The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues
APR 2018 Issue

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil

Tarsila do Amaral, Anthropophagy (Antropofagia), 1929. Oil on canvas, 49 5/8 x 55 15/16 inches. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

On View
February 11 – June 3, 2018
New York

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil is the first North American solo exhibition of the eponymous artist who, as the show suggests, “gave rise to Brazil’s modern movement.” Do Amaral (1886–1973)—or simply Tarsila, as she is affectionately called—is renowned in her native country. Associated with the Grupo dos Cinco, Pau-Brasil, and Antropofagia, all pivotal modern art projects of the 1920s, her paintings and drawings contributed to avant-garde’s larger goal of establishing a national Brazilian identity, or Brasilidade. The exhibition, which focuses mainly on her influential production from the 1920s, successfully presents do Amaral as a motivated, independent artist who played a critical role in shaping Brazil’s and her own narrative; too often in the past, her work has been portrayed as dependent on manifestos written by Oswald de Andrade, do Amaral’s husband for several years during this period. However, the exhibition at MoMA hesitates to engage with the complex depictions of Brazilian race and class in her work.

Born into a life of wealth and privilege, do Amaral began her artistic education in São Paulo but traveled to Paris in 1920 to attend the eminent Académie Julian. Unlike other women of her social standing, who often made just one sojourn to Paris, do Amaral moved back and forth, returning several times to the French capital throughout the 1920s and working with acclaimed artists André Lhote, Fernand Léger, and Albert Gleizes. Modern artists in Paris and throughout Europe were fascinated by non-Western visual culture, then patronizingly described as “primitive” art. Do Amaral quickly realized that she could look to marginalized cultures in her own country for artistic inspiration. Back in Brazil in 1924, she traveled extensively, attending Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, touring the historic cities in Minas Gerais, and searching for indigenous culture in the so-called “untouched” interior.1

Inventing Modern Art in Brazil brings together three of do Amaral’s major paintings: A Negra (1923), Abaporu (1928), and Antropofagia (1929), reunited for the first time in North America since MoMA’s groundbreaking 1993 exhibition Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, part of a proliferation of exhibitions featuring Latin American art in the United States at the time. These shows brought well-deserved attention to some of the most important artists from the diverse region, but at the same time tended to reassert a neocolonial relationship between North and South America.2 Twenty-five years later, MoMA is recognizing do Amaral as an essential figure in the emergence of modernism, rather than as a product of her European encounters. Nevertheless, in light of this rightfully acknowledged autonomy, the unequal power dynamic between do Amaral and the native and Afro-Brazilian communities she witnessed becomes unavoidably apparent.

Tarsila do Amaral, A Negra, 1923. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 32 inches. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

Do Amaral painted Morro da Favela (1924), on view in the first gallery, during her Pau-Brasil period. A style that developed in dialogue with ideas put forth by Oswald de Andrade in his 1924 Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil, Pau-Brasil aimed to integrate the “primitive” and folkloric with the modern.3 In Morro da Favela, do Amaral depicts an idealized view of Afro-Brazilians in a favela located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The bright, tropical colors and serenity of the subjects belies the grueling reality of life in a shantytown. The wall text engages with the paradox of this work, if only briefly, addressing Tarsila’s later acknowledgement that she represented Afro-Brazilian subjects and used tropical colors to engage a then-popular understanding of exoticism. However, this is one of only a few instances where the exhibition broaches the difficult conversation of racial representation. More often, such issues go unmentioned. For example, Carnaval em Madureira, also from 1924 and exhibited nearby, depicts featureless Afro-Brazilians, their bodies represented schematically in a mode that suggests African sculpture. Passing references to Brazil’s “troubled history” and its “racially mixed culture” cannot do justice to the complexities of race and class that are at work in such paintings.

It cannot simply be said, however, that Tarsila’s work represents an exploitative or dehumanizing exoticization of Afro-Brazilian bodies, and nothing more. Although the idea of a white woman depicting a black body, which Tarsila does in paintings such as A Negra, is highly contested today (think of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the 2017 Whitney Biennial), it is important to remember that do Amaral’s representation of Brasilidade with a non-white body was deeply radical at the time, despite the fact that Brazil is an ethnically diverse country made up of people of European, African, and Indigenous descent. The complexity of do Amaral’s representation of race, especially in comparing its historical context to that of the twenty-first century, is one of the most interesting aspects of her work.

Tarsila’s use of marginalized bodies is multifarious, but an exhibition of her paintings and drawings presents the opportunity to revisit the conversation about Center versus Periphery that has dominated discussions within Latin American studies for the past few decades. As the influential Chilean scholar Nelly Richard has argued, the dichotomy between Center and Periphery exists in multiple forms and relations, and is consistently re-asserted, even in postmodernity when academic debate prioritizes multiculturalism. Do Amaral’s hope to be “the painter of her country”—a desire she expressed in 1923 and essentially achieved—demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Center/Periphery dynamic. While she may have been considered “peripheral” in the context of the Parisian avant-garde, back in Brazil she constructed her own periphery while touring the country searching for the “real” and “native” Brazilian culture. Power dynamics, in other words, are local, and they can seem to shift according to an interpreter’s perspective.

In the years since the 1980s and ’90s, when Latin American art began to gain more recognition in the United States, important steps have been made to unpack the increasingly dense and trans-disciplinary field. Especially in the wake of the ambitious exhibitions at Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, it is no longer enough to simply “give visibility” to artists from Latin America. A major museum like MoMA—which is recognized as one of the first institutions outside Latin America to collect Latin American art4 —is in a position to take the lead in promoting real critical engagement of iconic artists like do Amaral, even if that means facing some of the uncomfortable realities of her work. It is crucial they recognize the complex role, both problematic and potentially productive, that such hierarchies play in do Amaral’s work.


  1. Carol Damian, “Tarsila do Amaral: Art and Environmental Concerns of a Brazilian Modernist,” Woman’s Art Journal 20.1 (Spring – Summer 1999): 4.
  2. Mari-Carmen Ramírez, “Beyond ‘The Fantastic’: Framing Identity in U.S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art,” Art Journal 51.4 (Winter 1992): 60.
  3. Gillian Sneed, “Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral: Gender, “Brasilidade” and the Modernist Landscape,” Woman’s Art Journal 34.1 (Spring/Summer 2013): 34.
  4. Miriam Basilio, “Reflecting on a History of Collecting and Exhibiting Work by Artists from Latin America,” in Latin American and Caribbean Art: MoMA at El Museo (New York: El Museo del Barrio; The Museum of Modern Art, 2004), 52.


Madeline Murphy Turner

MADELINE MURPHY TURNER is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues