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Intercontinental modernity

Cornerstone collection of MAC USP reveals the importance of Italian modern art in Brazil

Woman and Harlequin, Gino Severini 1946, oil on wood

MAC USP / Public domain imageWoman and Harlequin,
Gino Severini 1946, oil on woodMAC USP / Public domain image

One of the most important collections of Italian art from the first half of the twentieth century, and certainly the paramount one in the Americas, is located in São Paulo. Historically, this collection is well known as one of the original cornerstones of the holdings of the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC USP). Now on exhibit as part of the commemorations of the museum’s 50th anniversary, the collection has been re-organized and re-evaluated by Ana Gonçalves Magalhães, educator and curator with the museum’s Division of Research in Art, Theory, and Criticism, thanks to her project Italian Works from the Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho and Yolanda Penteado Collections.

The project retraced the history of this collection; its findings, which have resonated with researchers in Italy, have underscored the worldwide representivity of these paintings. The research brought to light details about the world of Brazilian modern art as well. “It’s a fascinating collection, not just because of the quality of the works but because traces of many of them had been lost in Italy,” says Paolo Rusconi, art historian and professor at the University of Milan (Unimi). Rusconi is the Italian partner in the cooperation agreement between the MAC and the University of Milan that studies Brazilian modernism. Together with Magalhães, he organized a seminar on the topic, which was held in São Paulo last April.

The exhibition, entitled Classicism, Realism, Vanguard: Italian Painting Between the Two World Wars, is a product of this research.  It comprises the 71 paintings in the collection, plus ten by Brazilian artists (including Cândido Portinari and Alberto Guignard), who engaged in dialogue with their Italian contemporaries. The show opened on August 31, 2013, at the MAC’s new main site, and will continue through July 2014. The Italian artists include great names like Giorgio de Chirico, Giorgio Morandi, Carlo Carrà, and Amedeo Modigliani – the latter represented in the form of his only known self-portrait, which is such a celebrated piece of art that it was moved to another exhibit currently on display, called Now and Before: A Synthesis of the Holdings of the MAC USP.

Curator Ana Magalhães’ original project was intended to review the cataloguing of the entire set of works, and one of her specific goals was to make virtual display possible (now under construction on the museum site). “But during research,” she says, “it became clear that we knew very little about the collection, except for some of the more famous pieces.”

Maternity, Felice Casorati 1947, oil on canvas

MAC USP / Public domain imageMaternity,
Felice Casorati
1947, oil on canvasMAC USP / Public domain image

The biggest myth toppled by this research was the widespread notion that Brazilian art patron Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho (known by the nickname Ciccillo) relied on his own personal taste when putting together his collections, without regard for aesthetics or historical criteria. “These holdings were acquired for the former Museum of Modern Art by Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho’s intermediaries in Europe over a ten-month stretch of time between 1946 and 1947, during the same period when a French collection was likewise formed,” the researcher says. “The collection evinces a concern with the main tendencies of the day, especially the Novecento Italiano. The history of Italian art in the first half of the twentieth century can be told through this collection.” According to Magalhães, the study further showed that the art scene in Brazil was neither out of step with Europe nor trailing behind it.

Much to the contrary, what the curator’s team found was “active exchange” between modernism in São Paulo and in Italy. A noteworthy figure here was the Brazilian theoretician and artist Paulo Rossi Osir. “It is actually Osir, his work, and his library that illuminate this collection,” Magalhães says. Osir was always traveling to Europe and owned a modern art library, some of whose books are on display alongside the Matarazzo-Penteado collection.

Research into these acquisitions led to the discovery of involvement by figures such as Venetian gallery-owner Carlo Cardazzo and Pietro Maria Bardi. Bardi would one day become curator of the future São Paulo Museum of Art (Masp).

Mussolini’s Lover
In a story filled with fascinating characters, yet another one appears: the Italian art critic and society woman Margherita Sarfatti. In 1912, Sarfatti, who was of Jewish descent, became the lover of future dictator Benito Mussolini, and as such she wielded influence over the intelligentsia that backed the rise of fascism. In 1922, Sarfatti took part in founding the aesthetic Novecento movement, which represented a “return to order” in Italian art following the inflammatory years of futurism. Once Mussolini had received the support of Adolf Hitler and had implemented anti-semitism as official policy in Italy in the 1930s, he distanced himself from Sarfatti, who eventually sought exile in Uruguay and Argentina.

It was under these circumstances that the Matarazzo family entrusted Sarfatti with coordinating their acquisitions of Italian art. “One of the intermediaries of these acquisitions in Italy was her son-in-law, Count Livio Gaetani d’Aragona,” says Annateresa Fabris, retired professor of the Art Department at USP’s School of Communication and the Arts. Although she was in exile, Sarfatti stayed faithful to the aesthetic guidelines that sought to show the world a “new Italy,” according to Magalhães.

Zoagli Bridge, Arturo Tosi 1937, oil on canvas

MAC USP / Public domain imageZoagli Bridge, Arturo Tosi
1937, oil on canvasMAC USP / Public domain image

“It was a complete break with futurism, although some futurists also reconsidered their earlier stance,” says Fabris. “Sarfatti contrasted Novecento with futurism and the metaphysical painting of De Chirico, who is represented in the collection by works subsequent to this phase.” The collection encompasses a large core dedicated to the Novecento but likewise includes other artists within the circle of influence of this tendency and even some opposed to it, such as the Scuola Romana and members of Brazil’s so-called Corrente group. In addition there are artists who never followed the main tendency, like Morandi. One of the goals of Magalhães’ study was to question the idea that the Novecento was the only school guiding the collection. “Perhaps the most representative picture is Modigliani’s self-portrait”, says Fabris. According to her, the artist explores chromatic and linear elements in this painting, treating himself as a thought-image while still maintaining a relationship with the concrete and the real.

As we can see, in the first half of the twentieth century, the Italian art world was characterized by an assortment of quite often clashing tendencies. “The notions of time for futurists and those engaged in metaphysical painting were almost diametrically opposed. The former were strident defenders of the machine and of speed, while the metaphysicists dealt in silence, static images, and long duration,” says Magalhães. The Novecento, on the other hand, was a foe of the mathematical, technical posture of abstractionism, which was then still taking shape as a tendency and which, according to Rusconi, is the only trend not represented in the Matarazzo-Penteado collection, not even indirectly.

Coercive means
Fascism did not, however, enforce an official aesthetic. “The relationship between the regime and the art world involved subtle and ambiguous means of coercion, like the use of official incentives, which Mussolini promoted to please artists,” says Rusconi. A figure like Mario Sironi, six of whose pieces are present in the MAC collection, saw most of his public works – murals and afrescos – destroyed after the fall of the regime, even though technically they bore no direct relation to fascist ideals.

In the opinion of Fabris, the collection reflects not only the aesthetic perspective of Sarfatti but also the tastes of Ciccillo Matarazzo, “who had an eminently realist view of art.” The period when these pieces were acquired, however, heralded a change in the collector’s course. In 1946, Matarazzo married a member of the São Paulo elite, Yolanda Penteado.

Gladiators, Giorgio De Chirico c.1935, oil on canvas

MAC USP / Public domain imageGladiators,
Giorgio De Chirico
c.1935, oil on canvasMAC USP / Public domain image

“As a result of this marriage, Matarazzo turned his interest to modern art,” says Fabris, going on to point out that Penteado frequented the circles of the modernist intelligentsia. “Until then, Matarazzo had been interested in academic art, but this shift allowed him to distinguish himself from the immigrant bourgeoisie that had opposed modernism.” At the same time, he stood apart from Assis Chateaubriand, who was establishing Masp in consonance with a historical perspective on art.

The creation of the MAC was consequence of an “act of force” by Matarazzo, according to Fabris. He had created and assumed sole responsibility for subsidizing the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, and in 1963 he decided to donate these holdings to USP. Not only was the collection grappling with “economic and operational problems.” Matarazzo had fallen in love with another novelty: the São Paulo Art Biennial. Mix-ups about what belonged to him and what was part of the museum’s holdings continue to present challenges in cataloguing works.

“We still need to have a better understanding of the relationship between the Brazilian artists and the futurists, in artistic terms,” says Magalhães. In the realm of theory, Mário de Andrade coined the expression “futurismo paulista” – or São Paulo futurism. According to Andrade, this meant “futurism, yes; Marinetti, no,” in reference to the most eminent and radical theoretician of the movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. “There is virtually no formal echo of futurism among us,” Magalhães says. Fabris notes that the relationship between the Novecento Italiano and art in Brazil was not so much about influence but more about sharing similar principles. Brazilian modernism, albeit somewhat disruptive, never cast tradition aside. “There was interest in a solid practice of handicraft and realism. It was ‘moderated’ modern painting.”

Magalhães’ research has prompted other studies, such as the master’s thesis of Renata Dias Rocco, under the multidisciplinary graduate program in aesthetics and art history, in which the MAC takes part. Rocco focused on the four pieces in the collection that were done by painter and theoretician Gino Severini, including Still Life with Dove, from 1938. As an artist, Severini was quite representative of the turn-abouts in Italian art during this period, as he had first taken part in futurism. He made a “radical change in direction,” and Rocco decided to investigate this based on these four paintings, which form a kind of lost link in the artist’s trajectory.

Margherita Sarfatti and Brazil: Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho collection at the MAC USP (nº 2011/00757-9); Grant Mechanism Scholarships Abroad; Principal Investigator Ana Gonçalves Magalhães – MAC USP; Investment R$9,023.90 (FAPESP).