of how each individual engaged with the traditions of European geometric abstraction and Afro-Brazilian aesthetic languages to create a hybridised Brazilian language of their own.