Tarsila do Amaral was born on September 1st, 1886, in the town of Capivari, in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil. She was the daughter of José Estanislau do Amaral and Lydia Dias de Aguiar do Amaral. Tarsila’s father was a wealthy landowner, and she spent her childhood on her father’s farms. Later she studied at Colégio Sion, a convent school in São Paulo, and then in Barcelona, Spain, where she produced her first painting Sagrado Coração de Jesus (Sacred Heart of Jesus) in 1904. Upon returning to Brazil, Tarsila married André Teixeira Pinto, and gave birth to her only child, Dulce.
A few years later, Tarsila separated from André and started her studies in art. In 1918, Tarsila learned sculpture under Zadig, followed by lessons in drawing and painting in the studio of Pedro Alexandrino, where she met the painter Anita Malfatti. In 1920, Tarsila left to study under Émile Renard and at the Académie Julien in Paris, where she stayed until June 1922.
Tarsila learned about the Semana de Arte Moderna or the Week of Modern Art (which happened in São Paulo in February 1922), through the letters of her friend Anita Malfatti. When she returned to Brazil, Tarsila was persuaded by Anita to join the modernist group to which Anita belonged. Tarsila began dating another member of the group, the writer Oswald de Andrade. Together, Tarsila, Anita, Oswald, and the writers Mário de Andrade and Menotti Del Picchia formed the “Group of Five.” They stirred up the city of São Paulo culturally with meetings, parties, and conferences. Tarsila said that she was first exposed to modern art in São Paulo, since until then she had only studied traditional academic art.
In December 1922, Tarsila returned to Paris, and Oswald de Andrade joined her shortly thereafter.
In this year, Tarsila was in Paris with her boyfriend Oswald de Andrade. Tarsila began her training under the cubist master Fernand Léger. She made and showed Léger the painting The Negress (A Negra). He was so impressed that he called his other students to see it. The figure of The Negress had a deep connection with Tarsila’s childhood, who always listened to the tales of African origin that her black nannies told her and the other kids in her household. These were oftentimes scary tales, of hauntings and creatures that ate people, images that became forever imprinted in the memory of the artist. This cultural influence is noticeable in The Negress and in subsequent works of the painter. With The Negress, Tarsila entered the history of Brazilian modern art.
Besides her studies, Tarsila also had an intense social life. She mingled with some of the most influential cultural icons at the time, such as the Swiss-French poet Blaise Cendrars, who introduced Tarsila and Oswald to the Parisian intelligentsia. Through Cendrars, they became acquainted with other prominent writers such as Jean Cocteau, musicians such as Stravinsky and Eric Satie, famous painters such as Picasso and the Delaunay couple, and sculptors such as Brancusi. They met personalities such as the art dealer of the impressionists Ambroise Vollard and the Negro Prince Kojo Tovalu. They also befriended other eminent Brazilians who were there at the time, such as the composer Villa Lobos, the painter Di Cavalcanti, and patrons of the arts Paulo Prado and Olívia Guedes Penteado.
Tarsila entertained guests at her studio with typical Brazilian meals, serving feijoada (a black bean stew) and caipirinha, a cocktail made with cachaça (Brazilian spirits), lemon or lime juice, and sugar. She was invited to dinner parties at the homes of important people such as the Swedish millionaire Rolf de Maré, and the wife of the Chilean Ambassador Eugenia Erazuris.
Tarsila wore clothes by the some of the finest fashion designers at the time, such as Paul Poiret and Jean Patou, which complemented her stunning looks. At a dinner party in honor of the father of aviation Santos Dumont, she dressed in a dazzling red coat, and drew the attention of all the guests with her beauty and elegance. This event inspired her to paint the magnificent self-portrait Manteau Rouge in 1923.
In 1924 the poet Blaise Cendrars visited Brazil. He joined Tarsila and Oswald plus Dona Olívia Guedes Penteado, Mário de Andrade, and other modernists on a special tour. They spent Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and Holy Week in the historical towns in the state of Minas Gerais.
Tarsila said it was during this trip to the state of Minas that she saw the colors she enjoyed since her childhood, but her masters considered provincial and said she should not use them in her paintings. Tarsila then affirmed:
“I found in Minas the colors I used to love as a child. I was subsequently taught that these colors were ugly and of poor taste, but afterwards I avenged the oppression by incorporating them in my paintings: the purest blue, purplish pink, bright yellow, singing green…”
Tarsila always stated that she wanted to be the painter of Brazil. In her Pau-Brasil phase she incorporated rural and urban landscapes, plus the flora, fauna, folklore and the people that were typical of Brazil. Besides the Brazilian theme and vibrant colors, Tarsila also utilized the Cubist technique in her works that she had learned in Paris.
Some examples of magnificent paintings from this phase included Carnaval em Madureira (Carnival in Madureira), Morro da Favela (The Hill of the Favela), E.F.C.B., O Mamoeiro (The Papaya Tree), São Paulo, and Pescador (Fisherman), among others.
Also on this trip, the artist made one of her best series of drawings that inspired Oswald de Andrade in his book of poems titled Pau-Brasil and Cendrars in his book Feuilles de route – Le formose.
In the beginning of 1926, Tarsila, Oswald, Dulce (Tarsila’s daughter), Nonê (Oswald’s son), plus two other couples set out on a trip that was unusual for the standards of the time. They visited Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, and Rhodes. The trip served as inspiration for Tarsila to produce another series of extraordinary drawings.
In 1925 Tarsila’s father obtained the annulment of her first marriage, so in 1926 she was able to wed the writer Oswald de Andrade. Washington Luís (President of Brazil) and Júlio Prestes (Governor of São Paulo) served as groomsmen. After their wedding, the couple spent long periods at Tarsila’s farm, where they entertained their modernist friends.
That same year, Tarsila also had her first solo exhibition in Paris, which was reviewed favorably.
In January 1928, Tarsila wanted to give a special birthday gift to her husband Oswald de Andrade so she painted the famous Abaporu. When Oswald saw it, he was very impressed and said it was the best painting Tarsila had ever made. Oswald showed the painting to his friend, the writer Raul Bopp, and Raul also agreed that it was a masterpiece. Tarsila, Oswald and Raul believed the image looked like an aboriginal character of a cannibal. Tarsila thought of her father’s Tupi Guarani (Native Brazilian) dictionary, where the three of them located the word Abaporu, the translation for flesh-eating man (anthropophagus). Abaporu was how they decided to baptize the remarkable painting.
Tarsila’s Abaporu marked the beginning of a revolution that radically changed the history of Brazilian art.
Inspired by Abapuru, Oswald wrote the Anthropophagic Manifesto, and with Tarsila, they founded the Anthropophagic Movement. Their objective was to establish an art culture that was typically Brazilian. This Movement sought to devour and transform the culture of the external other, i.e. the cultures of Europe and North America and the culture of the internal other, i.e. the cultures of the Native Americans and the descendants of African and Asian immigrants. This approach adhered to the metaphorical character of the word “Anthropophagic”. In summary, one should not reject or imitate foreign cultures, but rather “swallow”, “digest”, and integrate them in a new creative process. The figure of the Abaporu became the symbol of the Anthropophagic Movement that advocated a rebellion against the submission of the Brazilian cultural standards to the art doctrines of developed countries at the time. In Oswald’s words, he proposed the “Cultural scoffing of the imported techniques in order to reconstruct them with autonomy, and convert them into export merchandise.”
Tarsila’s Anthropophagic phase was immensely prolific, with some of the most imaginative and most valuable paintings of her career, such as: Sol Poente (Setting Sun), A Lua (The Moon), Cartão-postal (Postcard), O Lago (The Lake), and Antropofagia (Anthropophagy) among others. This phase is characterized by the use of imaginary creatures and landscapes, as well as vibrant colors, lending an oneiric character to her artistic expression. The artist revealed that Abaporu and other creations of hers were a result of the images from her unconscious mind, and had a profound connection with the African tales told by black nannies during her childhood.
In 1929, Tarsila had her first Solo Exhibition in Brazil, with a mixed review, since most of the public and art critics did not yet understand Modern Art.
Later in 1929 the New York Stock Exchange crashed, which caused a worldwide crisis that affected the price of coffee in Brazil, and forced Tarsila to change her lavish lifestyle. Her father lost a lot of wealth, had his farms foreclosed, and she was forced to find work. This was also a year of dramatic changes in the love life of Tarsila. The painter split up from Oswald, when she found out about his affair with the 18-year-old student Patrícia Galvão, who was also known as Pagu.
Social e NeoPau Brasil
In 1931, having started a new relationship with the communist doctor Osório Cesar, Tarsila had an exhibit in Moscow. The painter sympathized with the communist labor cause influenced by Serge Romoff, an old friend from Paris. Romoff took her and Osório Cesar on a tour of the former Soviet Union and showed Tarsila only the positive side of communism. After she returned to Brazil, Tarsila attended Brazilian Communist Party meetings in the company of Osório Cesar. Communism was illegal in Brazil at the time and this incident resulted in the incarceration of the painter for a month. After this episode, she split up with Osório and never got involved with politics again.
This incident, though, served as inspiration to another magnificent work of Tarsila, who in 1933 painted Operários (Workmen), a revolutionary piece – the first one with a social theme in the history of Brazilian art. Another pioneering work from Tarsila’s social phase is Segunda Classe (Second Class). Other paintings from this phase that also exhibited social themes, though not as prominently, include Costureiras (Seamstresses) and Crianças-Orfanato (Children-Orphanage).
In the mid 1930’s Tarsila started a relationship with the writer Luís Martins, more than twenty years younger than her. The romance lasted 18 years.
Also in the 1930’s, Tarsila started working as a columnist for Diários Associados, a newspaper that was run by her friend Assis Chateaubriand. She worked at this job from 1936 until the mid-50s.
In 1949, Tarsila’s only granddaughter Beatriz drowned when she tried to save a friend in a lake in Petropolis.
Tarsila participated in several exhibitions, such as Bienal de São Paulo (Biannual Exhibit of São Paulo) in 1951. She had a special room in the VII Bienal de São Paulo (VII Biannual Exhibit of São Paulo), and she participated in the Bienal de Veneza in 1964 (Biannual Exhibit of Venice of 1964). In 1969, the doctor and curator Aracy Amaral organized the Exhibition Tarsila 50 anos de pintura (Tarsila – 50 years of painting).
Tarsila’s only daughter Dulce passed away before her in 1966, from complications of diabetes.
Tarsila passed away in January 1973. Her extraordinary legacy is celebrated to this day, having inspired many generations of artists and the general public, in Brazil and elsewhere in the world.
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