University of São Paulo: IEB-USP exhibits the largest exhibition on Brazilian Modernism in the world

Anita Malfatti, Tarsila do Amaral, Oswald de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira and many other artists, in addition to being great figures of Brazilian Modernism, were also human beings. They had doubts, frustrations and even fought among themselves. In addition to presenting three decades of Brazilian Modernism with unprecedented content, the exhibition Era Uma Vez o Moderno shows how this movement is not limited to the Modern Art Week of 22 and built several voices and initiatives over the decades. The backstage of the modernist movement is revealed by the artists themselves through more than 370 materials, most of them from the Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros at USP (IEB-USP). The exhibition, which has just opened, is at the Centro Cultural Fiesp until May 29, 2022.

Once upon a time the Modern (1910-1944) is considered the largest exhibition on Brazilian Modernism in the world. With the support of Fiesp, it was possible to restore and exhibit diaries, letters, manuscripts, photos and works by artists and intellectuals who took part in various initiatives around the implantation of modern art in Brazil. The Fiesp art and education monitor, Ítalo Galiza, says that the key point of the exhibition is that it is not just a celebration of the Modern Art Week of 22, which will celebrate its centenary next year. “The idea of ​​the exhibition is to let the artists themselves tell how this period was for themselves. We can consider that the protagonists of this exhibition are the writings themselves”, highlights the monitor.

The curators, IEB professor and researcher Luiz Armando Bagolin and historian Fabrício Reiner seek to demystify some aspects of the exhibition. “The Week was a much more successful strategy as an advertisement to generate reactions in the press than an event that was representative from the point of view of the exhibition of artistic works. Most of what was presented at the Week did not have modern proposals”, reveals Bagolin. Furthermore, unlike what many people believe, although the events of the Week took place at the Municipal Theater of São Paulo, Modernism had the contribution of other voices from other states. Another mistake is to think that Modernism was a single movement and cohesive in its intentions. “Many initiatives clashed”, says the professor.

These conflicts are exposed in the materials so that the public can observe this human dimension of the artists, according to the curators. “This also allowed us, the curators, to step back a little, without our opinions (despite the cut) and let these protagonists speak for themselves, in a historical approach”, explain the curators. Throughout the exhibition, there are several layers of information. Through the QRCodes that accompany the works, the visitor is invited to read various analyzes by the curators and curiosities on the exhibition’s website. There are more than 80 texts and 14 audios with information about three decades of this history. Technology is also present with holograms of actors who play some modernist artists at important moments in their lives and also in the history of the cultural movement.

The exhibition is divided between the Week of Modern Art of 1922, before and after, and the protagonists are Anita Malfatti and Mário de Andrade. However, there are works by other artists and influences from the modernist movement. For example, the exhibition opens with Emma Voss on “a matter of historical justice”, according to the IEB researcher. She is an immigrant artist, arrived from Germany in 1910 and is the first to open a solo exhibition in São Paulo. “Nothing is known about this exhibition, except for the self-portrait, which already shows a construction that contains principles of German Expressionism, and a news item in the newspaper that praises the painting, but strange that it was a woman who painted it”, the professor points out how machismo was present in the art world at the time.

Another person who has been criticized is Anita Malfatti, a pioneer in painting that strictly adheres to the principles of the artistic avant-garde of the early 20th century. “She is our first modernist artist”, highlight the curators. They describe her first training in Modernism and what is most current happening in Germany at that time. She had contact with exhibitions that contained works by Van Gogh, Cézanne and other artists and even met Marcel Duchamp later, on a trip to the United States, and she brings to Brazil these avant-garde experiences, with more radical ideas. However, after the criticism of Monteiro Lobato massacring his art, the author of the painting O Homem Amarelo(1915) is shaken and affects his artistic production. Even her family asks Anita to paint more classic paintings, without generating controversy. Until, in 1919, she went to study academic painting with Pedro Alexandrino, when she met Tarsila. Then she meets Di Cavalcanti and Oswald and they start planning the Week of Modern Art.

Bagolin says that during this period some modernist artists convinced her that her work was pioneering. “Luckily she had kept the paintings, she almost destroyed everything”, emphasizes the professor. Italo also says that she was chosen to represent the “pre-Week of 22” period, as she already produced what was modern before the event. “Anita is innovative, and her exhibition in 1917 had much more impact than the week itself,” says the monitor.

In another part of the exhibition, it is possible to discover the objects, diaries and photos that resulted from Mário de Andrade’s travels. “With his anguish of knowing more about his own country, he goes to the North and Northeast and takes notes. These trips inspired Mário de Andrade to write Macunaíma (1928), a great treasure for Brazil”, explains Italo. The exhibition shows editions of the book and Mário’s annotations, the way in which the writer’s thought was ordered and how he constructed the work. “ Macunaíma , for example, was reviewed by Mário until practically the date of his death, in 1944. He was never satisfied”, reveals Bagolin.

“Mário de Andrade was very anxious about the country, he even broke with the modernists because he did not believe that the modernist movement revealed what he actually believed to be Brazil”, adds Italo. “He began to be bothered by the idea of ​​’bringing what is modern’ since, for Mário de Andrade, the modern was already here. Soon he broke with Modernism, as we noted in the letters.” The title of the exhibition, Era Uma Vez o Moderno , corresponds to Mário’s idea, a wish that was left behind, a dream, according to the curators.

The monitor explains that Modernism became so famous that it began to gain a world showcase and made the government at the time want to somehow take ownership to defend its populist ideas, to create this imaginary of Brazil, of racial democracy and nationalism . This search for a national identity by Modernism was a narrative that began to be distorted during the Estado Novo, according to the curators’ analysis. They say that several initiatives spark the interest of the Vargas government. “From there, we can consider that Modernism has died. Mário felt this, alerted other artists and took a stand against it. He did not accept being paid by the government, unlike many colleagues of his generation. From the moment that Modernism is co-opted as an aesthetic by the State, this experimental character dies”,

In the exhibition there is a letter from Mário to Manuel Bandeira saying that he wanted to write political poems, but that he didn’t have the strength to do so. “We chose this melancholy end, Modernism defeated by the forces of the ultra-right. For Mário, the modernists of 22 should not be examples, but serve as a lesson. The main modernist legacy is this question that Mário de Andrade asked: is it possible to be modern, in a country with so much inequality, injustice, discrimination and lack of access to basic rights? We want to close the exhibition with this question they asked us 100 years ago”, comment the curators.

“In our country there is a cultural erasure, like the fires at the National Museum and the Cinematheque. The IEB brings some of this cultural resistance to the exhibition. The exhibition ends with the melancholic letters of Mário de Andrade. He did not believe that the modernism that Oswald defended was revolutionary enough to bring about social change. It’s a fairy tale that didn’t fit in with reality. And it ends with the return of the classic, still life painting”, says the monitor Ítalo.

Curator Fabrício Reiner says that the exhibition contains a very rich collection and that everyone needs to be aware of it. “It is important to show the Brazilian wealth and heritage. This Week of 22 seed is more reflective than celebratory. In a country where culture is despised, we need to preserve and disseminate our art to everyone.”