Beatriz Milhazes: How the artist went from the Tropics to Europe and back again, ‘like Gauguin in reverse’

In a studio overlooking Rio de Janeiro’s botanical gardens, Beatriz Milhazes creates paintings whose rich colours and dynamic forms are brilliantly evocative of her native Brazil — while also showing the influence of Matisse, Delaunay and other European greats

Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes in her studio

Beatriz Milhazes photographed at her studio in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Vicente de Paulo. Beatriz Milhazes (b. 1960), A Montanha, O Gato, O Cachorro, e O Principe, 1997. Acrylic and metallic print on canvas. 52⅞ x 43¼ in (134.4 x 109.8 cm). Sold for £289,250 on 16 October 2009 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Beatriz Milhazes

If paintings can evoke the seasons, then the works of Beatriz Milhazes convey summer. Her glorious depictions of plants and abstract shapes shimmer with the heat of a sunny afternoon. Her colours range from fiery reds and azure blues to the dusty yellows of late-August grass, dancing from shape to shape like light across a stained-glass window. The overall effect is akin to that of Pop art, pulsating with energy.

Beatriz Milhazes (b. 1960), Cebola Roxa, 2020. Acrylic and graphite on canvas. 75 x 71¼ in (190.7 x 180.9 cm). Sold for £856,800 on 28 June 2022 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Beatriz Milhazes

Milhazes on nature and the city

Take her 2020 canvas Cebola Roxa (above), painted during lockdown and recently sold to benefit the environmental charity ClientEarth. The organisation’s goals are close to the heart of an artist whose palette reflects the wonders of the natural world. ‘Certain painters have the tendency of greening their work upon contact with nature,’ says Milhazes, ‘and my studio is just beside the botanical gardens.’

She also notes the influence of her home city, Rio de Janeiro, with its Baroque architecture and vibrant atmosphere. ‘It is a place of violent contrasts between greens, blues and yellows,’ she says. Avenida Brasil (below), painted in 2003 and 2004, captures the frenetic cocktail of traffic along the city’s main highway in funky chromatic tones, spotted with inky blots as black as engine oil.

Beatriz Milhazes (b. 1960), Avenida Brasil, 2003-2004. Acrylic on canvas. 117¾ x 156 in (299.1 x 396.2 cm). Sold for £742,500 on 23 March 2021 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Beatriz Milhazes

Rio to Europe

Born in Rio in 1960, Milhazes grew up under Brazil’s repressive military dictatorship. In the early 1980s she enrolled in the free Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, where she came into contact with a liberal intelligentsia engaged in mobilising mass demonstrations against the country’s hard-right government.

Milhazes was included in the landmark 1984 exhibition Como vai você, geração 80?  (‘How are you, 80s generation?’) together with Luiz Zerbini, Leda Catunda, Daniel Senise and José Leonilson. With its exuberantly coloured canvases, the show heralded a return to painting from the more austere Brazilian Conceptualism of the 1970s.

In 1985 Milhazes travelled to Europe for the first time, where she first saw in person paintings by Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, artists who had already been an influence on her work.

In Bridget Riley’s meticulous Op Art paintings Milhazes discovered the work of a fellow colourist, while Matisse’s cut-outs inspired her unusual practice of painting on sheets of plastic before transposing them to canvas, paint side down — a method that yields a saturated, print-like finish. The technique, she says, ‘enables me to play around with the composition’.

Back to Brazil: a new era

On the artist’s return to Brazil, she had her first solo show, which coincided with the fall of the military junta and the beginning of a more liberal era. By the mid 1990s she was exhibiting internationally, with curators keen to promote her as one of a new band of Brazilian artists who were out to cannibalise European culture, just as their forebears, the Modernists Emiliano di Cavalcanti and Tarsila do Amaral, had done.

She once said she felt like Paul Gauguin, but the other way around: ‘He came from Europe to the Tropics to add important atmospheres and colours to his paintings. I came from the Tropics to Europe to give my paintings more meanings, more structure, more interest.’

Beatriz Milhazes (b. 1960), O casamento, 1995. Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 49⅛ in (121.9 x 124.8 cm). Sold for $1,025,000 on 20 November 2013 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © Beatriz Milhazes

Early works such as the 1995 painting O casamento (above) and Madame Caduvel (1996) are evocative of the city’s carnival — the swirls of sequins and the flutter of ostrich feathers worn by Rio’s dancers, and the thunderous beat of the festival drums.

‘I would say that the carnival parade of Rio is an event that motivates me to be an artist,’ says Milhazes. ‘Its wildness and freedom — it’s fascinating! I'm actually a conceptual carnavalesca.’

Milhazes’s art encompasses the history and heritage of Brazil — in particular, the multiple cross-cultural currents found in the country’s folk art, jewellery, fabrics and music. Fizzing with Brazil’s popular music history — Tropicália, bossa nova, samba — her work is gloriously cool, intimate and sophisticated, recalling the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s before the military took control.

Beatriz Milhazes (b. 1960), Sampa, 2005-2006. Acrylic on canvas. 85¾ x 66½ in (218 x 169 cm). Sold for £782,500 on 11 February 2016 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Beatriz Milhazes

Her canvases allude to Copacabana Beach: to the pavement tiles designed by Roberto Burle Marx along its promenade, and to its vibrant atmosphere after dark. Her paintings, she says, are ‘about living in Rio, the walk along the beach… the swing… the atmosphere’.

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Milhazes on the world stage

In 2003 Milhazes represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale with a dazzling collection of floral works. Her painting Meu Limão achieved an auction price of $2.1 million in 2012, making it the most expensive work by a living Brazilian artist ever sold.

Today, Milhazes has a strong international following and has exhibited all over the world, most recently mounting her first ever solo show in China, at the Long Museum in Shanghai.

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