“Man Who Eats”
Although shown nude, Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporú is ambiguous in terms of age, gender, and race. The scene is painted from an extremely low perspective, which causes the figure’s body to appear distorted. The bare right hand and foot, firmly planted on the ground, are enormous, while the head and upper torso are diminutive. The figure appears to be outdoors, sitting on a green surface from which rises a large cactus. A yellow sun—or is it a flower?—just touches the cactus and is set against a blue background.
Tarsila, as she is known in Brazil, was one of the foremost painters of Brazil’s modernist movement in the first half of the twentieth century. She is best known for her innovative paintings of the 1920s, when she was actively engaged in the development of the new visual language of Brazilian modernism.
In January of 1928, Tarsila presented Abaporú as a birthday gift to her husband, the prominent modernist writer Oswald de Andrade. By their own accounts, de Andrade was fascinated by the painting and proclaimed that he would create a movement around it. Using a dictionary of indigenous Brazilian languages, Tarsila and de Andrade named the painting “Abaporú,” a combination of words that can be roughly translated as “man who eats.”
Abaporú, which is today in the collection of the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires (MALBA), has become an icon of twentieth-century Brazilian art. This is both because the painting employs unique visual strategies—a bright palette, exaggerated forms, and collapsed perspective—and because it inspired the writing of one of the most important documents in the history of Brazilian art: de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto), written in 1928.
The Cannibalist Manifesto
With the famous phrase “Tupi or not tupi, that is the question,” de Andrade opens his Cannibalist Manifesto making a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet while asking a question about Brazilian cultural identity. The Tupi were one of the largest Amerindian groups in pre-colonial Brazil, encompassing many tribes that lived along the region’s Atlantic coast. Some Tupi tribes may have practiced ceremonial sacrifices and anthropophagy—practices that aroused the fascination of early European explorers like the Dutch. Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists, such as Theodor de Bry and Albert Eckhout, explored the subject of anthropophagy in fantastical prints and paintings that depicted Amerindian Brazilians consuming or carrying severed limbs.
In his manifesto, de Andrade employs the concept of anthropophagy as a metaphor for cultural consumption. He argues that artists should be free to consume, or cannibalize, the many cultural influences that surrounded them in modern Brazil—be they indigenous, popular, or foreign. After a process of digestion, or synthesis, this consumption would yield new cultural products, both original and genuinely Brazilian.
The manifesto was published in the first issue of the Revista de Antropofagia (Journal of Anthropophagy) in May of 1928, accompanied by a line drawing of Tarsila’s Abaporú.
Approaching Tarsila’s painting through de Andrade’s theory reveals how the artist engaged multiple visual sources and reassigned meaning to the forms of European art. For example, the figure’s posture in Abaporú is reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker. However, here the figure’s small head destabilizes the original sculpture’s emphasis on intellectual contemplation, placing our focus instead on its enlarged limbs that, rather than resting on a pedestal, connect directly to the earth. Abaporú is not a traditional heroic European male nude, but a creature emerging, quite literally, from Brazilian nature.
Some of the techniques Tarsila employed in painting Abaporú were also in dialogue with the works of the French Cubist painter Fernand Léger, with whom she had briefly studied in 1923. Between 1918 and 1923 (known as his “mechanical” period), many of Léger’s paintings featured machine-like forms and tubular figures. In Three Women, Léger achieved a sense of volume in the bodies of human figures by creating a darker outline around the figures’ rounded limbs and highlighting their centers with lighter paint.
In Abaporu, Tarsila employs a similar technique. The figure’s sinuous body is outlined in a darker brown color that becomes lighter towards the center. Tarsila highlights the middle of the right arm and foot with paint that is much lighter than at the edges. But while Léger applied this technique to create volumetric figures in contrast to gridded backgrounds that recall modern interiors, Tarsila brings this modernist technique into conversation with Brazil’s natural landscapes.
Tarsila applied the strategies of anthropophagy in the painting by appropriating and reassigning meaning to the forms and techniques of European modern art. In doing so, she displayed her own knowledge and mastery of international modernist movements while putting forward a wholly original work.
The rise of Brazilian modernism
In the 1920s, artists across Brazil began exploring modernism as a means to escape the strict academic system, promulgated by Brazil’s Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, which had dominated national artistic production since the early nineteenth century. Artists such as Tarsila had travelled to Europe and made contact with different avant-garde movements that were already well underway there, such as Cubism, Fauvism, and German Expressionism. Convening in large urban centers such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, and Recife, they developed new modernist movements that significantly altered the landscape of Brazilian art.
The Cannibalist Manifesto presented a strategy for producing artworks that was both culturally authentic to Brazil and engaged with these broader international narratives of modernity. The theories of the Cannibalist Manifesto and the visual strategies that Tarsila employed in Abaporú provide crucial models for the study of cultural exchange and the transnational dialogues in which modernist artists were engaged throughout the twentieth century.