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A portable museum for Modernism

The Caixa Modernista [Modernist Box] brings together the most important documents of the movement

What is the ideal size of a museum? Anyone who is only happy with the grand architectonic proportions of a Guggenheim or of a Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo is going to learn to live with a lesser form, but with a lot of content, with a Modernist Box, a true portable museum of the production of the vanguard Brazilian artists which, measuring only 38.5 cm x 30 cm, brings thirty of the most important books and documents on the 1922 Modern Art Week, some in facsimile edition. Launched by the Edusp, the Federal University of Minas Gerais Editor and the Official Press, it has been organized by Jorge Schwartz (a Professor of Hispanic-American Literature at the Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences school of the University of Sao Paulo). “The idea of having an in vivo archive of Modernism is to organize a repertoire, by me considered essential, in a concentrated and kaleidoscopic manner, for a better understanding of this movement, by placing it face to face with the reader”, Professor Schwartz explains.

The Caixa modernista is unfolds from the exhibition Da Antropofagia a Brasília (From anthropophagy to Brasília , carried out at the Valencia Institute of Modern Art in Spain during 2002, and repeated at the Brazilian Modern Art Museum of the Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP), of Sao Paulo, during 2002, both under the curatorship of  Schwartz, which ended up rendering a priceless catalogue edited during that year by Cosac & Naify. However, the launch brought with it unprecedented ‘fetishes’. “Just like every museum operation, there is a desire to place at the disposal of the public, real treasures, beautiful rare works that only some collectors or specialized libraries have the conditions to possess”, he says. Among the highlights within the Modernist Box are separated facsimile editions of Hallucinated City( Paulicea desvairada) by Mario de Andrade and of Pau Brasil (Brazilwood) by Oswald de Andrade, “fundamental pieces in the structuring of the new poetic word”, though today, the public has little access to them.

The idea that guided the Modernist Box was to respect the interdisciplinary character of the Week Of Modern Art ( exhibition that shook Brazilian art in 1922), bringing together objects related to the literature; the fine arts; photography; cinema; architecture; the decorative arts; music and sculpture. For that reason, as well as the books already cited, there are also reproductions of the first edition of the Anthropophagy Magazine of 1928; postcards with the works of Tarsila do Amaral, Di Cavalcanti, Anita Malfatti; photographs dealing with the Week of 22; a CD about Modernism Music, produced by José Miguel Wisnik and Cacá Machado, with works by Villa Lobos, Guarnieri and Nazareth, including original recordings and an unpublished piece by Villa Lobos, recovered and played by Wisnik; as well as the invitation and catalogue of the exhibition of Tarsila at the  Percier Gallery of Paris in 1926.

Into the bargain, an important unpublished piece, “a rare piece of Modernism”: a typewritten program for the Week, on letter headed paper belonging to the Automobile Club and pertaining to the archive of Paulo Prado, where there is registered, in type, prior notice for three nights of the Week. Schwartz also concerned himself in attempting to de-centralize (“in spite of the difficulties”) the role of São Paulo in the modernist movement, without, nevertheless, diminishing its founder merits, equally emphasizing the importance of the foreign presence (Marinetti, Cendrars, Milhaud, among others). “In the decade of the 20s, Modernism had already spread through the entire country. Mario de Andrade, in his preface to Macunaíma, fights for the ‘de-regionalization’ of the movement”, the researcher recalls.

In the midst of the 450-year anniversary of the city of Sao Paulo and a mini-series on the television (Um só coração – One Heart Only, on TV Globo), which retraces the steps of Modernism in the city of São Paulo, the discussion on “provinciality” has gained new colours. “It is indisputable that in 1922 São Paulo was a provincial city in comparison to the capital of the Republic that had been ‘modernized’ starting back in 1905, according to the Parisian model of Hausmann. But it is very different to have only spirit or modernized artists of an attitude progressively programmatic, revolutionary, and in a group, as was the movement of 22”, Professor Schwartz notes. For him the polemic issue may well be settled by looking at the words of Manuel Bandeira, in a commentary made concerning the “Salão”( Revolutionary Salon ) of 1931, in Rio de Janeiro, organized by Lúcio Costa, seen by many as a confirmation of Rio’s a Modernist pioneering attitude . “I would like to confirm that the successful “Salão” has counted upon the São Paulo contribution as a decisive element. Lúcio Costa understood right from the first moment that in material of good artistic direction, São Paulo represents almost all of Brazil. It was from São Paulo that the modern movement set off. The greatest names came from there and hence poets, musicians, painters and sculptors from other states have found the environment in which they were better understood and were most definitely consecrated”, the poet stated to the national daily newspaper, Diário Nacional.

If the epicenter is still controversial, the dimension of the rupture is clear. “The participants themselves remained ‘stupefied’ with their destinies. But when we see, for example, our medal winners on the Globo TV mini-series, that has attained national popularity, we can state that the prophecy of Oswald, that the masses will have to eat their slim fine biscuits, has ended up occurring. What does the Brazilian culture owe to this movement? More than one’s imagination supposes”, Schwartz observes.

For example, he remembers that the debt of concrete poetry to the Modernism, having built part of its design on the presupposed cannibals of Oswald; or, even, the New Cinema (Cinema Novo) as a direct beneficiary of modernist design. Still, according to him, they are reflexes of Week 22:  Tropicalism; the revitalization of Brazilian dramaturgy far beyond Nelson Rodrigues; the development of Brazilian architecture that, though culminating with Brasília, was initiated with the projects of Warchavchik in Sao Paulo, the author, during 1925, of the Manifesto dealing with modern architecture. “If in this precise moment we can look with tranquillity and admiration at an exhibition on African Art in São Paulo, as well as a retrospective look at Picasso, I think that, in the final instance, this is all due to the pathways opened up by the generation of the Week 22, making possible a look into the direction, not always easy, of the abstract codes of modernism. This is not small fry!

But conquests can be accompanied by malevolence. The ‘new’, as a rupture with tradition, as an opposition to the past and all of the presupposed vanguards built into this concept end up, over time, migrating towards the sphere of consumption. The market is inconceivable without this alliance, evil in my view, with the ideology of the new”,  Schwartz notes. At the root of the movement had lodged, without this being desired, its banality. “We have entered into the consumption of “the new for the new” or of new as a fetish. This is very different from the ruptures proposed by the modernists, at a crucial moment in which they had proposed the internationalization of their language.”

Some critics of Modernism also note that the movement passed like a tractor over the academic art produced at that time in Brazil, which had thus impeded a harmonization between the future and the past. “The Week, in order to have revolutionary contours, had to obstinately oppose to everything of traditional opulence. But the history of the movement shows that the compartments were not just so watertight: Anita was only a radical expressionist during a brief period of time; the cubist stage, Pau Brazilianized and the cannibalistic of Tarsila only came into play during the most radical years”, the organizer recalls. For him, a good example of the ambivalence of modernism can be explained in the famous “Salon” of Madame Olívia Guedes Penteado, located at Duque de Caxias Street, where the most traditional academic styles lived within the mansion decorated by Lasar Segall, dedicated in its entirety to the vanguards and where the weekly meetings of the modernist group were carried out.

“Also, when Cendrars came to Brazil one of the group’s activities was to show and to festive over our Baroque, in the famous modernistic caravan that trekked to Minas Gerais during 1924. Or that is to say, the modernists knew how to look to the past, which ‘is a lesson to meditate on not to reproduce’ as Mario de Andrade said in Prefácio interessantissimo [Extremely Interesting Preface] of 1922”, he explains. Elitist and revolutionary movement; aesthetic, but concerned with the social, swerving sometimes towards an admiration for fascism; no matter what it was Modernism could, with justification, be reconsidered, as Mario said, as “the greatest intellectual orgy that the artistic history of the country has registered”. Could we see something similar in the future? Schwartz does not want to make “esoteric forecasts”, but believes that it is worrying the route of globalization of art in which the national stamp does not point towards the referent. “I prefer to dedicate myself to rescuing documents and forgotten or lost papers”, he says.  Schwartz, in reality, is already preparing a Concretist box  and dreams of a new Modernist box with more facsimile documents such as Cobra Norato by Raul Bopp, or Macunaíma, with the designs by Pedro Nava. The remainder lies with the reader. In the end, the Modernist Box, like every good museum, may well contain the past without maltreating the future.