Tarsila do Amaral: the Modernist Painter of Brazil

words: Chiara Brancato

Adored and beloved by her contemporaries, and by generations of Brazilians after her death, Tarsila do Amaral (Fig. 1) is a noteworthy figure who left her mark on the arts of the early 20th century. Giving Latin American art a new direction, the Brazilian artist laid the foundation for modernism in her country. She was a passionate traveler, socialite, fashionista, divorcee, and maverick, who lived her life on her own terms and conditions. Both in her professional and personal life, Tarsila overcame challenges and ordeals with resilience and determination. She never gave up on her aspirations and always put her heart and soul into her extraordinary paintings. Here is the story of the woman who became the Painter of Brazil.

Childhood and first steps into the art world

Tarsila do Amaral was born in 1886, in the town of Capivari, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, a few years before the abolition of slavery in the country and before the transformation of Brazil to a republic. Coming from a wealthy family of coffee plantation owners, Tarsila spent the first years of her childhood on her parents’ farms. She was later sent to Colégio Sion, a Catholic school in São Paulo, and then to Barcelona to complete her education.

While in Spain, she produced her very first painting, Sagrado Coração de Jesus (in Eng.: ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus’, Fig. 2), in 1904.

In 1917 she moved back to Brazil to study drawing and painting in the studio of Pedro Alexandrino, a famous member of the Brazilian naturalistic movement. During this time, Tarsila would meet the artist and dear friend Anita Malfatti – historically considered the pioneer of modernism. She also married André Teixeira Pinto, from whom she separated a few years later after giving birth to her first and only child, Dulce.

In 1920, she returned to Europe to live in Paris until June 1922 to both attend the Académie Julien and study under the painter and engraver Émile Renard. Those three years was a pivotal moment in the evolution of Tarsila’s art: being heavily influenced by Cubism, she started following in the footsteps of painters, like Picasso, who had left behind the previous, rigid rules of creating art to give space to novelty. The same year, upon her arrival in São Paulo, Tarsila missed by a few months the groundbreaking Semana de Arte Moderna (‘Modern Art Week’, 13 – 17 February 1922), a benchmark in the intellectual history of Brazilian Modernism. This cultural event, which consisted of lectures, readings, and exhibitions, put forth new and disruptive concepts of art that differed from the far more conservative European mainstream. In an effort to create innovative art out of the academicism, the movement focused on a renewed study of the nation’s past so as to discover what was unique about Brazil, especially its mixed ethnicities and indigenous cultures.

In this context of change, Tarsila was encouraged by her friend Anita to join her and three writers Oswald de Andrade, Menotti Del Picchia, and Mário de Andrade in what became known as O Grupo dos Cinco (the modernist Group of Five). As part of this entourage, she rapidly mingled with the modernist community, embracing the dynamism of the city of São Paulo and partaking in cultural meetings, parties, conferences, and art events through which she gained sustained contact with modern art and avant-garde artists.

In December 1922, Tarsila returned to Paris with Oswald de Andrade, who had become her new partner, joining her shortly thereafter.

1923: the Parisian Breakthrough

“I want to be the painter of my country. I am so thankful to have spent the whole of my childhood in the fazenda. My memories of that time have grown precious to me.” 

Letter to Tarsila’s parents from Paris, 1923

Staying in Europe meant for Tarsila the opportunity to hone her newly acquired modern identity under the archetype of the Parisian avant-garde. This position reflected the vision of many other Latin American artists of the twentieth century, who felt the urgent need to create a type of art that would visually represent Brazil while concurrently being validated by the European mainstream. As a result, in 1923 Tarsila created one of her most significant masterpieces: A Negra (‘The Black Woman’, Fig. 3). The woman in the painting was deeply connected with her childhood: as a kid, she would listen to the African tales that her black nannies told her and the other children in her household. Those tales, along with the condition of enslaved black people in Brazil, became imprinted in her memories; so much so that this cultural influence was reflected both in this painting and in subsequent works. The adoption of ‘primitivism’ meant for Tarsila to embrace aspects of Brazilian culture associated with the countryside and the mixed-race population rather than the urban elite or the rural aristocracy. By combining modernist aesthetics with a Brazilian theme legible to the European avant-garde, she found a way to show her native country to Parisian society. With A Negra, Tarsila was officially entering the history of modern art.

The year 1923 was also a breakthrough in her social life. She got acquainted with the most influential cultural figures of that time including famous artists, prominent writers, musicians, sculptors, and intellectuals. She offered “Brazilian dinners” to a select crowd, partook in important dinner parties, and entertained guests at her studio in Montmartre. As an influential member of the Brazilian upper class, she wore clothes by some of the finest fashion designers of Paris, such as Paul Poiret and Jean Patou who were always charmed by her stunning look. At a dinner party in honor of the father of aviation, Santos Dumont, she dressed in a dazzling red coat by Poiret, drawing the attention of all the guests. That event inspired the remarkable self-portrait, Manteau Rouge (‘Red Coat’, Fig. 4), to be made that same year. In the painting, Tarsila appears as an ambitious, classy, elegant woman who cherishes her wealthy life in Paris. The feminine subject is totally different from the one depicted in A Negra: two women, on opposite social classes, seem to belong to separate worlds, yet they stay connected,  highlighting two distinct phases of the artist’s life.

1924: the Pau-Brasil Phase

“I hope to spend as much time as I can at the farm and to bring in my return a lot of Brazilian themes.” 

Letter to Tarsila’s family, 1923

Tarsila and Oswald de Andrade returned to Brazil in December 1923 and spent the following year visiting the country. The artist’s main purpose was to search for inspiration for her next paintings, in order to highlight the local qualities of her homeland while still using the techniques learned in Paris. Besides staying at the family’s farm, in 1924 she toured Rio de Janeiro to see the famous Carnival as well as historic colonial cities in the province of Minas Gerais, the heartland of Brazil. During the trip around Minas, Tarsila not only came across the colors she had enjoyed since her childhood but also the popular subjects that inspired the series of paintings called pau-brasil (Brazilwood) – the term stemmed from the tree that had given the country its name. Her work emphasized rural and urban landscapes, vibrant colors, and local elements; all rendered in the cubist style she had learned in Paris. Some of the most representative examples of this phase included Carnaval em Madureira (‘Carnival in Madureira’, Fig. 5) and E.F.C.B. (‘The Railway Station’, Fig. 6), which, among other paintings and drawings of the same period, became visual icons of Brazil’s modern identity.

Pau-Brasil was also the name that Oswald, Tarsila’s partner and future husband, chose for the first modernist manifesto, the Pau-Brasil Manifesto (1924) – in this document, he declared that an autonomous Brazilian art form would only be achievable through the harmonious integration of Native American, African, and European influences. Thanks to the ‘discovery of Brazil,’ as Oswald called it, Tarsila landed her first solo exhibition in Paris at the modernist Galerie Percier in 1926.

1928: the Birth of Anthropophagy

“The anthropophagic movement of 1928 had its origin in a work of mine that was titled Abaporu, anthropophagus.”

In January 1928, Tarsila gave a special birthday present to Oswald: The painting Abaporu (“Man Who Eats Man” in the Tupí-Guraraní language, Fig. 7), one of her best-known works depicting a melancholic figure, with a small head and a big foot, seated next to a cactus under a burning sun. The couple believed the image looked like the aboriginal character of a cannibal, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Brazilian art. Oswald drew inspiration from Abaporu to write the Anthropophagic Manifesto, followed by the foundation of the Anthropophagic Movement with Trasila’s support. The objective of this innovative art movement was to establish a typically Brazilian modern culture through the symbolic digestion – or artistic ‘cannibalism’ – of outside influences. This implied that one wouldn’t reject or imitate foreign cultures, rather “swallow”, “digest”, and integrate them in a new creative process. On these terms, the movement was against the submission of the Brazilian cultural standards to the art doctrines of developed countries; wanting instead to convert those doctrines into something original and unique.

Shortly after the publication of the manifesto, Tarsila divorced Oswald who had an affair with the 18-year-old student Patrícia Galvão, also known as Pagu. From that moment on, her approach to art radically changed.

1930s: the Socialist-Realist Phase

In 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed, resulting in a worldwide crisis that affected the price of coffee in Brazil and forced Tarsila to adopt a less lavish lifestyle. With the foreclosure of her family’s farms and her divorce, the most prolific period of her career drew to an end – imaginative depictions of nature were no longer the main subject of her works, instead of switching to represent sociopolitical issues.

After a short trip to Moscow for her exhibition at the Museum of Occidental Art in 1931, she went back to Brazil and started attending Brazilian Communist Party meetings in the company of Osório Cesar, a communist doctor, and her new partner. Both took part in the protest against the dictator Getúlio Vargas in 1932 and were imprisoned with the accusation of communist sympathizers the following year.

After her liberation, Tarsila split up with Osório and never got involved with politics again. The incident, however, inspired her to paint Operários (‘Workmen’, Fig. 8) in 1933 – the very first works depicting a social theme in Brazilian art. On both canvases, groups of migrants and workers emphasized the racial diversity, and often miserable conditions, of the modern industrial society – the expressive realism of the 1930s and ’40s was significantly replacing the stylistic innovations of the previous decade.  

During this time, more events occurred in Tarsila’s life too: In 1935, she started a relationship with the writer Luís Martins – who was much more younger than her – that lasted eighteen years; from 1936 until the mid-50s, she worked as a columnist for Diários Associados, a newspaper that was run by her friend Francisco Assis Chateaubriand; and in 1949, she lost her only granddaughter Beatriz who had drowned while saving a friend in a lake in the Brazilian city of Petropolis.

Back to Pau Brasil and Final Stages

In the 1950s, Tarsila gave up on socialist-inspired painting and returned to the semi-Cubist landscapes of her Pau-Brasil phase – a style she kept using till the end of her life. In the final stages of her career, she took part in several exhibitions, such as the Biannual Exhibit of São Paulo in 1951 and the Biannual Exhibit of Venice in 1964. The Exhibition “Tarsila, 50 Years of Painting” was dedicated to her in 1969 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of São Paulo University and at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. In 1966, her only daughter Dulce passed away from diabetes, causing Tarsila to live the last eight years of her existence in a state of solitude and depression – a condition worsened by complete paralysis of her body due to a medical mistake during spinal surgery. She died in 1973, leaving behind 230 paintings, five sculptures, hundreds of drawings, and many other artworks along with the legacy of having found a distinct Brazilian voice within modern art.

The Echo of a Revolutionary Movement

“The modern movement is global and cannot be otherwise, in an age of omnipresent life.”

After her passing, Tarsila became an iconic figure in Brazil and beyond. Her art is celebrated to this day, having inspired many generations of artists and the general public with the Anthropophagic movement and the idea of cultural cannibalism. Not only is she considered one of the trailblazing female artists who modernized art movements throughout Latin America, but also a leading figure in defining a new “language” in the visual arts. She is seen as a pioneer in having defined the Brazilian modernist identity as well as a complex woman, whose bravery, strength, and creative mind will continue to be remembered worldwide for centuries to come.


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