Grand Expositions:

Iberian & Latin American Modernisms in the Museum

Introduction to "Grand Expositions"

K. David Jackson

Yale University

Modernism’s "Museum of Everything": Art, Artifacts, Scripts, Scribbles

Este museu de tudo é museu
como qualquer outro reunido;
como museu, tanto pode ser
caixão de lixo ou arquivo.
Assim, não chega ao vertebrado
que deve entranhar qualquer livro:
é depósito do que aí está,
se fez sem risca ou risco.

João Cabral de Melo Neto, Museu de Tudo

 The Yale conference on "Grand Expositions" in October, 2001 responded to the increasing numbers of international museum exhibits on Iberian & Latin American modernisms and modernist art, which taken together confirm the recognition by curators, art historians, and the public that Ibero-American artists, themes, and movements constitute a strong, coherent, and attractive expression of historical modernist aesthetics. Beginning in 1915 in São Paulo, modernist Oswald de Andrade advocated a Brazilian school of painting ("Em prol da pintura nacional") in view of the growing number of active artists and in 1931 promoted the construction of an art museum in São Paulo with the tropicalist argument, "Why shouldn’t Brazil be well placed in the world of plastic arts? Our nature and our light are a constant stimulus for painting" ("Museu de Arte Moderna"). On the Iberian side, Willard Bohn discusses the Catalan poet J. V. Foix’s writing on painting. His "Presentació de Salvador Dalí" [Presentation of Salvador Dalí] published for an exhibit at the Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona from December 31, 1926 to January 14, 1927 attempted to translate Dalí’s painting into poetry. Among the first exhibits of Latin American modernist art in Paris is that of Tarsila do Amaral in 1923 at the Maison de l´Amérique Latine, followed in 1924 by a broader Exposition D´Art Américain-Latin at the Musée Galliéra. These are a few of the iconic moments in the pre-history of what has become a megashow, featuring the confluence of arts, literatures, and cultures of the modern age. Like Magrittes, we can look into our mirrors and be shocked to see Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait or Tarsila do Amaral’s "Abaporu" looking back at us. There is now a constant retrospective appearance of the celebrated works that have become our common heritage and currency, standing for many artists' uncommon struggles to modernize art and life.

The theme of Yale’s "Grand Exhibitions" was the change in critical perspectives on historical modernisms and the powerful choices of aesthetic objects involved in reconstituting Ibero-American movements and art works for museum exhibit. The important exhibit "Art brésilien du XX siècle" ["Brazilian art of the Twentieth Century"] in Paris in 1987-88 unfurled a poster in the shape and colors of the Brazilian flag, with the manifesto-slogan MODERNIDADE [Modernity] as its banner. The design was itself an homage to the cover of the celebrated book of poetry by Oswald de Andrade, Pau Brasil [Brazilwood], published in Paris at Au Sans Pareil in 1925. That book of poetry, tying Brazil to the French avant-garde and dedicated to Blaise Cendrars, reproduced the Brazilian flag on its cover, with the banner manifesto PAU BRASIL in place of the official slogan, ORDEM E PROGRESSO [Order and Progress]. In the case of Oswald de Andrade and painter Tarsila do Amaral, together in Paris in the 1920s, Geneviève Vilnet comments that their works constantly bring spaces together, in particular the towns of São Paulo and Paris ("Oswald de Andrade: L’Homme sans profession").

The international character of Modernism, visible in its multinational incubation in Paris, is reconfirmed in the flowering of "Grand Exhibitions" at the turn of the millennium, as if together they would constitute a "I Centennial" of a century profoundly guided by the modern. By taking enough planes, a trans-geographied globetrotting art lover of today could have curated a personal "Museum of Everything", collecting items from major exhibits on four continents. Let us travel first to Valencia, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires to visit "Brasil, 1920-1950, de la antropofagia a Brasília" [from cannibalism to Brasília]; then to Barcelona for "Vanguardia en Cataluña, 1906-1939" [Vanguard in Catalonia]; to New York’s Guggenheim Museum for "Brazil: Body & Soul" and to the Museu del Barrio for "The Thread Unravelled: Contemporary Brazilian Art"; to London for "Unknown Amazon"; and on to Oxford for "Experience, Experiência: Art in Brazil 1950-2000"; to Lisbon for "Olhares Modernistas" [Modernist Gazes]; and to São Paulo for the "V Centenary of the Discovery" [receiving three million visitors] and the "XXIV Bienal, Antropogafia e Histórias de Canibalismos" [Histories of Cannibalisms]. Another short vacation, another major exhibit and plane ticket, and hundreds of art works can flash before our eyes. For our art aficionado traveling around the world visiting exhibits, would the voyage most resemble Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, Ulysses, or "Around the World in 80 Exhibits"?

The context and background for this explosion of exhibits can be traced to a common expository form flourishing in the 1950s and 60s, the retrospective exhibit of artists, whether as individuals or in groups. Aracy Amaral’s article on "Commemorative Exhibitions" presents a personal survey of and commentary on the most important events since the 1920s in the international exhibition of Latin American and Brazilian artists in the Americas and in Europe. Susanne Klengel’s original work in Berlin on Latin American women artists contrasts Frida Kahlo with Tarsila do Amaral in terms of recognition and exhibitions through the 1990s. Marguerite Harrison’s thoughtful study of Anita Malfatti forces us to reconsider the humble beginnings of a one-woman exhibition in São Paulo in 1917, then a town without any art galleries or museums, and the difficulty of imagining what it was like for Malfatti to play a role in the scandalous arrival of modern art to Brazil, to the point that she excluded from her individual exhibit the nudes she had painted in New York, as she was then so far removed culturally and geographically from the Armory Show of 1913.

Major individual retrospectives were responsible for contributing to the fame of Ibero-American artists in a global perspective, only made possible by major art museums, collections, and galleries. This is the case, for example, of such figures as Surrealist Roberto Matta (Museum of Modern Art, 1957; Pompidou Center, 1985), David Alfaro Siqueiros (San Antonio, 1968), Tarsila do Amaral (Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1969), Rufino Tamayo (Museo nazionale di Reggio Calabria, 1970; Phillips Collection, 1978; Guggenheim, 1979), José Clemente Orozco (Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1979; Mexico, 1979; Berlin, 1981), Cândido Portinari (Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo, 1979), and Salvador Dalí (Centre Georges Pompidou, 1979). Groups of artists have been featured together in such retrospective exhibits as "Magnet" ("Latin American artists living in New York", on exhibit in Mexico City and Berlin, 1964); "Latin American Paintings" (New York, Guggenheim Museum, 1969); "Latin American paintings and drawings from the Collection of John and Barbara Duncan" (New York, 1970); "Twelve Artists from Latin America" (Sarasota, 1970); "Seven Latin American Artists of Paris" (Paris, Galérie du Dragon, 1971); "Amérique latine: 10e Biennale" (Paris, 1977); or "Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti" (London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982).

International retrospectives have intensified since the 1990s, both for individual artists and groups. Celebrated artists were viewed on new continents, such as Frida Kahlo in Adelaide, Australia in 1990, whereas others less known gained fame through major shows — the Brazilian Emílio Di Cavalcanti in São Paulo, 1990; Uruguayan Torres-García in Austin in 1992; and Portuguese Amadeo de Souza Cardoso in Lisbon, 1998 and in Washington, D.C. 1999. Thematic exhibits grouping artists are exemplified by the show of Iberian masters, Picasso, Miró, Dalí (Madrid, 1991) and another of Latin American plastic artists since the 1960s, Lygia Clark, Gego, Mathias Goeritz, Hélio Oiticica, Mira Schendel (Los Angeles, 1999). Exhibits continued to be formed under the assumed continental affinity and unity of art works from throughout the Americas, an approach unchanged since the 1920s, as in "Art d'Amérique latine, 1911-1968" (Paris, Centre Pompidou, 1992); "Lateinamerika und der Surrealismus" (Bochum, 1993); and "Havanna-São Paulo" (Berlin, 1995).

In the United States, Yale University, in conjunction with several other sites, hosted one of the first major contemporary exhibits of Latin American art in 1966, accompanied by the publication of Art of Latin America Since Independence (Yale U P, 1966). It was not until the late 1980s, however, that the age of the grand exposition of Iberian & Latin American modernist art came into its own, and modernist artifacts from Europe and the New World moved into museum spaces and catalogs. The Grand Expositions on Iberian and Latin American modernisms revive the encyclopedism and novelty of the international exhibits, world’s fairs, and comprehensive exhibitions an earlier modern age, marked by the construction of a new broad consciousness of international if not global concepts and expressions. Signaling this new phase was the aforementioned exhibit at the "Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris" for which the distinguished Brazilian art historian Aracy Amaral wrote the catalog. Joining Amaral at Yale in 2001, four distinguished curators or organizers of recent "grand expositions" in four cities (São Paulo, Valencia, Lisbon, and New York) characterized and described their expositions, offering a personal and critical evaluation of their objectives, materials, and principles.

Paulo Herkenhoff, from the Painting & Sculpture division of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had the brilliant, strikingly unconventional idea of building the "XXIV Bienal de S. Paulo," one of the world’s largest art exhibits, on an original Latin American theme: the concept of "antropofagia" (cannibalism) taken from the 1928 "Manifesto antropófago" (Cannibal Manifesto) by Oswald de Andrade. This manifesto has come to be regarded as the most significant intellectual expression of Latin American autonomy in the twentieth century. Herkenhoff was able to explore the dynamic openness, ambiguities, and challenges of Oswald de Andrade’s manifesto in order to characterize some fundamental directions of a century of modernist art. His innovations in the exposition further include publishing four volumes of interpretive essays, instead of the usual catalog, as well as displaying a wide range of international art works under a Brazilian theme. He had formerly organized other major exhibits, such as the "Dutch in Brazil" (Rio de Janeiro, 1999).

Jorge Schwartz, of the Universidade de São Paulo, is author of the fundamental history and reference volume, Vanguardas Latino-americanas [Latin American Vanguards] and a major international scholar of Latin American literature. He was invited by the Catalonian government, through the "Julio de González" museum in Valencia, to mount the most comprehensive and ambitious exhibit of Brazilian modernist art and culture ever to be assembled. The result, which drew large numbers of visitors in 2000, was "Brazil 1920-1950," which included plastic arts, literature, cinema, photography, architecture, indeed covering almost every facet of Brazil’s modernization in the twentieth century. After its success in Spain, the exhibit opened in São Paulo in November 2002 and is next scheduled for Buenos Aires.

In Lisbon, Tiago de Miranda headed the efforts of the "National Commission for the Commemoration of the Portuguese Discoveries", a governmental agency created to celebrate the 500 years of the voyages, to celebrate modern art in Brazil. Through its massive program of publication and events, the Commission, along with EXPO ’98, represents one of the most significant intellectual accomplishments of our day, having accepted the daunting and challenging task of documenting the meeting of Europe with the wider world since the Portuguese voyages. At the Museu do Chiado in Lisbon, Miranda organized the exhibit "Olhares Modernistas" [Modernist Gazes], which brought to Portugal many of the major works and objects of Brazilian modernism in literature and the arts. The exhibits in Valencia and in Lisbon demonstrate a new phase of interest in the historic interplay between Iberia and Latin America.

Edward Sullivan, a major scholar of Iberian and Latin American art and professor of Fine Arts at NYU, author of books on contemporary Latin American and Iberian painting and an experienced organizer of exhibits (including "Crowning Glory: Images of the Virgin in the Arts of Portugal" at the Newark Art Museum) opened the exhibit "Brazil Body & Soul" at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in October, 2001, overcoming great difficulties and aided by the generosity of the Brazilian government in liberating an enormous baroque altar that is a centerpiece of the exhibit. The altar was featured in The New York Times along with an in-depth review of the exhibit. This exposition, which remained on view for more than six months, amounts to a selective thematic survey, representing the depth and variety of Brazilian art expressions over 500 years. It was selected from the earlier exhibition in Brazil, "Rediscovery", commemorating the discovery of Brazil in 1500, and assembled by the private non-profit foundation, BrasilConnects. The exhibition was theoretically challenging in its dramatic juxtaposition of baroque, folk, and contemporary works.

The nature and existence of these multiple exhibits raises, at the same time, theoretical questions and concerns that should be of interest to all. Is the grand Baroque of the exposition, in all its contrasts, shadows, and expressive heights, the operating metaphor that supports this new Exhibition Age, at once enveloping and assimilating our modernist heritage, both blotting out and aggrandizing its legacy of radical invention? Can the recalcitrant, insouciant, and rebellious modernisms be captured or portrayed by encyclopedic exhibits? Is the prime material of our common intellectual constructions and visual experience of the XX century being reconceived and presented as a mass experience, completely changed into what could be termed the Museumification of the Modern. Does the commodification of "refusés" signal an ultimate synthesis or truce between the artist’s sphere and public space? Should we call Duchamp’s LHOOQ our Mummy?

The controversial issue of power in the choice, loan, or purchase of prized aesthetic objects – the assembling of a constructed museum from a past that no longer exists and left no hierarchy of its "great works" – can be recapitulated using the provocative notes of a quintessential vanguardist, Fernando Pessoa. His aesthetic writings on the difference between true genius and celebrity, or between fame and immortality, prophesy the next aesthetic age to come:

Painting will sink. Photography has deprived it of many of its attractions. Futility or silliness has deprived it of almost all the rest. What was left has been spoiled by American collectors. A great painting means a thing that a rich American wants to buy because other people would like to buy it if they could. Thus paintings are set on a parallel, not with poems or novels, but with the first editions of certain poems and novels. The museum becomes a thing parallel, not to the library, but to the bibliophile’s library. The appreciation of painting becomes a parallel, not to the appreciation of literature, but to the appreciation of editions. Art criticism falls gradually into the hands of dealers in antiques. Architecture becomes a minor aspect of civil engineering. Only music and literature remain… All statues and paintings… are tyrannous in comparison with this. (Pessoa, Selected Prose, p. 207) Ibero-American cultural goods are still in relatively very few hands. Tiago de Miranda comments on the fact that no Portuguese museum possesses a single important 20th century Brazilian artwork, and even in Brazil the institutional sources can be counted on one hand. Yet the value of principal works, insignificant a mere thirty years ago, is now astronomical; the insurance alone for one item in a show can run to fifty thousand dollars. Thus, the Grand Exhibitions are not only about choice and selection of modernist art; they represent one of the most meteoric increases in value of individual objects that the world has ever seen. The Grand Exhibit is the ultimate Collector.

In their universality as "museums of everything" – in the phrase of poet João Cabral de Melo Neto --, the Grand Exhibitions gain their widest scope, as they compare and synthesize the aesthetics of whole centuries and ages (the hotly debated terms pre- and post-modern are completely insignificant here, crushed by the collective weight of a century of the simply and all-consuming "Modern"). The "extravagant glory" of their "Body & Soul" — a phrase from the New York Times review of the Guggenheim Museum exhibit – can be taken to be a critical, emotional, and organizational principle, as well as a question to keep in mind while examining, viewing, and evaluating the art & artifacts & scripts & scribbles of the great global exhibitions of Ibero-American modernisms.

New Haven, December, 2002

Click for larger image.