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Aracy Amaral: A visionary of modernity

A scholar of Brazilian cultural movements, Aracy Amaral has built bridges with Latin American countries through her comparative research and transnational exhibitions

Léo Ramos Chaves

Art historian and critic Aracy Amaral has studied Brazilian artistic movements since the 1950s, and has authored seminal research on modernism and the relationship between Brazilian and Latin American culture. She developed the first systematic survey of the oeuvre of painter Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973), exploring a wide range of academic publications, newspaper articles, and exhibitions. A retired professor of art history at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of São Paulo (FAU-USP), she served as director at the São Paulo Pinacotheca from 1975 to 1979, and at USP’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) from 1982 to 1986. In 2006 she was presented with a Fundação Bunge Award for her contribution to the field of museology.

Drawing on her research, she has curated more than 50 exhibitions, among them the 34th Panorama of Brazilian Art at the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) in São Paulo, in 2015, featuring the works of six guest authors in a dialog with prehistoric art. Her most recent exhibition, organized in partnership with art historian Regina Teixeira de Barros, opened in September at MAM-SP. Amaral says the exhibition provides insights from more than 60 years of scholarship, shedding light on the various modernisms that have emerged in Brazilian art and culture since the twentieth century, in an analysis that extends beyond developments involving institutions and artists in Rio and São Paulo.

Amaral was born in São Paulo. Her father, Aguinaldo Amaral, worked at the Brazilian Coffee Institute and his employment there led him to move with his family to Buenos Aires, Argentina, were Amaral attended her first years of elementary school. She was formerly married to Chilean artist Mario Toral, with whom she had a son, historian and illustrator Andre Toral, who has given her two granddaughters.

Age 91
Field of expertise
Modernism, constructivism, and Latin American art
University of São Paulo (USP)
Educational background
BA in Journalism, Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (1959); MA in Philosophy (1969) and PhD in Arts, USP (1971)
19 books and more than 50 exhibitions curated

With an eclectic background, before starting her career in arts she previously worked in news media and as an advertising copywriter. In 1972, she hosted a daily show about visual arts at São Paulo radio station Jovem Pan. Among her most important books is Tarsila: Sua obra e seu tempo (Tarsila: Her work and her time; Editora Perspectiva, 1975; Editora 34/Edusp, 2010), which drew on her doctoral research at USP’s School of Communications and Arts (ECA) in 1971. Other significant works include Arte e sociedade no Brasil (Brazilian art and society; Callis, 2005), a collaboration with her son; Arte para quê? A preocupação social na arte brasileira (Why art? Social concern in Brazilian art; Studio Nobel, 2003); Artes plásticas na Semana de 22 (Fine arts during Modern Art Week; Editora 34, 1998—this book was republished in 2010 and this year was translated and published in Russia); and Blaise Cendrars no Brasil e os modernistas (Blaise Cendrars in Brazil and the modernists; Martins Editora, 1970; FAPESP/Editora 34, 2021). In the latter book, she explores the influence of Blaise Cendrars—the pseudonym of Swiss writer Frédéric Louis Sauser (1887–1961)—on Brazil’s artistic milieu. Amaral has also published two books in Spanish: Arquitectura neocolonial: América Latina, Caribe, Estados Unidos (Neocolonial Architecture: Latin America, Caribbean, US; Memorial: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994) and Arte y arquitectura del modernismo brasileño: 1917–1930 (Brazilian modernist art and architecture: 1917–1930; Fundación Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1978).

In a video interview with Pesquisa FAPESP just before she opened her exhibition at MAM, Amaral shared her thoughts about new generations of researchers, the gaps she sees in art history research, and the legacy left by Modern Art Week in Brazil.

Reproduced A poster advertising Modern Art Week, the theme of an exhibition opening at MAM in SeptemberReproduced

As a pioneer in the field of curatorship in Brazil, you organized your first exhibitions and catalogs back in the 1960s. What has changed since then?
A lot. Back in the day, organizing an exhibition and researching and compiling exhibits and items was a very laborious task. I had to do everything on my own, and I struggled to organize my library in an orderly fashion. When I wrote invitations or requests to borrow items for my shows, I used by old Olivetti Lettera 22. I would keep a carbon copy and send the letters my mail. This was the process I used, for example, to organize exhibitions such as “Tarsila: 50 years of painting” at MAC-USP in 1969; “Alfredo Volpi: Paintings from 1914–1972,” at MAM, Rio de Janeiro, in 1972; and my first large exhibition in 1973, featuring some of the precursors of video art. I only started using a computer in the 1990s.

More than 50 years after your first exhibition, you’ve been involved in research since 2019 for an exhibition that has just opened at MAM. How would you describe your latest event?
Regina Teixeira de Barros and I were invited to organize an exhibition celebrating modernism and the 100th anniversary of Modern Art Week in 2022. The exhibition was meant to be in the first half of the year, but the pandemic and the problems we all had in 2021 required us to postpone the event. Our idea was to focus not only on Modern Art Week itself and the surrounding events in São Paulo, but to try to show how the modernist movement reached across Brazil. We cover the period from 1900 to 1937, including pre-modernism, the profusion of modernisms in the 1920s, and the arts scene after the stock market crash of 1929. The first rumblings of modernism among Brazilian artists began in the late nineteenth century. From then to the 1930s, the modes of modernist expression evolved in different artistic fields, including poetry, music, popular art, and the visual arts. The desire for renewal that emerged at the turn of the century was intensified in the 1910s, driven by Brazil’s gradual breaking away from the monarchic era and the establishment of the Republic in 1889. In our exhibition, we’ve included works by artists that some people will look at and perhaps say: “But is this modern? It doesn’t look modern to me…” Compared to what was happening in Europe and the works of the main exponents of avant-garde movements such as Cubism or Surrealism, some works are, in fact, not modern. Yet they do express a desire to be modern, a longing to modernize that would only materialize fully in the 1920s. The modernist movement was not confined to São Paulo, extending as far as Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte, Pará, and Amazonas. Well before Modern Art Week, these regions had, each in its own way, shown a desire for a more current artistic language and to distance themselves from the aesthetic models of previous decades. For the exhibition, we created a catalog of essays by researchers from all over Brazil, each specializing in a different historical period.

What particular works best illustrate these other modernisms outside Rio and São Paulo?
There’s a large panel over 10 meters long by Cícero Dias [1907–2003], called Eu vi o mundo… ele começava no Recife, produced in 1929. It provides a glimpse of modernism from a center that is neither São Paulo nor Rio. Italian art theorist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti [1876–1944] wrote the Futurist Manifesto in 1909. That same year, the document was published in newspapers in Bahia and Rio Grande do Norte. In 1930, Pernambuco-born artist Vicente do Rego Monteiro [1899–1970] brought to Brazil a large exhibition by French modern artists that toured Recife, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. Initiatives like these inspired a whole new generation of Brazilian artists. Intellectuals across the country became aware of the process of renewal that was happening around the world. In the exhibition at MAM, we chose to display Cícero Dias’s panel in a way that it dominates the exhibition space, alongside better-known works by artists such as Tarsila do Amaral, Di Cavalcanti [1897–1976] and Candido Portinari [1903–1962].

Modernism was fueled by Brazil’s detachment from the monarchic era and the establishment of the Republic

How is this renewal linked to the modernization of Brazilian cities?
There were several reasons behind Brazil’s efforts to rebuild at the time. The country was experiencing a period of great prosperity. The economy was booming on the back of a thriving rubber trade in the north and the coffee industry in São Paulo, which had become Brazil’s primary source of Gross Domestic Product [GDP]. Cities were expanding and modernizing through architectural reforms. Some of the most emblematic transformations were in Rio de Janeiro, including the razing of Castelo Hill in 1920, and the construction of Avenida Central, later renamed Avenida Rio Branco. In São Paulo, a number of city improvements were made in the district of Vale do Anhangabaú in the early twentieth century, such as the channeling of Anhangabaú River and the creation of several new gardens. The winds of change were also felt in the visual arts and music, which were attempting to discover a new Brazil.

What influence did European avant-garde movements have in this context?
Many Brazilian intellectuals who would come to be known as modernists studied in Europe—from better-known names such as writer Oswald de Andrade [1890–1954], to Vicente do Rego Monteiro [1899–1970], from Recife. In the 1910s, Tarsila do Amaral took to modernism after visiting the studio of cubist painter and designer Fernand Léger [1881–1955].  Di Cavalcanti also went to Paris in the 1920s. Anitta Malfatti [1889–1964] went to Germany and then New York, choosing a very different path from other artists of her day, who most often chose to study in France. Sculptor Víctor Brecheret [1894–1955] perfected his art in Italy. The desire for modernity first emerged in Brazilian arts, architecture, and literature after this initial contact with the art scenes abroad.

Modern art has become impoverished. But I’ve seen incredible creativity among vernacular artists

How did this desire for modernity evolve in the following decades?
When Getúlio Vargas [1882–1954] came into power in 1930, he created an environment that allowed different strands of the political spectrum to coalesce. He introduced orpheonic singing classes in Brazilian schools, inspired by the ideas of Heitor Villa-Lobos [1887–1959], who advocated for the inclusion of musical appreciation lessons in primary schools. The Communist Party’s attempt to remove Vargas from power in 1935 was influenced by what was happening in the Soviet Union, just as the Fascist movement in Italy and Nazism in Germany led to the politicization of Brazilian artists who were agnostic in the 1920s. This was reflected in the arts, such as in the works of Di Cavalcanti and in the popular art of Tarsila do Amaral, like her famous Operários painting from 1933. If we look at the 1930s, we will see echoes of modernity and of the social concerns that permeated the arts scene around the world. The time frame covered by our MAM exhibition extends to 1937, the year Vargas presided over a coup d’état to establish his populist Estado Novo (“New State”), a regime that lasted until 1945. It provides a comprehensive account of the movement, from the original desire for modernization and early attempts at modernism in the 1920s, when Modern Art Week became a major watershed, through to the 1930s, when the entire art scene—including music, literature, and the fine arts—experienced a social awakening.

You did doctoral research at the School of Communications and Arts and taught at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at USP. How did this shape your career?
Perhaps it was my restless personality that led to my frequent travels in Brazil and abroad. My tenure at FAU meant that I was also very interested in architecture. I traveled Latin America to research and photograph buildings that converse with rural architecture in São Paulo, as part of a study on the relationship between Hispanic American architecture and São Paulo. I published my findings in my book, A hispanidade em São Paulo – Da casa rural à Capela de Santo Antônio [Hispanic influence in São Paulo: from rural dwellings to Saint Anthony Chapel; Livraria Nobel, Edusp, 1981; Editora 34, 2017]. In the book, which won the Jabuti Award in the Humanities in 1982, I argue that dwellings in colonial São Paulo had aesthetic aspects in common with the hacienda-style houses found in different parts of South America. This ran contrary to the prevailing view among historians of architecture at the time, that São Paulo’s residential architecture had developed in isolation. The idea to organize the 1st Latin American Art Biennial in São Paulo, which I curated in 1978, was also inspired by my travels. Just as my interests in Hispanic influence in São Paulo led me to travel Latin America, my studies about social awareness in Brazilian art led me to explore and get to know my own country better. When I was a professor at USP, I also ran the Pinacotheca and the MAC. This opened several doors.  I think the problem at universities today is that too many professors shut themselves in their offices, worried only about earning degrees. I was that way as well, but at the same time I was eager to venture out into different contexts. These extended interests inspired me to organize Expo-Projeção-73 in 1973, to showcase emerging artists such as Hélio Oiticica [1937–1980], Antônio Dias [1944–2018], and Antonio Manuel, who were experimenting with new media such as video and other non-conventional modes of expression. During this period, I was a member of the Board of Trustees at MAM in Rio, and often traveled to New York because of my academic research interests. This helped to create a bridge between the world of art and the university.

National Archives / Wikimedia Commons Amaral has researched the influence of European avant-gardes on Brazilian artists such as Di Cavalcanti (1897–1976). In the photo, he is shown seated in front of one of his paintings in 1965National Archives / Wikimedia Commons

In recent years we’ve seen identity aspects gain greater prominence in the field of arts. What is your view on this trend?
One of the explanations for this movement could be that contemporary art has become somewhat impoverished. In video art, for example, new ideas seem to have depleted and there is a need for renewal. And then when you look at vernacular artists, you find a wellspring of creativity and tremendous ancestral wisdom. We are now much more alert to artistic expression from Afro-descendants in Brazil than we were 15 years ago. In a way, this newfound awareness has been influenced by African-American movements in the US. Afro-descendants have always suffered in Brazil as in the US, but that suffering has never been expressed as poignantly as now. Today we see lots of TV commercials featuring interracial couples, even though this doesn’t exactly reflect the real world. New generations are receiving an injection of awareness and warnings about the bigotry against blacks that has gone on for centuries. Brazil is lagging in education, behind even our Latin American peers. Here, afro-descendants, in particular, suffer from this acutely. But there is a profusion of indigenous and African-Brazilian artistic creation outside the major urban centers. Today, these productions are ubiquitous among galleries, collectors, and museums. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing market even for vernacular art produced by remote communities away from major centers. Whereas before only a handful of collectors had any works by these artists, today we see galleries opening that are dedicated to this type of art. And while this is certainly a positive recent trend, it is not one that originally started here. Brazil, unfortunately, has always been a follower of trends in developed countries.

You’ve previously conducted a systematic survey of the works of Tarsila do Amaral, you’ve done research and exhibitions about countless modernists, you’ve explored the universe of concretism and video art, you’ve investigated political engagement in Brazilian art, and you’ve done studies on the Hispanic identity present in São Paulo’s architecture. What topics would you like to see researched in the field of art history?
Historically, Brazil has always been oblivious to the cultural scene in other Latin American countries. Our intellectuals have shunned interaction with the region and, as a result, we’ve become divorced from what’s happening around us. Other Latin American countries converse with one another, but Brazil doesn’t. This is a problem. So the question I ask is, is the language barrier alone to blame? Or does Brazil, thinking itself great in its own right, turn a cold shoulder to the region and instead attempt to intermingle with Europe and the US? More than half of our population has an African heritage, and yet we also neglect dialog with Africa. Brazil is a peripheral country. Why shouldn’t we engage with Africa around topics involving the history of music and food, for example? There is a gap in research about the relationship between Brazil and Latin America, both in the present and in the past. Further research is also needed about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, about vernacular artist movements in Minas Gerais and the Northeast, and about the importance of foreign influence in the training of our history of art researchers.

Is there any research that you would like to pursue personally?
I have a number of research projects that I was unable to complete or that were halted. There are other projects that I never came around to starting. When I was traveling by bus throughout South America, I came across a number of situations and objects that provided good subject matter for research. I still have a number of ideas at the back of my head. But now I feel that life is just too short to do all the things I want to do. When I see young college students at a loss about what to research, I feel like shaking them and telling them to look around! It seems to me that reading is underappreciated among today’s youth. Research capabilities in Brazil also leave much to be desired. We lack solid institutions that can support the new generations. I know many young students who have moved to student dorms on campus at USP, in São Paulo. Even before the pandemic, they rarely went to the movies, theaters or exhibitions because they couldn’t afford to. They are also unable to visit places in and around São Paulo. This affects their motivation and creativity for research. And while in the past Brazilian students faced many of these same difficulties, I think we were more passionate about our work. I often ask myself: to what extent have new communications media made students become more complacent? I don’t know the answer. I’ll leave that question to you.

I have always found plenty of subject matter for research. Suddenly, I feel that life is just too short to do all the things I want to do

What has your curatorship work been like during the pandemic?
My current MAM exhibition about Modern Art Week has been the most challenging in my entire professional career. When Regina and I were invited in 2019 to do research ahead of the exhibition, we still had time in the second half of the year and the early months of 2020 to visit museums and start selecting items. But when the pandemic hit, everything suddenly came to a halt and we had to do our work via videoconferencing. At one point there was total radio silence from authorities and we weren’t sure about what was going to happen, or the time frames we had to deliver in. Imagine having to design and plan an entire event via remote meetings on a computer or smart phone. We lost the pleasure of being able to meet people in person. You can’t spend the whole day talking to people on a computer screen. We were unable to borrow many of the items we planned to exhibit, and new rules were issued on exhibitions and museum visitation. We had to trim down the number of items we would exhibit. We prepared three or four shortlists of items for the show before arriving at our final list. But many institutions were no longer willing to lend us their items, as they now had other plans for them during events being organized to celebrate the anniversary of Modern Art Week in 2022. An exhibition like this one, right amid a pandemic, and having to contact collectors and institutions hosting the items we wanted to request, and interacting with researchers across Brazil to collaborate on the catalog, was a huge challenge. Like anyone else, I enjoy being able to go to a cafeteria once in a while for some coffee and to meet friends. These simple pleasures in life are for the time being gone. And with mobility now highly restricted, the few times we do go out, we can’t help but feel a bit guilty. We don’t know whether exhibitions will be able to attract visitors. These are cruel times, both for seniors and especially for young generations.