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Primitivisms in Dispute: Production and Reception of the Works of two Brazilian Artists in Paris in the 1920s

The condition of Paris as the main artistic capital from the end of the 19th to the mid-20th century caused it to attract an expressive contingent of foreign artists, and among those, dozens of Brazilian artists who were attracted by what was seen as the world capital of arts[1]. They encountered, however, an extremely competitive universe, in which national origins were important components to recognition. As mentioned by Michele Greet, the participation of Latin-Americans in the Salons de Paris was significant, totaling more than 60 names, but few managed to be awarded[2]. During the decade of 1920, at least 25 Brazilian artists trained in Paris receiving different degrees of recognition[3].

The presence of foreigners and their integration in the French art scene was a delicate matter[4]. For example, in 1921 the Musée du Luxembourg decided to separate its collection in two parts. On the one hand, a museum was built to be dedicated to the “Foreign Schools”, and it was henceforth called Musée du Jeu de Paume; and on the other hand, the Musée du Luxembourg’s function would become that of exhibiting only the work of those born in France, with the goal of making the French contribution to the development of modern art more discernible. This division by nationality came into practice in the 1923 edition of the Salons des Indépendants, leading to the dismissal of many of its members[5].

The term “École de Paris” conceived by the critic André Warnod in 1925 is one of the main results from this complex moment. He defended the existence of an art school centered in the city that encompassed many modern styles, and to which foreigners could give a sizeable contribution. He said:

The Paris School exists. Later, art historians will be able to, better than us, define its character and study the elements it is comprised of, but we can always affirm its existence and the attractive force that make artists from the whole world come to us […]. Could we consider undesirable the artist to whom Paris is the Promised Land, the blessed land of painters and sculptors […][6]?

There are among them great artists, creators who give back more than they take. They pay for the others, the followers, the makers of pastiche, the second hand merchants, so others can remain in place and content themselves with coming to France to study the fine arts, returning home right away to exploit the goods they just have acquired and loyally spread throughout the world the sovereignty of French art[7].

In his articles Warnod divided the foreign artists in two categories: the creators and the followers. The creators were welcome as they contributed to the French culture, “who gave back more than they take”; while the followers were not as well seen, as they added nothing to the general culture and their only role was that of helping disseminate French culture around the world. The repercussion of his writings was enormous, and they even became classificatory categories that are used in and discussed by art historiography to this day[8].

As the text highlights, it was considered that in order for foreign artists to achieve recognition they should emphasize and perform their “otherness”. This demand affected all foreign artist regardless of origin. The Japanese Foujita was successful through the articulation of discourses about the East and the West in his paintings while being encouraged to perform his “otherness” is his private life. The Russian artist Marc Chagall also struggled to reach a balance between his desire for creating work of universal appeal and the way in which he was inserted into the problematic category of “Jewish Art”[9]. All the Latin American artists that had attained success – like Pedro Figari, with his canvases dedicated to the Candombe; and Vicente do Rego Monteiro with his stylized indigenous themes – had, according to Greet’s analysis, one common aspect: they exploited their outsider condition, their origins in regions seen as “savage”, “primitive” or simply “exotic” in their work, be it in their themes or in their chosen forms and materials[10].

Although the idea of Latin America conceals a series of historical, cultural, racial and linguistic differences, it was generally perceived as diacritical in relation to the “center” (Europe). Certain clichés about it were emphasized, such as the presence of savage and exuberant nature and the “typical” racial features of its population, specially the presence of indigenous populations, black people and people of mixed race. These elements are tropes produced through a long term process that was initiated in the 16th century and peaked in the 19th century through the actions of European travelers that at times described America as a paradise on Earth in which defiled nature embraced its “noble savages”, and at others as the place of violent habits and of frightening and unruly nature.

This discursive repertoire was revisited in the first decades of the 20th century by Latin American artists. In order to achieve this, they sought inspiration in the example of European artists that they admired, such as the fauves Matisse and Derain, certain German expressionists such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluf and Emil Nolde, in the “primitivist Picasso” and even in the more radical Paul Gauguin. These artists identified in cultures considered as “primitive” a source for the renewal of their own cultures that were seen as in crisis and/or decadent. But differently from these masters that needed to seek these sources in faraway cultures, the Latin American artists made use of the uniqueness of their own origins. Jorge Schwartz affirms that for Brazilian artists primitivism rose as an internal, native force that did not need to resort to the gimmick of imports[11].

There was, as such, a particular convergence between what artists from the global center were seeking and what the “imagined realities” of those from the peripheries could offer them. In this sense, the appropriation of this central discourse by means of their own particularities was an important “peripheral strategy” employed by Latin Americans[12]. As indicated by Rafael C. Denis, one of the most remarkable movements in this process was the Antropofagia, considered to be an “ingenious instrument for reversing the hierarchies of primitivism. Whereas European modernists tented to incorporate ‘primitive’ otherness in a quest of qualities […], Tarsila and Oswald consciously played the native for a foreign audience, staging their alterity as an enactment of auto-exoticism”[13].

This confluence between strategies and expectations may have enabled, for the first time, some positive recognition of the specificity of the peripheries and its spokespersons: the artists. And, precisely because of that, this movement was highly valued by the Latin American art history developed throughout the 20th century, to the extent that it became a part of the canon[14].

But there were other possible uses for the term primitivism, which I hope to demonstrate in this article. E. Gombrich states that the “preference for the primitive” is a general impulse that marked several moments of Western art history, from Ancient Greece to the 20th century vanguards[15]. Roughly described by the author as an appreciation for the rustic and simple, the “preference for the primitive” is a reaction that surfaces in moments in which artistic production reaches a high level of sophistication and formalization, with a tendency to mannerism. In aesthetic terms, this means a valuation of basic and pure forms, that could derive from many sources. It is in this way that, from the mid-20th century and in a clear reaction to the peak of Academic art (also negatively referred to by the author as art pompier), there arises a tendency for the recovery of the “primitive” (Italian, German, French) at the same time that Japanese engravings, African masks, Australian decorative artworks and even children’s drawings gain recognition. The author intentionally describes primitivism as a wide tendency, that is complex, multiple, and that involves movements that differ from each other in style.

Although Gombrich’s book is often considered to be excessively broad and marked by a Eurocentric approach to art[16], it contributed to the rethinking of the unambiguous character that primitivism acquired in the dominant history of art, especially that dedicated to Latin America. To support this thesis, I propose a discussion based on the work of the Brazilian painter Anita Malfatti titled Resurrection of Lazarus (Resurreição de Lázaro). This is a work that, despite being upheld by its author as affiliated to primitivism which was a movement approved of by her Brazilian generational colleagues, had a negative reception. This discord is revealing of the way in which primitivism could be differently interpreted in that context. It was, possibly, a “disputed category” that certainly had as the winning party the one which was not embraced by the painter. For this reason, it is vital to compare her, even if briefly, to her contemporary Tarsila do Amaral, who represents the exact opposite in her adhesion to the victorious group, satisfying the expectations of both Paris and São Paulo.

Two Brazilian women artists in Paris in the 1920s: same origin, deviant destinations

The condition of “otherness” and the limits it imposed to the acceptance of foreign artists in the Paris of the 1920s, outlined, in a sense, the production and the reception of the works of two highly recognized Brazilian painters: Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral. The first one is considered to be responsible for the introduction of modern aesthetics in Brazil, through the expressionist works she brought from her studies in Germany and in New York, which were exhibited in São Paulo in 1917. Thanks to a scholarship granted by an official agency of the State of São Paulo, she was able to stay in Paris from 1923 to 1928. Tarsila, however, was born in a very wealthy family and she was initiated in the arts in São Paulo, doing some training in the Academie Julian in 1920-21. In 1923 she embarked with her partner, the eminent poet Oswald de Andrade, for a stay in Paris, where she quickly inserted herself into a select circle. She studied with Lhote and Léger and she initiated an art collection with works signed by Robert Delaunay, C. Brancusi, Ferdinand Léger, among others.

Beyond the way in which the conditions of their stay set apart the two artists, I am interested in highlighting how each of them experienced the appeal for a production that was in line with their foreigner status, notably that of South Americans, and how they made very different uses of the expectations for a primitive art that emanated from Paris.

Tarsila embraced the appeal for exoticism, fixing snippets of what she understood as brazilianism in canvases such as “Morro de Favela” or “A Negra” [1] and she was successful, as the critic considered that she was able to shape art that was “authentically modern and Brazilian”. This process cannot be seen as “natural” or even derived from a “subconscious reminiscence”, but the result of an artist's intention[17]. This was in line with the thoughts of her partner, the poet Oswald de Andrade, as a strategy of inserting themselves in the avant-garde Parisians circles[18]. In a letter to her family, Tarsila manifested a profound consciousness in regards to the expectations for exoticism that emanated from Paris:

I feel progressively more Brazilian: I want to be the painter of my land. How thankful am I to have spent my whole childhood in the farm. The memories of that time are becoming precious to me. In art, I want to be the little country girl from São Bernardo, playing with grass-made dolls, as in the last painting I am working on. Do not think that this Brazilian tendency in art is frowned upon here. On the contrary. What is wanted here is for each person to bring contributions from their own country. This is how you explain the success of Russian ballets, Japanese engravings and black music. Paris is fed up with Parisian art[19].

Tarsila do Amaral, A negra, 1923
Fig. 1. Tarsila do Amaral, A negra, 1923. Courtesy of Tarsila do Amaral and Coleção Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo.


In her first Parisian exhibition held at the Galerie Percier in 1926, the painter resorted to appropriate schemes in order to stand out in Paris: she invested in a well located gallery (in the famous Rue La Boétie)[20] and in a luxurious catalogue with a preface by Blaise Céndrars, whose fame was connected to his knowledge in black art. The presence of black and mixed populations as fundamental elements of “Brazilianism” was directly evoked by paintings such as “Morro de Favela” and “A Negra”, both representations that were traditionally denied by the cultural tradition of the country[21]. In order to emphasize these elements, Tarsila also commissioned frames from Pierre Legrain, who was a master in the use of exotic materials such as snake skins and others in his fine works[22].

The painter would also gain more recognition in Brazil, as the best example of a “modern and Brazilian” art. When writing about her first exhibition in the country, that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1929 and in which she presented fundamentally the same works exhibited in Paris in 1926 and 1928, critics did not spare compliments. It was even said that she had given the “cry of Ipiranga of our art”, and it was considered that “Tarsila [is] not only a revelation of our painting, but also the herald of a new world in our art”[23]. This text highlights two dimensions in her work: its modernity and nationality.

At the same time, Anita Malfatti exhibited in Paris, also in 1926, but in the small and little known Galeria André and with a remarkably eclectic body of work. Anita, who had previously been acclaimed by her Brazilian peers as a painter, frequently participated in French salons since 1924. For this exhibition she dispatched a body of 22 paintings dedicated to subjects that were considered “not very Brazilian” such as “Interior de Monaco”[2], a work that was more closely related to a certain type of intimism from Bonnard and a decorativism from Matisse, both painters whom she admired. As Greet expresses, this strategy was largely diverse from that of Tarsila. Despite the fact that critics were generally favorable to her reading of Matisse, the critic André Warnod was disappointed.

We have been surprised to find in the discourse of most young American artists who have come to study painting in Paris, proof of a sincere patriotism... They are our guests, but they know that they will return home and will build a house made of materials acquired here. A young Brazilian, Miss Anita Malfatti who is showing at the Independent salon an interior and a portrait painted in a very delicate spectrum, told us how she had toured the United States and Germany before coming to France, without attaching herself to one master or another, but rather being enriched by everything she encountered, attempting to present as well as she could the French spirit, the French culture, in order to later create local paintings in Brazil and to benefit from folklore and the Brazilian picturesque. Is there not more elevated language here than the language that so many young women painters employ who are at present plagued by a demoralizing concern for "schemes" (Warnod, 1926 apud Greet 2013)[24].

Anita Malfatti, Ressurreição de Lázaro, 1928
Fig. 2. Anita Malfatti, Ressurreição de Lázaro, 1928. Courtesy of Sylvia Malfatti and Fabio Santana, Acervo Museu de Arte Sacra de São Paulo.

The idea that the artist had distanced herself from the project of developing a “modern and Brazilian” art was regarded with caution both in France and in her country of origin. From that moment, the perception emerged that Tarsila was making a "progressive" trajectory, while Anita Malfatti "regressed"[25]. This reading about the “deviation” embraced by Anita was influenced, to a large degree, by the opinion of some of her contemporaries such as the writers Sergio Millet and Mário de Andrade who were also active critics in the city of São Paulo, and who exposed such impressions in the letters exchanged with her. This process was triggered by the first encounters between the artist and Maurice Denis. It was precisely this relation to Denis that became one of the primary reasons that led to the attacks on her presumed “reconversion” towards a “conservative” art. And this reconversion is materialized in the final work: Resurrection of Lazarus [3]. An example of this can be seen in the letter written by Mário de Andrade to the artist:

Your disposition is intrinsically expressionist. You have an extraordinary affectionate disposition that is of a greatness that I admire and respect. […] I was afraid that your pride would harm you and I do think that when you got around to receiving advice from that religious decorative painter, what was his name again? I cannot recall, I think you positively erred and that time has proven me right. [...] [26].

Maurice Denis was not someone so unimportant for his name to be forgotten. It is useful to recontextualize him in the Paris of the 1920s, in order to elucidate the reasons why Anita invested in a certain type of artistic production that, although conflicting with the expectations of her Brazilian peers, was absolutely understandable in an international art context.

How to interpret Malfatti's choices in the light of the artistic context of her time? Despite the already analyzed differences between the two, to this day little has been said about the common use they both made of an often employed term, that was considered to be adequate to “non-European” artists, namely: adherence to primitivism. If in the case of Tarsila her adherence to primitivism is more explicit, as it is clearly evoked in a lot of paintings that make up her well known “Pau-Brasil Period”, in the case of Anita it is less knows and for that it deserves to be better detailed.

Maurice Denis, The Raising of Lazarus, 1919
Fig. 3. Maurice Denis, The Raising of Lazarus, 1919. Credit: Private Collection/Bridgeman Images.

Anita´s choices: for a primitivism without exoticism

As a fellow to the Patronato Artístitico do Estado de São Paulo, Anita Malfatti was subject to a set of rules, among which was that of sending at the end of her fellowship in Paris a final work of art that should integrate the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo and that could have a historical, mythological or biblical nature[27]. Unlike Tarsila, who had all the freedom granted her by her personal wealth, Anita Malfatti had her production limited by a few impositions. But it is also true that she “chose” a religious theme. Her study notebooks kept at the Institute of Brazilian Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP), as well as her epistolary production, demonstrate that she had started to worry about this final piece since 1923. Possibly for this reason, she tried to approach Maurice Denis, an action which her colleagues from the same generation highly disapproved of.

Denis had established his name in the Nabis generation in 1890, and by 1920 he could no longer be seen as a vanguard artist, rather as an official artist that received even public commissions such as the decoration for the Petit Palais. It is possible that Anita attempted to get closer to him because of his importance to the project of the renovation of religious art in France. Beside a few other artists and groups, he founded collectives such as “Les Ateliers d’Art Sacré” that were directed to the restoration of churches that had been destroyed by World War I. The motto of a total art animated many groups that were vigorously active in France at the time[28].

In 1919 he had also done a painting called “The Resurrection of Lazarus”[4], which was the same subject chosen by the Brazilian woman. More than a similarity in form, what brought them together was the choice for the same aesthetic school. In Nouvelles theories sur l’art moderne, published in 1922, he advocated that academic art needed to be regenerated and to that end he proposed a return to the Italian Primitives as a source that could bring about renovation[29]. In them, Denis found a more “sincere painting”, in which the formal simplicity was the sign of a direct and true faith that preceded the formalism established by the Academies that originated after the Italian Renaissance.

Tarsila do Amaral, Anjos, 1924
Fig. 4. Tarsila do Amaral, Anjos, 1924, photograph by Jaime Acioli. Courtesy of Tarsila do Amaral and Gilberto Chateaubriand Collection, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro.

Although at first sight it may seem that this understanding is quite far from primitivism as we know it, and that is usually identified with the use of non-western cultural-aesthetic references and representations, there are some common structural elements between the two. For analytical purposes, we will separate the form of primitivism that is currently “dominant” in art history and that is associated with artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Modigliani, Schmidt-Rottluff among others, and that in this case encompasses, of course, Tarsila do Amaral, as exotifying primitivism; while we shall refer to the strand endorsed by Denis – the one that is associated with Anita – as classical primitivism. In both cases, European art is considered to be in crisis, decadent and in need of “regeneration”. In both cases, the institutionalization of artistic practices propagated by the Academies since the Renaissance is blamed for such a state. Thus, the inherently anti-academic character of both kinds of primitivism, that can be, in this sense, associated with a modernist positioning in an artistic field in which positions are relative. Finally, in both cases, it is believed that a return to the “origins” is a way of regenerating the art of present time[30].

The difference between both forms of primitivism is precisely in the latter, namely in what they understand as origin, as authenticity. While some prefer to revisit the artistic practices that precede academicization and seek inspiration in the masters, artists or artisans that came before the first academies, such as the so-called Italian Primitives, others find this original art outside the boundaries of European geography and culture. In the second case, the sources will be located in an idealized Africa, Oceania or America, inhabited by a radical other. This original inhabitant exists in a state uncorrupted by “civilization”. The inhabitants of those places and their cultural products are perceived as authentic, as living in an eternal state of original purity, and therefore as immune to history. That is why both the production of the past as well as that of the present can be used indiscriminately as inspiration sources. But in the case of classical primitivism time is a fundamental dimension. The concept of Italian Primitives is essentially historic; it regards the production that precedes Renaissance and that happened in a relatively confined geographical space (Tuscany, a region of Italy). Meanwhile, for the partisans of the exotifying primitivism history is an unnecessary dimension because those nations did not have it. The objects produced in the past centuries or in the immediate present are equally possible as references, as they are merged together into a state of original purity that shield them from time – this western attribute that is so dear, precisely, to the consciousness and to modern art.

The distance between the aesthetic groups that Anita and Tarsila participated in cannot be reduced to a simple difference in subject. After all, during the 1920s, Tarsila also painted works with a religious theme, in which a “preference for the primitive” was evident. But the visual results of her work and that of Anita’s work were profoundly distinct. The painting Angels (Anjos) from 1924 and that was exhibited in 1926 at the Galerie Percier can be analyzed as an example [5]. This painting must have been important for the painter, as it was the first work in the catalogue reproduced directly after the cover and occupying a whole page.

Anita Malfatti, Notes in a sketchbook (Book II), ca. 1923–28
Fig. 5. Anita Malfatti, Notes in a sketchbook (Book II), ca. 1923–28. Courtesy of Sylvia Malfatti and the Collection of Visual Arts of the Institute of Brazilian Studies, University of São Paulo.

This painting is part of a group of works produced between 1924 and 1927 that is known as the “Pau-Brasil period”. This period began with a trip to the state of Minas Gerais, in the interior of Brazil, in which she was accompanied by the French poet Blaise Cendras, her husband Oswald, her son Nonê, the important writer from São Paulo Mário de Andrade, the friend and collector Olívia Guedes Penteado, among others. Oswald dubbed it “Journey of Discovery of Brazil” hinting at their auto-attributed mission of learning about the cultural origins of the country. They found it, specially, in two elements: in the assortment of artistic and architectural assets from the 18th century, also known as the baroque; and in popular festivities[31]. As the trip took place in the month of April, the group was able to watch the celebration of the Holy Week (Semana Santa) – substantive aesthetic spectacles that included wide participation of locals. The impact of this trip could be noticed in the works of several of these modernists, who were guided by the aspiration of discovering what they believed could be the “authentic Brazilian culture” under the threat of the modernization process, with aims of “preserving” it in the future.

It was from this moment that Tarsila do Amaral started to directly represent subjects, characters and landscapes that were associated with the matter of “Brazilianess”. The aforementioned painting is part of this design. It attempts to illustrate a central aspect of Brazilian culture: the vigor of popular catholic religiousness. To this end, the painter incorporated some characteristics of popular aesthetics that could be observed in church tabernacles, religious statues, and home altars, such as simplified lines, the repetition of figures and the lack of a traditional perspective. This resulted in a deliberately “naive” painting, of which the “primitive” character was obtained through the conscious use of a process of formalization. It also required a choice that was both aesthetical and political, over the national “origins” that should be used as a reference. As Miceli stated, this work was deeply influenced by the preservationist ideals of this first Modernist generation[32].

Anita’s relation to religious sources and the way in which she could connect them to a different type of “preference for the primitive” was quite diverse. While Tarsila turned to a popular religiousness and devoured – to paraphrase her anthropophagic metaphors – its expressive forms, Anita would find these sources much farther from home, namely in Italy. In a similar fashion to her colleague, she would also try to absorb the material and formal elements of her sources. She demonstrates her closeness to the classical conception of primitivism in several letters written to Mário de Andrade[33]. In one of them, she enthusiastically narrates the discoveries she made in Italy:

In Florence I found painting as I was looking for. I walked far, I saw much, but I can now say that I was seeing perfect harmony. I found it in the frescoes of Perugino (Triptic) in the Cenacle of Ghirlandaio at the Medici Chapel frescoed by Bonozzo Gozzoli and in the mosaics of the old churches wonders and more wonders. I kept losing my breath in Florence. All the Fra Angelico, such colors Mário, that is what color is?!! Paulo Uccello, all the Botticelli; certainly I will one day copy the Madonna of the Magnificat the most wonderful for me. Cimabue Giotto the great, there I need to shut up, I feel like entering into the true mystery of painting. I do not know how I will paint when I go back, but I feel my spirit much sharper and better suited to the equilibrium of masses to be able to compose with more richness. [34]

The trip to Italy had a great impact in the artist, as demonstrated by her letters, the copies of paintings she did and the photos she took, and that are today taken care of at the Institute of Brazilian Studies[35]. Among her notebook pages[36] some diverse interests appear as well, but those can clearly be associated with a moment internationally named as “Return to Order”, which can be perceived in the themes, notably the religious subjects that have already been mentioned, and also by an interest in technical aspects of the artistic production in a more artisanal sense, something that has been little studied so far. In many pages, Anita discusses the production of paint and pigments, revisiting artisanal procedures of art making that preceded modern technologies such as oil paint, for example [6].

Photograph of The Resurrection of Lazarus by Giotto, taken by Anita Malfatti
Fig. 6. Photograph of The Resurrection of Lazarus by Giotto, taken by Anita Malfatti. Courtesy of Sylvia Malfatti and the Archive of the Institute of Brazilian Studies, University of São Paulo.

The trip to Italy represented not only the discovery of the iconography of the old masters, as it is noticeable that Anita tried to assimilate, understand, and reinterpret all the ways in which these images were produced, and therefore she dedicated herself to the research of gilding methods, as she made explicit in her letter to Mário.

In Florence I learned how to make incisions and apply gold as the old. It has been 3 months that I go to the Louvre every day. I am putting the final touches to the Belle Jardinière of Raphael. […] I see now so clearly that all modern art has absorbed its science from the old art and that if the same basic rules were not present in both, there could be no comprehension between them. Could it be that all our revolution will bring us the fruit of a new Renaissance? When we are old we might be able to see the new miracle of the centuries! [37].

The interest in the modes of production of the art making that came before modernity – that can be identified as a set of values, practices, etc. that were institutionalized after the Renaissance, and that had the academic system as a consequence – in its technical aspects was shared by several modernist artists. As noted by Denis Crockett, the 1921 publication of Max Doener’s manual The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting (Malmaterial und sein Verwendung im Bilde), one of the most popular books of the 20th century, illustrated the interest of German vanguard artists in the production of old masters, such as Grünewald. The book held details on how to prepare the tempera, how to produce a fresco in the way of Van Eyck, Rembrandt or Rubens. The publication was directed to graduated artists, especially expressionists, whose reference in the old German masters of the Late Gothic that was up to that point based in emotional aspects and, to a lesser degree, stylistic aspects, could now embody imitations of a technical character[38].

The in loco vision of the past masters transformed Anita. It was during her trip to Italy that she returned to the previous sketches of the Resurrection of Lazarus and decided to alter some of its elements. There is a clear change in the depiction of Lazarus with the use of white bands that were an iconographic element associated with the “old” and present both in Fra Angelico and Giotto, but that was relinquished by later artists such as Rembrandt, Maurice Denis, Van Gogh, etc[39]. According to Coli, what characterized this “earlier” production was the use of two basic features: the image of Lazarus in front of a grout and wrapped in strips of linen. These components were present in the works of Giotto and Fra Angelico that were photographed by the artist and that became part of her collection. Later, this representation changed and the image of Lazarus laying in his tomb became predominant from the 17th to the 19th century. Valin[40] notes that Anita made use of the “older” model, and to this end she also chose to depict the moment of the “miracle”, when Christ requested that Lazarus leave the place in which he was buried. The painting can also be associated with the “old” in formal terms, as Christ is represented with his arms extended towards Lazarus and the latter is portrayed standing before the grout.

Photograph of The Resurrection of Lazarus by Fra Angelico, taken by Anita Malfatti
Fig. 7. Photograph of The Resurrection of Lazarus by Fra Angelico, taken by Anita Malfatti. Courtesy of Sylvia Malfatti and the Fundo Anita Malfatti, Institute of Brazilian Studies, University of São Paulo.
Fra Angelico, Silver Chest, detail of Scenes from the Life of Christ, 1453
Fig. 8. Fra Angelico, Silver Chest, detail of Scenes from the Life of Christ, including The Resurrection of Lazarus and Christ at the Column, Museum of Saint Mark, Florence, 1451–1453. The representation of Lazarus used as a model by Anita is the first one of this set. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Formally, there are still other similarities to Fra Angelico such as the disposition of the elements, in which Lazarus is positioned standing and leaving the grout on the left side of the painting (and not on the right side as was the case in most depictions), and also with a kneeling figure in the foreground. In both paintings there is also a great approximation of the scenic focus toward the observer, which is even more emphasized in Anita’s painting. Another visual element that appears to have been appropriated by the female painter is chromaticism. In both painting the pure, intense pinks and blues give the picture vivacity; these colors are associated in the case of Tarsila with a “tropical chromaticism” originated in the childhood memories of the Brazilian countryside, and they also appear in Anita, but sought from other sources, also distant, also from the past, but taken from a very different cultural background.

After her trip the religious theme grows in her production, and Anita started to dedicate herself to compositions such as O perdão da Madalena (The forgiveness of Magdalena), A ressurreição de Lázaro (The resurrection of Lazarus) and A pesca maravilhosa (The miraculous catch of fish)[41] showing her happiness with the path found, that was progressively closer to that of the Italian Primitives: “[…] Do you remember a charcoal drawing I did of Christ in the desert? I painted it and I finished it today. It looks like a primitive fresco. I am nearly content [...][42]. Finally, commenting on Puritas (Purity) the painter seems to be almost happy with the results obtained after years of her stay and research in Paris:

I have been working a lot Mário. My Puritas did indeed turn out beautiful. It looks like it is from a primitive master according to different artists that thought that I had in my house a reproduction of one of the masters. I know this shall give you joy […][43].

In the letter addressed to her friend, a notorious advocate of the matavirgismo[44] as an artistic project, that is, of a modern production that could make up the “original aesthetic of Brazilian culture” nourished by its popular roots, it is clear that Anita believed that she was producing a pleasing work, being that it could be considered “primitivist”. This shows that although today we associate, especially in Brazil, the term primitivism to aesthetic production that sought to value cultural elements originated in non-western traditions, this definition is not, and it fundamentally was not, the only possible or existing one.

For many artists, primitivism was understood as a return to the production of the Italian master previous to Renaissance and to the institutionalization of art, especially. As noted by Rodhes:

What sows confusion is the fact that, in the history of art, the term “primitive” refers to artists traditionally considered to be precursors to a new art, those that at the same time provoked a rupture with the past tradition and laid the foundation over which a new tradition could be built. The term has, in general, this reference, but it was also often used by vanguards to designate the first Italian masters, such as Cimbaue, Giotto and Masaccio in the 14th and 15th centuries, artists that are traditionally perceived as the initiators of an artistic movement that reached perfection with the styles of the High Renaissance of Raphael and Michelangelo, in the beginning of the 16th century [45].

Anita was not alone in looking to the Italian Primitives in search of an alternative, anti-academic model to make art of the present. Among French modernists, many artists followed this path. Some of which are now identified as participants in different forms of primitivism. Modigliani and Soutine, for example, would go to the Musée du Louvre to admire the Italian Primitives[46]. Other Latin American artists were also affected by this production, such as Joaquim Torres-Garcia in his “Catalan phase” [47], and Fulvio Penachi and others in Brazil. Anita was walking the same path as artists such as Carlo Carrá, who had been tied to Italian futurism. In 1914 he published the famous article Parlata sur Giotto[48], which was written at a time when he was trying to distance himself from the futurist excesses, and in order to do that he repositioned himself in relation to the tradition of art history, especially the Italian one. Giotto is then chosen as a symbol and his work is revisited, but from present categories. He is elevated to the position of a precursor of certain visual heritages that will be retrieved by the moderns, such as pictoriality (in Giotto “the painting allows itself to be seen as a painting”, p. 271) or still yet the importance of the formal structure of the works of art (referring to the “cubist framework”), in other words, values that make his production “visual emblems” of a body of work that has become autonomous. This formalist reading wipes clean the cultural and religious meanings of the works, that are then read mainly through the formal elements that the moderns thought of as relevant. Still, such rehabilitation goes together with the possibility of understanding the works through an anti-academic potency, for the “truth” they exude. This original purity would have later been corrupted by centuries of academicism in art, a process that started with the Renaissance, and that is why this moment perceived as “precedent” is so important [49].


The admiration that Anita showcased for Giotto, Uccello, Fra Angelico, and her attempt to project them in her own work is consonant to ideas that many active artists in the European Modernism advocated for in-between the wars. This tendency was certainly related to elements of the so-called “Return to Order” as made clear by Carrá’s work, in the proposition of the establishment of a stabilizer, an equilibrium between modernity and tradition, as a reaction to the futurist raptures[50]. But the meaning of this process cannot be explained as a simple conservative return; it is necessary to understand that the rehabilitation of the Italian Primitives has a modern character that derives from the critic of tradition, used here as a synonym of academic practices.

We can, therefore, understand that in the Paris of the 1920’s there were at least two aesthetic groups that advocated for a return to the origins as a means to renew the art of the present. For some, like Denis, Carlo Carrá among others, this was about looking for the “origins” in the masters that preceded Renaissance; while for others, it was necessary to go farther to non-western cultures and landscapes. In both cases, the chronological or cultural-geographic distance idealized in the “other” qualities such as “purity” and “authenticity”.

By adhering to this ideal of a classical primitivism, Anita Malfatti sought to insert herself in the Parisian scene by means of more universal premises, that is, those that were tied to a history of European production itself, especially the Italian and French ones. The chosen path ended up alienating her from the goals set by most of the patrons and colleagues of her generation, and that came at high costs. In her analysis of the poor reception to Anita’s individual exhibition in 1926, Michele Greet highlights that the reasons for that are less related to the aesthetic quality of the displayed works, that were considered good, or at least fair, in terms of the drawing and knowledge of the métier, but they were related to the fact that the critic did not identify in her production new, original, or “national” elements[51]. Her production and her themes were too tied to the Paris School for her to be noticed according to the criteria established by this same school, and that was to be applied to outsiders.

It is crucial to mention that these “other uses” were obscured during the 20th century as the canonical form of primitivism gained prominence in the history of art, especially that produced about and by Latin America itself. This history supported and valued the strategies of belonging used by the modernists, as previously addressed.

The strategy employed by Anita in the 1920’s Paris was, therefore, wholly different from the one chosen by Tarsila. Anita refused to turn her painting into a nationalist affirmation that could be tied to stereotypes, an she exempted herself of producing in order to please the Parisian public, avid for artists “from afar” to correspond to their expectations of portraying the distant and exotic. Contrary to what is said, that in those years the artist was “weakened” by personal reasons, what can actually be seen is a choice to embrace primitivism in its more western and classical version. Anita tried to enter the Parisian circles as a modern and universal artist, with no origin, gender, religion or any other clear identity element that could be used for an aprioristic reading key to her work. The path chosen was not the one expected by her patrons, neither was it one that pleased the Parisians that were thirsty for “exotic” productions, and that certainly cost her a lot. But it is necessary to acknowledge that the success of Tarsila and the failure of Anita have less to do with the quality of their work and their mastery of technique, than with the way in which they accepted, more or less readily, to fulfill the role they were expected to as artists from the “south”, that is to say, that of spokeswomen of native heritages, who were, as such, essentially seen as primitive and exotic; terms that were not necessarily articulated at the time, as demonstrated by the choices and refusals of Anita.


[1] Chistophe Charle, Paris Fin de Siècle. Culture et Politique ( Paris: Seuil, 1998), 41-2; Marta Rossetti Batista, Os artistas brasileiros na escola de Paris- anos 1920 (São Paulo: Editora 34, 2012).

[2] Michele Greet, Transatlantic Encounters. Latin American Artists in Paris Between the Wars (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[3]BATISTA, Marta Rossetti. Os artistas brasileiros na escola de Paris- anos 1920. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2012; CAMARGOS, Marcia. Entre a Vanguarda e a Tradição. Os artistas brasileiros na Europa (1912-1930). São Paulo: Alameda, 2011; SIMIONI, Ana Paula Cavalcanti. Des disporas du moderne.Les artistes brésiliens à Paris dans les annés 1920, In: Art et Société. Recherches récentes et regards croisés, Brésil/France (Alain Quemin et Glaucia Villas Boas, org). Marseille: Open Editions, 2016.

[4] Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel “L’art de la mesure”.Histoire & mesure, XXII (2007).'art_de_la_mesure. Retrieved in 26/01/2020.

[5] Béatrice Jouyeux-Prunel, Les Avant-Gardes Artistiques. Une Histoire Transnationale, 1918-1945 (Paris, Folio, 2017), 64.

[6] André Warnod, “L´École de Paris”, In: Commoedia, January 27, 1925, IN: L´École de Paris, la partie de l´autre (Paris: Musée d´Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2000), 88. In the original: “L´École de Paris existe. Plus tard, les historiens de´art pourront, mieux que nous, en definir le caractere et étudier les éléments qui la composent, mais nous pouvons toujours affirmer son existence et sa force attractive qui fait venir chez nous les artistes du monde entier [...]. Peut- on considérer comme indésirable l´artiste pour qui Paris est la Terre promise, la terre bénie des peintures et sculpteurs[...]?”. Translated by the author.

[7] Greet, Transatlantic Encounters, 152-3.

[8] There is a huge bibliography on the Paris School, from which I would like to highlight the following publications: Laurence Bertrand D´Orleac, “L´École de Paris. Un problème de définition”, In Revista de História da Arte e Arqueologia n.2 (1995-6): 249-271; as well as L´École de Paris, 1904-1929, la part de l´autre (Paris: Musée d´Art Monderne de la Ville de Paris, 2000).

[9] Silver, Keneth. Made in Paris, In: L´Ecole de Paris, la part de l´autre, op cit, p.46.

[10] Greet, Transatlantic Encounters, 194.

[11] Schwartz, Jorge. Da Antropofagia à Brasília: 1920 – 1950. São Paulo: FAAP & Cosac & Naify, 2002.

[12] Giunta, Andrea. Escribir las imagenes. Buenos Aires: Siglo Vinteuno, 2011, p.289.

[13] Denis, Rafael C. “White skins, black masks: ‘Antropofagia’ and the reversal of primitivism”. [Fleckner, Uwe; Tolstichin, Elena (editors). Das verrite Kunstwerk. Warburg-Haus and University of Hamburg, 2019.

[14] On this subject, see: Coli, Jorge. «Fabrique et promotion de la brésilianité: art et enjeux nationaux»,Perspective[En ligne], 2|2013. Made available online June 30, 2015; accessed on April 18, 2020. URL:; DOI:

[15] Gombrich, Ernest H. The preference for the Primitive. Episodes in the History of Western Taste ad Art. New York: Phaidon, 2006.

[16] Llorens Moreno, Núria. Qu'est-ce que «le primitif»? Gombrich y «La preferencia por lo primitivo».Locus Amoenus, [S.l.], v. 7, p. 291-300, dec. 2004. ISSN 2014-8798. Available at: <>. Accessed on: April 18, 2020. doi:

[17] An analysis that exemplifies this point of vue is: Petry, Michele B e Flores, Maria Bernardete. “Na caverna de Tarsila: sobrevivências do primitivo como presença não colonial” In: Tarsila Popular (Pedrosa, Adriano e Oliva, Fernando orgs). São Paulo: Museu de Arte de São Paulo, 2019.

[18] In this I share in the opinion that the choices of Tarsila and Oswald should be understood as conscious strategies that were part of the couple’s designs of achieving acceptance and recognition. This thesis is also supported by authors such as Durand (1989 1ed); Miceli (2003); Herkenhoff (2019) e Denis (2019) .

[19] Letter to her family, April 19, 1923, In: Aracy Amaral, Tarsila, sua obra, seu tempo (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1975), 84.

[21] On this subject see: Amaral, Tarsila, 120.

[22] Amaral, op cit, pp 231-2.

[23] Correio Paulistano, 7-1929, In: Amaral, op cit, p.428. The “Cry of Ipiranga” is acknowledged as a symbol of the Independence of Brazil from Portugal in 1822.

[24] Michele Greet, «“Exhilarating Exile”: Four Latin American Women Exhibit in Paris», Artelogie, n° 5, Octobre (2013). URL: (retrieved in 20\01\2020, pg 12.

[25] COUTO, Fátima M. de. “Caminhos e descaminhos do modernismo brasileiro: o ‘confronto’ entre Tarsila e Anita”, Revista Esboços, Florianópolis: UFSC, nº 19, 2008.

[26] Letter from Mário de Andrade to Anita Malfatti. São Paulo, 20 de janeiro de 1926. Arquivo do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros da Universidade de São Paulo.

[27]“the fellow had to send, at predetermined times: ‘a) three academy figure paintings and six life drawings; b) six academy figure paintings and three sketches of historical, biblical or mythological subjects; c) two copies of famous paintings; d) the execution of the chosen sketch among those mentioned in b; e) one original painting for the Pinacoteca do Estado, when finished with the fifth year of study’”. In: Batista, Artistas brasileiros, 300.

[28]François, Lucbert, “Le Cubisme selon Maurice Denis/Maurice Denis selon les Cubistes” and STAHL, Fabienne. «Renouveau du décor chétien: la chapelle du Prieuré de Maurice Denis», In: Du Romantisme à l´Art Déco. Lectures croisées, ed by Froissart, Rossella et al.( Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011).

[29] The artist wrote: “C´est par répulsion pour l´art académique, c´est par horreur du mensonge que nous nous tournons avec tant de force ver ce qui est primitif, naïf, simple, enfantin, vrai” [...]“Oui, l´attitude du primitif est celle d´un enfant, et c´est pourquoi elle est profondément religieuse. Il voit la nature avec des yeux d´enfant, tandis qu´un modern la voit avec des yeux de peintre. L´observation d´un primitive, de Giotto par exemple, ne porte pas seulement sur les apparences mais sur les qualities usuelles des objets. Il les regarde avec une âme neuve, et sa curiosité est autant d´un savant que d´um artiste. Il tient à nous definir et à nous expliquer ce qu´il voit et ce qu´il sait des objets. Sa gaucherie est donc la témoignage de sa sincérité. Il dote d´une valeur d´art tous les objets, il cherche à faire entrer dans le domaine de l´art le plus possible d´élèments […]”. Maurice Denis, Nouvelles Théories sur L´art sacrée (Paris: Abbeville, 1922), 278-280.

[30] These comparisons were established by me. There is truly little historiographic discussion on the forms of primitivism, as the “exotifying” strand is much more recognized by the art system.

[31] On this subject, see: AMARAL, Aracy. Blaise Cendrars no Brasil e os modernistas. São Paulo: Editora 34, 1997; NATAL, Caion Meneguello.A vanguarda tropical de Mário de Andrade.An. mus. paul.[online]. 2016, vol.24, n.2 [cited 2020-04-17], pp.161-186. Available from: < ISSN 0101-4714.

[32] On this subject, see: MICELI, Sergio. “Tarsila do Amaral: a substituição de importações estéticas”, In: Tarsila Popular,, op cit, p. 154.

[33] Mário de Andrade was a writer, critic of art and music, collector who was fundamental for the development of Brazilian modernism; being considered by many to be the true "leader" of São Paulo modernism. He and Anita Malfatti established a solid friendship that can be accompanied by a rich epistolography that, today, is found in the Archive of the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo. There are many works on it, see: Marcos Moraes, “Epistolografia e projeto nacionalista em Mário de Andrade”, Gragoatá v. 15 (2003), 55-67.

[34] Letter from Anita Malfatti to Mário de Andrade, Rome, August 19, 1924. The archive of IEB-USP.

[35] The artist’s archive contains photos of the “La Rissurrezione di Lazaro” of Fra Angelico and the “Ressurrezione di Lazzaro” of Giotto di Bondone. See: Fundo Anita Malfatti- IEB- USP.

[36] The collection is made up of around 1200 drawing distributed in 22 notebooks, bequest to IEB by the artist’s family in 1989.

[37] Letter from Anita Malfatti to Mário de Andrade. November 17 and 18, 1927. Archive of the Institute of Brazilian Studies of the University of São Paulo.

[38] Denis Crockett, German Post-Expressionism. The Art of the Great Disorder 1918-24 ( Pennsylvania University Presse, 1999), 19-20. In the book, the author also broaches the subject of the success of the Italian magazine “Valori Plastici” in Germany at the end of the years 1910 and 1920; the magazine had collaborators such as Carlo Carrá, Morandi, etc. and it was a vehicle to the propagation of the ideas of the group tied to the Novecento Italiano that had, among its ideals, the “return to the métier”.

[39] On the ways in which the subject of Lazarus was interpreted throughout history, see: Jorge Coli, O corpo da liberdade. Reflexões sobre a pintura do século XIX (São Paulo: Cossac & Naify, 2010) e

[40] Valin, Roberta Paredes. Cadernos-diários de Anita Malfatti: uma trajetória desenhada em Paris. São Paulo: Dissertação de Mestrado em Culturas e Identidades Brasileiras, Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, USP, 2015.

[41] See the letter of November, 1924 in the archive of IEB.

[42] Letter of December 17, 1924, IEB archive.

[43] Anita Malfatti to Mário de Andrade. Letter of January 20, 1928, IEB archive.

[44] Author´s note: matavirgismo is a neologismo created by Mario de Andrade from the term mata-virgem, that means virgin forest;

[45] In the original: “[...] Ce qui sème la confusion, c´est le fait qu´en histoire de l´art, le mot ‘primitif’ se rapporte d´ordinaire à des artistes traditionnellement consideres comme les précurseurs d´un nouvel art, ceux qui ont à la fois provoque une rupture avec la tradition passé et jeté les bases sur lesquelles une nouvelle tradition pourrait se construire. Le terme est general dans ses références, mais il a souvent été utilisé pour designer les premiers maître italiens d´avant-garde, tels que Cimabue, Giotto et Masaccio au XIVè et XVe siècles, des artistes traditionnellements perçus comme initiateurs d´um mouvement artistique qui atteignit la perfection avec les styles de la Haute Renaissance de Raphaël et Michel-Ange, au début du XVIè siècle”. Mentioned by Colin Rodhes, Le Primitivisme et l´Art Moderne ( Londres: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 21.

[46] The memoirs of Marevna are important sources on this period. Marvena. Life with the painters of la ruche. Constable, London, 1972. (Extracts of Life in Two Worlds), pg. 18.

[47] Joaquin Torres-García. Época Catalana (1908-1928). Montevideo: Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales, 1988.

[48] In this same year he also published “Paolo Uccello Construtor”. These works were compiled and retrieved from: Carlo Carrá, L´éclat des choses ordinaires, Isabel Violante org. (Paris: Editions Images Modernes, 2005).

[49] [...] The plebeian virginity of Giotto and other primitives, that were fought against and later defeated by the intelectualisms, only now, six hundred years later, begin to recover their status. [...] But there are still many in Italy that, at the same time that they profess being art experts, keep thinking that Giotto was merely the pioneer of Cristian naturalist art, and that he was completely and rightfully buried by the pagan “wonderful Renaissance”: and that great painting will develop itself during the 15th century to await its peak in the 16th century. That is what they call Golden Age. I do not intend to follow these chronological stupidities. I will limit myself to tell you that if the brave Memmi, a contemporary of Giotto, could return to us, he would smile at this subtle appreciation. To these people, there is only Michelangelo and Raphael. In the hallways of the academies where this aesthetic in taught monthly, even Masaccio and Paolo Uccello who are two great visual artists are not very appreciated. Carlo Carrá, L´éclat, 269.

[50] About the return to order in Brazil, see: Ana Gonçalves Magalhães, Classicismo moderno. Marguerita Sarfatti e a pintura italiana no acervo do MAC-U ( São Paulo: Alameda Ed, 2017); Tadeu Chiarellei e Diana Wechsler (orgs), Novecento sudamericano: relazioni artisti che tra Italia, Argentina, Brasile e Uruguay (Milão: Skira, 2003).

[51] Michele Greet, “‘Exhilarating Exile’: Four Latin American Women Exhibit in Paris”, Artelogie, n° 5, Octobre (2013). URL: (retrieved in 20\01\2020).