Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger

Breaching the Frame

The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan

Pedro R. Erber (Author)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 248 pages
ISBN: 9780520282438
December 2014
$65.00, £48.95
Circa 1960, artists working at the margins of the international art world breached the frame of canvas painting and ruptured the institutional frame of art. Members of the Brazilian Neoconcrete group, such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, and their counterparts in Japan, such as Akasegawa Genpei and the Kansai-based Gutai Art Association, challenged the boundaries between art and non-art, between fiction and reality, between visual artwork and its discursive frame. In place of the indefinitely deferred promise of a revolution of the senses, artists called for “direct action” here and now. Pedro Erber situates the beginnings of these profound transformations of art in the politically charged debates on realism and abstraction and in the experiments of 1950s concrete poetry. He shows how artists and critics in Brazil and Japan brought modern painting to a point of crisis that paved the way for the radical experiments of the 1960s generation. In contrast to the “dematerialization” of the art object promoted by New York–based critics and conceptual artists in the late 1960s, avant-garde artists and poets in Brazil and Japan embraced materiality as intrinsic and fundamental to their highly conceptual practices. Breaching the Frame explores their uncannily contemporaneous trajectories, tracing the emergence of participatory practices and theories that challenged the limits of aesthetic contemplation and redefined the politics of spectatorship.
List of Illustrations
1. Politics of Abstraction
2. The Matter of Painting
3. Framing Contemporary Art
4. Outside the Frame
5. Concrete Poetry and the Materialization of Language
6. The Ticklish Object
Works Cited
Pedro R. Erber teaches in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University. He holds a Ph.D. in Asian Studies from Cornell University, M.A. in philosophy from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, and B.A. in philosophy from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Erber is the author of Política e verdade no pensamento de Martin Heidegger and articles on intellectual history, art, literature, and aesthetics.
"Breaching the Frame offers a courageous, cosmopolitan, and original reading of the events that preceded and constituted the period in which art, in the process of its globalization in the 1960s, gained strength through its appeal to the radicalism of the historical avant-garde. Pedro Erber effectively deconstructs the oppressive dichotomies implanted by art criticism and decenters the framing of postwar art production. This book is sure to occupy a privileged position in the scholarship on twentieth-century art and become our irreplaceable companion."
—Silviano Santiago, author of The Space In-Between: Essays on Latin American Culture

"Erber’s study helps us with the difficult, yet crucial, transition from postcolonial critique to a new way of thinking globally—and without simply affirming the global as the new universal.” —Sven Spieker, author of The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy

Breaching the Frame strategically juxtaposes multiple interconnected presents to form a vision of the modern international world and propose a new method for mapping the rise of contemporary art. In returning the subject of expression to the materialist dialectics of contemporaneity, Erber calls into question the putative positionality of the West as the progressive future of the world and the exceptionalist geopolitical center of humanity.” —Naoki Sakai, author of Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism

Chapter 1

Politics of Abstraction

The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society.

Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

Though that is not all, by far, that there was to politics in art in those years; some day it will have to be told how "anti-Stalinism," which started out more or less as "Trotskyism," turned into art for art's sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.

Clement Greenberg, "The Late Thirties in New York"

Art = Capital

Joseph Beuys

The political battles of 1950s art were fought in the camp of abstract painting. The choice to use geometric shapes, stains, or drops of paint on a canvas carried the weight of a political statement. Yet the meanings attached to the visual politics of abstract art varied widely within different political contexts. Art critics occupied a strategic position within a complex network of institutions that defined normative ways of seeing and mediated between the apparent universality of the visual and the diverse local dialects of cultural politics. Before artists of the 1960s attempted, as Joseph Kosuth once put it, to annex the function of the critic, and thus to make "the middleman unnecessary,"1 it was mainly the job of art criticism to verbalize the signification of the visual discourses of the plastic arts. Were it not for the decisive role of critics in providing an aesthetic, theoretical, and political frame for postwar painting, Abstract Expressionism could not possibly have been taken for a symbol of freedom and of the new American way of life, just as Art Informel would not have been identified as the painterly expression of the French resistance to the Nazi German occupation, and geometric abstraction might not have become the quasi-official aesthetic of Latin American developmentalism.

Paintings and other visual artworks do not participate immediately in discourse; rather, they depend intrinsically on verbal mediation. As Naoki Sakai puts it, "Certain types of texts, such as gesture, music, and visual artifacts do not constitute 'firsthand' signification. Yet insofar as we are able to talk about them, they can be read and therefore grasped as significative. In this respect, they are texts or components of texts that can be verbalized even if not in a one-to-one correspondence."2 Because the correspondence between visual and verbal is never simply univocal-one-to-one-visual texts can enter discourse in a plurality of guises; they are inherently open to discursive appropriation. "The relation of language to painting is an infinite relation," Foucault writes in The Order of Things. "It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other's terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say."3 The verbal translation of visual artworks cannot exhaust their signifying potential, which constantly exceeds verbalization.

The political significance of art is not fixed in the materiality of practices and works; rather, it is contingent upon their discursive framing. Framing regulates the legibility of art, determining which characteristics are relevant-form, color, dimension, and so on-and which can be ignored in reading individual works and practices. The fact that postwar artistic discourse centered on form as the main carrier of meaning in abstract art, or that the "unsolved antagonisms of reality," as Adorno puts it, could "return in artworks as immanent problems of form,"4 depends on a specific mode of framing; that is, on a regime of legibility of artistic practices and works. This regime of legibility is what I call the politics of abstraction.

Clement Greenberg remarked in relation to the North American art world that it was somehow "Trotskyism" that cleared the path from the political commitment of social realism to the art for art's sake of the postwar era. "Abstract art was the main issue among the painters I knew in the late thirties," Greenberg writes. "Radical politics was on many people's minds, but for these particular artists Social Realism was as dead as the American Scene."5 Meanwhile, in Brazil, social realism dominated artistic discourse at least until the late 1940s; only after the Second World War did abstraction become an issue for most Brazilian artists and critics.

Nonetheless, in Brazil, too, Trotskyism played a major role in laying the groundwork for the radical transformations to come. No single voice was more influential in shaping Brazilian discourse on the political significance of abstract painting than art critic and former Trotskyist militant Mário Pedrosa. A champion of social realism in the 1930s, Pedrosa turned to geometric abstraction in the postwar era, becoming the most important theoretician of the Concretist avant-garde in Rio de Janeiro of the 1950s. At that point, he rejected painterly realism as anachronistic and ineffective for an age of mass communication, and he disparaged informalist painting as a hopeless cry of individualist subjectivity. Committed to the political significance of geometric abstraction, Pedrosa conceived of the politicality of painting in terms of a "revolution of sensibility." As the critic Ronaldo Brito once remarked, more than simply influencing the agents of Brazilian art, Pedrosa "infused the circuit with his ideas and positions."6

To tackle the discursive framing of abstract painting as political art in 1950s Brazil and the significance of Pedrosa's conceptualization of the political function of form, let us rewind a little and examine the situation of Brazilian art at the time of Pedrosa's return to Rio from New York in 1945.

Between Realism and Abstraction

Not until the end of the Second World War did abstraction significantly penetrate artistic discourse in Brazil. Modernists of the 1920s generation famously proposed cannibalizing European modernity, creatively appropriating foreign ideas into a national cultural project. Oswald de Andrade's "Anthropophagite Manifesto" resorted to the indigenous ritual of eating the enemy's flesh as a metaphor for Brazil's violent intrusion onto the cultural map of global modernity through appropriation of Euro-American culture. Yet in terms of its visual production, the anthropophagic movement did not live up to such radical claims. As the art critic Paulo Sergio Duarte remarks, "Our modernism was rather shy and reticent"; even in Tarsila do Amaral's most outstanding canvases, "at no point does form devour the 'foreign.'"7 On the contrary, formal aspects of Cubist and post-Cubist painting were assimilated into an essentially figurative project, thus conferring a veneer of contemporaneity onto the dilemmas of a society still struggling to come to terms with its archaic social legacies. This figurative use of abstraction is cogently exemplified by Amaral's A negra (The black woman, 1923; plate 1), in which the geometric background functions not as abstraction but rather as a reference to-almost a citation of-modern European art, upon which protrudes the deformed body of the Brazilian mulatta as a living expression of the remnants of slavery and racial exploitation. Although it was not entirely absent as a technique, one can say that abstraction was not digested in its deeper aesthetic significance by the anthropophagic imagination; in any case, it failed to become a major issue for both artists and critics until the end of the Second World War and the fall of President Getúlio Vargas's dictatorship in 1945.

When abstract art finally came to occupy a determinant position in the Brazilian artistic milieu, it encountered the most resistance among the proponents of socially engaged figurative art. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, orthodox Marxist artists, art critics, and other leftist intellectuals constituted the staunchest opposition to the various trends of abstract art coming from Europe and the United States. What might appear to be just another quarrel between the ancients and the moderns signaled, in fact, deeper fractures in the local ideological landscape. For Marxist critics such as Ibiapaba Martins and Fernando Pedreira, the debates that culminated in 1951 with a fierce battle against the first São Paulo Biennial amounted to a conflict between the national project of a politically participatory art and an imported aesthetic fad that, lacking any reference to reality (local and otherwise), appeared as the pure image of alienation. Indeed, the question of alienation-in its political as well as its psychological sense-recurred consistently in debates concerning abstract art in 1950s Brazil.

Andrea Giunta has argued that artists in postwar Buenos Aires were able to remain in solidarity with the Soviet Union while ignoring the dogmas of Socialist Realism.8 However, this was certainly not the case with some of the most influential artists and critics in Brazil, who defended Zhdanov's artistic doctrines not only against the new trends of abstract art coming from the developed capitalist world but also against any mode of expression that did not conform to the principles of Socialist Realism.

Woodblock printing was the medium of choice for many realist artists, who gathered around the numerous print clubs throughout the country. Contemporary urban life and the hardships of the working class were the main themes of young artists such as Abelardo da Hora and Renina Katz, as well as of those of the older generation such as Lasar Segall and Cândido Portinari. A large proportion of the country's most famous painters, critics, and writers were either affiliated with or sympathizers of the Brazilian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Brasileiro, PCB), although not all of them followed the party's line in their artistic practices. As Aracy A. Amaral remarks in her comprehensive survey of social art in Brazil, the PCB's leadership was actively invested in promoting the participation of intellectuals within the party. A 1946 public convention in Rio de Janeiro gathered in support of the PCB prominent figures such as the writers Graciliano Ramos and Jorge Amado, the painter Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, and the composer Francisco Mignone. Meanwhile, those who had public disagreements with the PCB's positions were frequently reprimanded, including both Amado and Ramos, who were censored for their written criticisms of the Soviet Union.9

Abstract art was criticized for its ostensible apoliticality, which Pedreira and other Stalinist intellectuals likened to Trotskyism, as well as for its tacit acquiescence to-or actual support for-the hegemonic politics of international capitalism. In a 1951 article, "The Bienal and Its Supporters," Pedreira took issue with the pseudopatriotism of intellectuals such as Oswald de Andrade, Rubem Braga, and José Lins do Rego for their public defense of the Biennial.10 On a broader theoretical level, Pedreira advocated a return to humanist values, as opposed to the lifelessness and alienation of abstract art. He regarded realism as a "more humane and generous art, focused on the problems of the Brazilian man, an art that helps the people to liberate itself from oppression and contributes to the flourishing of a real Brazilian culture."11And that is why, Pedreira argued, "we fight against cosmopolitan abstraction, which negates the social and human value of art, transforming it into a cold, lifeless game of forms and colors."12 Humanist art would thus work as a remedy for alienation, a means of recovering the humanity of man-not the cosmopolitan man idealized by bourgeois liberalism, but Brazilian men and women rooted in their own culture and liberated from imperialist oppression.

Intellectuals in the PCB attacked the powerful system of modern art's international distribution even more incisively than they criticized its aesthetics. The São Paulo Biennial, which Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho sponsored with the active support of Nelson Rockefeller through New York's Museum of Modern Art, was regarded by the Stalinists as part of a scheme to expand U.S. influence on the Brazilian art market while preventing the spread of politically challenging realist art: "Art, as even Mr. Getúlio Vargas recognized in a recent speech, is strictly, 'inseparably' connected to politics. That is why the dominant classes attempt to control artistic production, and to use it according to their own interests, so that it can educate the people according to the will of the dominant classes, ceasing to be the expression of popular aspirations."13 Referring to Pedrosa's collaboration in the Biennial, Pedreira disparagingly says that, to defend the imperialist bourgeoisie in charge of the Biennial, "will come from Rio the 'Parisian' Mário Pedrosa, moribund pontiff of national Trotskyism,"14 thus connecting Pedrosa's Trotskyist allegiances and his embrace of abstraction with bourgeois cosmopolitanism and capitulation to American imperialism. Not even the Russian Constructivists escaped Pedreira's attack: "Mentioning [Wassily] Kandinsky, [Alexander] Rodchenko, and [Kazimir] Malevich, Mário Pedrosa blows his demoralized Trotskyist horn to accuse the 'Stalinists' of betraying at once Lenin's revolution and revolutionary art. . . . The truth is that this art, which the critic Pedrosa still calls revolutionary, deceived for some time many good people. But it soon revealed itself in its sterile and false character, in its absolute lack of content."15

Leftist intellectuals' harsh criticisms of the Biennial-and, indeed, of abstract art in general-and the PCB's official decision to prevent its members from submitting works to the selection committee cannot be dismissed as a mere by-product of conspiracy theories. Scholars of North American postwar art such as Eva Cockroft and Max Kozloff have identified various ways in which the U.S. government made use of Abstract Expressionism as a "weapon of the Cold War."16 Giunta remarks, in addition, that U.S. policy in the 1960s went beyond support for Abstract Expressionism, enabling, for instance, the promotion of Latin American artists in the United States to prevent their identification with the Cuban revolution.17 In this sense, the very real political powers invested in the promotion of abstract painting in the postwar era fully justified Pedreira's concerns.

Art, Communism, Contemporaneity

Although modulated by the specific characteristics of the Brazilian political context and sharpened by the dispute over the São Paulo Biennial, the rejection of abstract art by leftist intellectuals in Brazil must nonetheless be understood as part of a broader international trend. As Susan Buck-Morss forcefully summarizes, "'Formalist' was perhaps the most damning thing one could say politically about an artist in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. But formalism was precisely the valued criterion for political art in the West, according to the U.S. Marxist art critic Clement Greenberg."18 This renewed zeal in defense of realism in the postwar period, which revived the antiformalist tones of the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress, was in response, to some extent, to a movement against abstraction that stemmed from within the Soviet Communist Party and resonated around the globe. Nominated by Stalin to direct the cultural policy of the Soviet Union in 1946, Zhdanov had recently returned to the center of transnational artistic debates: between 1946 and 1948 he issued a series of decrees strengthening control on artistic expression and reinforcing the tenets of Socialist Realism. The years that followed witnessed a massive promotion of Russian nationalism and fierce attacks on any form of "cosmopolitan" art and aesthetics.19 As in Brazil, abstract art and impressionism were vehemently banned as exemplary types of cosmopolitan bourgeois art far inferior to a nationally rooted realism.

It was also around this time-1947, to be precise-that the French Communist Party, in alignment with new policies in Moscow, removed one of the most vocal supporters of geometric abstraction in postwar Paris, Belgian critic Léon Degand, from the directorship of the communist newspaper Les lettres françaises (French letters). Commenting on the episode in an essay that discusses Degand's role in the creation of the São Paulo Modern Art Museum, Serge Guilbaut remarks that "this was a really important change in strategy for the Communist party who-with help from Moscow-decided to support realism exclusively, and to relentlessly attack abstraction as a bourgeois decadent plot designed to undermine the consciousness of the working class."20 As chance would have it, Degand did not remain unemployed for long; shortly thereafter, he received a visit by none other than Matarazzo, who was in search of a knowledgeable and respected collaborator for his project to found a museum of modern art in São Paulo.

According to Guilbaut, both Degand and Matarazzo quickly recognized how they could mutually benefit from working together. On the one hand, "Matarazzo needed an expert to help him gather the most advanced art of the day in order to show in Brazil that he, and the country, were fast moving into modernity. . . . Not only that, but the choice of art, this ultra modern, abstract geometric type of work with its universal construct was a signal that the social oriented art of realist artists like the famous Brazilian Portinari was passé and relegated to a fast fading past of localized interests."21 Degand, on the other hand, who had found himself in a political cul-de-sac in the Parisian art world, perceived in Matarazzo's invitation to introduce abstract art to the Brazilian public through a large-scale exhibition perhaps his best chance to "overplay and overshadow Paris."22 He regarded Matarazzo's proposal as offering him the possibility of carving out "a new space where the history of abstraction in all its glory and optimism would be displayed, emphasizing the dazzling freedom of creativity which modern art was. And where else could it be better understood than in São Paulo, a place full of new wild vitality, on a new continent, where the weight of tradition and prejudices should be absent."23

Degand accepted the invitation and, together with Matarazzo, started preparations for the Modern Art Museum's inaugural exhibition. The exhibition was eloquently titled From Figurative to Abstract Art and was supposed to display geometric abstraction as the last stage in the progressive development of Western art. While Degand himself collected European paintings and sculptures for the show, Leo Castelli and Marcel Duchamp were in charge of gathering works from New York. However, because of lack of funds, the North American works never arrived in Brazil. In addition, Degand's ideas about the museum conflicted in many ways with those of the Brazilian staff, which resulted in a less than satisfactory outcome from the Belgian critic's perspective.

Guilbaut's essay provides a compelling account of Degand's Brazilian misadventure and climaxes in the image of the Belgian critic heading toward the New World accompanied by "a cargo full of abstract paintings leaving a country assailed by Communist propaganda, strikes and social realist paintings."24 Degand's plans to mount an "invasion of abstract art in Brazil,"25 Guilbaut contends, did not succeed, at least during Degand's tenure at the São Paulo Modern Art Museum. The Belgian conquistador left São Paulo defeated by the disorganization and luxuriant bad taste of the provincial Brazilian art world, which could not stomach his minimalist ideas for the exhibition space. Defeated in the New World, he finally returned to Paris, only to be crushed once again by the rise of Abstract Expressionism and the Informel school promoted by another opponent, the critic Michel Tapié. Nonetheless, even if Degand's exhibition did not live up to his grandiose expectations at the time, geometric abstraction thrived in Brazil in an unprecedented manner during the years that followed Degand's departure for France.

Returning to the problem of Brazilian artistic discourse in the late 1940s, however, the point I want to make is the following: at the time of Degand's stay in Brazil, the strongest resistance to his project of instilling a universal language of abstract art did not come from general Brazilian backwardness and tropical excess but rather from the same forces that had rejected abstract art in Paris. While Degand left Brazil feeling defeated by bureaucracy, insubordination, and bad taste,26 the deepest antagonism to his position actually came from the numerous voices of the orthodox Left that rejected abstraction in favor of realist art, just like their counterparts in the French Communist Party.

During the early years of the Cold War, Marxist intellectuals throughout the world played a crucial role in the discursive construction of the political role of literature and the visual arts. Even in the United States, where communism was significantly repressed and the political spectrum experienced a turn to the right after the end of the Second World War, postwar artistic discourse thrived under the shadow of Marxism. The discursive origins of Abstract Expressionism, as Guilbaut thoroughly demonstrates in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, must be understood in connection with the process of "de-Marxization and later depoliticization of certain groups of left-wing anti-Stalinist intellectuals."27 Trotskyism played a crucial role in this process. Not only did Trotskyists represent the most vocal left-wing opposition to Stalinism during those years, but Trotsky himself had advocated for an independent revolutionary art that would be free from the constrictions of political propaganda. The manifesto "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art," signed by André Breton and Diego Rivera, and coauthored by Trotsky himself during his stay in Mexico, not only emphasized the need for independence in artistic creation for the sake of the revolution but regarded the "complete liberation of art" as the goal of political revolution.28 This formulation of aesthetic politics was highly attractive to a number of abstract painters during the Cold War era; it allowed artists "to perpetuate the practice of painting without losing face, that is without abandoning the vocabulary of radical politics. The alienation of the artist, the avant-garde believed, was necessary to his liberation."29 Only on the basis of this abstraction from everyday politics could 1950s artistic discourse coalesce in terms of a politics of abstraction.

At the same time, in countries such as Brazil, France, and Japan, where intellectual life did not undergo the same process of "de-Marxization"-or at least not as rapidly as in the United States-abstract painting did not find the same open terrain as it did in the New York art scene. What resulted, at first, were long-lasting debates between abstract art and realism. The encounter between these two opposing camps regarding the social function of art defined global artistic discourse during the Cold War and determined its international contemporaneity. Struggling in different circumstances through the same aesthetic and political dilemmas, artists, writers, and critics came to participate in the same discourse of political aesthetics.

The Rise of Abstraction

Throughout the late 1940s, abstraction rapidly gathered exponents among talented young painters in Rio and São Paulo. Alexander Calder's exhibition at the Rio Modern Art Museum in 1949 and Max Bill's large retrospective at the São Paulo Modern Art Museum in 1951 contributed significantly to abstraction's rise. A series of lectures delivered by the Argentinean art critic Jorge Romero Brest at the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP) in 1950, in which he attempted to present "a systematization of ideas, with certain polemic character regarding the defense and affirmation of abstract art," added to the momentum of abstract art in postwar Brazil.30

In São Paulo, Waldemar Cordeiro, the Gramscian leader of the Concretist collective Ruptura, conferred upon abstract painting the stamp of his firm theoretical and political positions, emboldening a number of young artists and poets who came to embrace the practices and theories of Concretism. Luís Sacilotto was among the painters who left Expressionism for geometric abstraction, joining Ruptura in 1952 (fig. 8). The Concrete poet Augusto de Campos emphasized Cordeiro's role as one of the main theoretical influences on the poets that gathered around the Noigandres journal, also in 1952.31 One of only two artists from Brazil included in Degand's exhibition in São Paulo-the other was Samson Flexor, who had immigrated from Paris to São Paulo in 1948-Cordeiro's adherence to abstraction (plate 2), as Amaral has showed, did not prevent him from taking a critical position toward the Biennial; he argued that it led to the establishment of "a forced market for the works of foreign painters," and that it brought about the "threat of an authoritarian and patronal organization to direct the fate of art in Brazil."32

The painter Ivan Serpa, from Rio, participated in the first São Paulo Biennial with his 1951 abstract painting, Formas. A former participant in the woodblock printing atelier organized in Rio by Austrian immigrant Axl Leskoschek-which counted among its students Renina Katz, Fayga Ostrower, and Edith Behring-Serpa's activities both as a painter and as a pedagogue were crucial to the consolidation of abstract art in Rio in the 1950s. Serpa would later become the teacher and leader of the young artists who joined Grupo Frente in 1954, including Franz Weissmann, Lygia Clark, Aluísio Carvão, Hélio Oiticica, Décio Vieira, and Lygia Pape.

And then there was Mário Pedrosa, Trotskyist activist and major exponent of realist art criticism in the 1930s, who had been expelled by Trotsky from the secretariat of the Fourth International in 1940 and returned to Rio in 1945 from New York, where he had lived and worked during the decisive years of what Guilbaut termed the "de-Marxization" of American intellectual life. If, on the one hand, Pedrosa's views on art in the postwar period appeared to have been purged of all Marxist traces, on the other hand, politics still played a crucial role in his artistic discourse, although in a very different guise from his earlier realist approach. Moreover, parallel to his active engagement in artistic debates in defense of abstraction, Pedrosa continued to intervene in the political arena, making explicit his enduring allegiance to the socialist cause.

Starting as early as August 1945, Pedrosa was the founder and editor-in-chief of Vanguarda socialista (Socialist vanguard), a nonparty publication that described its mission as the dissemination of a diverse body of ideas intended to "instigate debate and historical reflection within the broad socialist spectrum."33 Pioneering in its genre-it preceded by a few years the journal Socialisme ou barbarie (Socialism or barbarism), published in Paris starting in 1949 by former Trotskyists Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Leffort, among others-Vanguarda socialista contributed decisively to the political education of prominent leftist intellectuals who came of age in the 1940s, such as sociologist Florestan Fernandes and literary critic Antonio Cândido.34 While Pedrosa's international reputation as both Brazil's most prominent art critic and a major advocate of modern art in Latin America has often eclipsed his role as a militant socialist intellectual, it is important not to lose sight of the imbrication of political militancy and art criticism in Pedrosa's intellectual trajectory.

Art Criticism as Political Weapon

Pedrosa's role as a left-wing activist in the 1920s was so decisive that the history of Trotskyism in Brazil can hardly be dissociated from his biography. Born in 1900 to a family of the rural aristocracy in Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil, Pedrosa joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1926 and was chosen to attend the Leninist School in Moscow the following year. However, as historian José Castilho Marques Neto relates, on the way to Russia, Pedrosa fell sick in Berlin and was forced to interrupt his journey.35 Meanwhile, in October 1927, Leon Trotsky was expelled from the Central Committee in Moscow. While recovering in Berlin, Pedrosa became acquainted with the pro-Trotsky left-wing opposition within the German Communist Party. Pedrosa remained in Berlin for two years; he studied philosophy, sociology, and psychology at Berlin University, worked with the German Communist Party, and spent time in Paris, where he met with André Breton, Pierre Naville, and other Surrealist writers and artists, some of whom he had been in contact with already from Brazil. It was during his stay in Berlin that Pedrosa first became acquainted with the theories of Gestalt psychology and the etchings and woodcuts of German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz.

Pedrosa returned to Rio in 1929 and was unpleasantly surprised by the general state of apathy among the capital's left-wing activists: "Here I found everything worse than it was before. Not only the city itself, but the people, and above all our people [that is, the communist militants]."36 In the same letter to Lívio Xavier, Pedrosa proposed establishing a small group within the party to engage in theoretical studies and revisions of perspective, and to gather information on the international and national situations. "After reaching a certain intellectual homogeneity," he wrote, "we will get in touch with Trotsky, through the mediation of Naville (whom I have already contacted about the matter)."37 However, before the end of 1929 Pedrosa was expelled from the Brazilian Communist Party. The following year, after being arrested on May Day for distributing pamphlets for the newly founded Lenin Group, Pedrosa moved to São Paulo, where he worked as an editor for the newspaper A luta de classes (Class struggle) and helped set up the Brazilian section of the International Left-Wing Opposition.

Pedrosa's debut as an art critic took place in 1933, with his inaugural lecture at an exhibition by Käthe Kollwitz at the Clube dos artistas modernos (Modern artists club) in São Paulo. Pedrosa's lecture, later published in installments in O homem livre, is considered a watershed in Brazilian artistic discourse; according to Amaral, Pedrosa's essay on Kollwitz constituted the inaugural text of contemporary art criticism in Brazil.38 The title of Pedrosa's speech, "Käthe Kollwitz's Red Way of Perceiving Life,"39 could hardly have been more blunt about his political perspective on Kollwitz's black-and-white prints. Both the content and tone of the lecture made it clear that art criticism was for him an extension of political activism.

Pedrosa's approach to Kollwitz's work not only displayed his firm commitment to politically engaged art but also established his independent position in relation to the official doctrines of the PCB and the Communist International. Art historian Otília Arantes remarks that "for the first time in Brazil, someone attempted, in a systematic and reasonably articulated way, not only a Marxist interpretation of art, but an interpretation that was not aligned with the conclusions of the Kharkov Conference."40 Pedrosa called attention to the material and spiritual hardships of the German proletariat in the 1910s and 1920s as depicted in Kollwitz's prints (fig. 9), the suffering of ordinary people, and the disaster of war reflected in the faces of orphans and mothers who had lost their children. Pedrosa's description of Kollwitz's "proletarian realism" was similar to Zhdanov's views concerning the necessarily tendentious character of art in an epoch of class struggle41 but differed from the prescription of optimism in Zhdanov's speech to the First Soviet Writers Congress the following year, according to which it was the duty of Soviet writers, as "engineers of human souls," to "depict reality in its revolutionary development"42 and thus to drop a certain critical edge in favor of a more positive, romantic view of the utopian future of socialism.

Along with the militant tone of Pedrosa's criticism in the early 1930s came his understanding of the social function of art in terms of its immediate relation to society as a whole, and thus to the political context determined by class struggle. "Art does not enjoy special immunities from society's whims, nor do prejudices and petty or tragic contingencies of class egoism stop before its gates,"43 Pedrosa contended. "As with any other social manifestation, art is internally corrupted by the historical determinism of the struggle among different social groups."44 The theoretical framework of the 1933 lecture left no room for a clearly demarcated or autonomous sphere of art in relation to the political realm. Pedrosa understood the separation between art and society as a negative condition deriving from the development of capitalism, which a genuinely revolutionary art would abolish. In fact, the absence of a positive notion of the autonomy of art in this early period is one of the main traits that differentiate Pedrosa's views in the 1930s from his standpoint in the postwar era.

Pedrosa argued that the technological development of capitalist society, insofar as it widens the division between man and nature, progressively strips art of its social function. He contended that modernism marks the apex of this process, in which aesthetics constitutes itself as an isolated realm and artists are entirely absorbed by a "second nature-our modern, mechanical nature, our technique-which is superimposed on our primitive nature."45 The artistic field in the present day, Pedrosa claimed, "is divided socially and aesthetically." On one side are those artists who, dehumanized, divorce themselves from society and its vital problems and observe them only impressionistically, those artists for whom "society itself and man are a sort of still life," while on the other side are the social artists, "who approach the proletariat, and, in an intuitive anticipation of sensibility, perceive the future synthesis between nature and society."46 The latter, he claimed, was most certainly the position of Käthe Kollwitz: "Her attitude toward the popular masses is more than an aesthetic attitude. It is a social imperative from which she cannot escape, a system of life. It is already a political attitude."47 Pedrosa discerns in Kollwitz's prints the artist's clear realization that "the social art of today is no longer a delicious pastime: it is a weapon."48 Whereas Modernist painters remained attached to the aesthetic realm and therefore became oblivious to social issues, Kollwitz is aware of the higher necessity of art's social function, and thus relates to aesthetics in a mediated way, guided by the inherently expressive needs of the "social matter."

A subtle shift in Pedrosa's position regarding the social function of art can be perceived as early as 1934, in his essays on the Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari. Pedrosa's encounter with Portinari's paintings happened under unusual circumstances. In October 1934, antagonism between the fascist-leaning Integralist Front and left-wing activists reached a climax at a joint antifascist demonstration in downtown São Paulo. The police intervened heavily, and many demonstrators were injured or killed. Pedrosa, who was shot in the leg and chased by the police, found refuge in an art gallery where an exhibition of Portinari's works was taking place. He hid in the gallery for days before leaving for Rio de Janeiro. This clandestine stay allowed the critic enough time for a close engagement with Portinari's paintings, which in turn inspired Pedrosa's first steps on a path that would eventually lead him away from the intrinsic expressive needs of social matters toward the formal experiments of the avant-garde.

In "Impressions on Portinari,"49 a form of social realism remains the object of Pedrosa's criticism. But one can already detect in his argument the first traces of the ideas that will guide his later perspective on geometric abstraction. No longer the "social matter"50 alone but also-and mainly-the painter's technical approach to social reality is decisive. Arantes observes that, at this moment, Pedrosa "seems to abandon the project of a 'proletarian art.' The connection between the aesthetic dimension and the point of view of a class is no longer evident."51 According to Pedrosa, the development of Portinari's painting led the artist to a fundamental impasse in relation to the technical, social, and material nature of art. Pedrosa claimed that Portinari's Preto de enxada (Black man with hoe, fig. 10) marks a point of no return at which the artist seems to have exhausted the limits of oil painting, and thus needs to "resort to the monumental techniques of sculpture and mural painting."52 Two years before Portinari's experiments in muralism, Pedrosa pointed out this necessary development in his work, detecting in this a portent of the rise of synthetic art led by architecture, whose concrete possibility he would embrace two decades later in the political utopia of Brasília.

In 1937, following President Getúlio Vargas's establishment of the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship, Pedrosa left Rio on a fake passport for what would be his longest period of political exile. He stayed in Paris for one year and participated, in September 1938, in the founding congress of the Fourth International, becoming a member of its secretariat. Pedrosa headed shortly thereafter to New York, where the Fourth International had moved its headquarters due to the imminent war in Europe. Under the pseudonym M. Lebrun, Pedrosa worked closely with the Fourth International until 1940, when his stance against the organization's unconditional support for the Soviet Union brought deep repercussions, causing Trotsky to remove him and numerous other members from the new secretariat. For the remainder of the war, Pedrosa worked for a number of international organizations in New York and Washington, failed in his attempt to return to Brazil to organize the left-wing opposition to the Vargas government, and published sporadically in Brazilian newspapers and art journals on topics such as Portinari's panels at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Calder's exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Revolution of Sensibility

Pedrosa's essays on Calder, published in 1944 in the Brazilian newspaper Correio da manhã, reveal a significant shift in his perspective on the political potential of art. At that point, it was no longer the urgency of the "social matter" that Pedrosa searched for in a work of art; it was a different kind of social relevance, which Portinari's work seemed to portend, that Pedrosa now observed in its full potential in objects that were apparently immune to any kind of social context: "Calder's art does not reflect societies; neither does it sublimate subjective nightmares. It is rather a door to the future. It is already the attitude of someone who, despising the present day, somber as it may seem to us, detects, from where it is, the distant horizons of utopia, a utopia that eternally sketches itself before us. . . . Calder communicates, at least with those of the future generations, who will possess, perhaps, enough energy for the necessary effort of integrating art and life."53

In analyzing Calder's work, Pedrosa first began to articulate his conception of the political potential of abstract art. Sounding almost surprised by his own discovery, he vehemently claims: "It is not in vain that [Jean] Arp proclaimed, almost thirty years ago, for abstract art-Concrete Art, as he preferred to call it-the ambition of transforming the world."54 It is this ostensibly disinterested art that Pedrosa would attempt to transform into a revolutionary weapon in the postwar era. He writes, "Disinterested as it is-so far from any propagandistic functions!-Calder's art exercises, nonetheless, a silent catalytic action on the generalized, aggressive vulgarity of our time."55 Instead of dismissing modernism as mere technical experimentalism and bourgeois art, Pedrosa attempts to appropriate its formal concerns and its quest for innovation into a political project. Even Paul Valéry's stress on the useless character of art, which Pedrosa severely condemned in his earlier writings, is reinterpreted here in a positive light: "The Valéryan notion of the uselessness of art does not mean for us that art is inadaptable to life, neither that it is opposed to it."56 In a series of articles on the social function of art, published in 1947 in Correio da manhã, Pedrosa explains: "Ultimately, the French poet [Valéry] understood 'uselessness' as a synonym of 'disinterestedness.' Art does not have an end outside of itself. A work of art is disinterested because it is not made to earn money, to prove a thesis, to justify a political program, or to defend a party."57 But despite its independent, autonomous character, abstract art is not entirely disconnected from society; precisely through its autonomy and ostensible indifference, Pedrosa argues (in a distinctively Schillerian manner), modern art can affect a deeper level of social transformation. The autonomy of art no longer seemed incompatible with its social function.

Pedrosa's new critical stance implied an implacable rejection of Socialist Realism, and, indeed, of realism in general. Responding to one of many attacks on abstract painting by the critic Ibiapaba Martins, Pedrosa disparagingly comments in 1952: "Still nowadays, many people talk about 'the social tendencies in art' in the old 'Marxist' sense, mainly of Russian inspiration."58 While the "old 'Marxist' sense" here is clearly a reference to the Socialist Realism supported by Martins and other Stalinist critics, Pedrosa goes farther and expands the scope of his criticism to realism in general. Theorists of Socialist Realism assign to art the role of "reflecting" the reality of class struggle, he argues: "Marxism in art is reducible to a tautology."59 Art's mirroring function is supposed to fulfill an educational function-that is, to teach the working class about its condition of being exploited and dominated, and thus to raise class consciousness. Therefore, the same theorists also recommend that art should be aimed at the masses and not at the elites.

However, remarks Pedrosa, "the banal reality of the everyday is different, since the masses are not interested in art":

Actually, neither are the so-called elites. One thing is certain, anyway: the people [o povo] like football, circus, theater (preferably vaudeville or revue [teatro de revista]), carnival, and cinema. What the people look for is entertainment, in all countries, "capitalist" or "socialist." The people are indifferent to figurative or abstract painting. And so are the elites, which is quite natural. Bourgeois civilization, in its most fortunate expressions, is a civilization of the extroverted. Exteriorization is its most general characteristic. The accelerated rhythm of contemporary life leaves no time for contemplation. And painting, like sculpture, demands contemplation in appreciation, silent meditation.60

Pedrosa understood the inefficacy of realist painting for an age of mass image consumption-an era in which both the working class and the elites lack the time and inclination for contemplative meditation. "In our days, the documental in painting or sculpture is inevitably anachronistic."61 With the emergence of photography and film, the documentary role of painting and sculpture, Pedrosa claimed, was made irrelevant.

Under such circumstances, it was clearly no longer by depicting the conditions of the proletariat that painting could live up to its social function. In matters of social realism, it was impossible for painting to match the resources of photography and cinema: "In Italy, [the neorealist film director Vittorio] De Sicca is and will always be incomparably superior to [the realist painter Renato] Guttuso, even multiplied by three, when what is at stake is the portrayal of proletarian life and the misery of crumbling Italian capitalism today."62 In addition to stressing the advantages of cinema over painting in its capacity to communicate with the masses, the mention of Guttuso was a direct provocation to the Italian painter who, in an interview with Moacir Werneck de Castro published in the journal Fundamentos in November 1952, had openly defended Zhdanov's aesthetic doctrines.63

However, while rejecting realism and embracing abstraction, Pedrosa did not give up on the political function of art. In contrast to Greenberg, whose emphasis on formalism was accompanied by an increasing separation of politics and aesthetics, Pedrosa embraced form as the basis for a revolution of the senses. Pedrosa's investment in form did not result in straightforward formalism; medium specificity was never among his central concerns. Caroline Jones suggests that Greenberg inherited from the writer and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing the project of "a civilizing imperative (the modern subject) through the aesthetic regulation of feeling,"64 and that Greenberg's formalism "functioned as a system for organizing and regulating feeling in the modernist visibility."65 Indeed, in "Towards a Newer Laocoon," Greenberg does not spare his criticism of the romantic notion that "the artist feels something and passes on this feeling-not the situation or thing which stimulated it-to his audience." According to Greenberg, "To preserve the immediacy of the feeling it was even more necessary than before, when art was imitation rather than communication, to suppress the role of the medium."66 Against this romantic attempt at suppressing the medium-which also entails suppressing the frame-Greenberg opposes the medium specificity of the avant-garde, such as the self-conscious flatness of modernist painting. In contrast to the romantic utopia of a transparent language, the thick medium and its frame are devices for regulating and disciplining feeling.

Pedrosa, although equally concerned with regulation and discipline, conceptualizes the problem of form not in terms of intersubjective communication but rather as a problem of perception, of the subject's experience of the world. Approaching the role of form in art from a psychological and epistemological perspective, Pedrosa conceives of a conceptual framework for abstract painting that, although not diametrically opposed to Greenberg's, results in substantially different consequences. Most importantly, although disinterested and seemingly apolitical, abstract art carries for Pedrosa a fundamental promise of social change. In a 1981 interview with Aracy A. Amaral, Pedrosa recalled the reasons for his support of abstraction: "Because there was something in that so-called modern art, something revolutionary, which needed to be developed. . . . I thought that with a more disinterested art you could change society. I was never interested in purely disinterested art, which was not social. There was an important coincidence between modern art, which changed the way people lived, and constructive art. A utopia. But utopia is very important."67

In this interstitial space between a purely disinterested art-for-art's-sake and an all-too-interested instrumental art in the service of politics, Pedrosa located the politics of abstraction. Abstract painters, he argued in 1952, "know that their documentary role is over."68 In contrast to the media of mass communication, which "panoramically enlarge contemporary vision," painting and sculpture "particularize it, specify it,"69 and thereby possess the intrinsic potential of revolutionizing perception, at its own inexorably individual level. While realist art attempted to intervene on the level of political and social consciousness and discourse, Pedrosa attributed to abstract painting the preconscious and prediscursive task of a revolution of sensibility: "Political revolution is on its way; social revolution processes itself unavoidably. Nothing can contain them. But the revolution of sensibility, the revolution that will reach the core of the individual, its soul, will not come until men have new eyes, new senses to embrace the transformations that science and technology introduce day after day in our universe, and finally, intuition to overcome them. This is the great 'final' revolution, the deepest and most permanent, and it won't be the politicians, even the most radical among them, nor the state bureaucrats who will realize it."70

This notion of a revolution of sensibility, deeper and more permanent than any political revolution, reiterates an old topos of aesthetic politics. While opposing Zhdanov's "revolutionary romanticism,"71 Pedrosa's conception of the politics of abstraction implicitly reaffirms the Romantic plot of what Rancière has called a "metapolitics of aesthetics." "Poets establish / that which remains," wrote Friedrich Hölderlin in his 1803 poem "Remembrance."72 Meanwhile, the most cogent systematization of this enduring function of art in society was laid out in regard not to poetry but to the plastic arts, in Friedrich Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Schiller begins the second of his letters with a suggestion:

But should it not be possible to make better use of the freedom you accord me than by keeping your attention fixed upon the domain of the fine arts? Is it not, to say the least, untimely to be casting around for a code of laws for the aesthetic world at a moment when the affairs of the moral offer interest of so much more urgent concern, and when the spirit of philosophical inquiry is being expressly challenged by present circumstances to concern itself with that most perfect of all the works to be achieved by the art of man: the construction of true political freedom?73

The suggestion, however, is merely rhetorical; it prepares the ground for Schiller's central argument, according to which it is precisely from the "domain of the fine arts" that the highest contribution to the "construction of true political freedom" will come. In other words, the autonomy of art goes hand in hand with its intrinsic politicality, and this is why, as Schiller states in his eighth letter, "the development of man's sensibility is, therefore, the more urgent need of our age."74 Translating Kant's doctrine of the disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment into the political context of the late eighteenth century, Schiller puts forth the conception of a deeper revolution than one that takes place in the sphere of state power: a revolution brought about by artists and intellectuals rather than political militants.

Rancière describes this mode of articulation of the autonomy and heteronomy of art as the "aesthetic regime."75 According to Rancière, autonomy is not an obstacle but rather a condition for art's inherent political potential; the contemplative spectator's private experience of the work of art is thus in itself already a fundamentally political activity: "Art is not, in the first place, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society's structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space."76 Under the aesthetic regime, art is political insofar as it distances itself from the political arena and intervenes on the prediscursive level of what Rancière designates as the partition or distribution of the sensible (le partage du sensible).77 Aesthetics frames the politics of art in terms of its prediscursive intervention in the political realm. And insofar as it takes place on the level of framing and setting the rules of the space and time of politics, the politics of aesthetics can be designated as a metapolitics.

Form and Affect

Pedrosa, too, conceptualized the politics of abstract art in terms of a prediscursive, metapolitical intervention. However, in contrast to Rancière, Pedrosa conceived of the revolution of sensibility in terms of a transformation of the subject as individual. While Pedrosa's postwar writings on art envision in the pure forms of geometric abstraction the power to transform human perception, his philosophical investigation into the problem of perception finds in the theories of Gestalt psychology a conceptual framework for a revolutionary aesthetics. With the help of Gestalt, Pedrosa conceives of art's political intervention on the basis of what he termed the "affective nature of form in the work of art."78 The affective nature of form is what endows art with its capacity to transform human subjectivity. "The problem of the apprehension of the object by the senses," he writes, "is the first problem of human knowledge. The first scientific acquisition, the first philosophical and aesthetic acquisitions are united in the beginning in our power of perceiving things through the senses."79 At this level, the aesthetic dimension of perception meets the problem of knowledge and cognition in general. In terms of the Kantian formulation of the question (which constitutes one of the bases of Gestalt psychology), it can be said that, at this point, the aesthetic phenomenon as inherent to the question of art and beauty-that is, in the sense attributed to it in the first part of Kant's Critique of Judgment-converges with the problem of a "transcendental aesthetics" as the first stage of a science of perception (Sinnlichkeit) in the Critique of Pure Reason. For Pedrosa, the site of this convergence is a prediscursive stage of cognition-that is, a level in which form precedes meaning and signification.

Pedrosa argues that perception, although inherently subjective, is guided by external reality and therefore resists the interference of our emotions. External reality and its forms (themselves independent of our feelings or will), he claims, are "endowed with the power to affect us, to dictate our attitudes."80 Therefore, the affective nature of the work of art-its power to intervene in our subjectivity-is located primarily in the element of form: "The whole secret of the acting power [of a picture], of the magic that it exerts on us, of its unique potential for awakening our emotions, resides in its structural form, in its Gestalt."81 In this sense, not only pictures whose meanings we can consciously grasp and connect to-in other words, images to which we can relate discursively-but mainly the pure shapes of geometric abstraction possess the intrinsic power to affect our thinking: "Within the perceptive realm, there are privileged forms: they are regular, simple, symmetric."82 At stake here is the subjective process of figuration-that is, the mental processes of distinction and segregation of visual elements. "The process of perceptive segregation," Pedrosa argues, "separates things in space, one context from the other, independently of their signification."83 Illustrating this process in a concrete manner, he writes:

On a sheet of white paper there are two clusters of stains. In one cluster there are three stains, in the other cluster, three more. The stains arrange themselves to our sight in these two groups, because a larger space divides them in three and three. Those of one group are never seen in the other. They are stains, things without any meaning. They don't remind us of any object. Looking at the sheet of paper without a preconceived idea, the division into two groups is spontaneous. We can consciously try to form a different organization, and attempt, for instance, to see them in groups of two stains. It is logically possible, but, due to the primary, stronger disposition that pops up before our eyes, other combinations become harder and unstable, or psychologically unrealizable.84

Pedrosa's conceptualization of form emphasizes the ways objects visually affect human perception. Rather than focusing on "the subjective reactions of the creator, the artist, and later trying to penetrate, through analysis and introspection, into the sentiments of the spectator before the creation," he proposes to take the artwork itself as the starting point of his exploration of affect.85 Our practical and scientific knowledge, Pedrosa contends, is useless for penetrating the secrets of a work of art: "Those things speak by themselves, because form is a sensitized field. It is charged with affectivity. The word and the abstract concept, common currency of our mental relations, do not help us in understanding it."86 Affectivity appears thus as an intrinsic quality of form, and consequently as a crucial aspect of the work of art. While not independent of subjectivity, the affective nature of form is neither a product of subjectivity itself nor a phenomenon that takes place entirely within the subject.

The affective nature of form precedes discourse and can transform the basis of our discursive relationship with reality. According to Pedrosa, this happens because not only visual phenomena but "all things come to our consciousness through form."87 As affective forms, works of art can thus transform not merely our ways of seeing but also our understanding of nonvisual phenomena, because in such cases, too, it is through form that our understanding primarily functions. Thus the prediscursive power of form to affect our subjectivity conditions the discursive, conceptual realm. It is in this sense that the revolution of sensibility can be conceived of as the deepest and most permanent revolution.

This prediscursive nature of the politics of form, however, can only be theorized in discourse. Indeed, the very existence of a nondiscursive dimension-the outside of discourse-can only be conceived negatively, within and in relation to discourse itself, as its other. Pedrosa's conceptualization of the politics of abstraction in terms of the affective nature of form in the work of art constitutes an attempt to frame-discursively-the nondiscursive process through which form affects subjectivity. That form rather than matter plays the central part in this process is thus entirely the result of a certain way of discursively framing the work of art.

Aesthetic Education

This conceptualization of the affective nature of form shaped Pedrosa's understanding of the educational function of art. In numerous articles about artistic education published in Brazilian newspapers, Pedrosa expounded in practical terms his beliefs about of the educational power of art and its role in the revolution of sensibility. The disciplinary character of Pedrosa's approach is all the more manifest in comparison to other contemporaneous experiments with children's art-for instance, those developed by Gutai in Japan. On the importance Gutai members attributed to children's art, Ming Tiampo remarks that "unlike the Surrealists and Cobra, who looked to children's art for keys to understanding human creativity, Gutai artists tried to nurture children's creative abilities as a way of teaching them to think and act for themselves."88 In a similar vein, Ivan Serpa, who founded and directed the children's art school at the Rio Museum of Modern Art, emphasized the need to grant children as much freedom as possible, letting children develop by themselves.89 Pedrosa, however, while not disregarding the liberating aspect of artistic education, stressed the role of a pedagogy of form in providing a shape for creative freedom: "If education through art teaches children-and here is its great merit-not to fear emotions, but, on the contrary, to allow them to bloom and grow, it must also teach them to give those emotions form."90 This discipline of form constituted, for him, an important contribution of modern art.

The goal of Pedrosa's pedagogy was not the formation of professional artists; neither was his view of artistic education confined to the visual. As he remarked in relation to Gestalt theory, "all things come to our consciousness through form," and thus the reach of the pedagogy of form extended beyond the mere education of visual taste: "The most authentic goal of this learning is to prepare the children to think rightly, to act with justice, to manipulate things judiciously, and to judge by the whole and not partially. . . . They will see life as a healthy and beautiful work of art to be preserved, won't applaud hysterical dictators, will march with progress without turning their backs to freedom."91

In 1947, Pedrosa became acquainted with Dr. Nise da Silveira's pioneering artistic workshop for the inmates of the National Psychiatric Center at Engenho de Dentro, in Rio. Pedrosa's support for Dr. Silveira's initiative and his efforts to promote paintings and drawings by Emygdio de Barros, Raphael Domingues, and Fernando Diniz added to the wide repercussions of the workshop in Brazil and abroad. Silveira recalls that after first seeing the inmates' work during an exhibition at the Ministry of Education, Pedrosa frequently visited the workshop of the Occupational Therapy Section,

fascinated by the development of the paintings by Emygdio and the drawings by Raphael. He would often bring guests to the hospital, poets, writers. [The modernist poet] Murilo Mendes was one of the most assiduous. One day, in late May 1949, Pedrosa showed up accompanied by Léon Degand, the first director of the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art. Degand was so impressed by the artistic quality of many of the works created in the psychiatric hospital that he proposed the realization of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Shortly thereafter, Degand himself and Pedrosa began the selection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, from the point of view of their artistic value.92

Pedrosa's involvement with the Engenho de Dentro workshop did not go unnoticed by his political opponents and detractors of abstract art, who associated the detachment and apparent political aloofness of abstraction with mental alienation. Pedreira, for instance, derided Pedrosa for considering "the works of the alienated Raphael the most legitimate expression of Brazilian art" and for pleading to send Raphael's paintings to the Venice Biennial.93 Another critic observed, even more emphatically, the connection between abstraction and the paintings of "certain schizophrenics," concluding that "the common denominator between the two is in the problem of 'alienation.' Both [the schizophrenic and the abstract artist] are alienated."94 A debate held in São Paulo in November 1951 regarding abstract and figurative art proposed to discuss whether "plastic manifestations by children and insane persons [loucos] should or not be considered works of art."95 In a humorous moment of the debate, which ended in the discussants throwing punches and chairs, one of the participants contended that since "one of the points proposed for discussion concerns the art of insane people . . . I want to know: who is not insane in the Biennial?"96

Notwithstanding their sarcasm, such attacks touch upon a fundamental aspect of abstract art in the 1950s that connects it to madness as a psychological-and philosophical-problem. The politicality of abstraction was based of its freedom from political impositions and, more generally, its separation from any surrounding reality. In refusing representation and taking a step back from the sensuous world, abstract art alienated itself from politics to assume a higher political mission. Yet, in doing so, this artistic practice approached psychological alienation-that is, madness. Indeed, the rise of abstract art after the Second World War coincided with a general reevaluation of madness. As Guilbaut remarks, after Pierre Dommergues, during those years "alienation ceased to be seen in the United States as a deviant condition and began to be viewed as a way of being."97 Isolation was seen as beneficial to artistic practice, and alienation was a sign of freedom and independence. Just a few years later, Foucault would start his long-lived intellectual and activist engagement with the history and politics of madness.

For Pedrosa, more than merely a method to attain individual freedom and liberate paths of creativity, artistic education mattered as a formative process, a way of forming and disciplining the individual. This same concern with form and discipline played a decisive role in his support of Concretism. Writing in 1955 about the artists who took part in the second exhibition of Grupo Frente, Pedrosa commented: "They are men and women of faith, convinced of the revolutionary, regenerative mission of art. One thing unites them, which they do not give up and which they are ready to defend against anyone and everybody, which they place above everything else: freedom of creation."98 But this freedom of creation, he argued, should not be understood as "the ridiculous Parnassian principle of so-called 'art for art's sake,'" since their art aimed, much to the contrary, at "the highest social mission, namely of providing style to the times and transforming men, educating them to exercise the senses with plenitude and to model their own emotions."99 Once again, Pedrosa defines the political function of art in terms of a transformation of the subject or individual.

At the height of 1950s developmentalism in Brazil, Pedrosa's vision of the educational function of art acquired the contours of a national political project. His emphasis on the discipline of Concrete art, his public support for the Biennial, and, later, his support for the construction of Brasília cannot be dissociated from the developmentalist ideology that informed Brazilian political and cultural life throughout the 1950s. Indeed, the relation between geometric abstraction and developmentalism in postwar Brazil bears a strong parallel to the way Abstract Expressionism in the United States came to be identified with the new liberalism that had dominated political discourse there since the late 1940s.100 Without subscribing to the logic of state-sponsored capitalism promoted by Latin American developmentalist economists in the 1950s, Pedrosa adhered to the hegemonic discourse that established a vaguely defined idea of "development" as a fundamental political goal for Brazil. His response to Cocchiarale and Geiger in a 1981 interview eloquently describes the political subtext of his embrace of Concretism and utter rejection of informalist abstraction in the 1950s:

Geiger/Cocchiarale: Would this constructive effort have any relation with the process of industrialization, with Brazilian development in the 1950s?

Pedrosa: Yes, there was this commitment. Art is something optimistic. Brazil is a recently built country, and I thought Concrete art was what gave it a certain discipline on the level of form. Informalism, on the other hand, was a pessimistic art, very pessimistic, and it reflected what was going on in the world: an art of a wholly subjective, introspective philosophical position. It didn't contain a message, or an attitude that sees further away. It was a scream of the artist, a permanent interjection. It was somehow nice, but that kind of modern art did not carry a worldly, universal message. Or perhaps it was universal to some extent, but lost, with no direction.101

The formal discipline of Concrete art seemed to tie the promise of national development to the search for a universal visual language, in which artists could participate regardless of national language and nationality-and at least in this sense the accusations of bourgeois cosmopolitanism made against Concrete art were not entirely inaccurate. This quest for a transnational language based on the universality of the visual was perhaps best summarized in Haroldo de Campos's suggestion that Concrete poetry should aim for the "lowest common denominator of language,"102 which he compared to Chinese ideographic writing. Informalist abstraction, on the other hand, was regarded as a mere exercise in self-expression lacking the political promise of Concrete art. In Pedrosa's words, "Current abstract painting, called informal or tachist, intends itself as the product of a mere explosion of energies inside the painter. In hearing their explanations, one would think that up to that point painters had painted like someone who drinks a coffee or tea or like a public employee who clocks in at work."103

Discussing the importance of painting in children's education, Pedrosa argued that lack of emphasis on the discipline of form could lead to disastrous consequences: "The child would risk not developing spiritually, not leaving his or her shell, in an inverse but isochronal or symmetric position to the tachiste of Paris (who wishes, by all means, to recover the egocentric spontaneity of childhood manifestations)."104 Pedrosa faulted Jackson Pollock for "moral hedonism"105 and criticized Gutai painters for pursuing "informal origins" rather than "new structures,"106 but reserved his most dismissive remarks for Georges Mathieu, whose style of action painting he compared to a "pastry maker" who puts frosting on a cake.107 The pretense of spontaneity in informalist painting, Pedrosa argued, "reveals a terrible egocentric and narcissistic obsession. In Mathieu, Narcissism is so patent that it hurts the eye."108

Mathieu responded to Pedrosa's criticisms in a lecture delivered in São Paulo in December 1959. Aside from constituting a personal attack accompanied by a certain degree of colonial condescendension, Mathieu's text is an exemplary document of the harsh disputes between geometric and informalist abstraction that defined transnational artistic discourse in the late 1950s. The patronizing tone of Mathieu's remarks on the situation of art in Brazil-announced already by the mention of "Brazilian luck" in the title of the lecture, "Brazilian Luck and the Art of Today"-permeates the speech; this oration culminates with some generous European advice for the natives, whom the French painter warns to beware of the "forms of danger, into which, by reaction, some of your intellectuals risk attracting you in their naive desire to bring what they imagine as order into what they imagine as disorder."109 Mathieu advises his listeners to let Brazil fulfill its blessed tropical fate. "Brazil is neither Switzerland nor Germany," he argues, and therefore, "Concretism and 'neo-concretism' constitute Brazil's biggest anomaly."110 The final blow comes when, taking advantage of the notorious dispute between artists and critics in Rio and São Paulo in the late 1950s, Mathieu urges his audience "not to follow the example of Rio" and to "leave Mário Pedrosa and Ferreira Gullar to their comfortable myths and take pleasure in their correspondence with Professor Max Bense about the retrospective merits of Malevich and Lissitzky."111

Mathieu was not the only distinguished visitor to openly criticize the embrace of geometric abstraction by artists and critics in 1950s Brazil. Two years earlier, the former director of New York's Modern Art Museum, Alfred Barr Jr., on the occasion of his participation as a juror in the fourth São Paulo Biennial in 1957, had dismissed Brazilian and Argentinean Concrete art as "Bauhaus exercises," thus creating a conflict with Brazilian art critics.112 Always ready to come out in defense of Concrete art, Pedrosa responded to Barr's criticism with "Brazilian Painting and International Taste," in which he remarked that "what the respectable critic does not realize is that his irritation stems from not having found, at the [Biennial site in the] Ibirapuera, one painting that matched his taste, or rather one that matches the eclectic taste that dominates today in Paris and New York. Not finding anything that pleased his habits, he went away, like all prominent foreigners do when arriving on our shores, in search of indigenous huts and bands of parrots."113 Ultimately, Pedrosa contended, the problem is that some foreign critics "do not like to allow our artists modern research and a modern language that is not in accordance with current tastes in the main European centers."114 Indeed, just like Mathieu, Barr dismissed any elements of Latin American modern art that did not fit his own narrative of twentieth-century art as anomalous, belated, or derivative.

Yet the embrace of geometric abstraction by numerous artists and critics in postwar Latin America-articulated in exemplary fashion in Pedrosa's writings-was not simply a repetition of earlier European trends; it followed a different logic and articulated a different historical narrative from the hegemonic narratives of postwar art in Europe and North America. More precisely, Pedrosa's theorization of abstract painting participated in a discursive formation that was-to quote once again Schwarz's felicitous expression-"different but not alien" compared to North American and European artistic discourse. In São Paulo and Rio, as in New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo, abstract painting was framed as the principal arena for the political and aesthetic debates of the 1950s. However, visual discourses were translated differently within different political contexts, and thus acquired at times radically divergent meanings. The utopian impulse to create a transnational language of abstract art based on the universality of form could not escape the problem of verbal mediation. Its putatively universal currency faced an insurmountable convertibility crisis. Pedrosa's (missed) encounter with Gutai-and to some extent with Japanese avant-garde art in general-during his stay in Tokyo in 1958 is deeply inscribed in this transnational logic of postwar artistic discourse.

Save 30%

Add source code 15W5487 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.

Join UC Press

Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more