Brazilian Women Artists and Pop Art
6 Mar 2020, 6:25 pm
It feels better to be read aloud:
Girls are PoP / They are made of PoP matter / Every girl is PoP / Girls are always PoP / The word girl is PoP / The sound of the word girl is PoP / Being a girl is being PoP / Every woman has already been PoP / Because she has been a girl and PoP / My mother has already been PoP / Her mother has already been PoP / Madonna’s mother has already been PoP / Every mother was PoP one day / The girl from Ipanema is PoP / Norma Jeane Baker was PoP, more pop than Marilyn, who’s become PoP / Girls are Barbie / Barbie is PoP / Twiggy was PoP too / Twiggy and Barbie will always be PoP / Lolita was PoP / The Poppest of the PoP girls.
“Garotas pop” [Pop Girls] is a visual poem published in 1993 by Lenora de Barros (1953) in the column she kept in the São Paulo daily newspaper “Jornal da Tarde”. In addition to reflecting the artist’s interest in the game of words, their visuals and sonority, the text shows a certain irony in relation to the symbolic place for women in the pop art scene – roughly speaking, the artistic movement that emerged in England at the end of the 1950s, peaked in the USA in the 1960s, and that reverberated with some intensity during the 1970s. After all, the traditional historiography of 20th century art practically ignored several female artists in tune with pop language, consecrating only male artists as the great exponents of that busy period for culture in general, worldwide. The very work by Lenora de Barros, who inherited and subverted much of pop culture even though she belonged to a later generation, indicates possible paths of a pop art produced in Brazil by women.
If some formal characteristics bring North American and European pop production closer to each other than that created here – the assimilation of images and messages from mass communication and industry, the use of simplified techniques and pre-produced materials, the use of few and saturated colors – , socio-political conjunctures separate us and reinvent the idea of passive affiliation to the movement, something that would reinforce the notion of cultural hegemony in the context of the Cold War. The Brazilian issues were different: although they were years of overflow and experimentation through counterculture, the repression of the arts, freedom of expression and of the body carried out by the civil-military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985) pushed several agents and artistic practices, whether through open activism or subjective effects, towards political engagement.
At that stage, Brazilian art was witnessing the return of figuration as opposed to abstraction, together with the renewed interest in everyday instruments and content, without necessarily replicating the same type of dissatisfaction with the advance of mass capitalism expressed by the foreign pop production of representations in series. It is plausible that, here, we mirror the urgencies of a specific, late and bumpy modernism, imbuing the visual codes of pop art with our veiled distrust of progress in an eternal state of imminence. In this sense, so many other questions and desires could emerge and make us unique, mainly through the particularities of the work by women artists who have been forgotten (or silenced), whose aesthetic and political attitudes can find resistance to fixed narratives. So much so that we tend to place our “pop artists” within the New Brazilian Objectivity, even alongside the constructive vanguards of previous decades, as in the general scheme published by Hélio Oiticica in 1967, which linked the artistic trends of the moment to a critical posture authentically Brazilian. Despite the consonances, we were never just pop.
In 1968, the 9th Bienal de São Paulo, known as “Bienal do Pop”, brought to the country works by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and a retrospective of Edward Hopper, one of the group’s main influences – al being, to this day, the most representative artists of the pop movement. Amid the public’s excitement about the North American delegation, a Brazilian artist faced a particular nuisance: the painting by Rio de Janeiro artist Cybèle Varela (1943), “O Presente”, made on a sort of open wooden box, was censored. The work disapproved of the idea of blind patriotism, which is why it was considered anti-nationalist and withdrawn by the federal police days before the exhibition opened. Several other Brazilians whose research was as acid as Varela’s participated in the show: Marcello Nitsche, Wesley Duke Lee, Nelson Leirner, Geraldo de Barros (who was part of the jury in the same edition), Claudio Tozzi, Sérgio Sister, Rubens Gerchman, Antonio Manuel and many others. It is difficult to assess how much this type of event can impact an artist’s career. Days after the opening, the American representation room was covered in graffiti. And the 10th Bienal, which occurred after the AI-5, the most infamous of all Institutional Acts issued during the Brazilian military dictatorship, is remembered as the “Boycott Biennial”, when the great majority of artists from different countries refused to participate in an event with such diplomatic and nationalist weight. In the following years, Cybèle Varela moved to Paris and Geneva, expanded her practice and encompassed photography and video, replacing the typical urban themes of her initial paintings with realistic or dreamlike views of nature.
Meanwhile, another artist who participated in the same Biennial, Teresinha Soares (Minas Gerais, 1937) had a meteoric career between 1965 and 1976, which could only recently be presented to new generations through an individual show at MASP, in 2017. Her work crosses the different social roles of women and the cry for full sexual liberation. There are points of contact of her practice with peers from the same moment, but because she is not linked to any specific group, Soares developed a unique repertoire: figurative while close to abstraction, representing the woman’s body in a fragmented way and in bright colors, with well-marked traits, sometimes in actions that make a nudge at naturalized social situations. She once shocked public opinion when she appeared at an arts event wearing a tuxedo – a type of pre-performance, a language she also experimented in the mid-1970s. Her radicalism also appeared in printmaking, photography, and the performing arts. Sometimes claiming the autonomy of the body and eroticism, sometimes manifesting the physical and sexual violence suffered by women, her work has a political key that implies the moral customs of our conservative society to the nation-building project that prevailed in the high echelon of power. Although she does not call herself that way, Teresinha Soares practiced what we can call more openly by feminist activism.
Other women artist considered pop worked with visualities, themes and devices compatible with each other. Maria do Carmo Secco (1933-2013), for example, represented in her paintings and photographs the daily life of women in sexist society. In this case, the interior of the houses was the main setting for a pictoriality governed by the cinematic gaze. She also created works with corners and hinges, breaking the frontality and the unique plane of the painting. Wanda Pimentel (1943-2019) also framed the loneliness of women and domestic life with the same solidity as pop contours, in a game of bodies and industrial objects under unusual and schematic perspectives. The series that marks the beginning of her career, “Envolvimentos”, was presented by MASP in 2017.
One last artist to be cited is Regina Vater (1943), whose experimental practice, quite complex, echoed pop during her early years in a translation absolutely authorial – which further problematizes the simplistic notion of a one-way outside influence. Recently the artist could remake one of the most exciting works for the history of Brazilian art, “Mulher mutante” (1969-2018). The work invites the viewer to recreate the classic pose of a woman lying down by manipulating parts of a wooden body. If the object itself alludes to pop language due to its vibrant colors or the seductive aspect of the well-defined forms, in this work, the element of participation – a principle dear to the Brazilian production of the time – is precisely what criticizes behaviors of domination on the woman’s body.
These and other stories of artists and works, in the light of contemporary gender studies, reveal genealogies and points of connection scarcely remembered by the art critique of present times. Whatever the understanding that each artist seeks for the relations between art and the politics in their practice, feminism in Brazilian art seems to have received media attention only recently. And a question remains: how did the artists who lived the acceleration of capitalism under the authoritarian context act and what might this have to do with us now?
Text in collaboration with Bárbara Mastrobuono and Giovana Christ