Tarsila do Amaral, 'A Cuca', 1924.

*By Gustavo von Ha

As an artist I have always been interested in things that are on the margins of hegemonic narratives, as well as the more hidden facets of mythical characters throughout history. Tarsila do Amaral was one of those characters on which I stopped and investigated to develop the work Tarsila Project, which I started in 2009 (the abstract expressionism inspired by MoMA was also the subject of another investigation I did for an exhibition at MAC USP in 2016).

Tarsila do Amaral: inventing modern art in Brazil [Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil],  first exhibition dedicated to the artist in the United States, now takes place at MoMA, in New York, having previously passed through the Art Institute of Chicago.

The MoMA exhibits, not coincidentally, a cut of his work consecrated by critics and sedimented by the history of Brazilian art. The exhibition focuses on the 1920s, focusing on the artist's early years of production, when she moved through the art worlds of São Paulo and Paris, bringing together more than 100 works, including paintings, drawings and documents, including iconic and interconnected works. as the black (1924) abaporu (1928) and Anthropophagy (1929)

Right in the entrance hall of the exhibition, outside the exhibition space itself, inside a niche, is the canvas The Cuca, a work that represents a typical character of Brazilian folklore, immortalized by Monteiro Lobato in his stories of the Yellow Woodpecker Site. But before that, the origin of this figure is in Portuguese legends, a tradition that was brought to Brazil during colonization. Tarsila produced this canvas at the beginning of 1924 and wrote to her daughter saying that she was painting something “very Brazilian”, already announcing her interests in national identity and in the so-called genuine Brazilian culture, not dictated by European customs and values, which would be unfolded in her life. Anthropophagic phase. In that regard, The Cuca can be considered as the harbinger of its Anthropophagic phase, it is the “outside look” staring at the screen the black which is on the wall facing the entrance inside the exhibition space.

Tarsila do Amaral, 'A Negra', 1923.

Tarsila do Amaral and Anthropophagy are two themes completely intertwined with each other, given that this intellectual movement formally emerged in 1928 with the Manifesto Antropófago, written by Oswald de Andrade, then husband of Tarsila, just after he came into contact with the canvas.  abaporu. Tarsila in an interview for Revista Veja, on February 23, 1972, comments on this curious episode of her first contact with the screen abaporu who intertwined his own history with the emergence of the Anthropophagic Movement: “(…) Oswald said: 'this is like something like a savage, something from the bush' (…). Then I also wanted to give the painting a wild name, because I had a dictionary from Montoia, a Jesuit priest who gave everything. To say man, for example, in the language of the Indians it was Tab. I wanted to say man-eating man, I looked through the entire dictionary and couldn't find it, only on the last few pages there were a lot of names and I saw puru and when I read it said man who eats human flesh, so I thought, oh, how will it be fine, Aba-Puru. And it got that name (…). Everyone started saying that Oswald had done the Aba-Puru and created the anthropophagic movement. He accepted it being said that it was his authorship, he found it interesting.”

The key concept of the Anthropophagic manifesto is exactly in line with the genesis of the name created by Tarsila, while it recovered the mythology of Brazilian indigenous people who ate their enemies, not as a form of barbarism, but as an act of intelligence, precisely because believe they are assimilating the qualities of their opponents. In this sense, Anthropophagy is a form of cultural cannibalism in which Brazilians consume other cultures (European, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian and if we update this issue we could also include the American one) to create their own artistic and cultural identity, transforming the imported product into exportable.

Anthropophagy was a radical proposal for the time and consolidated Brazilian modernism in the international field, but most of its defenders and articulators were white people from the urban elite - those who consumed European culture in an explicit way, but who also became interested in it. by the consumption of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian culture, which leads us to think about the existence of a fine line that could separate Anthropophagy from cultural appropriation.

A controversial painting by Tarsila do Amaral, which collides with the doubts raised here about cultural appropriation, is undoubtedly the black, held in 1923. The canvas, made eight years before the artist traveled to the Soviet Union and declared herself a communist, depicts a woman who worked on the artist’s family farm and who was probably born during the period of slavery: represented with stereotyped traits and a typically Brazilian color palette. At the same time, the work points to issues that would be developed during the artist's career, but also refers to Tarsila's past, who, despite being the daughter of an abolitionist man, was born into a family of the agrarian elite of São Paulo, which, like many others, developed financially at the cost of slave labor. It is worth remembering that Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888.

Portrait of Tarsila do Amaral, c. 1921. Photographic print, Pedro Corrêa do Lago collection, São Paulo

The absence of texts on the black by the main modernist critics, such as Sérgio Milliet and Oswald de Andrade, reinforces the analysis of the curator Paulo Herkenhoff, who called attention to the fact that this painting is a production more focused on primitivism in the French context than a reference to a figure “ national” in the context of a modernism that was still in its infancy in Brazil.

These perceptions, opinions and findings about painting the black raise a question about the narratives that are built around the work of Tarsila do Amaral, almost always linked to a formal thought of Modernism, interested in a stylistic evolution of the artist and not necessarily in more politicized facets or that can escape the modern canon. However, the show at MoMA is based on the first, formalist approach, leaving gaps in Tarsila's artistic trajectory, precisely because it emphasizes these stylistic aspects more, ignoring her late production, usually ignored by critics and historians, which takes away the possibility of comparing what the artist has produced before and after in her career. It is interesting to remember that at the end of the 1960s, already living alone and far from the artistic milieu, Tarsila reinterpreted the black, leading us to wonder where his work was pointing.

Revealing the constant theoretical dispute over when the modern movement began in Brazil, the curator of the exhibition at MoMA, the Venezuelan Luis Pérez-Oramas, argues in his text from the exhibition’s catalog that Modernism in Brazil did not appear even before nor during the Art Week of 1922, which appeared years later, since modernity, according to him, consists of things that go far beyond an elitist skirmish. And he says: “The present essay does not set out to resolve the question of what modernity was or was not in Brazil, but rather examines an artist, Tarsila – whose work and artistic personality are inextricably linked to the fate of Brazil’s modern project and the image of this modernity”.

But the desire for modernism began much earlier, some historians even point to the end of the 1913th century. Many of these artists (several women, it is worth researching) disappeared, did not legitimize themselves in this modernist process. Some events preceded Brazilian Modernism, such as the exhibition by Lasar Segall, in 1917, who was already flirting with the German avant-gardes. However, it will be Anita Malfatti, who was later practically erased by history, who in 1922, newly arrived from Europe, opened the doors to the artistic avant-gardes in Brazil with her exhibition that is considered a milestone in the history of Brazilian modern art and the “ fuse” of the XNUMX Modern Art Week, as the historian Mário da Silva Brito points out.

Tarsila do Amaral, 'Urutu', 1928.

Tarsila did not invent modern art in Brazil, but was, according to Aracy Amaral, the “pioneer of a Brazilian modernist style”. The title of this exhibition, “Tarsila do Amaral: inventing modern art in Brazil”, says a lot about how MoMA appropriates Latin American narratives, recreating historical narratives and defining the canons throughout the XNUMXth century to the present day, as defends historian Ana Avelar in her book the emotional root, 2014. In this way, I wonder if MoMA, with this exhibition of Tarsila's work, is not consuming our culture like an anthropophagous.

Mario de Andrade played a fundamental role in the process of legitimizing his work. He basically indicated through letters which paths it should follow, he defended that it was necessary to maintain the figure, maintain the elements of Brazilianness as an affirmation of Brazilian art abroad, and this concern to imprint a national identity on Brazilian artistic production remains to this day. of today, echoing the declaration made by Tarsila, in 1923: “I want to be a painter of my country”.

Another legitimizing factor always used with Tarsila is to emphasize her training in Europe, at the Académie Julian in Paris, with names such as André Lhote, Albert Gleizes and, above all, Fernand Léger, always pointed out as a master of the artist, including in the exhibition catalog at MOMA. However, Tarsila, in the same interview with Veja Magazine, stated the opposite: “I really liked his work, I was a good friend of his, but I didn’t go to Léger’s studio, I was a friend of his wife too, then they even invented that he had designed earrings for me, etc., imagine! I was inspired by São Paulo itself, by the industrial society and it was a novelty at that time, in Brazil, what I did.”

In this sense, the idea that Brazilian modernism must be understood from its own history and from an independent perspective gains strength, which takes into account the multiple actors and factors that configured it, avoiding totalizing and reductionist narratives. This discussion must be expanded and updated in order to understand how the reading of Tarsila do Amaral's work and Brazilian modernism may have changed over almost a century. But is MoMA's approach throughout history up to date? So, what does Tarsila really mean at MoMA today?


 *Gustavo von Ha is a plastic artist. In addition to several exhibitions in Brazil, he has already had exhibitions in Japan, Germany, France, among others. His works are present in private and public collections, such as the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, the Museu de Arte de Rio and the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo.

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