Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

“Tupy or Not Tupy.” Professor David Jackson’s New Book on Brazilian Modernism

May 4, 2021

“Tupy or not Tupy: that is the question.”

Brazilian writer and poet Oswald de Andrade published this line  in his 1928 “Cannibal Manifesto.” Appearing in the first issue of the magazine titled Revista de Antropofagia (Cannibal Magazine), the Manifesto – a collection of fifty-two aphorisms – captured the attitude and ideas of the artists, musicians, architects, and writers of the Brazilian modernist movement. By integrating the nation’s European, indigenous, and African cultural inheritances with a satirical humor and ironic detachment, they could create something entirely new.

Over ninety years after the publication of the Cannibal Manifesto, the Brazilian modernists have received fresh treatment in a new book, Cannibal Angels: Transatlantic Modernism and the Brazilian Avant-Garde. The author, Yale Professor of Portuguese Kenneth David Jackson, has been publishing on Brazilian arts and culture for nearly fifty years. In recognition of his achievements, in 2019 he was awarded one of Brazil’s highest civilian honors, the Order of Rio Branco (Ordem de Rio Branco), by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Jackson’s path to writing Cannibal Angels began when he was still a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. He spent 1971 and 1972 conducting research on Oswald de Andrade in São Paulo. His interest in Brazilian culture had been sparked when, as an undergraduate, he made a tour of Brazil with his college orchestra.

“I’ve been writing and teaching about the main figures in the book for a long time. This was my chance to put the “whole story” together, with literature, visual arts, music, and modernization.”

Cannibal Angels, much like the Brazilian modernists it chronicles, flits between Europe, especially Paris, and Brazil, tracking fascinating characters, some marginal and others, such as Josephine Baker, quite well known in the United States. In addition to the rumors of Tupi-Guarani cannibalism encountered during the early colonial period, the title Cannibal Angels also refers to a 1924 painting by Tarsila do Amaral titled “Anjos,” or Angels.

“Tarsila, I think, is now appreciated for the genius of her synthesis of an idea of “primitive” Brazil with the avant-garde techniques and spirit of the French avant-garde, particularly Léger. She has both a simplicity and richness of imagination.  After her two shows in Paris (1926 and 1928), she had to wait about 50 years to be rediscovered. Now she is a mega-star.”

Tarsila do Amaral and Oswald de Andrade were not just intellectual interlocutors, but also romantic partners. Both of them, like other modernists in Cannibal Angels, traced their origins to a plantation society elite that was hardly a generation out of slavery.

“The wealth of the coffee plantations of São Paulo produced the patrons and diplomats who would continue to support modernist artists and their study in Europe, while interior landscapes, architecture, and folklore provided some themes for literature and art – especially from the baroque towns of Minas Gerais.”

The Great Depression, followed by the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, had dampened the climate for artistic experimentation and internationalism in Brazil by the early 1930s.

Oswald de Andrade was “rediscovered” by the São Paulo concrete poets in the 1950s, and was more widely republished in the 1960s. The Manifesto, despite its fame in Brazil, was only translated into Spanish fifty years later. By the early 1990s, interest in postcolonial theory and “global” modernisms brought renewed attention to Brazilian modernists. The Cannibal Magazine was translated in English in 1993.

In 2018, the Museum of Modern Art in New York continued the first major exhibition on Tarsila do Amaral in North America, “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil,” begun at the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year, the museum purchased its first painting by the artist, “A Lua.” Although the sum paid for the work was undisclosed, the figure of twenty million dollars has circulated in the media. In 1994 the famous painting “Abaporu” had previously claimed the highest price (1.35 million) for a Tarsila work, now in the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA). In 2019 MoMA insured the “Abaporu” for 45 million, and its current value is estimated up to 200 million.

The Cannibal Angels are also the subject of an upcoming course Jackson is teaching in the Department of Portuguese, where he has been a faculty member since 1993. The course, “Brazil’s Cannibal Modernism: From Modern Art Week to Antropofagia,” will focus on São Paulo’s “Modern Art Week” of 1922, the “Cannibal Manifesto,” as well as post-colonial analysis.

According to Jackson, the class will “get students to appreciate the different talented personalities involved (especially musicians and painters), to show how the “transatlantic” synthesis worked, to see the openness and freedom of modernism in some of the most important works, what Brazilian materials were chosen and why, the role of travel, immigration, performance, and study.”

By Joshua Mentanko