By Mario Gioia, art critic and independent curator | May 21, 2022

On the occasion of the centenary anniversary of the 1922 Modern Art Week, a key event for the artistic avant-gardes in Brazil and which consolidated what would become known as modernism in the country, several exhibitions throughout the year (and also in 2021) revolved around, discussed, explained, replaced and 'cancelled' such an initiative. Considered a milestone in the cultural renewal of Brazilian art, the week was about to turn around in its already canonical grave.


However, Once Upon a Modern Time (1910-1944), which exhibits around 300 pieces –paintings, drawings, sculptures, books, photographs and engravings, among others– establishes its great relevance from the extremely rich IEB-USP collection (Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros da Universidade de São Paulo), originating from the succession of Mario de Andrade (1893-1945), and, very vertically, manages to display chapters of interesting reading, although provoked by known names and productions once seen. Thus, it testifies to how much Brazilian art and its characters still need in-depth investigations that bring to light new perspectives of collections, archives and collections sometimes not seen in their full potential.


“(...) These sources can be questioned again and again to experience the circumstances that made them present in their time, partially going back to the original conditions in which those protagonists must have acted: Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti, Lasar Segall, Brecheret, Tarsila do Amaral, Mario de Andrade, Oswald, Manuel Bandeira, Raul Bopp, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Goeldi, Cândido Portinari and so many others had to answer questions, build positions, occupy places, face criticism and heartbreak”, Luiz Armando Bagolin, curator of the exhibition, writes in the catalog which is also signed by historian Fabrício Reiner.

Despite the expressive epistolary presence, sometimes in small-format notebooks, period editions, domestic photos and original graphic work, the most exhibited works -paintings and sculptures, for the most part- are relevant and, with new approaches and established relationships now, contribute to renewed debates. By Anita Malfatti (1889-1964), A Estudante Russa (1915) and O Homem Amarelo (1915), for example, continue to boast challenging visual attributes, but the joint display of charcoal and pastel drawings or small amounts of graphite help forge the still robust poetics of the artist from São Paulo.

On the other hand, the canvas Interior de Monaco (1925), by Anita, flanked by A Princesa Bibesco (c. 1920), by Vuillard (1868-1940), from Masp, also points to less studied phases and connections. “In my painting I reached a great stage. Made a great discovery for myself. I now know that I will always be able to achieve the harmonious unification of my tones and the relationship between them so that they all seem to be component parts of a single body. – Discover the ‘local color and apply it simultaneously according to the problem to be solved’”, writes Anita in a letter to Mario dated April 1925, now exhibited in the exhibition and in the catalogue. For the curator: "In particular, her production between 1907 and 1920 is a clear manifestation of the return to order, with a reinterpretation of classical themes in a post-impressionist pictorial style." The artist, therefore, left the canvases with an expressionist tone and, influenced by the Nabis, took more into account the highly chromatic productions of Denis (1870-1943), Bonnard (1867-1947), Sérusier (1864-1927) and by artist Vullard himself.

One aspect of Once Upon a Modern Time little discussed and analyzed in the history of Brazilian art is the surrealist, present in the clipping with pieces by Ismael Nery (1900-1934), Murilo Mendes (1901-1975) and Jorge de Lima (1893 -1953). Precious is the photographic montage by Lima, on a small scale and quite original in the modernist corpus and its ramifications. Famous for producing poetry, the collages influenced by the work of Ernst (1891-1976) in the volumes of Éluard (1895-1952) still retain the typical provocative atmosphere, for example, when Pintura em Pânico (1943) was published, an album that featured 41 photomontages and a limited edition of 250 copies. “There is a combination of the unexpected and logic. And photography has helped man to broaden the experience of vision,” writes Mendes in the book's introduction.


The exhibition does not shy away from presenting works by today obscure names of the Week, such as that of the German Wilhelm Haarberg (1891-1986), a sculptor with a little-known biography and present with the interesting three-dimensional wooden Mother and Child (n.d.) –at the same time, it is quite productive to read this format together with the sketches of master Victor Brecheret (1894-1955) on display, as well as his already well-known masterpieces, such as Cabeça de Cristo (1920s), which scandalized Mario's family for his version of braids of the religious figure. And the architecture of Antonio Moya (1891-1949), author of drawings and sketches presented at the Municipal Theater event in 1922, a character linked to the neocolonial and who, within the timeline of the modern in national architecture, was undermined for projects by Warchavchik (1896-1972), Flavio de Carvalho (1899-1973) and others. Thus, it accounts for the extent to which fields such as photography and architecture would later flourish in the avant-garde or come from more cosmopolitan centers, such as Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian capital at the time.

Once Upon a Modern Time has as a finishing touch small jewels of the still life genre, generally considered minor within the historiography of art, but which can provide very particular works. The section includes works by Guignard (1896-1962), Clovis Graciano (1907-1988) and the special Cebollas (1926), by Hugo Adami (1899-1999). Affiliated with the Italian 19th century, he studied in the peninsular country, met and exhibited alongside names such as De Chirico (1888-1978). And, given the lack of criticism of the visual arts in Brazil, he still needs extensive studies on his production. The exhibition, therefore, opens many possibilities for research, approaches and numerous and varied discussions from public, university and large collections not yet exhaustively detailed.


Once Upon a Modern Time

Curators: Luiz Armando Bagolin and Fabrício Reiner

Until May 29th, 2022

Fiesp Cultural Center

Sao Paulo, Brazil

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