Beatriz Milhazes is Brazil’s most successful contemporary painter – although she doesn’t really paint. Instead she transfers painted shapes from plastic sheets to the canvas surface, glueing the paint down and peeling the backing away. Gradually she builds up layers of stripes, circles, slightly flaking florals – Matisse cut-outs meet the exuberance of samba. It is a painstaking process, and her Rio studio shows how much planning it takes. Acrylics are graded by size, transparent sheets marked up and pinned to canvases, flicks of colour on walls test out edgy combinations.
When Milhazes moved to the Jardim Botânico area in the 1980s, the 19th-century factory workers’ houses were almost derelict. A concrete wall covered in graffiti barely contained the neglected botanical garden. Like it, Milhazes’s superficially pretty work has an underlying whiff of decay. This combination of decoration and decadence, of European modernism mixed with Brazilian iconography, of painting that is apparently traditional but technically innovative, has brought her international attention. In 2012, “Meu Limão”, which she completed in 2000, sold for $2.1m at Sotheby’s in New York, making her the highest-priced living Brazilian artist at auction.
Top auction prices are rarely held by women: Brazil is the only country where being a female artist seems to be an advantage. Since 1995 seven artists account for the 30 top auction prices, five of them women. The trend has deep roots, spanning three important periods of Brazil’s art history, starting with the birth of its iconoclastic homegrown modernism. Henry Allsopp, head of Latin American art at Phillips, an auction house, calls it “unique in the world”.
It stems from the early 20th century, when a bunch of radical intellectuals known as the Grupo dos Cinco challenged Brazil’s conservative cultural establishment. Tarsila do Amaral, a member of that group, painted “Abaporu”, a surreal, primitive figure sitting in a brilliantly coloured, naive landscape (see below). Now recognised as a key image of early Brazilian modernism, it drew on folk art and indigenous imagery, rather than the male, academic tradition of the Portuguese colonial era. It sold at Christie’s New York for $1.43m in 1995, making Tarsila, as she is known, the then highest-priced Brazilian artist at auction.
When the São Paulo biennale was launched in 1951, Brazil embraced international modern art. But in the spirit of the Grupo dos Cinco, Lygia Clark refused to ape European and American art. Starting with two-dimensional painting, she moved into sculptures that other people can play with, so they become collaborators in the making of the artwork. Crucially, the artist is no longer king. In 2013 Clark’s “Contra Relevo (Objeto n.7, 1959)” sold at Phillips in New York for $2.23m, the highest price ever paid for a Brazilian work of art at auction.
Milhazes is part of a third generation of female artists, those who emerged as the military dictatorship collapsed in the 1980s. Her work is only tangentially related to that of Tarsila or Clark, but they were role models for her: “Tarsila was my great reference when I started to develop my language.” Milhazes points to the way she makes her paintings. They are clearly “hand-made” but at the same time, lacking expressive brushwork, distanced from the masterstroke, the hand of the genius. “Women can take a different approach to the studio practice, and maybe be a bit freer, because, in a way, no one is that interested in how we do ‘this’ or ‘that’,” she says, half-jokingly. “Painting is at the heart of the whole history of art, and painting [in the classic sense] is a male thing, so it’s a very big deal.”
Aracy Amaral, an influential Brazilian critic and curator, now in her 80s and a distant relative of Tarsila, has suggested that in Latin America art was associated with craft. Important men never worked with their hands, even as a hobby, unlike their Protestant North American counterparts. Art was low-status. “This may be the reason why Brazilian women, unlike their European or American counterparts, do not need to struggle to penetrate the art-world establishment, it is ‘their’ world,” Amaral wrote in 1993.
When the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was established in New York in 1929, it presented a version of art history – white, male and Western – that became the template for modern-art museums everywhere. Now that is being rewritten. Fondation Beyeler, the Swiss temple to European Modernism, showed Beatriz Milhazes in 2011. MOMA devoted a major exhibition to Lygia Clark in 2014, and, with the Art Institute of Chicago, will show Tarsila in 2017-18. Tate Modern is one of many museums that are busily adding Latin American work to their collections. Being a female, non-Western artist is where it’s at. Brazil showed the way.
Additional reporting by Georgia Grimond