View of the 3rd Bienal de São Paulo
View of the 3rd Bienal de São Paulo. Photo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

Art can be an individual whim, but its contagious power, as Lima Barreto said, is the link between men. Despite the strangeness with which it was received in 1951, the 1st Bienal de São Paulo imposed itself and became the best-known Brazilian artistic manifestation abroad. When creating it, Francisco Matarazzo, known as Ciccillo, bet on the most daring cultural project ever carried out in the tropics. The 1st edition was provisionally set up at the Belvedere Trianon, where the Masp (São Paulo Art Museum) is today. Every two years, the Bienal participates in a kind of “Grand Slam” of the arts, alongside the Venice Biennale and Documenta from Kassel.

One of the challenges of this effort, of great utopian importance, was to reflect on the role of national production, the relevance of its relevance and insertion at the international level. We have to admit that the contribution of its 34 editions, in these 70 years, was not always made explicitly, sometimes due to attempts at an unusual thought, other times through a disturbing montage.

Inspired by the Venice Biennale, held since 1895, the event in São Paulo had a strong impact on Brazilian artists in its inaugural edition. the sculpture Tripartite Unit, by Max Bill, Swiss artist awarded the top prize at the Bienal, would open the door to geometric abstractionism and influenced Brazilian sculptors such as Franz Weissmann. Other artists also left their marks, such as René Magritte, Alberto Giacometti, Di Cavalcanti, Candido Portinari and Lasar Segall. They signaled the art developed in those 1950s.

In 1954 São Paulo was getting ready for the celebration of its fourth centenary when Ciccillo surprised everyone by bringing to the second edition the Guernica and over 65 works by Picasso, curated by the Spanish artist directly from Paris. The places determined to show art, from then on, expand with the mobility of life. In the second edition, the Bienal won a definitive place in the Ibirapuera Park complex, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. In addition to the Picasso retrospective, it exhibited Italian Futurism, Cubism, Argentinian Geometrics and the rooms of Mondrian, Paul Klee and Edvard Munch. A class on the exceptionality of 20th century art.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso
“Guernica”, by Pablo Picasso, was exhibited at the 2nd Bienal de São Paulo, in 1954, with over 65 works by the artist. Today it is in the Reina Sofia Museum, protected by bulletproof glass, metal detector. He arrived at Ibirapuera on a rainy day, on top of a wooden truck, inside a metal tube with a tarp on top. Photo: reproduction

The creation of the Bienal was related to the political-economic changes in the city of São Paulo and to the cultural strategies of the local elite to transform it into an airstrip for the international vanguards. The art begins to change quickly, and over time, they loom large and gain weight. In its 4th edition, in 1957, the Bienal had to be transferred to the former Industries pavilion, also in Ibirapuera, where it is still located today. The pleasure of being in crowds, according to Walter Benjamin, “is a mysterious expression of the sensual pleasure of multiplying numbers. The numerous are in everything”. Newspapers reported that the event attracted hundreds of people to admire the transparent building with Niemeyer's beautiful architectural curves and unintelligible works of art. One of them was the painting by Jackson Pollock that arrived at the Bienal a year after his death. The works of Tapiès and Josef Albers provoke a silent exchange with the works of Frans Krajcberg, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. This edition was marked by the cut of 84% of the registered artists and caused the fury of many of them, such as Flavio de Carvalho – one of the most controversial figures in Brazilian art, a Dionysian and Nietzschean personality – who, addressing Ciccillo, denounced: “You influence the jury and they choose whoever MAM wants. What they just did was a crime against Brazilian art. Before, rascal was just the jury, now it's the museum too”.

The year 1961 was a milestone in the history of the Fundação Bienal, which separated itself from the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and became an autonomous institution. The works awarded at the Bienal until then were donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art at USP. Also in the same year, the capital of Brazil is no longer Rio de Janeiro, it is transferred to Brasília and materializes an aesthetic ideology launched by Le Corbusier. It was just the beginning of an explosive era. Mario Pedrosa, the best-known Brazilian critic internationally, is chosen as curator of the edition, which exhibited a consistent retrospective of the German Kurt Schwitters, a revolutionary in assemblages who influenced pop Robert Rauschenberg. Pedrosa exhibited works by Maria Helena da Silva, who won the award, and also showed the socialist realism of the Italian Renato Guttuso and the paintings of Clemente Orozco, Paul Devaux, René Magritte and Marc Chagall. However, for bureaucratic reasons, it failed to bring out the best of the Russian vanguard. Pedrosa a few years ago wanted to show suprematism, a revolutionary movement created by Malevich in 1915 and consolidated in the early years of the Russian Revolution, but ended up bringing in insignificant young artists. In a way it disappointed some critics and artists.

Dictatorship and repression

The 1960s shook the world and the Bienal, also affected by political-ideological changes, tried to survive under Pedrosa's slogan: “Art is the experimental exercise of freedom”. It was the time of the counterculture, the Vietnam War, Latin American dictatorships. The 1964 military coup against Brazilian democracy put many intellectuals in prison. The period coincides with the decline of the Bienal. In 1965, Maria Bonomi, upon receiving the award for best record label, with one hand takes the trophy and with the other hand hands to President Castelo Branco a letter signed by intellectuals and artists asking for the release of the critic Mário Schenberg, of the sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso. and other intellectuals.

Two years later, iconic works of American pop art arrive at the Bienal. Works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Indiana show that one can work with the icons of a country's mass culture, with criticism and humor, without socialist realism. The award is given to Jasper Johns for the series three flags, while Quissak Júnior, a young Brazilian artist, had his work banned by the police for using the national flag. Brazilian pop also showed its dimension with works critical to the system, such as those by Claudio Tozzi, Antonio Henrique Amaral, Rubens Gerchman and Nelson Leirner. Quoting Michel Foucault, “power is producer before repressing; produces ways of living and produces realities”.

Two years later, the Bienal suffered an international boycott resulting from the military intervention in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, which exhibited the works that would go to the 6th Bienal de Paris; some were considered offensive to the regime. Mario Pedrosa is exiled in Chile in 1971 and provokes a letter of repudiation signed by dozens of personalities, such as Octavio Paz and Pablo Picasso. Contrary to expectations, critic Mário Schenberg, a leftist activist, did not boycott the Bienal. For him, remaining was a form of resistance, of guaranteeing the place of protest. Convinced of his position, he organizes a room with young artists, among them José Roberto Aguilar, Carmela Gross, Ione Saldanha, Claudio Tozzi and João Câmara. The Bienal had a sad moment when it saw the biggest art project the country had ever had torn apart. And why has Brazil never received the Grand Prix (Itamaraty) of the Bienal de São Paulo? There was never a convincing explanation. What is known is that the only Latin American country to achieve this feat was Argentina in 1977, with the Grupo de los Trece, led by Jorge Glusberg, creator of the CAyC (Centro de Arte y Comunicación), in Buenos Aires.


In the 1980s, with the beginning of political opening, the countries that signed the boycott returned to the Bienal. The galleries multiply and the traffic of the international artistic community intensifies, no longer just centered on the event period, but throughout the year. Walter Zanini took over the 1981 edition, emphasizing the experimental and creating areas of questioning, without worrying about certainties. Like Harald Szeemann – curator of Documenta in Kassel in 1972, which changed the entire structure of the German show and placed it at the top of the major international exhibitions – Zanini also changed the concept of the Bienal de São Paulo, exchanging the montage by countries for the analogy of language. The curator took the event into a direct relationship with the new, exhibited postal art, video text, showed the anti-art of the Fluxus group, opened for performances by the English duo Gilbert & George and provided a deep analysis of the Unusual art with the participation of psychoanalysts and scholars on the production of people with mental illnesses.

17th Bienal de São Paulo.
17th Bienal de São Paulo. Photo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

In the process of occupying the 33 thousand square meters of the Bienal pavilion, the 18th edition, curated by Sheila Leirner, was distinguished by the impact caused by the Grande Tela, a set of three corridors of 100 meters each that exhibited hundreds of neo-expressionist paintings. coming from several countries. Also in this edition, Marina Abramovic and Ulay finished the performance nightsea crossing, started at the Sydney Biennale in 1981 and which totaled almost 600 hours and 94 days. In it, the performing couple remained seated, looking at each other for seven hours, in seven days, without moving. Alex Vallauri takes his mundane graffiti to the Bienal and builds the house of the “Queen of Chicken Assado” personified by Claudia Raia, a friend of his, then 18 years old.

It would be imprudent to neglect the 24th edition, from 1998, with its approach full of Brazilianness, translated into Anthropophagy and curated by Paulo Herkenhoff. The cross-sectional historical exhibition included works from the 19th century colonial period and established juxtapositions with contemporaneity as in the Exogenous Axis, from Tunga, who dialogued with the Lea and Maura, by Guignard, one of the girls portrayed being Tunga's mother. The silent contemplation of the visitors contrasted with the shrillness of the objects gathered in Paulo Bruscky's room in the 26th edition, in 2004, curated by Alfons Hug, whose reinterpretations opened up to other experiences of time and memory.

At the 2006 Bienal, curated by Lisette Lagnado, American artist Jimmie Durham, of Aboriginal origin, wrote an open letter that he sent along with his work, in which he denounced the situation of indigenous people in Brazil, stating that the Bienal had not interested in the subject. This intervention to confront colonialism was an unusual milestone. when choosing living uncertainty as a theme, the curator Jochen Volz put the environment in the debate of 32ª edition, shows that it had the majority participation of women and the first black co-curator, Gabi Ngcobo.

In recent years, the Bienal has opened the doors to several collectives of artists who gravitated, still in the dark, around Brazilian production. Most with gender inclusion, Afro-descendant and indigenous minorities, who updated the dialogue, but not always with works worthy of a biennial. There is no single subjective way of understanding the world as a way of relating the present to the past, memory to identity and opening up to the infinite readings of current sociopolitical demands. The Bienal de São Paulo reaches its 34th edition (analyzed in this edition by Fabio Cypriano) and shows signs that the artistic and political moment calls for deep reflection and study of new attitudes to overcome the poverty and obscurity that currently take over Brazil.

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