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Tarsila do Amaral: Translating Modernism in Brazil

By Elisa Wouk Almino

Translator Elisa Wouk Almino explores the narrative and historical context for Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral’s work, which is being exhibited through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in a show entitled “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil.”

It seems the role of the translator is not so different from that of a curator. Just as a translator will often introduce a new text, a curator of an exhibition might present something entirely new, which is certainly the case with the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of work by Tarsila do Amaral. Entitled “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil,” it is the first US show devoted exclusively to the Brazilian artist.

A curator, like a translator, acts not only as a mediator but also as an interpreter—another curator, another translator, would tell a slightly different story. When I asked MoMA curator Stephanie D’Alessandro what narrative she and her colleague Luis Pérez-Oramas set out to tell, she admitted it was “a hard story to write.” Their ultimate goal was to engage audiences who were both familiar and completely unfamiliar with Tarsila; to do justice to her legacy while also making her story accessible.

Image: Entrance to “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Photo by Elisa Wouk Almino.

In Brazil, Tarsila (as she is known) is considered perhaps the greatest artist of the twentieth century. Notably, she is the first artist to have developed a distinctly Brazilian identity in her art. Like many of her peers, she studied art in Europe, absorbing the avant-garde art movements of the early 1920s. She applied the bold, modernist aesthetic in her depictions of Brazilian subjects: everyday scenes in the favelas, the nature and wild animals of the Amazon, and the colonial-era architecture of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.

D’Alessandro and Pérez-Oramas wanted to give visitors the opportunity to see Tarsila’s images on their own terms but in many cases felt that supplementing the art with text was necessary. The MoMA exhibition includes a wide array of written materials—from the introductory texts and labels in the galleries grounding Tarsila in art history to the primary texts in the catalog. “I would say on a purely visual level there’s an enjoyment [of Tarsila’s work] that doesn’t need explication,” D’Alessandro said. “But there’s also context that’s needed for some of her work . . . so much of it is about Brazilian identity.”

Image: Tarsila do Amaral, “Operários (Workers),” 1933, oil on canvas. Photo by Elisa Wouk Almino.

Tarsila and her contemporaries were committed to unearthing Brazil’s roots, a country that over the years seemed to have forgotten its precolonial heritage. Visual artists and poets alike traveled throughout the country with the desire to rediscover it and incorporated the iconography and language of some of the most historic regions, including Minas Gerais and the Amazon, into their art. In a kind of act of protest against conservative tastes and typical European subjects, these artists declared their heritage important enough to depict and, most radically, resolutely modern.  

It is a delicate and challenging balance for a curator or translator to decide how much information to withhold and divulge. While it would be wrong to present Tarsila’s work with no context, the wealth of wall text risks visitors becoming too fixated on the words. I went to the exhibition with translator from Portuguese Katrina Dodson, who compared the museum’s use of wall text to a glossary or footnotes in a translated book. Later, when she joined me in a conversation with D’Alessandro, Dodson said she identified with the hurdles that the curators faced. Currently, she is translating the canonical Brazilian novel Macunaíma by Tarsila’s contemporary and friend, Mário de Andrade. Published in 1928, the book playfully combines Portuguese with native Tupí dialects—which Tarsila similarly did in the titles of her own artworks. Dodson, like the MoMA curators, felt that to translate all the words into English would betray the original text.

Image: Tarsila do Amaral, “A Cuca,” 1924, oil on canvas, 23 13/16 × 28 9/16 in., Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris, France FNAC 9459. Photo © Cnap/Ville de Grenoble/Musée de Grenoble—J. L. Lacroix. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos

Out of all the wealth of text, I found myself most intrigued by the decisions the curators made when translating a seemingly simple element: the artworks’ titles. In wandering the exhibit, you discover that several of the titles are left untranslated. Consider the very first painting in the show, “A Cuca.” The delightful image portrays the character from a classic children’s myth as a yellow monster with black-and-white teeth and perky ears. It sits in a bright tropical setting with a friendly frog, giant caterpillar, and armadillo; the painting is a perfect example of Tarsila’s passion for Brazilian folklore. So why did the curators not translate the work’s title? “There’s something beautiful about ‘A Cuca’—the word itself, the sound of it, seems like part of it—so to take that away seems like a mistake,” said D’Alessandro. From the very beginning of the exhibition, we get the sense that the titles, and the language used to describe the images, are inherent parts of the art. (That said, the MoMA label goes so far as describing “A Cuca” as a bicho, or critter—a misleading definition that self-servingly makes a connection with Lygia Clark’s bicho sculptures, part of an exhibition at the museum in 2014.)

Preserving a title in its original language also “calls it out as something special,” said D’Alessandro, specifically in relation to the painting “A Negra.” That work, placed prominently in the first gallery, depicts a black woman of exaggerated proportions and it is Tarsila’s first of many paintings to cast Brazilian identity as resolutely modern. To a twenty-first-century audience the painting raises eyebrows, considering Tarsila was a relatively white woman and she traced the painting’s inspiration to a former slave who used to work for her rich landowner father. The curators were well aware that visitors would approach the work with mixed impressions and so carefully treaded in their presentation of the work—including the translation of its title. 

(Pictured above: Tarsila do Amaral, “A Negra,” 1923, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 32 in., Museo de Arte Contemporânea de Universidade de São Paulo. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.)

“The word negra/negro in Portuguese has many more meanings than the more pejorative in English,” said D’Alessandro. As elaborated in the catalog (often in the form of footnotes, which I always wonder if people actually read), negra or negro is used as a term of endearment in Brazil, and in fact the more literal translation of the color “black” is considered most pejorative. But, as D’Alessandro acknowledged, “a ‘polite’ translation wouldn’t make sense either.” Indeed there is nothing “polite” about “A Negra,” a portrait that idealizes the life of a former slave. Perhaps the choice to maintain the title in the original Portuguese makes it more ambiguous to an American audience—and allows the museum some convenient distance.

As a general rule, though, D’Alessandro maintains that “to translate [the titles] is to diminish them in some way. I would rather keep the title and describe it than what feels like sometimes making something simpler.”

Image: Tarsila do Amaral, “Anthropophagy (Antropofagia),” 1929, oil on canvas, 49 5/8 x 55 15/16 in., Acervo da Fundação Jose e Paulina Nemirovsky, em comodato com a Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

D’Alessandro admits there is one painting’s title that she gave in to translating, the 1929 “Antropofagia.” At the museum it is translated as “Anthropophagy”—“it hurts,” she commented of the unmelodic, stilted English version. The translation was chosen so that it could be readily associated with the poet who was Tarsila’s husband at the time, Oswald de Andrade, author of the 1928 “Manifesto of Anthropophagy.” The painting, which came after, depicts two intertwined, abstracted figures in a tropical landscape; it embraces the manifesto’s plea to embrace Brazil’s roots while devouring, cannibalistically, modern influences from abroad.

It was common for Tarsila to illustrate Oswald’s and other poets’ work, most notably Mário de Andrade’s. Together the three fed one another ideas: The poets eulogized their hinterland, and Tarsila complemented their words with simple line drawings of tall palm trees and wooden houses that appear almost like sketches to her larger paintings. But in the case of the manifesto, it was Tarsila who sparked it in the first place with a very curious, and now very famous, painting known as “Abaporu.” 

The painting, which Tarsila gave to Oswald for his birthday in 1927, depicts an orange-hued androgynous figure with a miniscule head and enormous feet in a tropical landscape; the work’s title means “man who eats people” in the indigenous language of Tupí Guaraní. The title came after the painting; some accounts say Oswald came up with the name, while others say Tarsila did, and in all likelihood they did so together. The painting became a potent metaphor for anthropophagy: like the native Indians who ate their enemies to absorb their traits, the modernists consumed foreign artistic influences (mainly European) and produced hybrid yet quintessentially “Brazilian” images. 

(Pictured above: Tarsila do Amaral, “Abaporu,” 1928, oil on canvas, 33 7/16 x 28 3/4 in., Collection MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.)

In the catalog, however, Pérez-Oramas asks us to not impose ideas of anthropophagy on Tarsila’s work. He emphasizes that this particular reading is only possible because of Oswald’s manifesto. “We must attempt to see that image [‘Abaporu’]—and Tarsila’s work of the 1920s more generally—independent of that text,” he writes, “independent of that word [anthropophagy] and everything its verbal images impose upon us, because Tarsila literally precedes them all.” In other words, before Oswald stepped in with his manifesto, Tarsila had been developing her artistic vision for at least seven years.

“‘Abaporu’—there is a joy in saying the word,” said D’Alessandro. (“Joy is the decisive test,” Oswald writes in his manifesto.) When D’Alessandro says the titles in Portuguese, there is a sparkle in her eye, an excitement and genuine connection with the work. “I can’t imagine changing the word,” she reiterated. Back in Tarsila’s day, the Tupí word would’ve likewise been unfamiliar to most Brazilians. This was, after all, a mostly forgotten culture, relegated to the past; by naming this modernist figure “Abaporu”—with no translation in Portuguese—Tarsila lent the Tupí a certain importance and brought it back into the present. The title was surely intended to inspire curiosity—which is, perhaps, what Americans are experiencing when they read it today.

As a Brazilian who grew up studying Tarsila alongside ideas of anthropophagy, separating the two, as Pérez-Oramas requests, is hard to do. It’s possible this kind of remove is only possible for visitors seeing her work for the first time—only they can allow the images to briefly speak for themselves. I like to imagine their first encounter with “Abaporu,” which ninety years later appears just as strange. The visitor will, for at least a moment, see the image with no imposed reading and wonder what the title means. Like the image, the word used to describe it will not only be something to be deciphered and interpreted but something to behold.

Published May 24, 2018   Copyright 2018 Elisa Wouk Almino

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