From São Paulo to Paris and Back Again
Tarsila do Amaral
At the closure of Tarsila do Amaral’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP) at the end of July 2019, a total of 402,850 visitors had viewed the exhibition (fig. 1). Tarsila Popular thus fittingly became the most visited show in the museum’s history, displacing a 1997 Monet blockbuster. The show had followed shortly upon the well-received Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, the first monographic exhibition of the painter in the United States, which was co-organized by the Chicago Art Institute (October 8, 2017–January 7, 2018) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (February 11–June 3, 2018). This recent spotlight on the Brazilian artist joins a series of institutional efforts to make modernism more global by emphasizing previously overlooked geographies and artists’ mobility between different parts of the globe.
As part of this expansion of modernism, scholars from both hemispheres have often cited Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) as the quintessential example of a transatlantic Latin American artist. As histories of her career inevitably point out, she would study in Paris in 1923 with such masters of cubism as Fernand Léger (1881–1955), Albert Gleizes (1881–1953), and André Lhote (1885–1962)—influences that both she and her critics have identified as fundamental to what would become her modernist style. The painter herself further singled out the year 1923, when she produced the cubist work A Negra in Paris, as the most important of her career. What most accounts fail to note, however, is that do Amaral, or Tarsila, as she is often referred to, had been first exposed to modernism in São Paulo a year earlier, in 1922, when her peer and friend Anita Malfatti (1889–1964) introduced her to the modernist crowd in the most populous city in South America. It was also during this time in São Paulo that the artist met the writer Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954), who would become her husband. In Brazil, she and Oswald would start the Anthropophagic movement in 1928, which has since been widely recognized as inaugurating a postcolonial approach toward culture in the country.
Anthropophagy, whose origins can be arguably traced to one of Tarsila’s canvases, Abapuru (1928), was inspired by the country’s colonial history. Just as the indigenous natives had allegedly cannibalized European colonizers, its proponents claimed, so should Brazilian intellectuals “devour” Europe, taking what was most culturally nutritious from the old continent. By purposely self-representing local intellectuals as cannibals, anthropophagy granted greater agency to South American artists and thus inverted power relations between center and periphery. Tarsila’s production of the 1920s, which comprises her celebrated Pau-Brasil (1924–1928) and Antropofagia phases (1928–1930), and was inspired by native topics and childhood memories, was extremely successful in her home country and abroad. It clearly pleased an audience eager to consume images of “Brazilianity” on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit for different purposes. While European modernists appreciated depictions of locality that could fit into the broader umbrella of primitivism, Brazilians were interested in creating a national modernity that could be viewed as authentic and freestanding.
This article’s analysis of Tarsila’s 1920s transatlantic travels is intended to redirect our understanding of modernism, which is normally presented as radiating from Europe to America. To do so, it will first focus on the close collaboration between Tarsila and Oswald in the shaping of anthropophagy as a national and international cultural insertion strategy. As the first two sections argue, a careful look at the influence of the couple’s transatlantic mobility on their vision of “Brazil” forces us to reconsider predominant understandings of primitivism and persistent concerns about the derivativeness of Latin American art. Finally, the last section examines how the subsequent international promotion of cultural cannibalism in the late 1990s has also made it a contemporaneous tool for the global insertion of southern perspectives into canonical art history.
From São Paulo to Paris: Modernization
Born to wealthy coffee plantation owners two years before the abolition of slavery in Brazil, Tarsila do Amaral spent the first years of her childhood on her family’s farms in the interior of the state of São Paulo. As expected for a woman from the Brazilian elite, she was later sent to a Catholic boarding school in Barcelona to complete her education. Back in São Paulo, in 1917 she studied with the Brazilian painter Pedro Alexandrino, famous for his naturalistic still-lifes, and two years later took lessons with George Fischer Elpons, a figurative German artist based in São Paulo. She then returned again to Europe, living in Paris from 1920 to 1922, where she studied at the Académie Julian and under the painter and engraver Émile Renard. Coming back to Brazil at the age of 35, she had produced only a few postimpressionist paintings, one of which—Portrait of a Woman (1922), which presents its sitter with broad brushstrokes in a tamed bluish palette—had been exhibited at the conventional 135th Salon of the Société des Artistes Français.
Arriving in São Paulo in June of 1922, she missed by a few months the groundbreaking Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week). Although that three-day gathering of poets, musicians, and artists was in many ways a notorious fiasco, it operates as a self-ascribed benchmark in the intellectual history of Brazil’s modernist movement. Missing the experience but not its repercussions, Tarsila rapidly mingled with the modernist crowd and joined fellow painter Anita Malfatti and three writers, Oswald de Andrade, Menotti Del Picchia (1892–1988), and Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), in what became known as O Grupo dos Cinco (the Group of Five). All four other members of the group had taken part in the Semana and were involved in the publication of the vanguard magazine Klaxon (1922/23), which printed poems, texts, artworks, and music, embracing the dynamism of the city of São Paulo visually and thematically. As part of their entourage, Tarsila gained her first sustained contact with modern art and avant-garde artists, collaborating in the pages of Klaxon and painting portraits of the local modernist intelligentsia.
Less than a year after she had been introduced to modernismo in São Paulo, however, Tarsila decided to return to Europe to hone her newly acquired modern identity under the aegis of the Parisian avant-garde. She was imitating the historical route of intellectuals from the colonial periphery to cultural capitals, reflecting the position of many Latin American artists in the twentieth century—unsure of their own cultural background, feeling compelled to catch up with and be validated by the center. Like much of Latin America in the 1920s, Brazil was eager to create a cultural nationalism of its own. Despite gaining their independence in the nineteenth century, postcolonial republics in Latin America still faced economic and cultural dependence on colonial powers. In this precarious cultural position, artists and writers had no obvious alternative forms of national self-expression they could embrace, especially because, unlike European nations, heterogeneous ex-colonies like Brazil lacked unifying cultural myths in their folklore, literature, and visual arts. Attempting to build a national culture in a former colony still reliant on foreign nations politically, economically, and culturally, local modernist artists thus faced a dual challenge: how to create an art that would visually represent Brazil while simultaneously being accepted as modern by the European avant-garde.
Arriving in the French capital in 1923, Tarsila and Oswald cunningly deployed their families’ fortunes and a self-ascribed exoticism as part of their transformation into representatives of this new modern Brazil. Smoking cornhusk cigarettes while dressed by the French couturier Paul Poiret (1879–1944), Tarsila carefully fashioned herself as a sophisticated version of Brazilianity. The couple, baptized “Tarsiwald” in an eponymous poem by their friend Mário de Andrade, epitomized the Brazilian high bourgeoisie of 1920s, who, due to their influence, were in a position to consolidate both national and international perceptions of Brazil. As part of the couple’s modernization project, Tarsila rented a studio in Montmartre, where she mingled with artists and intellectuals, started to offer “Brazilian dinners” to a select crowd, and gathered a collection of modern masterpieces, including works by Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), and Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), that she would later bring to Brazil as examples of the modern art she advocated.
Consciously aware of the challenge of fashioning an image of Brazil that would resonate on both sides of the Atlantic, Tarsila described her new career ambitions in a letter sent to her family from Paris, dated April 19, 1923. In it, the painter presented an updated version of her modernist identity:
I feel myself ever more Brazilian. I want to be the painter of my country. How grateful I am for having spent all my childhood on the farm. The memories of these times have become precious for me. I want, in art, to be the little girl from São Bernardo, playing with straw dolls, like in the last painting I am working on…. Do not think that this tendency is viewed negatively here. On the contrary. What they want here is that each one brings the contribution of his own country. This explains the success of the Russian ballet, Japanese graphics, and black music. Paris has had enough of Parisian art.
As Tarsila noted, a particular vision of Brazil, one more akin to a rural heaven than to the urban São Paulo extolled in Klaxon, was at the time highly valued in Paris, a city that had fallen in love with primitivism in the late nineteenth century. Therefore, to be accepted as a modern artist in Europe required a reconfiguration of her ideas of modernism first acquired in São Paulo. The adoption of primitivism meant that, once in Paris, Tarsila would embrace aspects of Brazilian culture associated with the countryside and the mixed-race population that were not representative of either the culture of the urban elite or the rural aristocracy. Primitivism became an essential cultural strategy for many cosmopolitan members of the Latin American diaspora, because it did not represent something from their local cultures that had to be rejected from their work to be valorized by the Parisian avant-garde. While European artists interested in primitivism had to resort to foreign appropriations filtered through colonialism, Tarsila could draw inspiration from her native country, as her memories of a rural childhood had the potential to be avidly consumed in Paris, and to make cultural interchanges among vanguard artists more symmetrical. As Tarsila and Oswald would soon realize, the same images of Brazil were also likely to be welcomed in their homeland by an urban elite who associated folklore with a more accurate and authentic representation of Brazil than urban depictions of the country.
In the painting A Negra, produced in what, as noted, she later identified as the watershed year of 1923, Tarsila combined modernist aesthetics with a Brazilian theme legible to the European avant-garde (fig. 2). The simplified but still easily recognizable figure of a black woman dominates the canvas, resembling an African mask. The avant-gardism of the work can also be seen in its background, which is flattened into horizontal colored stripes, and in the geometrizing of the banana leaf that appears in the preparatory drawings of the work into a green diagonal in the painting (fig. 3). Although the nakedness, passivity, and exhausted expression of the figure signal the violence of slavery, until recently most interpretations of the work examined it simply as an abstraction, resulting in historically and culturally decontextualized readings. By de-emphasizing the representational aspects in A Negra that Tarsila herself suggested by saying that the work was inspired by her recollections of ex-slaves, such readings were consistent with the then-dominant interpretation of the African art that inspired it as an embodiment of primeval forces, or with the theory promoted by members of Tarsila and Oswald’s circle in the 1940s, that Brazil was becoming a racial democracy through the process of mestiçagem, or racial mixing.
Filtered through these theories, A Negra could be praised as modern in Paris while representing a new vision of Brazilianity at home—a vision that was consistent with ongoing efforts to fabricate a myth of a racially inclusive country, erase the experience of slavery, and assign a mostly symbolic cultural role to Afro-Brazilians. Read through a formalist vein that overlooks the representational aspects of the work, the painting epitomizes a modernist Brazil and anticipates the style that Tarsila would develop in close collaboration with Oswald as part of the anthropophagic movement later in the decade, and can be seen as the start of their mutual influence. Indeed, uncritically viewed through the lenses of primitivism and mestiçagem, the canvas appears to complement Oswald’s “L’Effort Intellectual du Brésil Contemporain,” a talk he delivered on May 11, 1923, at Sorbonne University, shortly after he followed Tarsila to Paris.
Oswald’s presentation addressed the origins of modern art in Brazil and emphasized the influence of African and indigenous elements in Brazilian culture. By underscoring these features, the writer simultaneously endorsed the Parisian valorization of so-called primitive cultures and of national specificities. What is more, he also participated in the ongoing Brazilian attempt to assign a positive value to miscegenation. The two Brazilian artists who Oswald explicitly identified as representatives of primitivism in the visual arts were Tarsila and the sculptor Victor Brecheret (1894–1955), who had taken part in the Semana and was also in Paris at the time. Oswald’s assertion that these artists possessed such qualities of primitive artists as vigor and intuition, intended to qualify both as modernists in Paris, in fact obscured their actual origins. Tarsila, whom Oswald identified as the painter of la force nègre, belonged to the rural aristocracy, whose fortunes had been based on slave labor, and Brecheret had incorporated African influences into his work only after meeting the European sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), who was a frequent presence at Tarsila’s Montmartre dinners. As Oswald realized, it was by stressing Brazil’s primitive qualities rather than its growing urbanization that Brazilian modernists would be able to contribute to and partake in modernism abroad.
From Paris to São Paulo: Pau-Brasil and Antropofagia
Tarsila and Oswald returned to Brazil in December 1923. The main purpose of this homecoming was to search for inspiration for her next paintings, which should emphasize the local qualities of the country. Tarsila stated this goal in a letter to her family: “I hope to spend as much time as I can at the farm and to bring in my return a lot of Brazilian themes.” Whereas during her 1922 trip to Brazil the artist had discovered modernism while immersing herself in the cultural life of urban São Paulo, after briefly training under the Parisian avant-garde her purpose now was to depict the local with the techniques she had learned in Paris. Besides stays at her family’s farm, this 1924 sojourn included visits to Rio de Janeiro to experience Carnival and to historic colonial cities in the state of Minas Gerais.
During this nine-month stay, which Oswald called their “discovery of Brazil,” Tarsila’s work included a few urban landscapes rendered in a cubist style that incorporated distinctively local elements, like the colonial church, some colored huts, and the palm trees at the far right of E.F.C.B. (The Railway Station, 1924), which portrayed São Paulo’s main train station. The majority of her new productions, however, represented a more vernacular Brazil. The work Morro da Favela (Hills of the Favela, 1924) is typical of these new works and was a key element in securing Tarsila’s Parisian exhibition at the modernist Galerie Percier in 1926 (fig. 4).
Morro da Favela presents a romantic view of Rio’s first shantytown, located in downtown Rio on a hill close to Valongo, the former slave market. This setting was inhabited mostly by a destitute black population that had been removed from the rapidly gentrifying city center. Yet nothing in the painting associates these ramshackle houses with the consequences of rapid modernization or suggests poverty, racism, or violence. Tarsila animates the provincial-looking landscape composed of colorful huts and tropical plants with six figures and two animals. Although the figures’ facial elements are absent, the blackness of their skin connotes their Brazilianity. Like her cubist masters, Tarsila constructed the landscape by juxtaposing elements vertically and avoiding linear perspective. The predominant pinks and greens of the canvas were inspired by Brazil’s countrified taste and are rendered flat, serving as an index of locality and modernity at the same time.
Writing about her participation in the creation of Brazilian modernism in 1939, Tarsila named this body of work, painted in Brazil to be shown in Paris, Pau-Brasil (Brazilwood). She intended this not as a direct reference to the precious wood for which the country was named but to Oswald’s “Manifesto de Poesia Pau-Brasil,” which he published in a Brazilian newspaper shortly after experiencing Rio’s Carnival. This poem, written in a telegraphic, modern style, called for a new poetry that would be naïve like a child, which he termed “Pau-Brasil Poetry, for exportation.” In this attempt to recruit local artists to participate in this movement, Oswald argued that the intelligentsia should invert the traditional route in which ex-colonies supply natural resources and import industrialized goods by not merely providing “raw material” to be appropriated by Europe—as in Picasso’s use of African art, for example—but by actively contributing to a transatlantic dialogue by producing form as well as content. Tarsila’s new paintings that rendered Brazilian landscapes in sophisticated cubist style clearly fit this bill.
The “Manifesto de Poesia Pau-Brasil” and Tarsila’s new work can both be seen as attempts to concretize the cosmopolitan Brazilianity that Oswald had first preached when he called Brazilian primitivism an “intellectual effort” at the Sorbonne. Just as Tarsila’s Morro da Favela presented an idyllic scenario in which black bodies and cactus represented Brazilianity, Oswald’s poetic call to action idealized shantytowns and tropical nature using the avant-garde literary genre of the manifesto. Therefore, both Tarsila’s and Oswald’s Brazilwood production resulted from a synthesis between local themes and avant-garde techniques—a hybrid style already demonstrated in A Negra that the couple would further develop during their anthropophagic period. The outcome of this fusion of vernacular theme and international style was a national and modern art that could be exported as a refined cosmopolitan and yet indigenous production.
The assimilation of local motifs and avant-garde forms advocated in the couple’s work suggested a method for the construction of a cosmopolitan mode of national production that Oswald would more radically theorize in his 1928 “Manifesto Antropófago.” This manifesto ensured his position as one of the country’s major intellectuals and created an indelible image of Brazil represented by Tarsila’s Antropofagia phase. Indeed, the painter later described the anthropophagic movement as deriving from one of her canvases, Abaporu, which she had created for Oswald’s birthday (fig. 5). In Tarsila’s telling of this event, she explains that “abaporu” means cannibal in the Tupi indigenous language (ABA: man, PORU: eater), a term created by Oswald and the poet Raul Bopp (1898–1984) with the help of a dictionary. She continued,
The anthropophagic movement of 1928 had its origin in a work of mine that was titled Abaporu, anthropophagus. A solitary monstrous figure with huge feet sat in a green lane, a folded arm resting on the knee, a hand sustaining the weightless minuscule head. In front of this figure, a cactus explodes into an absurd flower. This canvas was drafted in January 11, 1928. Oswald de Andrade and Raul Bopp—the creator of the infamous Cobra Norato poem—stood in shock in front of Abaporu and contemplated it at great length. Imaginative as they were, they believed that from there could stem a great intellectual movement.
Tarsila’s narrative supports the important role her work played in the development of Oswald’s intellectual trajectory and the strong and direct interconnection between anthropophagy and the visual arts. Indeed, a drawing of the monstrous figure was chosen to illustrate the 1928 manifesto that Oswald published in the first issue of the eponymous avant-garde journal he edited, Revista de Antropofagia. Although the landscape of Abaporu, with its cactus exploding into an absurd flower, is definitely tropical, it does not portray the local vernacular through cubist forms as in her Pau-Brasil phase. Instead demonstrating a clearly surrealist inspiration, the work inaugurated the anthropophagic phase of the painter’s work, which she would continue to develop until 1930.
Artfully constructing the concept of “native primitivism” to represent Brazil’s original contribution to modern culture, the anthropophagic movement appropriated the figure of the cannibal to portray Brazilians as passionate, creative, spontaneous, and vital—thereby stressing their possession of characteristics already associated with the European avant-garde trope of the primitive. Simultaneously, however, the figure of the cannibal also represented resistance to Europe’s civilizing mission and a critique of the violence inseparable from the colonial process. For Oswald and Tarsila, cannibalism became a sign of agency, autonomy from Europe, and an intentionally adopted primitive identity. Concerned primarily with matters of legitimation of their art at home and abroad during this period, the couple attempted to dismantle the implicit cultural hierarchy contained in such binary tropes as savage/civilized that were commonly used to justify colonial enterprises, but without implying a blind rejection of Europe. To reassess these power relations, Oswald cunningly used modernist strategies to assert the primacy of the new Brazilian vanguard. On the occasion of a visit by the surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, for example, he wrote in the Revista de Antropofagia,
Let us not forget that Surrealism is one of the best pre-anthropophagic movements. The liberation of men as such, through the utterances of the unconscious and turbulent personal expressions, was undoubtedly one of the most thrilling spectacles for any anthropophagous heart that followed the despair of civilization in recent years. […] After Surrealism, only Anthropophagy.
Here Oswald describes anthropophagy not as a derivative but superior version of a European movement, one better able to solve the problems of an over-civilized world from its subaltern vantage position in the Global South. By choosing the manifesto as a form to promote his ideas, Oswald also allied the Brazilian avant-garde with their foreign peers on equal terms. Tarsila, by using cubist and surrealist vocabularies to compose her work, similarly guaranteed that she would be viewed as a modern representative of Brazil, nationally and internationally. Indeed, she exhibited Abaporu in Paris in 1928, under the name of Nu (Nude), during her second solo exhibition at Galerie Percier, and later in Brazil under its original indigenous name. In 1929, shortly after the creation of anthropophagy, the painter and Oswald separated, ending their artistic and amorous partnership but not the lasting influence of their work on Latin American thought and art.
From São Paulo to the World: Anthropophagy as a Method
By constituting a method that could be systematically applied and then exported, anthropophagy had provided Brazilian cultural production with a new status as modern. The metaphor of the intellectual as a cannibal allowed artists and critics to understand hybrid artworks as national and original. This affirmation of hybridism as symbolizing a modernist Brazil, while very much a product of its times, also made anthropophagy relevant to several later moments in the country’s cultural history. It was cited, for instance, to support Hélio Oiticica’s statement against purity in his 1968 Tropicália installation and the use of electric guitars in Brazilian popular music in the movement of the same name, as well as alluded to in the title of Lygia Clark’s 1973 performance Baba Antropofágica (Anthropophagic Drool), which blended art and therapy.
The notion of anthropophagy was inserted into the larger global art world by Paulo Herkenhoff in 1998, when he chose it as the curatorial theme of the 24th São Paulo Biennial. Anthropophagy, which had by then become widely recognized in Brazil as a means of creating a modern cultural identity, offered a fitting strategy for a biennial whose historical mission had been to modernize the local arts and make transatlantic exchanges more symmetrical. By employing anthropophagy as a curatorial method, Herkenhoff’s intention was to present a non-Eurocentric version of art history in the most important exhibition in South America, and thereby end the lingering implication that artists in Brazil and other non-European countries still needed to catch up with the latest artistic trends.
In the original plan for the 24th São Paulo Biennial, the Brazilian curator had intended to employ anthropophagy only in the specific exhibition named Historical Nucleus. In order to introduce invited international curators working in adjacent exhibitions at the biennial to the concept of anthropophagy, Herkenhoff distributed Oswald’s 1928 manifesto and an institutional release describing anthropophagy as an ongoing “model for cultural practice” as well as an “open and dynamic” concept bearing multiple aspects: “non-Manichean, deconstructive, transcultural, and appropriationist.”
One of these parallel exhibitions featured fifty contemporary artists coming from seven regions of the world, each of which was intended to be presented independently and thereby provide “areas of dialogue, clash, and friction among the several ‘regional’ exhibitions, thus integrating the entire segment globally.” The team of curators responsible for this collective show decided to also use the notion of anthropophagy to privilege the work of artists from underrepresented areas within their regions and named the show Roteiros (routes) repeated seven times, quoting from Oswald’s 1928 manifesto (fig. 6). In the context of the 24th São Paulo Biennial, therefore, anthropophagy came to signify the inclusion of marginal voices and to operate on the political behalf of peripheral geographical zones, including Latin America as a whole. In the context of the 1990s, following the advent of postcolonial and decolonial studies in academia, and after seminal publications like James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture (1988) and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), art professionals thus engaged anthropophagy as a transnational method rather than as a national concept tethered to Brazilianity.
Born as a way to legitimize Tarsila and Oswald’s production as both avant-garde and national, and later employed to present an alternative account of the sources and spread of modernism, anthropophagy thus also offers international curators a framework for actively incorporating previously peripheral local histories, political perspectives, and artistic contributions into the predominant art historical discourse. By so doing, anthropophagy proposes a way not only to make curatorial discourses more plural but also to expand current understandings of modernism. An anthropophagous perspective dictates that contributions of creators and thinkers outside traditional art centers not be marginalized or dismissed as “derivative,” but digested together with canonical discourses to create a more vital and cross-fertilized art history. It also inverts the traditional view of primitivism by giving a dynamic and creative role to “cannibals,” who now are responsible for artistic representation rather than merely the objects of it. As an insertion strategy, therefore, anthropophagy reminds us that processes of artistic and intellectual influences are more bilateral than previously thought, and that modernism in the visual arts is a multidirectional, global phenomenon. As Tarsila herself declared in a 1928 interview, “The modern movement is global and cannot be otherwise, in an age of omnipresent life.”