Brazil, World War ll and painters

This was one of the more unusual exhibitions of the year. It appeared in the New European 


In November 1944 Brazilian troops joined a US force to attack the Italian redoubt of Monte Castello, 40 miles south west of Bologna.

    The same month, on November 23, an exhibition of Brazilian modernist art defied Hitler’s V2 rockets to open at London’s Royal Academy.

    Two extraordinary events that history has passed by but which are being saluted in an exhibition in London - The Art of Diplomacy: BraziIian Modernism Painted for War.

    Few will be aware that Brazil joined the war, let alone sent almost 26,000 troops and airmen to Europe as well as playing a role in the Battle of the Atlantic where nearly 1,600 died.  

    As for the show it scarcely warrants a footnote in the RA’s records. 

    Now thanks to three years of research by Hayle Gadelha, Brazil’s Cultural Attaché in London, paintings by 20 of the artists have been traced and are being displayed at the embassy. 

    “I heard about the story in my first week in London three half years ago,” says Gadelha. “I started research at the RA but no one had heard of it there. Eventually we found a few short footnotes about the exhibition in the Academy records and an original catalogue.

    “When I saw that the artists who had taken part would today be acclaimed as part of the second generation of Brazilian modernists I realised it was too important to ignore. It was a big story. 

    “I have tried to interpret it as a grand strategy of diplomacy. Very few people knew Brazil had joined the war because it wanted to project an image of a country which was on the side of western democracy not just by sending troops but also with the cultural diplomacy of the exhibition.”

    The main function of the 1944 exhibition was to raise funds for the RAF which was much admired by Brazil society and by the country’s best known artists. 

    Brazil’s Foreign Secretary Osvaldo Aranha said at the time: “It is fair that the artists join with their works of beauty the effort of all good men against evil in this war in which everything is at stake including the freedom of artistic creation.”

    With that noble sentiment 168 works were packed up in seven crates and crossed the Atlantic avoiding lurking German submarines to arrive in a war-torn London. In all, 623 kilos worth of talent, all insured for £2. (£83).

    The enthusiasm of the Brazil and its artists was greeted with churlish indifference, even hostility, by the RA, the art establishment and even the UK government.

    Art critic Sacheverell Sitwell wrote in the preface to the catalogue, a small A5 affair in a cheap blue cover as befitted war time shortages, that: “Foreign blood which had migrated to Brazil was not of first rate. what Brazil needs is not more exiles from Central Europe but the presence of true Chef D’Ecole from Paris  or even London. Should a great painter... transfer himself to the land of energy and opportunity then the results on the Brazilians would be most interesting.” 

    He added: “It would be tragically disappointing if the art of the South American tropics was in no way different from that of the Czechoslovakia or Norway. As much as if the first returning cargoes of oranges and bananas were in the end but pears and apples.”

    To add to the general tenor of racial superiority Sir Alfred Munnings, one of England’s finest painters of horses and recently appointed President of the RA lived up to his reputation as a hater of Picasso and all ‘abstractions and ‘isms by writing that: “No responsibility for its quality would rest on the RA or the Foreign Office.”

    But as Adrian Locke, senior curator of the RA who worked on the current project remarks: “This out dated attitude radiating an air of colonial superiority captures the anachronistic art world of London in the 1940s.”

    Gadelha takes a tolerant view of the reaction.

    “It was war time so the exhibition must have been seen more as a burden than a present,” he says. “The problem was that the work was Modernism and the RA were not exactly prone to like it. The artists were virtually unknown here at the time so it was the most unlikely exhibition at the most unlikely venue.”

    How did he track down the works 70 years after the event? He found a list of buyers in the National Archives and searched through the records of ten cities including Paris, Glasgow and Edinburgh and back home in Rio de Janeiro. Art Uk which puts public art collections online helped find 20 works, he talked to the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as many of the foundations and institutes of the most famous artists.

    He discovered several were bought by individuals during a nationwide tour of the exhibition but had only the barest details of name and prices. One Tosti Russel paid £51,15d (£21,28 shillings today ) and a Muriel Currant spent £3 3d (£138)). 

    The British Council bought some to boost sales and they were eventually auctioned or sold to several galleries such as Tate, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Manchester Art Gallery, the Ferens in Hull, Bristol, Tullie House, Carlisle, the Mercer Art Gallery in Brighton and Hove and Kirklees.

    Seven have turned up in New Zealand, others in France, Portugal and many in Brazil, the rest are lost. 

    In all, the paintings were sold for £1,200 (£50,000) making a total of £2,000 (£85,00) for the RAF Benevolent Fund thanks to ticket and catalogue sales. 

    Despite the official hostility, 100,000 people attended the exhibition including the Queen Mother, the   Duchess of Kent and the opening night guest list included such art world grandees as T.S. Eliot. H.G. Wells, Paul Nash, Samuel Courtauld and J.M. Keynes,.

    “That was a lot even for the British,” says Gadelha. “For Brazil it was unbelievable. I found 43 articles on the event and they were very positive. Only two or three were negative about the quality of the art.”

    Ah yes, the art. Curator Locke says that the true historic and cultural value of the paintings is finally being recognised and he quotes the Brazilian critic Ruben Navarra who contributed to the original catalogue: “The history of modern painting in Brazil illustrates the conversions of a European influence into an indigenous artistic experience; for the modern movement in Brazilian art has as its basis the rediscovery of a native Brazil hidden behind a curtain of ceremonial and fictitious Brazil.”

    The impetus for modernism was sparked by The Modern Art Week (or Semana de Arte Moderna) in February 1922 during which artists in São Paolo dedicated a week to modern art as part of the celebrations for the 100 years of freedom from Portuguese rule.

    Among the works Gadelha rediscovered are paintings that sprang from that transformative week including some by Brazil’s most renowned figures including Candido Portinari, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Lasar Segall, José Pancetti and Roberto Burle Marx.

    They Amuse Themselves by Cardoso Júnior which was bought by the British Council for £2 2d (£92) was described by The Times as having ‘a poetic relation to that of the French ‘Sunday’ painters and it and it became the first of the works to enter the Tate collection. 

    It is possible to detect a difference between the Rio and São Paolo artists - Rio art is more colourful, more folkloric. For example, Emilio Di Cavalcanti’s Women from Bahia, has what critic Navarra described as a ‘magical sensationalism and colour palette that is distinctly Brazilian.’ 

    He wrote: “If regional and folklore spirit found a refuge in Rio, the city of the negro quarters and the noisy laboratory of popular music, Sāo Paolo represents the European element par excellence in our culture.” 

    Oscar Meira’s Sailor shows the influence of Sāo Paulo as an advanced industrial city with work that that is more cubist and cool as do the bold strokes of Manoel Martins’s Suburb. 

    Of the works for sale in 1944 best known perhaps is José Portinari disturbing The Scarecrow (The Half Wit) which was bought by a Brazilian diplomat for £180 (£7,500).

    “It would have £1,000 in the States or Brazil at the time,” reckons Gadelha. “Today it would be worth between $500,000 to £$1million for insurance but in Brazil I would guess $2 million.”

    In the current show the most valuable are by Lasar Segall with his reflective Lucy with Flower at $200,000 but which would fetch maybe four times that in Brazil and Little Girl with Cat by Lucy Citti Ferreira which was considered to be the outstanding work at the time of the original showing. 

    Sitwell compounded his lack of understanding of the art by assuming that the painters were all impoversihed amateurs but rather, says Gadelha: “The artists were mostly about 40, middle class and not at all destitute. They were important names in their own country and making their reputations in the US.

    “The important thing to understand is that they wanted their offer to be appreciated for its moral and symbolical significance rather than for it material value. 

    “I sincerely believe that in associating themselves with this democratic cause it was very much about values. The Brazil press of the day said it was a noble act, a symbolic and moral gesture by the artists.” 


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