Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Notes on the Exhibition “Brasiliens Moderne” at the Museum für Fotografie in Berlin

Here's my review of "Brasiliens Moderne", an exhibition at the Museum für Fotografie in Berlin.  Hope you like. 


The exhibition “Brasiliens Moderne” at the Museum für Fotografie in Berlin combines in the eye of four photographers – Marcel Gautherot, Thomaz Farkas, José Medeiros and Hans Gunther Flieg – different perceptions about modernity in Brazil.  Modernity as opposed to nature, or modernity as machines and objects, or modernity as the expressions of modern life, - these are some of the aspects that are explored in these photographs. Some of them assert Brazil’s entrance into modernity with the partial industrialization the country encountered in the Southeast (especially in São Paulo) portraying, almost quite literally, the gears that bring about modernization (Fig. 1); or the construction of the city of Brasília (Fig. 2), where the key of the modern is everywhere to be appreciated in its vast, precise, geometric and solid architecture.  Some other photographs focus on the changes that are going in Brazil at the time; also, the customs and peoples that perhaps could be forgotten with the coming of modernity, although never truly are, or were, completely lost, (traditional festivities and/or fishing, indigenous peoples and their practices, capoeira, etc.) (Fig. 3); and the new traditions that come to be appreciated by a modern sensibility (beaches, football (soccer) matches, national state celebrations, media celebrities), the life of the streets, electric cables, and automobiles (Fig. 4).  Some other photographs, if viewed against one another, highlight the differences and contrasts between a modern Brazil and nature, but also, they help recuperate a sense of “naturalness” in the modern, in its contours, its shadows, etc.  Yet, some of the most suggestive photographs of the exhibition focus on subjects.  Subjects that in their presence, or that in absentia, suggest potential lines of expression for capturing, thinking and critiquing the modern.1
Figure 1

Figure 2 

Figure 3 

Figure 4  

            When I think of modernity in Brazil, I am always reminded of the poem “Pobre Alimária” (“Poor Beast”) by the Brazilian Modernist poet Oswald de Andrade.  The poem recounts the story of a horse and buggy that gets stuck in a track.  The driver, eager to get the fancy lawyers he was driving to their offices, quickly releases the buggy, scaring the animal, which ends up fleeing in desperation.  The driver gets hold of the horse and castigates it with a whip.  The poem is an example of the discontinuous passage to modernity in Brazil, the clash between the modern and the pre-modern coexisting in one space.  The impasse created in Brazil, not unlike other places in Latin America, did not have a homogeneous process of modernization – and the poem exemplifies the immense gap between the classes that were favored by this passage and the others that were not, and this creates ambiguous ways of looking at this very process of modernization.  The one thing that I find applicable to this exhibition from this poem, and my reading of it, is that modernity, though it seems to imply a teleological imperative, it never really fulfills it.  There are different ways in which one can imply modernity, or speak about it.  This exhibition does, indeed, portray different ways of thinking about modernity. 

Modernity vs. Nature

The photos of Marcel Gautherot in this exhibition seem to be arranged in three particular moments.  The first one depicts a more natural, or pre-modern, Brazil.  Photographs of indigenous communities in the northeast, pictures of the frondose floresta (forest greens) of Ceará or the swampy trees of the amazon forest are part of this moment (Fig. 5).  Also, Gautherot focuses his lens on fishermen and camponeses (peasants) of the north and northeast of Brazil, or religious or other traditional practices in other parts of the country (Rio De Janeiro, Mina Gerais) (Fig. 6).  A second moment shows the building-construction taking place in the city of Brasília, workers putting together the pieces of modernity, dust, cranes, steel and cement (Fig. 7).  The third moment shows Brasília already constructed, the Edifício Copan or some other modern structure in São Paulo (Fig. 8). 

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8
There are two interesting aspects that help think all of these photos as a whole: A) The first and second moment in Gautherot rely not only in the landscape, but also rely heavily in the human aspect of the story.  Humans take an important role in the life before the modern, and in the making of the modern.  Yet, in the last moment, when Brasília has come to completion (or when modernity has come to completion) the human element seems to be secondary, or almost non-existent.  The prominence of the human element is reduced dramatically in the scale of the buildings of Brasília.  The photos of the finished buildings do have some human figures, but they are miniscule compared to the grandiosity of the buildings, and also, the human figures are quit spare.  These photos have a feeling of solitude, or almost desolation (Fig. 9).  This appreciation of Brasília, not unlike the one for the U.S. American suburb, seems to express a bleak picture of a type of mid-20th century alienating modernity.  Gautherot captures this profoundly well.  B) Yet, Gautherot also connects some of the photographs of the natural world, with those of the current capital of Brazil.  He treats the objects by highlighting their form, geometry and texture; and his almost chiaroscuro treatment of light creates an interplay between light and shadow that is very unique.  This parallel between these two moments reinsert nature into the seeming bleakness of modernity.  Gautherot could be telling the viewer that the natural world and the modern world have more in common that apparent to the eye (Fig. 10 and 11).

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figure 11

Thomaz Farkas has a very different view of Brasília than that of Marcel Gautherot though both of them have photographs of the capital from similar angles and viewpoints.  Yet Farkas fills the monuments and buildings of the city with human subjects.  What in Gautherot is solitude, bleakness and desolation, in Farkas is beaming with people and humanity (Fig. 12).  He takes pictures of people walking, running, sitting at the Pacaembú Stadium in Brazil (the stadium of S.C. Corinthians Paulista, “O timão” (the great team), “O time do povo”  (The team of the people)), people standing on a metal fence in Brazil, kids playing with a fake ball outside of the stadium.  Modernity for Farkas is filled with people, living the modern life (Fig. 13).  Yet, he is also interested in forms and shapes.  The repeating horizontal lines in a building, the half circles of a clay roof, and the plethora of rhyzomatic cables in a street: modernity as an endless reproduction of the same shapes and forms.  Farkas perhaps criticizes modernity here with this disorganized, and perhaps even dangerous, array of cables in this street (Fig. 14).  Also, he chooses to take pictures of Sacolândia (Gauntherot also took pictures of Sacolândia, although they are not present in this exhibition), the outskirts of Brasília.  These photos portray another side of the story of the beautiful, immaculate and brand new city.  Sacolândia is a favela where some of the workers that made the “miracle” of Brasília possible lived.  It was important for Farkas to show this other failed side of modernity (Fig. 15). 

Figure 12

Figure 13

Figure 14

Figure 15

Modernity as Machines
The endless reproduction of shapes, forms, tools and machines is an important technical aspect of the modern world.  And the part of the exhibition that showcases Hans Gunther Flieg focuses on this.  The world of industrial factories and machines make up most of Flieg’s photographs.  Flieg’s work reinforces the importance of machines, and of the people who build them and operate them, into the making of modernity, and of a modern Brazil (Fig. 16).  One has to remember that Brazil is one of the most, if not the most, important economy in Latin America.  Its industrial might demonstrated by the cultural and material “little” empire that holds over South America (South American nations consume Brazilian products, buy Tucanos - Brazilian military airplanes – and Brazilian-manufactured (though not yet Brazilian-branded) cars.  Of note is the photo of the electronic store in São Paulo, with its zig-zag walkway and the workers standing at perfectly-spaced intervals in the walkway (Fig. 17).  Though this photo, and others perhaps, was taken for company pamphlets and newsletters, it reinforces the idea of modernity as perfectly timed and spaced clockwork machine-like functionality.  Modernity is or must be perfection, or as closed to it as possible.  Modernity is machines, and the machine-world, but it also represents a type of lifestyle that comes with it.

Figure 16

Figure 17

Modernity as Modern life

Though José Medeiros, like Marcel Gautherot, painted pictures of indigenous communities in the north of Brazil, and of Candômble and other rituals in different parts of the country, I find his pictures of modern life in Rio de Janeiro much more suggestive.  Photos of couples dancing, intellectuals sitting around in bars, a little boy attentively watching a football (Soccer) match, a man reading a book by himself at a café, etc. (Fig. 18).  In particular, two photos in this exhibition caught my attention incredibly.  The first one is a sine qua non for any José Medeiros exhibition (if I may indulge in hyperbole), and one that represents a type of modernity in “Brazilian key”.  The photo is that of the two cars next to one another, with the twin peaks of Rio de Janeiro in the background and a human figure approaching the cars from the beach (Fig. 19).  This picture makes me think that Brazil is thinking modernity in its own particular way; beaches and cars, the green landscape and the concrete must coexist for a Brazilian modernity.  But also, it makes me think of the power that the Southeast of the country (Especially São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) have to represent Brazilian reality.  Rio and Sampa are the industrial and cultural capitals of the country, and they are not interested in letting their thrones go. 

Figure 18

Figure 19

            The second photo that drew my attention is the one of the male bather facing away from the camera.  The camera captures the back and behind of a muscular man from below.  The man is wearing only a sunga (Brazilian swimming trunks) with drops of water glistening with the sun in his back (Fig. 20).  This homoerotic, and sensuous photograph and the position of the subject bring to mind modernist paintings that José Medeiros must have been familiar with.  Among them, the black stoic face of “Bananal” by Lasar Segall, or the “Lavrador de Café” by Cândido Portinari.  But most importantly, it reminds me of the famous modernist painting “O mestiço” also by Portinari (It also recalls Medeiros’s own camponês Fig. 6). 

Figure 20

Figure 21 (Pic from

“O mestiço” is a painting of a plantation worker (Fig. 21).  The worker is facing the viewer with his arms crossed.  His body is muscular, and his factions are either indigenous or Afro-Brazilian, though the name of the painting forces the viewer to think of this subject as mestiço.  And this is one common way that Brazil constructed its own identity, and how it wanted to construct the subject of this new modernity: a subject that is a mix of races, and represents the best of all.  José Medeiros’s subject references Portinari’s paintings in the tenacity of the male figure and in its ambiguous phenotype, though in the case of the photo, the man faces away from the camera.  This is a different subject, and it is indifferent to representation.  If the modernist painters wanted to construct identity thinking of the tenacity of plantation workers, José Medeiros’s photo does it with this equally tenacious male figure that is no longer a plantation worker, or a peasant, but a city dweller, with leisure time to spend at the beach.  He, like Brazil, does not care to be represented, and does not need to face the camera.  This a bold gesture.  A portrait where the portrayed decides that he does not want to be part of the illusion of representation – perhaps he would rather represent himself.  He, metaphorically perhaps, faces the horizon, the future.  And Brazil is, of course, o país do futuro (the country of the future), or imagines itself to be.  Like the bird or plane that is (the plan of) Brasília flying to meet the future, this subject also gazes in that direction – and the future is, of course, the promise of modernity. 

The Space of the Exhibit

The exhibition in its physical arrangement of the photographs represents the clockwork, precision of modernity.  Right angles in the walls breaking up the spaces of the photographs, and all of the frames where the photographs are placed are almost identical in size, they are almost all at the same height from the floor, and almost identically spaced from one another.  The walls are immaculately white, and it does give you the feeling of standing in, or perhaps outside of, one of those buildings in Brasília right after it was built. 
If you let your eye wander as you watch any particular photograph in the exhibition, and you catch the reflection of the glass that covers the photo, you will see the seemingly endless array of photos perfectly arranged in the walls behind you or to your right and/or left.  It inspires an almost mise-en-abyme feeling.  It is as if, by standing in front of only one photo, you can have all of the others reproduced in the reflection of the one that you are looking at (you can catch this reflection of the other walls, and the photos in the walls, standing in front of almost any of the photos at the exhibition).  Yes, modernity is the age of the mechanical reproduction, and a photography exhibit perhaps more than anything else always alludes to this.  However, the aura here is not lost, quite the opposite, it is gained in this mise-en-abyme feeling.  These photographs are the trace of a moment that is long gone.  Modernity in Brazil cannot be the same after 1964, and the dense, cloudy and authoritarian years (with “economic miracle” and everything included) that came after.  The exhibit makes us look back to the Brazil, and the plethora of Brazils as represented by these different views of modernity, that wanted to be the country of the future, from a future that is not exactly what it then imagined.   
The dates of the exhibition encompassed a time that denoted an interesting political time for Brazil, and many historians looking at the Brazil from this period remain ambiguous about its characterization, or at least, in the celebration of Brazilian progress during this era.  Caudillo-style politician and strong authoritarian leader Getúlio Vargas marked this era until 1954 (though with a break in between from 1945-1951), and he is an ambiguous entity for many Brazilianists.  The exhibition seems to put us in this time, sans the political, quite well, but does not do a good job of capturing modernity through a retroactive lens.  The promise of modernity was devastated by the authoritarian regime that kept Brazil under its reign for more than 20 years starting in 1964, and this exhibition does not seem to be very reflective of this (Though one can argue that Thomaz Farkas’s photographs of Sacolândia, and the misery of the working class there, are one way that it does engage in reflection).  Though the exhibit shows different sides of modernity, it has a hard time engaging in the darker side of it, barely touching it.  The exhibition does show the camponeses of the Northeast of the country – though in almost nostalgic light – and the awe of indigenous peoples touching an airplane (for example), but where are the underpaid workers of São Paulo? The malandros of Rio de Janeiro that the samba musician Noel Rosa is already talking about in the 1930s?  I should admit, that not being in expert in Brazilian photography, I am not sure that representations of these darker aspects of modernity do exist, but surely I can think of interesting ways that the exhibition could engage with these issues and questions.  In the political atmosphere of 2013, when the Brazilian government is once again repressing the voice of the public – the black blocs and other protesters that have taken the streets in the last year – this seems a fairly tame view at a modernity that has promised much for Brazil and the Brazilian people, but that has in many occasions come up short.  Though Brazil is the country invited to all of the cultural events of Germany for this year – the Frankfurt Book Fair and other festivals showcasing Brazilian culture, etc., there seems to be a barely-critical look at Brazil (Perhaps, in hope of political correctness or…whatever), I would say that today Brazil is not yet the country of the present, and still the country of the future. 


1. All the pics in this blog post belong to the Instituto Moreira Salles, unless otherwise noted.

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