Anthropophagy in Tarsila do Amaral, Raul Bopp and Oswald de Andrade: A Brazilian Poetic and Cultural Strategy for a Globalized World
Perhaps the 60th anniversaries of Oswald de Andrade’s “Cannibalist Manifesto” and of the poem “Cobra Norato” by Raul Bopp could serve as the occasion to establish revitalizing relationships of similarity between Tarsila do Amaral’s pictorial oeuvre in the 1920s (particularly her production belonging to the Cannibalist movement) and the 1921 poem by Bopp, “forgotten” by the author himself but revived by the painter and by Oswald de Andrade in 1928, the “cannibalist” date of its existence. Although acknowledged by both (the poem is dedicated to Tarsila), these connections have not been explored at length from an ideological perspective. I am referring in particular to paintings such as Manacá (1927), The Lake, The Bull, The Moon, Sleep, Urutu, The Toad, and The City, this last one from 1929 and the others from 1928. (The Black Woman, painted in 1923, could also be added to this list.) According to Aracy do Amaral, this group of works is characterized by a drastic reduction of elements, the elimination of dramatic variation, and an abandonment of geometrizing (though not geometrical) concerns. In reality, both from the mythical and cultural points of view, the poem may function as a kind of “caption” for Tarsila’s works, or, on the other hand, the paintings may be seen as illustrations of the words, from the perspective of an invention of a Brazilian culture in dialogue with the contemporary world, “against all the importers of canned consciousness” as a memorable line from Oswald de Andrade’s “Cannibalist Manifesto” reads. They are relevant still today –as an active principle for the creation of “difference” and, in particular, a Brazilian difference in world that tends more and more towards homogeneity and the destruction of the qualitative content of cultures by a kind of marketplace totalitarianism, in the words of Robert Kurz. An example of the similarity: the toad is the first character to appear from the poem, following the introduction of the epic plot and the cobras. The toad, appears following the lines: “The ciphered forest now begins / Shadow obscured the trees.” “Ciphered” here is linked to darkness, uncertainty, the beginnings of Norato’s journey across the forest. It is impossible to not see in this scene, among other things, another toad, The Toad, by Tarsila beginning its passage through a tunnel (preceding and subsequent spaces are cancelled/ciphered by the light at the end and the shadow in front). Is he also the “thick-lipped toad lurking in the dark”? The toad was, as is well-known, one of the “terms” chosen for the cannibalist “subgrammar.” Tarsila and Bopp (we could surmise) share Manuel Bandeira’s contempt for the “cooper-toad/a watered-down Parnassian” (1919). It constitutes a break (relatively speaking, why not?) with the “syncopated rhythms” of the time. This marks the transition to another Brazil, one that is industrial and Brazilian. And that’s where many of the meanings of these telluric yet distorted pieces lie, as exaggerations of “fauviste” drawing and perspective. Tarsila wrote: “Another movement, the Cannibalist movement, resulted from a painting I did on January 11, 1928 as a present for Oswald de Andrade, who, upon seeing that monstrous figure with colossal feet heavily treading the ground, called Raul Bopp in order to share his astonishment with him. Facing that painting which they named Abaporu –cannibal—they decided to create an artistic and literary movement with its roots in the Brazilian soil (Tarsila/Anos 20, Galeria de Arte do SESI, 1997). Speaking of “frogs” and convergences in his Vida e Morte da Antropofagia (Civilização Brasileira, 1977), Bopp also records not only the birth of cannibalist theory, but also his affinities with the couple when narrating a dinner party in São Paulo in 1928, in a restaurant in the district of Santana that specialized in frogs: “When, amid applause, the dish arrived with the much-awaited delicacy, Oswald stood up and began sing the praises of the frog […] –the same frog we were savoring between sips of chilled Chablis.” Tarsila — continues Bopp — interjected: “–with that argument we reach the conclusion that we are now behaving like… quasi-cannibals.” The Dutch ovists, the theory of the homunculus, the Tupi word “Abaporu” (man who eats), the fantastic “doctrine” of the evolution of species—all this convereged in order to try to create a Brazilian art of its time–something that had not genuinely been done before–, breaking with Parnassian imports—official culture French-style, alienated and dominant—, as well as trying to connect this new Brazilian art—amid the complexity of contradictions– with the renewal of Europe at the start of the century. In Bopp’s words: “Anthropophagy led the way. Under this Brazil with its external features there was another Brazil with profound connections, unknown, still to discovered.” For him, this cannibalist encounter with Tarsila and Oswald was a kind of descent into the roots, to capture the seeds of renewal and to return to an underlying Brazil, with an “embryonic” soul, and, above all, to make it find its own “cultural synthesis.” From a different perspective, following Carlos Zílio in A Querela do Brasil (Relume Dumará, 1997), if for the European primitivism was a source of non-Greek or non-Roman cultural elements, for Tarsila and Bopp a “native” primitivism represented instead the adoption of their own “specificity.” In other words, Anthropophagy is born from the need for independence and from a lack of trust (Benedito Nunes). Today, for instance, these tendencies are not easily found in the Brazilian or world cultural scene. Fernand Léger’s influence on Tarsila do Amaral’s work is not to be seen as an obstacle or even a contradiction that would thwart connections between her works (especially those mentioned) and Bopp’s “Cobra Norato,” written in the Northeastern city of Belém do Pará in 1921, where Bopp was studying law. Léger an artist of the industrial, the city, of the physicality of painting is not the antithesis of “Cobra Norato.” For instance, the line “The sky today is pretty / as if glazed” became the opening line of Canto 2 in the 17th edition published in 1994, which the author entirely rewrote and changed: “Night is pretty/ looks glazed.” There’s a touch of urbanization (glazing) transposed to the night in the forest. Many more relationships, less thematic or apparent, could be found, such as “the ventriloquist forest plays city.” Léger and Tarsila constructed their works by “destroying” (so to speak) the specificity of objects through contrasts in color, design, and a strident tone. One cannot fail to see coincidences in the compositional structure of the paintings with Bopp’s poems in lines such as “The muddy ground robs my steps of their strength,” which erases the specificity of the ground and the steps and accentuates the physicality of words; or “toothless roots grind mud,” not to mention more obvious passages such as “Here is the school of trees / they are studying geometry” or “Windy-wind blew tickling the branches / Dissolved undeciphered writings.” Crumble/dissolve undeciphered “writings”—an subterranean Brazil, in embryonic forms and contents. Tarsila’s painting The City can be read against this background. The three animal/characters, as if they were humans, walk in red boots in between the facades of six buildings and the crowded street. There’s an organic/geometric contrast in the precariousness of their steps, made so not because of the strength is sucked up by the mud, but rather because of the strange impressions provoked by the city. The ventriloquist city playing forest. The city projected by the unconscious, dream-like—as if it were, despite its verticality, a subterranean gutter. Or, to quote Bopp, “Pieces of fallen soil / will settle down further on / in a geography under construction / […] / They melt in the flux / flexible cities in transit.” And at the end of the first poem, in order to fix the relationship, the arrival of the hero Norato to Belém, with the daughter of Queen Luzia, closes the circle of similarity. Thus, too, it’s impossible not to imagine “Spots of light make holes in the tall trees” like the “caption” of The Moon, with its five abrupt crevices of mountains and the (waning or waxing?) moon, sun-colored–the limit between consciousness (spots of light) and its loss “with pregnant trees sitting in darkness.” In the case of the painting, there’s only one tree, a cactus-man (erasure of objects, once again). Another caption: “The colors fade Horizons sink / into a slow shipwreck.” “Obvious shipwreck of three upper planes (which “sink” into the sky), of three mountains, one of which is completely darkened and a slow shipwreck, slow, as if barely suggested on the canvas, on the plane of the hill, dark green, where in front of a purple circle, the cactus-man watches the sunset and the sun, depicted as a half-ellipse—positioned in opposition with the circles that represent the planes of the mountains and hill—disruption of horizons. Nordic anthropophagy. There is, on the other hand, a strong expressionistic imprint in Bopp’s poem. But “expressionism” must be understood as an extension of a Romanticism that, to counter the Enlightenment, inverted instead the axiom of “order above the individual,” rescuing the energy of nature and the energy of color. This renewed Romanticism at end of the nineteenth century became, according to Sara Whitfield (“Conceitos de Arte Moderna”, Jorge Zahar Editor, 1991), “the immediate basis for modern expressionism,” which constituted itself, according to this critic, as an “attempt to counter the influence of Mediterranean culture on Northern peoples.” At the root, then, of “expressionism,” we find a cannibalist operation in search of an underlying, lost identity. Just like Munch, Bopp could have been, through hallucinatory images, giving public shape to his private “anxieties”: “Night ran aground with a load of stars” or “The toothless puddles ruminates mud.” There are some points in common between “expressionism” and “fauvism,” affinities that can be translated as a preference for exaggerated lined in design and perspective and in the freedom of expression. An example of exaggeration in design and perspective is Tarsila’s Abaporu. An example in Bopp’s “Cobra Norato”: “The immense forest has insomnia” or “Far away / behind a crushed line in the forest / horizons extend.” Or, otherwise, “By the canarana leaves / armored saurians lie asleep.” (Canarana meant grass in cannibalist jargon.) The connections between “fauvism” and “expressionism” are noted by Norbert Lynton (Conceitos de arte moderna, JZE): “The ‘fauve’ movement in Paris, associated with Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck has a many affinities with ‘expressionism’ and had a greater influence on German artists that they would admit to.” That circle closes with the presence of Léger –an artist who was also linked to Apollinaire’s “orphism” whose “orphic” essay “Realité et peinture pure” was published in the review Der Sturm, the mouthpiece of the expressionist movement. Such affinities point, without a doubt, to what can be seen as a “constructivist-cannibalist-expressionism,” that characterizes the work of Tarsila and Bopp. Was it Dresden? 1905? No, it was in Wilmersdof in the twenties, as Sérgio Buarque de Holanda reminds us in his wonderful essay “Bopp and the Dragon,” speaking of the figure he termed both “metropolitan and cosmopolitan” (O Espírito e a Letra, Companhia das Letras, 1st ed., 1996): “he in Wilmersdorf, I in Charlottenburg. Bopp never stopped that world that he articulated in ‘Norato.’ All of a sudden, in the midst of the multicolored lights of Kurfürstendamm, would suffer the invasion of a forest of nickel-coated leaves. Stars could literally fall like fruit bunches next to the entrance to the ‘Piscator’ theater; and silence would make a strident noise in the midst of the the ‘Blaue Affe’ night club.” It’s worth remembering that (in trying to explain the multiplicity and unity of the work—at once Brazilian and universal) the plot of the poem can be summarized as a tale of rescue (another clearly cannibalistic operation) and the tale of a quest (a new cultural synthesis). The hero, Cobra Norato, faces several trials during his long journey across the forest in order to rescue the heroine, “the daughter of Queen Luzia,” who is coveted by Cobra Grande or, in Bopp’s terms: “In one of the stories I was told, during my travels in the Lower Amazon River, there would appear, during the full moon, the Cobra Grande, who would come to claim a female virgin as tribute. The evil spirit of the region, like the Minotaur of the Greeks…” The Minotaur/Cobra Grande appears in O Touro, which has an elongated body suggesting a bull-man. His arched horns and the labyrinthine bare tree-trunks in the background. The passion of Queen Pasyphae for the white bull that Poseidon had sent out from the sea. The monster that was enclosed in the labyrinth designed by Daedalus. The bull as symbol of the idea of a new syncretism in the Brazilian rainforest. Pítia, the cobra, states that when man dies, his soul leaves the body in the form of a cobra in order to become a star: “Now I / don that flexible silk skin / and I set out to travel the world.” The embryonic soul or, in Tarsila’s grammar, the cobra-soul that transmutes itself into the “manacá flower-penis” oxymoron. The stiff “manacá flower-penis” in front of the buttocks. Strident blue and pink. The silky surface of the leaves. The sinuous rhythm of mouth-leaves. And the green or the symbolic mental life of these forms and planes, going beyond themselves. A penis-cobra that will reappear in Urutu, emerging from a gigantic egg, or in Bopp’s words: “Amid thickets of brushes / a cougar treads by with silk shoes.” Urutu‘s blurring of the specificity of objects (an egg wrapped around a cobra wrapped around a cactus) also refers us to “Alligators on vacation / chew on stars that melt in the water.” Norato goes through an “exhaustive cycle of tests” and rescues the heroine. And, in the same way, as a challenge to Brazilian culture, is exiled in the lands of “No-end,” as if the meaning of the rescue were to “continue its journey.” Or then, for Sérgio Buarque de Holanda: “The symbol of Ofis, the Cobra […] may be explained by the relationship between those cults and the ancient Greek and Oriental mysteries where the cobra performs such a role. Okeanos embraces the world like an immense cobra. The cobra biting its own tail is symbolic of the return of beings, of unity fragmenting into multiplicity and of multiplicity recovering its unity.” The cobra biting its tail or, in Bopp’s words, “The wind ran and ran / biting its tail.” The unity recovered and the idea of the eternal return may serve as a key to interpret both the poems by Bopp and the paintings by Amaral, because both, thanks to the multiplicity of influences and references, are able to articulate a Brazilian unity regarding a discovery of what lies beneath, embracing the world (anthropophagy) through a clear and effective strategy, with qualitative cultural content (paradigms), but leaving the issue of their confrontation permanently open, as an eternal return or eternal challenge, even for our present time when differences are dissolved in a totalitarian way and the extinction of art as reflection appears to be imminent.
Translation: Odile Cisneros
Abaporu, Tarsila do Amaral, 1928
Original cover of Serpent Norato, 1931
Oswald de Andrade by Tarsila do Amaral, 1924
The Fable of Serpent Norato, anonymous
Tarsila do Amaral by herself, 1924