An unforgettable sight on São Paulo's Avenida Paulista, the astonishing concrete-and-glass Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), is one of the city's few picture postcard images, its immense central core suspended beneath a pair of scarlet concrete beams. Yet despite the building's aesthetic impact, and notwithstanding its extraordinary US$2bn collection, the museum itself has rarely, in recent years, felt like a solid-gold, must-see attraction for passing visitors.
But thanks to a shake-up inside, and a return to its former ground-breaking exhibition architecture, it does now.
Among the many intriguing elements that define the life’s work of MASP’s architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992), the Italian immigrant architect who made São Paulo her home in 1947, her love of glass is most obviously to the fore at MASP – Bo Bardi called it a ‘fixed tropical greenhouse’ – and in her own São Paulo home, the stunning Casa de Vidro (Glass House).
Her use of glass, though, was at its boldest in the exhibition architecture she created for the main gallery inside MASP in this, the museum’s second and current incarnation, on Avenida Paulista. It took the form of a panorama of free-standing, concrete-and-glass easels – a legion of light, transparent mounts for MASP’s breathtaking collection of mainly figurative international art, assembled by the Brazilian media tycoon Francisco de Assis Chateaubriand and MASP’s founding director, Pietro Maria Bardi, Lina’s husband, the majority purchased in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In Bo Bardi’s utterly original design, unveiled at the building’s inauguration in 1968, paintings from the collection were suspended on sheets of glass set on compact concrete plinths, in a configuration that lasted from 1968 to 1996, when the easels were replaced by a more conventional, sectioned-off, wall-mounted exhibition layout.
A year into his tenure as MASP’s artistic director, the curator Adriano Pedrosa has wasted no time in reinstating the historic layout, despite the ongoing financial difficulties faced by the institution, in a new, permanent exhibition, Picture Gallery in Transformation, which opened on 10 December 2015. “Bo Bardi’s easels are totally in tune with the building,” says Pedrosa, referring to the MASP’s exposed workings, simple materials and purposely rough concrete finish. “They employ a sort of Brechtian strategy of revealing their own structure,” he says, drawing attention to the reverse sides of the paintings, variously crossed by wooden supports; franked with stickers and stamps attesting to past loans, exhibitions and purchases; and in one case – that of a 1941 self portrait by the Brazilian painter José Pancetti (Autorrettrato com Marreta) – bearing a second, unfinished painting on the back.
View of MASP’s collection exhibition space, on Avenida Paulista, 1970s. Photo: Instituto Lina Bo e Pietro Maria Bardi, by Paolo Gasparini
Visiting the exhibition is an exhilarating experience, from the moment you step from the lift into the vast salon, whether you follow the chronological timeline, snaking back and forth along the 17 rows of artworks, or plunge headlong in to find your own way through what feels like an enchanted forest of paintings, lavishly colourful and becoming almost preposterous in their importance as you roam: you move, as in a dream, past eerily familiar works by Velázquez, Rembrandt and Titian, by Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh, and by the Brazilian artists Portinari, di Cavalcanti, Malfatti and Segall, among the 119 works currently on display (see the full list here). A scattering of sculptures includes a 4th-century marble of the goddess Hygeia, a pair of grimacing Tang Dynasty (618-907) warriors, and works by Rodin and Degas, including the latter’s 1881 Little Dancer, Aged 14, part of the museum’s complete collection of 73 sculptures by the artist.
The final work in the exhibition, Marcelo Cidade’s Tempo Suspenso de um Estado Povisório (Suspended Time of a Provisional State, 2011), the sole 21st-century artwork, is a replica of one of Bo Bardi’s original easels, its tempered glass splintered by the impact of two bullets shot from a revolver, converting the easel itself, as Pedrosa writes in the catalogue, into ‘an object of institutional reflection’.
Back of Gypsy with a Mandolin, 1874, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (installation view, Museu d'Arte de Sao Paulo). Photo: Claire Rigby
The easels, reconstructed in a range of four sizes, are in one sense utterly simple, giving a light, floating aspect to the paintings, which are suspended on the glass via back-frames crossed by sturdy steel mounts. On the other hand, each easel consists of more than a dozen discrete parts, including concrete blocks, glass and polycarbonate sheets, steel nuts and bolts, wooden wedges and rubber shock absorbers.
Veneers of anti-reflective glass protect the fronts of 84 of the paintings from dust, UV (99%) and malicious attacks: the largest works, as yet unprotected, are guarded by watchful security guards and, says Pedrosa, by a verbal warning not to touch as visitors exit the elevator and enter the room. If there were a need to be reminded of the importance of that protection, another exhibition currently showing in MASP’s lower-ground-floor gallery, the artist Carla Zaccagnini’s Elements of Beauty: A Tea Set is Never Only a Tea Set (2012–14), consists of the empty outlines of 23 paintings and 6 numbers, representing 29 artworks attacked by British suffragettes between 1913 and 1914. In the case of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647–51), Mary Richardson slashed the canvas with a meat cleaver, carving seven welts across the goddess’s back. “Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas,” she said.
View of the picture gallery of MASP in December 2015. Photo: Eduardo Ortega
“The whole idea of the exhibition layout is to bring the works closer to the public,” says Pedrosa, “so that they no longer seem like objects from another world.” His decision to arrange the exhibition in a purely chronological order, deviating from Bo Bardi’s original grouping of the works by periods, schools and geographical regions, charges that electrifying proximity with the freedom, for visitors, to create their own routes through the works, and to make their own, intensely personal connections. Pedrosa expands on this line of thought in the exhibition catalogue. ‘In this context, there is an understanding that the space should be perceived wholly, clearly and in a single way by the visitors,’ he writes, ‘who can thus dominate it in their personal vision and understanding, rather than being submitted to it.’
You can feel that, almost tangibly, inside the gallery. Where the previous sectioned-off layout bred an air of hushed, almost submissive reverence to the weight of art history, in Picture Gallery in Transformation, there’s a palpable air of curiosity, engagement, pleasure and even ownership in the visitors’ postures and progression through the gallery – a sense that these deeply familiar images, this history, is our history, and that we are at liberty to explore it and make sense of it ourselves. In Bo Bardi’s words, the layout was intended to ‘produce shock’ and ‘awaken reactions of curiosity and investigation’. It does just that and more, placing MASP’s permanent collection back on the agenda as a revelatory, profoundly educational art experience for every possible kind of visitor.
Watch a video tour of the exhibition in hyperlapse here
Online exclusive published on 6 January 2016.