Part 2: Tarsila, Melancholic Cannibal

This is the second and final section of the essay “Tarsila, Melancholic Cannibal.” 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. Read the first section here.

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


Among the voices involved in revealing, materializing that delay, the voices that formulated the effects of Tarsila’s work, was that of the poet Haroldo de Campos. 1In a famous essay of 1969, this Concrete poet defined Tarsila’s painting as structural.Haroldo de Campos, “Tarsila: uma pintura estrutural,” in Tarsila: 50 anos de pintura, exh. cat. (Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1969),pp. 35–37. To tie the work to one of the motivating impulses of literary formalism was a brilliant strategy: for de Campos, Tarsila revealed pictoriality in Brazilian painting, that is, the pictorial equivalent of what literaturnost, or “literariness,” was for literature, according to the Russian Formalists of the early twentieth century. De Campos’s argument that Tarsila read Brazil’s environmental and human landscape “along Cubist lines,” however, fails to take hold. Tarsila was not a Cubist—at least the Tarsila who interests us here, the artist working in the wake of brief studies with Léger, André Lhote, and Albert Gleizes in the early 1920s, was not a Cubist. Her work shows not the least sign of Cubism. It may be that during her apprenticeship in those Paris ateliers she absorbed the lesson that painting should account for relations, not things—an ancient lesson that in no way originates with Cubism—but as Paulo Herkenhoff clearly states, 

Tarsila’s work is far from being Cubist. . . . Her so-called “postcubism” merely reflects, by contrast, a period of development in Léger’s work. All of Tarsila’s work was devoid of the complex Cubist logic, which she never fully understood. This does not detract from Tarsila, nor from her founding role in the Brazilian “constructive project.”2Herkenhoff, “Color in Brazilian Modernism— Navigating with Many Compasses,” in Herkenhoff and Pedrosa, XXIV Bienal de São Paulo, p. 350.

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

Contrasts of shape, and relationships whether synthetic or analytic, do not come into play in Tarsila’s art of the Pau-Brasil period (1923–25), and as Herkenhoff writes, she never reduced “space into its planar dimension or to the notion of surface.”3Ibid. What is interesting to observe instead is how she constructed her work out of a limited repertoire of iconographic elements that repeat and permute: tall palm trees, foliage à la Léger, semicircular hills, accumulations of spheres, conjoined ovals, horizontal colored rectangles, crisscrossing diagonal lines, forests of cones. In fact the work operates so heavily through variations of related forms—“[a] return albeit from something that differs from itself in [the process of] returning,” to the point that it prefigures “an ornamental geometry.”4Jean-Claude Bonne, “L’Ornement—la différence dans la répétition,” in La Variation (Association des Conférences, I.A.V., 1998), p. 81. Hence the diagrammatic quality that is a prominent feature of Tarsila’s drawings, which are stripped of extraneous detail, like haikus of the Brazilian landscape. De Campos describes “Tarsila’s iconic world: synthetic, rigorously demarcated, and lucid places and figures that occasionally—and without contradiction—aspire to a stage of monumental abbreviation, of lush proliferation.”5De Campos, “Tarsila: uma pintura estrutural,” p. 36. In these “monumental abbreviations” of the Brazilian landscape, animals and topographic features present there since time immemorial take on new life and new color through Tarsila’s eyes: certain oval gray stones in the bluffs; the riverine capybaras that Frans Post described in the first Brazilian landscape painting in history, made in 1639.

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

None of this has anything to do with Cubism. I would dare say, in fact, that none of it has anything directly to do with any of the canonical avant-garde languages (despite the link some have proposed with Surrealism).6On Tarsila and Surrealism, see Flávio de Carvalho, “Uma análise da exposição de Tarsila,” Diário da Noite, Sept. 16, 1929; Maria José Justino, O Banquete canibal: A modernidade em Tarsila do Amaral (1886– 1973), Série Pesquisa 62 (Editora UFPR, 2002), p. 160; Greet, “Devouring Surrealism”; and Aracy A. Amaral, “O Surreal em Tarsila,” Mirante das artes 3 (May– June 1967), pp. 23–25. Following the traces of the work’s ornamental geometry, and the function of repetition and variation in the paintings of the late 1920s, I instead suggest that her iconography responds, in part, to a certain vocabulary—also ornamental—present in Art Deco.7Aracy A. Amaral, “O modernismo à luz do ‘art déco,’” in Arte e meio artístico: Entre a feijoada e o x-burguer (Editora Nobel, 1983), p. 59. For a discussion of four Latin American women artists in Paris during these years, including Tarsila and Anita Malfatti, see Greet, “‘Exhilarating Exile’: Four Latin American Women Exhibit in Paris,” Artelogie 5 (October 2013),

As Aracy Amaral has described, when Tarsila had her first solo show in Paris, at the Galerie Percier in 1926, she commissioned the paintings’ frames from the famous Art Deco designer Pierre Legrain. Amaral establishes the bases—or throws out the clues—for a future investigation of the relationship between Tarsila’s work and Art Deco, and her position is decidedly critical: “Commissioning Legrain to construct frames that emphasized the exotic-magical nature of her works—in lizard skin, in corrugated cardboard, in polished wood, with mirrors cut at angles, etc.—always seems to us to have been a sign of insecurity in light of the public before whom she was presenting. In addition, these frames became works themselves, parallel with her paintings, no doubt interfering with them and causing some French critics to consider them tableaux-objets.”8See Aracy A. Amaral, “Tarsila Revisited,” in Arte e meio artístico, p. 63. Legrain’s frames, however, don’t seem to have undermined the paintings at the time. The critic Paul Fierens, while mentioning “Pierre Legrain’s strange frames” in the Journal des débats, described the balance between the paintings’ freshness, freedom from artifice, and an “adequate dose of organizational intelligence.”9Paul Fierens, “Les Petites expositions,” Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, June 20, 1926,p. 3. Gaston de Pawlowski, in Le Journal, saw in the “Cubist frames” a desire to surprise—”There is something with which to shock the establishment”—but praised the “originality, the firm will of [Tarsila’s] compositions.”10Gaston de Pawlowski, “Tarsila,” Le Journal,June 22, 1926, p. 3. More interesting still, given the author’s conceptual reach, is Maurice Raynal’s remark in L’Intransigeant: “For Tarsila’s work, Pierre Legrain made special, very specifically designed frames, the formal and material combinations of which accompany the canvases no longer in a conventional way, but in order to isolate the picture less crudely and to enhance its qualities by harmonizing it with the objects that surround them.”11Maurice Raynal, “Les Arts,” L’Intransigeant,June 13, 1926, p. 2.

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

Legrain’s assignment was elaborate: he designed a different frame for each work. Only one of these frames now survives, that for A Cuca (1924), but even so, it is surprising that this gesture of Tarsila’s has not been examined with greater care. A frame is no small thing—a parergon, an exhibition device, a Beiwerk—the “bit of cornice,”12Nicolas Poussin called it in 1639, that differentiates between the work and the world.See Nicolas Poussin, letter to Paul Fréart de Chantelou, April 28, 1639, in Nicolas Poussin: Lettres et propos sur l’art, ed. Anthony Blunt (Hermann,1989), p. 45. The decision to hire Legrain could not have been made without the artist’s consent, and she repeated it two years later, for her second show in Paris.13The issue of the frame as a formal supplement— whether through its transformation or its absence—has been a determining factor in the history of the Brazilian (and Argentinian) constructive project. See AlecaLe Blanc, “The Material of Form: How Concrete Artists responded to the Second Industrial Revolution in Latin America,” in Making Art Concrete: Works from Argentina and Brazil in the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, exh. cat. (Getty Publications, 2017). In fact, the catalogues for both exhibitions explicitly mention Legrain’s frames. Their disappearance—not just their physical disappearance, their removal over time from all of the works except one, but their neglect when the work is discussed—may be attributable to a repression typical of Modernism, with its taboo against the ornamental or anecdotal in art. This taboo is an accomplice to the ideology of the absolute artwork, a fiction that art historians from Ernst Gombrich to Hans Belting have wisely dismantled.14See Ernst Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Arts (Cornell University Press, 1979); and Hans Belting, The Invisible Masterpiece (Reaktion, 2001). That fiction contradicts the understanding of meaning in art as the product of an expressive or linguistic system. Indeed, Legrain’s frames, and Tarsila’s tactical recourse to these ornamental accessories, should be interpreted as a symptom of something deeper. Such accessories, Spyros Papapetros writes, are “less, but also something more than a normative object. Biewerk is literally a side-work, or parergon in Greek (yet not a paralipomenon, or leftover). Such an intermediary object transcends distinctions between the accessory and the necessary, the organic body and the inorganic thing imposed in early philosophical discourses.”15Spyros Papapetros, On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture and the Extension of Life (University of Chicago Press, 2012), p.64

There is quite a bit we might say about the parergon, but first we must emphasize that logocentric approaches generally tend to disregard both ornament and supplement: “Philosophical discourse,” Jacques Derrida writes, “will always have been against the parergon.” We must also observe that the parergon—like any frame, including Legrain’s for Tarsila—is structurally called upon to position itself precisely against the material it contains
or highlights: 

A parergon comes against, beside, and in addition to the ergon, the work done [fait], the fact [le fait], the work, but it does not fall to one side, it touches and cooperates within the operation, from a certain outside. Neither simply outside nor simply inside. Like an accessory that one is obliged to welcome on the border, on board [au bord, à bord]. It is first of all the on (the) bo(a)rd(er) [Il est d’abord l’à-bord].16Jacques Derrida, “Parergon,” in La Vérité en peinture (Flammarion, 1986), p. 63; for an English translation, see The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 54.

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 frames Tarsila commissioned for her first Paris show, and then again for her second, cannot be considered simply ancillary nor their function purely technical. The charge of making these frames, of transforming these paintings into objects, was not a banal or anodyne gesture that can be disposed of as reflecting “a certain insecurity.”17Such is the hypothesis, evidently speculative, proposed by Amaral in Tarsila: Sua obra e seu tempo, p. 231, and in “Tarsila Revisited,” p. 63. But the artist’s acceptance of Blaise Cendrars’s catalogue essay and Pierre Legrain’s frames is the equivalent of an authorial decision. Tarsila’s sensibility, after all, had been formed in the context of a symbolic universe marked by extraordinary supplements to the art object: the ornamental profusion of the Brazilian Baroque, the marvelous gilt reliefs that Aleijadinho made in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, not to mention the exuberant decoration omnipresent in the country’s countless popular celebrations, beginning with Carnival, a collective delirium on the part of the Brazilian people. Tarsila would have to have sustained some sort of determining interaction with Legrain. The fact that we know of no documentary traces of this dialogue does not invalidate the hypothesis: the commissioning of frames from Legrain was—is—an authorial decision, a stamp.18What does exist is the check, in Tarsila’s hand, with the relevant sum paid to Legrain; repr. in Amaral, Tarsila: Sua obra e seu tempo, p. 294. That these accessories must be considered operators of historical inscription becomes even clearer when we remember that the gesture was repeated in 1928. In Paris, then, Tarsila presented her works within, or through, a considerable ornamental apparatus. This gesture was consequential and effective. The work “gobbled up” the avant-garde languages that were normalized—generalized and made familiar—through Art Deco during that period, but did so in a convertible, symmetrical manner: camouflaging itself in Art Deco strategies, the work let itself be digested by them. 


Beyond Tarsila’s decision to inscribe her painting within the widely popular stylistic context of Art Deco, something in the excess of those frames should be read as standing in an oppositional relationship to the work they bordered. “Any parergonis only added on by virtue of an internal lack in the system to which it is added,” Derrida declares. “What constitutes . . . parerga is not simply their exteriority as a surplus, it is the internal structural link which rivets them to the lack in the interior of the ergon. And this lack would be constitutive of the very unity of the ergon.”19Derrida, The Truth in Painting, pp. 57, 59.

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

If the one Legrain frame that has survived the harshness of time can be taken as representative, these objects supplemented the paintings with the exotic materials shown in the works’ interiors, setting dead materials, such as lizard- or snakeskin, alongside the depiction of animate ones. In the process, these accessory objects aligned with an ancient tradition in the visual arts: the life that is absent inside the frame, though vividly represented in shapes and colors, is supplemented by the (dead) organic matter of the frame.20On this large issue, see Papapetros, On the Animation of the Inorganic. With this in mind, perhaps we can understand Raynal’s astute observation more fully: despite their excess and their strangeness, Legrain’s frames would have served to not to accentuate but attenuate the difference between Tarsila’s works and everything around them, to make it less “abrupt,” more fluid. 

In Paris in 1926, then, Tarsila’s paintings appeared not just as singular and admirably different paintings but as decorative objects inscribed into a style that was very à la mode in that city during those years. Aracy Amaral, despite her reservations in the face of this evidence, sees elements in the artist’s work from the late 1920s that respond to that stylistic alignment: “Certainly these works contain a stylization exploited by ‘art déco’ in stained glass windows, tapestry and milk glass, the absorption of which [the Brazilian artists [Antônio] Gomide, [Vicente do] Rego Monteiro, [Victor] Brecheret, and Ismael Nery also reflected.”21Aracy A. Amaral, “Novas reflexões sobre Tarsila: 1. A fórmula e o mágico intuitivo,” in Arte e meio artístico, p. 88.

Perhaps the vague assignment of Tarsila to a supposed “post-Cubism,” an idea that cuts across the reception of her work from Mário de Andrade to Zilio, is just a critical euphemism, the result of a reluctance to name Art Deco—as if that term, precisely because of its broad dissemination across the applied arts, were spurious and ill-begotten. But once the myths and historical fictions of the modern avant-gardes are transcended, once the truth of Oiticica’s remark “Purity is a myth,” inscribed in his Tropicália, Penetrables PN 2 (1966–67), is accepted, the setting of Tarsila’s work in the massive international constellation of ornamental artistic languages of the 1920s gains a fascinating dimension. And now the commissioning of frames from Legrain makes total (and another) sense, to the point of arousing the suspicion that Tarsila might have had the idea that some of these works would become significant ornamental objects through their frames. One might even speculate that for her second Paris exhibition in 1928, she could have painted some of the works—Abaporu, for example, which she produced that same year—with Legrain’s frames in mind.22The nonneutral framing of major works of modern art was not uncommon during these years, as is illustrated by Jacques Doucet’s commission of a Legrain frame for Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Legrain also designed elaborate frames for a series of worksby Francis Picabia. See George Baker, “Leather and Lace,” October131(Winter 2010), pp. 116–49.

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

A second delay: Tarsila came to modernity late. All indications show that in 1917, like so many others, she had failed to fully understand the message of Malfatti; nor does she seem to have found herself attracted—although she was certainly intrigued—by modern art during her first stay in Paris, between 1920 and 1922.23See Zilio, A querela do Brasil, p. 45: “After studying in São Paulo with Pedro Alexandrino and George Elpons, Tarsila completed the second phase of that traditional recorrido, moving into an encounter with French academicism in Émile Renard’s atelier and at the Académie Julian. Her experiences with modern art until 1922 were limited to seeing and disliking Anita’s exhibition in 1917, and visiting the 1920 Salon d’Automne in Paris, which left her somewhere be- tween perplexed and confused.” On Tarsila’s reaction to the 1922 Salon d’Automne in Paris, documented in a letter to Anita Malfatti from October 19 of that year, see Juan Manuel Bonet, “A Quest for Tarsila,” in Amaral et al., Tarsila do Amaral, p. 70. In truth, and paradoxically, Tarsila came to modernity in São Paulo: having missed the Semana de Arte Moderna in 1922, and in the wake of the excitement it had generated, she found herself part of what came to be called the Grupo dos Cinco (Group of Five), which also included Malfatti, Oswald, Mário, and Menotti del Picchia. I say paradoxically because when the artist returned to Paris in 1923, she arrived with a commitment to modernity— a will to be modern—only to find Brazil.24On the rich panorama of Latin American artistsin Paris in the 1920s, see José Antonio Navarrete, “Respondiendo a una encuesta imaginada: la vanguardia artística latinoamericana en París,” in Maria Clara Bernal, ed., Redes intelectuales: Arte y política en América Latina (Universidad de los Andes, 2015), p. 307. Its exoticism was represented tonally as flat, even paintings, and its vibrant colors layoff in the distance. There was also its black population, widely represented and embraced.25See Petrine Archer-Straw, Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s (Thames & Hudson, 2000). Not for nothing is A Negra a Paris painting, not a Brazilian one: “It was in Paris,” writes Herkenhoff, “that Tarsila discovered Brazil. . . . It was in Paris that [Tarsila and Oswald] discovered the negro in a different light. African culture until then had been a disenfranchised culture in Brazil, a remainder of the Brazilian tradition of slavery. It was also notoriously absent from Brazilian academic painting.”26Paulo Herkenhoff, “Color in Brazilian Modernism,” p. 338.

Tarsila, then, came to modernity when modernity was preparing to be absorbed into daily life in innumerable industrial, ornamental, and utilitarian products, achieving the goal at which the supposedly pure historical avant-gardes had failed: to change the world, to invade reality, even at the sometimes-programmatic price of diluting art with industry, the artist with the worker. The fact that one of the ways this came to pass was through impure, even bastard means—the neutralizing assimilation of modern aesthetic languages by the bourgeois fashion of Art Deco—matters least.27Maria Gough, for example, has discussed the aestheticization of Russian Constructivism in Parisin the mid-1920s, visible in the use of materials without patinas, such as Plexiglas and aluminum, in the work of such artists as Antoine Pevsner. Gough, presentation at the symposium “Joaquín Torres-García: The Arcadian Modern,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, January 28, 2016, Art Deco made a good part of modernity transparent, dissolving it into acceptability, denying it differentiation. And this transparency, without excluding either modernity’s oddity or its invention of new forms, seems to have served as the vehicle for a formative inscriptionin Tarsila’s work, in Tarsila’s creative mind, in 1926. 

What were they like, those paintings in Legrain’s extravagant frames? What quality in them, what internal deflation, would structurally explain the supplementary exteriority that framed them—up to a point—as monumentally ornamental objects? Perhaps no one has better described Tarsila’s painting of the years following Oswald’s “Pau-Brasil” manifesto of 1924, the work that made up most of the 1926 show, than the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa: 

Tarsila do Amaral is the first Pau-Brasil transcription to painting. Her mission is to restore the naïve iconographyof the provincial interior, transplanting it to the canvas. And, for the first time, modernism finds in Brazil the perfect correspondence between newly learned techniques and the artist’s inspirational subject matter. Tarsila flirts with naïve, caboclo taste as well as the art of the native santeiros [makers or vendors of images of saints]. It is her distinction to have realized the most technically modern paintings produced in the country until then. In order to bring new life to the saints of domestic altars and the golden stars of its blue skies, the languid purple of the manacá [an ornamental and medicinal shrub] and the white of the jasmine, the scarlet of peasant dresses, the tinplate chests with their laughing decorations, the outlines of the banana trees, the crisscrossing lines of little paper flags underneath the gentle roofs of useless tiles, and of the stocks of elements of the everyday life of people, in poetry and in festivity, preserving the qualities of purity and lyricism, Tarsila found herself obliged to keep to the irreducible two-dimensionalism of the rectangle. And, casting aside the procedures and tricks of traditional painting, all destined for the fictitious representation of volumes in space, the artist draws the contours of the icons with clear, limpid lines, in a simple graphic procedure that attempts to evoke the whimsical arabesque of popular ornamentation, while the background of the canvas is divided into flat color zones in which pure blue encounters pink, and a dense, banana-tree green is contrasted against the dark chestnut brown of black skin.28Pedrosa, “Modern Art Week,” p. 184.

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

There is a painting of this period, however, that Pedrosa’s detailed and colorful description doesn’t fit: A Negra. In this work alone might the ampleness of Legrain’s frame as an object be more complementary than supplemental, combining with the arresting amplitude of the body that interrogates us frontally to produce a material redundance. Perhaps this is what Legrain’s frames heralded, and perhaps Tarsila’s decision to commission them prefigured an intuition that would determine her work later in that decade, after the publication of Oswald’s “Manifesto antropófago”: the strategy of creating figures of an amplitude and size in tension with the field in which the artist has inscribed them, signaling in some now explicitly modern way a will toward overflow, a generative opposition, a matrix, a deforming force between imagination and representation. That this tension was announced in a painting from early in that decade, and, further, in a work representing the problem figure of Brazilian national culture as a matricentric and racially mixed society—the black woman, as mother and slave—should take on particular significance. Legrain’s monumental frames for Tarsila’s paintings—frames that turned them into ornament, that integrated them into a decorative strategy—won them a space of indifference, a neutral space where they could echo without facing resistance. Yet through this ingenious ornamental strategy, her work also announced that the modern message required another field in order to be able to emerge: a field yet to come, broader, more social, more shared. It so happens that A Negra, spreading out from its excessive frame among avant-gardes that were already seeing their power of friction fade, was a traumatic image; but it was also, as the embodiment of a historical tragedy and an emancipatory promise, the ground on which the utopian anthropophagic project could feed. A Negra was an implacable gift. The other paintings in the trio—Abaporu, a message and visual manifesto, and Anthropophagy, a synthesis potentially generating a new kind of humanity—were a speculative wager, a bet on a possible world that history, with its delayed skirmishes, would only confirm quite some time later. This explains the delay in the reception of Tarsila’s work and its late assimilation at the end of the 1960s, when it finally came to fulfill its function as the emblem of Brazil’s anthropophagic project. Only then could those paintings be digested in their sophisticated simplicity, like a song by Veloso or by Maria Bethânia. Until then, even as they appeared before admiring eyes in Paris, São Paulo, and Rio, their message only partly filtered into the culture. 

In this regard, Tarsila was no different from the cannibals described in Montaigne’s famous essay (which refers to Brazil without using that name, calling it “the place in which Villegaignon landed”): a people with a message only partly decipherable. These others, hungry for human flesh, offered Montaigne an inverted metaphor for his own location in a bloody time and place, a place of religious wars, murders, massacres, regicides. For him, cannibals offered promise, being representatives of another possible culture. “We may call these people barbarous insofar as the rules of reason are concerned,” he writes, “but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them.”29Michel de Montaigne, “Essais, Livre I, Chap. 32,” in Oeuvres complètes (Seuil, 1967), p. 101; for an English translation, see “Chapter XXX—Of Cannibals,” Essays of Michel de Montaigne, ed. William Carew Hazlitt, trans. Charles Cotton, Project Gutenberg EBook #3600, h/3600-h.htm. The key to this essay, as to the modernity Tarsila embodied, is what has no place and remains pending. Montaigne, in sibylline fashion, uses a rhetorical device to articulate the inconclusiveness of history, which in its multiple delays repeats incessantly. Having led his readers to expect to hear from three Brazilian cannibals visiting the court of the French king Charles IX, he leaves us in suspense, producing a willful omission: the cannibals, he tells us, had come to transmit three messages, “of which I have forgotten the third—which distresses me—but I can still remember two.”

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

Montaigne was surely aware of the abrupt interruption in another essential text announcing a possible world different from our own: Plato’s dialogue Critias (360 B.C.), which describes the land of Atlantis, and which, in the form in which history has passed it down to us, is cut short just as the “god of gods” Zeus is about to explain that utopia’s fate. Another masterful example is Giordano Bruno’s De Vinculis in Genere (A General Account of Bonding ) of 1588, which also leaves us in suspense just when the bonds are about to be resolved in the union of bodies.30See Plato, The Critias, Or Atlanticus (Pantheon, 1944), 121 b, c; and Giordano Bruno, Des Liens(Allia, 2001), p. 86. In any case, “Des Cannibales” does pass on the two messages of Charles IX’s exotic visitors that Montaigne remembers: their surprise, first, that a people has submitted itself to the rule of a king—and a child king no less—instead of choosing its sovereign themselves, and second, that half the kingdom lives comfortably and the other half in poverty. This is the real, perfectable, precarious world, summarized in two metonyms. And their third comment, their final message, is lost, consigned to enigma and permanent imminence. 

Montaigne also speaks of a mediocre interpreter, of a failure of communication and meaning. Perhaps that lacuna resembles the primal scene, something that happened in the past but only makes its way back to us through the labyrinths of the future. This is an apt image for Tarsila, and perhaps also for the modernity that she sought, a modernity always pending, always to come, its presence always hoped for in the appropriation of some symbols by others, in the neutralizing digestion of the tensions that constitute us, in endless anthropophagy. 

This is the second and final 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 the first section here.

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