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Modern Art

A clean break

MAM exhibit revisits works by Maria Martins, in an extensive display entitled Metamorphoses

L’Impossible (Impossible), 1940 (bronze)

Rômulo FialdiniL’Impossible (Impossible), 1940 (bronze)Rômulo Fialdini

In 1950, Maria Martins (1894-1973) held her first exhibition in Brazil at São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM-SP). The artist had returned from a long period of residence abroad where she had come into her own as a mature artist. During the 1940s, she had become a prominent participant in the dialogue of the surrealist masters, having developed a body of work marked by the use of elements related to native Brazilian mythologies and by the growing and expressive deformation of the human figure. Upon returning to Brazil, she quickly involved herself in the effervescent movement of creating institutions such as the São Paulo Biennial. After a few short years, struggling to adapt to the predominantly abstract-geometric trends and experiencing problems with her hands that made molding difficult, she abandoned sculpture for literature. The success of her artistic output and her wide network of relationships, however, were not enough to ensure that she was received in the manner expected.

Somewhat paradoxically, Maria Martins enjoyed a privileged position among the premier figures of Brazilian sculpture, although further studies or more extensive displays were not organized around her production. This gap, which began to be filled during the past decade, now profits from the substantial contribution of the exhibition Maria Martins: metamorphoses, on display from June 11 – September 15, 2013 at MAM-SP, a museum that has dedicated itself recently to revisiting some important moments in its history.

The show includes 38 sculptures as well as a extensive array of drawings, ceramics and paintings. It focuses on the phase after 1943, a transformational time in terms of the artist’s output, when she presents a complete and increasingly intense break with past models of direct representation of the human form, distorting it and fusing it with elements of nature. According to Veronica Stigger, exhibition curator, from that point on, Maria Martins begins to create “shapes that float, that are in constant transformation.” Hence the title of the show, Metamorfoses. “The idea is to show how human disfigurement in this work is always just the beginning of another shape, that is first plant then animal,” she explains.

Glèbe-ailes (Earthly Wings), 1944 (bronze)

Cristina IsidoroGlèbe-ailes (Earthly Wings), 1944 (bronze)Cristina Isidoro

Biography and curiosities
The researcher who has been devoted to studying the works of Maria Martins since her post-doctoral studies from 2006 to 2009, does not address the artist’s active and fascinating daily and love life, leaving the biographical information and additional curiosities to a series of new studies released about her over the past decade (such as the 2004 biography by Ana Arruda Callado, the 2009 monograph by Graça Ramos, or the hefty volume entitled Maria, published by Cosac Naify in 2010, which includes a section written by Veronica Stigger). Maria Martins, an active independent woman separated from her conservative husband in the 1920s after having had an affair with none other than Benito Mussolini. With her second husband, Ambassador Carlos Martins, she traveled to several countries (such as Japan, Ecuador and Belgium, where she furthered her artistic studies) and maintained an open relationship. Her most intense and well-known affair was with Marcel Duchamp, who dedicated his works Le paysage fautif and Etant donnés to her. Another fascinating passage along her career trajectory is the fact that she shared the Valentine Gallery with Piet Mondrian in her second individual exhibition in 1942. Her show was a commercial success while Mondrian sold practically nothing. On that occasion, Martins herself purchased the painting Broadway boogie-woogie, which she later donated to the MoMA and is now considered to be one of the highlights of that New York museum.

Maria Martins in her studio, 1950

Reproduction Maria Martins in her studio, 1950Reproduction

Enchantment and estrangement
Instead of organizing the show on the basis of this vibrant biography, Stigger chose to concentrate on the study of the artist’s most mature output by focusing primarily on its formal developments over the course of more than a decade. The exhibition was organized around five nuclei that serve as interpretation without a rigid chronological criterium. The first of these, entitled, “Tropics,” addresses the viewpoint of the outsider, the desire to belong, that is an amalgam of enchantment and estrangement projected by the artist on the nature of the country she had left over 15 years before and that she spells out in the titles of her works. One need only recall, for example, the 1945 piece Não te esqueças que eu venho dos trópicos (Never forget that I come from the tropics), which will be in the exhibition. Interestingly, other important artists like Vicente do Rego Monteiro also forged a relationship of intense redemption of the imaginary and of Brazilian culture while abroad.

Next comes the “Lianas” nucleus, in which one notes a certain agitation in the relaxation of the shapes, which are distorted in tentacular structures that resemble tangled lianas and branches. The show closes with the groups entitled “Hymns” and “Skeletons” that repeat the trend towards abstraction, in search of a way to give form to the formless and reduce sculpture to a basic, almost inorganic, structure.

Hasard hagard, 1947 (bronze)

Vicente de Mello/ Cosac Naify publisherHasard hagard, 1947 (bronze)Vicente de Mello/ Cosac Naify publisher

The third nucleus, “Gods and monsters,” seems to focus on some of the aspects most often visited in the works of Maria Martins. This title came from a poem she wrote, entitled Explicação (Explanation): “I know that my gods and my monsters will always appear sensual and wild.” This quote has two main aspects: the oneiric, fanciful nature that surrounds the surrealist universe, and the strong tension it establishes between attraction and repulsion, eroticism and agressivity, clearly present in O impossível (Impossible) one of her most notable works. It is a tension that calls to mind a “tortured spirit,” as professed by Mário Pedrosa (who did not find Maria Martins pleasing because they were full of “cracks” and “inconsistencies”), or a provocative play on ambiguities, as noted by French critic Stéphane Le Follic, who states that, “Maria portrays the theme of the female body rivaling the lightness of the lianas, fusing with the plant to the point of not knowing how to distinguish between the two or determine if it is completeness or torture.”

The question of whether or not the artist belongs to the surrealist movement is not a major issue for Veronica Stigger. She does not think that Martins’ proximity to the group should be seen as the artist’s full-out enlistment, because she detested the “isms”. Instead Stigger sees it as a result of the deep bonds the artist established with the leaders of the movement, like Max Ernst and André Breton (who write several pieces about her work), especially during the time she lived in the United States, and the confluence of interests among them. The researcher sums it up by saying, “It appears as if he (Breton) finds the relationship with nature that is the face of surrealism in her work.”

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