Part of a visual pilgrimage toward Easter, this piece is the fourth in a series of spiritual meditations by Griffin Oleynick, who will visit a different art gallery each week through the season of Lent. Catch up on past installments here.
Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, February 11 through June 3, 2018
Psalm 137, which we sing during the Liturgy of the Word this fourth Sunday of Lent, expresses in a few short verses the yearning of an exiled people longing to return home: “By the streams of Babylon / we sat and wept / when we remembered Zion.” This collective lament, sung by a chorus of sorrowful voices, invites each of us to add our own particular nostalgias: perhaps we have lost a job or a loved one, experienced the end of a friendship or romantic relationship, or find ourselves otherwise in transition. All growth, however positive, always entails loss, pulling us away from the familiar comforts of home. How then, as the liturgy suggests this Laetare Sunday, can we look beyond the momentary gray of grief and revel in the unfading colors of joy?
Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, a new exhibition on view through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, introduces us to an artist who transformed her hunger for home into some of the most spiritually exuberant and stylistically revolutionary paintings of the twentieth century. “I want to be the painter of my country,” Tarsila do Amaral wrote from Paris to her family back in São Paolo in 1923. Now nearly a century later the playful, captivating works of Tarsila (as she is fondly called in Brazil, where she has since become an icon of national identity, even providing some of the colors and patterns for the opening ceremonies at the 2016 Rio Olympics) have finally arrived in the United States for their first-ever monographic exhibition. The range of works on display is vast, and includes more than 120 individual objects drawn from collections across the United States, Latin America, and Europe. Yet the show still retains a small, intimate feel. Flowing naturally and organically, it gives the impression of spending time alone with Tarsila, enabling us to share in the thrilling sense of discovery that propelled her pioneering visual journey.
Rather than attempting to present a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s entire career (Tarsila was born in 1886 and died in 1973), the exhibit’s curators have opted to focus on the 1920s, the pivotal decade in Tarsila’s stylistic development. Here she emerges as a seeker with a fundamental stance of openness toward the wondrous beauty of the world. Scrapbooks, letters, and photos document her steady search for new subjects, while numerous sketches and preparatory studies testify to her quick and easy assimilation of different visual styles (she dutifully completed her “military service in Cubism” with innovative masters like Fernand Léger). Living and working between diametrically opposite poles, avant-garde Paris at one end and rural Brazil at the other, Tarsila forged a signature style that fused the visual techniques of European modernism with explicitly Brazilian subjects, rendering them with a level of grace and dignity that had never before been achieved.