brecheret
"India hidden by a big fish", 1947-1948, by Brecheret, stone rolled by the sea. Photo: reproduction

On the eve of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Week of Modern Art, it is important to reflect on the figure of the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Victor Brecheret (1894-1955), a professional whose work is awaiting reevaluations. This text pays attention to the fact that his production, at first, was established between the fringes of tradition and modernity and, at the end of his life, between modernity and the contemporary.

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Nathalie Heinich, French sociologist specializing in art, in the book The paradigm of contemporary art. Structures of an artistic revolution [1], states that traditional or “classical” art would be “a figurative representation adjusted to the canons inherited from tradition”. Modern art, on the other hand, is “the expression of the artist's interiority, at the expense of transgressing classical canons and, therefore, in favor of an a priori value given to personalization, innovation, originality”. Finally, Heinich defines contemporary art as being that production engaged in the “transgression of the criteria that delimit that notion”, that is, the notion of modern art formulated before[2].

Despite the schematic definitions[3], they provide an input to the issues I want to discuss. It is true, however, that they need to be complemented and I will undertake to carry them out.

When we refer to traditional art (or “classical” art, as Heinich prefers), we are talking about the tradition of European art that would, roughly, from the mid-14th century to the end of the 19th century. During these centuries, a concept of art was developed there as a kind of double of the real, based on prescriptives in which any transformation was only accepted as an addition and never as a rupture.[4]. Art, then, assumed a role of exemplarity and, based above all on the representation of the human figure – more or less idealized, (depending on the time) –, its role was to trigger in the spectator certain feelings and reflections that transcend their own materiality. Art was thus instrumentalized to transmit religious, moral and ethical teachings and, for that, it was common for the artist to make use of rhetorical elements to emphasize his propositions, among them allegory. In this context, works that, presenting idealized human representations to the public, sought to translate abstract concepts, such as love, hate, justice and other subjects, were not uncommon.

It would have been against these codes established by tradition that modern art rose up, establishing new paradigms.

If, until then, the work of art was produced from the maintenance/dissemination of previously stipulated values ​​and practices - and which should, of course, transcend their respective materialities to provoke in the spectator feelings also previously stipulated -, from the 19th century onwards this situation began to change: against the strictest prescriptives, against the norms that prevented, in the final analysis, the very manifestation of the producer's individuality, it begins to gain strength, as new elements for the valuation of the work of art, the escape from any previous ordering, the emphasis on originality, the denial of any impersonality so that the work of art could become a manifestation of the artist's interiority.

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So far I have been limited to Heinich's definitions of “classical art” and “modern art”. However, one element that the author excludes from her definition of “modern art”, but which will also serve for its emergence, is the emphasis that several artists began to give to the materiality of the work and to the exploration of its constitutive elements; that is, the elements intrinsic to each artistic language. In a text from the 1960s, the North American critic Clement Greenberg summarized this process by stating that, if until the beginning of modernity art used artifices (or art) to hide its materiality, from then on artists if to make evident in each work the matter of which it was constituted and the elements that structured each one of them[5].

In this new situation, in which the work of art would no longer be seen as a representation of the real or ideal world, but as a new reality, an important fact is understood and that also helped to forge the concept of modern art: the supposed banishment, in the constitution of the work, of any allusion to something that was outside its concrete reality. Hence the proscription of traditional elements of rhetoric, among them, the allegory[6].

However, as we will see, this exclusion was not absolute. However, it is important to underline that this more radical stance became hegemonic, not exactly in the artists' productions, but in the interpretations of critics, spread around the world (including in Brazil), who removed from the main current of modern art the artists who continued to deal with issues other than just the specifics of their respective languages.

It is clear, therefore, that the narrative created by these scholars focused their interest on the specific issues of art, leaving aside other problems that also played a role in the passage from traditional art to modern art and that relativize part of the differences between the two.

Within this situation, I would point out a phenomenon that until now has not been seen by scholars: the transition from traditional art to modern art did not take place abruptly, as the canonical texts on modern art would have us believe. There was a reasonable period of ingrainedness between modernity and tradition, in which the latter's values ​​tried to impose themselves on the former's values, establishing a hybrid production and, by the way, interesting in several aspects. If, in the context of French sculpture, for example, the experiences of Rodin and Maioll can be remembered as exemplary cases, in Brazil the production of Victor Brecheret seems to me emblematic.

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brecheret
“Idol”, c.1919, Victor Brecheret, bronze, 20 x 46 x 16 cm. Photo: reproduction

Idol, woman head and the two versions of painful smile (in marble and bronze) – all four produced around 1919 – show us Brecheret, fresh from his first European internship, a period of six years he spent in Rome in the studio of the Italian sculptor Arturo Dazzi.

If the “presence” of Dazzi is perceptible in the domain of form, it is clear, however, that already in that period Brecheret was looking for other parameters: while studying with Dazzi, he is attentive to the productions of the also Italians Adolpho Wildt and Arturo Martini, but they are above all the productions of Ivan Mestrovic, a Croatian sculptor with penetration in the international scene, those that sharpen his talent the most. In fact, Mestrovic seems to have been the main reference taken by Brecheret in his Roman training and in the short season he would spend in Brazil (1920/21), before moving to Paris.

Idol still bears witness to the artist’s early training: in her there persists the subjection to anatomy observed in traditional sculpture with a strong presence in Italy, although it can already be seen – especially in the torsion of the body and in the grooves produced by the emphasis on details – a certain eagerness in order to escape to the then more accepted conventions. In woman head, on the other hand, such anxiety is fully materialized, as Brecheret – more attentive to Mestrovic than to Dazzi – submits obedience to the conventions of artistic anatomy to the deformation of the figure, enlarging its neck and transforming the planes. in rutted areas, places where shadows form vehement lines.

In the two versions of painful smile, like Mestrovic’s work, there is a tendency towards an archaizing figuration, as a kind of repudiation of verista realism, still so present in Central European sculpture at the time, as well as a taste of neoclassical derivation, also still hegemonic. in that period. At that moment, references to the young Brecheret – especially in painful smile – it is pre-Renaissance sculpture, tainted, however, by a vigorous pathos expressive. Such references seek to dramatically recover/recreate that ancient tradition, emphasizing, on the one hand, the hieratic rigor of the forms, and, on the other hand, tensioning the wavy surfaces, concluded in lines of deep shadows, undecided between the ornamental and the obsessive.

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If the sculptures of the preceding segment have as a characteristic a kind of inner shudder that tends to undulate the planes, to furrow them with tragic shadows, virgin and the boy, explains sensitive changes in the way the artist began to position himself in relation to sculptural work. Far from the drama of the past, in this play we can see the sculptor finding a way to replace the theatricality that characterized his previous production with a hieratism stripped of any drama. On the contrary: there the planes open up serenely to the light and the volumes are linked together by delicate grooves in the matter, subtle lines that demarcate the boundaries between anatomical shapes and the limits between bodies. Even the suggestion of the drapery, of the toes and hands, and the waving of the main figure's hair, are subject to the gentle rhythm of an order that aspires to the timeless, always in search of what, for the German thinker Johann Joachin Winckelmann , distinguished Greek art: “[…] a noble simplicity and serene grandeur both in attitude and expression […]”[7].

Victor Brecheret, “Virgin and Child”, 1920s, bronze, 75 x 15 x 15 cm. Photo: reproduction

However, if in his “archaic” phase Brecheret invested in the planar dimension of his sculpture – almost entirely “in relief” – from the 1920s onwards this characteristic undergoes a subtle but powerful transformation, as it adds to that character an elliptical volumetry. , manifesting itself through modules[8].

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The researcher Daisy Peccinini, dealing with the French stage of Brecheret[9], notes that, in 1924, while on vacation on the border between France and Switzerland, the artist became interested in the natural forms found in those places, above all:

“… by the shapes of the pebbles, eroded by the force of the waters thousands of years ago. For an artist who had a strong inclination to make apology for nature, it was a decisive period in the evolution of his plastic, towards pure, organic and natural forms that he would explore, once in Brazil, in the phase of “stones” and art. indigenous people, from the mid-1940s onwards…”[10].

As the scholar attests, Brecheret's interest in those forms will play a leading role in his latest production. However, as early as the 1920s it was noticed that those oblong shapes that they made visible were translated into marble or bronze. It is these forms – which he may have noticed in nature from suggestions captured in the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi – that characterize part of his sculpture, between the middle of that decade and the next. virgin and the boy, already mentioned, as well as Diana Huntress (dec.1920) and The kiss, 1932, exemplify Brecheret's interest in these shapes that refer to stones rolled from the beds of rivers and seas.

On the other hand, the attention that Brancusi's work aroused in Brecheret does not seem to have stagnated in the fascination with the oblong form, but, going further, it also developed through the analogy that the Brazilian established between that form - when worked in linked models – and the configuration of the human body. This kind of bridge that Brecheret establishes between concatenated elliptical modules and the human body can be inferred in several of his works of the period, among them the already commented virgin and the boy, and at the top of perfume carrier, 1924, belonging to the collection of the Pinacoteca do Estado.

When, from the mid-1930s, the artist settled permanently in Brazil, it was noticed that, gradually, the elements that characterized the sculpture he produced in the 1920s improved even more, at the beginning of that decade to, then, and little by little, they are being replaced by other demands and other formal solutions.

If the 1930s end with Brecheret revising the great tradition of Western sculpture from the most recent examples of Bourdelle, Maioll and others – and female torso, from 1939, is an example of this effort –, the following decade will gradually imprint new directions on his trajectory that will reveal an originality hitherto unheard of in the three-dimensional environment of Brazil.

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Peccinini is right in emphasizing the 1940s as the period in which Brecheret will begin to explore rolled stones, and this for a crucial question: such action will no longer take place through an abstraction in which, as in the 1920s/30s, the The sculptor translated the original form of those stones into marble or bronze, transforming it into the bodies of goddesses, nymphs or saints. The operation he carried out from the 1940s onwards is unique in the field of modern art in Brazil: instead of representing in precious materials the noble simplicity and serene grandeur of rolled stones, the artist now appropriates them, seeking them in nature to interfere with them.

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Brazilian artistic historiography has not yet dedicated itself to reflecting on the meaning of this attitude of Brecheret, an action of high radicalism, even if we take as a basis not only the Brazilian scene of the mid-1940s, but also the international artistic environment of the period. After all, how to situate this attitude of the artist? What could have made it possible for him, if not to abandon marble and bronze, at least to attach to these duly recognized expressive means, the appropriation of rolled stones, also transforming them into means of expression? Why has due attention not yet been given to the fact that an artist like Brecheret has placed on the same level as his already duly institutionalized production, an object as commonplace – and therefore so foreign to “great art” – such as rolled stones? ?

From the appropriation of these stones, of these objects that no longer translate, but which are the very form created by nature for millennia, Brecheret will intervene in them from incisions that can only reveal designs suggested by time in the matter itself (India hidden by a big fish, 1947-48), or else, mixing these existing stimuli with willful incisions, create works such as The jaguar's fight with the anteater, 1947-48.

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Brecheret's work was forged within the framework of 20th century modernity, but always between fringes; first in much mingling with tradition; and already at the end of his life pointing to a contemporary understanding of art. Perhaps it was precisely moving within these diffuse borders that allowed him to produce, at the same time, works indebted to the European tradition, in its more debatable formulations, in parallel with other pieces in which conceptions can be noticed that put the interest in Brecheret on another level.

It is precisely because of this variety in the sculptor's production, with procedures and conceptions coming from different traditions, that he has been placed, by specialized critics, as a minor artist, an “eclectic”. As if this characteristic, seen in a negative way, was found only in him.

Not only in Brazil, but throughout the international scene, it is possible to find examples of artists who developed their respective works in different directions at the same time. And even if his biographers or specialists “edit” this supposed eclecticism when producing a retrospective or publication, this does not make it disappear and maintain its importance for the understanding of the work as a whole. As is the case with Brecheret's work.

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[1] – HEINICH, Natalie. The paradigm of contemporary art. Structures of an artistic revolution.Madrid: Casimiro Libros, 2017.
[2] – Idem, pgs. 54/55.
[3] – In the course of the book, the author will nuance these definitions.
[4] – For an introduction to this question, see: GRAMMONT, Guiomar de. Aleijadinho and the airplane. The baroque paradise and the construction of the colonial hero. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2008. It is also essential to read the Preface to this work, written by João Adolfo Jansen.
[5] – “Modernist Painting”, by Clement Greenberg. IN FERREIRA, Glória and COTRIM, Cecilia (org.). Clement Greenberg and the critical debate. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1997, p. 101,
[6] – For an introduction to the subject, read, by Craig Owens, “The allegorical impulse: toward a theory of postmodernism”, IN WALLIS, Brian (ed.). Art After Modernism: rethinking representation. New York/The New Museum of Contemporary Art; Boston, David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
[7] – WINCKELMANN, JJ Reflections on ancient art. Porto Alegre: Editora Movimento/Un. fed. Rio Grande do Sul, 1975, p. 53.
[8] – Although this is not the appropriate space for analyzes on the structures of Victor Brecheret's plastic thought, I register here that, if during the 1910s, the artist worked on the sculptural object always confined between two planes - within the standards theorized by the sculptor and theorist German Adolf Von Hildebrand – it seems that during the 1920s, alongside the continuity of this model, Brecheret, in several of his productions, would place a cylinder between these two planes. That is, in many of his works, the sculptural object emerges from a closed cylinder between two planes. Such a cylinder will normally be sectioned into parts by the artist to create a succession of ovoid volumes.
[9] – The “French internship at Brecheret” takes place between 1921 and 1932, when the artist will live in Paris with occasional visits to São Paulo.
[10] – PECCININI, Daisy. Op. Cit. page 67/68. In a note (page 68), the author cites a statement by the sculptor to journalist Luis Martins, from 1939, in which he claims to have taken to Paris some specimens of stones found on his vacations. Later, in the same text, Peccinini will once again emphasize Brecheret’s interest in stones and rocks, reporting – according to the testimony of Simone Bordat (then the sculptor’s companion) – the trips that the artist and friends made to the coast of Corsica and Brittany, places where the sculptor also dedicated himself to admiring the rock formations of the regions (on. cit. page 115 et seq.).

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