Lessons from Tarsila: Sensitivity through an Awareness of Point of View

Brazilian art at the turn of the 20th century was a scene dominated by the elite upper-class. Fueled by a desire to portray a unique cultural identity to the western world, artists began to search for themes that distinguished their daily experiences

from those of their European counterparts. However, because Brazil’s aristocratic traditions evolved from exclusively European roots, the cultural aesthetics that were exported overseas by the artists of the 1920s Brazilian upper-class were inherently based on European culture. As we will see, some of the most popular pieces from this period fell short of painting accurate depictions of the Nation of Brazil that, while not yet globally recognized, had existed in its own right for generations.

In addition to the persistence of European cultural traditions in elite Brazilian society, the schools these artists attended in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo taught European styles and techniques. While these artists were encouraged to draw inspiration from their tropical settings, close attention was always paid to changing trends overseas. Because the Brazilian art world was so conservative, students were required to study in Europe to gain a foothold back home from which to launch their careers. For young artists, there was no academic alternative to these confining schools until the overthrow of Brazil’s imperial regime in 1889. For the first time since its independence, Brazil was ruled by a Republican government, and in accordance with the growing sentiment of nationalism, artists were awarded more creative freedom. The schools’ conservative faculties were dismissed along with any artists that held ties to the former Emperor, but artists who were serious about their studies continued to flock overseas.

As nationalist sentiments continued to grow among Brazil’s upper-class, artists swelled with a desire to be recognized at home and in Europe for introducing authentically Brazilian art to western society. As modern art forms like avant-garde, cubism, and expressionism grew in popularity overseas, similar scenes were entered into in Brazil. Avant-garde forms, in particular, resonated well in São Paulo. In 1922, in honor of the centennial anniversary of Brazil’s independence, examples of the form were officially presented at the city’s Municipal Theatre. The event, titled Semana de arte moderna, was primarily organized by the avant-garde poets Oswald and Mario de Andrade and the influential painter Emiliano di Cavalcanti. The work had a significant impact on Brazilian art to come, but even though the event was conducted by Brazilians in Brazil, European influence was still very evident. The presentation was given in the style of previous events held in Deauville, France, and author Jaqueline Barnitz even goes so far as to suggest that the shows “had all the scandalous character of European dadaist and futurist performances.”

Shortly after A Semana de arte moderna, Tarsila do Amaral, one of the most internationally celebrated Brazilian painters of the 1920s returned to São Paulo from her studies in Paris. Among others, she was promptly introduced to Mario de Andrade, di Cavalcanti, and Oswald de Andrade. The following year the couple returned to Paris where Tarsila first adopted cubism. Though her style continued to evolve from the influences of her many European mentors, she was credited as the first “to explore Brazilian themes within a cubist context.” While her work was a huge step for Brazilian art, it also demonstrated some of the problematic consequences of her European-based perspective.

One of the problematic impressions Tarsila created was a misleading conception of Brazilian aesthetics. Tarsila’s systematic use of cheerful colors and tropically tranquil motifs tend to lead viewers toward a sense that the country is, in fact, a tropical paradise. Given her upbringing (she was the daughter of plantation owners who could afford to support her in her art), it makes sense that Tarsila might have developed a less than realistic understanding of the everyday hardships experienced by most of the country. However, even though she spent time in the company of other artists, touring many of the locations she illustrated, her depictions (and systematic omissions) remained largely consistent throughout her career. In 1924, for example, she toured the urban centers of São Paulo, its many railroad stations, and Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. Her paintings, adorned with “a quality of studied naïveté,” attempt to showcase the impressive development of her country. For example, her painting Estrado de ferro central do Brasil (Central Railway of Brazil) shows the magnitude of the infrastructure needed to support the fragile manganese industry upon which the government relied. Her “naïveté” selectively leaves out how run down those lines were from overuse throughout the 20s, and the subsequent debt that their maintenance piled on the fragile new republic.

Similarly, Tarsila’s illustration of Carnival en madureira (Carnival in Madureira) depicts “mulatos and blacks” in the late-cubist styles of Gleizes and Léger, two of her strongest influences from Paris. Though the style necessitates a certain simplification of the subject, none of the cultural significance of Carnival is visible. Carnival is a tradition nearly as old as Brazil, and much of its significance is the festival’s role as a once-a-year release of the immense pressure which builds up in a society lacking in social mobility. Furthermore, in order to demonstrate the festival’s potential proximity to western audiences, she includes a depiction of the Eifel Tower.

Later that year, she collaborated with Oswald on a project entitled Pau Brasil. It is a book, illustrated by Tarsila in a simple style which shows optimism for the cultural and environmental changes that accompanied the early onset of Brazil’s modernization. Pau Brasil, which translates to “Brazilwood,” was Oswald’s metaphor for packaging Brazilian cultural identity into art and poetry for export and sale to Europe. It is a reference to the principle export of the original Portuguese colonists centuries before. In fact, their simplified treatment of true Brazilian nationalism seems to undermine the beginning of one of the most significant phases of Brazil’s development as a country. The massive push for modernization that began in the 1920s is still affecting today’s Brazilian society.

Perhaps Tarsila’s most disturbing and misleading oversimplification was her depiction of favelas in her painting Morro da favela (Shantytown hill). By choosing to turn a blind eye to the “squalid conditions of its inhabitants,” and focus instead on the hill’s “rural charm,” she reaffirms how detached she was from her subjects. Consciously or not, she ignored both the importance and implications of the realities of the majority of her underprivileged countrymen and women. In the end, it was precisely these ignored people who went on to form the backbone of industrial, nationalist Brazil. Later artists would display Brazilian life, identity, and, most importantly, the sentiments of the people of urban areas undergoing development. Whereas Tarsila worked hard to “translate modernism into a Brazilian idiom” through her “style that was always rooted in the tenets she learned from the Paris modernists with whom she studied,” she ended up showing the world a Nation of Brazil that never really existed.

Despite her tendency to omit details that often rendered her work insensitive, I clearly see that Tarsila do Amaral succeeded in at least three monumental accomplishments. First, she succeeded as a dynamo that set in motion a tradition of authentically Brazilian modern art that is still alive today, and that is no small task. Secondly, her work may serve as a perfect example of the different points of view from which we all interpret truth. I offer that we all should take care as we zoom out and speak about bigger pictures in terms that dodge insensitivity. Lastly, Tarsila sparked a global interest in the ever rising Nation of Brazil. Though the country did end up paying a severe price for its rapid modernization, today it is the fourth most populated democracy in the world while still managing to maintain the world’s ninth strongest economy. That statistic is not trivial either, and it might not have been possible without the global attention Tarsila and her colleagues helped to focus on their country.


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