The Nature of the Brazilian Avant Garde


When ascending the first set of stairs in the MoMA, the viewer is greeted by a six foot portrait of Tarsila do Amaral beckoning them into the first showing of her work in the United States. This show, focusing on her pieces from the 1920s while she was in flux between São Paulo and Paris, exhibits some of her most influential works along with those from her academic years. This provides an interesting contrast and lays out a map of her artistic development over the course of a decade.

To open the show, A Cuca sits next to the title as the first work to the right. It is tucked away in its own niche. Setting this work apart from the others emphasizes that it is the only piece that maintains its original frame. Encapsulated by large wooden paneling on the sides and cylindrical snakeskin forms on the top and bottom, the canvas in the center features mythical creatures sharing an environment with recognizable animals, such as a frog and an oversized caterpillar. This work provides a precursor to the show by introducing Amaral’s avant garde and unique seamless style with its vibrant colors, organic forms, use of beautifully blended tonal gradation, and the incorporation of the native Brazilian flora and fauna.

The gallery then continues starting with work from her academic career: which includes her sketches, studies, and experimentation with cubist forms. As the exhibit progresses, many of the earlier elements that she began exploring in these academic studies are expanded upon and developed. The exhibit successfully communicates the progression of these elements by organizing them chronologically and following the course of her career.

Tarsila do Amaral’s arguably most well known work, Abaporu, receives its own corner in the gallery that seeks to contextualize and explain Amaral’s connection to the “Anthropophagy Manifesto.” Along with Antropofagia, Abaporu provides the audience with context to the political and social movement that Amaral is most often associated with. It describes the politics as those that tested “the hegemonic structures inherited through centuries of colonialism” and celebrated Brazilian indigenism. This is mirrored in the striking works by Amaral through the characters with large hands and feet connecting them to the land as they sit resting without any dress that could associate them with those previously mentioned “hegemonic structures.”

The exhibit ends with a striking move that diverges from the style that the viewer has come to expect from Tarsila do Amaral. Operários abandons the vibrant colors for a more reserved and realistic array of neutrals. It also leaves behind the mystical, natural elements showcased in the other works throughout the gallery. The flora and fauna of Brazil are traded for geometric building scenes and smokestacks, the simple and faceless figures of the “Anthropophagy Manifesto,” and earlier works, are switched out for the deadpan faces of real Brazilians. Although one might experience this work as an odd break from the show, it serves as a historically accurate marker for the continuation of Tarsila do Amaral’s career as she distanced herself from her more imaginative works and focused on “a more socially committed form of representation.”

"Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil" is on view at The Museum of Modern Art until June 3rd, 2018.