profile, recommended

Revolutionary in Rio

A young girl’s long hair is blown by the wind, while she stares ahead at a small collection of trees. Three heads – human or animal we are not sure — protrude from wellington boots on the pavement. It is hard to describe what it happening in the paintings of Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973), even though the colours and the shapes are vivid.

Upon first glance, some of these works can resemble France’s Henri Rousseau, the self-taught artist who captured now-famous jungle scenes. In others, she is more like the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. But in all her work, she is overwhelmingly Brazilian – with her bold use of colour and indigenous subject matter. Her legacy can be seen in the vivid work of contemporary Brazilian painters like Beatriz Milhazes.

Indeed, Tarsila (as she is known in Brazil) has been described as the Brazilian painter who best achieved a nationalistic modern style in her country. She is also credited with having revolutionised Brazilian art. The much-loved artist is one of a number of female Brazilian artists recently examined in an exhibition at the Museu do Arte do Rio, Tarsila and Modern Women in Rio.

Tarsila began to study painting in 1916. She spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, at that time a mecca for anybody with artistic ambitions. At first, she took classes with the conservative French artist Emile Renard. Later she studied with less traditional French painters, including Fernand Leger. It was not until 1922 that Tarsila began to show an interest in Modernism.

However Tarsila’s time in Paris did not totally convert her to French art. In fact, quite the reverse appeared to happen – though introduced to new concepts of Modernism, the artist began to hanker for a more purely ‘Brazilian’ style of art. She wrote to her family in 1923:

“I feel myself ever more Brazilian. I want to be the painter of my country. How grateful I am for having spent all my childhood on the farm. The memories of these times have become precious for me. I want, in art, to be the little country girl from Sao Bernardo, playing with straw dolls, like in the last picture I am working on…Don’t think that this tendency is viewed negatively here. On the contrary. What they want is that each one brings the contribution of his own country. This explains the success of the Russian ballet, Japanese graphics and black music. Paris has had enough of Parisian art.”(1)

 In the same year Tarsila returned to Brazil and began to make trips to parts of the country that would inspire her art. She visited the historic towns of Minas Gerias, which are inland of Rio. These colonial-style towns, which date back to the 18th Century Gold Rush, are loved for their Baroque-style churches, cobblestone streets and ornate mansions. Tarsila wrote: “I found in Minas the colours I had adored as a child. I was later taught that they are ugly and unsophisticated.” Her experiences of popular culture in Brazil led to a new style of painting: she started to express herself through a mixture of naïve art and Cubism. She had picked up the latter from her French mentor, Leger.

Please continue reading this article in the November/December 2015 issue of The Kurios.

(1) Quoted from Latin American Art of the 20th Century, Edward Lucie-Smith (Thames and Hudson, 1993), p.42.

Photo: Tarsila. Source: O Estado de São Paulo – Seção de Periódicos da Biblioteca Máriode A ndrade (Wikimedia Commons).