The Legendary Painter Who Inspired Brazil’s ‘Cannibalist’ Movement Gets a Major MoMA Show

Tarsila do Amaral's art is one of the key influences on Brazil's modernist boom.

Set to arrive at the Museum of Modern Art in February 2018, “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil” marks the latest in a veritable boom in Brazilian modernism at major North American museums. It comes hot on the heels of monographic shows dedicated to Lygia Clark at the MoMALygia Pape at the Met Breuer, and Hélio Oiticica at the Carnegie Museum of Art (currently at the Whitney).

Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973), however, is both a more senior and less well-known figure, on these shores at least. As a painter, she laid the foundations for the radical work of the abstract and Neo-Concretist artists who defined Brazilian art in the 1960s. Thus, MoMA’s show not only seeks to introduce her art to North American audiences, but simultaneously to look at the roots of the mid-century Brazilian art that has recently come into such favor.

The exhibition spans do Amaral’s most productive decade, beginning with her early Parisian works of the 1920s. Created while she was under the tutelage of Fernand Léger, these early artworks mixed Latin American and African influences with Cubist elements.

Tarsila do Amaral, Setting Sun (1929). Photo: © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

Tarsila do Amaral, Setting Sun (1929). Photo: © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

Upon returning to Brazil in the mid 1920s, do Amaral began to experiment with a form of lush nature painting. She took fresh inspiration from the colors of the Brazilian landscape, previously considered to be in bad taste, enthusiastically incorporating Brazilian themes.

In 1928 she created her most celebrated work, Abaporu, a birthday gift to her husband Oswald de Andrade. The title, from the tupi-guarani language, means “Man Who Eats Man.” Today, Abaporu is considered one of the most iconic Brazilian works of art. (It was purchased for $1.4 million by Argentine industrialist Eduardo Costantini in 1995.)

Tarsila do Amaral, <em>Abaporu</em> (1928). Image courtesy MALBA.

Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu (1928). Image courtesy MALBA.

Do Amaral’s evocative image of a looming, distorted figure of a man, the sun, and a cactus inspired de Andrade to pen the famous Anthropophagite Manifesto (called the Cannibalist Manifesto in English), and to found the seminal Anthropophagic Movement. Do Amaral and her husband declared that the intermixing of cultures from Europe, indigenous peoples, and the descendants of African slaves and Asian immigrants was the basis for a new style.

The year following the painting of Abaporu, do Amaral split from da Andrade, after discovering his affair with an 18-year-old student and writer known as Pagu. In the 1930s, her work changed, a shift charted at MoMA: Socialist themes came to the fore, inspired by her relationship with a left-wing doctor, Osório Cesar. The shift resulted in important, large-scale works depicting Brazilian working men and women.

All told, the MoMA showcase features some 130 pieces including paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and photographs.

“Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil” runs from February 11–June 3, 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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