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New Biographies in World History


Gendered Metaphors: Historicizing Female Professionals in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil

Cristina Mehrtens



     In an interview, the Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral remarked that her father once advised her to save for 30 years anything that might seem not important in the present.1 It is on those pieces of evidence from the past (interviews, data, artifacts) that biographers build their interpretations and reinterpretations of people's lives. Commentaries about Tarsila's work have been widely published and there is a solid critical and historical literature constructed around the artist.2 Historical identity is an intricate part of this cultural construct, which is continuously reinterpreted in the light of new social and political moments. Scholars from different disciplines have struggled to interpret the experience of modernity, a story of progress, rationality, science, and development that, nevertheless, has always been subject to contradictions, conflict, and reversals.3 In Latin America, modernity also has been marked by a colonial legacy of uneven development that has produced the simultaneous combination of modern and pre-modern ways of life.4 In this context, two conflictive perspectives have emerged in relation to the interpretation of Brazilian modern art: one that views Brazilian art as derivative of the hegemonic lineage of European modernism and another that tends to privilege one artist or movement as the prime embodiment of the national ethos. This tendency of favoring individual expressions as a means to situate the origins of movements and styles in Brazil permeated most references to the history of Brazilian women artists throughout the twentieth century.5 This essay turns to women and the historical space they occupy in the construction of national identity by focusing on the lives of two modern Brazilian women painters: Tarsila do Amaral (1884–1973) and Anita Malfatti (1889–1964).6 It analyses the conflictive ideas, contradictory realities, yet common discourse of national identity resulting from the interplay between the ideals of nation and gender. It examines how perceptions of social difference intertwined with national ideas in female professionals' works played an important part in the way the media, scholars, and biographers addressed their professional contribution over time. It also explores the cultural network contemporary to these women and how female professionals had an impact on our understanding of twentieth-century Brazilian history. Those women's life experiences were immersed and shaped by a dynamic male international professional network, a gendered-determined power structure, which contingently waved their way throughout women's personal and professional lives. This article explores how perceptions of social difference intertwined with national ideas in these artists' works, as well as how the media, scholars, and biographers explained those perceptions over time. First, I will delineate the historical trajectory common to Brazilian women artists in the early twentieth century; second, I will explore women's role in the creation of Brazilian symbols and myths of modernity; and I will conclude with an assessment of these women's role in the creation of a gendered discourse of Brazilian national identity. Drawing on their professional world and the conflictive ideas, contradictory realities, and cultural discourse, I analyze how the interplay between the ideals of nation and gender permeated their personal and professional trajectories.

The Historical Trajectory of Brazilian Women Artists

     Both as a monarchy after its independence from Portugal (1822–1889) and as a nation-state after the foundation of its first republic (1889–1930), Brazil maintained an agro-export economy, which was based on monoculture, intensive labor (slavery, immigration), and oligarchy. The vast social rearrangements linked to the country's late entrance into the modern industrial age were the product of the negotiations between the 400-year-old rural order—controlling the city since its foundation in 1554—and dramatic urban transformations that resulted in major challenges to Brazil's society, mores, and self-perceptions.7 The lives of women born in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century offer a rare glimpse into these challenges. Professionally, women faced serious obstacles to receiving a proper education leading to high-paid occupations such as medicine, law, engineering, administration, and business. The same was true for positions as professors, scientists, or politicians. These obstacles were structural (resistance in the marketplace) and ideological (limited admittance to schools). However, it was somewhat easier for women to become writers, poets, journalists, artists, and musicians.8

     As the country accelerated in its quest toward industrialization, women's pressure for change spread throughout urban society. At one extreme, a small group of professional upper-class women struggled their way into the male-dominated occupational market.9 At another, a few middle-class women writers rebelled against and radically attacked social conventions. The former were seen as unfeminine, and the latter were mostly rejected by the public, who ignored them, and by critics, who used their works as examples of "national degeneracy."10 However, remaining in the middle were most middle-class artists, who shared their position with the majority of women who married and/or pursued underpaid occupations. There are very few studies focusing on the work of those silent professionals and this article is an attempt to shed lights on it.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Anita Malfitti as a Young Woman, 1912 (Image in public domain)11  

Anita Catarina Malfatti (18891964)

     Anita was born in the city of São Paulo in the year of the proclamation of the Brazilian republic. São Paulo's urban evolution differed from that of most Latin American cities, which originally developed as bureaucratic, trading, political, and cultural centers little shaped by the demands of industry. São Paulo, by contrast, although originally anchored in an agrarian land_scape, under_went a process of rapid technological change and economic development after the mid-nineteenth century. In tandem with these changes, elite groups established their social positions and lifestyles by importing North American and European models of mod_ernization and development into the expanding urban space.

     The gradual evolu_tion of the city was a concerted accomplishment in which technical firms, private companies, and local public agencies took on diverse and over_lapping roles after the advent of the republic. Anita's father was an Italian engineer, Samuel Malfatti, who was connected to a powerful technical, professional network forged by the noted Brazilian architect Ramos de Azevedo.12 These connections and relationships created a dynamic in which foreign artists played a dual role. They came to São Paulo both as technical experts, who worked in the process of city beautification, and as art educators and instructors to the daughters and sons of the bourgeoisie. This bourgeoisie had linkages to other dense social networks. It congregated an extensive sociocultural and professional network weaving together industrialists, merchants, technicians (mostly immigrants), and a Brazilian-born middle class that had little economic power. This heterogeneous urban middle class was divided in terms of income, social mobility, and racial origin, but always shared some degree of both economic and cultural dependence on the regional ruling class, the coffee bourgeoisie.13 After Anita's father's early death, Anita found protection and guidance from her maternal godfather, Jorge Krug, another influential architect linked to the same technical network of which her father had been a part. Anita overcame a congenital physical handicap before becoming a painter (her crippled right hand was always covered by a colorful bandanna), and she advanced through her talent and her family network. Anita's uncle sponsored her initial educational travels, first to Germany and later to the United States.14 The following quote delineates many female occupations in Anita's household and how she distanced herself from them by focusing on her vocation as a professional goal:

. . . I had just started to teach but I always kept this thought that I wanted to study painting. My closest friends were getting married so young and they did not understand my dream, they were sorry [for me . . . Just] one idea kept hammering my head: "You are going to Europe study painting . . . " One day, visiting my friends, their mother told me: "I am going to take my daughters to Berlin to finish their musical education. Why don't you come with us?" I thought this was impossible because my mother was a widow who taught all day and my grandmother, with whom we lived, was rheumatic lying in bed. I talked to one of my aunts . . . Next Sunday, my uncle Jorge called me and asked if I really wanted to study painting in Europe; I was appalled with those developments and almost couldn't reply. I will never forget the only recommendation he gave me: "Never accept mediocrity." I promised him and I did that all my life. Fifteen days later I was on my way to Berlin.15

     In 1910, the young woman raised in a Catholic nuns' school left Brazil to study art in a series of different cultural settings abroad. Her first stop was Paris, the official place to study arts under a pensionato (government-sponsored travel grant).16 In Berlin, she studied with Lovis Corinth (1913). Forced to leave at the beginning of World War I, she came back to São Paulo for a short stay, but then departed for the United States. Anita's painting bore the intense mark of Expressionism, which was flourishing in Germany, and she was able to resume her modern experiments in New York. Anita studied with Homer Boss in the Independent School of Art (1915–1916), and she worked for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and other magazines before returning to Brazil in 1916. Anita's art exhibition of 1917 was accompanied by the echoes of the war in Europe and the clamor of the first large workers' strike in Brazil. Historically, 1917 marks the highest point in Brazilian workers' mobilization. Anita's exhibition took place from December 12, 1917 to January 1918. The great strike did not bring organizational improvements in the conditions of the Brazilian workers and the labor movement stagnated in the 1920s. Her paintings were executed in a non-academic, non-traditional style that did not present the expected, soft quality typical of a Parisian Beaux-Arts education. Her art show provoked disapproval, not only for the paintings' formal innovations, but for their portrayal of immigrants and other marginalized figures. Her uncle referred to them as "dantesque," and the writer and critic Monteiro Lobato launched an infamously harsh attack. Lobato deemed her work "degenerated" and her style non-realistic and even "anti-nationalistic."17

     As a result, some accounts suggest the painter was then isolated by the public and critics alike, and that "because she was so viciously attacked her self-confidence as a very young woman was irreparably damaged."18 However, other critics noted in Anita's artistic lyricism19 and her aggressive modernism the origin of many themes associated with the rhetoric of Brazil's national goals and evolving identity, such as grappling with poverty and a complex colonial heritage.20 Contemporary art critics were (and are) unanimous in recognizing her 1917 exhibit as the point of departure for Brazil's historical vanguard and the apex of her art, seen here as the end of her celebrity. Nonetheless, they perhaps err in equating the exhibition with the highest point of Anita's professional career. After the exhibition, Anita continued painting, won a five-year government travel grant to Europe in 1924, and became an influential teacher.21 There is a tendency to portray the daring artist and successful mentor as an unlucky victim, who failed repeatedly and did not reach the limelight again. Such gendered discourse characterizes her as a shy, quiet, sweet, fragile, lonely woman.22 However, Anita bravely tamed her physical constraints, and she overcame socio-intellectual prejudices that she encountered as an innovative and persistent creative woman. She made a living as an art teacher, an inspiring mentor, and a devoted painter. In other words, she achieved distinction by following a difficult career path, as only successful professionals do.

     In the 1940s, Anita had already disappeared from center stage. Women painters were a minority among Brazilian professional painters and faced daunting constraints to survive in their profession. In fact, as their reputations wax and wane, Brazilian artists seem to disappear and reappear from one decade to the other, and "many of them, independently from the natural passing of time, simply disappear from the artistic scene."23 In 1945, Anita's works were not even mentioned in important art books. Yet today, Anita's solo exhibition of 1917 is considered the main event of that time within the field of plastic arts. It is now seen in Brazil as the event that opened the way for art understood as free expression.24 But at the time, Anita was seen as a woman committing an unacceptable transgression, and even after that and other less threatening exhibitions she was still not fully recognized as a professional.25 In the early 1920s, she did not have her own workplace, and she resumed her career frequenting conservative Beaux-Arts painter Pedro Alexandrino's classes, where she met her fellow artist, Tarsila do Amaral.26

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Tarsila do Amaral, ca. 1925 (Image in public domain)27  

Tarsila do Amaral (18861973)

     Tarsila was born in Capivari in the state of São Paulo, and belonged to a wealthy family of coffee oligarchs. After a divorce while still a young woman, she devoted herself to a career in painting.28 She studied in Pedro Alexandrino's atelier and in 1920, with the backing of her family's fortune, she traveled to Europe to give her daughter Dulce a European education and to improve her own art. Exchanging correspondence with Anita, Tarsila learned that back in Brazil modernist artists (painters, architects, musicians, and writers) had joined Anita to organize, in the city of São Paulo, what became known as the Modern Art Week of 1922. Just like the Armory Show in the United States, the Modern Art Week of 1922 was an event of modernist art both scandalous and extremely influential that changed the nature of art in the country. The event coincided with the centenary of Brazilian independence.29 Acting in the name of the nation, the Modernists selected, interpreted, and assimilated ideas of the European vanguard in their search for what it meant to be Brazilian. Brazilian-ness issued from this group's individual creativity and their efforts to decipher what was indigenous, though the indigenous was not necessarily reflected in their individual experiences. The modernist generation "acquired the stylistic language of the European avant-garde and assimilated themes and attitudes that they then acculturated in the creation of their nativist art of the 1920s."30 They depicted a dual Brazil that merged the industrialized modern world of São Paulo with the picturesque simplicity of traditional country life.31

     Though the modern movement was clearly aristocratic, the world was rapidly changing around this group of artists who sought to explain, paint, and live their nation, which mostly was composed of a poor, uneducated, and heterogeneous population.32 Back in Brazil, Tarsila became part of this group. As a consequence of that experience, when she returned to France it was with a new agenda in her life and work.33 This agenda covertly entailed a new dialogue with dominant male conceptions about the roles of women and reflected ongoing changes in women's lives. Explaining Tarsila's position, June Hahner states:

[Tarsila] never flaunted her unorthodox private life; her open rebellion was limited to the aesthetic realm … Tarsila refrained from political activities and attacks on marriage and traditional female roles. Nor did she demonstrate interest in questions of women's political and civil status.34

Although Tarsila's contribution cannot be compared to those of women who explicitly backed feminist movements, such as Bertha Lutz and Ercília Cobra,35 her influence was just as intense. As Hahner notes: ". . . Brazilian feminists in the 1920s cited [Tarsila] among those outstanding Brazilian women whose accomplishments gave proof of their sex's abilities."36

     In this sense, just like celebrities today, Tarsila's persona reached both intellectuals and the imagination of ordinary women. During the flourishing of modernism, the materially blessed and genetically gifted Tarsila symbolized the modern woman. In this sense, her influence was part of a larger international and national sea change in gender relations that had the potential to destabilize social and political customs.

Tarsila's experience in Europe affected her body language, manners, and the way she expressed the art she received, developed, and created. The best metaphor for this new role was the nickname poet and critic Sérgio Milliet gave her: "a capirinha [a country girl] dressed by Paul Poiret."37 Tarsila was "one of the most beautiful women in Paris, she had long, strong, and thin black hair framing a beautiful face adorned by unusual long earrings that would touch her tanned skin."38 She incorporated in her persona the country Paulista girl and the sophisticated Parisian woman. When receiving famous and influential people in her frantic atelier at 9 Rue Hégésippe Moreau, Tarsila played the music of Eric Satie, wore Poiret's collections, Rosine's perfume, Perugia's shoes, and decorated her apartment with Martine's furniture.

     The language Tarsila found to express Brazil to her foreign guests was food. She offered either feijoada—a black bean dish of African origins—or canja—a rice and chicken soup of rural (caipira) origins. This national menu was another significant metaphor in such paintings as The Negress (A Negra, 1923) and The Country Girl (A Caipirinha, 1923).39 Yet, in a revealing episode, Brazilian Ambassador Sousa Dantas invited a group of French and Brazilian artists to a lunch in which Tarsila was the only woman. Following contemporary polite stereotypes, Tarsila, who was supposedly there as an "equal," was placed close to the Swiss-French poet and novelist, Blaise Cendrars, who had lost an arm in World War I, to assist him in cutting his meat, a favor she gladly did.40 Tarsila's images of Brazil also negotiated national attributes and geographies, as when Tarsila thrived by contrasting the paulista interiors of the 1920s with contemporaneous European sophistication. In 1923, Tarsila confessed "I feel more and more Brazilian: I want to be the painter of my land. I'm so grateful to have spent my entire childhood on the plantation. The memories of that time are becoming precious to me. In art, I want to be the country girl from São Bernardo, playing with rustic dolls, as in the last picture I'm painting."41 Although she accepted stereotypical themes in her characterizations,42 the Brazil that Tarsila painted expressed both conflictive colonization as well as a peaceful, mythical dialogue between Brazilian and French culture. Tarsila reveals that in the quotation below:

     Tovalú, Cendrars, and Jeanne Léger emptied bottles of rum. A perfumed coffee completed the exotic ambience. Gleizes talked about cubism from his philosophical point of view. Juliette Roche, the dreamer poetess, sat in Japanese style telling delirious stories. Cendrars described Brazil: a land of wonders that I myself did not know. I was required to confirm his descriptions [every instant Cendrars would ask: "isn't that so, Tarsila?"]. From his fantasy emerged skinny-as-his-wrists palm trees, which grew fast, magically going up 100 meters to explode into three silent palms. Virgin forest entrenched with serpents in the environs of São João do Rey [a city in the state of Minas Gerais]; crocodiles spread in the Das Velhas River among diamonds and gold gemstones; São Paulo crowded with skyscrapers; the Sugar Loaf smashing the [bay of] Guanabara (Rio de Janeiro). (Tarsila do Amaral, 1937)43

     Back in Brazil in 1924, Tarsila continued her search for Brazilian themes. She and a modernist group traveled to the state of Minas Gerais on a journey to rediscover Brazil in its architecture and tradition.44 The trip took on the exoticism of an escape from civilization. Official notions of a national identity revolved around the idea of the exotic and race mixing. In his Manifesto Regionalista, Gilberto Freyre urged the Modernists to look to the interior of Brazil instead of Europe for inspiration, and his manifesto did spur reaction. Freyre's interpretation crystallized an image of the nation that had an enormous impact within and outside of Brazil. Tarsila later explained that she "found in Minas the colors she adored when she was a child."45 In a letter to her daughter, she reported that Blaise Cendrars deemed the eighteenth-century Brazilian artist Aleijadinho, a crippled mulatto who worked in colonial Minas Gerais, the most representative sculptor of his times.46 Tarsila's works in 1924 depicted the Brazilian tropical environment through color and a few stylized iconographic elements.47 Her work evolved in what became known as the Antropofagia phase (anthropophagia is a synonym for cannibalism), a creative label for the Brazilian artist's assimilation of foreign influences into the depiction of national themes. This phase was her statement of independence.48 Tarsila's themes included the tropical environment, magic creatures, and other themes far removed from the contemporary references. This can be seen in works such as the Abaporu of 1928.49 For Milliet, Tarsila's works documented an adolescent Brazil and for Mario de Andrade, she "was the first who accomplished a work of national expression [ . . . in which] the use of country forms and colors, intelligently combined exceptional bad taste and intimate sentimentality . . ."50 A 2005 French Catalogue stressed Tarsila's mix of French culture and originality "in relation to its subjects and compositions."51 For Besse, Tarsila's profoundly original use of brilliant colors, abstract form, and "intimately Brazilian themes" not only won her "an honored place with the Brazilian avant-garde" but also fused modernism with an emergent Brazilian identity.52 Aracy Amaral highlights Tarsila's brazilianess (brasilidade) in her artistic sensitivity and life experience.

     Although Tarsila was a celebrity in intellectual circles, her works were not popular. During her first exhibition in Brazil, Oswald de Andrade argued with guests and students from the School of Beaux Arts who attempted to destroy some of her works. Today, Tarsila's works are in the most important museums in the nation and are part of the great collections of the world.53 Her production exemplifies the most intense experimental phase of Brazilian modern culture. This period from 1922 to 1929 was marked at its beginning by the Modern Art Week of 1922 and at its end by the crash of the stock market, the resulting coffee crisis, and the revolution of 1930. In 1929, the worldwide depression ruined the coffee economy and precipitated a new nationalistic era ruled by Getúlio Vargas (1930–1945), which completely changed the political climate of the country. In the 1930s, Tarsila's themes became socially driven and her painting became more narrative while maintaining modernist stylistic techniques (e.g., Working Class, Operários 1933).

Women as Symbols of Modernity

     In the early twenty-first century both Anita and Tarsila have come to share a prominent place as innovative voices in their fields and their biographies are rich sources portraying a complex account of female artists' lives.54 In the 1930s, their work and that of other professional women in Brazil was caught up in a new national ethos of modernity. During this decade, the previously "degenerate" turned into "righteous" modernity, which propelled the careers of painters, writers, singers, and pianists whose works became synonymous with Brazil and its national art.55 Although accounts of the history of Brazilian modernism tend to portray Anita as victim and Tarsila as the highest exponent of heroic nationalism, both artists shared in common a social and political position that basically reaffirmed the status quo.56 Modernization occurred without fundamentally upsetting the structure of either inequality or gender roles in the nation. Neither Anita's nor Tarsila's production represented overt resistance or defiance to their societies. Nonetheless, their work entailed a contingent dialogue with the patriarchal order. They exemplified Brazilian women born around the turn of the century who went from daughters of the oligarchies, to sisters of the republic, and then to mistresses of the national era. They were raised under very clear hierarchal codes that reflected the established social gaps and economic inequality of Brazil and imposed constraints on their careers. Their initial political attitudes were linked to the sociocultural and professional networks that provided them patrons. Later, they ineffectively struggled to adapt to the clientelist and authoritarian male-oriented populist society of the Vargas era in a process that strengthened the role of European and North American cultural male patrons.57

     Anita and Tarsila faced stereotypes, adopted pioneering attitudes, and displayed strong, mature postures in their work. They were considered white, urban (upper or middle class), and independent (receiving direct or indirect financial and social support from their families). These three factors are helpful in understanding their later influential roles in redefining gender attitudes. They became self-supporting and relatively independent and powerful vis-à-vis men of their class, but they conducted their professional lives in very different ways and frequently as exceptions to the general female rule. They were able to succeed whether anchored in or despite their national fame—a fame that was elevated or diminished in different decades but that did, over the years, come to influence young professional women's lives in Brazil. Although their work did not constitute a fully articulated critique of the dominant gender norms, Anita and Tarsila contributed significantly to the way Brazilian women perceived themselves.


     In 2000, during the quincentenary anniversary of Portuguese colonization, Brazilian organizations sponsored an art show in São Paulo. Parts of this show visited galleries in different cities in Brazil, Europe, and the United States, including the exhibition, "Brazil: Body and Soul," at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2001.58 The show underlined two artistic languages, the Baroque and the Modern, as Brazil's uttermost expressions, with Aleijadinho and Tarsila as the exemplary representatives of each. The connection between Baroque and Modern began in the 1920s with the modernists' quest for their Brazilian roots. In the following decades, modernists kept building upon the Baroque style as it was developed in the state of Minas Gerais. The Mineiro Baroque did not carry an "imported" imprint because its master was a Brazilian, Aleijadinho.59

     The famed architect, Lúcio Costa (1902–1988), best known for his plan for Brazil's new capital of Brasília (1958–60), infused modern elements into Aleijadinho's traditions, convincingly linking Brazil's colonial past and twentieth-century modernity. Subsequently, the implied heterogeneity and fluidity of this modernist fusion became vitally tied to a national paradigm. In this paradigm, the contradictory modern Brazilian was born ethnically unidentifiable as a hybrid and multiracial persona. Modernism became the strategic language that helped Brazilian artists to cope with and manipulate their place on the international and national scene.60

     Tarsila's works, an important presence in the quincentenary celebrations, follow the same reasoning and carry the implied heterogeneity and fluidity fundamental in the national paradigm. They also legitimize the hybrid and multiracial identification of the population. In an evolving process, Tarsila herself became an icon of Brazilian women. In the 1920s, Tarsila shared a pioneering position with Anita and became the modern female symbol. However, the following decades brought controversial debates about these artists, and it was not until the 1980s that both assumed a mythical stature.61 In that process, the work of these female artists was seen as reflecting and nurturing the imagery of a giant, powerful, colorful, and sensual nation, all of which helped structure the Brazilian national imagination. Indeed, such myths have been assimilated into the national narrative that is part of the cultural heritage of every Brazilian.

     Today, Tarsila's art and persona are inextricably tied to Brazilian modernism. The constant retrospective appearance of Tarsila's celebrated works has become part of Brazil's common heritage and currency. In 2006, a new perfume launched to celebrate International Women's Day was named "Tarsila Rouge."62 Though an unthinkable title in cold-war political times, the fragrance's commercial celebrated Tarsila's modern style as something identifiably Brazilian: The perfume is "innovative, exotic, and striking" and the fragrance reflects Tarsila's "restless spirit, free, and intense."63 Its essence is a blend of Eurasian and American spices, flowers, and fruits and celebrates Tarsila's Brazilian woman's "attitude, elegance [and] sensuality." The perfume comes with a lipstick that "fits all skin tones of the Brazilian woman." In a limited edition, the packaging was inspired by the 1923 painting "Manteau Rouge," which occupied a special place during a 2005 exhibition in Paris to celebrate the Brazilian Year in France.64

     Brazilian feminists in the 1920s saw Tarsila as a symbol of outstanding Brazilian women.65 Almost one century later Tarsila's persona continues to inspire a discourse of national identity as seen in her important presence in the quincentenary art exhibition and the popular perfume commercial. Both events help us to reconsider the interconnections between a gendered discourse of modernity in Brazilian art and the country's national identity. Though contemporary Brazilian art continues to be seen by some as derivative of the hegemonic lineage of European modernism, to Brazilians there is still a national narrative, which asserts that modernism is neither imported nor regionalized, but endemic to the nation.

Cristina Mehrtens (Ph.D., University of Miami, 2000) is an associate professor in the History and Women and Gender Studies departments at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In Urban Space and National Identity in Early Twentieth-Century São Paulo, Brazil (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), she revisited the construction of a mostly male technical apparatus in early twentieth-century Brazil. Currently, her research focuses on the mostly ignored contribution of female Brazilian and U.S. urban professionals as well as the patterns of gendered professional practices in the city of São Paulo. Her scholarship includes contributions to The Unedited Diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus (Rutgers 1999), The Brazil Reader (Duke 1999), Municipal Services and Employees in the Modern City (Ashgate 2003), and Profissionais, práticas e representações (Alameda/FAPESP 2013). She may be reached at


1 Aracy Amaral, Arte e meio artístico: entre a feijoada e o x-burguer, 19611981 (São Paulo: Nobel, 1983).

2 Aracy Amaral wrote the most comprehensive biography of Tarsila, focusing mainly on the 1920s. Written in a period of military dictatorship as a doctoral dissertation, defended in 1971, this definitive source on Tarsila's life and career was published in 1975. There are also important works about Anita, including Marta Batista's comprehensive book of 1985. See Amaral, Arte e meio artístico.

3 See Ludwig Lauerhass Jr. and Carmen Nava, Brazil in the Making. Facets of National Identity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006); Sunil Bald, "In Aleijadinho's Shadow: Writing National Origins in Brazilian Architecture," Thresholds 23 (Cambridge: MIT, 2002); and Vivian Schelling, ed., Kaleidoscope: Through the Experience of Modernity in Latin America (London: Verso, 2000). Throughout the early twentieth century, the modern art movement struggled to capture the significance of the Latin American experience in a process that had a strong influence on the national identities of different countries. Scholars suggest that patterns reinterpreted in this manner often served only to make Latin American cultural achievements even more unknown or simply derivative, peripheral, and inferior to those developed either in Europe or in the United States.

4 See Schelling, ed., Kaleidoscope.

5 Though this trend has not been questioned, the past decade saw more comprehensive works on the lives of professional women, including here Ana Paula Cavalcanti Simioni's Profissão artista: Pintoras e Escultoras Acadêmicas Brasileiras (São Paulo: EDUSP, 2008).

6 In what follows, these artists will be referred to by their first names because that was their practice in signing most of their works. It is interesting to note that both Tarsila and Anita are popularly best known by their first names, as opposed to the practice with contemporaneous male modern painters (e.g., Di Cavalcanti, Segall, Portinari, Villa-Lobos).

7 See Cristina Mehrtens, Fernando Atique, and Aiala Levy, "São Paulo," in Ben Vinson, ed., Oxford Bibliographies in Latin American Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

8 See Susan K. Besse, Reconstructing Patriarchy: The Modernization of Gender Equality in Brazil, 1914–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Susan K. Besse, Freedom and Bondage: The Impact of Capitalism on Women in SP, Brazil, 1917–1937 (Yale University Ph.D. Dissertation, 1983), and June Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Brazil, 18501940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990). Besse explains that schools were largely segregated by gender and did not offer women the rigorous academic training necessary to pass university entrance examinations. Women were raised learning the trades considered to be compatible with stereotypical notions of the female nature and tendencies (Besse, Reconstructing Patriarchy, 123). Professional careers were possible only for a tiny minority of women and their socialization continued to orient them toward marriage and motherhood. Society scorned unmarried women and denied them social status and sexual fulfillment (Besse, Freedom and Bondage, 326–27).

9 The noted scientist, Bertha Lutz, is the exemplary woman in this period. See June Edith Hahner, Women in Brazil: Problems and Perspectives (Albuquerque: Latin American Institute, University of New Mexico, 1984), 7.

10 These writers attacked marriage as a social ill, were deemed transgressors, and intellectually erased from recognition for many years. Among them were activists and writers such as Ercília Nogueira Cobra (1891–?), Maria Lacerda de Moura (1887–1945) and Patricia Galvão (1910–1952) On the works of these writers see Besse (1996) and Maria Lúcia de Barros Mott, Biografia de uma Revoltada: Ercília Nogueira Cobra (São Paulo: Fundação Carlos Chagas, Cadernos de Pesquisa 58, 1986), 89–104; Susan Quinlan and Peggy Sharpe, Visões do Passado Previsões do Futuro—Duas modernistas esquecidas (Goiás and Rio de Janeiro: Univ. Federal de Goiás e Ed. Tempo Brasileiro Ltda., 1996).

11 Photographer unknown, "Anita Malfitti jovem," 1912, image now in public domain, (accessed December 20, 2016).

12 Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo (1851–1928) was the most influential architect in São Paulo at the turn of the century. On Ramos de Azevedo and on the signifi_cant role trans_national linkages and foreign assistance played in relation to Brazilian governance, see Cristina Mehrtens, "Municipal Employees and the Construction of Social Identity in São Paulo, Brazil, 1930s," in Pierre-Yves Saunier et al., eds., Municipal Services in the Modern City (Hampshire and Burlington: Ashgate, 2003).

13 At the turn of the century, this national middle class was made up of civil servants (dependent on the state apparatus), bank and commercial employees, and those who molded public opinion (journalists, prestigious figures in the liberal professions, artists). They were generally in silent conflict (mainly because of liberal ideology) with the oligarchies but not necessarily against it. This scenario molded the emergent technical middle class of the 1930s. See Cristina Mehrtens, Urban Space and National Identity in Early Twentieth-Century São Paulo, Brazil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

14 In the nineteenth century, Anita's mother's descendants left Germany for the United States and thence from the United States to Brazil. Anita's uncle, Jorge Krug who was born in Brazil, studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Anita's nickname was babynha (the English "baby" followed by the Portuguese diminutive form). On the important connection between the University of Pennsylvania and Brazilians see the work of Fernando Atique, "Em busca de Profissão nos EUA: a divulgação de brasileiros na 'University of Pensylvania' e a divulgação de paradigmas americanos no Brasil (1876–1945)," Latin American Studies Association (2007): 1–35.

15 See Anita Malfatti, "A Chegada da arte moderna no Brasil," Conference of 1951 (São Paulo: Pinacoteca do Estado, 1951), 21. Quoted in Marta Rosetti Batista, Anita Malfatti: No Tempo e no Espaço (São Paulo: IBM Brasil, 1985), 40, 44. Translated by the author.

16 On the vital role of the governmental travel grant (Pensionato Artístico do Estado in São Paulo and National School of Beaux Arts grants in Rio de Janeiro), see Arthur Valle "Pensionistas da Escola Nacional de Belas Artes na Academia Julian (Paris) durante a 1ª República (1890–1930)," DezenoveVinte 1, no. 3 (2006):

17 Terms quoted in Batista Anita, 70.

18 See Besse, Reconstructing, 157.

19 See Mario da Silva Brito, História do modernismo brasileiro: antecedentes da semana de arte moderna (São Paulo: Civilização Brasileira, 1974).

20 See Gerard Behague, Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Search for Brazil's Musical Soul (Austin: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas, 1994).

21 In 1937, Anita became part of the group FAP (Família Artística Paulista), who searched for equilibrium between modern and traditional art.

22 See Carlos Lemos, The Art of Brazil (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983). In the late 1970s, Pietro Bardi still referred to both Lasar Segall's and Anita's exhibitions as the two events that anticipated the Modern Art Week of 1922. Bardi reproduced in his article many of the gendered stereotypes about Anita from previous decades. Bardi explains that "Segall was a Russian who had come from Berlin and Malfatti was a young Brazilian woman who had studied with Clovis Corinth" (Lemos, The Art of Brazil, 21). Segal, a Russian citizen born in Lithuania, was a 20-year-old young man in 1913, whereas Anita, referred to by both her gender and nationality, was already 28 in 1917 and had a solid artistic education.

23 See Aracy Amaral, Arte e meio artístico, 92.

24 Historians acknowledge that modernism in Brazil began with a heroic phase marked by two exhibitions: Lasar Segall's 1913 exhibition, which was practically ignored by local critics at the time, and Anita Malfatti's controversial exhibition of 1917. See Lemos, The Art of Brazil, 19.

25 In August 1918, Anita presented her works at the Salão Nacional de Belas Artes in the Brazilian capital, Rio de Janeiro and under pressure she painted impressionist works "to make the barbarians happy" [para contentar os silvículas] (Mario de Andrade quoted in Batista, Anita, 479).

26 See Aracy Amaral, Arte e meio artístico, 92, where she explains that the city of São Paulo in the 1920s was crowded with national and foreign art professionals: Bertha Worms, Antonio Carlos Sampaio Peixoto, George Elpons, José Wasth Rodrigues, and William Zadig. As opposed to what happened then, today there is very little or almost nothing written about those non-modernist artists who reigned in Sao Paulo in the first decades of the twentieth century, commissioned by the rich network then existing in the city.

27 Photographer unknown, "Tarsila do Amaral, ca. 1925," image in public domain,,_ca._1925.jpg (accessed December 10, 2016).

28 From Tarsila's first marriage (1908) to André Teixeira Pinto was born her only daughter Dulce (?–1966). This marriage was annulled in 1926, when she married Oswald de Andrade.

29 On the movement see Jorge Schwartz, "Literature and the Visual Arts: The Brazilian Roaring Twenties," Lanix E-Text Collection (2002),; Stella de Sá Rego and Marguerite Itamar Harrison, Modern Brazilian Painting (Albuquerque: The Latin American Institute, University of Mexico, 1986); Mario da Silva Brito, História do modernismo brasileiro: antecedents da semana de arte moderna (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1974); Aracy Amaral, Artes Plásticas na Semana de 22 (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1970).

30 See Rego, Modern Brazilian Painting, 7.

31 Ibid.

32 None of those changes ever came as a revolution in Brazil. After the first republic (1889–1930), the Vargas years set the tone of the transition. Divided in at least three phases, those years experienced a transitional period (1930–1934), a constitutional recovery (1934–1937), and an authoritarian plunge (1937–1945), when many national heroes were created to appeal to a poor, uneducated, and heterogeneous Brazilian population.

33 She was a member of the Group of Five formed after the Week of Modern Art, along with Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Menotti del Picchia, and Anita Malfatti. They all benefitted from the group's cohesion until it broke apart in 1929.

34 See Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex, 123.

35 See note 9.

36 See Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex, 123.

37 Caipirinha is a diminutive form for country girl (note that there is not a male counterpart to this word) and Poiret was the most famous stylists in Paris at the time.

38 See Amaral, Tarsila, 84.

39 Painted during a heroic phase, known as Pau-Brazil.

40 See Amaral, Tarsila, 90.

41 See Amaral in Tarsila, 87.

42 The theme of idleness is also explored by Mário de Andrade, who employed the "divine laziness," in 1918, which led to the well-known refrain "ai que preguiça!" ["I'm feeling so lazy!"] in the novel Macunaíma. This concept is fundamental in Oswald de Andrade's later celebration of the anthropophagic ideology. This idea is present in Tarsila's paintings of the antropophagic period: "Abaporu" and "Anthropophagy" (1928 and 1929), and in the reverberating circles in "Setting Sun" (1929). See Schwartz, "Literature and the Visual Arts."

43 See Tarsila do Amaral, Tovolú (Diário de São Paulo, December 8, 1937). Quoted in Aracy Abreu Amaral, Tarsila. Sua Obra e Seu Tempo, vol I. (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1975), 163. Translated by the author.

44 Sponsored by Dona Olivia Guedes Penteado, the group was comprised of Blaise Cendrars, Oswald de Andrade (her companion), Mario de Andrade, Gofredo da Silva Telles, René Thiollier, and Oswald de Andrade Filho. See Amaral, Tarsila, 124.

45 See Amaral in Tarsila, 121.

46 See Amaral in Tarsila, 125. During the eighteenth-century golden rush, urban centers in Minas Gerais (e.g. Ouro Preto, Mariana, Sabará, Diamantina, Congonhas do Campo) became testimonies to an active artistic environment and an original interpretation of how the European Baroque originally molded the American reality: the Mineiro Baroque. This mineira art flourished in the hands of Antônio Francisco Lisboa, better known as Aleijadinho ("Little Cripple") and the painter Manuel da Costa Ataíde. Under the expression Baroque stands three centuries of Brazilian art: from the first encounter with the Europeans (1500) until the arrival of the French Mission (1816).

47 See Schwartz, "Literature and the Visual Arts." As Schwartz puts it: "rural motifs are molded on the canvas with the aesthetics imported from Paris." Tarsila's naïf sense resumes in the antropophagic phase. Her deliberately spare style is molded on the unidimensionality of a picture like "E.F.C.B." (Estrada de Ferro Central do Brasil) [Central Railway of Brazil], in which the iron trusses of the bridge and of the railway signals (metallic echoes of the Eiffel Tower) decorate not an urban landscape but the interior of Brazil: palm trees, churches, light posts, and the "ochre and saffron shacks." Her painting tropicalizes and "paulistanizes" the urban scenery of the 1920s,

48 See Rego, Modern Brazilian Painting, 8.

49 Tarsila's works present a geometry of national (armadillos, urutus, monkeys) and naïf (rabbits, dogs, toads, roosters and hens) animals in profuse fauna and flora motifs.

50 Aracy Amaral, qtd in Mario de Andrade's Diário Nacional, São Paulo, December 21, 1927.

51 The Catalogue underlines the lessons received from French masters (Albert Gleizes and Fernand Léger) and Cendrars' intermediary role between the couple Tarsila and Oswald de Andrade and the Parisian intellectuals of the 1920s.

52 See Besse, Reconstructing, 149.

53 See, for instance, the upcoming Chicago Art Institute's exhibition "Tarsila do Amaral: Reinventing Modern Art in Brazil," which opens in October 2017; the 2016/2017 exhibition "Tarsila do Amaral" at the Malba-Fundación Costantini, Argentina, (accessed December 10, 2016), and the 2009 Exhibition at the Juan March Institute, Madrid, Spain, (accessed December 10, 2016).

54 Commentaries about Tarsila's work have been widely published and there is a solid critical and historical literature constructed around the artist. Aracy Amaral wrote the most comprehensive biography of Tarsila, focusing mainly on the 1920s. Written in a period of military dictatorship as a doctoral dissertation, defended in 1971, this definitive source on Tarsila's life and career was published in 1975. There are also important works about Anita, including Marta Batista's comprehensive book of 1985.

55 In the 1930s, young intellectuals Gilberto Freyre, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, and Caio Prado Jr. wrote key interpretations of Brazilian social development. Freyre focused on the construction of a national ethos of inter-racial fraternity. Historian Kenneth Maxwell explains that, "According to Freyre, the best known to foreigners, the Portuguese colonists established in the tropics a patriarchal regime, which widely practiced miscegenation. Freyre's three great books Masters and Slaves, The Mansion and the Shanties, and Order and Progress, and his ideas "provided the intellectual foundation for the theory of 'luso-tropicalism.' This theory had profound effect on people's perceptions and Freyre's interpretation crystallized an image of Brazil that had an enormous impact within and outside Brazil. See Kenneth Maxwell, "History Lessons: The Problem of Persistence," ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America 6, no. 3 (Spring 2007), 3–6.

56 See Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex, 1990 and Besse, Reconstructing Patriarchy 1996. Accordingly, by the end of the 1940s, ideas of sexual morality and family organization still enforced a paternalist and patriarchal condition for women, and though political power was to be radically changed in Brazil during the first decades of the twentieth century, there was no concomitant renegotiation of patriarchy.

57 In the following decades, Brazilian modernists gave performances in Europe and the United States, which symbolized the apex of the recognition of their careers.

58 See Edward J. Sullivan, curator, "Brazil: Body & Soul," Guggenheim Museum, October 18, 2001–May 28, 2002, (accessed December 10, 2016).

59 A person born in the state of Minas Gerais is mineiro, Rio de Janeiro, carioca, and São Paulo, paulista.

60 Emulating images propagated in the period by European Fascist propaganda, the Brazilian Estado Nôvo also emphasized healthy and sculpted representations of active Brazilians.

61 Brito dedicated a whole chapter for Anita, "the estopim of modernism," in his path-breaking book, História do modernismo brasileiro, 40–72.

62 "Tarsila Rouge homenageia o poder e a atitude da mulher brasileira," Commercial from O Boticário (accessed December 10, 2016).

63 Quotes from the 2006 commercial, whose narrative was revisited in the new website, (accessed December 10, 2016).

64 Tarsila do Amaral: peintre brésilienne à Paris 1923–1929: Maison de L'Amérique latine, 14 décembre/dezembro 2005 a 20 février/fevereiro 2006.

65 See note 34 .

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