By Rita Shannon Koeser
In a small town in the interior of São Paulo state there is a museum dedicated to the memory of one of the most influential painters of the early modern art movement in Brazil. Located in a blue three storey colonial building with a copy of her most famous painting, Abaporu”, painted on it, the Tarsila do Amaral Memorial sits on a quiet street in the town of Rafard. The museum was created a few years ago by Tarsila’s nephew and his daughter to honor the memory of their famous relative. The museum exhibits works from all three phases of Tarsila’s painting. The phases are known as Pau-Brasil, Antropofagia, and Social.. There are also family pictures, pictures of Tarsila with each of her husbands, with her daughter and granddaughter, and other mementos and letters. There is even a document on which Tarsila had erased her date of birth and written in another year, making her several years younger than she was. She used to say “An artist has no age”.
The Tarsila do Amaral Memorial in Rafard
She was cultured, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, but she would always remember her Brazilian country roots. She grew up in the splendor of the coffee growing elite during the coffee boom in Brazil. In Paris in the 1920’s, she studied the new styles in art, and she was friends with all the important musicians, artists and writers living there. She was noticed wherever she went and was known as a great beauty. Her nephew, Guilherme Augusto do Amaral, who was her lawyer and is now the executor of her estate, remembers first meeting her when she came to visit his family with one of her paintings. “My first memory of her is when I was four years old in 1934, and she came to visit us with her painting ‘Operrios’ (workers), and I was so impressed with that painting and with her”, he said. “She was elegant, cultured, and she had strong bonds with the family. She was very kind to the children. But the family which was a very formal, conventional upper class family was a bit shocked by her” he added.
Her painting “Operrios” (inside the museum) from her Social period
Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) broke all the rules, in her work and in her personal life. She was a strong woman who had the courage to live life on her own terms. She became part of a group of writers and artists who in the early 1920’s staged the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo. They wanted to modernize their country culturally and artistically. Instead of so much European influence, they wanted to portray their own country with its festivals, African influence, and tropical colors. .Tarsila’s paintings would incorporate the new trends of Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism which she used to express the Brazil she loved. Her art represented a break from the conservative academic painting of the time. Her most famous painting, “Abaporu” was sold at Christie’s in New York in 1995 for 1.3 million dollars, which was a record for a Brazilian painting.
Her most famous painting, Abaporu, considered her masterpiece (this is a copy painted on her museum)
Tarsila grew up and had a happy childhood on her farm, São Bernardo, near Capivari. Her father was a wealthy coffee baron, and she had all the advantages of a child of her class. A young Belgian woman lived in the house and taught the children French , as was the custom of upper class families at the time. Tarsila, in time, would speak French like a native. It was a cultured household. Her mother, a talented pianist, would play the piano in the afternoons in the library filled with books in French. The food was imported directly from France, and their clothing was French. She and her siblings were acquainted with the works of the French writers and poets like Voltaire and Victor Hugo from an early age. In her mother’s room, Tarsila used to like to play with a tape measure that had portraits of all the French kings on it. She loved to play in the forest surrounding the house. She would remember “I was always very free on the farm. I was always playing, running, climbing and falling out of trees” Years later she would write to her mother from Paris “I feel increasingly Brazilian. I want to be the painter of my country. How thankful I am to have passed my whole childhood on the farm. The memories of those times are becoming precious to me”.
Her first husband, whom she married in 1906, the father of her only child , was a man who didn’t share her interest in books, music and art. They were together for seven years. But she felt suffocated in this marriage, and unlike most women of her class at that time who were expected to resign themselves to unhappy marriages, Tarsila separated from her husband and went to São Paulo to study art. Her conservative family was scandalized by this, and it was difficult for her as a woman living alone separated from her husband.
After a previous visit to Paris to study art, in 1923 Tarsila returned to Paris with the poet and writer Oswald de Andrade while still married to her first husband. She again studied art, and socially she made a big splash. She was noticed wherever she went. She was friends with all the important people. The guest list at her Brazilian lunches would include Picasso, Erik Satie, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky and others. These were some of the happiest years of her life, and later she would remember “In my studio on rue Hegesippe Moreau, in Montmartre, I entertained all the artistic avant-garde of Paris”. A brunette with big expressive eyes, Tarsila was 5 feet 4 inches tall and wore her hair pulled back. She always wore enormous earrings. She wore clothes by the best designers in Paris. Tarsila caused a stir one evening when she went to the theater to see a ballet. When she entered her box, everyone turned around to look at her. The poet and critic Sergio Milliet remembered “The black hair… the extravagant earrings almost touching the soft dark shoulders”. Years later, Oswald de Andrade’s son would say “Tarsila was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. And I think that she was more beautiful still on this night”. Tarsila and Oswald were very much in love, but she was still married to her first husband. Because of the pressures from her traditional family, she tried to be discreet about her relationship with Oswald. But Tarsila always followed her own star.
Her later years were filled with heartbreak. She married Oswald de Andrade in 1926, and they separated in 1930. Her third husband was twenty years her junior, and he would eventually leave her for a younger woman. Both her daughter and granddaughter died before their time. The stock market crash in 1929 affected coffee prices in Brazil, and her family lost a lot of their wealth. But Tarsila’s indomitable spirit never left her. She endured all without complaint. She had loved life and had lived it on her own terms. And she still found joy in her art. She continued painting, and there were many retrospectives of her work. In 1964, she represented Brazil at the Venice Biennial. She died in São Paulo on January 17, 1973.
In the Tarsila do Amaral Memorial, her paintings are exhibited in small rooms organized according to the different phases of her painting. Most of the paintings are copies, the originals being in museums or the homes of private collectors. On one wall is a copy of her masterpiece “Abaporu”, the painting that sold at Christie’s to an Argentine collector in 1995 for 1.3 million dollars. She painted this in 1928 as a birthday present for her husband, Oswald de Andrade. This phase of her painting is called Antropofagia. The pictures are characterized by exaggerated anatomical forms and a certain surrealist flavor. They have a mysterious and dreamlike quality . In another room the works of first phase, Pau-Brasil are exhibited. In these paintings, the influence of her teacher in Paris, the cubist painter, Fernand Leger, is evident in the geometric forms of cubism. These paintings have vivid colors, bold brush strokes and tropical landscapes which were Tarsila’s tribute to Brazil. Tarsila’s style completely changed with her Social phase. Her famous painting “Operrios” (workers) is in the room that encompasses the paintings of this period. She painted this in 1933 after her trip to the Soviet Union. She was influenced by the idealism of that time. After her trip, she became concerned with social themes.
Paintings inside the museum, from her Pau-Brasil period
The Tarsila do Amaral Memorial is open Monday to Friday, from 12:00pm to 5:00pm. The address is Rua Mauricio Alain, Centro, CEP 13370-000, Rafard, SP. The telephone number is: (19) 3496-1679. The museum can be visited alone or with a guide. English and Spanish tours need to be scheduled ahead of time. Directions to the museum from São Paulo: Rodovia Castelo Branco. Follow directions to Piracicaba. Get off at the entrance to Capivari. From Capivari, take Pio Xll Avenue straight to Rafard.
One of the paintings inside the museum, from her Pau-Brasil period
Previous articles by Rita:
Learning English in Brazil’s Outback
Brazil: An Encounter In The Amazon
Manaus and the Rubber Boom“