Brazil’s First Art Cannibal: Tarsila do Amaral
Interview with curators Stephanie D’Alessandro and Luis Pérez-Oramas by David Ebony
The paintings of Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973)—simply known as Tarsila—and the theory of Anthropophagy, or the philosophy of “cultural cannibalism,” introduced in 1928 by Tarsila’s first husband, Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), were for me a major mystery and an obsession for years. Her work especially haunted me after it was featured in the Guggenheim Museum’s massive survey of Brazilian art, Brazil: Body and Soul, in 2002. Tarsila’s paintings of the 1920s seemed to me to represent a rather bizarre mix of Brazilian folk art, baroque Latin American colonial art, and half-baked Cubism, with Fernand Léger riffs, some touches of Surrealism, and Art Deco motifs thrown in.
My Brazilian friends and acquaintances, including a number of influential artists, such as Tunga, Beatriz Milhazes, and Nuno Ramos, would mention Tarsila or Anthropophagy to me in conversation casually, as if a deep knowledge and appreciation for these things were a given, part of a Brazilian’s DNA, and something I was simply not privy to, although they tried to explain. For them, Tarsila’s paintings and Oswald’s philosophy were major inspirations. Frustrating, however, was the fact that there was next to nothing available in English on either Tarsila or de Andrade, including any accessible English translation of his legendary 1928 Manifesto of Anthropophagy.
On one of my visits to Brazil I was very glad to discover a handsome little volume in Portuguese, Tarsila do Amaral: a modernista by Nádia Battella Gotlib. My grasp of Portuguese is barely rudimentary, however, so the book did not greatly advance my understanding of the subject—although it did earn a prominent and permanent place on my “favorite books” shelf.
It was with great excitement and substantial relief, therefore, to learn of the first-ever Tarsila do Amaral retrospective to appear in the United States, co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil features some 120 paintings, and drawings, plus a wealth of documentary material. It opened in Chicago [October 8, 2017-January 7, 2018], and travels to New York [February 11-June 3, 2018]. The show is organized by Stephanie D’Alessandro, a former Art Institute of Chicago curator, currently a curator of modern art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Luis Pérez-Oramas, former Museum of Modern Art curator. The organizers are also the principal authors of the accompanying catalogue, which is something of a revelation. The book finally brings to light for English speakers a detailed account of the life and work of a fascinating individual, and a key figure in the evolution of modern and contemporary Latin American art.
Born in the state of São Paulo to a prosperous family, Tarsila spent several of her formative years in the early 1920s in Paris, where she studied art, and met Picasso, Brancusi, Léger, and many other prominent artists and writers of the day. While studying the modernist visual vocabulary of the European avant-garde, she sought in her work to affirm her Brazilian heritage. “I am profoundly Brazilian,” she proclaimed in an early essay, “and will study the taste and the art of our caipiras [referring to the rural folk of central Brazil]. In the hinterlands, I hope to learn from those who have not been corrupted by the academies.”
She developed a refined painting style, based in part on European modernism, but deeply inspired by vernacular Brazilian culture, folklore, handicrafts, and folk art. For a time, she commissioned designer Pierre Legrain to create elaborate Art Deco-like frames for her paintings. Over the years, almost all of them were eventually removed, and either lost or destroyed, except for one splendid example that frames A Cuca (1924). One of the highlights of the current exhibition, the painting features a jungle scene with highly stylized animals and insects.
In 1926, Tarsila married the prominent poet and philosopher Oswald de Andrade. They traveled together for long periods of time throughout Brazil, and abroad, and within two years developed the concept of Antropofagía or Anthropophagy. The concept was inspired by the Tupi—a once cannibalistic tribe of the Brazilian rainforest—and it centers on the notion of cultural cannibalism in which the Brazilians, or all Latin Americans, could devour progressive European cultural concepts, ingest them through a local filter, and produce something that would be entirely new and vibrant, and specific to Latin American culture.
Tarsila enjoyed some success as an artist from the mid 1920s through the early ’30s, when she began to adopt a quasi-Socialist-Realist painting style centered on socialist themes. Her early career culminated in a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Western Art in Moscow, in 1931. Upon her return to Brazil from the USSR, newly installed right-wing government officials arrested Tarsila, and jailed her for a time because of her ties to the Soviet Union and her left-wing sympathies.
Her work was seen less often in Brazil in the 1940s, but by the 1960s, she was rediscovered by the avant-garde artists of Brazil’s revolutionary Tropicália movement. The artists, writers and musicians associated with that energetic group looked to the Anthropophagy experiment of Tarsila and de Andrade as a means to absorb and reprocess the international political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Since then, Tarsila has been elevated to a near mythical status at home, and her work, beginning with this exhibition and accompanying book, will now finally receive due attention abroad. Recently, I joined D’ Alessandro and Pérez-Oramas at a café at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to discuss the phenomena known as Tarsila do Amaral, and Anthropophagy.
David Ebony: How would you briefly characterize Tarsila do Amaral’s work?
Stephanie D’Alessandro: Tarsila’s work is vibrant and mesmerizing. It was informed by the currents of modernism as we know them in Europe and the United States. But at its best, it’s absolutely Brazilian, part of the place of Brazil.
Luis Pérez-Oramas: Tarsila is a classic example of a transatlantic modern artist—someone who is in constant dialogue with Europe, but from her point of view as a Latin American, a Brazilian in this case. Among the many ways that she managed that exchange, she framed it within the history of Brazilian modernism, and the Antropofagic movement, the cannibalistic project. This meant that Brazilian artists and writers would digest European culture, and metabolize it into something new, and specifically Brazilian. In many ways, Tarsila seems to be the artist for that.
Ebony: Could you talk a bit about her background?
D’Alessandro Tarsila was born and raised in the state of São Paulo. Her family was quite cultured, and wealthy—they owned a coffee plantation. She often spoke fondly about her childhood—outside, in nature, running around like a goat, and then inside, enjoying a refined existence, with French music, literature and food. That experience led her on her path toward being an artist later in life. She studied in São Paulo for a while, and then went to Europe. She studied for a time in Paris, and then came back to São Paulo in June 1922, after the Week of Modern Art (Semana de Arte Moderna), held in São Paulo in February 1922. That event had a similar kind of impact on Brazil as the 1913 Armory Show in the United States. She missed the firsthand experience of the event, but her friends were all inspired by it, and she soon caught on.
Ebony: Can you say a little more about the Semana de Arte Moderna and its significance?
Luis Pérez-Oramas: I often think of it as the clearest birth certificate of a modern art movement in Latin America. Other similar events in other countries were far more complicated. Here you see clearly a moment, and a will to embed modernism into a Latin American country. The fact that Tarsila was not present in Brazil at that moment is interesting because there is a sort of belatedness about her entry into the movement. Yet she ended up embodying the most important message that comes after Semana de Arte Moderna, which is Antropofagía.
Ebony: Stephanie, you mention in your essay that when Tarsila returned to Paris in December 1922, she was “contaminated by revolutionary ideas,” but there and then constructed her own visual vocabulary. How did that come about?
D’Alessandro: When she was in Paris earlier, just before she returned to São Paulo, she had opportunities to see works of Dada, Cubism, German Expressionism, and other avant-garde movements firsthand, but as she wrote to her friends, she didn’t like those modernist styles very much at the time. She wasn’t receptive to them because she was working out different ideas in her head as to what kind of artwork she should be making. [Her earliest works were engaged with a form of late Impressionism.] When she went back to São Paulo, she spent time with her artist-friends who eventually called themselves the Group of Five, and they discussed the Week of Modern Art. They would ride around in Oswald de Andrade’s green Cadillac, drunk with these ideas of a new, young art that they would create. But at that particular moment, Tarsila had no visual sources to do that. She begins to look for sources—not sources to copy, but sources to “ingest,” in order to make something for herself.
Ebony: In Paris, though, she studied with Léger.
D’Alessandro: Yes, and with Albert Gleizes, but only for short periods of time. I would say that a larger part of her study had to do with visiting artists such as Picasso and Brancusi, going to galleries, and meeting people like Erik Satie and Blaise Cendrars.
Ebony: In your essay, Luis, you write about whether or not she really absorbed or understood the ideas of Cubism, Futurism, and the other avant-garde movements in Paris.
Pérez-Oramas: There’s a whole discussion of Tarsila’s Cubism. I align myself with the group that thinks that while she trained under Cubist artists, she was never a Cubist herself. She went through that phase very quickly. What she might have gotten from Cubism is a certain forcefulness in her art that is specific to the local—a concrete approach to reality that is simple and direct. Cubism enabled her to get this synthetic, almost “haiku-like” configuration of the Brazilian landscape. That is one of her legacies—a kind of absolute simplicity in her representation of a very complex and exuberant reality.
Ebony: Stephanie, you make a compelling argument in your essay for A Negra (1923), which is widely regarded as Tarsila’s first mature painting. One revelation for me in the book was seeing its relationship to Brancusi’s 1923 marble, White Negress. Do you think she may have seen that?
D’Alessandro: I think she had to have seen it. We know that it was in his studio when she visited him. And she likely visited more than once, as we know that they saw each other on a number of other occasions. What is interesting about A Negra is that it seems to come out of nowhere. If you consider other works she did in Paris, they look like as she was creating something, as she put it, “under the military exercises of Cubism.” But something different happens with A Negra. There’s no preparation or precedent for it. It’s the largest canvas she painted that year, and it feels like a very intentional image.
Ebony: If we can skip to 1927, that’s when Tarsila takes a trip through Brazil with the Group of Five, through Bahia, and many other places. After they returned to São Paulo, in 1928, Oswald de Andrage began his Manifesto of Anthropophagy, inspired in some way by Tarsila’s painting Abaporu (1928).
Pérez-Oramas: Yes. She offered Oswald Abaporu as a gift, and they immediately went to a dictionary and constructed this title, meaning the man who eats men. When the manifesto was first published, Tarsila’s drawing for Abaporu accompanied the text. It demonstrates an absorption of Brazilian baroque culture, the vernacular and the local, plus modernism, which was actually just beginning in Brazil. In the painting, all of these elements are clearly “anthropophagized” by Tarsila. Three paintings by Tarsila from the period—A Negra (1923), Abaporu (1928), and Anthropophagy (1929)—signaled a new kind of Arcadian imagination for Brazil, a new kind of paradise, a new kind of Utopia.
Ebony: Why was the metaphor or image of the cannibal so appealing? Was it a specific reference to the Tupi tribe of the Amazon?
D’Alessandro: I think there are many answers to that question. One initial idea is that when Oswald and Tarsila were in Paris they played at being part of society, but they were not. To Parisian society, they were exotic; and in many ways they enjoyed that status. In that sense they claimed cannibalism, as it is associated with Amazon tribal ritual, as part of their own heritage as Brazilians.
Pérez-Oramas: Also, in another sense, Tarsila allowed her work to be cannibalized by high modernism, and in turn, she cannibalized the dissemination of high modernism through Art Deco. The elaborate Art Deco frames she commissioned for her paintings could be seen as an example of that process.
Ebony: In Paris, she befriended André Breton, and some of the Surrealists; and in some way she and Oswald remind me of the Brazilian counterparts to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But it seems that Tarsila’s work was not embraced by Breton and the Surrealists in the way that Frida’s was. What was the reason for that?
Pérez-Oramas: I think that Tarsila’s work of the early 1920s, at the time she met Breton, was not something that Breton and Surrealists could easily embrace.
D’Alessandro: And there is much more research to be done in certain areas like that. Our book, the exhibition, and this project is really the first of its kind—as an in-depth exploration of her work. The doors for further research are open now—and can’t be closed.
Pérez-Oramas: Also, the real reception and understanding of Tarsila’s work didn’t occur until very late. Her work was not fully embraced even in Brazil until the 1960s.
Ebony: At the time of the Tropicália movement in Brazil? That is another important question, how and why was Anthropophagy suddenly embraced by the Brazilian avant-garde of the 1960s? What did it mean to them?
Pérez-Oramas: As with the Surrealism question, the relationship of Anthropophagy to Tropicália is complex. By 1965 you had in Brazil prominent cultural figures, musicians—singers like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil—and artists, such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, as well as writers, who are thinking about how to develop “Brazilian” as a universal message, something that can actually go beyond the frontiers of Brazil. All of them found in the work of Oswald and Tarsila in the 1920s, a foundation to begin with; and so Tarsila, Oswald, and Anthropophagy became an obsession.
D’Alessandro: It is also important to keep in mind that for a long period of time Tarsila’s work was not really accessible to most people. Few saw the work until 1950, when she had a major retrospective in Brazil. From that point on, the work finally began to become known to the public, and appreciated.
Ebony: What would you say is most important or relevant about Tarsila’s work today? Why should young artists, art historians, and all art enthusiasts pay attention to it now?
Pérez-Oramas: I think she was a courageous artist. She showed courage in the way she embraced her local context with a universal will.
D’Alessandro: In the introduction to the book, we quote the great art historian Aracy Amaral, who said that Tarsila always managed to do exactly what she wanted. As a woman, as an artist, and despite many challenges, she was always able to accomplish what she wanted. That’s a universal lesson for any artist, art historian, or whatever you choose for your own path; and it becomes a very powerful lesson when you see Tarsila’s work. She had a clear vision. It took her a long time to find her voice, her vision. But once she did, she stayed true to it, true to her own path.
David Ebony is currently a Contributing Editor of Art in America magazine. Among his books are Arne Svenson: The Neighbors (2015); Anselm Reyle: Mystic Silver (2012); Carlo Maria Mariani in the 21st Century (2011); Emily Mason (2006); Botero: Abu Ghraib (2006); Craigie Horsfield: Relation (2005); and Graham Sutherland: A Retrospective (1998). He lives and works in New York City.