‘A Furious Determination to Be Up-to-Date’: Looking Back on ArtReview’s Review of the First São Paulo Bienal

Itself only three years old, in 1951 ArtReview, or Art News and Review as it was then titled, visited the first Bienal de São Paulo. Steeped in the colonial language and tone of the time, seventy years on, Eric Newton’s report nonetheless makes fascinating reading as the thirty-fourth edition opens this week

The city of São Paulo spreads outwards among dry, rolling hills—outwards and upwards, for new skyscrapers spring up in its centre at what strikes a European as an alarming rate, and a continually thickening belt of little villas adds itself to its circumference as the population increases. Already it contains two and a half million inhabitants. In size it has nearly drawn level with Rio de Janeiro, which has no circumference because it is hemmed in between a long waterfront and impossibly steep mountains. There is no reason why São Paulo should not continue to expand, outwards and upwards, as long as business is brisk and there are fortunes to be made.

Unlike Rio, it is not a beautiful city. Despite its wealth it has no air of opulence, though it displays all the symptoms of success. It is the capital of the State of São Paulo, but it has none of Rio’s metropolitan grandeur. It is merely very big and determined to grow bigger. And it is gradually developing a cultural tradition. It contains, for example, two art galleries, housed on opposite sides of the same building, which manage to co-exist on terms of friendly rivalry. Each owes its flourishing existence to local benevolence and local wealth. Senhor Chateaubriand, that restless newspaper millionaire (who has just built a television station on top of the Rio Sugarloaf, thereby giving it the appearance of a sea-lion delicately balancing a large biscuit-box on. its nose), is the patron of the biggish Museum of Art, which contains a bewildering cross-section of world art from the Renaissance onwards. Senhor Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho provides the energy and the funds that drive the smaller but more select Museum of Modern Art. And to the same Senhor Matarazzo’s enthusiasm São Paulo owes the first South American Bienal which opened last month and contained contributions from twenty-two nations as well as a large Brazilian section of painting and sculpture.

The most obvious characteristic of Brazilian cities is a furious determination to be up-to-date. The Portuguese colonists of the middle and late eighteenth century tested the richness of the country’s resources in minerals and precious stones and left behind them a charming record in terms of Provincial Baroque architecture, mainly in Bahia and the State of Minas Gerais, During the nineteenth century Brazil seems to have lapsed into a gentle sleep from which, during the last two decades, it has awakened with a suddenness and an energy that are almost disconcerting. Consequently, Brazil regards with the gravest suspicion today anything in art or architecture that is not of the very latest – or what it conceives to be the very latest design. Architecturally it is quite confident of itself, for it possesses in Oscar Niemeyer the most progressively energetic and daring of all modern architects, whose only weakness is a folie de grandeur that robs him of a sense of scale and tempts him to think in unnecessarily
gargantuan terms.

In painting, Brazil is equally determined to be up-to-date but not quite so certain of its standards, My own impression, as a member of the international jury that assembled a week: before the opening of the São Paulo Bienal in order to award prizes, is that the Brazilian test of modernity is too simple. Romantic or anecdotal painting is automatically under a cloud. Abstract art tends to receive sympathetic consideration because of its category rather than because of its merit. One felt that in making many of its awards the jury was playing for safety and that, in the face of the abstract obsession, gentle romantics like [Médard] Tytgat or surrealist romantics like [Paul] Delvaux were almost hors concours; that Graham Sutherland and [John] Craxton – both well represented in the English section – were misunderstood for the same reason; and that the preponderance of abstract painting in the Italian, Swiss and German sections attracted more attention than it deserved. In awarding the chief prize for painting to the French painter, [Roger] Chastel, for a charming and tasteful non-figurative picture, the jury made a sensible rather than a courageous decision.

But Brazil is a young country, and the São Paulo Bienal is its latest experiment. If, as one hopes, this is the first of a series of international exhibitions of contemporary art, maturity of judgment will surely follow at a later stage. The success and the popularity of the exhibition this year is assured, and the fact that it was conceived no more than a year ago and that the excellent building in which it is housed was erected in a space of three months, makes its success almost miraculous.

The British contribution, naturally handicapped by the claims of the festival year and the consequent reluctance of authorities to allow our best contemporary stuff to leave this country, was modest but good. In particular, the British show of colour-lithographs created a minor sensation and gained two prizes out of four in the prints section. Prunella Clough and Robert Adams scored easy second and third places after the first prize had gone to the Italian Viviani. The British Council, from whose own collection the British section was furnished, fulfilled its true function in São Paulo. Its machinery worked smoothly and efficiently. The reputations of the Brazilian painters, [Candido] Portinari, [Lasa] Segall and [Emiliano Di] Cavalcanti still stand deservedly high in their own country. Timed to synchronise with the Bienial was a big retrospective exhibition of Segall’s painting and sculpture at the Museum of Art. Segall’s roots are traceable to the early expressionist movement in Munich, to which he made his own contribution, but he is now a whole-hearted Brazilian. Portinari is still prolific though he has found little that is new to say during the past decade. The general level of indigenous Brazilian painting, once one has eliminated the mass of derivative work that could just as easily have emanated from Italy or France, is fairly high, and among contemporary Brazilian painters are one or two naive artists of genuine sincerity. The best of them is [José Antônio da] Silva, who took to painting in middle life as a duck takes to water, after he had made the – to him – astonishing discovery that pictures are not painted by machinery.

Originally published under the headline Report from Brazil in Art News and Review, volume 3, no 22, 1951

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