Between Exhibitions:
Anita Malfatti and the Shifting Ground of Modernism

Marguerite Itamar Harrison
Smith College

Anita Malfatti’s pioneering role in the history of Brazilian Modernism has been unequivocally recognized. This essay delves beneath such recognition to underscore the role international Modernist exhibitions and anti-academic art instruction played in the artist’s early career. In doing so, my purpose is to position the artist within a broader Modernist scope, and thus, validate her role beyond Brazilian parameters. Anita Malfatti’s early experiences situated her within an avant-garde coterie overseas, yet at the same time reinforced the incongruities of her work within her own country. In keeping with the theme of "Grand Expositions," I would venture to suggest that this incompatibility may have resulted initially from the nature of the art exhibitions that took place in Brazil vis-à-vis Europe and the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century, that is, in the early Modernist period.

In this age of globalization, it is difficult for us to put ourselves in Brazilian artist Anita Malfatti’s place almost one hundred years ago. According to Marta Rossetti Batista, who has meticulously researched and thoroughly narrated the life of Malfatti, there were few art resources and references to guide the young artist within the then provincial city of São Paulo: "Aside from book and magazine illustrations, Anita knew little about art, in a city without galleries, without annual Art Salons, and practically without Fine Arts museums" [Batista 14]. When Anita Malfatti departed for Germany in 1910, and then again for the United States in 1915, she embarked on an odyssey that would supply her with a visual context, by situating her firmly within an up-to-date international art scene. Moreover, her personal journey would contribute toward the transformation of Brazilian art in the 20th century.

In order for this transformation to take place, art pioneers like Malfatti needed to transport the scandalous shock of the modern to Brazil. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Brazilian art lacked context beyond the academic tradition that had been imported from France in the nineteenth century. Due to the scarcity of art institutions through which to introduce Brazilians to the avant-garde, Malfatti by default served as a veritable conduit of Modernist art to her countrymen by way of her own new works. She did so at the Exposição de Pintura Moderna Anita Malfatti, held in a large hall that at the time was beginning to be frequently used for art exhibitions, on Rua Líbero Badaró in São Paulo, between December 12th 1917 and January 11th 1918.

Illustration 1

Illustration 2
The exhibition did not spring from Malfatti’s initiative; rather, from the beginning, she seemed cautious and tense about the selection of the works to be included. According to Marta Rossetti Batista, she had not wanted to create an exhibition that would provoke controversy; her intention was instead purely didactic. She wanted to highlight her North-American paintings, but—well aware of public reaction to other exhibitions of `Modern Art,’ such as the Armory Show in New York—her selection of the 53 works was deliberately calculated so as not to be too challenging [Batista 65]. For instance, she omitted many of the male nudes she had completed in the U.S. and instead included such works as Tropical, which she had completed in Brazil upon her return [see Illustrations 1 and 2]. The latter was a painting that softened her color palette and minimized her use of abstracted forms (note the contrast between the realistically rendered fruit tray in the foreground and the freer, abstracted background, as well as the more muted palette used throughout. Indeed it has been determined that in order to create this painting Anita literally painted over a canvas that she had brought back from the U.S.). Unfortunately Malfatti’s best-laid plans did not avert the controversy she had so conscientiously sought to avoid.

It should be emphasized that this 1917 exhibition of Anita Malfatti’s works was practically a one-person show; it was neither an individual’s nor a movement’s retrospective (Malfatti was only 28 years old at the time). The private nature of the display, therefore, was not in keeping with the sweeping, grandly-conceived exhibitions that had earmarked the decade in Europe and North America, such as the Second Post-Impressionist exhibition in London, the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, and the Armory Show in New York City, and which had familiarized the world at large to an array of Modernist tendencies.

A grandiose Modernist exhibition would undoubtedly have caused scandal, eliciting negative reactions from critics and the general public alike, such as the Armory Show had provoked in 1913 and as the Semana de Arte Moderna was to do in São Paulo in 1922. At the Armory Show, however, the organizers had deliberately (and brilliantly) introduced a pluralistic sampling of European Modernism alongside more traditional North American contributions. This arrangement actually served to cast the latter in a more positive, less critical light with both homefront viewers and critics. By contrast, Anita Malfatti’s paintings in her 1917 exhibition stood alone, without buffers, like Modernists sore thumbs. Even though she had chosen to include a handful of minor works by other artists (for the most part going-away presents given to her by some of her North-American colleagues from the Independent School), the contents of the exhibition provided scant means by which to ground viewers in the international scope and pictorial variations of Modernism. From the artist’s standpoint, the inclusion of works by others was supposed to have served the purpose of informing the Brazilian audience that, in her words, "I’m not the only person who paints in this style unfamiliar to you; out there, this is the new, current art many others are experimenting with" [Batista 66].

Despite this goal Malfatti’s works appeared in a perceptual vacuum. Without the historical context of recent predecessors, such as Cézanne and the Fauves; without the sanction of fellow exhibitors; without that of official recognition from a collecting establishment—for instance, purchases by a trend-setting museum (In New York, the Metropolitan Art Museum had purchased a Cézanne from the Armory Show, thereby institutionalizing the approval of Modernism in America)—Malfatti’s work appeared, for want of a better word, freakish. Contrary to the artist’s intent, therefore, her own bold, stridently colorful and distorted portraits created confrontation, and in the words of Marta Rossetti Batista, "rupture" [Batista 58].

In 1917 Brazil, not only was Anita Malfatti an artist who had broken the Academy’s strict rules, she was also a woman who had violated society’s rules of propriety that dictated what feminine painting should look like. Indeed, upon her return from the States, Malfatti’s own family members had been unabashedly frank in their disappointment: her North-American works were even harsher in quality than her paintings had been from her stay in Germany. They were not pintura suave, not soft enough in quality; rather they had been referred to as "dantesque" [Batista 60]. Malfatti was, therefore, a Brazilian woman painting in a non-academic, non-traditional style. Indeed, critic Monteiro Lobato, whose infamous attack on Anita is most often cited by scholars, chided her for presenting a non-realistic and, therefore, anti-nationalistic style of painting [Batista 70].

Setting aside the audience for the moment, it is fair to say that Anita Malfatti created her own personal, contemporary context for her artwork beyond Brazil, through travel abroad. What made Malfatti’s experience abroad different from those of other Brazilian artists who had traveled abroad before her? In my opinion, the answer can be divided into two related parts. First of all, the key can be found in the type of Modernist retrospective exhibitions Anita experienced on her travels: directly, at the Sonderbund retrospective in Cologne in 1912, and indirectly at the Armory Show in New York in 1913. Secondly, the answer lies in the type of art instruction she was to receive, especially during her U.S. sojourn, in particular the liberating and progressive instruction she was to experience at the Independent School of Art in New York City, under the direction of North-American artist Homer Boss.

As I have already mentioned, exhibitions such as the Sonderbund in Cologne and its North-American counterpart, the Armory Show, established a visual context for Modernism on a massive, sweeping scale, beyond national borders. By literally collapsing spatial distances between artists, these retrospective exhibitions effectively compressed time, speeding the evolution of Modernist art and rocketing Europeans and North Americans who "got it" into the Modern era. Conversely, they also served to cast unrepresented geographies—such as Brazil and other Latin American countries—out of the present into an ever more quickly receding past. According to this fanciful model, it’s not a stretch to say that the paintings Malfatti executed in the early twentieth century were seen and judged in Brazil by "nineteenth-century" eyes.

Between May and September of 1912, the fourth Sonderbund took place in Cologne (the others had previously occurred in Dusseldorf). It was designed to be a didactic retrospective, comprised of twenty-five main galleries, six hundred paintings, and fifty sculptures, as well as four rooms dedicated to the applied arts. With the exception of El Greco, the artists represented were all Modern. The exhibition was organized by artists representing nine different countries (France and Germany had the most contributions). A large retrospective of Van Gogh’s works was the central focus of the exhibition, with the Norwegian artist Munch’s works receiving the greatest attention after Van Gogh [Altschuler 60]. This exhibition is credited with stimulating new, more radical artistic movements in the pre-war years. It is also the immediate model for the Armory Show in New York. Indeed, organizers of the Armory Show attended the final days of the Sonderbund in Cologne and were intent on duplicating its design.

In connection with Anita Malfatti’s own work, Marta Rossetti Batista states that the Sonderbund legitimized the artist’s own pursuits. "In Cologne the student from São Paulo saw an enormous display of Modern Art that was already well established, that already had a history of continuous evolution, from the Impressionists to the Cubists to the Expressionists" [Batista 19]. This visual context legitimized Malfatti’s own modernist tendencies: "it gave her the conviction to follow her already modern course" [Ibid 18].

Officially entitled The International Exhibition of Modernist Art, The Armory Show emulated the Sonderbund in large part due to Arthur Davies’s vision. As President of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors he is credited with adding the European component to the Show of American art. In the Fall of 1912 Davies had received the catalog of the Sonderbund exhibition and was quoted as saying: "I wish we could have a show like this" [Goodrich 22]. With the aid of artists Walter Kuhn and Walter Pach, who served as liaisons with the avant-garde artists in Europe, the Armory Show was able to realize Davies’s dream of providing North-Americans with a "firsthand view of European Modernist art" [Ibid 24]. In quantitative terms European art was to represent one-third of the Armory Show’s total entries. This portion of the show was indeed retrospective in scope: it included Goya, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Cézanne, Seurat and Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Picabia, and Delaunay. Cubism was the Armory Show’s main attraction. Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase, its most scandalous entry [Batista 32].

Homer Boss was one of the North-American artists whose works were included in the Show. Boss exhibited two paintings: the first was entitled Portrait, or Young Woman in Blue and Gold, similar in style to the work entitled Young Woman in Black, of 1910. As Susan Udell has noted, "this portrait "represented Boss’s traditional early style of painting" [Udell 17]. Indeed, we might compare it to Anita Malfatti’s Retrato de homem, a male portrait executed in Germany around the same time: at this point the artist had not yet liberated her color palette, but was giving formal attention to facial details through precise brushstrokes, contrasting them with an abstract background.

Illustration 3

Boss’s other work in the Armory Show, A Study (Land and Sea), from 1912, was "a landscape in which light and color prevailed." According to Udell, "[w]ith this painting Boss had taken a bold step in a new direction…" [17] This landscape has a direct correlation to the work of Anita Malfatti. Before attending the Independent School of Art in New York, Malfatti had joined Homer Boss and other pupils from the School on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine, during the summer of 1915. Several of Malfatti’s paintings from this summer experience can be related to Boss’s own landscapes, in which light and color are again emphasized. We might compare Boss’s landscape to Malfatti’s Farol (or Lighthouse). And more appropriately, to her A Ventania (or Windstorm) [See illustration 3].

It is abundantly clear from Anita Malfatti’s biography that her experience at the Independent School of Art in New York between September of 1915 and May of 1916 (and on Monhegan during the summer of 1915) represented a momentous period in her career. Moreover, it is well documented that Malfatti’s sojourn in New York City was one of the happiest of her entire life, and that she credits Homer Boss for directing the methodology of her art while also communicating a philosophy of living that placed art at its core [Batista 31]. Anita Malfatti assertively describes the Independent School of Art as having " an atmosphere unlike any other I’ve seen elsewhere." [Batista 51] Emphasis on experimentalism provided Malfatti with the necessary incentives to express herself freely. This sense of philosophical and artistic harmony, reinforced by the congeniality Anita felt toward her fellow students, was in turn reflected in her art. It is said that the portraits she painted at the School, such as The Woman with Green Hair, are considered to be the finest of her entire career [Batista 43].

It is important to stress that within the work done by pupils of the Independent School, Malfatti’s is of exceptional quality, and this excellence discredits any reductionist belief that she "learned" from her North-American peers. From a critical point of view, Malfatti’s work was equal to, if not better than, that of most of her colleagues. What is underplayed, perhaps, is that Anita Malfatti’s writings about her New York experience have in turn served to validate Homer Boss’s own contributions to North-American Modernism, and in particular, to his radical method of art instruction. In her essay on Boss, Udell credits Anita Malfatti’s fame, as one of Brazil’s premier Modernists, with playing a significant role in the recognition of Homer Boss as art school director, teacher, mentor, and visionary [Udell 18-19]. On the subject of Boss, Walter Pach has stated: "If an artist is willing to float with the stream, it will carry him along quite nicely; if he wants to strike out on a new course, to express the ideas that are his own and no other man’s he must expect that it will take a certain time for the public to follow him" [as reproduced in Udell 70].

According to Boss’s principles, the Independent School was defined as follows: "That it be a school independent in the fullest sense of the word. Have no affiliations, conform to no dogma or creed of Art, impose no formula upon its members and exercise no authority over them." The Independent School of Art created an exceptional environment largely due to Boss’s style of teaching. In Boss’s own words: "I believe that the function of the teacher is to be the helper, not the master—the dictator" [Ibid 18]. According to Marta Rossetti Batista, the Independent School was a Modernist school, with an insurgent, rather than academic spirit [Batista 38]. Boss’s methods of teaching were original. For instance, several artists, including Malfatti, have underscored his emphasis on the body’s musculature, and his insistence on anatomy lessons. A NYTimes article published in May of 1916 described Boss’s life classes: "Mr. Boss has adopted the ingenious plan of building up a muscular organization on the scaffolding of a human skeleton—[on a rotating platform]—with clay or wax, so that his pupils can follow each development of anatomical relations as directly as possible and can at once perceive the bony structure and its drapery" [as reproduced in Udell 19]. In conjunction with this process of building certain muscles on a skeleton, Boss would use a live model to demonstrate the movement of the muscles in question.

That the Armory Show directly influenced the character of the Independent School is unquestionable. One need only read the following personal statement by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, a contemporary of Anita Malfatti’s at the School, who captured the School’s atmosphere: "Everybody was talking about the Armory Show. Cubism was in the air. Reproductions of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the masters of the late nineteenth century filled the walls of the school" [as quoted in Udell 18].

The Independent School was further exceptional in the diversity of people who frequented its space: it attracted not only visual artists but writers, dancers, and other performing artists as well, from both North America and Europe. Other Modernists associated with it included Isadora Duncan and her dance troupe (some of the female dancers served as artists’models), Diaghilev and members of the Russian ballet, the French artist Marcel Duchamp, and the Russian writer Maxim Gorki. Discussions between visitors, pupils, and instructors did not strictly revolve around aesthetic issues, but also touched on the finer points of literature, music, ballet, choreography, and set design [Batista 38-39].

Illustration 4

The revolutionary paintings of Anita’s that so shocked the Brazilian public in 1917, and that subsequently were to awaken Brazil’s first modernists, were portraits of these international citizens, often newly-arrived immigrants and refugees to New York City. The model for O Homem Amarelo, [see Illustration 4] for instance, was a poor Italian immigrant off the street [Batista 52]. Another of her works from this time, O Japonês, could, perhaps, be a portrait of fellow artist Kuniyoshi.

During her tenure at the Independent School of Art, Anita Malfatti was also influenced by the school’s manager, A.S. Baylinson, who was originally from Russia [see Malfatti’s charcoal drawing which is a portrait of "Baylie," as he was affectionately called]. Malfatti and Baylinson were said to have painted side-by-side Cubist Nudes. Several of Baylinson’s paintings were included in the 1917 exhibition in São Paulo, and seem to have been the target of much criticism, although they did not receive the invective to which Malfatti’s own paintings were subjected.

Which returns us to the subject of the reception—one might as well say "rejection"—of Anita Malfatti’s 1917 Modernist Show in São Paulo, for all practical purposes a one-woman affair, which may at least in one critical respect have pivoted on the nature of the exhibition itself. The huge Modernist retrospectives in Europe and North America—by dint of their very internationalism and pictorial diversity—compressed time and space, creating an inclusive, fast-paced avant-garde climate one might metaphorically deem cubist in nature. By contrast, Anita Malfatti’s exhibition ruptured this kind of exhilarating conjunction, splintering time and space back into older, more alienating modes of perception.

The exhibition’s very singularity—one woman’s work seen without much historical or international context—simply could not support the weight of the shock of the new. Such singularity was dismissable: unlike much larger exhibitions that challenged viewers by virtue of sheer numbers of exhibited entries and artists, Anita Malfatti’s portraits and landscapes were brushed aside as anomalies. Viewers and critics, shielded from "Modern" criticism by sheer distance, comfortably retreated into older, less threatening ways of seeing—retreated, one might say, into the past—leaving Malfatti’s work stranded out of Brazilian time in the twentieth century, all on its own. In New York she was au courant; on Brazilian soil she was caught in a time-warp beyond understanding. It would be years before visual artists in Brazil caught up to the artwork she had executed before 1917. [This said, her work was celebrated by a small group of writers and intellectuals, even though according to Marta Rossetti Batista, Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade were the only ones to understand the revolutionary aspect of Anita Malfatti’s North-American portraits at the time [Batista 74]. Almost thirty years later fellow artist Tarsila do Amaral would proclaim that Malfatti’s 1917 exhibition "[had been] the first Modern Art exhibition seen in Brazil" [Amaral 207].

Correspondingly, Anita Malfatti’s paintings were further condemned as having been imported from elsewhere—from another continent far away—making them spatial anomalies as well, unacceptable in a Brazilian art community that was at the time seeking to define a national style. Indeed, Monteiro Lobato’s wrathful criticism of the 1917 exhibition echoed this sentiment by reproaching the artist for trying to situate her work within an international context. Lobato ironically declared that she should strive to remain more authentic to her national identity and therefore avoid being integrated into "this farse that they call Modern art" [Batista 70]. Malfatti’s portraits were foreign because they were of foreigners, strangers—unidentified men and women (she did not give these titles proper names)—that, like the visual mode in which they were wrought, were without context or identity. From a Modernist community in New York, where international boundaries and picture planes alike were broken without compunction, Anita Malfatti brought the progeny of that environment to Brazil, which, in terms of visual art, at least, had yet to enter the twentieth century.

I conclude this essay on a somewhat negative note because for Anita Malfatti the 1917 exhibition had adverse, even devastating, consequences. In a vacuum, the 1917 exhibition could be seen to cast Malfatti as a Modernist martyr. To many of Brazil’s budding Modernists, however, Anita Malfatti’s 1917 exhibition came to symbolize a new direction in art, in much the same way that the Sonderbund exhibition had ignited European artists several years earlier [Batista 85].

These Brazilian intellectuals would formulate Modernist viewpoints in their collective defense of Malfatti. During subsequent decades, several prodigious changes would occur to validate Malfatti as a precursor of and catalyst for Brazil’s own Modernism. Beyond Brazil, and in a broader scope of twentieth-century art, however, Anita Malfatti has stood firm far longer on the various shifting grounds of Modernism.

List of Illustrations

1. Anita Malfatti, Ritmo (torso), 1915-16. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 61 x 46.6 cm, Collection Museu de Arte Contemporânea da USP, São Paulo.

2. Anita Malfatti, Tropical, c. 1916. Oil on canvas, 77 x 102 cm, Collection Pinacoteca do Estado, São Paulo.

3. Anita Malfatti, A Ventania, 1915-16. Oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm, Collection Palácio dos Bandeirantes, São Paulo.

4. Anita Malfatti, O homem amarelo, 1915-16. Oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, Collection Mário de Andrade, Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros da USP, São Paulo.

Works Cited

Altschuler, Bruce. The Avant-Garde in Exhibitions: New Art in the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Amaral, Tarsila do. "Anita Malfatti, 6-12-45." In Tarsila Cronista. Edited with an introduction by Aracy Amaral. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 2001, 207-210.

A.S. Baylinson, 1882-1950: a Memorial Exhibition of Paintings and Conté Crayon Drawings in the Art Students League Gallery, October 21st to November 10th, 1951. New York: Art Students League Gallery, 1951.

Bastos, Eliana. Entre o Escândalo e o Sucesso: A Semana de 22 e o Armory Show. Campinas, São Paulo: Editora da UNICAMP, 1991.

Batista, Marta Rosetti. Anita Malfatti: No Tempo e no Espaço. São Paulo: IBM Brasil, 1985.

Goodrich, Lloyd. Pioneers of Modern Art in America: Decade of the Armory Show. New York: Whitney, Praeger Publishers, 1963.