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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Anita Malfatti

The Lighthouse, 1915, Anita Malfatti--German Expressionism startles Brazil.                
Donkey Running, 1909,
Anita Malfatti (pre-Europe).
Probably the most difficult phenomena of life to deal with is the element of change. Yet, change may well be the most profound definition of life itself. We all change from moment to moment, literally with every breath we take we change and grow older. Without this life-giving change, we die within a matter of moments. Having drawn breath now for something over sixty-nine years, I can attest to the fact that because I breathe and change, I grow older yet continue to live (so far so good). As I've often said, the only thing worse than getting old is the alternative. In general people get along pretty well when change is gradual--when we have the opportunity to adapt. Sudden change, even when not directly fatal, can lead to illness and even death, such as in the death of an elderly spouse. Most of us are unconsciously aware of all of this, though we don't often think about it. However, what we're not so aware of is that the same effects regarding change in ourselves as individuals, also apply to our society and humanity as a whole. Evolutionary change nations can handle, revolutionary (sudden) changes cause economic, social, political, religious, and military upheavals, better known as wars (whether literal or figurative).
Tropical, 1917, Anita Malfatti. Even her most traditional content was seen as disruptive through the eyes of Brazilian accustomed to a realistic style and colors.
A Student, 1916, Anita Malfatti. Though
not officially a self-portrait, this bears a
striking resemblance to her photos.
If the rules regarding change apply in the narrow sense and in the broadest sense, we also have to assume that they apply equally to everything in between--such as art. I could give any number of examples in this regard as applied to art, but one that comes to mind at the moment is the life, times, and art of the Brazilian painter, Anita Malfatti. As a twenty-three-year-old art student, she departed Brazil heading for Berlin to further her art education beyond what was available in her native Sao Paulo. She arrived just in time to be swept up into the German Expressionist movement. She absorbed the rich color palette of this Pre-WW I style, its cubist influences, and emotional emphasis. In effect, she became a modernist. When she returned to Brazil some five years later around 1917, she was rewarded with a month-long solo show in Sao Paulo--a hometown girl who went away and made good, coming back to a hearty welcome, so to speak.

Landscape, Santo Amaro, 1920, Anita Malfatti,
after the Sao Paulo show, a more Brazilian ambience.
Except that's not what happened. Brazil was a county in search of an independent culture separate from it's Portuguese colonial heritage. In terms of art, as might be expected, the country was somewhat backward and conservative--the very factors which had sent Anita Malfatti off to Europe to study art. When she returned, she had changed. Brazil had not. Though Sao Paulo was probably the most progressive, industrialized city in Brazil, culturally they remained quite provincial. Anita Malfatti's art was anything but. Reaction to her show ranged from dismay to angry outrage, even though Anita had carefully (she thought) removed works she felt might be offensive (such as her nude paintings). Fresh from her studies in New York, where she had been hailed as a rising star in avant-garde art following the 1913 Armory Show, it's likely there was a great deal of culture shock on her part as well as among those who saw her show. Beyond that, Anita Malfatti was a woman.

Interior, 1927, Anita Malfatti--her art becomes more traditional.
Green Haired Woman, Anita Malfatti
During the first decades of the 20th-century women artists were fairly rare. In Brazil, they were practically non-existent, and in any case, tightly bound by a complex set of unwritten rules and expectations regarding their conduct and vocations. Anita Malfatti's art not only flew in the face of conservative expectations but was especially offensive because of her gender. Had she been a part of a Brazilian "Armory Show" Anita Malfatti would have been seen simply as part of a movement. As the stand-alone star of her own show, she became a lightning rod instead. She quickly came to symbolize modern art, personifying sudden, revolutionary change. Despite being born and raised in Brazil, she was seen as alien, attempting to impose European modernism on a country which was manifestly not ready nor willing to accept it. She was seen as scandalous.

The Fool (sometimes titled The Idiot),
1915-16, Anita Malfatti
The Russian Student, 1915,
Anita Malfatti
Malfatti was not alone in bringing modernist influences to Brazilian art in the 1920s, though for all intents and purposes, she might as well have been. Such generalized, even brutal rejection by her native country had its effect. It stifled change in Anita Malfatti's work. In some ways, one can see some degree of regression as she, perhaps unconsciously, strived to gain acceptance. Her colors were no less expressionist but her content and style became more traditionally "Brazilian." Yet just as her return had an impact upon her subsequent work, it also had a strong impact upon the artistic culture of Brazil, especially after Sao Paulo's "Week of Modern Art" in February, 1922, when Malfatti, as a member of the so-called "Group of Five" Sao Paulo artists (which also included Menotti Del Picchia, Mário de Andrade, Tarsila do Amaral, and Oswald de Andrade) made revolutionary changes to the structure, content, styles, and responses to Brazilian art.
Venice Canal, 1927, Anita Malfatti
Dora Rainha do Frevo,
1934, Anita Malfatti
Modernism was not a European monopoly. It sailed to the United States during the second decade of the 20th-century, spreading from there both north and south as international ocean travel became more comfortable, less costly, and thus more common. Modern Art was not, of course, limited just to painting, but to literature, design, music, architecture and other creative pursuits. In most of these areas, modernism brought gradual changes. That was not the case with Anita Malfatti's paintings. Today she is credited (perhaps more than she should be) as having brought Modernism to Brazil. Her 1917-18 one-woman show inadvertently came as a "rude awakening." Anita Malfatti died in 1964. Then, as now, conservative cultures--nations, cities, people--don't like to be rudely awakened.

Sao Vincente, 1942, Anita Malfatti


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