Tarsila the Iconic: A conversation on the legacy and oeuvre of Brazil’s most celebrated painter

Por CYNTHIA GARCIA – Portal New City Brasil

Tarsila do Amaral, Antropofagia (Anthropophagy), 1929, oil on canvas, 126 x 142 cm, Fundação José and Paulina Nemirovsky Collection, São Paulo

Following the 2017-18 exhibition, “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil” at The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) has finally staged “Tarsila Popular.” The long-awaited first solo exhibition of Brazil’s most celebrated painter has generated one of the highest number of visitors in the institution’s seven-decade history.

While the US exhibition was larger, with one hundred and twenty works in total, including paintings, documents and photos, “Tarsila Popular” consists of ninety works in drawings and fifty-seven paintings, the largest number of canvases ever showcased in a solo exhibition of the painter. Unlike Picasso, one of her friends from their jazzy Parisian days in the 1920s, Tarsila (1886-1973) painted a mere two-hundred-and-forty canvases in her lifetime. “She was a perfectionist,” recalls her grandniece, horse-riding instructor Tarsilinha do Amaral, a passionate expert on her pioneering great-aunt and the artist’s family representative. During the MoMA exhibition, when we interviewed her on the artist’s fascinating personal life, she remarked: “Woody Allen missed out Tarsila in ‘Midnight in Paris’, it was her crowd.”

Tarsila do Amaral, Pescador (The Fisherman, 1925), oil on canvas, 66 x 75 cm. The Hermitage Collection, St. Petersburg

Modern paintings from the first half of the 20th century remain the most expensive artworks on the market. In 1995, when the iconic “Abaporu” was sold to a collector in Argentina, it became Brazil’s highest priced art up until that point. Twenty-four years later, the MoMA acquired its first Tarsila, “A Lua” (The Moon, 1928), a surrealistic lunar landscape that since has hung next to her friend Picasso since earlier this year. Not to fall too behind, the MASP, which surprisingly did not have a single work by the famous painter, now has four on loan from the state government’s collection.

Iconic is a term usually associated to Tarsila’s exploits on the easel. Even though her production was not particularly prolific, the beautiful aristocrat, who helped overturn the diktats of the Paris Beaux Arts and became a modernist icon, produced four of the most significant paintings in the history of Brazilian art, most importantly, engraved in the hearts of Brazilians young and old, and in thousands of byproducts. The outstanding quartet hangs at the MASP retrospective: “Operários” (Workers), 1933; “A Negra” (The Negress), 1923; “Abaporu”, 1928; and “Antropofagia” (Anthropophagy), 1929. This one depicts a fusion of the figures in “A Negra” and “Abaporu,” in the bright yellow, green and blue of the Brazilian flag. Stamped on the cover of the catalog of her US shows, experts consider “Antropofagia” Tarsila’s most important painting of the 1920s, her crowning phase.

Painter Tarsila do Amaral, 1920s, Paris. Courtesy of Tarsila do Amaral Archive

Tarsilinha, why the title “Tarsila Popular”?

In her lifetime, Tarsila stated she wished to become the painter of Brazil. By that she meant the painter proud to be associated with Brazilian culture. In colors otherwise branded as boorish, “caipiras,” she painted Brazil’s early urbanscape and the industrialization of our progress-minded country, as well as an idyllic rural life with our tropical flora and exotic fauna, and our common people in all their ethnic backgrounds and religiousness. This is very clear in the axis designed for the MASP exhibition. Her paintings were able to frame our national identity of the first half of the twentieth century to a point that it forged the national consciousness of an ideal Brazil to this day. Writer and intellectual Mário de Andrade, her best friend, said Tarsila invented the concept of Brazilianity, “brasilidade.” The MASP exhibition not only shows her three most important phases – Pau Brasil (Brazilian Wood), Anthropophagy and the Social phase – but also explains her creative process and how she became Brazil’s most beloved painter.

In the exhibition, which of Tarsila’s main paintings have not been shown in Brazil for a long time?

“Pescador” (The Fisherman) has remained the longest away from the country. It was painted in 1925, exhibited in Moscow in 1931 and right after she sold it to the government of the old Soviet Union and it was never before exhibited in Brazil. “A Cuca” (The Critter, 1924), which she donated to the Museum of Grenoble, in France, has not been seen by Brazilians for twenty-four years and is especially adored by children. “AFamília” (The Family, 1925), came from the Reina Sofia museum collection in Madrid. We cannot forget the famous “Abaporu” (1928), which belongs to the MALBA via the Fundación Constantini Collection, in Buenos Aires, that has not been shown in Brazil for eleven years.

Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu, 1928, oil on canvas, 85 x 73 cm, MALBA and Fundación Constantini Collection, Buenos Aires

Tell us about the mythic “Abaporu.”

It is certainly the most important painting on display. It has become an icon of Brazil, many experts point out it is our equivalent to the Mona Lisa. This fascinating creature created by Tarsila’s imagination has the power to attract young and old alike. Kids love it, many of them have learned about it in their public and private schools. I believe the moment Tarsila gave it to Oswald de Andrade, her then husband, the “Abaporu” was destined to be a mythic oeuvre.  In 1928, when she painted it, the “Abaporu” inspired Oswald to write his famous Anthropophagy Manifesto – published with a drawing of the Abaporu as its icon – and then founded the Anthropophagy Movement. That is when the myth of the Abaporu begins. Seven decades later when the Argentinean collector Eduardo Constantini bought Brazil’s most important painting for his museum in Buenos Aires, surprising the Brazilian art establishment, the coup constituted another major step toward the Abaporu mystique.

Tarsila do Amaral, A Lua (The Moon), 1928, 110 x 110 cm. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Collection

Now let us move on to “A Lua” (The Moon, 1928), which was sold to the MoMA weeks before the opening of the current MASP retrospective, and could not make it for the show.  What does it mean for Tarsila’s oeuvre to be in the collection of this major American museum? How does it resonate in the value of the artist’s oeuvre?  

With this sale, Tarsila entered the “club” of the most prized painters in the history of art. It is estimated that the one-hundred-and-ten by one-hundred-and-ten centimeters, square-format, 1928 oil on canvas, was bought by the MoMA for around US$ 20 million, to this day a price unheard of in Brazilian art, heating up the artist’s market value. The “Abaporu”, sold in 1995 by US$ 1,5 million, is estimated today at one hundred million dollars.

How do you rate the exhibition at the MASP compared to those at the Chicago Art Institute and the MoMA in 2017/2018?  

The MASP retrospective is being compared to these two wonderful exhibitions. The shows in the US had less oils but more drawings and documents, it was a different curatorship. The MASP explores a more comprehensive view of the artist’s work. Her works after 1933 are not very well known but are also very important. Tarsila was a perfectionist, her creative process went far beyond the 1930s .

Tarsila do Amaral, Operários (Workers), 1933, oil on canvas, 150 x 205 cm, Palaces of the Government of the State of São Paulo Collection

Since you mentioned her work post-1920s, tell us about the painting “Operários” (Workers, 1933), present in the three shows, a socio-political symbol of Brazilian society. 

The painting represents her direct critique on the unequal opportunity in Brazil’s social pyramid that exists to this day. She painted it after her return from a long trip to the Soviet Union. As soon as she arrived the Brazilian government arrested her for her involvement with the left and accused her of subversive activities in 1932. It is the most requested image in all of Tarsila’s oeuvre for copyright use.

Taking into account the exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the MoMA and the MASP, is there anything special you remember about them?

An African-American from the staff of the MoMA told me the painting he liked best was “A Negra” (The Negress, 1923) because he felt represented by it. To this day how many African-Americans have occupied the walls of the MoMA?

Tarsila do Amaral, A Negra (The Negress), 1923, oil on canvas 100 x 80 cm, MAC/USP Collection, São Paulo

Now let us move on to the Bardi-Abaporu episode. After the Great Crash of 1929, Tarsila’s life had a downturn with her father’s fortune in ruins. For the next forty years of her life she struggled with money. Tarsila and MASP’s founder and director, Pietro Maria Bardi, were contemporaries, so why did the MASP, South America’s most important museum, not acquire a single work by Brazil’s most revered painter during her lifetime?    

After the 1929 Crash, Tarsila’s life changed in the blink of an eye. To make ends meet, she got a job, mortgaged her farm and sold for next to nothing twelve canvases to the collections of the government’s palaces of the State of São Paulo. Among them were “Operários” (Workers, 1933), “Self-portrait of 1924” and “Religião Brasileira” (Brazilian Religion, 1927). She wanted them in public collections to be appreciated by the public at large. At the end of her life she sold Bardi the “Abaporu” for a very low-price because he promised her it would go to the MASP Collection. Instead, a few months later Bardi sold it to an important collector for an astounding price. Tarsila was heart-broken with Bardi’s betrayal.

After that, the “Abaporu”, via art dealer Raul Forbes, whom I knew, was sold to Argentina’s biggest art collector, Eduardo Constantini, in the memorable auction of 1995 for US$ 1,5 million in Christie’s in New York. What do you make of the Bardi-Abaporu episode?   

We, Brazilians, regret it very much. All I can say is the “Abaporu” is housed in a wonderful museum in the city of Buenos Aires. Eduardo Constantini always loans the work for exhibitions around the world, he publishes beautiful catalogs so, in a way, he not only promotes Tarsila but also boosts Brazilian art. However, Brazilians, myself included, would love to see the “Abaporu” in the MASP Collection.

The painter’s grand niece Tarsilinha do Amaral, 2018, with an Abaporu gold earring, Photo by Bob Wolfenson. Courtesy of the photographer

Tarsilinha, what is the legacy of your great-aunt?

Tarsila was born in the late 1800s into the coffee plantation aristocracy to be a mother and housewife but she dared choose her own path. She painted with colors considered in bad taste by the BeauxArts-minded establishment. She dared to divorce her first husband and to fall in love with writer Oswald de Andrade, only to be then abandoned by him. After that she remarried a man twenty years her junior. She dared paint the “Abaporu.” She dared say publicly she wished to be Brazil’s painter par excellence. The exhibitions at the MASP, the Art Institute of Chicago and the MoMA have shown she has now conquered her rightful place in art. For all of this, Tarsila is inspiring.

“Tarsila Popular”

Through June 23, 2019

Curated by Adriano Pedrosa and Fernando Oliva

Cynthia Garcia

Rio-born Cynthia Garcia is a respected art historian, art critic and journalist fluent in five languages stationed in São Paulo. Her daughter America Cavaliere works in the contemporary art market and her son Pedro Cavaliere, based in LA, is in the international DJ scene.