I thought of writing this text in a least 5 different ways. I asked myself: should I use a more didactic tone or should I let my mind do its own – quite strange – thing? I opted for the latter because after all, seeing Tarsila do Amaral at the Museum of Modern Art two weekends ago was far from a mundane experience.
Sol Poente, 1929 – oil on canvas
Tarsila do Amaral was born on September 1st of 1886 in the city of São Paulo. Part of a traditional and wealthy family, Tarsila studied at renowned schools and had access to the world of arts and culture, eventually embarking to Europe to conclude her studies. By the time she was in her mid thirties, Amaral was already painting and drawing incessantly. In 1920, Tarsila left for Paris to study painting and sculpture and she spent time with artists whose ideals heavily influenced her own work.
By the time she returned to Brazil, Tarsila joined the Group of Five, which was a team of artists whose ideas were in direct relationship with avant-garde artists in Europe. Tarsila’s crucial role in the emergence of modernism in Brazil established her identity as far more than only an artist, but a true pioneer. Her portrayals of Brazilian culture served as a way to push the boundaries of Brazilian art as well as influencing the way the country was viewed and ultimately understood. As the exhibition states, Amaral once said “I want to be the painter of my country”.
And she was.
O Sono (Sleep), 1928 – oil on canvas
Tarsila became the painter of her own tropical nation, capturing its warmth, its forms and its subtleties. She reshaped the Brazilian identity with paintings like Abaporu. Now let me get clear on something: a painting such as Abaporu, for a Brazilian native like me, is a figure that I’m profoundly familiar with. I grew up seeing it, in books, at school, on the streets, in my dreams. It’s our Monalisa. Our connection to something greater. At least for me. However, sometimes the most grand and honorable matters can sadly be left in an isolated corner. Overlooked. Forgotten. It’s like the Eiffel Tower for Parisians. People from all over the globe travel thousands of miles to see it in person, but the people that live right next to it, might never notice. Might never go see it in person.
I realized the Abaporu was my Eiffel Tower. I knew about it. I saw it. I forgot about it. Somehow seeing it live for the first time starring right back at me, was incredibly rewarding. To the point that it was almost more than I could take.
Abaporu, 1928 – oil on canvas
I took a deep breath and I moved on.
I walked through her endless sketches and smaller paintings. Recognized some, felt surprised by others. Something came over me – the thought that haunts me from time to time. The thought that I haven’t been in my country for 4 years, the kind of thought I tend to ignore. The idea that day by day I feel less connected and adrift. The thought of not knowing where home really is. The thought of my grandparents that I miss so, so much. The feeling of safety that comes with being around people from the same corner of this Earth as you. The sweet familiarity that runs over me when I taste Brazilian spices. My skin dreams of the humid weather, the warm rain and the short winters.
The smell of black coffee.
The shades of green and grey, coexisting in between the chaotic nature of São Paulo.
The familiarity of Tarsila’s paintings.
I couldn’t hold my tears any longer when I finally discovered the divine Operários painting in the other room. It brought me back to my school years. The history classes. The art classes. Teachers who exposed me to Tarsila. My mother’s words. It was right there, in New York City, in front of me. I had the chance to face my inner emotions while reminding myself of where I come from. Not that I was ever able to forget, but sometimes, it all becomes foggy.
I was not merely seeing Tarsila’s paintings, but rather mindfully looking at them. It all made sense.
This exhibition is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through June 3rd.
Operários, 1933 – oil on canvas