“I want to be the painter of my country. I am so thankful to have spent the whole of my childhood in the fazenda. My memories of that time have grown precious to me,” wrote Tarsila do Amaral in a letter to her parents sent from Paris in 1923. Born in 1886 in the rural town of Capivari, on the outskirts of São Paulo, do Amaral was raised in the bucolic, Francophile environment of Brazil’s bourgeoisie. At age 34 she left for Paris, where she enrolled at the Académie Julian, the famous school for modern art that drew many international students, while simultaneously studying with French painters André Lhote, Albert Gleizes, and Fernand Léger, who trained their students in Cubism. Here she would fulfill what she referred to as her “military service” 1 with Cubism, while searching for a distinct Brazilian voice within modern art.
While do Amaral was away in Paris, São Paulo’s arts scene was galvanized by the transformative Modern Art Week, a multidisciplinary series of lectures and exhibitions organized in commemoration of the country’s centennial celebration of independence. Upon her return in 1923, do Amaral was deeply inspired by the spirit this event had instilled in her friends—artist Anita Malfatti and writers Oswald de Andrade, Mário de Andrade, and Paulo Menotti del Picchia—with whom she formed the Group of Five later that same year. In the following months, she set out to explore her native country. She sought inspiration from the local landscape, characters, and popular culture, blending the innovations of the European avant-garde with a Brazilian vernacular sensibility to produce a body of work that was as personal as it was novel. Although her career spanned more than six decades, her most influential body of work dates from this early period, when her paintings and drawings became the visual icons of Brazil’s modern identity.
In 1928, she painted Abaporu, depicting a seated figure with a foreshortened foot against a blooming cactus. The title combined two words from the language of the Tupi-Guarani Indians: aba (“man”) and poru (“who eats human flesh”). This landmark painting inspired her husband Oswald de Andrade—who received the canvas as a birthday gift—to write the “Manifesto of Anthropophagy.” It also became the banner for this transformative artistic movement, which diagnosed Brazil's colonial trauma and imagined a national modern culture arising from the symbolic digestion—or artistic “cannibalism”—of outside influences. Shortly after the publication of the movement’s manifesto, do Amaral and de Andrade divorced, and her approach to art shifted significantly. In a sketch for Lonely Figure (1930), a metaphorical self-portrait rendered with striking simplicity, the contemplative figure stands with her back to the viewer, facing the sublime immensity of the landscape, her hair extending out of the frame. The only painting she produced that year, it marked the culmination of the most prolific period in her career, after which she abandoned imaginative depictions of nature in favor of a more socially committed form of representation. As Brazil sank into Getúlio Vargas’s nationalist dictatorial regime, do Amaral embraced a Marxist ideology. In 1933, after a brief incarceration for being a leftist sympathizer, she painted Operários (Workers) and Segunda Classe (Second Class), large canvases depicting groups of migrants and workers in a somber palette, emphasizing the racial diversity, and often miserable conditions, of the modern industrial society.
Tarsila do Amaral was one of the leading figures in defining a Brazilian modernist tradition. Hers is one of many cases illustrating the centrality of women artists in modernizing art movements throughout Latin America. Decades later, the influence of the Anthropophagic movement was rediscovered, celebrated, and restored by a generation of artists working in Brazil in the 1960s, notably those associated with the Tropicália movement, including the musician Caetano Veloso, who acknowledged that “the idea of cultural cannibalism served us, tropicalists, like a glove.”2 In the 1970s, other artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica continued to draw inspiration from do Amaral’s achievement in creating a modern Brazilian vocabulary in the visual arts. Their productions extended her legacy beyond painting, from literature and music to fashion and theater.