MASP, São Paulo
On until 28th July 2019 (FREE on Tuesdays)
I wish I’d met Tarsila. I wish I’d heard her voice when she uttered so many times that she wanted to paint her country. I went into Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP) with an ambiguous perception about Tarsila. I questioned her capability – not technical but emotional – to “paint her country”. Three hours later (half of that queueing) I came out with a changed mind.
Tarsila do Amaral was born on a farm in São Paulo in 1886 – less than two years before slavery was abolished in Brazil – to a family of Brazilian aristocrats. Tarsila grew up with slaves in her household (those familiar with Brazilian history will know that slaves only gained their freedom in theory in 1888), she was sent to Europe to study with names such as Fernand Lèger and remained part of this privileged environment until the stock market crash of 1929 which saw her family lose everything. Interestingly, some biographical texts say that in 1930 Tarsila, then 43 years of age, “had to work.” I am not sure what they consider she did before “she had to work” but it seems that painting was not qualified as such. Anyhoo, she took a job as conservator at Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo which she quickly lost following Getúlio Vargas coup d’état. Tarsila then sold works from her private collection to finance a trip to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Upon her return to Brazil she was arrested and stayed detained for one month for alleged involvement with communism. That stint in prison was enough to have her never again involved in politics.
Her privileged background together with her capitulation the moment things got tough make me question Tarsila’s true willingness to "paint her country". Her country as it was, not as she wanted it to be. I write this with a deep awareness of how complex and paradoxical human beings can be and how easy it is to fall into the temptation of judging someone based on few facts.
Tarsila Popular (or Tarsila do Amaral: Cannibalizing Modernism – as the English version of the catalogue names it) comes about in two different and complementing contexts. First as part of an exhibition series of significant 20th century Brazilian artists who utilise a popular narrative in their work. Second as part of Women’s Histories, Feminist Histories where MASP has dedicated the entire year of 2019 to women artists. The museum has been taken over by women: Tarsila do Amaral, Lina Bo Bardi (on until 28th July) and Djanira da Motta e Silva (on until 19th May). All women. All popular. To me personally the question raised by this exhibition – “How can an elite artist be close to the common people?” – was a welcoming one.
The exhibition brings together over 100 works by the artist and focus on the dilemma that Tarsila faced sitting between European and Brazilian cultures and feeling somewhat alien to both. Many if not all of Tarsila’s best known works are on show including Abaporu, 1928.
I have picked out a couple of works that I found particularly intriguing and I believe convey some of Tarsila's intentions and history. Carnival in Madureira, 1924 is a colourful painting of what looks like a short Eiffel Tower decorated with flags of varied colours and surrounded by dark skinned people. There are green hills and houses on the background as well as a palm tree. The people are faceless, only the dog has eyes. In the foreground there is a strikingly tall woman dressed in shades of blue, red shoes, red necklace and a red headscarf. Children in colourful dresses abound. If it looks and feels like carnival it's because it is! Carnival in Rio de Janeiro before samba schools existed. To me this painting is a true embodiment of the dilemma faced by Tarsila. The work is beautiful and inspiring. But it is not France and it is not Brazil and it doesn’t have to be either.
Another work that caught my eye was Second Class, 1933. This is a large work that Tarsila painted upon her return from the Soviet Union. The faces convey so much depth of feeling. The child in white held by his mother in the middle of the painting says it all. The train wagon in the background screams concentration camp to me. There is a morbidity to this painting that gives me goose bumps at the nape of my neck. This work comes at stark contrast to Tarsila's previous utopian paintings. Here we have a glimpse at what the Brazilian reality might look like, even if whitened. I enjoy looking for the details: the bare feet and the somewhat displaced heads that feel like a necessary feature of the painting.
I thoroughly enjoyed the approach taken by the curatorial team in this exhibition where the vernacular was the focus. I have come out of the show with a different perception of Tarsila both as an artist and as a person. A more human perception.
I hear that this show will travel to London (shhhh!). Please go see it! And if you are in Brazil you have until 28th July to catch it. Let me know what you think.