Emiliano Di Cavalcanti is one of the painters most identified with Brazilian popular culture, and his particular Brazilianess is to be found primarily in his subject matter. His work immortalized the mulatas, sambas, brothels and local characters typical of the shantytowns and slums of Rio de Janeiro--a rich cultural mix brought into being by the vagaries of history.
Though himself a carioca--a native of Rio de Janeiro--Di Cavalcanti made his professional breakthrough in São Paulo, the cradle of modern art in Brazil. He was one of the advisers of the Week of Modern Art, in February 1922, a watershed arts festival held in São Paulo's Municipal Theater. This four-day-long festival of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and dance brought together artists who sought to create in their work a specifically Brazilian identity, one that transcended the artistic conventions of the time, which had long been dominated by European academicism.
Nonetheless, Di Cavalcanti's major contribution to the visual arts did not come through his rewriting of painting's aesthetic rules, but in the way he incorporated the local inhabitants and especially the mulatas of Rio into his paintings. His canvases reflect a country of many peoples, from different races and classes. White Portuguese, black slaves and native Indians had been intermingling since the Portuguese conquest of Brazil in the 1500s. The Portuguese colonizers had brought with them black women from West Africa to work as slaves, either at home or in the sugar plantations, and the inevitable interaction between master and slave gave rise to a new ethnic type, the mulata (as the women were known), who became a symbol of authentic Brazilian beauty, sensuality and popular culture. By making the mulatas a central subject of his paintings, Di Cavalcanti helped bring about a rupture in the visual arts between the academic artists, who always depicted the white and privileged as the ideal of beauty, and those who, like him, saw things differently.
The son of an army lieutenant, Di Cavalcanti had a typical middle-class upbringing. His uncle José do Patrocínio was a black man involved in the abolishment of slavery in Brazil, as well as being one of the founders of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Thanks to this uncle, Di Cavalcanti grew up surrounded by poets and writers. From a very early age he could read, write and draw. He studied law, though without every attaining a degree. Despite his lack of formal training, Di Cavalcanti could justly be called a Renaissance man, a multi-talented painter, draftsman, caricaturist, poet, writer, samba musician, journalist, illustrator and muralist.
He moved in the most varied levels of society, from the homes of socialites, politicians and diplomats, to the brothels in the Lapa neighborhood of downtown Rio de Janeiro. A bohemian and a man of culture, Di Cavalcanti was known to be equally at ease with Rio's upper-class echelons and its lower-class milieus, finding in the latter the subjects for his paintings.
In 1917 he started dividing his time between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and barely a year after the 1922 Week of Modern Art; he left Brazil for Paris, where he soon became acquainted with the masters of modern art. There he worked as a correspondent for the newspaper Correio da Manhã until 1925 and met the likes of Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Louis Aragón, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Fernand Leger and Max Ernst, among others. His most lasting connection was with Pablo Picasso, whom he befriended in 1924 and remained friends with until the latter's death in 1973. Picasso had a major influence on Di Cavalcanti's work, especially in the way that the Brazilian came to depict his volumetric and voluptuous black women. Unlike Picasso's, Di Cavalcanti's women always keep around them a sensual atmosphere, emphasizing their sexuality through their black bodies, thick lips and generous breasts. They were usually portrayed in warm colors and intense light, and these elements became known as the "tropical sensuality," a trademark of Di Cavalcanti's paintings. Even though they could appear exotic, folkloric or even picturesque to the European eye, Di Cavalcanti's mulatas were the bread and butter of the streets of Rio de Janeiro and a culture centered, after all, in the samba schools and carnival.
Di Cavalcanti believed that good art was somehow always related to cultural roots. For this reason he was totally averse to any kind of abstraction, which he connected with the tastes of the elite, and so of the international market, to the detriment of a figurative art with regional and nationalistic tones. He was not a political artist, per se. In 1928 he joined the Brazilian Communist Party, but his affiliation lasted only three years. The strict discipline imposed by the Party conflicted with his craving for individual freedom and a bohemian lifestyle.
In the '30s and '40s he established his reputation as one of Brazilian more renowned artists, winning in 1953--together with Alfredo Volpi--the prize of best Brazilian painter at the II São Paulo Biennial. A year later he had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern art of Rio de Janeiro including 70 of his paintings. In 1954 he painted Mulata sentada in frente da mesa com pandeiro (Seated Mulata in Front of a Table with Tambourine), in which he depicts a mulata in a dignified manner. She is well dressed in a cleavage-revealing white shirt over a colorful skirt, draped with a long red shawl around her shoulders and wearing necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Her hair is tied up with a flower ornament pin, but she keeps a solemn posture, hands clasped on her lap, looking like an elegant and sophisticated woman from high society. Behind her, on the left side of a table covered with a white cloth, like a still life, lies a tambourine--a percussion instrument typically used to play the samba--an allusion by the artist to the most popular Brazilian musical rhythm.
Emiliano Augusto Cavalcanti de Albuquerque e Melo died in 1976 at 79 years old. This white man with a silver hair will always be known as "Di," as his art will be always be celebrated for its popular roots, bold palette and directness of subject matter.
Claudia Calirman, Ph.D., New York.