the modernist movement

Lady Barbara Hepworth


Considerations on the conference-essay by Mário de Andrade

On April 30, 1942, in the Library Hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and accepting an invitation from Edgard Cavalheiro, Mário de Andrade delivered the conference the modernist movement, which would be published by the Casa do Estudante do Brasil, at the price of three thousand réis for the brochure. The text was later collected in the added edition of Aspects of Brazilian Literature. One of the objectives of the lecture, at a table presided over by the poet and official of the Ministry of Education and Health, Carlos Drummond, was to take stock and commemorate the Week of Modern Art, after twenty years of its realization.

Annateresa Fabris notes that, at various times during the conference, Mário de Andrade saw modernism as an “anticipation of the future”; something that, in addition to artistic updating, would also respond to a kind of historical need.[I] In fact, from the beginning of the exhibition, the author of Paulicéia Devairada configures modernism as a forerunner, preparer and creator of a “national state of mind”, later spread to the social and political spheres.

Mário de Andrade stressed the aspect of movement (with greater emphasis on joint actions, to the detriment of individualities); he disagreed, however, with those who assumed the same results and conquests without the action of that group. There might even be a “fatal force”. But, if the artists were seen as antennas or amplifiers, their actions and huge efforts could not be underestimated. To the poet and scholar, this sounded like La Palice nonsense.

Mário de Andrade demarcated the axial force of the Modern Art Week in 1922 as a “collective cry”. He insisted, however, on locating some antecedents, which went back five or six years, coinciding with the repercussion of the works of Anita Malfatti and Vitor Brecheret. Enthusiasm for new art encompassed, however, a “small group of São Paulo intellectuals”, with which the writer scaled the proportions and circumscribed the location of this modernism. Mário de Andrade defined modernism at the time of the Week essentially as “rupture” and “revolt” and even conjectured whether the war in Europe had not contributed to igniting this “destroyer” spirit.

With that, he recognized that many modernist fashions would have been imported from overseas. The professor at the Conservatório Dramático e Musical de São Paulo delimited the modernist influence and exaltation to an “intellectual aristocracy” from São Paulo, which already accentuated the traits most clearly opposed to the bourgeoisie (class and spirit). Part of the sociability of this “aristocracy” of arts and thought was exercised in the salons. Mário de Andrade mentions those on Rua Lopes Chaves (where he lived), Paulo Prado, Olívia Guedes Penteado and Tarsila do Amaral.

Mário de Andrade's retrospective look accommodates and filters. His characterization is that of modernism as an eminently “destructive” movement. From then on, a game of approximations and distancing takes place. Graça Aranha, Guilherme de Almeida, Plínio Salgado and the group from Rio de Janeiro Party (was that valid for Cecília Meireles?) are sort of left out. Paulo Prado is nearby, being decisive for the realization of the Week; in proportion, however, in which he embarked on politics, it is as if there was a distancing. Menotti del Picchia, Antônio Couto de Barros and Ribeiro Couto are portrayed as modernists.

Later members would have been Sérgio Milliet and Rubens Borba de Moraes, while Ronald Carvalho, Álvaro Moreyra and Renato Almeida would be Rio de Janeiro interlocutors. An admitted precursor was Manuel Bandeira, while Nestor Vitor and Adelino Magalhães stayed at a distance. Screaming silence surrounds the name of Sérgio Buarque, who had been a correspondent for the magazine Horn in Rio de Janeiro and who, in 1926, in an article for the Brazil Magazine, had perceived modernism as an eminently demolishing attitude (the same categorization that Mário would use in the 1942 conference). Could this omission have been motivated by the criticisms that Sérgio Buarque had leveled at Mário de Andrade in “The Opposite Side and Other Sides”, even though he considered him one of the greatest poets in the country?[ii]

The lineage that Mário seeks to establish is with Romanticism, from a century earlier, feeling brotherly to José de Alencar. The generation that immediately preceded him – of the symbolists, decadentists, Parnassians and naturalists – and even relatively contemporary authors, such as Sílvio Romero, Bastos Tigre, Ernesto Nazaré, João do Rio, Mendes Fradique, Alcântara Machado, Lima Barreto or Juó Bananére[iii] are not referred. Others are just with a sense of mockery. (But, in fact, quotations are traps, since they are conjoined with preteritions.) Is the merit mainly a matter of personal taste and sympathy?

Mário de Andrade listed modernism's contributions to the arts and intelligence, aesthetic updating, the right to research and experimentation, and the focus on Brazilianness. It is very debatable whether, at the February Festivals of 1922, the question of national conscience was already posed.[iv] It is even more complicated to touch on this theme while moving away from Graça Aranha. By the way, Mário de Andrade expressly mentions the aesthetics of life; kind of mocking the work and the author. However, it is there that the national question appears, in the chapters “Brazilian Metaphysics”, “Culture and Civilization” and “Ins”. If the answers might not sound convincing, it should not be overlooked, however, who formulated the problems. An index of the success of Mário de Andrade's argument is that, nowadays, Graça Aranha is often portrayed as a pre-modernist.

Mário de Andrade was a teacher: so much so that Carlos Drummond treated the letters he received as “lessons from a friend”. But, one of the main points of the modernist spirit was the fight against academicism; hence the praise and demand for continued research and experimentation. The past should be known and respected. The creators, however, could not be satisfied with the reproduction of formulas, principles, techniques and themes from other times and customs.

Art was invention and not copying. Language and speech would be grounds for experimentation and clashes, treating Portuguese Grammar in a Brazilian way. Mário de Andrade organized conferences on the national language (written, spoken and sung) with the awareness that language translates into thought. The keynote was not one of mere rebellion against Lusitanian vocabulary or syntax. The impetus was to try to find a Brazilian way of looking at the country, reconfiguring it. Academicism would be another form of Colonialism. When dealing with the issue of Brazilianness, Mário de Andrade emphasized the difference in relation to the praising and patriotic tone. The national conscience passed through the deep knowledge of the Brazilian reality, including its problems and complexities. The model of singing the territorial greatness, the variety and mildness of the climate, the absence of calamities, the beauties and natural riches – mottos of the book by Affonso Celso, indirectly referred to in the conference by Mário de Andrade – should be overcome.

Mário de Andrade perceived modernism as an “revolt and revolutionary state of mind”, which raises the relationship between art and politics. In this characterization, it is as if 1922 foreshadowed 1930. When commenting on the coexistence in the salons, Mário demarcated the decay of one of the main ones, that of Olívia Guedes Penteado, to coincide with the articulations for the founding of the Democratic Party, which would have a strong role in the constitutional struggle. Speaking in 1942, therefore, during the Estado Novo, Mário de Andrade pointed out that the Brazilian artist would enjoy, as a direct result of modernism, independence and the right to research and restlessness.

In the printed text, when alluding to freedom, however, in parentheses, he limited it to the aesthetic field, with the addendum “unfortunately”. It is curious to compare Mário de Andrade's appreciation with the propaganda of the Estado Novo, often made by “modernist” authors. The pages “The political order and the artistic evolution”, of the magazine Political culture, were written by Rosário Fusco, from the Cataguazes group. The difference is that the young prodigy who emerged in Verde considered the preponderance of politics in stabilizing the arts, as if 1930 (and even more so, 1937) had given direction and meaning to 1922.

It should be remembered, however, that in 1922 not only the Week of Modern Art took place. It was the year of the Centenary of Independence, for which a Universal Exposition was prepared in Rio de Janeiro. For the construction of the pavilions, Morro do Castelo was razed, with the removal of hundreds of families; that is, more humble populations suffered the damage of a party for foreigners.[v] It was also the year of the founding of the Dom Vital Center, where Jackson de Figueiredo and Alceu Amoroso Lima (the Tristão de Ataíde of so many polemics with the modernists, who Oswald de Andrade nicknamed Tristinho do Ataúde) were pontificating.

There was also the founding of the Communist Party and the first military uprisings that, in the 1930s, would gain the name of “tenentistas”. Not only the artists were agitated. Authorities, politicians, Catholics and the military also sought some organization and representation. Many ills in the country stem from this and there is not much to celebrate, despite the vanity and prestige of some leaders in these segments. When the Modern Art Week took place, futurism had already descended into fascism: in the 1909 Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti exalted war (considered a “world hygiene”), militarism and patriotism; in addition to wanting to burn down museums and libraries[vi].

In Brazil, many “modernists” also took shelter comfortably in posts and sinecures of the authoritarian regime. By the way, does the canonical strength of modernism not derive from this governmental action of many authors? Mário de Andrade was not an apostle of the Vargas regime; but in his lecture he intimates that he might have been a more bitter opponent. Perhaps, as a result of the interruption of the projects and actions that he developed in the Department of Culture, in the city of São Paulo and the uncertainties arising from the Rio de Janeiro exile[vii] could even be seen as a victim...

Highlights at the conference the modernist movement the moments in which Mário de Andrade's argument takes on a more personal and biographical tone, as when he comments on the poetic style of more than a year, broken by the creative immantation and family strife that were triggered by the purchase of a head of Christ, sculpted by Brecheret. So too, at the conclusion of the conference, when he already seems to foreshadow his own finitude (does he yearn for it?). He quotes Natural History, as if his shoulders could support the feeling of the world and his fifty years do not awaken the lyre... Carlos Sandroni has already underlined how much the notion of sacrifice is present in the work of Mário de Andrade[viii]. His identification with Joan of Arc… Or Menotti del Picchia who called him “The Tiradentes of our Inconfidência”[ix]… Doesn't “Eu sou Trezentos” also communicate a kind of tearing?

Referring to the period between Anita's exhibition and the organization of the Week, Mário de Andrade affirmed the tone of celebration and purity that surrounded those characters, when no one felt like a martyr, nor posed as being misunderstood or a precursor, nor thought of sacrifice. By characterizing, however, the modernist movement as destructive, Mário clarified that it would have been destructive for those involved, since the utilitarianism of aesthetic research could end up undermining creative freedom. In the epilogue of his lecture, when it took on a more autobiographical tone, Mário de Andrade confessed to feeling responsible for the weaknesses and misfortunes of men, and that was a bit of his displeasure.

the author of The banquet he had criticized several colleagues for the construction efforts, when for him, at that moment, the iconoclastic impetus was more important. At the end of his presentation, however, Mário resented his absence from the political arena: he did not plan or work on building a new world, contenting himself with witnessing the ruin of an era. In the fight against pastism, they did not think about the future, basking in momentary and fleeting agitations. On the ramp of fifty years he couldn't go back (never does), nor did he have the strength to go forward. Mário would die less than three years later.

Without wanting to be an example, it could serve as a lesson, so the conference the modernist movement it is an eloquent document for the arts and for Brazilian social thought.

*João Ernani Furtado Filho and pProfessor at the Department of History at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC).



[I] FABRIS, Annateresa. Paulista Futurism. Hypotheses for studying the arrival of the vanguard in Brazil. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1994, p. 65.

[ii] A more vertical analysis of the relationships between the authors of “Losango Cáqui” and “Viagem a Nápoles” can be seen in MONTEIRO, Pedro Meira. “Subtle things, ergo deep”. The dialogue between Mário de Andrade and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda. In: MONTEIRO, Pedro Meira. (Org.). Mario de Andrade and Sergio Buarque de Holanda. Correspondence. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras/Institute of Brazilian Studies/EDUSP, 2012, p. 169-420.

[iii] SALIIBA, Elias Thomé. “Juó Bananére, the ratè of São Paulo modernism?”. In: History Magazine. São Paulo: FFLCH-USP, 1997.

[iv] For more details on the national question among the modernists, see JARDIM DE MORAES, Eduardo. The Modernist Brasility. Its philosophical dimension. Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1978 and PRADO, Antônio Arnoni. 1922 – Itinerary of a false avant-garde. The dissidents, the Week and Integralism. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1983.

[v] SILVA DA MOTTA, Marly. The Nation turns 100 years old. The national question in the Centenary of Independence. Rio de Janeiro: CPDOC/FGV, 1992.

[vi] TELLES, Gilberto Mendonca. European Vanguard and Brazilian Modernism. Presentation of the main avant-garde poems, manifestos, prefaces and lectures, from 1857 to 1972. 17th Ed. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 2002, p. 92.

[vii] RAFFAINI, Patricia Tavares. Sculpting Culture at Fôrma Brasil. The Department of Culture of São Paulo (1935 – 1938). São Paulo: Humanitas/FFLCH-USP, 2001; NOGUEIRA, Antonio Gilberto Ramos. For an inventory of the senses. Mário de Andrade and the conception of heritage and inventory. São Paulo: Hucitec, 2005 and MORAES, Eduardo Jardim de. I'm three hundred. Mário de Andrade, life and work. Rio de Janeiro: National Library Foundation/Edições de Janeiro, 2015.

[viii] SANDRONI, Carlos. Mario against Macunaíma. Culture and Politics in Mário de Andrade. São Paulo: Vértice, 1988, especially p. 53-69.

[ix] FABRIS, Annateresa. Paulista Futurism. Hypotheses for studying the arrival of the Vanguard in Brazil. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1994, p. 162.

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