The Soul of Brazil

By Holston, Mark | The World and I, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Soul of Brazil

Holston, Mark, The World and I

A mammoth trove of Brazilian art from the Baroque period to the present is being parceled out for multiple exhibits in the Western Hemisphere and Europe for all eyes to see.

Five centuries of cultural fermentation and evolution in one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations has produced a body of artistic expression so aesthetically rich and captivating that it is finally attracting the attention of the art capitals of the world. Last year's observance of the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Portuguese explorers saw a concerted effort among Brazil's major art institutions to reexamine the country's art legacy.

Spearheaded by the So Paulo--based Brazil 500 Association (recently renamed Brasil Connects to reflect an expanded role), tantalizing exhibits of the country's varied art traditions were organized and sent on tour. Since then, the best of Brazil's popular and academic painters, sculptors, fabric artists, and photographers, both historic and contemporary, have been featured in cities throughout North and South America and Europe.

It should come as no surprise that Latin America's largest and most populous nation has produced its share of art worthy of international attention. But until recently, the totality of its art traditions has been little known or appreciated beyond its borders. Geographic isolation, accentuated by the impenetrable Amazon Basin in the country's northern reaches and thinly populated rural expanses along its western borders, is one factor that has kept Brazilians looking inward and neighbors at a distance. Their strong sense of uniqueness and separation is further heightened by these factors: Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere, and its cultural mores differ considerably from those of the Spanish-speaking countries surrounding it.

The breadth of Brazil's artistic expression is enormous, providing explicit--and often contradictory--perspectives on a country that remains an enigma to the world and its own citizens. Traditions range widely: from rustic ceramic folk art created by landless peasants in the country's arid and impoverished interior to ornate eighteenth- century statuary expressive of the prevailing Catholic religion, to the works of urban painters associated with the neo-concrete movement fashionable in major metropolitan centers in recent decades. Always in the mix are such potent influences as Brazil's large African community, its indigenous peoples, and the immigrants constantly flowing in from Europe, the Middle East, and the Orient.

Baroque Takes Hold

It is fitting that the roots of the word baroque can be traced to the Portuguese language. Barr(tm)co, according to one school of thought, was initially used as a derogatory description of a deformed pearl. In time, the word came to be associated with European traditions of art, architecture, and music between roughly 1600 and 1750, following the Renaissance. Commenting on Baroque music, Rousseau wrote in 1776 of a style in which "harmony is confused, loaded with modulations and dissonance, difficult intonation, and strong movement." Baroque art and architecture have also been described in terms of stylistic excess.

"The Baroque style is a study of contrasts," comments Jorge Glusberg, director of Buenos Aires' Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which was one of four Argentine museums that exhibited an expansive collection of Brazilian Baroque art earlier this year. "Contrasts between small and large forms, close and distant, concave and convex, light and darkness. But these opposites are superseded by a basic unifying factor: Its objective is a reality in which the natural and supernatural combine to establish a spectacular amalgamation. Brazilian Baroque art has had an enormous influence on the art and architecture of all of Latin America. It speaks of the entire region."

Baroque art flourished in Brazil about a century after the movement attained its zenith in Europe. …

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