Keeping an eye on history: Bienal de São Paulo
16 Dec 2019, 6:19 pm
In several texts dealing with stories about the São Paulo Biennial, the emphasis is on their numbers: countries, artists, works, audience, activities, among others. Without a doubt, since its foundation by Ciccillo Matarazzo, in 1951, one of the characteristics of the event is the scale that tends to be monumental or cumulative. These narratives can be understood from a local perspective of new elites’ ascension, or a global one, in which the country located on a continent far from the economic metropolises that dominated the previous centuries and of impoverished past, demonstrates its capacity to gather energy and participate (at least in appearance) actively in the propagation of art and culture.
But, regardless of this dimension that seeks to overcome numbers, the Bienal de São Paulo is, in fact, an institution that promotes, through adhesion or criticism, the Brazilian artistic circuit. In this operation, a point of view that starts from the edges and moves towards the hegemonic centers reverberates, voluntarily or not. This impulse alone establishes the possibility, through the history of the Bienal, to establish a powerful narrative axis in relation to Brazilian art.
At first, the project for the constitution of the Bienal sought to overcome the peripheral condition of the country, giving materiality to the 1950s development plans based on a new model of entrepreneurship embodied in the figure of Matarazzo. Founder of the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM-SP) under the auspices of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa-NY), he faced the challenge of opening an international biennial exhibition in less than two years from foundation of the institution. There are many versions about who proposed the idea of the show, but Matarazzo is the one who makes it possible through the Museum, even with the resistance of its director, Lourival Gomes Machado. Once the decision is made, he goes in search of funds for the awards of the first edition, which will be supported by the Cia Geral de Seguros Sul América [Sul América General Insurance Company), the Jockey Club, the Bank of the State of São Paulo and the State Government.
Its exhibition model is the Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, showing the artistic production of countries organized in national pavilions, thus demonstrating a type of “healthy” competition in a civilizing context.
Although Matarazzo’s central role is irrefutable, it is important to highlight the articulation made by his wife Yolanda Penteado in the realization of the event, thanks to her extensive network of contacts. The niece Olivia Guedes Penteado’s and belonging to the coffee elite, Penteado will use her influence and – in partnership with Maria Martins, who navigated the international diplomatic and artistic circuit – guarantee safe conduit for the participation of artists wary of shipping works to a remote country.
While the pair circulated in search of works, Gomes Machado and Matarazzo obtained, from the City Hall, temporary possession of the Trianon belvedere, located on Avenida Paulista, to set up the Bienal. A special and emblematic location, the subject of disputes for the installation of new cultural spaces, a structure designed by Luís Saia and Eduardo Knesse de Mello with about 5,000m2 was built to house the event. The much talked about improvisation of this first edition – as to the list of artists, works and infrastructure – resulted in victory: inaugurated on October 20, 1951, the 1st Biennial of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo received 729 artists and 1,854 works representing 25 countries.
The boldness and success of the project contributed to the immediate beginning of the II Biennial’s preparations in a new environment: Ibirapuera Park, with a buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer and gardens by Burle Marx, created for the celebrations of the IV Centenary of the City of São Paulo, whose Organizing Committee was also chaired by Matarazzo.
More audacious than the first edition, the II Bienal, led by Sérgio Milliet, would effectively contribute to shaping the image of the formerly provincial city that turned into metropolis of the future, a symbol of industrialization, national progress and of the modernist project. With support from the São Paulo State Governor, Lucas Nogueira Garcez, the complex was quickly built to house 3,374 works, 712 artists representing 33 countries. It also attracted attention due to Pablo Picasso’s special room and the exposure of Guernica (1937), conceded by the artist himself to the event, despite the recommendations of MoMA-NY, that housed the painting at the time. Two will be the pavilions occupied by the Bienal: the Palácio dos Estados (current Pavilhão das Culturas Brasileiras) and the Palácio das Nações (current Museu Afro Brasil). Special rooms exhibited works by Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Alexander Calder, James Ensor, Edvard Munch and Piet Mondrian, among others. In addition, the II Bienal received and awarded Walter Gropius – former director of Bauhaus, an icon of architectural modernism – in design and art. In an initiative that becomes relevant to the local context and for the following editions, a group of educators called monitors was organized and trained by Wolfgang Pfeiffer to take visitors through the exhibition. The training of educators during the subsequent Biennials will serve as a school itself for many professionals in the artistic field since then.
The first two Biennials established high conceptual, material and expectations parameters on the part of the public, and thus, over the years, there was a permanent need to rethink each exhibition in juxtaposition and even confrontation in relation to the formats and contents previously explored. But the narratives about the Biennial are not limited to the institutional history and are entangled in other social, political and economic dimensions of the country. With its growing role in the cultural field, at the same time allied with different groups and governmental bodies, the Bienal de São Paulo will exhibit tense moments in the exhibitions of the years 1965 and 1967 with demonstrations against intellectual prisons and progressive censorship. The X Bienal, known as the Boycott Biennial (1969) will be set up with difficulties due to the refusal of artists, curators and country representatives to participate, since they identified the institution with the regime of exception. From the 1980s, with the country’s redemocratization, the exhibitions started to present a greater dialogue with the internationalized debate, but also pointed out ways for a particular reflection on the condition of an ex-European colony in the context of globalization and the world reconfiguration with the end of the Cold War. As a prestigious example, we can take the Biennial of Anthropophagy (1998): curated by Paulo Herkenhoff, the exhibition inserted the notion of anthropophagy in the globalizing international artistic and cultural debate as a category to reflect on cultural differences that become inequalities due to physical or symbolic violence.