Installation view of Geraldo de Barros, Fotoforma, Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, January 1951

Snapshot: Art in Brazil at Midcentury

Read about a trailblazing group of amateur Brazilian photographers in an exclusive excerpt from the Fotoclubismo exhibition catalogue.

Seventy years ago the very idea of a museum that exhibited modern art was a challenge for most audiences. To refer to MoMA, or any comparably focused museum, as an “institution” at that time would have been to suggest a sense of permanence that belied the precarity of its circumstances. Until 1953, for instance, as a matter of Museum policy, paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, once the artists were deemed “established” (and thus, arguably, no longer “modern”), would be transferred by a cooperative agreement from the upstart MoMA to the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art.[1] Such was the cost a museum such as MoMA had to pay in order to secure, even temporarily, gifts of notable canvases from generous donors.

The status of photography as an art form was similarly tenuous. Although MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., had envisioned a museum that embraced a multivalent approach to modernism, encompassing film, architecture, design, photography, and more, it would take him a decade to persuade the Museum’s trustees to create a Department of Photography (which they did, in December 1940). That the city of São Paulo established not one but two major museums attentive to modern art in the years after the Second World War, and that by January 1951 each of these had mounted solo exhibitions of work by young, experimental photographers, is, frankly, remarkable.[2]

Installation view of Thomaz Farkas, Estudos fotográficos (Photographic Studies), Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, July 1949. Above, at left: Miguel Forte and Jacob Ruchti; center: Thomaz Farkas

Installation view of Thomaz Farkas, Estudos fotográficos (Photographic Studies), Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, July 1949. Above, at left: Miguel Forte and Jacob Ruchti; center: Thomaz Farkas

On July 21, 1949, the recently inaugurated Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM) opened Estudos fotográficos (Photographic Studies), an exhibition of 60 prints by Thomaz Farkas. Although the exhibition was installed in the Salo Pequeno (the smaller of the museum’s two galleries)—paintings by the Brazilian modernist Cícero Dias filled the larger space—the exhibition design, developed in collaboration with the architects Miguel Forte and Jacob Ruchti, expressed the ambition and daring of the artist whose work appeared in it.[3] The focal point of the display was a long wall against which leaned 24 parallel white supports.

Farkas’s photographs were affixed in irregular patterns to this scaffolding, along with a handful of imageless surrogates (light and dark panels of similar scale). Purposefully resisting the hallmarks of traditional displays, both the imageless panels and the photos were installed without mats or frames, often far above or below optimal viewing height, their shadows forming asymmetric echoes against the wall. Photographs from Farkas’s series depicting dancers from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (published in Rio magazine, also in July 1949) were mounted on two hollow triangular supports, one white, one black, each dangling between floor and ceiling, in a manner reminiscent of twirling figures on a stage. Some photographs were secured to freestanding panels forming geometric patterns in dialogue with the architecture represented in the images, while other rectangular, high-contrast images of various sizes unfolded along a wall, their top edges aligned. This was ostensibly an exhibition of photographs, but a viewer’s approach to the individual prints was everywhere subsumed within taut, immersive graphic arrangements.[4] Farkas’s daring was admired if not entirely understood by his fellow Bandeirantes, who reported in the Boletim foto-cine:

Installation view of Thomaz Farkas, Estudos fotográficos (Photographic Studies), Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, July 1949

Installation view of Thomaz Farkas, Estudos fotográficos (Photographic Studies), Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, July 1949

We are delighted to report that the renowned amateur “Bandeirante” Thomaz J. Farkas’s exhibition of his Estudos fotograficos opened at the Museu de Arte Moderna on the twenty-first of this month. It seems like only yesterday that the fifteen-year-old Thomaz introduced himself to us at the FCCB clubhouse, written parental consent having been granted so that he might join our ranks. Young Farkas trained at the club, and his promising future in Brazilian art photography was obvious from the outset.

He never conformed to convention, breaking from the shackles of tradition, focusing boldly on the investigation of dynamic, luminous rhythms, his temperament steering him away from the prevalent romanticism. From the beginning, he daringly infringed on classical canons so as to highlight content over form.... Not always understood, he is nevertheless admired as an artistic photographer both here and abroad, having established himself as a striking, distinctive personality.

His solo exhibition is raising considerable interest and drawing a large crowd of photography lovers to the Museu de Arte Moderna’s Salão Pequeno.[5]

A generous suite of installation views, presumably staged by Farkas, enables us to fully appreciate the innovation and intentionality of this display. And while it may be immediately apparent that the show’s design represents a dramatic departure from the regular grids of matted and framed photos that were standard methods of photographic display, it should be noted that Estudos fotográficos demanded the active engagement of the viewer and an attentiveness to voids and shadows long before these became embedded in expectations for experiencing art.

Installation view of Geraldo de Barros, Fotoforma, Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, January 1951

Installation view of Geraldo de Barros, Fotoforma, Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, January 1951

MAM had opened to the public in March 1949 with the exhibition Dosimo ao abstracionismo (From Figurativism to Abstraction), organized by the Belgian art critic Léon Degand. Although the strict geometries of Concrete art were beginning to gain traction in South America, particularly in Argentina, it would be several years before this commitment was equally evident in Brazil.[6] Farkas found his abstractions in the architecture and industry of postwar Brazil, and the geometric design of his exhibition at MAM underscored his formal interests.

That it was a photographer and not a painter who had anticipated the abstract turn in Brazilian art begins to explain why Farkas’s precocious work rarely factors into scholarship on postwar geometric abstraction.[7] A year and a half after Estudos fotográficos, attentive audiences would have encountered another solo exhibition of a photographer whose work presented an even greater challenge to the status quo, in the same building on rua Sete de Abril in downtown São Paulo. On January 2, 1951, Geraldo de Barros’s Fotoforma opened at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), featuring some 25 photographs that rested on pedestals or were secured on floor-to-ceiling aluminum poles around the perimeter of the museum’s temporary exhibition space.[8] MASP had been open for just over three years, and de Barros, who supported himself through a day job at Banco de Brasil, was not quite twenty eight.[9]

Read the whole exhibition catalogue.

Fotoclubismo is organized by Sarah Hermanson Meister, Curator, with Dana Ostrander, Curatorial Assistant, Robert B. Menschel Department of Photography, and is on view at The Museum of Modern Art through September 26.

Notes
1) For a fascinating account of these plans and their eventual dismantling (although not before the transfer of several major works), see Kirk Varnedoe, “The Evolving Torpedo: Changing Ideas of the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of The Museum of Modern Art,” in The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century: Continuity and Change, Studies in Modern Art 5 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1995), 12–73.
2) For more on these museums and the circumstances of their founding, see Zeuler R. M. A. Lima, “Nelson A. Rockefeller and Art Patronage in Brazil after World War II: Assis Chateaubriand, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM),” Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports Online (2010), n.p., and Adrian Anagnost, “Limitless Museum: P. M. Bardi’s Aesthetic Reeducation,” Modernism/modernity 4, cycle 4 (December 13, 2019): n.p.
3) Helouise Costa’s exceptional scholarship is at the foundation of my understanding of the FCCB. Her original research and astute observations regarding Farkas and this exhibition are recorded in “The Photographic Studies by Thomaz Farkas: 70 years of a singular exhibition,” in Estudos fotográficos, Thomaz Farkas, 36–61.
4) Among the exhibitions that Farkas may have seen at MoMA the previous fall that prefigure some of these display strategies are Art in the Neighborhood: Focus on World Unity (November 10–28, 1948) and Photographs by Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan, Ted Croner, Lisette Model (November 30, 1948–February 10, 1949). Costa notes that Forte and Ruchti had traveled to the United States in 1947, where they saw exhibitions at MoMA and at Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century gallery.
5) Boletim 39 (July 1949): 14.
6) Aleca Le Blanc cautions, “It warrants emphasizing that while geometric abstraction would come to occupy the prevailing critical position by the end of the decade, and continues to dominate the historiography of the period, in the early 1950s it was a fluid debate, and even in 1953 that position had not yet solidified. The supposed transition from figuration to abstraction at the critical forefront was neither immediate, nor straightforward, nor totalizing. In fact, what is most important is that a debate like this had a forum in which to exist, and people that wanted to engage with it, thanks in large part to the creation of new exhibition spaces, art publications and critics, which together provided a more robust context that could sustain a prolonged public debate.” From “Serpa, Portinari, Palatnik and Pedrosa: The Drama of an ‘Artistic Moment’ in Rio de Janeiro, 1951,” Diálogo 20, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 15.
7) Steichen’s exhibition Abstraction in Photography (MoMA, May 1– July 4, 1951) is an important point of reference discussed later in this essay.
8) This exhibition design, and specifically the aluminum poles, was typical of Lina Bo Bardi’s work at MASP in its original location. See Lima, “Nelson A. Rockefeller and Art Patronage in Brazil after World War II.”
9) The most comprehensive consideration of de Barros’s work (in Portuguese only) is Heloisa Espada’s Geraldo de Barros e a fotografia, exh. cat. (São Paulo: Instituto Moreira Salles/Edições Sesc São Paulo, 2014). Danielle Stewart’s “Geraldo de Barros: Photography as Construction,” H-ART Revista de historia, teoría y crítica de arte 2 (2018): 73–92, is valuable both for its research and analysis, distilled from the first chapter of her dissertation at the Graduate Center, CUNY, “Framing the City: Photography and the Construction of São Paulo, 1930– 1955.” See also Geraldo de Barros Fotoformas–Sobras (bilingual edition) (Lausanne: Idpure éditions/ Musée de l’Elysée, 2013).