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Remembering the 1922 Art Week in São Paulo

With Optima’s love for all things modern, we take great pleasure in diving into the history of modernism around the globe, including how the principles of modernism took hold in Brazil. And as luck would have it, the country is celebrating a huge milestone in February 2022 — the 100th anniversary of the Semana de Arte Moderna that runs from February 10 through 17 — so we are taking a closer look at this pivotal moment in time.

For the people of Brazil, 1922 was a landmark year. It marked a full century of independence from Portugal – and it was also the year that put Brazilian art on the international map, beginning with an idea emerged from a group of artists to host a week-long art celebration around modernism. Dubbed the Semana de Arte Moderna — this game-changing event took the form of exhibitions, lectures, poetry readings and musical performances that brought avant-garde works and ideas to the entire country.

Today, 100 years later, we look back at the Semana de Arte Moderna of 1922 and recognize it as a major turning point in the development of modern art. At the time, however, it was greeted with mockery, anger and fear. There were stories of horrified audiences throwing objects at performers on stage, and critics fuming with negative reviews of art, music and theater they didn’t understand.

Original poster for 1922 Semana de Arte Moderna, Wikipedia

Central to the works presented during the Semana de Arte Moderna was the theme of creating work that drew upon European influences but was uniquely Brazilian. This was a radical approach in 1922, since the European centers of art and culture had a tight grasp on what was considered “art,” and the idea that Brazilian artists had voices of their own was considered shocking. 

Following the Semana de Arte Moderna, the Brazilian Modernism movement blossomed. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, while much of the world was still in a state of flux about what exactly constituted ‘modern’ art, the country was leading the way into new styles of artistic expressions that were quickly embraced by Brazilians as a unique cultural identity. And with this new-found inspiration and energy, the modernist architecture movement took hold.

The painting A Negra by Tarsila do Amaral was part of an exhibition of her work at Semana de Arte Moderna. From Caixa Modernista, Edusp / Editoria UFMG / Imprensa Oficial, São Paulo, 2003.

In the 1950s Brazil decided to found Brasilia, a new capital city heralded as a great experiment in modernist architecture, to help develop Brazil’s interior. Led by the vision of Brazil’s most famous architect and designer,  Oscar Niemeyer, the country began to define itself by its modernist aesthetic, with buildings characterized by their use of concrete and free-flowing curves.

As we reconsider the impact the 1922 Semana de Arte Moderna had on the rise of modernist architecture around the globe, we can’t help but recognize how the forever modern principles we practice at Optima fit into a larger context. It is Optima’s pleasure and privilege to be such an esteemed and vital company.

The Work of Anita Malfatti

There have been many leading ladies in the history of Modernism; one of whom is Anita Malfatti. Malfatti is widely regarded as the pioneer of the Modernist movement in Brazil — sharing with her home country the style that had already taken American and European culture by storm — and leaving behind a life that would inspire generations to come. 

Life in Brazil

Anita Malfatti was born Ana Catarina Malfatti in Sao Paulo in 1889 to a family of immigrants; her father was a civil engineer and her mother was a painter, and a highly-cultured woman. Malfatti’s mother was her primary teacher, and a huge source of inspiration as Malfatti began to explore creatively while growing up. Due to a congenital defect that made her left arm nearly immobile, Malfatti was forced to paint right-handed even though she was left-handed. Nevertheless, Malfatti wasn’t deterred from her passion for the visual arts.

Pursuing art in Brazil was limiting at that time. The country lacked cultural institutions and had a limited scope of art theory compared to its global counterparts. Much Brazilian art at the time was in the classical, romantic style and was concerned with nationalistic interpretations of Brazilian pride and culture. So while Malfatti began her studies at Mackenzie College in Sao Paulo, the local arts scene was not enough to satiate her curiosity, and in 1912, she left for Berlin.

Anita Malfatti, Fernanda de Castro, 1924, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 54.5 cm, Private collection, © Anita Malfatti
Anita Malfatti, Fernanda de Castro, 1924, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 54.5 cm, Private collection, © Anita Malfatti

The Work of Anita Malfatti

In Berlin, Malfatti spent four years studying at the Royal Academy of the Arts under famous expressionist artists. There she began to hone her artistic style of expressionist portraiture and metal engraving. After, Malfatti returned temporarily home to host her first solo show in Brazil in 1917-1918. The show received negative reception and was seen as too modern, bizarre and self-indulgent. 

Despite the uproar at the time, that solo showcase was the first introduction of Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Futurism in Brazil. Recognition of Malfatti’s innovation was soon to come in Brazil. In 1922, Malfatti returned to Sao Paulo festival, The Week of Modern Art, in 1922, alongside other Brazilian Modernist artists (Tarsila do Amaral, Mario de Andrade, Menotti del Picchia, Oswald de Andrade), earning themselves the name  “The Group of Five.” The group’s presence that year made revolutionary strides in how Modern art was perceived and utilized in Brazil.

Malfatti continued to explore her artist expression, leaning towards the naive and folkloric later in her life, until she eventually died in 1984. By then, her influence on the artistic DNA of Brazil was undeniable, and her impact on Modernism remains profound today.

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