Recently, New York museums have presented retrospectives of all three of the most influential artists of Brazil’s postwar avant-garde. Lygia Clark, with her hinged-metal sculptures you can fiddle with at will, filled the top floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Lygia Pape, known for bold, participative performances and sculptures of iridescent gold filaments, appeared at the Met Breuer. And Hélio Oiticica was the man of the hour this summer at the Whitney, live birds and all.
The generation that set the stage for them, however — the one that established Modern art in Brazil in the early 1920s — has received less attention here. You’ll have to go back to the Guggenheim’s 2001 blockbuster “Brazil: Body and Soul” for the last big-ticket appearance of Modernist painters like Emiliano di Cavalcanti, Cândido Portinari and, above all, Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973): the most popular artist of the last century in her home country, but still little known in the United States. Her mature paintings, featuring oversize bodies in flowing, stylized landscapes, provoked the modern Brazilian penchant for antropofagia, or “cannibalism,” that Clark, Oiticica and Pape would all draw from. In the art of Tarsila (like a Brazilian soccer star, she is always called by her first name), Brazil found a new cultural confidence that said goodbye to European envy and consumed Western, African and indigenous influences with equal relish.
“Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil,” a belated but very welcome exhibition at the Modern, at last introduces New York audiences to the painter who, more than any of her contemporaries, forged a Modernist vocabulary for the country’s art. Trained in Paris, enamored of rural Brazil, Tarsila moved quickly from folksy, idealized depictions of the New World to a brawny, confident biomorphism. Her three most important paintings have all been united in this show: “A Negra” and “Antropofagia,” on loan from museums in São Paulo, and “Abaporu,” which has traveled from Buenos Aires. (This show appeared last year at the Art Institute of Chicago; it was organized by Luis Pérez-Oramas, who recently stepped down as MoMA’s curator of Latin American art, and Stephanie D’Alessandro, now at the Met but previously at the Art Institute.)
Tarsila was born into a family of wealthy landowners on a coffee plantation outside São Paulo in 1886 — two years before the end of slavery in Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish it. She received an art education in São Paulo, but she found the instruction traditionalist, so she left for Paris in 1920. There she learned from Fernand Léger, whose bold colors and rounded figures would be decisive for her mature art. There is much of Léger in a 1923 academy (or nude figure study) of Tarsila’s, in which the sitter’s contoured flesh pops against a backdrop of blue, green and beige.
Paris had left her “contaminated by revolutionary ideas,” Tarsila later wrote, and, while still abroad, she would soon redeploy her French lessons in the service of a new Brazilian art. Her 1923 breakthrough, “A Negra” — “The Black Woman,” in English, though Brazilian racial taxonomies are quite different from American ones — pictures its nude subject sitting cross-legged, and her oversize feet, complete with toes of childlike chubbiness, take up much of the bottom of the composition. Her body is flattened; her right breast droops over her crossed arm; and her lips are so large that they run right off her face. Her flesh is a rusty orange, which darkens at the edges, as in Léger’s paintings. And note the background: an abstract arrangement of cool-colored stripes, indebted to Brazilian textiles but also to new European painting.
For contemporary audiences in New York, now hyper-attuned to white artists’ use and misuse of black bodies, “A Negra” will pose the toughest challenge in this exhibition. But context is critical here. In 1923, for a trained artist to imagine a black woman as the embodiment of a new national spirit would have constituted a direct attack on the old, wannabe-European establishment of Rio and São Paulo. (We might add that Modern artists in 1920s Paris were besotted with African and Native American art, precisely what the Brazilian bourgeoisie disdained.) The Modernist tropes of “A Negra,” with its scrambling of scales and its simplified graphics, were to be the building blocks for the art of a multiracial society.