Zentrum Paul Klee toopen first exhibition in Switzerland to provide an extensive insight into the modern art of Brazil
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Zentrum Paul Klee toopen first exhibition in Switzerland to provide an extensive insight into the modern art of Brazil
Djanira da Motta e Silva, Três orixás, 1966. Oil on canvas, 130,4 × 195,5 cm. Collection of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, acquired by the Governo do Estado de São Paulo, 1969 © Instituto Pintora Djanira.

BERN.- From 7 September 2024 until 5 January 2025 the Zentrum Paul Klee will be showing Brasil! Brasil! The Birth of Modernism. It is the first exhibition in Switzerland to provide an extensive insight into the modern art of Brazil, and into the country’s history, literature, music, design and architecture. The exhibition will travel to the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Brasil! Brasil!

Brazil is by far the largest country in South America, and a country with one of the highest populations in the world. Its landscape is hugely diverse, extending from the Amazonian rain forest to the famous beaches of Copacabana. The tropical rain forest has the greatest variety of species in the world, and the country’s ecological significance for the global climate is immense.

Equally impressive is Brazil’s cultural richness. Brazilian art and culture is a mixture of Indigenous cultures and cultures brought to the country by its Portuguese colonizers as well as by people who were deported to Brazil as slaves from West Africa until the end of the 19th century. Today the culture is further enriched by immigrants from all over the world. The cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasília, with populations numbering in the millions, are metropolises where all the country’s contrasting features come together. Musical genres like Samba and Bossa Nova and the Carnival could only have arisen here.

In search of an independent identity

At the start of the 20th century Brazil was a young nation in transition. In 1889, after 67 years under imperial rule, the first Republic was proclaimed, its capital being Rio de Janeiro. Economically, the country profited from its near monopoly in the global coffee trade, centred on the port city of Santos in the federal state of São Paulo. Moreover, slavery had been abolished in 1888. Many of the exploited workers and formerly enslaved people migrated to the region of São Paulo to profit from the economic boom there. This euphoric mood is reflected in art, literature and music as well as design and architecture. Modern architecture, which found an iconic expression very much its own in the work of architects such as Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi, and the development of carnival in Rio de Janeiro are all marked by this energy and diversity. Given the heterogeneous population and the abundance of different regional cultures, however, the quest for a national identity proved to be a special challenge.

The birth of Modernism

In 1922, to coincide with the 100-year Jubilee of Brazilian independence, the coffee magnate Paulo Prado – one of the most influential oligarchs – introduced a week of cultural events, the Semana de Arte Moderna, to turn the economic centre of São Paulo into another capital of modern artistic development alongside Rio de Janeiro. Alongside exhibitions devoted to art and architecture, concerts, dance performances, talks and readings were held in the context of the Semana. It was the first time that the various arts had been brought together in this way as an avant-garde movement in search of Brazilian modernism.

Like the avant-garde in Europe, artists in Brazil were determined to overcome the dominant institutionalised, academic classical artistic canon of the 19th century. They also tried to find possible ways to break away from the artistic orientation of the Portuguese colonizers and develop a pictorial language of their own. So it is hardly surprising that they sought an exchange with European contemporaries. Brazilian artists from affluent families or with travel grants travelled to Europe for long stays – Anita Malfatti to Berlin, Tarsila do Amaral, Candido Portinari, Vicente do Rego Monteiro and Geraldo de Barros to Paris. The engagement with European avant-garde art, and particularly with Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism, left traces in their works. Back in Brazil, however, they all made an effort to create a modern Brazilian art. They engaged with traditions and themes that they defined as ‘their own’: indigenous practices, the Afro-Brazilian cultures introduced by slaves, ethnic plurality. Upper-class artists in particular appropriated indigenous pictorial languages; however from these artistic perspectives the indigenous and Afro-Brazilian populations – as in depictions by European avant-garde artists – were represented in idealised and illustrative forms.

With the Revolution of 1930 and the dictatorial ‘Estado Novo’ subsequently introduced by Getúlio Vargas, art turned to themes such as the exploitation of agricultural workers and social injustice, and styles became more realistic.

From the 1950s, after the deposition of Vargas, a second generation of modern artists addressed the social and cultural themes of ethnicity, religion and the world of work characteristic of the Brazilian context. Because of their origins in more modest social circumstances, and as the descendants of indigenous inhabitants or African slaves, they were able to articulate the social inequalities from their own personal experience. Later these themes reappeared in Concrete Art and the Tropicália movement, but also in architecture and music. The military putsch of 1964 marked the beginning of a new era in which artists addressed questions of political and social oppression.

Brazil in Bern

After works of Brazilian modern art made a grand entrance in Europe at this year’s Venice Biennale, the exhibition Brasil! Brasil! The birth of Modernism is providing Switzerland’s first major introduction to the modern art of Brazil.

The exhibition reveals the work of ten Brazilian artists from the first half of the 20th century, whose works have so far barely been shown in European exhibitions and collections. Featuring photographs, films and audio-stations, it also provides a comprehensive survey of Brazil’s most important achievements in literature, music, design and architecture.

The artists represented in the exhibition can be divided into two categories. Anita Malfatti, Vicente de Rego Monteiro, Tarsila do Amaral, Lasar Segall and Candido Portinari have long been part of the canon of Brazilian modern art. They maintained contacts with the European avant-garde and to some extent discovered facets of Brazilian culture through the eyes of European intellectuals. Their pictorial language was initially marked by European artistic trends such as Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism. Even though engaged with indigenous cultures early on, they did so primarily through books and museum visits, without knowing the reality of these people’s lives.
Beside them, with Flávio de Carvalho, Alfredo Volpi, Djanira da Motta e Silva, Rubem Valentim and Geraldo de Barros, we have five artists who were not accepted into the Brazilian artistic canon for a long time. Alfred Volpi and Djanira da Motta e Silva took as their subject folk practices such as village festivals or rituals, and Rubem Valentim integrated into his compositions symbols such as arrows, triangles, circles and hatchets, which are anchored in the Afro-Brazilian religious rituals of Candomblé. Da Motta e Silva and Valentim both belonged to these cultures. Since they had not enjoyed any classical artistic training, their work was seen as ‘primitive’ or as folk art for a long time. De Barros and de Carvalho moved between visual art, architecture and design, which is why it remained difficult to assign them a place within the canon. Moreover, with his performance-based actions and portraits of women painted in the Expressionist style de Carvalho provoked violent reactions.

The approximately 130 works on show in the Zentrum Paul Klee display this diversity in Brazilian modern art. The exhibition seeks to give the public an opportunity to discover art that has remained relatively unknown until now, and with it to discover an entire country.

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