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The issue of politics in modernism Carlos Zilio

From a party-political viewpoint, there is little doubt as to the trajectory of the modernists. If, in the early 1920’s they leaned towards bohemian detachment or support for oligarchic parties, then as time progressed they went on to pursue other possibilities. These possibilities covered both the direction of the opposition within the parameters of the Old Republic, such as the Democratic Party, and, more significantly, engagement in the two currents that in their antagonism would mark the century: communism and fascism. Within the context of fine art, there was almost total predominance of engagement with the left. In fact, if the first phase of modernism can be summed up by an inclination towards modernization and nationalism, the second period, in the 1930’s, also included the social issue. Considered in relation to this more general aspect, the modernist dynamic could be seen as that of “consciousness building”; attempting to be an art aimed at the people, both in terms of ideal theme and audience. In this sense, Mario de Andrade’s Itamaraty speech, a kind of selfcriticism of the early days of the modernists, served as the pinnacle to the internal logic of this process. But in fact, the issue to be considered is whether the modernists generated a body of work capable of transforming Brazilian art in an ideological and political sense, in terms of placing it into modernity. Or rather, the question of whether their production was significant in its own right; visual thought unable to be reduced to discourse illustration, consequently breaking away from the illusionist notion of representation. And, furthermore, whether they were able to perceive and act on existing political relations within the art system, serving to establish circulation of the work between the producer and the public. 1


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Analyzed from this angle, it is important, from a more global viewpoint, to pinpoint two distinct moments in the historic process of modern art. The first would be the affirmation of the quality of workmanship in art within an industrial society, showing the constitutive process (such as, for example, appreciation of brushstroke and texture), and demonstrating the specificity of production technique. The second, occurring in the twentieth century, is the recognition of the value of modern art as merchandise. These two movements, one of opposition and one of assimilation, indicate strategies that either preserve the critical potential of art, or simply allow it to fade away due to the reificatory logic of the market. The struggle by art in the nineteenth century, in affirming its epistemological autonomy, was a struggle against the possibility of assimilation to the fetishist nature of merchandise as highlighted by Marx. This was the sense of what Courbet did in at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, when he opted for an independent display of his work, so that it would not be exhibited with the same criteria as merchandise. The ethical stance of Van Gogh and Gauguin, and the obsessive preservation of individual autonomy in Cézanne, embodied this same political commitment between transgressive language and circulation of artwork. This problematic and complex process began to suffer from 1914, the year of the first successful modern art auction, and then, in 1918, France’s victory in the First World War brought a clear setback.1 What occurred was the Return to Order, bringing with it a stratification of cubism, within a historic period of glorification of eternal French values, that is, of classicist and rationalist tradition held up as being eternal truth. At the same time, Braque and Picasso’s open articulations on so-called primitive art, enabling the emergence of a new language through synthetic cubism, were reduced to codified stylizations. This ostensibly created a possibility to effectuate a commitment incorporating modern art with nationalism (French style), allegory, and narration (the modern with continuation of the classic) and the “primitive cultures” (taken formalistically). The relationship between the Brazilian modernists and this post-cubism of the Return to Order is well known. On arrival in Paris in the 1920s, culturally unprepared, the Brazilians took to be permanent what was simply a trend. However, it should also be pointed out that a “lucky” coincidence occurred. The Brazilians were presented with a schematic and didactic systemization of “the modern” and at the same time received the assurance of being able to relate this to a national identity in which the question of “modern art” was present. Within these parameters, modernism absorbed the typically conservative stance of seeking to conciliate the a priori order of narrative illusion with the modern concept based on freedom of subject matter. The relationship with the past evidently had nothing to do with the connection between modern art – since at least the Manet period – and tradition. For modern artists, tradition did not have the authoritarian nature of eternal value; it merely represented questions raised in a historical manner, to be viewed in terms of their confrontation with the present. A productive way to make the past present. 1. In this respect, see the article by Yve-Alain Bois “Painting the task of Morning”, in Painting as Model, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990). In this article, the author pinpoints 1914 as a key year due to the realization of the Peau d’Ors auction and, also the year of Duchamp’s first readymade, the Porte-bouteille (as his 1913 Roue de bicyclette also had an aesthetic component). Thus, 1914 represented both the beginning of the recuperation of modern production through the incorporation of impressionist painting into the market, to the point of Picasso and Matisse, as well as, on the other hand, the beginning of Duchamp’s critical work. 2


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Interestingly, if in Europe the Return to Order represented the recovery of the modern by the market, then in Brazil the same instrument acquired a revolutionary connotation. Without the presence of an organized market, the modernist affirmation clashed with cultural institutions dominated by Academia. The political struggle would basically be confined to Rio de Janeiro, controlled by the National School of Fine Arts (Escola Nacional de Belas Artes) and the National Salon of Fine Arts (Salão Nacional de Belas Artes). And therein came the dispute for official recognition, which, in Brazil at that time, was almost entirely linked to social recognition. In contrast, São Paulo, unconnected to this institutional struggle, had more freedom in the development of its modern art system. The success of modernism is irrefutable. In Rio de Janeiro, from Lúcio Costa’s directorship of the School of Fine Arts, to the fulfilment of a modern department in the National Salon, to Portinari’s official commissions, and the designation of administrative roles related to culture. In São Paulo, from the week of 1922, to the Pro-Modern Art Society (Sociedade Pró-Arte Moderna – SPAM) and the Modern Artists’ Club (Clube dos Artistas Modernos – CAM), the May Salon (Salão de Maio) editions, and a succession of other events demonstrating an endeavour to form a modern system. At the end of the 1940s in Rio de Janeiro, the hegemony of modernism was undeniable. This art system, which had the French Mission as its starting point, was gradually winning its long battles from within, and managing to create new alternatives such as the Modern Art Museum (MAM). In São Paulo, a more agile dynamic paved the way for the foundation of the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) and the São Paulo Art Biennial. This successful political-institutional conquest was accompanied by the recognition of the modernist project, of which Portinari was the most acknowledged representative, and Mario de Andrade the main critic. To Portinari, the modern was understood basically as being the modernization of renaissance tradition.2 This same vision of the modern, as continuity rather than rupture, is what led Mario de Andrade to divide his aesthetic analysis between form and content and to defend the notion of workmanship, which, in fact, masked the endorsement of a model of technique taken as eternal truth. Outside these principles, two other artists revealed modernist limitations in their work: Guignard and Goeldi. Guignard was considered a naïve individual with an ability to express the poetry of “the Brazilian soul”. His work, however, is defined by its commitment to seeking to make paintings based on anecdotal links. Rather than deal with “the Brazilian soul” his work seeks, through a tendency that stood out over the course of his career, to annul the figure and background relationship through the dissolution of space and with the subjectified treatment of diluted colour, to trigger a lyrical overflow of the subject in nature. In order to be absorbed into the modernist ideology, his work had to undergo a reductionist reading that left behind its cultural significance, its ontological value.3 In Goeldi, formal resources are exacerbated. He sought to extract from workmanship an expressive relationship with wood, configured in the organization and occupation of the plane 2.

On Portinari, see my own book, A Querela do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, 1982).

3. On Guignard, see the article by Rodrigo Naves “O Olhar Desperso – Notas sobre a Visualidade Brasileira”, in Revista Gávea no. 3, PUC/RIO, June 1986, and in the Guignard catalogue published by the Divisão de Artes Plásticas do Centro Cultural de São Paulo (Fine Arts Department of the São Paulo cultural center), and Museu Lasar Segall in 1992. Also see the catalogue A Modernidade em Guignard, organized by Carlos Zílio, published for the Course for Specialization in Art History and Architecture in Brazil, PUC/RIO, 1982. 3


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through black and white surfaces. An engraving exists as an act, and affirmation of tension between the subject and reality. The artist’s approach clearly uses the subject matter to demonstrate his conflict with the world, because with Goeldi, there is no distinction between ethics and aesthetics. This, however, had nothing in common with political strategies being argued in government offices or social salons. Goeldi opposed nationalism and its rhetoric with an experience of reality; opposed the cubist-academic grandes machines with the simple sheet of paper; the extreme patriotism of optimist positivism with a recognition of historic negativity.4 Although impractical to develop in detail in this space, a significant point for analysis, even briefly, is modernism’s debt to its political opponent, the Academy. Some artists, such as Almeida Junior, due to very specific motivations, were indeed considered by the modernists. However, there is a need to try to ponder in more detail the messianic sense in the founding projects of the Brazilian art system instigated by Debret and developed by Porto Alegre and, particularly, the repercussion of romantic nationalism on the latter. Certainly, the sense of origin and redemption contained in these projects was not alien to modernism. It could, therefore, be affirmed that already present in the Academy as a substrate, were the modernist principles of progress (modernization) and national identity (nationalism). The difference is merely in the change of canons, i.e., in the replacement of the neo-classical reference by post-cubism. Existing interpretations on the view of the Academy held by the modernists remain insufficient. A likely hypothesis is that the historic need for affirmation led them to a simplistic formulation, systematizing the Academy as a single bloc without taking into account its distinct phases and contradictions. The negation of 19th century and early 20th century Brazilian art indeed implied, on the part of the modernists, the appreciation of colonial art as the depository of what are considered to be the most the most authentic values of our culture. However, the Academy confronted by the modernists had come to represent the end of this depository. Art produced after 1882 indicates a dynamic of renovation based on plein air painting, far from neoclassical art and Brazilian historic thematics, typical of the previous period, dominated by Vitor Meirelles and Pedro Américo.5 Late nineteenth century art leaned towards formal investigations approximating preimpressionist sensibility. A complex production process if we consider that it occurred within the Academy itself, carrying, therefore, all the ambiguities of its conservatism. Castagneto was undoubtedly the first Brazilian artist to associate himself with modern painting, developing a relationship between the romantic affiliation of emotive communication and the real. But, for example, Visconti, taken prematurely to be an impressionist, was unable to break from structural ties with delineation of form and with the notion of representation. Contrastively, production in this period would not manage to assimilate within itself the relationship between art and industrial society, increasingly applied as a cultural demonstration in the face of growing industrialization in Brazil. Restricted to a logic of beautification of industrial production, the Academy reserved this function for decorative art. 4. On Goeldi, see Oswaldo Goeldi, PUC/RIO, 1981, edited by Carlos Zílio, and the master’s dissertation for the Master’s degree in The Social History of Culture, PUC/RIO, Goeldi Modernidade Extraviada, by Sheila Cabo Geraldo, Rio de Janeiro, 1995. 5. The reference point for this new direction of the Academy is directly connected to the painter George Grimm, who arrived in Brazil, in all likelihood, in 1878, later assuming the role of itinerant professor at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes (Imperial academy of Fine Arts). 4


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Modernism saw post-cubist rationalism as the response to the inter-relationship between art and industrial society. Nevertheless, in itself this option was considered insufficient insofar as it reproduced the same academic process of affiliation with an external model. Even Porto Alegre’s project saw the national issue limited to thematics or to the incorporation of iconographic elements more identified with Brazilian culture. Modernism, in theory, possessed a more modern notion of this issue, understanding as necessarily being connected to the formulation of a language through a counter-acculturative relationship with post-cubism. The so-called anthropophagic synthesis represents the most complete version of this project. The solutions produced by modernism are, however, extremely limited. Anita Malfatti’s expressionism denotes the emergence of a talent unable to surpass the limits of her 1917 exhibition. The work most representative of the program would be that of Tarsila do Amaral. However, her paintings maintain a permanent ambiguity between schematism and poetic force, a tension revealing the somewhat didactic encapsulation of Léger’s solutions. This contradiction can also be seen in the understanding demonstrated by Tarsila do Amaral of the question of alterity, at times absorbed constitutively as a structural element, but, preponderantly, as illustrative data of nationalist ideology. It was not by chance that a painting such as, for example, O Urutu, farther from post-cubism and with surrealist influences, is worth more in terms of expressive freedom, as it is subjected less to rules and to greater commitment to subjectivity. In any case, her work in pictorial study did not continue after 1933. The social direction of the second phase of modernism would reinforce even further the rhetoric sense of its nationalism, an aspect that can be seen in the work of Portinari, the movement’s emblematic painter. Mario de Andrade’s endorsement of Portinari situates the auto-criticism of his Itamaraty speech as a conservative solution to modernist contradictions. Portinari, former brilliant student of the National School of Fine Arts, was, in fact, the last of the academics. His work would be a reviewed and modernized reinterpretation of the ideas of Porto Alegre. In the wake of its moments, modernism reveals a paradoxical tendency for conservative modernization. In its struggle for innovation, all it apparently achieved was to carry Brazilian culture into modernity. Appearances were deceptive, but did serve, at least, to produce a cultural movement that led society to debate its symbolic values and to boost its art production and circulation system. The works of Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral demonstrate a confrontation with the modern, but their lack of coherence and persistence meant that they did not produce an explosive presence. Guignard would be the most real example of a productive process capable of revealing the struggle for the understanding of modern painting. Whilst Goeldi – the only one to achieve the modern–, did not possess, in his cultural isolation, any substantial political power. Modernism represented a kind of rite of passage for the effective realization of the modern in Brazilian art, which would occur from the 1950s precisely as a reaction to modernism.

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The issue of politics in modernism  

text from Carlos Zilio