Rio de Janeiro

View of “Maria Martins,” 2022. Photo: Selmy Yassuda.

View of “Maria Martins,” 2022. Photo: Selmy Yassuda.

Maria Martins

Maria Martins (1894–1973) spent much of her life outside Brazil (she was a diplomat’s wife in countries throughout Europe, South America, and Asia, as well as in the United States), and her work was not widely lauded in her native country until the 1950s. Even so, her art, and her sculpture in particular, was clearly crucial to the emergence of abstraction in Brazil and a growing focus on indigenous beliefs in its art. “Maria Martins: Desejo imaginante” (Maria Martins: Tropical Fictions), curated by Isabella Rjeille and Fernanda Lopes, presented Martins’s sculptures, engravings, and drawings—along with archival documents—from the 1940s and 1950s, offering a focused take on an oeuvre that blended eroticism, Surrealism, and references to Amazonian cultures. The exhibition’s temporal focus underscored Martins’s work as a harbinger of a new artistic current, as up until the mid-1940s Brazilian sculpture was still predominantly figurative, often puerile, and only tangentially abstract—Martins’s work would breathe new life into the scene.

At the beginning of her career, Martins, then in her late forties, took legends of the Amazon and religious figures from Africa as starting points. While she never set foot in the Amazon rain forest, she likely found receptive soil for her formal research in Oswald de Andrade’s famous 1928 “Manifesto antropófago” (Anthropophagic Manifesto), which theorized cannibalism as a model for cultural emancipation. The female figure and large serpent in the bronze sculpture Amazônia, 1942, for instance, allude to the indigenous myth of Cobra Norato (or Snake Norato) in which a man takes the form a of serpent by day and that of a seductive suitor by night, as he searches for a companion to be queen of the Amazon. Sculptures like this one caught the attention of the Surrealists living in New York, where Martins resided between 1939 and 1948. Seeking to mobilize the “primitive” against “civilized” society, these artists had a vivid interest in Amerindian culture. Throughout the 1940s, Martins frequented the Surrealist circuit and participated in exhibitions such as the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp in Paris in 1947. This was the year she produced the svelte bronze figure O Implacável (The Implacable), which evoked a sense of the feminine as both liberated and highly sexualized. The woman is represented as an individual of desire, free, as if incapable of being captured. A year later, Martins made However!!, further developing an expressive language that leveraged Amazonian myths in order to reflect on representations of the female body. In this larger-than-life work, a viper envelops a woman’s legs, representing both menace and domination, while alluding to tales of Eve and Medusa as well as to the demand for women’s liberation from a patriarchal society. By the early 1950s, Martins had relinquished her appropriated source material and had begun to create her own mythologies.

With time, eroticism became ever more central to her work, informing her most iconic sculpture, O impossível (The Impossible), 1945. A female and a male figure rise, one in front of the other, from a single bronze block. They have tentacles for heads—appendages that could be read as claws, tongues, or phalluses, as the work conveys the libidinous friction between attraction and conflict. For a Latin American woman artist to deal frankly with desire was extremely unusual at the time, and, as the exhibition suggested, this was Martins’s most significant contribution to Surrealism and to the future of Brazilian sculpture.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.