The Brazilian painter Emiliano di Cavalcanti is perhaps best known for being one of the key instigators--along with the poets and writers Oswald de Andrade and Mario de Andrade--of Semana del arte moderna (Modern Art Week), a groundbreaking multi-disciplinary cultural event or happening held in São Paulo in 1922 which effectively introduced modern art in Brazil and marked a paradigmatic shift or break from past artistic traditions. Largely self-taught, Di Cavalcanti began his career as an illustrator and caricaturist for various local publications. Indeed the satirical tone of much of his illustrations and drawings would inevitably seep into his paintings. The latter is somewhat reminiscent of the work of the Mexican José Clemente Orozco whose career trajectory followed a similar path from newspaper caricaturist to fine art painter. Yet, Di Cavalanti typically eschewed overt political themes or a pessimistic worldview in favor of subject matter that celebrated aspects of Brazil's cultural and racial diversity as integral to defining a sense of place and national identity.
Shortly after co-organizing Semana del arte, Di Cavalcanti traveled abroad where he remained for two years familiarizing himself with various aspects of European modernism from cubism and fauvism to German expressionism and the work of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) artists known for their scathing social and political commentary of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. Di Cavalcanti's immersion into this expansive and thriving cultural milieu and his contact with such key vanguard figures as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, and Georges Grosz left an indelible mark on the young Cariocan artist and on his artistic practice. Upon returning to his homeland, Di Cavalcanti set out to develop a distinctly Brazilian form of modern art informed by a specific cultural and social perspective. Indeed in the ensuing decades the artist elaborated a unique style that meshed the formal innovations of the European vanguard with a particular local sensibility that enthusiastically embraced aspects of marginalized cultures and his country's social reality.
In works such as Carnaval, Di Cavalcanti ably samples elements of analytical and synthetic cubism, the vivid use of color associated with fauvism, and the overcrowded and vertically layered spaces reminiscent of the expressionist painter George Grosz whose work he so admired. Yet the subject matter is decidedly Brazilian--Carnival revelers, street performers, and Samba dancers parading down a crowded street while local residents look on from their windows and balconies vicariously partaking of the merriment below. Central to the composition is the figure of a woman with arms extended upwards framing her delicate face in a manner not unlike one of the female nudes in Picasso's iconic 1907 painting Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon. While the dramatic presence of a mulatta adorned with an elaborate headdress on the bottom left corner seemingly functions as a stand in for the two figures donning African masks in the Spaniard's famous brothel scene. Capturing the energy and vitality of Carnival, here the artist not only asserts the formal language of modernism, but unlike his European counterparts who often relied on masks and other cultural artifacts to symbolically reference a non Western or "primitivist" context, Di Cavalcanti taps into a specific Afro-Brazilian reality in order to assert notions of identity and cultural difference which were central to the nationalist and modernist agenda of his generation. Indeed for artists and intellectuals like Tarsila do Amaral, Cándido Portinari, Oswald de Andrade, and Di Cavalcanti himself, "far from an escapist exoticism, their reclamation of the African component of Brazilian society was [tantamount] to an engagement with the modern reality of their country, elevating subjects formerly consigned to oblivion by the cultural elite to an emblematic expression of the nation."(1)
Marysol Nieves, Independent Curator
1) F. Bercht, "Tarsila do Amaral" in Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, ed. W. Rasmussem, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1993, 54.