‘I would say that the Carnival parade of Rio is an event that motivates me to be an artist. Its wildness and freedom – it’s fascinating!...I’m actually a conceptual carnavelsca’
(B. Milhazes, quoted in D. Ebony, ‘Conceptual Carnavelsca’, in Art in America, March 2015, p. 132).
‘I am an abstract painter and I speak an international language, but my interest is in things and behaviors that can only be found in Brazil’
(B. Milhazes, quoted in A. Drucks, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: No Fear of Beauty’, in ArtMag, unpaged).
Beautifully articulating Beatriz Milhazes’ celebrated painterly idiom, Moinho vermelho presents the viewer with an explosion of pure form and colour that fuses modernist pictorial language with the rich iconography found in the culture and quotidian vernacular of the artist’s native Brazil. Executed on the dramatic scale, the work absorbs the viewer in its display of extravagant optical ecstasy. Teeming with references to the natural world and local carnaval culture of Rio de Janeiro, layer upon layer of petal formations, traditional chitão fabric, beads, ripened fruits, concentric circles, spirals and stars overlap and burst in all directions across diagonal planes of solid mauve, teal, beige and turquoise paint. As Milhazes builds up the intricate composition through her unique transfer technique, the individual geometric and decorative emblems begin to coalesce organically into an exuberant abstraction of chromatic dissonance that belies the artist’s sensibility to art historical precedents such as Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Tarsila do Amaral, and, in this case particularly, Sonia Delaunay. Created between 1999 and 2000, Moinho vermelho is a quintessential example of Milhazes’ distinct and enthralling paintings, other examples of which are prominently housed in international collections including the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
While Milhazes’ abstractions draw from lived experience and the environment surrounding her – the artist’s studio notably overlooks the botanical gardens of Rio de Janeiro – they are also subtle and rigorous critiques of Brazil’s colonial legacy, precepts of modernist abstraction and the complex relationship of Brazilian art to painting. Milhazes began her artistic career in Brazil in the 1980s, a decade in which painting was gaining renewed interest from a generation of experimental students railing against the trends of conceptual and constructivist art. As Milhazes stated, ‘I always wanted to be a geometric artist but not just paint squares, rectangles or circles; this vocabulary would not have been rich enough for me’ (B. Milhazes, quoted in L. Sacramone, ‘Interview with Beatriz Milhazes’, in Beatriz Milhazes, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2009, p. 13). Milhazes’ first real-life encounter with a Henri Matisse painting in 1985 was a crucial turning point, for it was in his work that she found confirmation that critically rigorous painting could embrace the decorative and ornamental, the flatness of space and, notably, potential of colour.
As the artist explained, ‘we Brazilians, and especially painters, don’t have a big art history behind us. This point also gave me a kind of freedom to create my own world’ (B. Milhazes, quoted in L. Sacramone, Beatriz Milhazes: Snow in the Tropics, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2011,p. 16). To this end, Milhazes from early on developed a distinctive transfer technique. Rather than painting on canvas, she paints intricate designs onto sheets of plastic that are transferred onto the canvas paint side down and pasted to the surface in a collage-like manner. Paralleling the technique of printing, Milhazes peels back the plastic so that only a fragmented imprint, devoid of the coarseness of brushstrokes, is left on the canvas. The unpredictable nature of this process enables the artist to work spontaneously, evaluating the composition after each layer, allowing the elaborate designs to grow in unexpected ways, and resulting in a visual cornucopia reminiscent of the exuberance and spirit of carnaval.
Moinho vermelho notably demonstrates the crucial shift in Milhazes’ practice from the more decorative forms of her early work towards harder-edged abstractions from the late 1990s onwards. Milhazes consciously and irretrievably disrupts the work’s order and structure of the underlying diagonal colour planes in a manner that echoes the overlapping and juxtaposed planes in Sonia Delaunay’s work. Created around the same time Milhazes discovered Delaunay’s hitherto largely under-recognised oeuvre, the circular forms in this opulent composition resemble the colorful geometric arcs and curves of Delaunay’s Orphisme, a practice that draws on naturally occurring tonal and visual harmonies. However, as Milhazes also emphasises, ‘I am an abstract painter and I speak an international language, but my interest is in things and behaviors that can only be found in Brazil’ (B. Milhazes, quoted in A. Drucks, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: No Fear of Beauty’, in ArtMag, unpaged). Inspired by the literary and artistic movement of Brazilian Modernism (1922-1945), which advocated a hybrid artistic language in lieu of a whole-sale appropriation of models derived from European colonization, Milhazes has relentlessy sought to expand the possibilities of abstraction by interpreting her native Brazil through the lens of modernist art history. Absorbing new meanings and idiosyncrasies with each new encounter, Moinho vermelho perfectly illustrates the way in which Milhazes’s paintings navigate the local and the global – simultaneously carrying and transforming meaning as they travel across multiple cultures and contexts.