In my catalogue essay for Henry Moore Institute’s exhibition EspaÁo Aberto/ EspaÁo Fechado: Sites for Sculpture in Modern Brazil (2006), I focused on the sculpture prizes at the first Bienal de S?o Paulo of 1951. This emphasis was in order to question the assumption that artists belonging to the concrete art movements - the Ruptura group in S?o Paulo and Grupo Frente in Rio de Janeiro - had been endorsed by the local art establishment. The advent of awards for sculpture being allocated to both Max Bill (Fig 1) and Victor Brecheret (Fig 2) suggests instead that there was an interest in international movements in art, yet it also emphasises the strong presence at a local level of an artistic establishment based around the achievements of Brazilian Modernismo of the 1920s and 30s. Moreover, while the concrete art movement of the 1950s would generally react against the legacy of Modernismo, contrary to the general assumption, architecture was nevertheless far more complicit with that tradition, having as a common source the purist aesthetic of Ozenfant and Jeanneret (Le Corbusier). Max Bill’s denunciations of Niemeyer’s architecture in the early 1950s reveal the distinctions that preoccupied the concurrent projects of concrete art and modern architecture in Brazil. While concrete art saw its role as actively influencing the design of a new society, the purist aesthetic adopted by Modernismo and modern Brazilian architects was essentially based upon symbolic representation. In effect, the architecture as well as the art of Modernismo represented the ideal of a modern nation rather than being a reflection of its modernisation. This transpired in architecture through the references to the vernacular and the highly expressive use of elements that in their monumentality could be assumed to be sculptural in character.
The concretist artists and architects such as Niemeyer although working within the context of national developmentalism, the hegemonic ideology of the period, were quite distinct in terms of their relation to the issue of national identity. As Guilherme Wisnick, in a recent essay, noted, while Sigfried Gideon suggested that this architecture ‘went beyond mere utility and demonstrated characteristics of a new monumentality’, for Nicholas Pevsner Niemeyer was essentially anti-rational. Reyner Banham, on the other hand, saw the new architecture as part of the modern movement; whether ‘functional or not’ it represented the first example of a ‘national style within the modern movement’.
The national character within architecture further emphasises its distance from the concretist artists. As Wisnick argues, despite the fact that Banham was in effect reiterating Philip Goodwin’s affirmation, in MoMa’s exhibition catalogue for Brazil Builds, 1943, the national character of Brazilian architecture had already been elaborated during the 1930s by Lucio Costa himself. It was indeed this discourse that re-emerged in defence of Niemeyer following the accusations by Max Bill in 1953. Costa had raised the association with Oswald de Andrade’s Anthropophagite Manifesto of 1928, as a means of proposing an architecture that both appropriated the European aesthetic and created a ‘‘pre-civilised’ past tradition to counteract the affectations of bourgeois academicism’. In this sense, Brasilia therefore possesses more affinity with Brecheret than with Max Bill.