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Female bodies dressed with paint

Study analyzes how Brazilian artists have painted women

The representation of the figure of the woman in the work of Candido Portinari suggests the affirmation of a female role proclaimed by political / governmental ideals. Then, in Di Cavalcanti (taking, for example the picture O Mangue, (The Marsh – 1926), woman arises in the role of a prostitute, and therefore, in spite of modernism, from the masculine view that comes from the previous century. In A Negra (The Black Woman -1923), Tarsila do Amaral brings a mixture of experiences of living on the farm where she grew up, cubist aesthetics, and the aspect of her “political” commitment. This and other information, pertaining to the study of the treatment given to the representation of the female body by modernist Brazilian artists, instigated the five years of research carried out by Professor Giulia Crippa, during her work on her thesis for a doctorate, ‘Imagery and the Construction of Experience: Representations of the Female Body in Brazilian Plastic Arts (1900/1940).  Carried out with the support of FAPESP, under the guidance of Professor Nicolau Sevcenko, and concluded in May 1999, the thesis was presented in November to the Department of History of the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Humanities of the University of São Paulo (USP).

A 31 year-old Italian, graduated in Literature from the University of Bologna, Giulia, who used to work with an NGO linked to the feminist movement in her own country, she set out on this task in 1995. “I was already interested in this study, and I wanted to give it an academic aspect. So I drew up a project that would allow me to do research in Brazil. My proposal was to carry out a review of the modernist theme, taking into consideration the reading that was being made of certain Latin American artists of the period, as being political spokespersons. My query is about what is not apparent. I wanted to see in the context, in the artists’ position in society, what development had taken place with women.  If the two sides had things in common, and how these artists express the masculine and feminine for collective imagery”.

Imagery and the Construction of Experience… is divided into ten chapters: Analysis of the concept of modernity through a philosophical interpretation; Clothed bodies / unclothed bodies; Oswald and Zola; Clues for a reading of gender in the work of Tarsila; Mirror, mirror on the wall, am I the fairest of them all?; the difficult courses of an expression; the Nature of woman and woman in nature: a European vision; Coffee: the womb of woman, the origin of life; the body as scrap; and Some final considerations between epistemology and methodology.

The author made use of a plentiful base of studies, both as to the manner in which woman is shown in the arts as in literature. To begin with, she recalls that the representation of woman in the social imagery of the West always puts her in the ambit of private life, the home, reinforcing the images of the good mother, the good wife, the good housewife, and so forth. Nor does she ignore the fact that, beginning in the 20th century, there has been a change in the role of woman in society in various parts of the world, which has altered the representation of her in the arts. Which, however, did not happen in an homogenous way, and the reading of the female remained circumscribed by the medical discourse of the end of the previous century.

As São Paulo is the base that irradiates national modernism, the city that grows from the final decades of the 19th century gains prominence in the text, thanks to the expansion of the coffee-growing culture, to the implantation of the railway, and the arrival of fresh waves of European immigrants – which puts into activity and gives importance to the Hostel for Immigrants, in the Bras district. And also the fact of the Lyceum of Arts and Crafts of São Paulo (founded in 1883) pointing to the need for the role of the artist and the craftsman to be institutionalized, at a moment of technique transition (the sculptor Victor Brecheret was “discovered” by modernists who were visiting the Palace of Arts.)

It does not pass without notice that, in 1914, an emergent modernist, Anita Malfatti (1896/1964), exhibited her paintings in the sophisticated Casa Mappin, built across from the Municipal Theater. The collection there on display points more to the interest in consumption than in the arts as such. At that moment, inspired more by Italian futurism than French thinking, Anita, Oswald de Andrade and Lasar Segall, began to produce something that was to signpost the way to modernism. Ten years later, paintings by Tarsila do Amaral (1897/1973) like São Paulo, Estrada de Ferro Central do Brasil (Central Brazil Railway  -both from 1924) and A Gare ( The Station- 1925), which bring in their preparation the representative cubist system brought from Europe, show themselves to be in tune with this new city, the epicenter of a movement – the Week of 22 – that would cause, in other parts of the country as well, heated discussions and aesthetic proposals relating to art, poetry, architecture, and literature.

‘Readings’ of the feminine
The project has as it goal the search for the essential traits expressed through the iconographic construction of the body and the image of the woman, aiming to identify in this search the differences in figurative language between the aspect of self-representation and of the representation of male desire.  “in other words, trying to individualize in the work of the artists the traits of a sexual difference as a product of the social milieu in the construction of the representations”, explains the text. To do this, the researcher set out to make a comparison with Brazilian and foreign literary production, as well as taking into account artistic production in its international relations. Among the major issues raised and observed were the moves towards modernity and technology present in Brazil, the construction of the “national”, and the female condition of the times.

Among the modernist plastic artists are Emiliano Di Cavalcanti (1897/1976) and Candido Portinari (1903/1962). The former, for his constant attention to “female subjects”, clearly associated with the mythology of the mulatto woman.  The latter, for being representative of the social and political themes, which, according to the author “particularly in the 30s, used in a singular way a certain image of woman, inextricably connected with the public / private issue, regarding the construction of a “national identity’”.

O Mangue, by Di Cavalcanti, with five male and three female figures, shows three planes: in the foreground, one of the three women; in the mid-distance, another two (by the side of a drunkard, not very perceptible at first glance); and in the background, other indistinct figures as to their features. In accordance with the researcher’s analysis, the real and symbolic center of the picture is in the three women, whose lines of sight are parallel, and meet those of the spectator from the outside of the painting.  The picture, with its clear content of social criticism, evidences, at one and the same time, the formation of the European mark of the artist, and the revolutionary socialist echoes and weighty influences (Apollinaire, Picasso, De Chirico, Léger). And it brings into discussion the figure of the “lost woman”, the “dangerous woman”, (once again, the legacy of the 19th century), symptomatically located in the marshes  – a humid region, with stagnant water and difficult access – and the Mangue, the red light district of Rio de Janeiro.

In another exposition – the painting Café (Coffee -1934), the first of Di Cavalcanti where a seated woman appears –, Giulia recalls that the interpretation of the picture has always dwelt on the representation of human labor. The “forgetting” of the role of the woman portrayed there seems serious to her, as it is functional on two levels: “First, in the construction of a solidly classic figure, by a painter capable of transposing the European tradition into a national language (…).  And so a reference to the goddess of fertility (Ceres) would be in order here. Second, the work of the woman may be recognized not only as direct participation in the harvest, but in what was regarded as most sublime in those times, which is the very creation of men, that is, of the arms and legs that work in the fields”.

Among the women, Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti are featured. The former has her work compared with that of another woman painter, Tamara de Lempicka. Contemporaries, they studied with André Lothe, in Paris, and followed the “aesthetic formulation, in the sense of the poetic derivation from the ‘machinist’ cubism of Fernánd Legér”, considers Giulia. Finally, Anita, the “original and courageous” artist, according to an article by Mário de Andrade, whose works were “investigations of a formidable romantic exacerbation, in which few could perceive the enormous impassioned, dramatic, temperament…”. It was for her that the question was posed “But what really happened to the painter after the ferocious attacks of Monteiro Lobato?” After which, she cites Mexico’s Frida Kahlo (who, like Anita, had a physical defect), which made her devastated body a physical / metaphysical symbol of her own painting.

Anita is studied through her picture Tropical (1916), from which some “cuttings” were made, such as the deviating gaze of the female figure (a lesson from German expressionism) and the basket of fruit, suggesting still life as a privileged theme in artistic production and a system on which it is possible to reflect, taking into account the nationalistic issue of the time. “The picture Tropical is a product of the artist’s richest phase, when, with her German influence still fresh, she tries to find a path that would allow a merger of experience abroad and, contemporaneously, a wider search for painting that could be defined as ‘national’”, concludes the researcher.

Contemporary, though different from all of them, is Ismael Nery (1900/1934).  The artist, on the outside of the modernist “gang”, who refuses to enter into the debate on national art, does not show any work that fits into the “official” package.  Nery brings another kind of pictorial discourse (when fashion suggests a less well rounded female body), in which the limits between male and female are tenuous.  In his work – up until 1927 with a strong cubist influence, afterwards to be marked by surrealism (in particular, Chagall) – often, it is difficult to establish the gender. Taking the picture Duas Figuras (Two Figures -1925), the author states: “… it is impossible to define the gender, by means of the narrative characteristics of the figures. If the figure at the front has feminine traits and clothes, the short hair is the same that appears in the self-portraits.  The other figure (…) has long hair, but one cannot know whether it is a man or a woman”.

The study of art is preceded by an analysis of the activities of writers.  Machado de Assis, José de Alencar and Francisco Ferraz de Macedo are present in fragments of texts that point to a “reading” of the figure of woman that is marked by the moral according to which “the female body is dangerous dressed, because its true forms are hidden, and undressed, because it reveals what it really is”.

Coming to the modernists, we have names like Menotti Del Picchia, and his Salomé (a book started in 1926 and only completed in 1939).  Here is the “allegorical” woman, the fascination with woman with a capital ‘W’, as the literati of the fin de siècle would write it.  Oswald de Andrade, with his character Alma, the luxury prostitute comparable with Zola’s Nana.  Mário de Andrade with Amar, Verbo Intransitivo ( To Love, Intransitive Verb – 1923/1924) and the boldness of his Elza, the fräulein, the prostitute / educator, clean, German, sending one to the theory of eugenics, anticipating what was to come with Nazism.

“In the first decades of the century, from the 30s onwards, we have a moment of modernity, the world is looking for a new order.  In Europe, fascism and Nazism arise.  Brazil and Brazilian artists – we are in the Getúlio Vargas government – are therefore put into the context of the Western world. Look at Portinari, for example, he does an official portrait for Vargas, and woman in his work has a clear task. Artist speak the language of their public to be recognized, but, at the same time, leave a mark of their time, it’s inevitable”, says Giulia.  And so, Imagery and the Construction of Experience…”adds one more little brick to a great construction, to make it possible to make new associations, to see if the aspects dealt with are satisfactory, and to seek new paths for research.

• Giulia Crippa graduated in Modern Literature from the University of Bologna, and is a doctor in Social History, by USP’s Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Humanities.
Project: Imagery and the Construction of Experience; the Representation of the Female Body in Brazilian Plastic Arts