What history is this?

Research intends to bring shape to a critical history of Brazilian art

The doctorate thesis of the art critic Sonia Salzstein Goldberg, The Modern Question: Impasses and Perspectives of Brazilian Art, 1910 – 1950, aims to constitute a theoretical perspective with the objective of bringing forth a critical history of Brazilian art. Oriented by the philosopher Marilena Chauí, Sonia began her work in 1994 (when she received a FAPESP scholarship for 36 months), finished in May and should defend her thesis in November at the Philosophy Department of the Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences School of the University of São Paulo.

Since her graduation in Fine Arts from the School of Communication and Arts (ECA-USP), in 1977, the restlessness of Sonia, who also studied philosophy at the same university, dived into the problems of contemporary art, both from the historical point of view, and that of its spreading and organization. In Art, Institution, and Cultural Modernization in Brazil/ an Institutional Experience, the dissertation of her masters degree, also orientated by Marilena Chauí (and which she presented and defended at the Philosophy Department of the Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences School of USP in 1994), Sonia discussed the possibility of Brazilian art spreading itself through a public space with a more incisive presence in cultural Brazilian life.

Besides, the researcher moved towards practice, organizing a highly successful space for contemporary art at the São Paulo Cultural Center (CCSP), through which she gave incentive to samples of the works of the so-called emerging artists. It was from this experience – and as the curator of the expositions at the International Biennial of Art in São Paulo during 1987 – that the researcher could confirm a shortage of critical and theoretical material for an understanding of Brazilian art.

“We still don’t have a history of Brazilian modern art, in spite of it coming internationally known over the last three decades”, says Sonia. In her opinion, it was only at the beginning of the 70s that works about Brazilian modernism began to come forward. She gives as examples works such as Artes Plásticas na Semana de 22 (Fine Arts in the Week of 1922), by Aracy Amaral (Perspective, 1972), and De Anita ao Museu (From Anita to the Museum), by Paulo Mendes de Almeida (Perspective, 1976), among others. “However, from the point of view of the rooting of art in social life, the existing material is still scarce and the position that fine arts have occupied didn’t result into institutional efforts”, suggests Sonia. The initiatives in this regard , according to her, are scattered points and do not revert to systematic actions over a long period of time, capable of making the history of Brazilian art take off.

The problem created by this scarcity works like a conducting wire in The Modern Question: Impasses and Perspectives of Brazilian Art, 1910 -1950. In this manner, the thesis looks to contribute towards the filling of this gap and to “start off the discussion in terms of contradictions in the contemporary artistic production in the country”, as the researcher herself explains.

At the very beginning Sonia thought about directing her thesis with a link from the artistic production of the first half of the 21st century, to the Minas Gerais baroque of the 18th century, and more precisely to the works of Antônio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho. “This interested me considerably because it would genetically underline the possibility of thinking about a history of Brazilian art”, she says. In her opinion, the works of Aleijadinho is an exemplary case of poetic and formal realization of colonial autonomy. The son of a black mother and a Portuguese father, and of a lower class, the mulatto artist – in Sonia’s view – is the representation of the aboriginal vision. “This would have allowed me to start from the object, Aleijadinho, to the modern”, she tells.  “But then, this seemed to me to be a pretentious idea that would result in a type of superficial mosaic of the history of Brazilian art.”

Consequently, Sonia decided to lean towards the period between 1910 and 1950. For her, this was the moment that defined a deep process of formal renovation. “More generically, of the renovation of themes and motivations of cultural debate in the country”, she observes. “After all, it was during these four decades that Brazilian artistic production began to gain autonomy in the face of the cultural matrixes that fixed themselves like important paradigms in the course of their formation.”

Sonia explains that, more that simply discussing the realizations of inaugural generations of our modern art, the work deals with formal hybrid solutions and contradictions that an aspiration to emancipated modernism produced in the works of these generations, conferring upon them, in her words “an inescapable ideological patina.” For her, such aspiration was the tone of the artistic production throughout this first half of our century. In this context, Sonia aimed to analyze the contradictions that this stimulated in the Brazilian cultural environment during that period, and the ideological formation that can be detected in the analysis of the interior of the works produced by artists such as Tarsila do Amaral, Di Cavalcanti, Portinari, Guignard and later Mira Schendel.

“By linking to the process of the search for cultural emancipation, the idea of modernism in Brazilian art marked, during that period, the pulsation of this search”, she emphasizes.  “This shows itself through luminous and renewable sides, but as well through moments of regression”, observed Sonia. She further emphasizes that the irregularities in the works of art produced in the country occurred, above all, between the first decade and the end of the 40s. “The works propitiated transforming facets with some return to academic canons”, she explained. In this way, her critique points to the organic linkage of these contradictions and ideological formations to a cultural environment formed in a dynamism of dependence and submitted to impacts with cyclical waves of modernization.

The ideology in the work
This process of cultural modernization, according to Sonia, cannot be dissociated from the process of the modernization of the country. Nevertheless, she assures that in spite of the historical perspective, all of her analysis centers itself in the search for these nuances in the works, strictly from the formal point of view. For all of this, within the close to 200 pages of the thesis – divided into twelve chapters and with an extensive bibliography –, Tarsila do Amaral and Di Cavalcanti, each one has a chapter apart. Similarly, the triad of Tarsila/Di/Portinari earned a text in which Sonia analyzes and criticizes the consecrated and celebrated image that has woven itself around these artists. She highlights that the first critical study of this ideology of modern Brazilian art was carried out by Carlos Zílio in his work A Querela do Brasil, A Questão da Identidade da Arte Brasileira – a Obra de Tarsila, Di Cavalcanti e Portinari/1922-1945 (Funarte, 1982, 1st edition). [Brazil Debate, The question of Identity of Brazilian Art – The Works Tarsila, Di Cavalcanti e Portinari/1922-1945]

“The thesis aims to revisit the idea of modernism and to look at what there is in ideological construction in the work itself, because this ideology, in a certain manner, placed a strait jacket on artistic production”, says the author. Her work also unveils that if at the first moment the process of modernization appeared in an incipient manner in the works of Tarsila do Amaral or of Guignard, close to the decade of the 50s the production of these artists blossomed. Finally, the thesis finishes with the contribution that this maturing of the original modern idea lead to the neo-concrete production at the end of the decade of the 50s and in works such as that of the artist Mira Schendel.

Thus, the art critic observes that the artistic production of the years of the 50s runs through a solitary path, on the one hand – at the hands of artists such as Volpi or Mira and later still Sérgio Camargo –, and in groups such as those in Rio de Janeiro with neo-concretism. “The 50s witnessed the plenitude of modern experience and at the same time its splintering or unthreading”, narrated Sonia. Consequently, for her, the artistic production of that period opened the horizon to contemporary artistic problems.

In the final chapters of her work, Sonia dealt with the contemporary Brazilian artistic environment. “The thesis demonstrates that, thanks to such a heterodox form of experience, Brazilian art can, in general, demonstrate consistency and originality in the face of the recent phenomenon of globalization”, she explains. “The phenomenon that marked the integration of Brazilian art onto the international artistic world stage is analyzed as a kind of culmination and running out of renewable power that the modernistic movement has had since the years of the 20s, and the fulcrum of new challenges that present themselves for the production and reflection of art within the country”, she concludes.

• Sonia Salzstein Goldberg is an art critic who graduated from the School of Communications and Arts (ECA) of the University of São Paulo. She has her masters in philosophy from USP, where she also did her doctorate. She began her professional life in 1976 at the Idart – Information and Artistic Documentation of the Municipal Secretary of Culture. She was the director of the scientific division the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) of São Paulo. She organized the contemporary art space at the Cultural Center of São Paulo, of the Municipal Secretary of Culture.
Project: The Modern Question: Impasses and Perspectives of Brazilian Art, 1910/1950