In honour of São Paulo’s 460th birthday, on 25 January, Itaú Cultural turns its attention to the moment at which the expanding city was captured in the lenses of its 20th-century visionaries.
The exhibition ‘Moderna para Sempre: Fotografia Modernista Brasileira na Coleção Itaú’ (Modern Forever: Modernist Brazilian Photography in the Itaú Collection), at Itaú's cultural centre on Avenida Paulista, brings together 116 images by Brazilian photographers, who were beginning to develop their own unique perspectives, from the late-1930s on, as the metropolis unfurled around them.
Zooming in on the architectural transformations taking place, as well as on everyday items and unexpected angles, they employed the jarring perspectives, patterned textures and geometric abstractions that became emblematic of Modernist photography, enjoying a revival of interest currently in the world of fine art.
At last year's SP-Arte/Foto fair, the São Paulo gallery Luciana Brito presented a beautiful stand dedicated to Brazilian Modernist photography, featuring works by Gaspar Gasparian, Geraldo de Barros and Thomaz Farkas; while the maestro German Lorca put in an appearance at the stand of Galeria FASS, aged 91 and clearly delighted to be there.
Work by each of the aforementioned photographers features in the exhibition at Itaú Cultural, on display until 9 March. And beyond the pleasure of the textures, the shapes and the shades of black and white, the images also demonstrate the vital importance of São Paulo’s urban landscape in forging Brazilian photography.
Brazilian Modernism is born
The birth of Brazilian Modernism can famously be traced to a single, watershed event: the seminal ‘Semana de Arte Moderna’ ('modern art week'), which took place at São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal in 1922, in a five-day event proclaiming the arrival of a new spirit and an experimental language across the arts, albeit as yet without any direct reference to photography. Photography clubs began forming in Brazil soon after, in the 1930s – notably here in São Paulo in the form of the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante in 1939.
According to the curator of the Itaú exhibition, Iatã Cannabrava, the images in the show display ‘the search for shapes and volumes, abstractions and surrealism, in an evident influence of the old European avant-garde’. Those intentions are clear in the optical illusion of Fabio Morais Bassi’s Perspectivas, Gunter E. G. Schroeder’s untitled mirrored snowflake-like diagonals, and the stark images of Georges Radó’s Composição N and Espinhas, which display the cold detail of X-ray slides.
Catalan exile Marcel Giró’s Esboço scratches out thin lines like Jackson Pollock details, hiding a placid lake and aquatic plants in plain sight, and giving ‘a special delicacy to match the forms, so inherent to modern photography,’ as Cannabrava describes it.
Other works like Paulo Pires’s three photos from 1960, Estudo Abstrato nº 1, Comporta and Curvas, are intriguing studies in movement, while Pires’s Construtores catches silhouetted workers during the early stages of erecting Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic Copan building, in downtown São Paulo.
But the Modernist Brazilian view is perhaps best seen in the 23 works by José Yalenti. Photographs like the unearthly, glowing fountain in Fonte 9 de Julho and the stunning Paralelas e Diagonais carry echoes of the German Bauhaus school, and of works such as those by Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy.
The exhibition, which has already toured a number of Brazilian cities, now includes a dozen recent acquisitions, including works by Yalenti, de Barros and Pires, serving as a fitting tribute to São Paulo, which Cannabrava rightly calls, ‘one of the most important stages for Modernism.’