Monteiro Lobato, Anita Malfatti and the issue of gender



Gender studies tend to lose sight of the tensions that agitate the artistic field.

In the book Compliment to the touch or how to talk about Brazilian feminist art (2016), Roberta Barros proposes to analyze the article that Monteiro Lobato dedicated to Anita Malfatti's exhibition in December 1917 from the perspective of gender studies. Two aspects are highlighted by the author. The first concerns the passage in which the critic dissociates the painter’s production from the so-called “feminine expression”, which leads Barros to underline the existence of “different criteria used in the evaluation of art made by men in relation to that made by women” .

The second, much more problematic, focuses on pastel Rhythm/Torso (1915-1916), inspired by the big nude (1907-1908), by Georges Braque, in which the author detects “the codification of a certain threatening sexuality, under the trace of a stylistic language equally reprehensible for the philosophical criteria of the writer”. The threat would be represented by the transformation of a female nude into a male one, which would have provoked Lobato's anger, responsible for the drawing's "emptying of meaning" by drawing attention to the "aesthetic qualities of the representation" and by confining it to the domain of of “a pure formalism”. With this attitude, the critic “deviated the open debate on the theme of sexuality virilely represented there”, demonstrating his horror both for the object represented and for the “subject who represented it”.

Roberta Barros believes that by choosing to represent a nude model, Anita Malfatti “affirmed the departure of women from the 'space of the house' and their entry into higher education, more precisely in this privileged segment within art education”. The distance from academicism led the artist to assume “an active posture, not consistent with the place of femininity”, since she “carried the work with eroticism in her long and angular lines”. The “materiality of the pastel, which instigates the touch, combined with the vulnerability of the figure represented from behind”, transformed Monteiro Lobato and all of Anita Malfatti's apologists into men “looking at another man, sensually naked”.

From these observations, the author concludes that “It does not seem exaggerated, in this sense, to speculate that the referred type of embarrassment, the unpleasantness experienced by such a reversal of positions and such an exchange of the object of desire […], eventually, has been one of the factors delaying the official and historical recognition that, according to Aracy Amaral, the work of Anita Malfatti would only enjoy from the 1960s onwards”.

Roberta Barros’ considerations have their starting point in Ana Mae Barbosa’s hypothesis that Monteiro Lobato’s indignation with the 1917 exhibition was aroused “by the artist’s social transgression”, which exposed “a painting of a naked man exploring the ambiguity of 'masculine-feminine' eroticity”. The author goes further in her argument and states that the sensuality of the painter, “who explores the physical masculinity of men in a feminine gesture, foreshadows a more flexible conception of the differences in sexuality that would come to dominate in the sixties”.

Rhythm/Torso is part of a set of drawings of nude models made by the artist in New York, in which Paulo Herkenhoff detects the “rupture of the code of virtue”. In the show's co-curator's notebook Radical maneuvers (2006), the critic registers some ideas related to this specific vector of the artist's production: “The masculine ones are proof that she – Miss Malfatti – was there where men were naked. They are drawings of what in patriarchal and provincial society was the unmentionable. She has been there in the face of male nudity; And it was never up to women to make visible the sublimation of desire for art. In the art system, space of masculine power, it was up to them – to women – silence and repression. […] Even if still with a certain parsimony and repression, Malfatti, protected by Berlin's distance from his repressive São Paulo, heats up the surface. She eroticizes the gaze as someone learning from Michelangelo's boldness in the Sistine”.

If male nudes could, in fact, scandalize provincial São Paulo in 1917, neither Monteiro Lobato nor the visitors to the show had such a radical experience, as Rhythm/Torso it was not part of the set of works presented in the artist's second solo exhibition. As Marta Rossetti Batista recalls, Anita Malfatti grouped the oils under the headings of “figures” and “landscapes” and created three other categories: “engravings”, “watercolors” and “caricatures and drawings”. Although Ana Mae Barbosa attributes to Marta Rossetti Batista the hypothesis that the pastel of the male nude may have appeared in the exhibition under another title, this information is not included in the book Anita Malfatti in time and space. On the contrary, the author stresses that the painter “abstained from placing too many 'provocative' works, such as charcoal and pastels of male nudes, or oils such as the cubist nude e the silly".

In a second moment, the information regarding the nudes is reiterated. If Anita Malfatti selected, possibly, four North American charcoals, characterized by deformations and distortions, she refrained, however, “by all indications, from exposing any of the many academies of nudes – the male and even the female ones”. According to Marta Rossetti Batista, the artist did not want to set up “a provocative exhibition, nor to make the shock inevitable. Before, it had a kind of didactic intention, to make modern art understood and accepted by the São Paulo milieu”.

If Barbosa and Barros' hypothesis does not find support in historiography, equally problematic is Paulo Herkenhoff's assertion about the “obliteration system” mobilized by Monteiro Lobato to “work with his personal malaise”. According to the critic, Monteiro Lobato chose “two terms that are absolutely related to women in the legal context of the time. At that time, the recognition of women's civil rights was limited by the Civil Code, and Monteiro Lobato uses the terms paranoia or mystification. What is paranoia? Craziness. The madman is incapable. As for mystification, he relates it to children,[1] who are also incapable. So, a modern woman could only be crazy, placed among crazy people, children, that is, on the level of the legally incapable, not to say rationally incapable. There is, then, a very clever text strategy of his, but…”.

A dispassionate reading of Monteiro Lobato's article demonstrates that he does not apply any negative category to Anita Malfatti's production, reserving the terms “paranoia” for modern art in general, and “mystification” for artists and partisan criticism of new values. Two authors are at the basis of his reasoning: Max Nordau with the theory of degeneration, and Cesare Lombroso with his analysis of the art of madmen. As Daniel Rincon Caires demonstrates, the ideas of the former echo in Monteiro Lobato's reflections on artists who “abnormally see nature and interpret it in the light of ephemeral theories, under the squinting suggestion of rebellious schools, which emerged here and there as boils of culture. excessive”.

Expressions such as “excessive culture” and even “products of the tiredness and sadism of all periods of decadence” refer to the concept of “civilizational exhaustion” applied by Max Nordau to the artistic production of the late XNUMXth century. Other approaches highlighted by Daniel Rincon Caires are the transformation of sensory perception that leads to false cubist and futurist interpretations, and the role of art criticism. If Max Nordau talks about charlatanism and opportunism, Monteiro Lobato lashes out at critics who use theories and “technical verbiage” to justify the unjustifiable and feel superior to the public.

Lombroso's research on the artistic productions of the insane are present in Monteiro Lobato's observations on the difference between the sincerity of the art of asylums, "a logical product of brains deranged by the strangest psychoses", and the insincerity and lack of logic of modern manifestations, which are nothing more than “pure mystification”. In view of the dialogue with the two authors, Daniel Rincon Caires concludes that Monteiro Lobato decides for the thesis of mystification. Modern artists would be “after all just charlatans and mockers, taking advantage of the public's naivety to make their eccentric experiments acceptable. Mystifiers, they laughed at the public in the same way that Parisians laughed at the unwary when they presented a canvas painted by a donkey with a brush tied to its tail”.

If Monteiro Lobato had believed in the teratological aspect of Anita Malfatti's works, he would not have spoken of a “vigorous talent, out of the ordinary”, nor of “so many and so precious latent qualities”. Even lamenting the artist's choice of “bad direction”, he does not fail to recognize her independence, her originality, her inventiveness and “some innate qualities, one of the most fertile in the construction of a solid artistic individuality”. Although he associates the works exhibited in 1917 with a “very debatable impressionism” and a “new kind of caricature”, the critic admits that Anita Malfatti is a professional “deserving of the high honor that is to be taken seriously and to receive respect for her art sincere opinion”.

If Paulo Herkenhoff's hypothesis were correct, Monteiro Lobato would use another vocabulary to refer to the painter's language. Works like the yellow man (1915-1916), The green haired woman (1915-1916), the japanese (1915-1916), Oh farol (1915) the wind (1915-1917) and And then (1915-1917), for example, could have awakened observations derived from Lombroso's thought: exaggerated or unusual chromaticism, bizarreness, exasperated representation, unbridled imagination and primitivism.

Readings such as those by Barbosa, Barros and Herkenhoff do nothing more than give new guises to the cliché of Anita Malfatti's “executioner”, without taking into account the real reasons for the article published on December 20, 1917. The persistence of this myth in these days of today can be exemplified in the analysis made by Luana Saturnino Tvardovskas regarding the centrality given to the figures of Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral by a historiography aimed at confirming that in Brazil “there were no gender problems in the artistic territory”. The result of these discourses was not only the concealment of previous historical experiences, but also “the monumentalization of the lives of modernists”. The example chosen to highlight the existence of gender prejudices is precisely the aforementioned speech by Paulo Herkenhoff, which ends up contributing to the addiction denounced by the author.

Luana Saturnino Tvardovskas, who removed information about the “occultation” of artists prior to modernism from the book Artist profession: Brazilian academic painters and sculptors (2008), by Ana Paula Cavalcanti Simioni, did not realize that she was proposing a new reading of the 1917 episode, writing that Lobato criticized Anita Malfatti because, “unlike his professional colleagues, he took her seriously regardless of being she a woman. Her refusal to perceive her works as the result of female work that deserved to be endorsed with different criteria beforehand was at odds with current parameters. It differed, for example, from the enunciations of Gonzaga Duque who, on several occasions, mentioned the “delicate hands” of the artists as the culprits for that diverse invoice that he believed to perceive in the works made by women. It was an even greater displacement in relation to older habits, such as that of Ângelo Agostini who, in the name of etiquette at the time, believed that he should not even mention the names of the artists, in order to “not hurt vanities”, making public how much conceived them as beings by nature susceptible and fragile, incapable of withstanding any kind of judgment about their productions”.

For Ana Paula Cavalcanti Simioni, who highlights Tadeu Chiarelli's contribution in the critical review of the episode,[2] Monteiro Lobato's opinion assumed “a daring aspect from the point of view of a 'women's history'”. Far from seeing Anita Malfatti as a “young and defenseless” artist, the critic opted for an innovative strategy, rejecting the idea that art had sex. Even though he used “aesthetically rigid” paradigms, he refuted “the beliefs about distinct and unequal abilities that naturally permeated the sexes” and placed “on the agenda the possibility of an artist being recognized as a professional of the arts and no longer just as a an amateur”. The author's conclusion is straightforward: “With a modern eye, that old-fashioned critic was able to appreciate her regardless of gender particularities, and, even though he didn't appreciate her works, he saw in her an artist who deserved to be considered as a professional”.

Ana Paula Cavalcanti Simioni's analysis, which detects in the episode a "process of conquering a right to asexual criticism", is much more productive than the previously exposed proposals, based on a biased evaluation of Monteiro Lobato's attitude, based on a mistaken assumption and considerations outside the letter of the text. A careful reading of the article may lead one to speculate whether Monteiro Lobato would not have wanted to be able to count on an artist of the caliber of Anita Malfatti in the naturalist ranks, bringing new life to an aesthetic that the new times put in check.

It is quite possible that the 1917 critique will continue to gain new interpretations, and this calls for a warning: that of reading the text dispassionately, without first using the lens of the victimizing ideology, so common to many gender studies, which makes losing sight of the tensions that agitated the artistic field and the motivations that led the modernists to transform the painter into the “martyr” of the modern cause in Brazil.

* Annateresa Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Visual Arts at ECA-USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reality and fiction in Latin American photography (UFRGS Publisher).



BARBOSA, Ana Mae. The image in art teaching: the eighties and new times. São Paulo: Perspective, 1994.

BARROS, Roberta. Compliment to the touch or how to talk about Brazilian feminist art. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. by the Author, 2016.

BATISTA, Marta Rossetti. Anita Malfatti in time and space. São Paulo: IBM Brazil, 1985.

CAIRES, Daniel Rincon. “Bichados ao nasdouro – scientism and degenerationism in Monteiro Lobato’s art criticism”. (2021). Available in:

CHIARELLI, Thaddeus. A jeca at vernissages: Monteiro Lobato and the desire for a national art in Brazil🇧🇷 São Paulo: Edusp, 1995.

FABRIS, Annateresa. “Between science and sociology: modern art as a pathological manifestation”. In: COSTA, Helouise; CAIRES, Daniel Rincon (org.). Degenerate art: repercussions in Brazil. São Paulo: Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo, 2018.

HERKENHOFF, Paulo; HOLLANDA, Heloisa Buarque de. “On women and radical maneuvers”. In: HERKENHOFF, Paulo; HOLLANDA, Heloisa Buarque de (org.). Radical maneuvers. São Paulo: Association of Friends of the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center/SP, 2006.

HERKNHOFF, Paulo. “Work zone”. In: HERKENHOFF, Paulo; HOLLANDA, Heloisa Buarque de (org.). Radical maneuvers. São Paulo: Association of Friends of the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center/SP, 2006.

LOBATO, Monteiro. “Paranoia or mystification? About the Malfatti exhibition”. In: ______. Ideas by Jeca Tatu . 12th edition. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1967.

SIMIONI, Ana Paula Cavalcanti. Artist profession: Brazilian academic painters and sculptors. São Paulo: Edusp/Fapesp, 2008.

TVARDOVSKAS, Luana Saturnino. Dramatization of bodies: contemporary art and feminist criticism in Brazil and Argentina. São Paulo: Intermeios, 2015.



[1] In Lobato's article there is no reference to children.

[2] The researcher demonstrates that Lobato was disturbed by the exhibition when he realized that the works by Malfatti and his North American colleagues pointed to the existence of a new visuality, different from his naturalist creed. As they did not carry “indices verifiable in reality”, they could only be under the sign of “paranoia” or “mystification”. Since his idea of ​​modern art was not in line with the works exhibited by the painter, the critic “tries to call her to reason (her reason) by asking her to reflect on those discourteous but sincere opinions of hers”. In doing so, the critic demonstrates that he considers her a “professional artist – and not simply a girl 'who paints'”. With this statement, Chiarelli is the first researcher to tackle, albeit quickly, the issue of gender.

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