From tha avant-garde to the favela
An interesting process of intellectual repositioning took place in Brazil between the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The abandonment of many convictions that had been so fervently defended during the 1950s can be attributed, on the one hand, to a local political shift, the backlash to which would ultimately lead to the military coup in 1964. On the other hand, within the field of art, a radical re-evaluation of artistic practice, particularly within the constructivist-oriented groups, saw a questioning of the autonomous nature of the work of art brought by various strategies that served to expand our understanding of art's raison d'étre. I would also suggest that the shift, or 'radical leap' as Guy Brett put it, goes beyond those artists that have become paradigmatic figures for contemporary Brazilian art, namely, H?é??lio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. It includes figures such as Lygia Pape, Waldemar Cordeiro and, most controversially, Ferreira Gullar.
Gullar had been the spokesman for the neoconcrete movement, publishing the group's manifesto in 1959, when he announced the dissidence from the concrete group in Sáo Paulo, as well as publishing other essays in the pages of the Jornal do Brasil, such as the 'Theory of the Non-Object'. However, by 1961 Gullar had disconnected himself from the neoconcrete movement, integrating the Popular Centres for Culture in 1962 and being appointed their president the following year. These centres were associated with the student union movement and their principle aim was to disseminate knowledge of leftwing political ideology to the marginal sectors of society. This occurred predominantly through theatre, music and poetry. Following his abandonment of the neoconcrete group, Gullar re-positioned himself, seeing avant-garde practice as essentially elitist in nature and becoming one of its most vocal critics. However, by negating the post-neoconcrete achievements of artists such as H?é??lio Oiticica, which he claimed had gone beyond the field of fine art practice and entered into the domain of culture, Gullar inadvertently confirmed the anti-art position proclaimed by Oiticicia himself. Despite maintaining a deep respect for Gullar, Oiticica's project with regard to the wider audience of art was nevertheless distinct from the CPC. During the early 1960s, Oiticica proposed that transcendental experience could be achieved through colour, in other words not through an overtly intellectual posture but by propositions that ignored social structures in society.
Although pertaining to local prerogatives, this transformation of the constructivist legacy was not solely specific to the Brazilian context as I will argue in second part of this paper. Already at their inception, as Dawn Ades and recent exhibitions have brought to light, there was a proximity of apparently antagonistic movements such as Constructivism and Dada: figures such as van Doesburg and Sophie Tauber Arp come to mind in this sense. It could be argued that it was this thin line between rationality and chaos, between aesthetic and expressive autonomy and positions of anti-establishment rebellion that were brought to the surface at that particularly unstable socio-political moment which was the early 1960s in Brazil.