The routinization of modernism

Image: João Nitsche


book review Workers of Modernity by Maria Cecília França Lourenço

Accustomed to seeing the integration of the modern in Brazil as an effect of the big moves, typical of rupture projects, we often miss the heterogeneous process of diffusion, differentiation and consolidation of the achievements of modernism. If the history of the movement in São Paulo and the action of its main protagonists are duly settled, the same does not occur with the artistic and cultural activity of the 30s and 40s. The period, although always valued from the point of view of the “formation” of Brazilian culture, is predominantly treated as a transition to the proposals and clashes triggered from the beginning of the 50s. ; builds a history made up of events, initiatives, projects, actions, which allow, even if later, the configuration of a landscape.

Until recently, the landscape of São Paulo has been outlined by meticulous studies and interpretations that, as a process of anamnesis, pursue modern assumptions in the varied activity of artists, critics, artisans and politicians, involved in public and professional activities. In São Paulo, the notorious artistic effervescence did not count, in the period, with the huge public resources that in Rio de Janeiro were favored by the proximity of the central political power. Here, the public sense of culture came from public and private initiative that, mixed with associations, clubs, unions and groupings, sought to assert the modern as a way of life and modernization as a cultural imperative. Acting on the limited artistic milieu, artists from different backgrounds, critics and public figures are interested in leveraging an action consistent with the vision (or foresight) of a country of the future. A democratic mentality regarding culture, sensitivity to popular causes, an interest in formal education and the modernity of forms mediate the multifaceted work that manifests itself in artistic and critical activity and in the creation of new cultural institutions.

Maria Cecília endeavors to chronicle this period in which, according to Antonio Candido, modernism was routinized. Experimentalism and critical openness are assimilated, according to her, by works that are no longer aimed at the elites, since they are marked by a public sense and aim at the everydayization of culture. The author dedicates herself, therefore, to tracking the events that popped up in São Paulo: events, lectures, courses, clubs, unions, exhibitions, groups, galleries, bookstores, criticism and journalistic news - seeing in the apparent dispersion the constitution in an act of a modern project interested in expanding the public and conquering urban space.

This project is, for Maria Cecília, collective; it does not proceed from the submission of activities to a typological project, before the consideration of an activity made of cultured art and crafts, interventions in the city and the creation of institutions, political complicity and irreverent actions. In the set of these actions, diligently tracked, the author locates primal directions: changes in architecture, where the modern spirit combines constructivism and art-déco; the importance of painting by artists originating from artisanal work; the contribution of foreign artists, especially Segall and De Fiori; the formation of groups, such as Santa Helena and Seibi; the critical work of Mário de Andrade and Sérgio Milliet; the creation of the Department of Culture, the Heritage Service, the Library and the Pinacoteca, indicating the effort to systematize cultural actions; and, finally, the repercussions of the “seduction by the international” as a counterpart to provincialism.

For Maria Cecília, all activities materialized the common interest of, as Milliet said, “education of the general public and its general elevation”. It was about fermenting and displaying, grouping and teaching, always articulating collective actions. The “workers of modernity” engaged in causes and combats that, far from the perspective of “individual genius”, placed a desire in painting, sculpture and architecture for collective significance, sometimes taking sides. The social significance, explicitly or generically referred to the political left, extended from art to mixed expressions, -illustration of books, magazines and newspapers, caricature, scenography and serial furniture: in the decoration of residences and public buildings, mainly with tiles. As for these, Maria Cecília highlights, for her argument, the importance of “Osirarte”, for the link she established between artistic work and professionalization and for the generated image of collective artistic activity. The craft, the well-done work of artists who graduated from artisanal work, such as those who joined groups in Santa Helena or Seibi, collaborates to re-propose the modern and to overcome academicist conservatism, fought by the modernists. The interest in suburban landscapes, visual order and constructive discipline does not translate as a superficial reactive return to order. It is a specific, non-intellectualized contribution of everyday industriousness to the routinization of the modern. Alongside the irreverence and boldness of Flávio de Carvalho, the plastic force and experimental knowledge of De Fiori, the Família Artística Paulista (Volpi, Rebolo, Pennachi, Bonadei, Zanini, Rossi Osir, Clóvis Graciano etc.), operates the modern as an intervention and work.

*Celso Favaretto is an art critic, retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and author, among other books, of The invention of Helio Oiticica (Edusp).


Workers of Modernity. Maria Cecília França Lourenço. Hucitec/Edusp, 324 pages.


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