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Emiliano di Cavalcanti (Brazilian 1897-1976)
Emiliano di Cavalcanti (Brazilian 1897-1976)

Mulata e pássaros

Emiliano di Cavalcanti (Brazilian 1897-1976)
Mulata e pássaros
signed and dated E. Di Cavalcanti, 1967' (lower right)
oil on canvas
32 x 24 in. (81.3 x 61 cm.)
Painted in 1967.
Acquired from the artist.

Lot Essay

With its distinctly cariocan subjects rendered in a warm palette and imbued with the visual vocabularies of the European avant-garde, the art of Emiliano di Cavalcanti is synonymous with early Brazilian modernism. Along with his trailblazing contemporaries Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti broke with what was perceived as a stilted academic tradition borrowed from Europe in order to create a new artistic language that was expressly Brazilian. Integral to this strategy was the organization of the landmark event Semana de arte moderna, held in São Paulo in 1922. At the young age of twenty-five, Di Cavalcanti was one of the masterminds behind the Semana, that much like the 1913 Armory Show in New York provoked incendiary debates and effectively initiated the advent of modern art in Brazil.

Shortly after gaining recognition for his role in the Semana, Di Cavalcanti left for Paris where he experienced first-hand the paintings of Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Grosz and others, all of which would prove to be important points of departure for his later work. While informed by Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), Di Calvalcanti's painting always remained rooted in Brazil. As he explained of his artistic philosophy, "Our art has to be like our food, our air, our sea. It has to reveal our culture, since good art is always cultural and its own dimension that of anticipating a cultural moment. The true artist becomes modern for his age: he brings the new, he is the herald of a new era."(1) Di Cavalcanti's visual expression of this principle took the form of samba players, carnaval revelers and the ordinary men and women of Rio's favelas. Thus, the central protagonists of Di Cavalcanti's paintings-- dark-skinned and underprivileged--are those figures regularly relegated to history's (and art history's) periphery.

In Mulata e pássaros, Di Cavalcanti subverts that academic convention, placing the often marginalized mulatto woman at the center of the composition. Behind her palm trees appear silhouetted against a mountainous landscape, leaving no doubt that this beauty hails from the tropics. With its flat angular forms, compressed space and skewed perspective, the painting suggests the influence of Synthetic Cubism, which Di Cavalcanti was intimately acquainted with through the work of his friend Pablo Picasso. While Di Cavalcanti referred to the eminent Spaniard as his artistic "master," he was also quick to point out the significant divergences in their work. "In matters of women, for example, modesty aside, I am my own man, an anti-Picasso," Di Cavalcanti forthrightly explained. "[Picasso] was unable to render a beautiful woman. It was always a woman with one more or one less eye, a bent nose. It was always a pretty Picasso, but never a pretty woman." (2) In Mulata e pássaros, Di Cavalcanti renders a decidedly un-Picasso woman. With her long hair, voluptuous lips and curvaceous figure, this mulata exudes a sensuous femininity, rather than the abrasive aggression so often evoked by Picasso's distorted women. And yet, she denies our inclination to see her as a simple object of desire. A contemplative beauty, reaching rather forlornly for a captive bird, she evinces striking psychological depth. Confined by the intricate latticework of an iron fence and the cages of the colorful parrots, she appears almost no less free than her feathered companions. While Di Cavalcanti eschewed overtly political content in his work, here the encaged woman contradicts the cliché of the carefree tropics and instead suggests a life fraught with wearisome challenges.

1) E. Di Cavalcanti, quoted in F. Gullar, "The Modernity in Di Cavalcanti," in Di Cavalcanti, 1897-1976: pinturas, desenhos, jóias, (Rio de Janeiro: Edições Pinakotheke, 2006) 163.
2) E. Di Cavalcanti quoted in, Dr. J. E. Mindlin, "Life and Work" in ibid., 166.

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