The Segall Myth



The construction by Brazilian critics of an image of the painter Lasar Segall

The book Lasar Segall, by Cláudia Valladão de Mattos, deals with a thorny question, little evidenced in Brazil: to what extent the importance attributed to an artist and the significance of his work come not only from specifically aesthetic criteria, but, in large part, from assumptions and interests of public and critical reception? Following the principles of Hans Robert Jauss' reception aesthetics, Cláudia V. de Mattos investigates the constitution of an image of Lasar Segall, constructed by Brazilian critics in the period 1913-43 and which would have been fed by the artist himself. It examines the reasons why Segall was taken as a legitimizing figure of the modernist strategy, both because he was considered the paradigm of a modern artist and because of his outstanding personality.

Supported by the criticisms that emerged since the 1913 exhibitions in São Paulo and Campinas, in texts and statements by the artist, the book reports the moments of the constitution of a homogeneous image in the critics. “Um Pintor de Almas”, an article by Abílio Álvaro Miller that appeared in Campinas during the 1913 exhibition, would have determined such an image. Even if the article did not have immediate repercussions, what is there does not differ essentially from the criticisms by Mário de Andrade, Milliet, Geraldo Ferraz and others, as they are centered on the same critical tradition and on the same fundamental questions, referring to what the author debits to the aesthetic conception of German romanticism. The critics, with the exception of Mário de Andrade, seemed to be unaware of German expressionism. A delay, no doubt, but an intriguing question, since the unanimity in considering Segall's image focused more on his personality than on his work.

Cláudia Valladão de Mattos acts with care, contextualizing the criticism and going back to Segall's training, not only artistically, to justify the constitution of the artist's image as a genius. An undertaking that is a contribution to the history of culture and sociology of art, proceeds by tracking documented facts and events; explores, albeit briefly, problems and tensions in the routinization process of Brazilian modernism; de-idealizes critical constructions.

It shows that the constitution of the artist as an icon of modernity does not exclude mystifications and does not always come from a modern position regarding the meaning of art. Thus, how can critics known to be committed to the realization of the modern in Brazil subscribe to the prevalence of personality over the artist's work? Would it suffice to say that this stemmed from the imperative need to assert the modern? Is the legitimization of what could be a modern project reason enough? Or is the fascination of the artist something that extrapolates such contextual issues?

The book does not show a generic attitude to dismantle a Segall myth by denying its importance in Brazilian modernism; the critical point is in the attempt to inventory Segall's public reception, in particular the criteria of actualizing reception. Segall's effort to affirm an image, managing it together with critics and institutions, and the homogeneous treatment of criticism centered on the work-artist unit, finds no other justifications than the mismatch of Brazilian modernization and Segall's total dedication the art. However, the emphasis on romantic assumptions could justify the mismatch of criticism, but not, probably, the artist's attitude.

In Segall, critics see the first sign of modern art in Brazil and, moreover, the “bridge” between European avant-garde and Brazilian modernism. Mário de Andrade, although responsible for reactivating Miller's criticism, never agreed with Segall's primacy, insisting on the pioneering spirit of Anita Malfatti; this did not prevent him, however, from valuing Segall's contribution to the formulation of “Brazilian cultural issues” in painting.

Mário emphasizes, in the initial phase of Segall in Brazil, a contribution to the theme of “Brazilianness”, since the “plastic achievement” of this phase would result from the composition of “Slavic soul” and Brazilian “vivacity”, in which the “deep”, “synthetic” personality ”, “highly human” and “dramatic” supplanted “Brazilian superficiality”, launching it into universality.

If the criticism accentuates Segall's “synthetic realism” alongside his social and political concerns, in addition to his existential ones, it is a fact that the human figure thought of in a romantic framework stands out, proposing the confluence of intention, expression and life. Cláudia V. de Mattos' journey through the assumptions of German romanticism, especially Schelling, and through the foundations of certain art history, especially Wõringer, is convincing, since she does not dwell on the works (otherwise, it would be more complicated).

Whether emphasizing the history of the discovery of precocious talent, or considering artistic activity as predestination; evidencing the idea of ​​art as revelation or emphasizing the importance of suffering in creation, as the critics do, the romantic ideal is a pertinent adaptation to the generated myth. The consecration of Segall by the critics would thus follow the typical, already ancient forms. The painter is referred to an origin, as in the myth; his personality is in the work as an expression of the soul; art is an inner need, form generates emotion and empathy.

Until then, so good. But what about the composition of this critical unanimity supported by the artist and the framework of intentions and interferences in the orchestration of an image, as suggested by the author? It seems that she detected clear signs of a Brazilian cultural system – the need for strong icons, including foreign ones, to embody a kind of national conscience –, very appropriate to overcome broad lines of our modernization and provide access to a history made of plots, coincidences and group interests.

But, when trying, at the end of the book, to answer the question of the convergence between the ideas of the critic and those of Segall, Cláudia inflects the discussion, justifying it by a vague “belonging to modernity”. And, even more: it raises the hypothesis that the construction of the image of Segall as an artist-genius served “to guarantee the preservation of an auratic type of art, in the midst of the rapid transformation suffered with the definitive entry of Brazil into modernity”, of so that “if the Segall myth existed, auratic art could remain safe”. The argument changes plan, diverting the course of the discussion.

*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).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. 32 in November 1997.


Lasar Segall. Claudia Valladão de Mattos. Edusp, 196 pages.


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