São Paulo

Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Bordel (Brothel), ca. 1930, oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 39 3/8".

Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Bordel (Brothel), ca. 1930, oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 39 3/8".

Emiliano Di Cavalcanti

Pinacoteca do Estado / Estação Pinacoteca

Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Bordel (Brothel), ca. 1930, oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 39 3/8".

This show of Emiliano Di Cavalcanti’s work made for an eye-opening complement to the current Tarsila do Amaral exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Both artists helped forge what would become known as Brazilian modernism. But if Amaral painted the tropical landscape and its exuberant vegetation, Di Cavalcanti (1897–1976) was interested in portraying samba and carnival, the female figure (often in groups) in the urban periphery, and the coastline with its fishermen. A member of the Brazilian Communist party, the artist was imprisoned twice for his political convictions, once during the Constitutionalist Revolution in 1932, and then again between 1935 and 1936, during the dictatorship of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas. It is from a political perspective that some of his work can be best understood almost a century later. A case in point is the China-ink drawings collected in his 1933 album A realidade brasileira (The Brazilian Reality). It includes, for example, A questão social continua um—caso de polícia—#7 (The Social Issue Remains a Police Case—#7), ca. 1930–33, which depicts three policemen, one of whom is crushing a small figure in his fist. Another, Associação dos amigos do Brasil—#8 (Association of Friends of Brazil—#8), also ca. 1930–33, pictures Benito Mussolini next to a French diplomat and pipe-smoking statesmen from the US and Britain.

Spanning works produced between 1920 and 1950, the exhibition, curated by José Augusto Ribeiro, opened with a series of drawings in crayon and China ink on paper depicting bohemian figures in cafés, cabarets, and bars, as well as prostitutes on the streets of São Paulo and the artist’s hometown, Rio de Janeiro. From 1925 to 1935, his style oscillated between Art Nouveau and Art Deco in drawings and watercolors depicting cabaret and carnival scenes, which pioneered the artistic representation of urban musical culture in Brazil. Two stints in Paris undeniably influenced Di Cavalcanti’s practice. The first was in 1923, when he established contact with Braque, Léger, Matisse, and Picasso, and the second from 1936 to 1940, when he discovered in the work of the Mexican muralists an idiom more suited to his historical and social convictions. Unlike Amaral, he never developed a distinct style of his own. But he was a stalwart proponent of figurative painting even at the end of his career, when geometric abstraction was the dominant force in Brazilian art.

Di Cavalcanti’s images of the life of prostitutes might at times make one think of the Picasso of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but rather than the violent urgency of sharp Cubist forms, Di Cavalcanti emphasizes sensual vitality in a tropical context, in paintings such as Bordel (Brothel), ca. 1930, or Cinco moças de Guaratinguetá (Five Girls from Guaratinguetá), 1930. In mid-century Brazil, it was subversive to depict the working class and parody bourgeois society, but Di Cavalcanti appears more as a voyeur than as an accomplice when portraying either the São Paulo elite, as in Sem titulo (figuras no cabaré) (Untitled [Figures in the Cabaret]), 1929, or Afro-Brazilians as representatives of cultural vibrancy in works such as Samba, 1927. Glimpses of proletarian sympathy come through in paintings such as Gasometer, 1929, or Pescadores (Fishermen), 1946, yet what remains at the core of the artist’s practice is a fascination with the female figure in varied settings and states of undress. In Brazil today, as elsewhere, gender is a subject of heated debate, and several exhibitions thematizing it have been attacked, closed down, or partly censored by the Right. While Di Cavalcanti’s work reflects a deep affection for his country and its people, we can no longer avoid seeing that his representation of women was romanticizing and stereotypical rather than critical.

Tobi Maier