The art of the poor frightens the generals
Bruno Zevi, Lâ€™Espresso, Roma,14.3.1965
The Hand of the Brazilian People was the inaugural temporary exhibition at MASP on Avenida Paulista in 1969, presenting a vast panorama of the rich material culture of Brazilâ€”around a thousand objects, including figureheads, votive figures, textiles, garments, furniture, tools, utensils, machinery, musical instruments, ornaments, toys, religious objects, paintings, and sculptures. Conceived by Lina Bo Bardi, with the director of the museum Pietro Maria Bardi, filmmaker Glauber Rocha, and theater director Martim GonĂ§alves, the exhibition was an unfolding of others organized by the architect of MASP in SĂŁo Paulo (1959), Salvador (1963), and Rome (1965), the latter closed down upon orders of the Brazilian military government, prompting an article by architect Bruno Zevi entitled Lâ€™arte dei poveri fa paura ai generali.
To give value to a production frequently marginalized by the museum and art history, MASP, known for its collection of European masterpieces, engaged in a radical gesture of decolonization. To decolonize the museum meant to rethink it from a bottom-up perspective, presenting art as work. In this sense, a painting by Brazilian modernist Candido Portinari and a hoe were both considered workâ€”a notion that transcended the distinctions between art, artifact, and craft.
In its new phase, MASP seeks to re-establish and deepen its relation to this production, taking as a point of departure the restaging of one of its most iconic exhibitions. The Hand of the Brazilian People is inscribed in a lineage of many other exhibitions at MASP (including the pioneering Popular Art from Pernambuco, in 1949); here, it is taken as an object of study and an exemplary precedent of a decolonizing museum practice.
Furthermore, it is an opportunity to present this production to the public, and to stimulate reflection and debate on its status in the context of the museum and art history, as well as on the contested notions of â€śpopular artâ€ť and â€śpopular culture.â€ť The central question posed by the exhibition (and a possibly subversive one to the eyes of the generals of taste) is: in which way can the histories of art and culture in Brazil be reconstructed, recollected, and reconfigured beyond the mores, tastes, and protocols of the dominant classes? A perfect reconstruction of The Hand of the Brazilian People is impossible. We opted to follow the spirit of the original curatorial proposal, making some adjustments. We did not find a complete list of works, rather lists of collectors and museums, which we approached once again, gathering similar works and respecting object typologies. Likewise, its architecture follows that of 1969, but also with adaptions. We decided not to update the time frame of the exhibitionâ€”to our knowledge, the objects gathered here were made before 1970â€”yet have articulated dialogues around work and the popular with solo presentations of artists from different generations: Candido Portinari, Jonathas de Andrade, Lygia Pape, and Thiago HonĂłrio. Our interest here is to understand the significance of that inaugural and historical moment of the museum, in order to find new paths and strengthen the presence of the hand of the people at MASP.
In the context of The Hand of the Brazilian People, 1969/2016 MASP is presenting a short documentary film by Lygia Pape entitled The Hand of the People. Made in 1974, the film focuses on the disappearance of popular artisanal traditions, a concern also shared by MASPâ€™s 1969 exhibition.
As a major figure affiliated to the concrete and neoconcrete groups in the 1950s, working within the constructive tradition and the language of geometric abstraction, Pape was drawn to the visual and formal vocabulary of the popular. This interest was first made apparent in her Tecelares woodcut prints (1955-1959), and would intensify in the 1960s.
After the dissolution of the neoconcrete group in 1963, Pape turned her attention to film and the then-nascentCinema Novo movement. She collaborated with filmmakers designing posters and/or film credit sequences for films such as Vidas secas (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963), Ganga Zumba (Carlos Diegues, 1963), Maioria absoluta (Leon Hirszman, 1964), Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (Glauber Rocha, 1964), MemĂłria do cangaĂ§o(Paulo Gil Soares, 1965), among others. Many of them dealt with social issues such as poverty, illiteracy, exploitation, against the backdrop of the arid backlands of northeast Brazil.
Pape produced and directed her own experimental films such as Wampirou (1974), Eat me (1975), andCatiti-Catiti: na terra dos brasis (1978), born out of her engagement with what she called cinema marginal, â€śa revolutionary act of invention, a new reality, the world as change, error as adventure, and the discovery of freedom: films lasting ten, twenty secondsâ€‰â€”â€‰anti-films.â€ť In 1974 she directed The Hand of the People, which attests to her commitment to the material culture of the Brazilian people. This is an important issue that she addressed in her 1980 masters thesis entitled Catiti-Catiti: na terra dos brasis, where she points to â€śmisery as a common denominator that triggers the creative processâ€ť but also identifies a constructive impulse in the production of the Brazilian people: â€śwe recognize a constructive tropism in Brazilian art that easily refers to indigenous and African origins in the recycled objects of the Northeast, in the permanence of geometric elements of carnival, in the patchwork quilts of Minas Gerais, in popular ceramics, in the spontaneous seaside architecture.â€ť
Made five years after the exhibition The Hand of the Brazilian People, Papeâ€™s film bears a close title and concern, evidencing her inscription within a wider discussion on popular culture that was taking place in Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s; a framework that also included the pioneering work developed by Lina Bo Bardi through MASPâ€™s 1969 exhibition now restaged on the first floor.
The return of Lina Bo Bardi’s radical crystal easels to the display of the collection presents a selection of 119 artworks drawn from the museum’s diverse holdings, spanning from the 4th century BC to 2008. The easels were first presented at the opening of the museum’s current venue in 1968, and withdrawn in 1996.
The return of the easels is not a fetishistic or nostalgic gesture in regard to what has become an iconic exhibition display device, but should rather be understood as part of a programmatic revision of Bo Bardi’s spatial and conceptual contributions to museum practice. The political dimension of her proposals is suggested byÂ the open, transparent, fluid, and permeable picture gallery, which offers multiple possibilities for access and reading, eliminates hierarchies and predetermined paths, and challenges canonical art-historical narratives. The gesture of taking the paintings off the wall and placing them on the easels implies their desacralization, renderingÂ them more familiar to the public. Moreover, the placement of the labels on their backs allows for an initial direct encounter with the work, free from an interpretive framework. InÂ this context, the museum experience becomes more human, plural, and democratic
In the original configuration of the easels, Lina Bo Bardi and Pietro Maria Bardi organized the works by artistic schools or regions. Now they will be placed in strict chronological order, laid out in a meandering path. This organization does not coincide with the chronology of art history, with its schools and movements, nor does it oblige the public to follow its course. The spatial transparency of the open floor plan and the easels invites visitors to construct their own path, enabling unexpected juxtapositions and dialogues between Asian, African, Brazilian, and European art.Â Furthermore,Â Picture Gallery in TransformationÂ is aÂ semi-permanentÂ collection display, as it will remain open to frequent changes, adjustments and modifications, already planned for early 2016. In this sense, the exhibition avoids the typical ossification and sedimentation of permanent collection displays.
The exhibition’s focus on figurative art reflects the history of the collection and the interests of Bo Bardi and Bardi, who resisted the hegemony of the abstract tradition in Brazil in the 1940s and 1950s. They were both wary of abstraction’s potentially depoliticizing effects, in the context of the promotion of geometric abstraction by the US through its Good Neighbor policy during the Cold War. The current display also includes works by artists traditionally considered outside of the Brazilian art-historical canon â€“ such as Agostinho Batista de Freitas, Djanira, JosĂ© AntĂ´nio da Silva, and Maria Auxiliadora â€“ highlighting MASP’s commitment to diversity and multiplicity. The only contemporary work in the display, Marcelo Cidade’s Tempo suspenso de um estado provisĂłrio[Suspended Time of a Provisory State], 2008, turns the glass easel into an object of institutional reflection. Its presence also signals the museum’s desire to resume its dialogue with contemporary art in the picture gallery.
Trabalho [Work] (2013/16) arose based on a set of professional, personal and affective relationships between Thiago HonĂłrio and a group of civil construction workers. The artist negotiated with cement workers and construction foremen to either barter or donate their work instruments or tools that now make up this installation. They are shovels, chisels, ladders, pickaxes, hoes, mauls, trowels, saws, sickles, paint rollers, brushes, spatulas and other tools that were used in the restoration of an old supply station that belonged to the electrical power company by the name of Light, a building built in the 1920s at Bandeira Square in downtown SĂŁo Paulo, now transformed into the Red Bull Station cultural center.
Begun in the context of an artistâ€™s residency, Thiago HonĂłrioâ€™s work shuffles the places and meanings of art: transiting through the hands of workers, in the operation of displacement brought about by the artist, in the restoration made with the tools, and finally in the architecture of the space where it is now installed. From an ethical point of view, the artist understood that the receipt of what he calls â€śgifts,â€ť from the workers, could only result in a donation of Trabalho to a museum, and that is how it arrived at MASP. The rough, raw and cold appearance of the tools-elements of Trabalho contrasts with the traditional perception of the â€śfine arts,â€ť but is also aligned with the characteristics of the museum buildingâ€™s brutalist architecture with its apparent, uncovered structural elements and lack of luxury finishings (while also contrasting with the refined architecture of traditional fine arts museums).
There is a complex metalinguistic operation underway â€“ the workersâ€™ tools refer to those of the sculptor, except that here they themselves have become sculptures. On the other hand, tools displayed standing up assume an anthropomorphic verticality (referring to the form of the human body), which winds up representing, metonymically, the workers who once possessed them (metonymy is a figure of speech that substitutes a subject or object by something closely related to it). We are therefore observing a lineup of workersâ€™ portraits, which becomes particularly relevant when we remember that the ground-level plaza under MASPâ€™s clear span has hosted all sorts of manifestations and protests by workers of every sort.
The presence of Thiago HonĂłrioâ€™s work has everything to do with the current concerns of the museumâ€™s programming, in regard to the critical revision of not only artists, but also of techniques, languages and modes of production that were left aside, eclipsed by the hegemonic narratives of the history of art, frequently for not being associated with the tastes, protocols and styles of the dominant classes. These questions are clearly present in the reenactement of A mĂŁo do povo brasileiro [The Hand of the Brazilian People] â€” the historical exhibition curated by Lina Bo Bardi in 1969, which will occupy the museumâ€™s first floor beginning on September 1, 2016. Instead of art or artifact, Lina proposed the notion of work [trabalho] to apply to a painting by Candido Portinari just as much as to a tool, insofar as both are products of a human labor, hence the relevance of this Trabalho.
Candido Portinari (1903â€“1962) is one of the most important and controversial Brazilian artists, and his work has a long relation with MASP, which owns 18 of his artworks. Popular Portinari is the 12th exhibition organized by the Museum, and does not aim to offer a comprehensive overview of the artistâ€™s oeuvre; rather, it presents a specific cross-section. The showâ€™s title meanings â€” referring not only to the artistâ€™s popularity (his 1944 canvas Retirantes [Migrants] is the work in our collection that is most often posted in social media), but also to his popular, commonplace background, thematics, iconography and diction.
The focus is on the paintings with themes, narratives and figures of popular Brazilian culture â€” workers in their various activities (agricultural workers on coffee plantations or other sorts of farms, washerwomen, musicians, wildcat gold miners), popular characters and types (the cangaceiro bandit, the migrant, the woman in traditional Bahian dress, the CarajĂˇ Indian) and common folk of non-European ethnicities and races (Afro-Brazilians, mulattos, Indians). The characters appear in different geographic and social contexts (in Brodowski, the painterâ€™s city of birth in the interior of SĂŁo Paulo State, in impoverished landscapes, or in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro), having fun or playing games, dancing or playing music, watching a circus or attending popular festivals, but also feeling pain â€” in misery, in death. Portinari painted hundreds of portraits of the Brazilian elite, which are not included here, with one exception: MĂˇrio de Andrade (1893â€“1945), an important interlocutor of the artist, the first great interpreter of his work, and a pioneer in the study and valorization of Brazilian popular culture.
The exhibition brings together different representations of popular themes that recurred in Portinariâ€™s work over the decades, thereby evincing his commitment and determined engagement with them. It should be remembered that the artist himself was the son of Italian immigrants who worked in the coffee harvest. Thus, many of the images that Portinari painted over the course of his career are scenes from his own life experience. This extraordinary selection constructs a wide-ranging, profound and sensitive panorama of Brazilian visual history, outside the fashions, tastes and protocols of the dominant classes.
The exhibition design is based on the one used for the 1970 show at MASP entitled Cem obras-primas de Portinari, conceived by Lina Bo Bardi (1914â€“1992), the architect who designed the museumâ€™s building. Portinari popular begins a program of the revision of the production of some key Brazilian modernist artists such as Tarsila do Amaral (1886â€“1973) and Vicente do Rego Monteiro (1899â€“1970), based on contents and narratives related to elements of Brazilian popular culture, thereby fostering discussions on race and the countryâ€™s social reality and cultural identity. MASPâ€™s interest in popular culture is not new, and this exhibition dialogues with the restaging of The Hand of the Brazilian People, beginning September 1 in the gallery on the museumâ€™s first floor. Why Portinari Popular today? We still suffer from precarious and prejudiced representations of African, Indian and popular cultures and subjects in Brazilian media, politics, society and also in art. It is necessary to deepen the reflection about these strategies of representation, something that the artistâ€™s work anticipates, hence its urgency and relevance.