Issue 9: After Brazil

Veronica Stigger

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“Don’t Forget I’m from the Tropics": Myth and Nation in Maria Martins

Veronica Stigger writes from a historic perspective about the work of Brazilian artist Maria Martins to contextualize the identity behind her artistic production.

Maria Martins. Source: Blog Cachimbo de bolso.

Maria Martins is a singular case in Brazilian art. She not only trained outside Brazil, which is common enough, but also made a career abroad, where she studied sculpture. It was in the United States and Europe that she first showed her work, long before it was presented in Brazil. Between 1928 and 1950, Maria (first-name-only, the way she signed her artworks, and as she was known abroad) lived with diplomat Carlos Martins in Quito, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Brussels, Washington, New York and Paris. In 1934, her husband became ambassador in Tokyo and Maria took on the duties of an ambassador’s wife. Martins went on to be Brazil’s ambassador in Brussels (1935-1939), Washington (1939-1948) and Paris (1948-1949).
Her first solo show, in Washington, was mounted in 1941, when she was 47. At her second individual exhibition, in New York’s Valentine Gallery, Martins came into contact with artists such as André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst, who, having fled World War II, were then living in the United States. Following these exhibitions, she was the subject of another five solo shows in New York, as well as another in Paris, before her definitive return to Brazil in 1950. Her work was quite well received abroad (at least on the part of avant-garde artists, as we’ll observe later). Museums such as the Met (New York) acquired certain of her artworks and Martins became a figure on the international circuit.
Nevertheless, when Martins returned to Brazil, her sculpture was not so well received as in other parts of the world. Throughout her life, she staged a mere three solo shows in her native country: two in 1950, one at the Asociación Brasileña de Prensa (ABI) in Rio de Janeiro and another at the Museo de Arte Moderno de São Paulo; plus a final 1956 exhibition mounted at the Rio Museo de Arte Moderno. Regarding this last, Mário Pedrosa published the following in the Jornal do Brasil in April 1957:
The artist that resides in Maria has a talent for repelling those who find themselves in contact with her artworks. One must overcome certain precepts to approach her. And I’m not speaking of banal, superficial (if sympathetic) precepts that emerged in certain artistic circles with her arrival. In effect, Maria came late in her career to art. And what a career! An ambassador’s wife. She entered the artistic milieu (the milieu of real bohemians or austere artisans and professionals) as surprisingly as a parachutist. Authentic figures’ reaction to this odd personality, drawn from a world of preening “finón” snobbery and the haute bourgeoisie, was natural.
Following this lead, Pedrosa assessed the her work thus:
As an artist (…) she suffers from a capital defect: an excess of personality. That defect specifically gives rise to the regrettable gesture in her sculptures: the absence of monumentality. She lacks an elevated sense of form. That lack of monumentality stands out in her large-scale works, statues, torsos. She instinctively seeks to compensate with an overflow of exceedingly personal bad taste, where details are piled atop details to represent themes taken from modern literature’s arsenal on the unconscious. What predominates in her figures is a profusion of ambiguous images created through a process of idea-association on the poetical-literary, and above all surrealist, inspirational plane.[1]

In a later fragment, Pedrosa states:
Volume in her sculpture (…) has no consistency, articulation or plane-hierarchy. They all tend to be the same, treated as if they were a sole strained or porous surface, where the artist concentrates her issues and fancies, her fixations, caprices and ideas. (…) There is a lack of order in this woman’s imagination.[2]
It can be no surprise that Mário Pedrosa may have come out so violently against work by Maria Martins. At the end of the 1940s, Pedrosa stood at the center of a group of artists who had begun to take up abstraction, i.e., what Pedrosa called “an elevated sense of form.”[3] The beginning of the 1950s, when Martins returned to Brazil, was a moment of emergence and immediate consolidation of that country’s concretist movements in their widest array of expressions: the visual arts, music, literature. None other than Pedrosa wrote the introductory essay for Grupo Frente’s second Rio de Janeiro show, in 1955. In it, he called out the “new values” the show presented, which, he said, would be “a landmark in the process of winning over erudite opinion for contemporary art, our time’s truly living art.” From an institutional perspective, the main innovation, shared by different groups from these concretist movements (“the truly living art” of that time) resided in an aspiration to an immediacy never before achieved, in consonance with what was most advanced in the world’s great art centers. For that reason, Pedrosa reiterated as much in the close of his essay on Grupo Frente:
The present collective manifestation of this handful of fervent artists can hold its own in comparison to what is most vivid, in the genre, and is currently being shown in the contemporary world’s legitimate arts capitals.[4]
In their 1952 manifesto, entitled “Ruptura,” artists had already shown a desire to equate Brazilian art with what was being done around the world:
It is the new [art]
[that] confers upon itself a defined place within the framework of contemporary spiritual work, in consideration of a deducible realm of conceptual knowledge that places it above opinion and demands previous knowledge for its evaluation.[5]
In the introduction to the first edition of 1967’s Teoría de la poesía concreta, Décio Pignatari as well as Augusto and Haroldo de Campos leave no doubt with regard to that intention. They state the concrete poetry movement:
Considered the national in its critical dimension rather than in exotic terms. On the international plane, it exported ideas and forms. It is the first Brazilian literary movement born ahead of world artistic experience, with no decade or various-decades lag.[6]
Haroldo de Campos was even more emphatic. Years earlier, in a 1960 introduction to a concrete poetry anthology from the Fortaleza Group, he stated:
For the first time (and this is stated as an objective verification with no value judgment implied), Brazilian poetry is entirely contemporary, participating in the formulation of an avant-garde poetic movement in national and international terms and not simply perceiving the consequences of one or various decades lagging behind, as was even the case with the 1922 Modern Art Week Movement.[7]
In formal terms, in its “exportation phase,”[8] Brazilian art translated into art (at least as regards its most superficial aspects) stripped of traits that markedly identified it as national, in juxtaposition with the nationalist modernism Modern Art Week had proclaimed (to a lesser or greater degree, depending on the artist). Thus according to the Ruptura Group, “every variety and hybridization of naturalism” had grown antiquated, as had “naturalism’s simple negation, i.e., the ‘erroneous’ naturalism of children, madmen, ‘primitive’ expressionists, surrealists, etc.”[9] Or as Haroldo de Campos summed it up in 1955, “the moment therefore demands a hygienic clean-up of myths.”[10]


To a certain degree, Maria Martins found herself in the counter-current of the concretists’ efforts to update and internationalize Brazilian art. To begin with, she had lived outside Brazil and was part of an international circuit. As such her work responded to problems art, largely abstraction, posited on a global level. Despite this, from the time of her first exhibition, Martins evinced an interest in recuperating aspects of Brazilian mythology and culture, aspects to which she lent form in sculptures that sought to be figurative and non-abstract; or more precisely, aspects that allowed her to insist on figurative representation in counterpoint to abstraction’s all-but-complete predominance at the time. In broad terms we can say that while the concretists looked outward from Brazil, Maria Martins looked inwardly from without (i.e., from Europe and the United States).
She also made an issue signaling her place of origin, which was her goal. N’oublies pas que je viens des Tropiques is the title of a 1942 sculpture (completed the year after her first solo show) that also served as a reminder to those who observed her work (keep in mind her first admirers at the time were not Brazilian). This same need for affirmation, that the artist sought to represent as “tropical” or “Brazilian-ness” is also present in the poem entitled Explication, written in French (an irony that surely cannot escape readers) and engraved onto four copper plates for a 1946 Valentine Gallery (New York) exhibition catalogue. In it she establishes a determinant relationship between her place of origin, what she calls “the tropics,” and the forms her sculptures take:
I know that my goddesses and I know that my monsters
Will always seem sensual and barbarous to you
I know you’d like seeing the immutable measure
Of eternal links to rein between my hands.
You forget
I’m from the tropics (…).
In the third stanza’s first verse she finishes off by saying:
I am the entire half-day of the tropical night.[11]

In both the poem and the title of the 1942 sculpture, we more clearly perceive Martins’s search for identification with her homeland, Brazil. In a model that approximates that traditionally defined by the romantic dialectic of the distanced gaze in search of nationality,[12] Maria, from afar, managed to underline aspects in her work that she understood as specifically Brazilian.[13] We can deliberately recall Homi K. Bhabha’s observation: “the question of identification is never an affirmation of predetermined identity, in some self-complacent prophecy; it is always the production of an image of identity and the transformation of the subject when he takes on that image.”[14] Bhabha goes on to explain: “When it comes to identification, identity is never a priori, nor a finished product; it is merely and always the problematic process of access to an image of totality.” He specifies that the representation of that image “is always spatially cleft (making present something that is absent) and a temporal afterthought: the representation of a time that is always somewhere else, a repetition.” [15]
To forge such an “image of totality,” Maria Martins recurs to themes from Brazilian popular culture, largely myth and more specifically, Amazonian myth. Arguably, there is no aspect of a culture that better constitutes a notion of totality and identity, and that better helps found a nation, than myths. As Nietzsche, whom Martins admired and about whom she wrote a book,[16] cogently points out:
Only a horizon corralled by myths encloses in unity an entire cultural movement. […] and not even the State knows of any unwritten law more powerful than the mythical foundation, that guarantees it a connection to religion [and] its growth based on mythical representations.[17]
Martins’s third solo show, in 1943, was entirely given over to “Amazonia,” a place, says Murilo Mendes, she never visited.[18] She prepared the catalogue for that show in English (an irony once again) and in it she briefly recounted the myths behind some of the figures displayed. In them she highlights the mysterious, untamed, indomitable and irresistible character of the rainforest. Regarding Aiokâ, she writes:
She came to Brazil from a far-off land and the land rendered her so ecstatic she made Amazonia her dominion
And it is for the same goddess that she asks:
Aiokâ, issue of the marriage between Macumba and the Indian, savage and insatiable goddess, generous and good, I beseech you: continue to keep my country for me.
It is precisely through Martins’s relationship to this image of nation, one she herself constructed and based on which she constituted her work, that certain foreign artist-critics called it out. André Breton wrote:
Maria—and behind her, or rather in her—marvelous Brazil (…)
And also said:
It was nothing less than the Amazon that she sang in artworks I had the good fortune to admire in New York in 1943. (…) in her bronzes Iaci, Boiuna [and] Iemanjá, Maria knew as no one else how to capture the primitive source from which she emanates, wings and flowers, with no debt to sculpture from the past or the present; more-than-certain of the original rhythm that this prodigious sculpture increasingly needs from what the Amazon gave her: the immediate luxury of life.[19]

Maria Martins, The Impossible III, 1946. Source: Instagram @leonieboothclibborn

Or as Amedée Ozenfant remarked:
Because Maria is Brazilian. It’s a clear stroke of luck to have been born in Brazil when destiny chose her to sculpt the soul of the tropics…there nature is excessive and every force—from earth and its vast waters, from the vegetable and animal life, the storms’ electricity and telluric fluids, the clouds and the wind…there, forces blow unfettered. More than anywhere else, in the tropics life and death demonstrate they can only flourish in tandem.[20]
In turn, Benjamin Péret commented that:
No one (…) could avoid being part of the milieu from which she hails. Whether crushed as by a deity or, as sorcerer who attacks, to subdue it, one is a full participant. It is thus that Maria embodies a Brazil that would not entirely be for us what it is without her intervention since it is she who reveals it to us. She could come from no other part of the globe because no other place, apparently, to the same degree suggests this inexhaustible thing she sought to immobilize.[21]
While foreign critics (as moved by Martins’s discourse as they were by the exotic vision they held of Brazil) may have recognized and highlighted her identification with the nation, in the end product, by which I mean her sculpture, we see a certain, let’s call it a failed gesture with regard to her initial intent. At the same time, given her stated objective to stress what she presented as traits of what she understood to be a Brazilian-ness in her work, she seems to approach Brazilian modernism. Yet the singular form she lends her bronzes marks a decided distancing.
If we compare the sculptural forms of Maria Martins to forms in the watercolors of Vicente del Rego Monteiro, who also drew on Amazon mythology, we can see this more clearly. In Rego Monteiro (consider for instance O boto), forms, as defined by lines, are clear and precise, making it easy to identify the represented figure. In Maria Martins, forms are not clear but rather, deformed, inchoate, more organic than lineal. Her Boto from the Amazónica series can be compared to Rego Monteiro’s watercolor of the same name. Limits are not well defined, making the figure’s recognition difficult. In some cases such “recognition” comes only with the title.
To sketch out a conclusion, my hypothesis is that clarity of form skews toward emblem and stereotype, thus collaborating in favor of identification. Deformation does not. In Rego Monteiro, there seems to be a convergence between intentionality and representation, i.e., intention in a certain sense is realized in the end-product: the painting. In Maria Martins, what Mário Pedrosa calls “excessive personality” causes her original intention to collapse. More specifically, when it comes to the image of Brazil, Martins attempts to forge (and as Péret has observed) she herself intervenes in the image of Brazil she seeks to present: “Maria embodies a Brazil that would not entirely be for us what it is without her intervention.” Her oeuvre may show us that every attempt to lend form to the formless ultimately leads to a replication of the formless that in turn becomes that formless form that is the art object. Péret quite cogently describes Maria Martins’s Brazil (her myth of the nation) as the “inexhaustible thing she sought to immobilize.” Immobilization does not cancel out the unending, but instead turns it into a critical image. Or more specifically, into an image that is neither exclusively the image of a nation, nor that of a personality.

Maria Martins, Très avide, 1949. Source: Instagram @rodolfowviana


  1. Raúl Antelo recalls that in 1926, Mário Pedrosa—alongside Antonio Bento and Livio Xavier—ended up writing an (unpublished) manifesto that introduced Breton’s ideas to the Brazilian modernist debate (Maria con Marcel Duchamp en los trópicos, Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2006: 156). Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  2. Mário Pedrosa, “Maria, a escultora,” criticism compiled by Aracy A. Amaral, De los murales de Portinari a los espacios de Brasilia, São Paulo: Perspectiva: 1981, pp. 87-89. Martins herself, in the catalogue for this 1956 exhibition and possibly anticipating negative criticism, wrote: “That artists use this or that form of expression to transmit their messages, which are theirs and expressed in their own language, matters not, provided they don’t use some “idiom,” often what lies behind a great scarcity of artists of real value. To better explain myself, I’d say that for me, [this is] when in a painting or sculpture, the first thing that jumps out is the school or the movement to which the creator claims to belong, without that sculpture or painting stirring any notable interest in terms of admiration or even repulsion. Such an artwork goes no further than “idiom” and dies, even if it may know momentary acclaim.” From Maria Martins (São Paulo: Fundación Luisa y Oscar Americano, 1997): 37. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citations.

  3. Mário Pedrosa, in the catalogue from the second Grupo Frente exhibition, compiled by Fernando Cocchiarale and Anna Bella Geiger: Abstraccionismo geométrico e informal: la vanguardia brasileña en los años cincuenta (Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, 2004): 233. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  4. Idem, 234. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  5. Charoux, Cordeiro, De Barros, Fejer, Haar, Sacilotto, and Wladyslaw, in “Ruptura,” reproduced by Fernando Cocchiarale and Anna Bella Geiger, Abstraccionismo geométrico e informal, op. cit., 219. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  6. Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari, Teoria da poesia concreta: textos críticos e manifestos 1950-1960 (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987): 7. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  7. Haroldo de Campos, Contexto de uma vanguarda, complied by Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari, Teoria da poesia concreta op. cit., 153. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  8. Idem, p. 154.

  9. Charoux, Cordeiro, de Barros, Fejer, Haar, Sacilotto and Wladyslaw, “Ruptura,” op. cit., p. 219. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  10. Haroldo de Campos, Poesia e paraíso perdido, complied by Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari, Teoria da poesia concreta op. cit., p. 33. Originally published in the Diário de São Paulo on 5 June 1955. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  11. Portuguese-language translation reproduced in Maria Martins, op. cit., p. 18. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation. The copper plates are illustrated on pp. 20-23.

  12. An approximation she attempts to develop in more detail elsewhere.

  13. In an investigation into the first attempts to found a Brazilian literary historiography, in the nineteenth century, Flora Süssekind observes that “in an almost programmatic way, a direct line from Nature was affirmed, an incontestable dictum based on the observation of local peculiarities, designed to produce works that were “Brazilian” and “original” while at the same time it was important “not to see” the landscape. Because their reason and design were predetermined.” (O Brasil não é longe daqui: o narrador, a viagem (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1990): 33). Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  14. Homi K. Bhabha, “El lugar de la cultura” in Interrogando la identidad: Frantz Fanon y la prerrogativa postcolonial,  trans. Myriam Ávila, Eliana Lourenço de Lima Reyes and Gláucia Renata Gonçalves (Belo Horizonte: UFMG, 2005): 76. This is the third of three conditions for understanding the process of identification. The first stipulates identification in opposition to the Other: “to exist is to be called into existence in relation to an Otherness, a gaze or a locus.” The second affirms “the proper locus of identification, trapped in the tension between demand and desire, is a space of division” (pages 75 and 76 respectively). Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citations.

  15. Idem, p. 85. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  16. Specifically, Deuses malditos 1. Nietzsche (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1965).

  17. Friedrich Nietzsche, El nacimiento de la tragedia o Helenismo y pesimismo, trans. J. Guinsburg (São Pablo: Compañía de las Letras, 1996): 135. For Cassirer, what occurs in “primitive belief” is “a deep and burning desire on the part of individuals in the sense of identifying with community life and with natural life,” a desire that is satisfied not by myths but by the rites with which myths find themselves related. Ernst Cassirer, O mito do estado, trans. Álvaro Cabral (São Paulo: Códex, 2003): 58). Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citations.

  18. See Mendes’s text for the exhibition catalogue from Martins’s 1956 Museo de Arte Moderno de Rio de Janeiro show, featured in Maria Martins op. cit., 33-35. The mention that Martins never visited the Amazon region appears on p. 33.

  19. André Breton, Maria, featured in Maria Martins, op. cit., 13-14; and in André Breton, Le surréalisme et la peinture, Paris: Gallimard, pp. 407-412. The text originally served as an introduction to Martins’s work at a 1947 Julien Lery Gallery show (New York). Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  20. Ozenfant’s text for the exhibition catalogue from Martins’s 1950 Museo de Arte Moderno de São Paulo show, featured in Maria Martins, op. cit., p. 27. Translator’s rendition of Stigger’s Spanish-language citation.

  21. Benjamin Péret’s essay for Maria Martins’s 1956 Museo de Arte Moderno do Río de Janeiro show, featured in Maria Martins, op. cit., 31.

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