Part 1: Tarsila, Melancholic Cannibal

In this essay, curator Luis Pérez-Oramas considers the work of Tarsila do Amaral, the subject of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil on view February 11 through June 3, 2018 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Pérez-Oramas argues that the work, artistic personality, and very being of Tarsila are inextricably linked to the fate of Brazil’s modern project and to the image of modernity in the country.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt

Beyond Devouring, there is nothing. Being is pure and eternal Devouring.

—Oswald de Andrade, “Mensagem ao antropófago desconhecido” (Message to the Unknown Cannibal), 1946

Cannibalism would therefore be the mythical expression of a melancholy bereavement—a sort of putting to death—for an object under whose spell the self found itself and from which it cannot resolve to separate itself.

—Pierre Fédida, “Le Cannibale mélancolique”
 (The Melancholic Cannibal), 1972


It was in 1972 that Pierre Fédida published his essay “Le Cannibale mélancolique.”1Pierre Fédida, “Le Cannibale mélancolique,” Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse 6 (Autumn 1972), pp. 123–28. That same year, in São Paulo, Tarsila do Amaral was in the last days of her life, while another Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark, was undergoing a decisive psychoanalysis with Fédida in Paris, where the young Tarsila had devoured her entire experience of European modernity.2Lygia Clark called her psychoanalysis with Fédida “one of the most creative and mythological things I have ever experienced.” See Clark, letter to Hélio Oiticica, July 6, 1974,_ in Lygia Clark–Hélio Oiticica: Cartas, 1964–1974_, ed. Luciano Figueiredo, with a preface by Silviano Santiago (Editora UFRJ, 1996), p. 221. Years earlier, also in Paris, in different decades but each at an early moment in her creative career, both had been apprentices in the studio of the artist Fernand Léger, Tarsila in 1923, Clark in 1950. There, both had learned to be something other than just one more of their teacher’s many followers, just another “sub-Léger.”3Tarsila do Amaral wrote of Fernand Léger, “Two years later [in 1923], this much-discussed artist opened an academy in Paris on the rue Notre-Dame des Champs, and I was happy to be among his students. . . . All of us there were sub-Légers. We admired the master: of necessity we bowed to his influence. From that large group of workers, the true artists would one day find their own personalities while the others would keep copying.” Tarsila, “Fernand Léger,” Diário de São Paulo, April 2, 1936; translated in Aracy A. Amaral et al., Tarsila do Amaral, exh. cat. (Fundación Juan March, 2009), pp. 204–205.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt

Such coincidences might be no more than that but for the fact that the two women not only may have been the two greatest Brazilian artists of the twentieth century, but were among those who, with respect to the modern period in Brazilian art, initiated it (Tarsila) and brought it to a close (Clark).4See Paulo Herkenhoff, “General Introduction,” in Paulo Herkenhoff and Adriano Pedrosa, XXIV Bienalde São Paulo: Núcleo histórico; Antropofagia e histórias de canibalismos, exh. cat. (Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 1998), pp. 45–46. Equally significant, both artists were closely linked to the image, the imaginary, perhaps the myth, and certainly the representation—the very ability to be represented—of the Brazilian aesthetic project of Anthropophagy, whose foundational text is the 1928 “Manifesto antropófago” (Manifesto of Anthropophagy), illustrated by Tarsila and written by the poet Oswald de Andrade, the artist’s husband at the time. On January 11, 1928, in celebration of his birthday, Tarsila gave Oswald a painting that, to say the least, was disturbing and strange: a monumental elongated figure, in the canonical, cheek-on-hand posture of melancholy dating back at least to Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholy I (1514), of which this image can be seen as a modern Brazilian version—brutal, barren, asexual, naked, solar. Flaunting extremities now immense, now minute—an enormous foot, a tiny head—the figure sits beside a monumental cactus, potentially with sexual connotations, in the broad light of midday.5On this foot, and its links with the work of JoanMiró, see Michele Greet, “Devouring Surrealism: Tarsila’s Abaporu,” Papers of Surrealism 11 (Spring 2015),pp. 1–39. (The sun, at its zenith, marks the exact center of the composition.) To title the work, Oswald and his friend the poet Raul Bopp dove into the language of Brazil’s Tupi and Guarani peoples, using the Tupi-Guarani dictionary published by the Jesuit Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya in 1640, and set about inventing a word: aba, “person,” plus poru, “who eats”—Abaporu, “the one who eats.”6See Aracy A. Amaral, Tarsila: Sua obra e seu tempo, 3rd ed. (Editora 34/Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 2003), p. 279. The work would come to be seen as the incarnation of Brazilian anthropophagy. Paradoxically enough, many years later Clark would describe to her friend the artist Hélio Oiticica the making of a work that would come to be seen as incarnating both the conclusion, and maybe the consecration, of the anthropophagic project as myth and utopia of Brazilian Modernism, as Abaporu had been for its beginnings: 

“I’m sending you a photograph of a work I call Anthropophagic Drool. A person lies on the ground. Around him, kneeling youths place multicolored spools of thread in their mouths. With their hands, they begin taking from their mouths the threads that fall upon the supine person until the spools have been emptied. The regurgitated thread is moist with saliva, and, although people initially feel they are merely pulling on strands, they soon become aware that they are drawing out their own entrails. It is actually the phantasmatics of the body that interests me and not the body in itself.”7Lygia Clark, letter to Hélio Oiticica, July 6, 1974, in Lygia Clark–Hélio Oiticica: Cartas , p. 223.

In around the same period as this letter, Fédida, in “Le Cannibale mélancolique,” was suggesting that whether as phantasm, dream, or delusion, anthropophagy manifests a longing to devour an object of desire with which we identify, in a primitive identification infused by the anxious possibility of its own rupture. Among the various manifestations of South America’s aspiration to modernity—“utopic messianism,” “archaeological utopia,” “involuntary residuality,” and “deforming indifference” are terms I have used elsewhere to describe independent but visually related aesthetic projects across the continent—perhaps none is more fascinating than Brazil’s cannibalistic phantasmagoria, which becomes image in Tarsila’s work, then later becomes body in Clark’s.8I refer here to categories that I have used elsewhere to explicate South America’s various local forms of Modernism, grouping them by qualities they share while respecting their differences. In “utopic messianism,” modernity is seen as promise (in the Argentine artist Joaquín Torres-García’s view of the South as a North, for example); “archaeological utopia” refers to the recuperation of pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Uruguay; and “involuntary residuality” and “deforming indifference” refer to works that are modern yet were not intentionally created as modernizing projects—to modernities lacking in will to power and therefore indifferent, residual, or distortive in relation to their metropolitan parallels. See my essays “Armando Reverón: La gruta de los objetos y la escena satírica,” in Armando Reverón: El lugar de los objetos, exh. cat. (Galería de Arte Nacional, Caracas, 2001), pp. 14–17; “Armando Reverón and Modern Art in Latin America,” in Armando Reverón, exh. cat. (Museum of Modern Art, 2007), p. 90; “Reverón, el torpedo y la arcadia marina,” unpublished lecture, New York University, 2008;“Is There a Modernity of the South?,” in Omnibus/ Documenta X (October 1997), pp. 14–15; “Gego, Residual Reticuláreas, and Involuntary Modernism: Shadow, Traces and Site,” in Questioning the Line: Gego in Context, exh. cat. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2003), pp. 83–115; and “Traumatic Modernity: Policies of the Unfathomable,” lecture, Fundació Tàpies, Barcelona, October 19, 2013, The philosopher Benedito Nunes saw Oswald’s “Manifesto antropófago” (Manifesto of Anthropophagy) as simultaneously metaphor, diagnosis, and therapy: the text set out to assert Brazil’s intellectual autonomy, to diagnose its colonial trauma, and to transcend the collective super-ego that had impeded the accomplishment of modernity in the region since the early stages of the repression that colonialism had imposed.9See Benedito Nunes, “Antropofagia ao alcance de todos,” in Obras completas de Oswald de Andrade, vol. 6, A utopia antropofágica (Globo y Secretariade Estado da Cultura, 1990), pp. 5–39. For an English-language summary of this long and important essay, see Nunes, “Anthropophagic Utopia, Barbarian Meta- physics,” in Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea, Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, exh. cat. (Yale University Press/Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2004), p. 57. The starting point of Oswald’s essay, as Nunes understood, was a simplified, somewhat erroneous description of the rituals of anthropophagy, which need not entail literal cannibalism and does not appear as a generalized practice in the tribal cultures that Claude Lévi-Strauss called “cold” societies.
10Claude Lévi-Strauss coined this classic distinction in modern ethnology and structural anthropology between societies at a low anthropic historical “temperature” (those grounded in myth) and societies at a high anthropic historical temperature (those grounded in history).See Georges Charbonnier, Entretiens avec Claude Lévi- Strauss (Les Belles Lettres, 2010), p. 38. From here Oswald made the argument that Brazil could and should cannibalize other cultures, following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, by digesting, “without a trace of resentment or spurious guilty conscience, the inner conflicts and resistances of the exterior world.”11Nunes, “Antropofagia ao alcance de todos,” p. 28.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt

This project, this utopia, would not find a responsive reception until long after Oswald first articulated it. Nearly half a century would pass before the idea would find real social resonance and have a real effect on Brazilian culture. That delay is a concern of the present essay, along with that of Tarsila herself, the “country girl from São Bernardo” who, “dressed by Poiret,”12On April 19, 1923, Tarsila wrote to her parentsfrom Paris: “I want to be the painter of my country. I am so thankful to have spent my whole childhood on the fazenda. . . . I want to be the country girl from São Bernardo.” Quoted in Amaral, Tarsila: Sua obra e seu tempo, p. 101. The celebrated first line of Oswald’s poem “Atelier” (1925; pl. 94), meanwhile, dedicated to Tarsila without naming her directly, reads “Caipirinha enfeitada por Poiret.” teamed up with Oswald in Paris and São Paulo during the long, heroic years in which his invention won no direct audience or response.13“Of all the modernist contributions, [anthropophagy was] the one to meet with the greatest resistance,in fact total rejection, having been repressed from the 1920s until the end of the ’60s.” Caetano Veloso, Verdade tropical(Companhia das letras, 2012), p. 246; translated in Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, ed. Barbara Einzig, trans. Isabel de Sena (Knopf, 2002), p. 158.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt
Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt
Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt

Remarkably, the first systematic monograph on Tarsila’s work appeared only in 1975, contemporaneously, that is, with Clark’s Anthropophagic Drool and Oiticica’s Parangolés.14The monograph is Amaral’s Tarsila: Sua obra e seu tempo, the first edition of which dates to 1975. It had had to wait, in other words, until after the late 1960s, when the generation of artists and intellectuals linked to the Tropicália movement had retrospectively embraced Oswald’s cannibalist message.15See Veloso, Verdade tropical, pp. 236–56; translated in Veloso, Tropical Truth, pp. 153–69. In the 1970s, the first rigorous theoretical interpretation of Brazilian Modernism, written by the artist Carlos Zilio, cast Anthropophagy as its birthplace, though the newborn had yet to grow up—the Modernism that Oswald had conceived as a utopia had yet to be realized.16See Carlos Zilio, A querela do Brasil: A questão da identidade da arte brasileira; O obra de Tarsila, Di Cavalcanti e Portinari, 1922–1945 (Relume- Dumará, 1997). First published as an article in the journal Malasartes in 1976, Zilio’s text was developed into a book during his exile in Paris in the late 1970s. Earlier on, Oswald himself had abandoned Anthropophagy for Marxism; only toward the end of the 1940s had he returned to his ideas of the 1920s, but again without wide effect.17Oswald’s return to Anthropophagy is manifest in the essays “Mensagem ao antropófago desconhecido (Da França Antártica),” Revista Acadêmica 67 (Nov. 1946); and “Um aspecto antropofágico da cultura brasileira—O homem cordial,” 1950, printed in Oswald de Andrade, Estética e política, ed. Maria Eugênia Boaventura (Globo, 1991), p. 447; and Obras Completas, p. 157. The task of embodying the terms of Brazil’s anthropophagic utopia had fallen, after a long wait, to later generations—to artists such as Zé Celso, Gal Costa, Hélio Eichbauer, Gilberto Gil, and Caetano Veloso.18“Oswald de Andrade, as a great Constructivist writer, was also a prophet of the new left and of pop art,” writes Veloso. “He was endlessly interesting to the artists who were in their youth during the 60s. This ‘indigestible cannibal,’ rejected by Brazilian culture for decades, who had created a Brazilian utopia that consisted of overcoming patriarchal messianism in favor of a primal and modern matriarchy, became for us the great father.” Veloso, Verdade tropical, p. 251. This passage, included here in my translation, is absent from the English edition of Veloso’s book. Just as significant, Oiticica, Clark, and Zilio had seen in Oswald’s project the sign of a difference, the trace of a possibility that might materialize as a Brazilian modernity, though one emerging in unexpected places and forms—the “line” of color, moistened with saliva, in Clark’s Anthropophagic Drool, for example. Thus Oiticica could write to Clark in that galvanizing year of 1968: 

“Brazil is a form of synthesis of peoples, races, habits, where the European speaks but does not speak so loudly; except in the universalist, academic fields, which are not those of “cultural creation” but those of closure. Creation, even in Tarsila and especially in Oswald de Andrade, possesses a subjective charge that differs extremely from the rationalism of the European, this is our “thing,” that Guy Brett was able to understand so well and that the Europeans will have to swallow, in fact with appetite since they are fed up with everything and it looks as if that saturated civilization is drying their imagination.”19See Hélio Oiticica, letter to Lygia Clark, November 8, 1968, in Lygia Clark–Hélio Oiticica: Cartas, p. 73.

Oiticica’s surprising metaphor inverts Oswald’s cannibalist principle: instead of Brazil cannibalizing Europe, ancient (and new) colonists—Europeans—should devour what has metabolized in Brazil. They should eat up this unique and different culture, for “before the Portuguese discovered Brazil, Brazil had discovered happiness.”20Oswald, “Manifesto antropófago,” Revista de Antropofagia 1, 1 (May 1928), pp. 7, translated by Hélio Oiticica in Carlos Basualdo, Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture (Cosac Naify, 2005), pp. 207, and in this publication, p. 177. And before Oswald’s invented anthropophagic rite kicked off the adventure of Brazilian modernity—even before that adventure came to have a name, as Sônia Salzstein has shown—Tarsila had already produced its image.21“Her painting,in the end,discerned anthropophagy— even before it was named.” Sônia Salzstein, “A audácia de Tarsila,” in Herkenhoff and Pedrosa, XXIV Bienal de São Paulo, p. 365.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt


The modernity foreshadowed in the swallowing of everything by everyone (“The one and only world principle. . . . I am only concerned in that [which] is not mine. Man’s law. The law of anthropophagous,” as Oswald wrote) in actuality did not happen.22Oswald de Andrade, “Manifesto antropófago,” p. 47. It did not happen during the event that the simpler art histories tend to identify as the originary scene—the primal scene, the Urszene in Freudian terms—of the modern in Brazil: the Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week), a festival organized, and quite well attended, by the coffee-producing elite of São Paulo in 1922. It did not happen during that week’s pomp and circumstance at the city’s Teatro Municipal, nor did it happen earlier: in 1917, for example, when another of Brazil’s great modern artists, Anita Malfatti, having returned to São Paulo after working in Berlin with Lovis Corinth and in Maine with Homer Boss, exhibited the work she’d been making—to no significant critical reception. Nor did it happen in 1912, when Lasar Segall, an avant-garde artist from Lithuania, brought to Brazil from Germany the results of his intense journey through expressionist painting. Modernity did not depend on what was brought into Brazil and what wasn’t; it wasn’t just a matter of cultured men and elegant women being able to feel that they were ahead of local time.23As Gonzaga Duque had mournfully observed in a review of the Exposição Nacional of 1908, in Rio de Janeiro: “But, sirs, a people’s art is not the result of the will of one group, nor of the attempts of one school.” Quoted in Zilio, A querela do Brasil, p. 47. Nor was it yet the time for Modernisms elsewhere, such as the one that would blossom in North America after World War II.24Following the arguments of Fredric Jameson, I distinguish here between modernity, understood as a system of collective advances in which the arts were just one element (“the classic moderns,” in Jameson’s words), and Modernism (“the full blown ideology of modernism”). Modernity unfolds as an artistic style, one that does not identify “models” to follow, whereas Modernism, as the artistic ideology of modernity, unfolds as a second moment, always referring to earlier predecessors in the history of modern art. See Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (Verso, 2002), pp. 197–200. Neither term is to be confused with the current use in Brazil of the term Modernismo to classify the work of modern artists linked to the Semana de Arte Moderna of 1922. Modernity had no place in Brazil’s Semana de Arte Moderna, although an important public showing by many of the country’s modern artists did take place there.

The argument that the Semana de Arte Moderna failed to accomplish its goals is far from new. Modernity—which in any case, we know, is structurally always an unfinished project, insofar as it feeds on utopia—requires a series of conditions of possibility that were absent in the Brazil of 1922, or rather were only marginally present in meaningful combination. Because modernity must consist of something other than an elitist skirmish, it did not happen in Brazil in 1922, or in Russia in 1915 ,25On the parallel between the modern scenes in Russia and Brazil, see Zilio, A querela do Brasil, p. 75. or during the rest of that intense decade of the 1920s, in which Tarsila produced her greatest iconographic arsenal: “The historic solitude of Tarsila’s work,” Salzstein writes, “the fact that the peculiar modern visuality that she mounted from an astute dialectic of tradition and experimentation did not become generalized for Brazilian art, is due perhaps to the work’s profound engagement with the utopian project of modernity, which in the end was not realized for the country, at least, in its utopic dimension.”26Salzstein, “A audácia de Tarsila,” p. 370.

The present essay does not set out to resolve the question of what modernity was or was not in Brazil, but it does examine an artist—Tarsila—whose work, artistic personality, and very being are inextricably linked to the fate of Brazil’s modern project and to the image of modernity there. For the moment, we must distinguish image from text—the images of Brazilian modernity from its expressions in texts and manifestos.27The fact that Brazilian modernity was not initially a matter of literature has been extensively discussed, beginning with Mário Pedrosa’s crystal-clear analysis of the Semana de Arte Moderna: “The starting point is not literary. The holy fire did not come from readings, but from a direct experience between the naïve young barbarian Brazilian and the magical powers of expression and aggression of hitherto ignored pictorial forms.” Pedrosa, “Modern Art Week,” in Mário Pedrosa: Primary Documents, ed. Glória Ferreira and Paulo Herkenhoff (Museum of Modern Art, 2015), p. 178. There are many reasons for this, but we can begin with one: the fundamental program of that modernity, Oswald’s “Manifesto antropófago”—a text that is less a series of arguments than a series of verbal images—has as its frontispiece and emblem a drawing by Tarsila.28For or an exhaustive analysis—a genetic microreading —of the authorized discourses of Anthropophagy (Oswald’s “Manifesto antropófago” and “Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil”)—see Beatriz Azevedo, Antropofagia: Palimpsesto selvagem (Cosac Naify, 2016). We must begin, then, by establishing one condition: we must attempt to see that image—and Tarsila’s work of the 1920s more generally—independently of that text, independently of that word and everything its verbal images impose upon us, because Tarsila literally precedes them all. 

In a beautiful reflection on the art of antiquity, Pascal Quignard weaves his arguments around two assumptions: behind every image is another image, fading into absence; and behind every word is someone lost, someone missing. Behind any image rests a secular sediment of images, forgotten or lost, unknown or undifferentiated, that can somehow return to life in any given image; behind any word rests the absent that the word names.29See Pascal Quignard, Sur l’image qui manque à nos jours (Arléa, 2014). What absent image hides behind the organic ampleness of Tarsila’s anthropophagic repertoire? What is the absent image behind Abaporu (1928) or Anthropophagy (1929), or, before them, behind A Negra (1923), that absolute mother?30It is telling, and significant, that a work that is a foundational modern painting for Brazil should depict a black woman. This fact reflects both the racial issues embedded in all societies in the Americas and a singular difference between racial issues in Brazil and in North America. It is commonly understood that Brazilian culture structurally institutes the primacy of the mother figure, to the point where it has been called a “matricentric society.” It is additionally significant, then—even revelatory—that Tarsila should represent the central maternal figure in Brazil through the figure of a black woman. Behind these devouring figures, what is the scene of devouring that we do not see? And if behind every word is someone lost, who is the one hidden in the lines of the “Manifesto antropófago” written by Oswald—who by then had been named “Tarsiwald” in a poem by Mário de Andrade, making Oswald and Tarsila inseparable doubles in that cannibalistic plot?31Mário de Andrade, “Tarsiwaldo,” 1925. The manuscript is reproduced in Amaral, Tarsila: Sua obra e seu tempo, p. 213.

Before addressing these questions, I would like to stress one fact: if the Semana de Arte Moderna was the Urszene of Brazilian modernity, as its program claimed and as some narratives still claim, it is nevertheless the case that Tarsila was not there. In February 1922 she was in Paris and would not return to São Paulo until this foundational event was over. I’d like to begin, then, with this particular delay, before getting to any others: Tarsila was not there. Tarsila came later.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt

Tarsila, like modernity, came later: for our current purposes her embodiment of modern art crystallized between A Negra and Anthropophagy, which, with Abaporu, constitute an emblematic series of transformations and can be interpreted as such.“32In the same way that Oswald’s two manifestos… must be analyzed together and diachronically, Tarsila’s three most important paintings—A Negra(1923), Abaporu (1928), and Antropofagia (1929)—are best approached as a triptych or unified group.” Jorge Schwartz, “Tarsila and Oswald in the Wise Laziness of the Sun,” in Amaral et al., Tarsila do Amaral, p. 101. The link between these three paintings is obvious and a commonplace in interpretations of Tarsila’s work,an issue addressed by Stephanie D’Alessandro at the end of her essay “A NegraAbaporu, and Tarsila’s Anthropophagy” in this publication, pp. 38–55. On the idea of the series of transformations, see Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, trans. John Goodman (MIT Press, 1994), pp. 284–85: “And with regard to structure, as [Jacques] Lacan liked to point out (and Lévi-Strauss said the same thing), one must learn to count higher than two, and at least to three: for works of art, like myths, like man itself, can ‘converse’ among themselves only insofar as they conform to the regimen conditioning all discourse, that of a polar opposition and regulated exchange of positions of enunciation, in which reference to a third party is obligatory (I, You, He).” See also Lévi-Strauss, La Voie des masques (Plon, 1979), p. 144. What is there of each of these paintings in the other two? How do they mutually transform one another? We might perhaps think of them as three distinct sites of articulation: I—mother, black woman, slave (A Negra ); you—uncertain of gender, devourer of humans (Abaporu ); he and she—a strange, deformed, monstrous, copulating couple who condense the previous two characters into a third person yet to come (Anthropophagy). Following Hubert Damisch—who, analyzing the practice of perspective in Western art, replaced the word mask with the word painting in a text by Lévi-Strauss—we might perhaps then suppose “that one painting responds to another by assuming its individuality” and that what matters “is not primarily what it represents but what it transforms, that is to say what it chooses not to represent.”33Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, p. 286

We might perhaps interpret this transformation literally: as an engendering, an act of conception or impregnation. And the issue of engendering (in this case also the engendering of the modern in Brazil) naturally implies, we know, the complex issue of a primal scene—a scene, an image, that is always missing, always absent—as well as maternity, infancy, childhood, emergence, blossoming. In the light of these paintings, such issues indicate a problem at once cultural and organic, relating not only to ideas but to bodies, to coitions, swallowings, and digestions, all as much physical
as symbolic. 

Such is the metaphor, or the parable, that leads me down a strange trajectory: the idea that A Negra was devoured by Abaporu, and that from that swallowing, that (symbolic) digestion, arose Anthropophagy. Just as the anthropophagic project could not come to fruition at the time of its first articulation, but only later—delayed, appropriated, devoured, gulped down for other uses and other fates (just as Oswald’s manifesto was itself a delayed effect, an après-coup, of Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Des Cannibales,” published in 1580), Tarsila’s work, too, came to fruition later, becoming central in that history only when its trauma, orthe effect of its trauma, had been made digestible.34I refer here generally to the psychoanalytical theory of Nachträglichkeit—“afterwardness”—developedby the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche out of a series of letters between Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Fliess, and taking as his point of departure Lacan’s use of the term après-coup, meaning the realization of an event after a period of time needed for “under- standing.” This theory has been widely applied to art history and anthropological arguments in recent years, from Damisch to Daniel Arasse, Carlo Ginzburg, Salva- tore Settis, and others. The classic understanding of Nachträglichkeit involves the repression of a traumatic memory that then becomes the object of a belated return, caused by a different experience at a different time. As applied in this argument, and following authors such as Herkenhoff, Salzstein, and Zilio, the definitive significance of Tarsila’s work for modern Brazilian society was only realized when its potential for friction—its traumatic dimension—eventually became “digestible” for the Brazilian social body.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt
Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt

An acerbic critic of the Semana de Arte Moderna, Monteiro Lobato, sarcastically commented that in the salons of the elitist and Eurocentric café society of São Paulo, and in the rich halls of the Villa Kyrial, mansion of the illustrious senator José de Freitas Valle, they ate “foie gras de Nantes.”35See Marcos Augusto Gonçalves, 1922: A semana que não terminou (Companhia das Letras, 2012),p. 79. This nemesis of Brazilian Modernism was certainly aware that not only did foie gras come from Nantes, but much of what was imported from France passed through that port, from the essays of Montaigne to—notoriously, and not that far back in time—African slaves. The anecdotal reference to Nantes in relation to a senator who had earlier, with arrogant cruelty, attacked Malfatti’s work—proof of the elites’ myopia, an obstruction to the early development of Modernism—makes me think of the Africans who were sold in markets in the French West Indies and then in Brazil, the last American nation to abolish slavery. The fascinating woman in A Negra, whom some may find disturbing but who rivets our eyes—and who can be linked to a photograph that Tarsila kept from the early 1920s on, showing a black woman sitting outdoors, a woman Tarsila spoke of when remembering her childhood in 1972—would certainly in 1923 have summoned a memory of slavery, which had ended less than forty years before.36For a thorough analysis of A Negra, see D’Alessan- dro, “A Negra, Abaporu, and Tarsila’s Anthropophagy.” The essay discusses issues of dating related to this photograph and includes a quotation in which Tarsila remembers a woman, formerly enslaved, whom she had known as a child on her family’s rural estate; see p. 49.

The figure in A Negra is iconographically a matriarch at the same time that she is historically a slave: simultaneously a primal subject—a figure embodying a collective engenderment, the troubled infancy of a nation—and a subject for emancipation. Nunes writes of Oswald’s anthropophagic texts, 

“The maternalistic nature of Pau-Brasil’s poetic vision is reflected in matriarchy as a schema of primitive life, having served as a core for the crystallization of technological barbarism in the form of an ideal society. And because the break with matriarchal society took place when man had ceased eating his fellow man in order to enslave him, the lack of catharsis providedby ritual cannibalism allows us to see the cause that fixed the power of the father as Superego onto the trauma of guilt feelings and, therefore, as an exterior reality principle, coercing and inhibiting the interior pleasure principle.”37Nunes, “Antropofagia ao alcance de todos,”pp. 44–45.

Matriarch and slave, A Negra is the beginning of everything in Tarsila’s art. Anthropophagy does not operate among these works—they do not devour each other—but it does not precede the tension that links them either: her painting Abaporu is the cannibal, and her painting Anthropophagy is what results from the digestion of A NegraAnthropophagy digests—condenses, metabolizes—both the matriarch and the slave. 

These three paintings cut through the marrow of Tarsila’s art of the 1920s. If we can sustain this hypothesis, this reading of the trio as a cannibal parable in which Abaporu might have digested A Negra to produce Anthropophagy, then what Anthropophagy traces is simultaneously a neutral zone and a sphere—an interval—of deferment. The neutrality is that between two (perhaps imaginary) poles of tension: on the one hand, filiation, the maternal phantasm, perhaps also Mother Europe, and on the other, submission to (and emancipation of) a messianic phantasm. In other words, the myth or ideology of Anthropophagy is that it establishes a neutrality between the blame-inducing constitutive tensions of Brazilian (and, I would add, Latin American) culture, between dependence and submission on the one hand and emancipation and messianic promise on the other. The deferment comes because it could only achieve its effects—still incomplete—quite a bit later, when it would become possible to locate in an entire social body—not just an illuminated elite—the field of a true public space, a popular culture whose forms and sites Tarsila was able to prefigure ahead of (her) time. 

Yet Anthropophagy, this belatedly realized operating myth of the Brazilian modern project, is at root a European construct, and as such is not cannibalistic at all. Its constructors were white Europeans, from Montaigne to Georges Bataille, without forgetting Francis Picabia.38Francis Picabia, “Manifeste Cannibale Dada,” Dada 7 (March 1920); and Cannibale 1 and 2 (Au Sans Pareil, 1920). “We can already make out,” writes Nunes,“in the ideas that Oswald de Andrade stole from Montaigne, Freud, Nietzsche, and Keyserling . . . the general philosophical outline of Anthropophagy that passed unharmed onto the author’s doctrinaire works.”39Nunes, “Antropofagia ao alcance de todos,” p. 29.

The cannibal, simply, feeds on another human being in a totally normal way. The idea that this behavior is extraordinary is a European invention, a construct of the cannibal’s victims. The cannibal, however, is a weak metaphor for symbolic assimilation because it is too general: should we conclude that every attempt to assimilate modernity in Latin America was a sort of symbolic cannibalism? “The world’s one law,” Oswald called anthropophagy in the manifesto, only to limit it to a term for the absorption of some cultures by others, a word describing the banal truth that cultures—all cultures—have always constituted themselves by symbolically metabolizing elements from outside them. The challenge lies in finding the codes specific to Brazilian anthropophagy, beyond the obvious and necessary kinds of assimilation inherent in cultural migration since time began. And perhaps it is precisely in an image that preceded Anthropophagy, shaping it even before it had a name—that is, in the work of Tarsila, that artist absent from the self-styled birth of Modernism in Brazil—that we can glimpse a path away from such generalizations. Setting aside the verbal texts of Anthropophagy, we must interrogate its image, and above all, as Quignard would say, the image that is absent in its images.

Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt
Installation view of the exhibition Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil. February 11, 2018 – June 03, 2018. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Robert Gerhardt

What makes Tarsila’s work modern? How did it come to be modern, through what skirmishes, appropriations, and delays? And if, like Oswald’s writing, it had to wait for decades before
a collective response to it became possible, we have to wonder: what of Tarsila is there in Oiticica, in Clark, in Lygia Pape? What of her is there in Eichbauer, set designer for Celso’s production of O rei da vela (The Candle King ), the play Oswald wrote in 1933 but whose debut came only in 1967, when the entire Tropicália generation discovered Anthropophagy, four decades after the writing of its manifesto? What of Tarsila is there in Gil, Veloso, Artur Barrio, Waltercio Caldas, Tunga, and Anna Maria Maiolino? 

Such questions arise easily, given that Tarsila’s connection to Anthropophagy seems not only authorized by her work but affected by it. Abaporu was printed as the frontispiece in Oswald’s manifesto, although it predated it, and the cactus from Abaporu, or from Distance (1928) appeared in the backdrop for Celso’s production of O rei da vela. Veloso, who attended that production, saw it as the foundational event in the Tropicália movement’s embrace of Anthropophagy: “The idea of cultural cannibalism fit tropicalistas like a glove. We were ‘eating’ the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Our arguments against the nationalists’ defensive attitude found in this stance its most succinct and exhaustive enunciation.”40Veloso, Verdade tropical, pp. 240–42; translatedin Veloso, Tropical Truth, p. 156.

Less obvious, but more important, is an understanding of the heterogenous temporality of modernity, especially the Brazilian modernity that adopted the motto and visual imaginary of Anthropophagy. To understand this we must understand Tarsila’s “delays.” 

In his brilliant analysis of what Freud called Nachträglichkeit—the deferred action, the après-coup—Jean Laplanche emphasizes the alogical, anachronic order of its manifestation: the operative scene always happens later, and the originary, primal scene (which actually comes to light second, although it falls earlier in time) is always and forever lost. We were not in it; its trauma is such that we have no memory of having suffered it, until it emerges later, through and as an effect of a second event.41See Jean Laplanche, Problématiques VI: L’Après-coup (Presses Universitaires de France, 2006), p. 53. In effect, it never happened. And if by some chance it did happen—as the Semana de Arte Moderna happened in 1922 or as the painting of Abaporu preceded the writing of the “Manifesto antropófago”—it is as if it had not happened, until another scene awakens the meaning of its traumatic effect. 

It is well known that any après-coup, any Nachträglichkeit, is built on a backward-looking fantasy: to have seen that lost Urszene, to have observed parental coitus. The Tropicália movement, and Brazil’s Concrete poetry and Neo-Concrete art of the late 1960s, were the standpoints for just such a backward view, toward Oswald’s and Tarsila’s Anthropophagy of the 1920s. That retrospective gaze would bring out the repressed meaning of a message that had been waiting to emerge since Tarsila conceived her melancholic monster, her melancholic cannibal. 

This is the first section of the essay “Tarsila, Melancholic Cannibal” by Luis Pérez-Oramas in the exhibition catalog Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, available in the MoMA Bookstore. Read second and final section here.

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