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When Modernism came in from the cold

An exposition, virtual collection and book celebrate the centennial of the first Lasar Segall exhibition in Brazil

Inauguration of the Lasar Segall School of Art, in São Paulo, in 1933. From left to right: Paul Rossi Osir, Guilherme de Almeida, Hugo Adami, Vittorio Gobbis, unidentified, John Graz and Lasar Segall. Seated: Esther Bessel, Jenny Klabin Segall, Mussia Alves Pinto and Anita Malfatti

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGEInauguration of the Lasar Segall School of Art, in São Paulo, in 1933. From left to right: Paul Rossi Osir, Guilherme de Almeida, Hugo Adami, Vittorio Gobbis, unidentified, John Graz and Lasar Segall. Seated: Esther Bessel, Jenny Klabin Segall, Mussia Alves Pinto and Anita MalfattiPUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

In March 1913, in a rented salon at No. 85 Rua São Bento in São Paulo, Lasar Segall displayed his art, which is considered by many to be the first exhibition of modern art in Brazil. The Russian artist was then only 22 years old, and had come to Brazil to visit his brothers and sisters who already lived there. He used the occasion to display, in São Paulo and later in Campinas, a wide range of work markedly influenced by German Impressionism and Dutch painting, which he had studied the year before on a visit to the Low Countries. Despite its departure from academic art, the model to which the São Paulo public was accustomed and which Segall had already rejected, the show was well received and 21 works — or about half of the exhibited works — were sold.

To celebrate the centennial of this quiet reception, which helped to pave the way for the artist, who shortly thereafter would come to play a central role in the history of Brazilian art, the Lasar Segall Museum has scheduled a series of celebratory activities. These will bring to light both the renowned works of the artist, with the exhibition 50 works from the collection, and his profile as a collector, with the exhibition and virtual dissemination of the Lasar Segall Photographic Archives, in addition to making the museum’s vast archive of documents and correspondence available to the public.

“Fortunately, he kept everything, leaving behind important documents on the cultural and artistic history not only of Brazil, but of the many places he visited,” says Vera d’Horta, a curator at the Lasar Segall Museum, who since 1986 has been working on the Segall archives, and was responsible for coordinating the recent digitization of the archive, which can be accessed through the museum’s Web site ( So far almost 6,000 of the approximately 10,000 documents in the museum’s database have been digitized. “It’s a never-ending job,” she admits. This material is organized into five different groups: correspondence, texts, prints, personal documents and business documents. An initial list of all of this material organized by the author’s name is already available, and the goal is to be able to search it by subject as well. This will happen in the near future.

Two other innovative aspects under development in this database, which hopefully will be available soon, are the ability to view images of the retrieved works and have access to translations of iconographic materials. This is important because it can help to locate new works, and the Segall archives contain a wealth of information in several languages: Russian, Portuguese, German and even Hebrew and Yiddish. Interest in this rich collection has already increased thanks to the new virtual research tools. According to d’Horta, the number of researchers has quadrupled since the  material has been made accessible on the Internet, even without the official release.

Lasar Segall and his Dresden Academy colleagues on one of their outdoor painting excursions, 1911

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGELasar Segall and his Dresden Academy colleagues on one of their outdoor painting excursions, 1911PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

This is a vast and diverse archive, which by its sheer size far exceeds a mere biographical function or complement to the field of art history. For example, among the documents collected by Segall there are records of Tsarist Russia; letters from colleagues who expressed their amazement at the artist’s plan to visit Brazil; catalogs of exhibitions held in Germany; correspondence with artists such as Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Otto Dix; or the notebook kept by his widow, Jenny Klabin, on the travels and interviews he conducted in search of the material that make up the collection that would come to be the Lasar Segall Museum. It was established in 1967, 10 years after the death of the painter, and it largely depends on the continued interest in his work. This very rich set of documents becomes even more relevant when combined with the 3,000 works in the collection, which has been almost entirely restored and photographed, and the 5,000 photographs that he collected throughout his life — 500 of which can already be found on the Internet — which have been the subject of little study up to now (

The photos, which also led to a new publication, are quite varied in nature. Some are from anonymous sources, in addition to works by the artist himself, and there are even examples of important works by Brazilian, Argentine and European photographers, such as Hildegard Rosenthal, Annemarie Heinrich, Sasha Harnish, Benedito Junqueira and Hugo Erfurth. Segall is known to be the author of some of these images, because he used photographs as a means of solving problems with composition. Worthy of notice are some striking photos, such as the beautiful portrait of the painter as a young man, dressed in typical Russian clothes, or the photo of an outdoor painting session with colleagues from the Dresden Academy in 1911, carrying a nude model on his shoulders, a kind of visual manifesto of the principles of freedom and the avant-garde movement in progress at the time.

Jorge Schwartz, Professor of Spanish American literature at the University of São Paulo (USP), who directs the Lasar Segall Museum, regards him as a sort of phoenix of Brazilian modernism, an artist who is constantly being reinvented, who always comes back with renewed strength and prestige at various times in the history of Brazilian art.

Known as the principal master of expressionism in Brazil, admired as the author of some of the most poignant works about the horrors of war and anti-Semitism, diligently researched for having developed a style absolutely his own while in dialogue with the tradition of painting, revisiting genres such as portraiture, still life and landscape — with a certain fascination for the new possibilities brought about by the tropical Brazilian scenery — and dedicated to a wide range of languages ​​(painting, sculpture, engraving and drawing), Lasar Segall is among the most viewed and studied Brazilian artists. The events surrounding his work occurred without large gaps in between.

This ongoing exchange with the general and specialized public culminates in interesting results for the museum’s research work, since contact with researchers from around the world allows gaps to be filled, which will be extremely useful in creating the catalog raisonné of the artist. So far, only Tarsila do Amaral and Cândido Portinari have managed to have all their work in repertory. Work on the Segall production continues, despite the lack of sponsorship for this project. Among recent discoveries made ​​by the museum are two unpublished drawings found recently in Germany, as well as paintings in private collections in Brazil. “Many works have been lost, having moved from one owner to another,” explains Schwartz. The museum has also just obtained, thanks to a long-term loan from a private collection in Rio de Janeiro, the only one of Segall’s engravings it had not yet acquired, dated 1917. “We need to rebuild the most well known iconography,” he added.

In fact, it was thanks to this Sisyphean task, a search of private collections outside of Brazil, that one of the most important works of the Russian artist was able to be recovered. Its value lies both in the unique quality of the canvas and its enormous historical value. This is the oil-on-canvas work Eternos caminhantes (Eternal walkers), painted by the artist in 1919 — the year he founded the Dresden Secession with nine artists, including Otto Dix and Conrad Felixmüller — and later acquired by the Museum of the City of Dresden. The Nazi government then removed the painting from the collection and put it on display in the famous Degenerate Art Exhibition held in Munich in 1937 to denounce the supposed decadence of modern art. The exhibition featured a total of 10 works by Segall. After World War II, the painting was discovered in a private collection and brought to Brazil after the artist’s death, at the request of his widow, Jenny Klabin Segall.

The painting is an extremely synthetic and geometrized representation of a group on pilgrimage, with links to other works of the period, such as the engraving Mulheres errantes (Wandering women), and evokes the exodus theme, the persecution of the Jews, which he would further develop, whether through representations of a more emotional and intimate nature such as Família (Family) or Meus avós (My grandparents), or through visceral protests against the war, such as in the anthological works Pogrom and Navio de emigrantes (Emigrant ship), considered by critics as a sort of Brazilian Guernica. In March 2014, Eternos caminhantes will be included in a show at the Neue Gallery in New York, which will attempt to reconstruct the Degenerate Art Exhibition. In September, that same museum will exhibit a self-portrait of Egon Schiele, 1912, on loan from the Association of Friends of Segall. This is the only authenticated work of Schiele in Brazil. One of the most important works of Segall’s constructive expressionism, Eternos caminhantes, is one of the highlights of the exhibition on display at the Lasar Segall Museum in Vila Mariana, São Paulo, alongside other works of the artist, such as Paisagem brasileira (Brazilian Landscape), Rua (Street) and Encontro (Encounter).

This last painting, 1924, is doubly important, first as a testimony to Segall’s compelling interest in photography and secondly as material he used as a work tool. A picture of him on the day of his marriage to Margaret, his first wife, in exactly the same position as the boy in the painting, belongs to the collection. The painting, which had been done in Brazil, has a small but symbolic difference. In the painting, the artist darkens his skin, in a sort of homage to the tropics, whose landscape began to seduce him as a reason to work in Brazil, soon after arriving there for the second time in December 1923, this time to stay permanently. In 1927, he became a naturalized Brazilian citizen and never left the country, except for a period of study in Paris between 1928 and 1932.

If, at the time of his 1913 stay, Segall was still a young man trying to invent his own style, an artist who had not yet discovered the expressive radicalism of distorted and jagged forms, of synthetic and familiar traces of primitive art, and of contrasting and intensely dark colors that were to mark his more pure Expressionist phase, by the time he landed in Brazil in 1923 he already had his own style. And by then the country was more open to appreciating a more radical modern art. It was Anita Malfatti who had already paid the price with the show in 1917, by daring to break with the pattern of realistic representation and then being subjected to virulent criticism from an authority such as Monteiro Lobato. Professor Schwartz wonders, with some irony, “if Segall had introduced his angular, dramatic and intensely chromatic works on his first visit, he would have saved Malfatti.” But in fact it was she who paved the way for the Expressionist Segall of 1923.

Other factors made the passage less turbulent for Jewish immigrants. These included the support of elite figures such as Senator Freitas Valle and art patron Olívia Guedes Penteado, and his marriage to Jenny Klabin, and also the fact that modern art had already been given its official birth in Brazil, with the celebratory rite of the Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week) of 1922 — in which neither Segall nor Tarsila do Amaral, the two Brazilian artists most radically involved with modernist experiences, participated. He also had the decisive support — even if somewhat solitary — of Mário de Andrade, the only critic at the time to pay attention to the work coming from Germany (unlike most of those who wrote about and created ​​art in the period, who directed all their attention to the School of Paris). The relationship between the two, as well as the important dialogue between Andrade and Portinari, are vital to an understanding of the artistic avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s in Brazil, and will be the subject of an exhibition scheduled to open in March of next year at the Lasar Segall Museum. The exhibition will then travel to the Castro Maya Museums in Rio de Janeiro.

In addition to talent and social skills, the artist had the commitment of his family to build an institution capable of sparking interest, research and dissemination of his work.

Systematizing and digitizing documents of the Lasar Segall Archive (nº 2009/54777-0); Coordinator Vera d’Horta/Lasar Segall Museum; Grant Mechanism Infrastructure Program 6; Investment R$105,459.89 (FAPESP).