A Review of Modernity in Black and White

by | Sep 21, 2021

Modernity in Black and White: Art and Image, Race and Identity in Brazil, 1890-1945. By Rafael Cardoso. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021

For years, one of my favorite pieces in the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) was the iconic Abaporu (1928), by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral: a canvas saturated with the colors of Brazil’s flag (green, gold, and blue), depicting a colossal creature with a single, massive foot in the forefront.  The mythical being is earthy and grounded, its figure as sinuously organic as the stylized cactus that stands as its vegetal counterpoint, but its head extends upward to dizzying heights.

“Abaporu” is a Tupi-Guarani term meaning “a person who eats people.”  The idea of anthropophagy depicted here would inspire the most storied vanguard artistic movement to emerge from São Paulo in the aftermath of the famed Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week) of February 1922—a constellation of performances and art exhibitions held in São Paulo’s municipal theater to celebrate a hundred years of Brazil’s political and especially cultural independence.  Together with Oswald de Andrade, Mário de Andrade (no relation) and other writers and artists, Tarsila gave birth to the idea that Brazil had cannibalized European, Indigenous, and African tendencies, assimilating them to produce a culture that was new, transcendent and thoroughly modern. 

Tarsila’s canvas always struck me as achingly dissonant in Buenos Aires.  There it was, housed in MALBA’s sleek stone-and-glass deconstructivist marvel, on one of the poshest avenues and in one of the most exclusive Parisian-style neighborhoods of a city designed to embody Argentina’s exceptionally “white” nationhood.  In my mind, this contrast only served to brighten the aura surrounding this effervescent moment in Brazil’s cultural history in which the arts, with their distinctive powers of persuasion, played a starring role in celebrating the country’s Black and Indigenous roots. 

 As art historian Rafael Cardoso might put it, I had been seduced by the “myth of 1922”: the idea that São Paulo’s Semana marked a watershed moment in the history of Brazilian ideas of race and nationIn Modernity in Black and White, Cardoso explodes the legend of the Semana and its purportedly subversive impact on Brazil’s artistic milieu, showing this narrative to have been little more than bluster in its own time—an open, and openly contested, bid for regional predominance.  That legend, he argues, was created retrospectively by veterans of the movement, successfully installed in popular and academic imaginaries as a “foundational myth … largely of a celebratory nature” (6).

Cardoso offers a searing reappraisal of the import of the paulista (from São Paulo) modernists in their own time and place. In part, this involves (to quote Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty) “provincializing” this group of artists as wealthy, privileged, mostly white, bourgeois cosmopolitans from Brazil’s most prosperous state, whose works circulated mainly in rarefied cultural circles.  It also involves historicizing them.  Cardoso reminds readers, first, that the ideas associated with the Antropofagia movement did not take shape until 1928, even though they are often simplistically mapped back onto the 1922 Semana.  Moreover, despite some academics’ subsequent elevation of this group of paulista modernists to decolonial theorists avant la lettre, their “anthropophagic” gestures consisted of selective, disingenuous and disempowering appropriations of Brazil’s Black and Indigenous heritage, along with elaborate, performative attempts at primitivist self-exoticism aimed primarily at European audiences.  The first “perpetuated stereotypes and ultimately had the effect of excluding the objects of their ethnographic incursions from the modernity to which they themselves laid claim” (14), while the second resulted in a “stage-set modernity designed to fool innocents into thinking that paulista millionaires were somehow fearful savages” (193). 

The “Semana myth,” Cardoso argues, has placed inordinate emphasis not just on stereotypically primitivist aesthetics and themes, but on the provincial capital of São Paulo and on the arenas of literature and fine art. Modernity in Black and White puts forth a competing story of Brazilian modernism based in the national capital of Rio de Janeiro, emerging well before the 1922 Semana not just in the realms of literature and fine arts but in the far more influential terrain of mass culture (graphic design and commercial periodicals), and deeply engaged with the quotidian urban themes of favelas and carnival.  This carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) modernism had distinctly different valences of race and class than its glossy paulista successor.  Cardoso shows Rio’s modernism to have been more grounded in urban life and popular culture: through sensitive and empathic renderings of the people who inhabited Rio’s favelas (many, but not all of them, depicted as Black); through the cross-class and cross-racial sociability of bohemian artistic circles whose members celebrated, and gained celebrity through, Rio’s carnival; and through mass-circulation magazines that aligned graphic art with the applied and decorative arts and an insurgent sociopolitical subjectivity. Cardoso’s portrayal of this alternative and little-known carioca modernism is astute, wryly humorous, delightfully vivid (it is a pleasure to be led through dozens of images by his keen eye) and, above all, compelling. 

Cardoso’s decentering of the Semana in favor of a wide-angle view of Rio’s mass culture parallels scholars’ demotion, in the last decade or so, of Gilberto Freyre’s 1933 classic Casa Grande e Senzala in Brazilian histories of race and nation. Freyre’s work was long credited (along with the Semana) with catalyzing the shift in Brazilian thought from an unabashed slavishness to European culture and whiteness toward an enlightened embrace of hybridism (even Freyre’s harshest critics largely ascribed single-handed authorship of the idea of “racial democracy” to him). Scholars have reframed Casa Grande e Senzala as one author’s crystallization, deft and well-placed, of ideas that already circulated widely within and beyond Brazilian society—including, notably, those of Afro-Brazilian and African American thinkers, who had long before 1933 developed ideas of “racial fraternity” and “racial democracy” in a far less romanticized key, as forceful demands for Black citizenship.    

Cardoso’s powerful take-down of the claims to preeminence of the mostly white artists associated with the Semana creates similar opportunities to rethink and recenter the role of Black creators in Brazilian modernism. Carioca modernism, in contradistinction to its paulista counterpart, included artists from the popular sectors and, importantly, artists of African descent who have gone largely unremarked.  Whereas the artists associated with the Semana and the later Antropofagia movement appropriated Blackness for their own aesthetic purposes and silenced the subalterns they purported to represent, in Rio’s raucous and grittier modernism, a few Afro-Brazilian artists, like illustrator and carnival scenographer K. Lixto (Calixto Cordeiro), painters and brothers João and Arthur Timotheo da Costa, or the sambista Sinhô, were able to shape aesthetic trends through the fine arts and mass culture.  This, Cardoso suggests, along with white carioca artists’ greater imbrication with the Afro-Brazilian cultures and spaces of their city, helps explain the earlier, more varied and more humanized depictions of Black people and Blackness emerging from the national capital than from the ateliers and desks of the São Paulo modernists.  

The project that became Modernity in Black and White, Cardoso notes, first took shape as a study of bohemianism in Rio de Janeiro.  Perhaps this explains its sometimes-uneven focus on race, especially when it comes to exploring Afro-descendant artists’ own representations of Blackness in Rio’s modernist scene. For example, Cardoso says of Arthur Timotheo that he “burst onto the scene, at the 1906 Salon, with Portrait of a Black Man, an intensely psychological portrait of a man in a hat smoking a cigarette, as well as a reclining nude knowingly titled Free from Prejudice” (137).  I couldn’t read those sentences without immediately wanting to see these paintings (or at least hear them described).  How does Cardoso understand the connection, if any, between the artist’s own identity as an Afro-Brazilian painter and the Afro-Brazilian subjects of his work?  What makes the use of this title “knowing”?  The book offers a more extensive treatment of K. Lixto.  But the artist’s 1908 cover for the popular magazine Fon Fon! depicting an Afro-descendant man, shackled to the iron ring of “oligarchy” while saluting the 20th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, is omitted from further analysis and from the book’s dozens of illustrations.

 In São Paulo, moreover, we glimpse evidence that Black paulistas (some of whom, in their support for a Mãe Preta statue, prefigured a theme that informed another of Tarsila’s famous paintings) may have written in to the Revista de Antropofagia in hopes that its authors would lend their anti-racist credentials to a leading Black association in its struggles with racist immigrants. In sum, through a study of Rio’s bohemian modernity, Cardoso has arrived at a transformative account of race and modernism in Brazilian visual culture that points clearly to the need for more sustained engagement with Black artistic expression.

These missed opportunities in the book in no way diminish its significance, and in fact illuminate opportunities for the field.  Cardoso’s insightful revision highlights new areas for further research.  Without the halo of primacy long ascribed to the Semana of 1922 or the founding visual and textual manifestos of Antropofagia—including Tarsila’s towering Abaporu—it becomes possible not only to see clearly the many innovative ways of thinking about race that cropped up across Brazilian mass culture, but to narrate them on their own terms, without obligatory deference to one group of elite thinkers.

Paulina L. Alberto is Professor of History, Spanish, and Portuguese at the University of Michigan.  She is a historian of Afro-Latin American lives, thought, and politics in the aftermath of slavery, with a focus on Brazil and Argentina.  Her latest book, Black Legend: The Many Lives of Raúl Grigera and the Power of Racial Storytelling in Argentina, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press (2022).

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