The second decade of the 20th Century is represented
by the Picasso-influenced modern wave with paintings
by Di Cavalcanti, Tarsila do Amaral and others.
By Ernest Barteldes
This writer has been in New York for a year, and it’s always a pleasure to have an opportunity to revisit something
that is related to the land where I spent the greater part of my years.
Brazil: Body and Soul is the name of the exhibit that opened at the Guggenheim Museum last Oct. 19. The first
contact we have with Brazilian art is an impressive 17th century altar that was brought in from the state of Pernambuco, Brazil
As I saw the structure, I recalled when I saw that same altar where it originally stoodinside the São Bento
monastery in the historical city of Olinda (not far from Recife, Pernambuco’s state capital), in the northeastern area of Brazil.
It is quite impressive how they took apart the enormous structure, which reaches the museum’s third floor, to bring it
over to New York. Seeing the sacred structure inside the museum gave me mixed emotions, which I will get back to later in
On we went up the Guggenheim’s Rotundas to admire, remember and learn more about the history of Brazilian art.
The first part begins with visions of Brazil by foreign artists. For example, there are paintings by Frans Post and Albert
Eckhout who made paintings from life during the short-lived Dutch colonization of the Northeastern part of the country (mainly Recife).
The works basically depict life in the colony, with its natives, Africans and colonizers. The exhibit then moves on to
the Baroque period. A lot of three-dimensional wooden and stone sculptures of deep religious influence, such as those made
by Antônio Francisco de Lisboa, who was better known as
O Aleijadinho (The Little Cripple), who was the most prominent
artist of that era.
The 19th century is represented by the Afro art, rich with symbols of the Candomblé, which is the African religion
that was taken to Brazil by the enslaved blacks, who mostly resisted the Christian education that the Portuguese attempted to
impose on them.
Today, Candomblé (despite the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church) is present in every place in Brazil,
although its influence is mostly felt in the northeastern state of Bahia and in Rio de Janeiro, where the concentration of
African-Brazilians is higher than in other states.
The second decade of the 20th Century is represented by the Picasso-influenced modern wave that began during the
Modern Art Week of 1922 in São Paulo. Paintings by Di Cavalcanti, Tarsila do Amaral and others are well represented, such as
the historical Antropofagia (Anthropophagy, 1929) by Tarsila, as she is known in Brazil.
Tarsila do Amaral spent several years in Paris and she took home the influences she received from Cubism, Purism
and other emerging European art tendencies. Later in life, she turned to social realism, responding to her admiration for
Soviet art and culture.
The 1930s are represented by the art that was developed under the dictatorship of President Getúlio Vargas
(1930-1945 and elected back into office in 1950, where he remained until his infamous suicide in August 1954). Landscapes mark
that era, and the best known artist of those times was Cândido Portinari.
Other eras are also well represented, but a description of them would make this article too long. Between phases
there are several video showcases that are screened on the walls between floors. One of the screenings is
O Pagador de Promessas aka The Given
Word, the 1961 movie that depicts the sad story of Zé do Burro, who promised St. Barbaraon a
Candomblé ritualto take a cross to a church in Salvador, Bahia. The priest denies his entrance as he approaches the church, and
his presence, day after day, in front of the church, raises a media havoc that ends in tragedy.
Another one is It’s All True, the unfinished Orson Welles movie that tells the true story of three fishermen from
Fortaleza, Brazil who sail 2,000 miles to Rio de Janeiro (then the nation’s capital) in protest againt the harsh condition that their
profession, the jangadeiros, faced every day, and to ask the nation’s president for help.
Welles was impressed with the story, and traveled to Brazil in order to document how the story happened by doing it
all over again, but this time on film. The shoot ended in tragedy with the death of one of the fishermen, and Welles
abandoned the project, which was only posthumously released almost 50 years lateredited by two Brazilian filmmakers.
One of the last video screenings is
Carnavalbasically a video of the parade performed by the Samba Schools in
Rio every year during Mardi Gras, which is one of the lowest points of
Brazil Body and Soul. Sadly, the video depicts only
the exhibition of flesh that is common during those paradesmodels and wannabes who display their enhanced bodies in
order to either get their "fifteen minutes" or a contract with
Playboy. Carnaval is not that.
The celebration, which used to mark the four days of free partying before the period of Holy Lent is one of the
trademarks of Brazilian culture, and it is a nationwide holiday where people dance, have fun and perform certain "excesses". The
displays of nudity are part of the parades in São Paulo and Rio, but that is not true in the rest of the country, although that is the
image that most foreignersespecially Americansget.
Another low point to this writer is one of the most stunning parts of the showthe already mentioned altar from the
São Bento Monastery in Olinda. It is hard to understand how the Brazilian authorities (not to mention the Roman Catholic
Church in Brazil itself) allowed a historical altar, which stood for more than 200 years inside a church of historical importance
to the country, to be taken apart and included in a commercial exhibit in foreign lands.
Such a desecration would be comparable to taking an American symbol apart (say, the Washington Memorial) and
taking it somewhere around the world to be put into display for cash. Of course, some might argue, Brazil is a Third-World
impoverished country, but some things should not be allowed to be done. Taking apart a two-and-a-half century-old altar is
definitely one of them.
Brazil Body and Soul is, despite its low points, a worthwhile experience for anyone interested in art from a country
that has given a significant contribution to it on a very global basis.
|Brazil Body and Soul
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street)
New York, NY
Ernest Barteldes is an ESL and Portuguese teacher. In addition to that, he is a freelance writer whose work has been
published by The Greenwich Village Gazette, The Staten Island Advance, The Staten Island Register, The SI Muse, Brazzil
magazine, The Villager, GLSSite, Entertainment Today
and other publications. He lives in Staten Island, NY. He can be reached