Alike, but not the Same:

The Reenactment of Lina Bo Bardi’s Display for the São Paulo Museum of Art (1968–2015)

Sabrina Moura

Opened to the public at the end of 2015, the exhibition Picture Gallery in Transformation at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) has as its concept the resumption of the display model conceived in 1968 by the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992).[1] Comprising glass easels held by concrete blocks irregularly installed in the museum’s second-floor gallery, her expography played with the transparency and the permeability of its devices, rejecting a unidirectional pathway that would guide the audience through the museum space. This installation followed the principles of the display the architect had conceived in 1947 for the previous MASP venue. These included the separation of the works from the walls, the refusal of chronology, and hierarchical associations between objects. “The collection is not displayed according to a chronological criterion; it is presented with the aim of producing a shock that awakens the [audience’s] curiosity and investigative skills,” said Bo Bardi at the time.[2]

While subverting traditional expography, the architect’s gesture toward the MASP project encompasses a series of postwar debates and innovative experiences in rationalist Italian architecture, coupled with Bo Bardi’s exhibition projects in the Northeast Region of Brazil. Her reading of such experiences challenged the sacralization of the museum space and privileged its function as a site of knowledge production. However, despite its radical nature, Bardi’s display structure at the MASP was disassembled in the 1990s, remaining out of the public eye for about two decades.

For the current MASP director, Adriano Pedrosa (appointed in 2014), the idea of reenacting the museum’s permanent collection according to Bo Bardi’s project was a way of diving into the institution’s past in order to envisage its future. To Pedrosa, Bo Bardi’s display model has a “decolonizing power that breaks with a Eurocentric narrative” in art history.[3] Although such arguments make sense in light of recent revisions in the field, it is important to historically situate the political dimensions that differentiate such display strategies between 1968 and 2015. How did Lina Bo Bardi challenge traditional templates of collection display in the 1960s? Which museological practices are at stake in the 2010s? What are the implications of the contemporary readings of Bo Bardi’s modernity, and what do they reveal about the debates on the museum’s function during these decades?

  • Fig. 1. Installation view of Lina Bo Bardi’s display for the MASP in the 1970s. Credit: Miroslav Javurek / MASP Archive.

  • Fig. 2. Installation view of the Picture Gallery in Transformation exhibit, MASP (2015). Credit: MASP Archive.

The Bardis’ museological project

To better understand the context in which the expographic production of Lina Bo Bardi emerges and how it inscribed in the museological field in the second half of the twentieth century, it is necessary to go back to the 1940s, when the architect left Italy with her husband, the journalist and art dealer Pietro Maria Bardi (1900–1999). Differing in their political views but tied by an unexpected affinity in their visions of art and architecture—Pietro being inclined to fascism in his youth, while Lina Bo had her practice strongly marked by communist ideals—the couple landed in Brazil in 1946 to present an exhibition of ancient Italian painting at the Ministry of Education and Health (Rio de Janeiro). Soon they came to the attention of communications tycoon Assis Chateaubriand, who intended to found a new museum of ancient and modern art. Chatô, as he was known, invited Bardi to devise and direct the museum, who chose to do it in close dialogue with his wife, Lina Bo.[4]

The first version of the museum was inaugurated in 1947, and it was named by Pietro Maria Bardi as the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, an art museum tout court, without any reference to the content of its collection. This choice was based on the refusal of any artistic classification—such as modern or ancient—that would restrict or chronologically categorize what was shown at the venue. Occupying the second floor of a commercial building located in the city center, the MASP Sete de Abril, as it became known, opened its doors with a comprehensive program that featured practical and theoretical courses, as well as temporary and permanent exhibitions showcasing its collection of European art.[5]

Financed by donations from the local aristocracy, MASP’s permanent collection was initially formed by Italian Renaissance pieces. In the 1950s it came to integrate works by acclaimed European painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Jean-August Renoir, as well as Brazilian modernists, including Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti, and Vicente do Rego Monteiro, among others.[6] Its impressive growth was not only fostered by the prices of artworks during the postwar period, but especially also by Bardi’s expertise in the international art market and Chateaubriand’s negotiation skills. Their efforts respond to a clear desire to place the museum as the holder of the “most comprehensive” collection of Western art in Latin America—a label that has been continuously restated by the institution until today.[7]

It is worth noting that the context in which the collection was formed corresponds to a moment of economic growth in Brazil, driven by industrialization and radical changes in the composition of its population, which in turn became increasingly urban. Under the developmentalist agenda of President Juscelino Kubitschek, the 1950s witnessed the construction of Brasília and the emergence of the modernism of Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. While the museological project of the MASP was inscribed in this context, it also encompassed the discussions about the new functions of museums in the postwar era carried out by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and its Museum journal between 1940 and 1950. Under these circumstances, museums as places of memory represented not only a key institutional setting for the reconstruction of cities, but also the new urban models that emerged then.

To begin with, what was the status of museums when the war ended? How did this long interruption affect them? … Museums were no longer merely places of conservation but very active establishments which, through their educational programs and exhibitions displaying objects in their re-created contexts, ensured that they played a role in everyday life, whereas before, they existed primarily in the context of the past.[8]

The emphasis on the educational function of the museum was a critical matter at the time. Contemplated by the MASP project, these issues were reviewed by Pietro Maria Bardi in a series of reports about his experience as the institution’s director, including L’experience didactique du Museu de Arte de São Paulo (1948) and Musées hors des limites (1951).[9] In tune with the guidelines adopted by UNESCO, Bardi discussed the need to create an institutional agenda that could rely on training and dissemination programs, in addition to collection building and preservation.[10] This perspective guided the MASP project throughout Bardi’s direction, and it was based on the idea of some sort of a didactic “civilizing mission” that brought the museum’s role closer to that of a cultural center, or what he called a “counter-museum.”

We didn’t want the arts to be preserved by an old 18th century museum, the way we all know, but by a museum “school of life” where things should be represented by their classical content, in other words, by their true, persuasively, modern, eternal [character]…. In this anti-museum, the history of painting, for instance, could instigate the same interest as a theatre spectacle and certainly the audience would be amused. … If the intellectuals recognize that a new era opens out and that a revolution is about to happen, the revolution of culture, then the educational question will occupy a foreground position: and our museum—or counter-museum, as we like to call it—will be considered.[11]

While distancing themselves from the contemplative museum of European origination, the Bardis were interested in the educational orientation of American museums. Lina Bo Bardi, in particular, saw in these experiences important references, whose strength derived from the contents “that the school could not teach: the awareness to creative activities and the consciousness about historical facts.”[12] This perspective echoes the opening statement of Habitat magazine,[13] written in 1951 by the architect, in which she discusses the social function of museums.[14] In this text Bo Bardi reiterates the educational character of the MASP Sete de Abril and elaborates on the architectural and expographic principles that guided her work in the 1950s. At this venue, elements such as the separation of the works from the walls, the refusal of display adornments and the preference for neutral frames could already be identified.

Such display principles rehearsed the desire for the desacralization of the arts that would be subsequently radicalized with the conception of the crystal easels for the new premises that the MASP came to occupy at Avenida Paulista in 1968. To Bo Bardi, it was important that the space assumed a flexible character, neutral and non-hierarchical, allowing an arrangement of works that elicited a less passive stance from the observer. While freely transiting through the works, the viewer could build his/her own narrative about the exhibition, liberated from the constraints imposed by an elitist view of art.

They do not say, therefore, you must admire Rembrandt, but leave to the viewer a pure and unguarded observation, guided only by the captions, descriptive from a point of view that eliminates the exaltation to be critically rigorous.[15]

From Milan to Salvador: a formative trajectory

Such an expographic perspective must be understood beyond the framework of the projects carried out by Lina Bo Bardi in São Paulo. Indeed, it represents a continuity of her first exhibition incursions in Milan (1946), along with the projects undertaken during the period in which the architect lived in Salvador de Bahia, between 1958 and 1966.[16]

Fig. 3. Franco Albini’s expography for the Palazzo Bianco, Genoa (1949). Credit: Fondazione Franco Albini.

To better understand this trajectory, it is necessary to go back to the exhibition experiences designed by Italian rationalist architects from the 1930s and 1940s, discussed by Carlo Giulio Argan in Renovation of Museums in Italy (1952). To Argan, the end of the war placed Italian museums in a dilemma: the need to preserve their previous structures and the urgency for new spaces dedicated to training, education, and experimentation of modern techniques of display.[17] Among the exponents of this perspective were some projects by the architect Franco Albini, such as the show of painter Gino Bonichi (known as Scipione) at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan (1941), and the renovation of the museum of the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa (1949), carried out in collaboration with its director, Caterina Marcenaro.

Initially restricted to exhibitions of a propagandist nature, the Italian rationalist architects constructed an approach to the concept applied to exhibitions during the years following the end of the war in visual arts shows and the mounting of museum exhibitions. … It was via Italy that the exhibition concepts of the avant-garde of European abstract art arrived in Brazil with the husband and wife team of Lina Bo and Pietro Maria Bardi in the MASP’s construction.[18]

By the end of the 1950s, Lina Bo Bardi had moved to Salvador, where she became director of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia. During this period she conceived the architectural project of the new MASP venue, among other pioneering exhibits, such as Bahia no Ibirapuera (1959) and Civilização do Nordeste (1963). Idealized in partnership with theater director Martim Gonçalves and presented during the 5th São Paulo Biennial, the first introduced a whole universe of popular demonstrations and practices linked to the Bahia and Northeast Brazil, while claiming their reading through a non-hierarchical view of culture. Installed under the marquee of the Ibirapuera Park—part of an architectural complex conceived by Oscar Niemeyer—the show featured a theatrical setting composed of surrounding curtains, “a tent ceiling to diffuse the light… and a floor covered with eucalyptus leaves, referencing the Candomblé rituals.”[19] This “theatrical immersive environment,” as Giancarlo Latorraca puts it, or “scenic architecture,” as Lina Bo Bardi defined it, was the basis of one of the inaugural exhibitions of the MASP Paulista, A Mão do Povo Brasileiro (1969).[20] Conceived by Gonçalves and Bo Bardi, along with Pietro Maria Bardi and the filmmaker Glauber Rocha, the show gathered a diversity of objects—including tools, furniture, toys, figureheads, ex-votos, and fabrics—in a display structure composed of pine boards that recalled “the Northeastern street markets and general stores all over Brazil.”[21]

Faced with the Brazilian reality, Lina Bo Bardi did not intend to offer the country a modern civilization project that should fit a European paradigm. Instead, her vision of regional and popular art assumed a more engaged character, and she sought to legitimize elements of popular culture that should be seen on an equal footing with “high culture.” As Andres Lepik puts it, Lina Bo Bardi’s “alternative path to modernism” was built “in contrast to other Europeans in Brazil.”[22] Indeed, it found its ultimate expression in the conception of the second MASP venue—a building that, according to Sabine von Fischer, represents the ability of the architect to translate the rationalist language “into the non-European context.”[23]

Transparency as a statement and a challenge

In 1964 a military coup ousted President-elect Joao Goulart. This would be the beginning of two decades of censorship and repression, which also reached the arts field. That same year, Bo Bardi was dismissed from the position of director of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia after having refused to make room for an armament exhibition. Back in São Paulo, she continued the project for the new headquarters of the MASP, which opened in 1968. Positioned on the borders of what would become the symbol of Brazilian economic power, Paulista Avenue, the museum was designed of reinforced concrete and glass—architecture whose transparency was pierced by the light of the tropics and that placed itself in a position contrary to the prevailing museological paradigms.

Inside the building, the architect’s gesture extended to the glass plates supported by cubical bases of concrete and wood idealized for the display of MASP’s permanent collection of paintings, the so-called “crystal easels.” On the back side of these plates, Bo Bardi made space for labels of various sizes identifying the author, the title of the work, technique, dimensions, and additional information which, in some cases, covered the entire back of the work. These supports were irregularly installed in the building’s second-floor gallery, facing the visitors’ entrance perspective.

Although many reviews of this installation affirm a non-adhesion to any specific chronological, origination, or stylistic framework, echoing some of the architect’s own descriptions, a number of archive photographs show evidence that Lina and Pietro Maria Bardi did inscribe certain sections to specific sequences, in order to create fragments of a curatorial narrative.[24] We can see, for instance, installation views that show a “row” (as erratic as it may seem) of paintings by Brazilian modernists, including A Estudante (1915) by Anita Mafaltti, Interior de Ingredientes (1920) by Lasar Segall, and O lavrador de café (1939) by Candido Portinari.[25]

In spite of these fragmented arrangements, the perspective of installing the easels according to a display structure that invited viewers to randomly elaborate their own investigative itineraries is unquestionable, and closely linked to the autonomous view of the public that marked the previous projects of Lina Bo Bardi.

Fig. 4. Installation View of MASP’s Pinacoteca showing works by Brazilian artists (1970). Credit: MASP Archive.

For her, the uses of the museum by the audience would create multiple connections between the works and the “crystal easels” represented the basis of a grammar that she aimed to establish. While desacralizing and stripping the aura of the work of art, making it horizontally cohabit the space, the architect placed the arts at the service of the people, as she claimed in an article published in a São Paulo newspaper in the 1970s:

Stripping the Museum of that church atmosphere that excludes the uninitiated, stripping the paintings of their “aura” to present the work of art as “work,” highly specialized but still work; presenting it in a way that can be understood by the uninitiated… The Museu de Arte de São Paulo is popular. … As the responsible person for the Museum’s design and for the design of the crystal easel… with didactic panels to display the paintings, I want to clarify that in designing the Museum it was my intention to destroy the aura that always surrounds a museum, to present the work of art as work, as a prophecy of work at everyone’s reach.[26]

The crystal easels remained in the museum until four years after Bo Bardi’s death. In 1996, when the MASP went under the direction of architect Julio Neves, they were replaced by compartmentalized galleries. Their removal was justified by a series of arguments, including the risks of excessive lighting for conservation of the works and the randomness of the work’s display, which was considered “particularly hostile to the fruition of non-contemporary art.”[27] It was then that the transparency and malleability of the museum, so dear to Bo Bardi, became opaque along with its facades.

The removal of the easels was only the beginning of a conceptual and financial crisis that hit the museological project of the MASP, relegating the institution to a secondary position in the city’s arts scene. Stolen paintings, electricity cuts, and a lack of staff and other resources to maintain its activities are just some of the difficulties encountered by the museum during this period. Paradoxically, it was after the disqualification of MASP’s original project that Brazilian architecture and the debates about the “global modernisms” gained international relevance.

Although Lina Bo Bardi’s oeuvre had already been the object of exhibitions in Europe during the 1990s, a more vigorous projection of her work in the international scene was followed by the presentation of an exhibition conceived by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima at the Venice Biennale in 2010.[28] Since then, numerous shows have been dedicated to Bo Bardi, who has gained a novelty status; British newspaper The Guardian even gave her the questionable title of “Brazil’s best-kept secret.”[29]

“What can explain Lina’s late success? Is the recognition of her work that we are experiencing a solid evaluation or another futile fashion?” asks Guilherme Wisnik.[30] For him, this phenomenon stems from economic, historical, and ideological factors. Among these are Brazil’s rise to prominence as an emerging country after the 2008 financial crisis and the exhaustion of contents that led the European and North American axis to turn its gaze to the Global South as a prolific territory in cultural manifestations. In addition, the multicultural character of Lina Bo Bardi’s work, evidenced by her personal trajectory and interest in the popular culture of Northeast Brazil, offered “various attractive aspects for the criteria of contemporary cultural evaluation, which indicates an openness to otherness.”[31]

The return of “crystal easels” and its political dimension

In Brazil the revaluation of Bo Bardi’s work came at a time when the arts harvested the last fruits of the economic boom, allowing significant financial contributions to cultural projects and institutions. It was during the architect’s centennial in 2014 that the MASP could rely on the new direction of Adriano Pedrosa. Interested in non-hegemonic versions of history— such as the histories of sexuality, childhood, and madness—and their intersection with visual arts, Pedrosa took charge of the museum with the goal of gradually revisiting Bo Bardi’s expographies. To this end, he reenacted three displays that made up the history of the museum in its previous headquarters (1947–59). The idea was to retrace “the architect’s path that led up to the design of the crystal easels” at MASP Paulista.[32]

It is important to think about the easels within the architectural program of the museum, a program that is decolonizing, and therefore pioneer. The question that this program seems to answer is how it is possible to present or tell a story, or several stories around art, with a rich European collection, without replicating a European history, a European model, both of history and museum. And in this sense that the MASP program is a decolonizing one.[33]

  • Fig. 5. Reenactment of Lina Bo Bardi’s expography in 2015, originally conceived for the MASP collection at the Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado (FAAP) in 1957. Credit: Metro Arquitetos/MASP Archive.

  • Fig. 6. Lina Bo Bardi’s expography conceived for the MASP collection at the Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado (FAAP) in 1957. Credit: MASP Archive.

The vision of MASP as a museum created on the basis of a decolonizing program deserves to be better contextualized, as it transposes to 2015 concepts and meanings that the institution did not exploit in the 1960s. It is important to situate decolonization (as concept, not as historical process) as part of the critical derivations of the postcolonial theories that emerged from the 1970s. Among their contributions, there were some notions that served as tools for questioning Eurocentric epistemology and its implications in the social sciences, including orientalism, subaltern voices, and coloniality of power. The latter related to the “decolonial” project discussed by the collective Modernity/Coloniality, conceived by intellectuals like Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, and Santiago Castro-Gómez, among others.

That said, I would like to return to three essential aspects of Lina Bo Bardi’s museology already discussed here, which have presumably been linked to the rupture with a traditional and Eurocentric reading of art: the refusal of chronology in the disposition of works, the vision of art without adjectives and as the result of the artist’s work, and the détournement of the scale of values that guide the history of Western art.

Bo Bardi liked to say that the linearity of time had been invented by the West, and operated to expand other forms of connections that escaped this logic of narrative continuity.[34] At the opening of the MASP to the public (1969), the initiative to present the abovementioned exhibition of popular art, A mão do povo brasileiro, along with the collection display at the second-floor pinacoteca seems to evidence this stance.[35] However, such gesture cannot be restricted to the refusal of a Eurocentric museological perspective.

Despite the intensive transit of the Bardis around Europe and their alignment with international debates on museums, gestures like this seem to subscribe to a specific local context, representing the achievement of the didactic proposals of the counter-museum fostered by Pietro Maria Bardi, associated with Lina Bo’s deep contact with the artistic production from the country’s Northeast and her desire to juxtapose recognized and overlooked practices in Brazilian material culture.[36] Here the opposition axis—Eurocentrism—does not seem to be external, but rather internal, represented by local instances of political and economic power and cultural elitism. We must remember that the MASP Paulista opened its doors in one of the darkest years of the Brazilian dictatorship. In this context, and in spite of it, the museum advanced the permeability of the display and the free modes of spatial fruition as an invitation to non-authoritative exhibition pathways. It is no wonder that the vision of the MASP as an “architecture of freedom” was so dear to Bo Bardi.[37]

In 2015 these debates assume other contours in the light of diverse curatorial and educational experiences in the field of museology. Unlike 1968, the more than one hundred pieces that make up the Picture Gallery in Transformation exhibit (presenting the contemporary versions of the crystal easels) are arranged in a strict chronological manner, without inscribing in the works any relationship of origin or style. We can therefore find a painting of the Nossa Señora de los Remedios (Cuzco, 1601–1700) juxtaposed with Adoration of the Shepherds (1630–35) by Bartolomeo Passante, or Bryce Canyon Translation (1946) by Max Ernst, side by side with Vendedora de Flores (1947) by Djanira da Motta e Silva.

It is thought-provoking that chronology—precisely one of the most refused aspects by Lina Bo Bardi’s expography—was used by the new MASP curatorial team as a structuring artifice of an exhibition narrative against the grain. Although transversal and longitudinal paths are possible along the space, such chronology indicates a trajectory marked by the horizontal rows that make up the installation, identified by means of a sequential numbering of the works in the ground plan. When visiting Picture Gallery in Transformation and aware of this arrangement, we are able to identify several curatorial sequencings that can be read in the light of the decolonizing proposal argued by Pedrosa.

Throughout the exhibition we encounter, for instance, a nude sequencing formed by the paintings Angelica in Chains (1859) by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, Moema (1866) by Vitor Meirelles, and The Negro Scipio (1866–68) by Paul Cézanne. In another passage we see Young Woman with Book (undated) by José de Almeida Júnior exhibited side by side with Girl with Flowers (1888) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the The Schoolboy (1888) by Vincent van Gogh. Or still, Bowl with Pears (1923) by Fernand Leger between Naked Boy and Turtle (1923) by Vicente do Rego Monteiro and Five Girls from Guaratingueta (1930) by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti. An initial reflection upon these juxtapositions seems to indicate that currents such as Indianist Romanticism and French academicism, for instance, can be read in the light of alternative genealogies to those suggested by traditional art history. Other arrangements allow us to reconsider the readings of modernism that claim to associate the European master with the Latin American apprentice, as well as the frameworks that imprison artists like Van Gogh to the mad genius biography, detached of any historical context.

This non-hierarchical confrontation of diverse aesthetic currents intersecting in space and time is not exclusive to the MASP, and seems to permeate a number of recent exhibition models, including the Galerie du Temps at the Louvre Lens, which was inspired by Bo Bardi’s project. Other museums—although not sharing the elements of this permeable expography—have been fostering the rewriting of master narratives through the rearrangement of their permanent collections, as is the case with Modernités Plurielles (2013–2015), organized by Catherine Grenier at Centre Pompidou. With this show, Grenier affirms breaking up “long years of consensus around a unified, linear and progressive narrative proposed… by the ensemble of Western museums.”[38] Such perspectives have been claiming transregional approaches to display as a way to contextually maneuver the discourses produced by it. However, the extent to which they are really capable of attaining such ambitions needs to be better evaluated.

One of the harshest criticisms on the reassembly of the glass easels in 2015 came from essayist Francesco Perrotta-Bosch. He points to a “mismatch of eras” and a certain idealization in the rereading of Lina Bo Bardi’s work that leads to the sacralization of a museum desacralized by its own creators. For him, in the new MASP project and other recent exhibitions, the architect has assumed a heroic aura that risks overturning her works into historical heritage, leading to the immobility of her legacy.[39] However, as Adriano Pedrosa argues, the resumption of MASP’s display is not about restoring Bo Bardi’s expography exactly as it was presented in 1968, but rather to take it as a “device” that allows new interplays between the artworks and the space.

Revisiting this path is not merely a nostalgic path or a fetishist return to the exhibition designs that culminated in a device that has now become iconic. The aim is to recover the political and critical dimension of these proposals, considering them not as an end in and of themselves.[40]

In “Remembering Exhibitions” (2009), Reesa Greenberg discusses the reenactment of historical exhibitions as a practice of spatialization of memory, able to make it “concrete, tangible, actual, interactive.”[41] Among other typologies, the author discusses the remake of certain landmark shows as a “riff,” able to inscribe their relevance in a performative and self-reflexive framework. The fact that Picture Gallery in Transformation introduces—through the employment of chronology—a rationale that operates an unexpected détournement to Lina Bo Bardi’s original expography can be seen through this perspective. To a certain extent, such a gesture is aligned with Bo Bardi’s vision of history itself. As Zeuler Lima remembers, she repeatedly said that “history only made sense as part of the transformation of the present.”[42] Far from the sacralized perspective of a museum frozen in time, the infinite arrangements, narratives, and pathways that may be presently constructed through Bo Bardi’s display structure seem to offer a prolific perspective for the reexamination of the architect’s “modern legacy” within uncharted historical contexts.