São Paulo

Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu (The Man Who Eats), 1928, oil on canvas, 33 1⁄2 × 28 1⁄2".

Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu (The Man Who Eats), 1928, oil on canvas, 33 1⁄2 × 28 1⁄2".

Tarsila do Amaral

As part of a yearlong program dedicated to the art and histories of women, the exhibition “Tarsila Popular”—with a second official title, in English, “Tarsila do Amaral: Cannibalizing Modernism”—was the Museu de Arte de São Paulo’s first retrospective of one of Brazil’s most prominent and transgressive modernists. Known by her first name, Tarsila do Amoral (1886–1973) played a trailblazing role in reshaping the Eurocentric artistic traditions that were in place in Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century to develop a visual language capable of capturing local cultures and narratives. Her iconic oil-on-canvas painting Abaporu (The Man Who Eats), 1928, on loan from the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires for this exhibition, has come to symbolize the evolution of a new Brazilian aesthetic. Rendered in a bold palette, it depicts a gigantic human figure with a tiny head and disproportionately large limbs sitting by a cactus under the sun. The same year, a reproduction of the image was published alongside the “Manifesto Antropófago” (Cannibalist Manifesto) written by Oswald de Andrade, Tarsila’s then husband. This text proposed that a truly Brazilian aesthetic could be forged via the cannibalization of current foreign cultural practices—by first appropriating and absorbing them, and then “digesting” them through the local context.

Comprised of ninety-two paintings and drawings, grouped thematically, the exhibition offered an insightful voyage through the artist’s commitment to making art that could bear witness to the plurality of the people, landscapes, cityscapes, colors, and social customs of her native country. Her subject matter and the “primitive” and “popular” style she adopted took up early modernist precepts while speaking to both the artist’s interest in the vernacular and the influence of Surrealism. The retrospective attracted wide audiences eager to see paintings previously only experienced as reproductions; exhibited together, the works revealed unexpected connections. For instance, it became clear that Antropofagia (Anthropophagy), 1929, appropriates both Abaporu’s sitting figure and the Afro-Brazilian woman with an exposed breast from A Negra (The Negress), 1923. And a drawing made earlier in the same year as the latter piece, A primeira negra (The First Negress), pointed to its origin of in a more classical rendering of the same subject.

Other works, also made in 1923 (a year Tarsila spent largely in Paris), revealed the range of her figurative stylization. Figura em Azul (Figure in Blue) can be seen as an example of traditional self-portraiture, while the broad, angular areas of color and perspective in Retrato de Oswald de Andrade (Portrait of Oswald de Andrade), demonstrate the impact of witnessing the rise of Cubism firsthand had on the artist. In O Modelo (The Model), the use of geometry to synthesize subject matter suggests the influence of Fernand Léger, one of Tarsila’s teachers in Paris. Her prolific experimentation continued over the course of the decade, culminating in the celebrated works of the artist’s so-called anthropophagic period.

With the 1929 financial crash, Tarsila’s family lost the fortune they had made from their coffee plantation; in the years that followed, the artist turned to more socially oriented themes, as is evident in one of her most reproduced images, Operários (Workers), 1933. The turning point was here evoked in the only piece she painted in 1930, Composição (Figura Só) (Composition [Lonely Figure]), which is unique in the artist’s oeuvre in the fragility it conveys. A solitary, tear-shaped figure stands facing a vast and empty nightscape, with her back to the viewer and her long hair billowing across the canvas. The painting is often understood as emblematic of the artist’s personal and financial crisis at the time, but in hindsight, it also could just as poignantly be read as a reckoning with her isolation as a leading female artist cannibalizing modernism in the twentieth century.