Tarsila do Amaral: Cannibalizing modernism


Tarsila do Amaral (Capivari, SP, 1886-São Paulo, 1973) is one of the greatest Brazilian artists of the 20th century and a central figure of modernism. This is the widest exhibition ever dedicated to the artist, bringing together 92 works selected taking into consideration new perspectives, readings and contextualizations.

From a wealthy family of landowners in the interior of São Paulo state, Tarsila developed her work based on her experiences and studies in Paris beginning in 1923. In her classes with André Lhote (1885-1962) and Fernand Léger (1881-1955), she learned to devour the modern styles of European painting, such as Cubism, to digest them and, in an anthropophagic manner, to produce something unique. It is important to take into account the notion of antropofagia by Oswald Andrade (1890–1954), a poetic program through which Brazilian intellectuals would cannibalize European cultural references in order to metabolize and produce something singular and hybrid of their own, while also bringing indigenous, Afro-Atlantic, and local elements into their work. 

Upon her return from Paris, Tarsila declared:

“I’m deeply Brazilian and I’m going to study the taste and art of our caipiras [people from the countryside]. I hope to study, in the countryside, with those who have not yet been corrupted by the academies.”

The focus of the exhibition is the popular, or the vernacular, a notion as complex in Brazil as it is contested, and which Tarsila explored in different ways throughout her career. The popular is associated with debates on national art or identity and the invention or construction of brasilidade, Brazilianness. In Tarsila, the popular is manifested in landscapes of the countryside or the suburbs, the farm or the favela, populated by people of indigenous or African descent, characters from Brazilian folklore, full of animals and plants, both real and fantastic. But Tarsila’s palette (which served as inspiration for the colors of the exhibition design) is also popular: “pure blue, violaceous rose, bright yellow, singing green.”

Much of the art criticism on Tarsila to this day in Brazil has emphasized her French affiliations and genealogies, possibly in search of the artist’s international legitimization, but thus marginalizing the themes, characters, and popular narratives that she constructed. Today, after successful shows in the United States and Europe, we can look at Tarsila in other ways. In this sense, the essays and commentaries on her works included in the exhibition and in the catalog are central elements of this project. It is not by chance that the controversial painting A Negra [The Negress] has received special attention from the authors and is a central work in the exhibition.

Tarsila do Amaral: Cannibalizing Modernism does not seek to exhaust all these discussions, which take into account questions of race, class and colonialism. But the project does point to the need to study this artist, so fundamental in our art history, from new perspectives and approaches.

This exhibition is part of a series that MASP has organized reassessing the notion of the popular in Brazil: from A mão do povo brasileiro, 1969/2016 [The Hand of the Brazilian People, 1969/2016] and Portinari popular [Popular Portinari] in 2016 to Agostinho Batista de Freitas in 2017 and Maria Auxiliadora in 2018. Tarsila do Amaral: Cannibalizing Modernism is contextualized in a full year dedicated to women artists at the museum in 2019 under the heading Women’s Histories, Feminist Histories. The exhibition dialogues with two others dedicated to artists who explored the notion of the popular through different approaches: Djanira: Picturing Brazil, on view through May 19th, and Lina Bo Bardi: Habitat, on view through July 28th.

CURATED BY Adriano Pedrosa, Artistic Director, MASP; Fernando Oliva, Curator, MASP