Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946-1964 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 83 photographs, paintings, and magazine spreads, generally framed in black and matted, and hung against white and green walls in a single room gallery space (516) on the fifth floor of the museum. The show was organized by Sarah Hermanson Meister, with assistance from Dana Ostrander. (Installation shots below.)

The following artists were included in the show, with the number of works on view, their process, dates, and other details as background:

  • 18 covers and spreads from Boletim foto-cine [Foto-Cine Bulletin], 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1956 (in vitrines)
  • Julio Agostinelli, 1 gelatin silver print, 1951, sized roughly 12 x15 inches
  • Gertrudes Altschul: 9 gelatin silver prints, 1953, c1953, c1955, sized roughly 15×11, 11×16, 12×15, 12×16, 10×15, 11×8, 14×12, 10×12 inches
  • Geraldo do Barros: 1 lacquer on wood, 1952, sized roughly 25×25 inches; 7 gelatin silver prints, 1948-1950, c1949, 1949, 1951, 1952-1953, sized roughly 16×12, 11×15, 14×11, 9×15 inches
  • João Bizarro Da Nave Filho: 1 gelatin silver print, c1960, sized roughly 6×15 inches
  • André Carneiro: 1 gelatin silver print, 1951, sized roughly 12×16 inches
  • Dulce Carneiro: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1957, c1958, sized roughly 15×12, 9×16 inches
  • Lucílio Corrêa Leite Filho: 1 gelatin silver print, c1960, sized roughly 15×11 inches
  • Thomaz Farkas: 6 gelatin silver prints, c1945, 1947, sized roughly 12×16, 16×12, 12×15, 10×16, 13×12, 12×12 inches
  • Ivo Ferreira da Silva: 1 gelatin silver print, c1960, sized roughly 15×9 inches
  • Maria Freire: 1 oil on canvas, 1954, sized roughly 36×48 inches
  • Gaspar Gasparian: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1944, 1949, 1953, sized roughly 16×12, 16×11 inches
  • Marcel Giró: 7 gelatin silver prints, c1950, c1953, c1957, sized roughly 12×16, 16×12, 15×11, 13×20, 13×12 inches
  • German Lorca: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1949, 1950-1951, c1953, 1953, 1961, sized roughly 11×13, 15×10, 11×14, 15×12,11×15 inches
  • Ademar Manarini: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1951, c1955, sized roughly 15×12, 12×15 inches
  • Barbara Mors: 2 gelatin silver prints: c 1953, sized roughly 11×16, 15×11 inches
  • Paulo Pires da Silva: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1960, c1960, sized roughly 15×12, 16×12 inches
  • Palmira Puig Giró: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1956, c1960, sized roughly 15×11, 16×11 inches
  • Eduardo Salvatore: 3 gelatin silver prints, c1951, c1953, sized roughly 13×10, 10×15, 12×16 inches
  • Aldo Augusto de Souza Lima: 1 gelatin silver print, 1949, sized roughly 11×15 inches
  • Alzira Helena Teixeira: 1 gelatin silver print, c1956, sized roughly 12×16 inches
  • Rubens Teixeira Scavone: 1 gelatin silver print, c1960, sized roughly 16×12 inches
  • Maria Helena Valente da Cruz: 1 gelatin silver print, c1952, sized roughly 12×12
  • José Yalenti: 3 gelatin silver prints, c1950, sized roughly 12×16, 11×15, 16×12 inches

A catalog has been published by the museum to accompany the exhibition (here). (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: In the years since its founding in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has established itself as the institutional voice most associated with defining the history of Modernism. And with that broad mantle of authority comes a powerful gatekeeper role on a range of both fundamental and supporting questions, including how the story of Modernism is bounded, who is included and excluded, and how the aggregate narrative is then synthesized, communicated, and updated.

In the subset case of photographic Modernism, the foundation story crafted by MoMA has largely been dominated by white male photographers from Western Europe and the United States, and only in the past few decades has that definition been incrementally widened (through thoughtful scholarship) to include some of those previously left out. In many ways, even though the overall framework might seem stable, the telling of the history of photographic Modernism remains a work in progress, with overlooked and underappreciated facets of the story slowly being filled in over time.

The Modernist efforts of photographers in Brazil (and in South America more broadly) didn’t get incorporated into the first drafts of the history of Modernism, most likely for two reasons. The first is essentially a geographic bias argument – if the starting point assumption is that the innovations of Modernism were largely being driven by artists in Europe and America, then the contributions of those in Brazil must in some sense be “behind” (in terms of time) or implicitly derivative, and therefore of secondary importance. The second argument is more subtle and perhaps more artistically arrogant in its own way – in Brazil, very few of the artists who were at the forefront of defining photographic Modernism were full time artists; most had other day jobs and careers and so could reasonably be called amateurs. From the vantage point of the institutional gatekeepers, it simply didn’t seem likely that important avant-garde photographic thinking was happening at the amateur level.

This show – the first major museum exhibition of Brazilian Modernist photography outside of Brazil – offers us the opportunity to judge for ourselves where this missing chapter might fit. It takes as its centerpiece the members of the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB), which was formed in 1939 in São Paulo. These Bandeirantes (“pioneers” or “standard bearers”, depending on how literally the word is translated) were indeed mostly amateurs, but they took their photographic pursuits seriously, via regular contests (with elaborate numerical critiques and rankings), salons, talks, and a monthly magazine filled with images and reviews.

Following the lead of the club’s thematic contests, this exhibition mixes breadth and depth by interleaving six sections drawn from the contest prompts and three single artist presentations (the catalog actually goes even deeper, doubling these numbers, with 12 themes and 6 featured artists.) This curatorial approach works well, as it centers attention on some of the most innovative and important figures, while also celebrating singular images made by lesser known club members; it also adds a gentle rhythm to the flow the exhibit, as the focus moves in and out from theme to artist and back again.

The amateur status of these photographers is in some sense misleading, in that very few of the participants, even the novice photographers, seem to exhibit any interest in the kinds of subjects we normally associate with everyday non-professionals – there are no lucky snapshots, dull landscapes, straightforward portraits, or other works that feel overly easy, safe, or conformist. And since almost none of the members were making a living from their photography, there is little commercial imagery or photographic reportage either. Instead, this group seems to have thrived on challenging itself to find the edge of the new, pushing toward abstraction before it was taken up by other mediums (at least in Brazil), and experimenting with alternate processes and techniques to find new aesthetic openings.

Of the thematic groupings, “Solitude” and “Experimental Processes” pack the most consistent punch. “Solitude” finds a sense of alienation in the modern city, often with a single figure set in contrast to the hard edges of streets and buildings. Eduardo Salvatore sets a tiny figure against a march of geometric apartment blocks, Ademar Manarini matches lonely silhouetted men with light poles and architectural planes, and André Carneiro locates a cluster of isolated figures inside the thin arcs of tram tracks, like rocks inside the wide orbits of celestial bodies. Still other images use the long line of a stairway and an angled shadow across a plaza to separate single figures from their surroundings, or see the space between a single car emerging from a row of parked cars and a single white chair coming out from a darkened backdrop. These compositions are consistently inspired and often quietly ominous, with silhouettes dissolving into indistinct blur.

The “Experimental Processes” section features just what its tile implies, with a surprising amount of risk-taking sophistication. Paulo Pires da Sailva turns construction workers climbing on buildings into delicately reversed white-on-black ghosts, almost like graphic line drawings. Gaspar Gasparian plays with undulating distortion, capturing the abstracted gestural lines found in a vertically striated reflection. Geraldo de Barros employs multiple exposures to layer together overlapping images of dark angled lines. And Gerturdes Altschul uses a similar technique to combine images of netting and white triangles. Still other images push the boundaries of solarization, deliberate blur, and exaggerated contrast to infuse the everyday with mystery and vitality.

The other thematic sections (“Daily Life”, “Texture and Shape”, “Simplicity”, and “Abstractions from Nature”) each have their own standout images, but are less deep in terms of unique aesthetic innovation. Thomaz Farkas contributes images to three of these groups, including a looming shadow that follows a walking boy, an unbalanced high-contrast picture of faces in a dark window, and textural close ups of rushing water. Marcel Giró also makes appearances in multiple sections, with a dense nest of electrical meters and wires, the textural square ends of sawn boards (a worthy companion to the work of Albert Renger-Patsch), and a contrasty blurred silhouette of a man with an umbrella. Other knockout images include Julio Agostinelli’s image of circus viewers silhouetted through the tent, Gaspar Gasparian’s steep angle downward view of cafe tables, Barbara Mors’s layered image of people watching sandlot soccer, and Ruben Tiexena Scavone’s image of the shiny side of an airplane.

Of the three featured photographers (who are represented by roughly half a dozen images each), Geraldo de Barros pushes the furthest into unique aesthetic territory. His works test the edges of geometric abstraction (particularly given their timing in the late 1940s), turning the stuccoed lines of building walls, the black edges of paned windows, and the dense patterns of caned chairs into kaleidoscopic compositions that are layered and relayered into elegant planes and transparent forms. A few years later, de Barros started to experiment with computer punch cards (found at his workplace), which he used as a negative to create patterns of dots that once again build into repeated intersections of line. These works certainly sit in parallel to (and in some cases predate) the multiple exposure abstractions of some of the Institute of Design photographers in Chicago, including Harry Callahan, Arthur Siegel, and others.

German Lorca and Gertrudes Altschul also get deserving preferential attention in this exhibit. Altschul delivers sinuous images of overlapped concrete circles, plays with classic Modernist stair shadows, tracks the elegant sweep of a roofline, and builds a complex geometric puzzle out of woven balls and cast shadows. Lorca proves himself to have even more range as a photographer, bridging from smartly seen moments of a woman looking over the shoulder of a priest and a boy eating an apple next to a wooden wall to a swaggeringly Mod blur from the Congonhas Airport, where travelers are turned into bustling silhouettes.

In her essay in the catalog, curator Sarah Meister openly acknowledges that this portion of the history of photographic Modernism has been excluded from the previous discourse, and asks us to wrestle with the questions that omission raises about how we (both personally and institutionally) judge and justify artistic choices and what we gain when we make the deliberate effort to be more inclusive.

To my own eye, there are both exciting primary discoveries and secondary, tertiary, and supporting finds here, and the chronology actually matters, so we can then line up images from different geographies and consider where lines of influence exist or where native innovation happened in parallel. Can these efforts in Brazil be aligned with those of the Fotoform group (Otto Steinert et al.) in Germany at roughly the same time? Aesthetically, I think they can, although the scarred psychological backdrop to post-WWII Germany is different than in Brazil, and the images therefore come from slightly different emotional states and investigate different interests. But only by seeing concurrent photographs from around the world and making these tenuous connections can we start to unravel the available resonances. Meister has done a commendable job of opening the door and providing an edited sampler of some of the best of what was made in Brazil at the time. The longer term work of rebalancing the existing history to include some of these worthy contributions can now begin.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the large number of artists included, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Gaspar Gasparian, Geraldo de Barros, German Lorca, Gertrudes Altschul, José Yalenti, Marcel Giró, Thomaz Farkas, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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