georgina de albuquerque state council session
"Session of the Council of State" (1922), by Georgina de Albuquerque, first woman awarded for a historical painting

In 1922, the famous Week of Modern Art broke with traditions, immortalizing artists such as Anita Malfatti and Mário de Andrade. That same year, another event, much less celebrated by historiography, also constituted an important milestone in Brazilian art: for the first time, a woman was awarded for a historical painting, the most prestigious artistic genre at the time.

Georgina de Albuquerque from São Paulo received the award, granted by the National School of Fine Arts, for her painting State Council session. Based on the theme of Brazilian independence, the artist questioned the representations of power, placing a woman at the center of a historical event. Instead of portraying a triumphal event, like the famous painting by Pedro Américo, the work represented a diplomatic episode in which Princess Leopoldina listened to the opinions of members of the Council of State on independence.

The fact that the painting was produced by a woman was already a transgression in itself. In the conception of the time, artists were more apt to produce delicate works, such as still lifes or reproductions, and not complex subjects, such as historical events, which required great technical skill. In addition, when representing a political event, the artist discussed a subject of public life, a sphere vetoed by women at the time.

Like Albuquerque, many other women produced relevant work at the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century. However, her works are still little known, even by specialized critics. This concealment of such relevant historical characters was what motivated Ana Paula Simioni at the Institute of Brazilian Studies at USP to research the trajectory of these painters and sculptors.

“There is a fog that covers the memory of other artists before Tarsila and Anita Malfatti, as if before the modernists there simply had not been artists of the so-called 'weaker sex'. Were there female artists in the XNUMXth century? If yes, who were they? And why do we know so little about them?”, says Simioni in the introduction to his doctoral thesis.

abigail de andrade extending the clothes
The work 'Extending the Clothes', by Abigail de Andrade. Collection by Sérgio and Hecilda Fadel

In interview with Brazilian, the researcher points out that the artists of the period had to face numerous obstacles to be able to produce. One of the main ones was the professionalization itself. Until 1889, women were prohibited from enrolling in most college courses. Only after the proclamation of the Republic, access was released and, even then, there was still strong opposition from society.

In the conception of the time, women should be restricted to the domestic environment, with motherhood being their primary function. Any action that could divert them was a sign of threat, as evidenced by a chronicle of the time published in the magazine Kosmos, in 1904: “While the man, given over to public life, develops science, art and industry, the woman at home prepares him for that same life. It does not produce great works, but forms great men; all her glory is in the men she educates.”

In the world of the arts, the main institution responsible for training was the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, in Rio de Janeiro. As there was no parallel artistic market, the school monopolized the few chances of career and projection, organizing exhibitions and granting scholarships abroad to outstanding students.

Since 1889, women were accepted within the institution. However, there were numerous difficulties, from separate rooms and workshops or restrictions on access to live model classes. The study of the nude was considered one of the essential stages in the formation of artists. However, for the morals of the time, it was scandalous for women to join a group, made up mostly of men, to contemplate naked models.

Even so, in 1897, the young girl from Pará, Julieta de França, enrolled in the live model class at the Escolas de Belas Artes, being the only woman in the course. França is one of the personalities studied by Simioni, who reconstructs the artist's trajectory. Interested in sculpture, the woman from Pará stood out in the course of the School of Fine Arts, having been the first woman to obtain the award for traveling abroad. In France, she honed her skills with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, already regarded as a great reference.

Back in Brazil, in 1908, the artist applied for the contest that would choose the commemorative monument to the proclamation of the Republic. However, her model was disqualified by the judging committee. Dissatisfied, the artist returned to Europe collecting positive evaluations from renowned artists and professors, including Rodin himself. With that document in hand, France demanded that the commission review its verdict.

The attitude was considered a scandal at the time, since it was a questioning of the criteria of the academy itself. The woman from Pará thus took a confrontational stance, breaking with the “expected female modesty”, as Simioni points out. The commission's decision was not reviewed, but the controversy harmed the sculptor's career, who was already frowned upon for being a single mother, supporting her daughter alone. For the researcher, all these factors meant that França's trajectory was erased, with the academy refusing to celebrate her production.

Untitled abigail de andrade
 Abigail de Andrade, 'Untitled'. Collection by Sérgio and Hecilda Fadel


In their struggle for recognition, these artists also had to oppose the category of amateurs assigned to them. Artistic practice was considered a male profession. Simioni comments that, even with the inclusion of the female audience in the area, the label continued to be used: “If at the time, the condition of amateur for men was a transitory situation – once accepted at the Academy, they could become professionals –, for for women, amateurism has become a binding, almost inescapable label, a permanent 'condition'. This is because the term also carried a whole load of negative stereotypes about women's professional and intellectual aptitudes”.

The artists of the period adopted several strategies to circumvent this stereotype, asserting themselves as professionals. In France, for example, the painter Rosa Bonheur dressed in men's clothes to be able to walk and freely observe the animals that she later portrayed in her canvases. There is no known case in Brazil of a woman adopting a stance similar to that of Bonheur. However, one of the main means of escaping the obstacles imposed was the self-portrait.

The painter from Rio de Janeiro Abigail de Andrade was one of those who produced relevant self-portraits, which built her image as a confident, organized and methodical artist at work. One of the most famous works by Andrade, who was the first woman to be awarded the gold medal in a general exhibition, is the canvas A corner of my studio (which illustrates the opening of the matter). In the painting, she portrays herself producing a new canvas. The environment is full of evidence of the artist's craft, with paintings and sculptures everywhere, as well as studies of the human body. Art as a profession was thus reinforced by the carioca, who, throughout her career, suffered several family pressures due to her option for artistic work.

“For a long time, XNUMXth century artists were devalued in Brazil, due to the supremacy of the modernist look in our historiography”.

Works such as Andrade's self-portraits or França's sculptures are still little known, even by the specialized public. Simioni points out the possible reasons: “For a long time, 1980th century artists were devalued in Brazil, due to the supremacy of the modernist perspective in our historiography. Since the XNUMXs, this has changed a lot. However, it is good to remember, there is still much to do. This lack of knowledge about the XNUMXth century affects both men and women, but in their case this is perhaps more dramatic precisely because, at the time, they were considered amateurs”.

Some works by these artists are part of the collection of institutions such as the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo and the National Museum of Fine Arts. However, other works, such as those by Abigail de Andrade, still belong to private collections, being inaccessible to the public. Simioni believes that, as more research shows the importance of these artists, museums will tend to acquire their work.

Asked about the transformations in the world of the arts and the position occupied by women today, Simioni states: “Throughout the history of art in the XNUMXth century, we have several examples of women who achieved fame and notoriety, such as Anita Malfatti, Tarsila do Amaral, Lygia Clark and Adriana Varejão, among many others. Even so, her examples can be seen as 'unique' and 'exceptional' cases, which cover a broader reality of several obliterated female careers, little known in different periods, from modernism to the present day”.


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