Anita Malfatti: 100 years of the exhibition that would change the history of Brazilian art

Brasil Observer - Mar 17 2017
‘Samba’ (1943)

(Leia em Português)


Malfatti’s gaze opened the eyes of many art critics to the new, at the same time showcasing the orthodox


By Márcio Apolinário and Jefferson Gonçalves

Taking a tour through São Paulo is much more enjoyable if you can feel its soul. “Anita Malfatti: 100 Years of Modern Art” is an invitation from the city so the works of the woman who inspired the Art Week of 1922 – the cradle of the modernist movement in Brazil – can be visited and appreciated.

The event, which began on February 8 and runs until April 30 at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo, is not just a return to the past. Those who experience the cultural importance that the artist brings with her expressionist language, still so contemporary, will be carried by a aspect so plural and important in a way that will show the city that never sleeps in other tones, besides the gray that is already part of the impression that São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city causes.

A century ago, those who participated in the inauguration of the “Anita Malfatti Modern Painting Exhibition” scarcely had the idea that it was at the centre of what would transform the course of art history in Brazil, promoting the thoughts that eventually brought new trends in art from Europe to hit head-on with the São Paulo elite, accustomed to consuming the more conservative European aesthetic.

Brazilian painter and teacher Anita Catarina Malfatti, daughter of an Italian and an American, was born in the city of São Paulo in 1889. She, the second daughter of Samuelle Malfatti and Eleonora Elizabeth Krug (or Betty Krug), came to have contact with the canvases after the death of his father, when the mother happened to give classes of painting and drawing to support the family. Anita followed all the classes and this began to take her time, with Betty being the first influence in the foundations of the plastic arts.

Anita’s talent attached to her vanguard vision captures and expresses sensations with her features and colours. European innovations started to bubble up in her mind, and from the works created by Malfatti, landscapes are undoubtedly one of the attractions that most impress.

The impact that avant-garde art had on her during the period of learning in Germany (1910-1913) and in the United States (1914-1916) created the bridge to philosophical revolutions in art and literature years later. But in 1917, this second exhibition of Anita Malfatti’s life brought constructions with spots of strong contrasting colours, expressive and deconstructed portraits, and completely uncommon frames, the physical deformations of painted models, completely unadjusted colours, and naturalist. That was too much for the São Paulo elite so accustomed to or close to academic paintings. Malfatti’s gaze opened the heads of many art critics to the new, at the same time exploding that of more orthodox and extremely conservative ones.

This is what happened when dealing with such productions as “The Russian Student”, painted in 1915 when Anita Malfatti was in Berlin, and her oil on canvas technique, provoking the senses with expressionist forms and colours outside the traditional, or even composition “The Fool”, one of the most well-known and notable paintings by her (also from 1915), who dared both in the colours considered extravagant and in the technique of pictorial treatment, escaping a bit of expressionism and flirting with something more cubist. Perhaps the distant gaze, bringing emptiness to the observer, causes more annoyance than the exuberance and short strokes and the strong contrast used by the artist.

‘The Lighthouse’ (1915)

‘The Lighthouse’ (1915)

‘The Russian Student’ (1915)

‘The Russian Student’ (1915)

At first, the exhibition was a surprise and aroused the curiosity in the society of São Paulo. The visits were more intense than expected. Anita even sold eight of her works. People became aware of the painter’s art and were shocked by this provocation to the orthodox and conservative concept of European art.

However, the more conservative also had their point of prominence, but one of them hit the painter in full. Monteiro Lobato, with his criticism published in the newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo created a negative reference to the name of the artist so strong and heavy that all the sold pictures were returned and others were almost destroyed.

Every time the name of Anita Malfatti was mentioned it was also associated with the Brazilian writer. Even after the author’s harsh words and negative repercussions, she still illustrated Lobato’s books – and, years later, in the 1940s, she presented radio program with Monteiro Lobato himself.

The idea that the artist would never recover from the shock of criticism became firm, but the influence of her visionary modern art gave wings to the “Modern Art Week of 1922”. During the event, Anita Malfatti presented 22 works that also had a similar reaction to her show in 1917 (a mix of amazement, fascination and curiosity). Otherwise, the painter had joined the group of people who defended the ideas of the Modern Art Week (an event that promoted the modernist movement in Brazil). Next to Anita Malfatti were Tarsila do Amaral, Mário de Andrade, Menotti Del Picchia and Oswald de Andrade. They became known as Group of Five (of Modern Brazilian Art).

A century later, it is time to re-present it to the world with the analyses of modernism on a sweeping and enlarged sweep of what had been done in the past. After all, it is a fact that Anita’s contribution to the history of modern Brazilian art did not stop only in the innovations for the time it was presented (1917).

It is at this point that the event “Anita Malfatti: 100 Years of Modern Art” focuses. In the sensitivity of the artist’s eyes, bringing paintings and drawings that show the most varied moments of Anita’s production. Punctuating the unique perception of the painter for the art around her and the variables of daily life.

The exhibition goes beyond the expressionist group that established it and served as a fuse for modernism in Brazil. The exhibition features landscapes and portraits from periods that precede even Modern Art Week, featuring refined naturalist paintings from the 1920s and 1930s, and even those closest to popular culture that can be seen in the 1940s and 1950s.

The inspirer of the Modern Art Week of 1922 should be remembered and celebrated when the event that was the trigger of the Brazilian modernist movement is celebrating its 100th anniversary (2022). It will also be an exquisite way of revising Malfatti’s legacy, which extends to the present day as a pioneer artist, who, in addition to surviving the radical conservatism of the 1920s, was adventurous when he entered and revolutionized the “popular way” of art, in the last years of life.