Flávio de Carvalho
On ViewAlmeida E Dale Galeria De Arte
Flávio de Carvalho
São Paulo, Brazil
Brazilian artist Flávio de Carvalho (1899–1973) explored a wide range of disciplines—from painting and writing to architecture and fashion—at a time when being a multidisciplinary artist was a radical choice. His diverse body of work has always been difficult to categorize, yet epithets abound. Writer Oswald de Andrade, a member of the first generation of Brazilian Modernists, coined the most accurate to date: the “ideal anthropophagite.” Andrade laid the foundations for the movement in 1928 with his Anthropophagic Manifesto, in which he borrowed the concept of cannibalism—a rare practice of some indigenous Brazilian groups—as a metaphor for the foundation of a national avant-garde, one that symbolically devoured European, African, and Indigenous references to create a new distinctly Brazilian mode. Andrade’s definition rightly alludes to the visionary nature of Carvalho, positioning his practice as the overlooked thread between the early Modernist Brazilians like Tarsila do Amaral and the experimentalism of Neo-Concrete figures including Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape in the 1960s and 1970s.
An engineer by training, Carvalho joined the Anthropophagic movement in 1928, participating in an international competition to design the Columbus Memorial Lighthouse in the Dominican Republic. Inspired by his interests in both ethnology and anthropology, Carvalho merged futurist architectural features and decorative elements sourced from different pre-Columbian references (including native Brazilian, Aztec, Toltec). The design, which envisioned conveying the prospects of an anthropophagic architecture, was turned down by a jury populated by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Eliel Saarinen. The committee voted instead for a cross-shaped design that celebrated the Christianization of the Americas, a far cry from the prescient and provocative Carvalho, who pushed against taboos imposed by Christianity.
A series of initiatives is now revisiting the legacy of Carvalho, one of Latin America’s boldest creators. The 11th Berlin Biennale (set for Sep. 5th through Nov. 1st) has been celebrating his work since last year, having launched preparatory programing titled The Bones of the World after Carvalho’s mid-1930s European travelogue. In addition, the exhibition Flávio de Carvalho: The Ideal Anthropophagus,1 curated by Kiki Mazzucchelli, drew on years of primary research by Rui Moreira Leite and was organized in 2019 by Almeida e Dale Galeria de Arte, in São Paulo, as well as S|2, a Sotheby’s affiliated gallery space in London. Now, as we are home-bound, an online version of the show brings Carvalho’s work to life again and allows it to resonate with audiences around the globe, in addition to those who are in downtown São Paulo—the primary stage of his experiments.
Although lacking the wealth of iconographic material of the physical exhibition, this iteration brings together a selection of drawings and oil paintings that illuminate Carvalho’s multimodal avant-garde practice. Dating from the 1929 through the early 1970s, these works encapsulate the methodical approach that underpins his experiences, which combine his actions and his reflections on his own practice. One example is the drawing Procissão, an undated ink-on-paper work composed of the non-naturalistic lines that Carvalho employed from the beginning. The piece can be contextualized within the backdrop of Experience N. 2, from 1931, possibly the earliest recorded work of performance art in Brazil. In this experiment, Carvalho, wearing a cap, provoked members of a Corpus Christi procession in downtown São Paulo by walking in the opposite direction—an act that was considered disrespectful and outrageous (a sentiment that is shared to this day in some parts of Brazil where Corpus Christi is still one of the highlights of the religious calendar). Adding insult to injury, the artist also flirted with women who were part of the Catholic procession, infuriating the crowd and almost leading to his lynching. The event was covered by the press, a strategy Carvalho intentionally used to promote his actions. Carvalho gathered his impressions of the event, publishing them in the form of a book that same year. The volume contained an analysis of the public’s reaction, drawing on Freudian concepts of totem and taboo, along with black-and-white sketches exploring the emotional conditions triggered by the event. Unfurled on the cover, Procissão displayed the undistinguished faces of the mob, created through a sequence of incomplete traces focused on emotional states—a feature Carvalho sustained throughout his practice.
Experience N. 2 was the first in a series of experiments on the psychology of the masses, devised as real-time street actions that led people to confront the unconventional. Carvalho’s underpinning was the Anthropophagic movement as well as Surrealist and Dada sources, with which he had fertile exchanges during the 1930s. In France, poet Benjamin Péret, a central figure in the French Surrealist movement, introduced him to Man Ray, André Breton, and Tristan Tzara. In England, he was in contact with Roland Penrose, E.L.T. Mesens, and Ben Nicholson. And in 1934, he presented his book Experience N. 2 at the 8th International Congress of Philosophy and the 8th International Psychotechnic Congress in Prague and mingled with the local avant-garde (that same year, poet Vítězslav Nezval and artist Karel Teige created the Czech Surrealist group). In 1956, Carvalho paraded in downtown São Paulo in his male summer outfit suited for tropical weather: a light fabric short skirt, blouse and sandals, worn with or without fishnet hosiery. The proposition, based on his study of the evolution of clothing, which he began in the early 1930s, was covered live on TV and provoked quite a stir. During the course of the event, he was followed by an increasingly large crowd, puzzled by the 6-foot-tall man dressed in a pleated skirt and bouffant blouse, marching in a deadpan manner. He was even able to enter a movie theater, despite the dress code that required a tie for men. The ticket clerk, like everybody else, was flabbergasted and let him in.
While these events predated Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” as well as the performances by the Fluxus group, it is not clear whether Carvalho became aware of their practices later in life. Certainly though, Carvalho’s experiences were cultivated by his fascination with multiple fields of research, including psychoanalysis, ethnology, literature, and politics—“a source of mental turbulence” that he considered the foundation of artistic invention. The works on view offer fine insights into the references that influenced Carvalho’s practice, functioning both as visual records and “field notes” of his readings and his wide array of intellectual exchanges. A notable example is the Portrait of Nicolás Guillén (1948), an oil on canvas that depicts the acclaimed Cuban poet whose Motivos de son (1930) blended traditional literary forms and Afro-Cuban legends and songs. Rendered in a kaleidoscopic palette of vigorous greens, reds, blues, and oranges hues, it has Surrealist and Expressionist accents as well as an emphasis on Guillén’s face and hands—a way to enhance the expressive role of color and to explore the personality and psychological state of the model.
Throughout his career, Carvalho investigated traditional genres of portraiture and explored various materials (including postage stamps in 1932 and kinetic costumes in the 1950s), rejecting trends of all sorts, including the geometric abstraction that arose in Brazil the 1950s. His path, often labeled as mischievous, controversial, and at odds with contemporary fashion, might have, at least in part, explained his invisibility to the art canon. Yet as this exhibition highlights, his trajectory unveils a lasting pursuit: conceiving artworks not as mere objects, but as open propositions, across disciplines. Indeed, the merging of art and life was his raison d’etre. As early as the 1930s, Carvalho seems to have been the embodiment of what art critic Mário Pedrosa called “the experimental exercise of freedom” to describe the conceptual works of the Neo-Concrete movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
- The accompanying catalogue was conceived in response to the lack of literature on Flávio de Carvalho available in English. It contains new essays, a translation of a rare interview from 1942, as well as an article by Rui Moreira Leite that explores Carvalho’s use of media and it was formerly published in the MIT Press journal Leonardo.