TARSILA DO AMARAL

b. 1886, Capivari, State of São Paulo, Brazil

d. 1973, São Paulo

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I feel increasingly Brazilian: I want to be the painter of my country. How grateful I am to have spent my whole childhood on the farm. The memories of that time are becoming ever more precious to me. In art, I want to be the São Bernardo caipirinha, playing with dolls made of plants, as in the latest work I’m painting.

—Tarsila do Amaral [1]

 

The story of the gift that the artist Tarsila do Amaral presented to her then-husband Oswald de Andrade on January 11, 1928, is now part of art historical legend. It was a painting depicting a naked figure, head propped on one elbow, seated next to a cactus. Named Abaporu, it would become her most famous and recognizable painting. The title of the piece is a portmanteau, appropriating the words aba (man) and poru (who eats) from the Tupi-Guarani languages indigenous to Brazil. In turning to local history by invoking a tribe alleged to have practiced cannibalism, Andrade and Amaral developed a metaphor that would define their search for a truly Brazilian art. In collaboration with Raul Bopp and inspired by Amaral’s canvas, Andrade penned the “Manifesto Antropofago” that inaugurated the first issue of the Revista de Antropofagia in May 1928. The concept of anthropophagy developed here and supported by Amaral’s artwork proffered a metaphorical cannibalism through which Brazilian artists could produce their own national style by “devouring” European modernism and combining it with Brazilian culture. It was a strategy that rejected cultural imperialism by empowering the artists of Brazil to accept and reject tenets of contemporary Western art without sacrificing their national identity. Since this time, Amaral has acquired a level of fame in her country that forgoes the use of her last name,[2] while the concept of anthropophagy continues to resonate. Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica, and Anna Maria Maiolino—all stalwarts of Brazilian modernism—have engaged with this concept, as has a younger generation evidenced by the paintings of Adriana Varejão.

 

Amaral began her artistic education in São Paulo in 1916, training at the conservative Academy of Fine Arts, before moving to Paris in 1920 to study at the Académie Julien.[3] But upon returning to Brazil in the wake of the "Semana de arte moderna"—one of the first events that truly immersed Brazilian audiences in avant-garde practices—Amaral met key figures involved in the event and became a convert to modernism.[4] In 1923 her schooling was put to the test as she returned to Paris and worked in the studios of André Lhote and Fernand Léger while also studying under Albert Gleizes. Through these experiences, Amaral developed a profound appreciation for the possibilities provided by Cubism, so much so that she likened it to “military service” in the education of young painters.[5] 

The year 1923, however, also saw Amaral send a letter to her family in Brazil in which she proclaimed “I feel increasingly Brazilian: I want to be the painter of my country.” Indeed, as a South American abroad among artists who were turning toward “primitivism” in order to further their own practices, she became more aware of her identity as a Brazilian.[6] Arriving back in her native country at the end of the year, Amaral announced her intention to “study the taste and art of our caipiras. In the countryside, I hope to learn from those who have not yet been corrupted by the academies.”[7] In 1924, she traveled widely in the company of Andrade, the French-Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars, and many others, visiting the Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and making their way through the small towns in the state of Minas Gerais. Amaral found inspiration throughout these travels, developing Cubist-inspired compositions of Brazilian cities and the countryside representative of what is now known as her Pau-Brasil period (1924–27). The term, which translates to “brazilwood,” comes from the title of Andrade’s 1925 manifesto calling for a national literature distinct from European traditions.[8]  

 

As the decade progressed, Amaral’s compositions became increasingly indebted to elements of Surrealism, having previously familiarized herself with the work of artists like Jean Arp, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy.[9] The imaginative landscapes and creatures found in her paintings from the Anthropophagic period (1928–30) come together to create verdant images of a timeless, dreamlike quality. Rounded and bulbous forms underscore an otherworldly appearance. By the turn of the decade, however, Amaral turned her eye to social and political issues within her country, deploying her unique visual vocabulary to complex issues of class and labor in a manner drawing from Social Realism.[10] 

 

After her death in 1973, the importance of Amaral’s work within art history has been increasingly recognized. In 1987, her work was included in Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920–1987, which opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Art before traveling to the Queens Museum, New York, and the Center for the Fine Arts, Miami. In 2017, she was the subject of a major career retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, which traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2018. The potency of her concept of Anthropophagy retains currency at a time when art history—the way it is traditionally told and who tells it—is hotly contested; at a time when a female Brazilian artist, previously underserved in Western art history, can hold a major one-person exhibition in the United States and reclaim her place as one of the most influential artists of our time.  

[1]  Reproduced in Regina Teixeira de Barros, “Tarsila do Amaral Chronology,” in Tarsila do Amaral, exh. cat. (Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2009 ), 238.

[2]  Vitoria Hadba Groom, “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil,” The Brooklyn Rail, March 2018, accessed February 9, 2020. 

[3]  Hollister Sturges, “Tarsila do Amaral: 1886–1973,” in Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920–1987, exh. cat. (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1987), 66.

[4]  Barros, “Tarsila do Amaral Chronology,” 237.

[5]  Ibid., 236–239. See for a chronology of the years discussed above.

[6]  Ibid. 239.

[7]  Ibid., 239. 

[8]  Sturges, “Tarsila do Amaral,” 70.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Juan Manuel Bonet, “A ‘Quest’ for Tarsila,” Tarsila do Amaral, exh. cat. (Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2009 ), 88.

 

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