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Antonio Dias and the Kidnapping of Pop Art

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The programme of decolonisation and struggle against imperialism, as well as the class debate, had become radicalised and accelerated in response to the military coup of 1964. The role of the propertied classes in the coup was established. Hence Antonio Dias’s works, in relation to Pop art, did not passively assimilate—which undoubtedly occurred in some ambiguous and hesitant works of other artists at that time. In fact, Dias devised an aggressive appropriation: he operated a “kidnapping.” Therefore, the struggle was transferred to another terrain. The nationalist combative strategy was replaced with an international one.

Thus, Dias resorted to Pop art, which was linked to the imagery of consumption, but also to forms of cultural imagery strange to it: the popular culture of comic books, bathrooms and buses, graffiti and caricatures, and remnants from the language of the October Revolution. Both languages were used as negative operations and twists; in short, as physical blows against Pop art.

The high degree of violence inherent in Dias’s work came from this constitution, based on the abduction of opposing forces. In 1967, Mário Pedrosa would say that the only purism of Dias was that of “naked violence.” In fact, the theme of violence—sometimes legitimate, sometimes not—was constant during that period. In 1969, Hélio Oiticica would likewise affirm, in the text accompanying the presentation of the “Bólides” in homage to Cara de Cavalo (Horse Face)1 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London: “violence is justified as a revolt means, but never as an oppressive one.”

In this sense, it can be affirmed that Dias kidnapped Pop art, which was appropriated, devoured, and swallowed up, if I may insist, by a new “cannibal”—to recall the terms of the Cannibalist Manifesto (Manifesto Antropófago, 1928), by modernist writer Oswald de Andrade. In fact, Oiticica referred to the New Brazilian Objectivity as a “Super Anthropophagy”. The “Super Anthropophagus or Cannibal,” of New Objectivity, in this case, carried the cutting and montage weapons developed by Soviet avant-garde art. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the operation of turning Pop art inside out, today seen in historical perspective, somehow presaged the kidnapping, in September 1969, of the United States ambassador Charles Elbrick by the joint command of the National Liberation Alliance (Aliança Libertadora Nacional and of the Revolutionary Movement 8th October (Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro.

Pop clichés, normally associated with the standardised euphoria of USA consumption and power, were recycled by Dias with ostentatious sarcasm, like a captured trophy, and, in this condition, they were explicitly associated with signs of death. However, things did not end there in the manner of an act of counterpropaganda; rather, they actually started on the basis of kidnapping. What did these tactics entail?

In the first place, the kidnapping of Pop art did not begin as an idealised self-projection, as was the case in geometric abstraction. This narcissistic projection motivated Lygia Clark, in a 1957 note, to critically observe that, in Concrete Art, the self surrendered to a “false way of dominating space.”

Thus, unlike the idealised self-projection of the Concretists and, in phenomenological terms, also that of the Neo-Concretist group, the kidnapping of Pop art began with a historical judgement of the contemporary world. Second, one can deduce that the kidnapping occurred because the author conceived of their artistic practices no longer as part of transcendental mastery or as something separate. A mastery thus presumably endowed with the exemplarity of a universal ethical-cognitive model, as intended by geometric trends. In short, art was redefined, after the kidnapping of Pop art, as a handling of symbolic operations, implanted as a counter-discourse considered as a combat operation. In this perspective, art participated in a set of strategic actions, inseparable from power struggles. What was actually in dispute? What were the targets?

  1. Cara de Cavalo [Horse Face] was the nickname of Manoel Moreira (1941–64), a close friend of Oiticica who suddenly became the most wanted outlaw in Rio, after an ambush on August 27, 1964, followed by a shootout in which his pursuer, the detective Le Cocq, died. Le Cocq was the head of a police militia that was the embryo of the many “death squads” that to this day infest the many peripheries of Brazilian cities, committing countless and rarely investigated massacres of poor young people, mainly Black people.

Abridged extract (without notes) of a text originally published in The Long Roots of Modernism in Brazil, a collection of essays by Martins, on Brazilian art, out from Historical Materialism Book Series at Haymarket Books in 2019, pp. 95–96.


Luiz Renato Martins

Luiz Renato Martins (São Paulo, 1953) is an historian who works as a researcher and a PhD supervisor in the doctoral programs of Visual Arts and Economic History at the University of São Paulo. He is the author of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Historical Materialism Book Series at Haymarket Books, 2019) and The Conspiracy of Modern Art (also from the Historical Materialism Book Series at Haymarket Books, 2018) and has lectured at universities in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Spain, France, UK and USA.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues