NEW YORK — “I want to be the painter of my country,” declared the Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral in a 1923 letter to her family. She was living in Paris at the time, socially intimate with artists and writers in the vanguard of cultural modernism. She came from wealth and privilege, spoke French like a native, was both beautiful and fashionable, and had ready access to figures such as Picasso, Brancusi and Cocteau. When she returned to Brazil, she did indeed position herself as the painter of her country, embracing a manifesto of Brazilian aesthetic independence.
Tarsila, commonly known by her first name, is being given her first major U.S. monographic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, where the work exudes charm and disquiet in about equal measure. Among some 120 works on view, the charm lies mainly in her drawings — accomplished, reductive sketches of landscape, towns and villages, animals and human figures — which have the spare, telling simplicity of storybook illustrations. As her ideas took form and gravitated from pen and pencil lines on paper to colorful, paint-saturated canvas, they grew more unsettling, raising difficult questions about race and class. Many them suggest the seemingly inevitable condescension of an artist who, from a perch of wealth, education and cosmopolitan sophistication, decides to be “the painter of my country” — especially when that country has a painful history of oppression, slavery, and vast social and economic inequity.
Tarsila arrived in Paris for the first of several long-term visits in 1920 and enrolled in the Academie Julian, a private school popular with foreign students (Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were among the Americans who studied there) and considerably more progressive in its aesthetics than the established Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Early work she showed in Paris included a feathery, pastel-colored portrait of a woman with a generic, cotton-candy lightness borrowed from her impressionist forebears. She produced a few genial cubist compositions, some work strongly reminiscent of Fernand Léger (with whom she studied for a bit), and absorbed the interest in primitivism and African art that was intertwined with the modernism at the time.
And then, in 1923, she painted “A Negra,” a female figure with exaggerated, off-center lips and a prominent, pendulous right breast, sitting heavily on the ground in a crossed-leg pose. This canvas, along with the 1928 “Abaporu” and the 1929 “Anthropophagy,” was essential to the establishment of Tarsila’s self-consciously Brazilian modernism, paintings dominated by large, rust-colored human figures with distorted dimensions and features, set in spare, colorful, two-dimensional space. “Abaporu” derived its name from the joining of two words borrowed from a dictionary of native Brazilian Tupi and Guarani cultures, meaning “one who eats,” while “anthropophagy” is another word for cannibalism, which became a metaphor for the Brazilian writers and artists clustered around Tarsila and her husband at the time, Oswald de Andrade. All three paintings are imagined versions of some primitive Brazilian native figure, recycling ethnographic stereotypes through the lens of surrealism.
Inspired by these visions, Oswald developed the idea of artistic Anthropophagy, a metaphor for how Brazilian artists might make sense of the complicated and fraught stew of cultural influences, from both Europe and Brazil, and the tension between past and future, which obsessed creative elites in his homeland. They would devour everything, incorporate it into themselves and become in the process something new and uniquely Brazilian. “Beyond Devouring, there is nothing,” he wrote in 1946. “Being is pure and eternal Devouring.” The painting “A Negra,” wrote Tarsila in 1939, “announced the birth of Anthropophagy.”
This is a starkly different view of how one might create a nationalistic identity through art and literature than that which prevails in the United States, where the dominant ethos is based on some form of self-fashioning or self-invention. Since the 16th century, Europeans had been fascinated and horrified by anecdotes of cannibalism among native Brazilians, including the Tupi people. By repurposing anthropophagy as image of cultural voraciousness, the artists in Tarsila’s circle were reclaiming the Brazilian past on new terms. But the metaphor of devouring also suggests the status of the people who embraced it, the blessed of the land who could travel, consume, philosophize and paint, and ultimately appropriate for their own purposes an invented native world.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine an American artist could survive the scorn that would come his way if he painted like Tarsila and justified his work in the terms of Andrade. Even though this work tracks the same years that many American artists and writers were struggling to invent a uniquely American take on the emerging modernist currents, it lives in a vastly different world, with a starkly different relationship to seemingly similar things, like landscape, native cultures and the African diaspora.
Tarsila separated from her husband in 1929. In 1931, she visited Moscow and a year later was arrested in Brazil for her left-wing activities. A 1933 painting titled “Operários (Workers)” has the dense clustering of humanity one finds in the Mexican muralists, without the painterly tension or drama. She continued writing and painting until her death in 1973, and her works, especially those from the late 1920s, were prized and exhibited in Brazil and beyond (the Venice Biennial of 1964 included a gallery devoted to her work). But this exhibition leaves the impression that her moment was very much located in the 1920s, after which she was respected and honored but more as a seminal figure than an ongoing artistic force.
It also leaves a solid impression of Tarsila’s immense facility and fertile imagination. Her organization of space is deft and satisfying, and despite the cartoon sensibility in many of her works, the figures depicted — human, animal and even vegetable — convey a powerful sense of melancholy and detachment, as if thrown alone into the world and never quite recovering from the trauma. The distorted form in “Abaporu” seems consumed with the pain of solitude, with a tiny head looking down from an immense height onto the earthy lump of her of her terrestrial foot. Perhaps there’s some psychological self-portrait in that, an acknowledgment of the distance between the idea of Brazil and the fact of it, a distance that her art could acknowledge but not quite bridge.
Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, through June 3. For information, visit moma.org.