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Under the cloak of invisibility

Exhibition at the Pinacoteca Museum shows Brazil’s pioneering female artists from the 19th and 20th centuries

Couer meurtri (c. 1913), by Nicota Bayeux (1876-1923). Oil on canvas

Collection at the Pinacoteca of São Paulo / Reproduction Isabella MatheusCouer meurtri (c. 1913), by Nicota Bayeux (1876-1923). Oil on canvasCollection at the Pinacoteca of São Paulo / Reproduction Isabella Matheus

Art history repeatedly hails the protagonism of Brazilian modernists Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral as the triumphal entry of women onto the Brazilian art scene.  But a simple step back in time would suffice to realize that the richer and more complex female presence in the fine arts came earlier.  The exhibit Mulheres artistas: as pioneiras (1880-1930) (Women Artists: the Pioneers (1880-1930), which runs through September 6, 2015 at the Pinacoteca of São Paulo, shows a powerful albeit marginal female presence in Brazilian art at the turn of the19th century.

The exhibition includes nearly 50 works, among them drawings, paintings and sculptures, by 21 artists selected from various public and private collections as a way of showcasing works by female artists for public viewing.  Corresponding to the lines of research pursued by the curators—the presence of women in 19th century Brazilian art, in the case of Ana Paula Cavalcanti Simioni, and academic teaching, in the case of Elaine Dias—, the selection deals with two core issues: incorporating these artists into the systems of learning that are part of the academic tradition itself, and the relationship their production has with regard to the various genres of art.

Studying the artistic production of Brazilian female artists at the turn of the 19th century is no easy task however.  Besides the dearth of material and disinterest from the historical perspective, the few artists who dared tread the path of professionalism were long hidden behind a cloak of invisibility, relegated, at best, to the title of talented “amateurs.”  Restrictions on the entry of women into the profession were gradually overcome by pioneers the likes of Abigail Andrade, Julieta de França and Georgina de Albuquerque through a combination of personal talent and proximity to important male figures of the time, who ended up franchising their path to the professional realm of art.

Nude study (1921), by Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973). Oil on cardboard

Cultural and Artistic Collection of the São Paulo Governor’s Mansion Nude study (1921), by Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973). Oil on cardboardCultural and Artistic Collection of the São Paulo Governor’s Mansion

Women only began to gain access to the National School of Fine Arts beginning in 1892.  And studies with a live model – essential for developing an understanding of anatomy – were therefore rather difficult since they were run by the institution and often restricted to separate male-only sessions.  When such studies were possible, the male models had to wear a loincloth as seen in drawings such as those by Angelina Agostini, Dinorá de Azevedo and Julieta de França, displayed together in the first exhibition hall.  The second and last exhibition halls are dedicated to showing the versatility of the genres that appear in their works, such as landscapes, portraits, still life (especially flowers) and even sculptures.  Most noticeably missing are historical paintings, which constitute the largest of genres, but one nearly off limits to female artists.  This gap, according to the curators, is due to the very small number of works in this form done by women in Brazil.

“We wanted to demonstrate how they successfully and skillfully took control and became fluent in the languages of the repertoires and academic methods,” explains Ana Paula Simioni, a professor in the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP).  “It’s interesting to show how closely they corresponded to what it was they were denied for so long,” adds Elaine Dias, a professor of art history at the Guarulhos campus of the Federal University of São Paulo.  She suggests placing Julieta de França’s study of an old man near that of Almeida Júnior’s male nude, a work owned by the Pinacoteca on display in an adjoining hall.

Such a comparison exemplifies one of the merits of the Women Artists exhibit, its addition to the museum’s collection suggesting an approach that complements the museum layout and expands possible interpretations of the collection.  “Our objective is to open paths to research, look at what is being produced in art history in Brazil and further the narrative imparted by the Pinacoteca’s collection,” explains Fernanda Pitta, a museum representative on the curatorial staff.