Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega

The Brazilian moment: A picture gallery in transformation

Pinacoteca em Transformacão (Picture Gallery in Transformation), the 2015 rehang of the main collection of the Museum of Art São Paulo (MASP) marked a return to that particular mode of display which for generations of gallery-goers had been synonymous with the installation of its impressive pre-modern and modern collections. It was a popular intervention, and I have the impression many Paulistas felt it a return to those days when São Paulo was thought to be a competitor with that other great new world city, New York. Adriano Pedrosa, the recently appointed director of MASP, had decided to reinstate the display of the gallery’s permanent collection.

It was a return to how the works had been presented at the building’s inauguration nearly forty years earlier. This installation at Brazil’s (and possibly even, South America’s) premier art museum, was also news in the international artworld, being reported in many publications. To appreciate the importance of Pedrosa’s restructuring, this return to MASP’s past it is necessary to reflect on the museum’s history, as an art gallery and collecting institution and as architecture.

The museum holds over ten thousand works, making it—according to its website – one of the most important collections in the Southern Hemisphere. Initially, the collection was built around European masterworks, with the bulk being from the fifteenth–eighteenth centuries, and a smaller number of modern masterworks by Van Gogh and Picasso. The collection expanded to include European and (Southern and North) American modernism, historical Brazilian art and smaller, illustrative collections of pre-Columbian antiquities and objects from civilisations elsewhere in the world.

The museum was founded in 1947 by Assis Chateaubriand, a prominent philantropist and media mogul. The inaugural director, Pietro Maria Bardi, began assembling the MASP collection, before the establishment of the building, with the ambition to make it broadly representative of Western art history, the wider world and (of course) as an engagement with Brazilian art. He was also to oversee the construction of the museum on Avenida Paulista to be designed by his wife, the now legendary Lina Bo Bardi.

View of the São Paulo Museum of Art from Paulista Avenue. Photo: Diego Grandi/Alamy
View of the São Paulo Museum of Art from Paulista Avenue. Photo: Diego Grandi/Alamy

Where Pietro M. Bardi’s collecting can be said to have been retrospective as well as of the moment, Lina Bo Bardi’s building was to be of that present and forward-looking, boldly modern, drawing on the usual materials of modernist architecture – concrete columns and piers, and glass curtain walls – and that Brazilian love of space characterised as “infinite span” (infinito vão).

Introducing the catalogue of a survey exhibition of Brazilian architecture, Nuno Sampaio and José Manuel Dias Fonseca write: “In architecture, a span is something to be conquered, a challenge to be overcome. Reducing the number of supports, expanding floor slabs horizontally, tearing into the open air and shedding an immense “light” on the ground floor.

But span, or vão in Portuguese, also means a project that ends in failure, something that was done in vain ... An ability to transform what could be done in vain (em vão) is the effective cultural conquest of the free span (vão livre). For Brazilian architects, the word vão is almost always a synonym of freedom.”[1] The infinite in this architecture dramatises both space and time.

At MASP this is well conveyed by the vast space, a kind of missing ground floor, that functions as a piazza under the building and opens out on to Avenida Paulista. Just as important as the exterior architecture to the visitor’s impression of the modernity of this museum was the manner in which the artworks were first displayed. Previous exhibitions of the collection in another venue some years before had required the construction of false walls in the centre of a large, undivided space.

One of the problems confronted by Lina Bo Bardi at MASP was that the glass curtain walls in several galleries meant that the wall space available for two-dimensional works was considerably limited. Previously an editor of the renowned publications Habitat and Domus, and a designer of furniture and of the occasional art exhibition, Lina Bo Bardi had developed her crystal or glass easels (calvetes de crystal) as a means to present two-dimensional artworks as free-standing objects.

These easels consist of two panes of glass between which the artwork is fixed; the panes are protected at their base by a rubber skin which then slots into a wooden wedge held in a cubic concrete base. It is a simple, robust system, well suited to small and medium two-dimensional artworks. The architecture firm Metro reproduced them, with a small number of changes, for the initial 2015 show and the subsequent exhibitions.

Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega
Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega

Perhaps inspired in part by the solutions to installation design offered by Franco Albini and Franca Helg, who in 1954 designed a show of Italian art for São Paulo, Lina Bo Bardi’s glass easels were an ingenious solution to those classic problems that all too often concern only curators: insufficient space, the difficulty of shifting works around, and the inability to situate related works in sufficient proximity to one another.

While in keeping with that era’s ambivalence to formal authority, manifest in architecture as a preference for windows over walls and a resistance to single-use rooms, as well as with the notion that a viewer should be free to interpret the meaning of artworks in a personal manner, these glass easels also fulfilled that wish so many designers of art museums seem to secret away in their dark hearts – the desire to have open-plan galleries unimpeded by those walls necessary for the hanging of pictures.

Originally installed for the inauguration of the museum, Lina Bo Bardi’s glass easels were used to display a significant part of the collection, predominantly its historical work, until shortly after its long-standing director (her husband) had retired in the mid-1990s. Initially Pedrosa’s use of Lina Bo Bardi’s glass easels for Picture Gallery in Transformation was seen as a strong affirmation of MASP’s distinctive history. It is possible to critique this as a kind of historical-curatorial crutch, but that would fail to recognise its practical intelligence, and that it is part of an extensive overhaul of the museum’s programs.

This return to the past was to be an indication of Pedrosa’s ingenious transformation or (to use a Situationist term) detournement of the collection, and of the institution’s own historicity. Until Pedrosa’s tenure the museum could fairly be accused of adopting an exclusionary model, typical of the condition of what we are now calling “settler-colonial” societies.

Pedrosa, a director of considerable experience and a skillful curator, simultaneously initiated three interventions with this simple, apparently nostalgic and inclusive, act: the uniqueness of the original installation of the collection was reunited with the architecture of the entire building; the particular innovations of mid-century Brazilian, specifically Paulista, modernity were revived; and (definitely not incidentally) the creations of the brilliant Lina Bo Bardi (a Brazilian and a woman) were recovered and brought to the attention of a new, globalised generation.

In an interview on the website Conceptual Fine Arts, Pedrosa states: “It was a polemical display, and it still is. There is a radicality to it which is just extraordinary, and there are many political implications in that model. It’s not just stylistic, not just formal: when you take the paintings off the wall and put them on the floor, they become more familiar, they become closer, so you have a different type of relationship. I became quite interested in life-size portraiture, because it allows people to place themselves behind the portrait and take pictures. This is a way of appropriating the paintings. In that sense, of course, there is something that was already very much in Lina’s texts, you find the idea of the desacralization of art.”[2]

Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega
Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega

It is notable that in opening this statement Pedrosa conflates the original installation with its 2015 revival. He then indicates two elements that, largely unforeseen at the time of the original design, are common to the museum experience today: the role of the desacralised image, and the expectation or hope that viewers may, by means of their mobile phone take a “selfie”, and insert themselves into the greater image world of art as a particular kind of animated past. Pedrosa’s view is that the removal of the artwork from the wall, from its place within an intended architectural design, destabilises and appropriates the artwork.

In Brazil’s current socio-political climate in which race, class and gender, as elsewhere, have become categories key to criticism, this is an inevitable, if less-than-articulate, curatorial position. Presently, cultural criticism hasn’t been able to disentangle these categories from the new bio-politics – that is the colonisation of our bodies and lives by digital technology. This curatorial position is intended to enable the rupturing of the arrangements of artworks, whether chronologically linear or otherwise, by that particular atemporality, the “selfie” moment, its presence and present.

Having an exhibition design that more than facilitates, in fact obligates, the viewer to “participate” is a radical democratisation and a desacralisation of an older notion of the Image. Lina Bo Bardi may have appreciated this circumstance as an extension of the potential of the Modern and of the Brazilian democratic ideal, yet without anticipating its broad destruction of historicity.

Following the success of the 2015 exhibition, Pedrosa developed a series of exhibitions in association with other major international institutions, Tate Modern in 2017 and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2018. The intention was to temporarily fill gaps in the historical collection, artworks from elsewhere providing new insights into MASP’s vast holdings. Pedrosa mentions in the interview that he saw the possibility that, due to the flexibility of the display, there could be almost weekly changes in the selection and arrangements of the works.

This mode of rehang, a reshuffle, was also used in other sections of the historical collection. As the statement for the Tate Modern collaboration puts it on the MASP website: “The crystal easels make the works appear as if suspended mid-air, inviting the viewer to walk through a kind of forest of pictures. Removing the paintings from the walls and hanging them on crystal easels atop concrete bases makes them more familiar and accessible to the public.

The placement of informational labels on the backs of the paintings allows for a more direct first encounter with the works, free of art-historical identification or contextualisation. The visitors are able to build their own paths, creating unexpected juxtapositions and dialogues between Asian, African, Brazilian and European art. The open, fluid, transparent and permeable gallery offers multiple possibilities of access and reading, eliminating hierarchies, predetermined scripts, and challenges canonical art historical narratives.”[3]

While this text is not unusual in its instruction, it is undoubtedly an indication of the predicament that this kind of curatorial strategy can produce for the art-historically conscious viewer, now abandoned to wander through a forest of images with only their own self‑image, the essential “selfie”, as the mark of a constant presence or the present in a forest of images from other eras and worlds. Did the writer really want us to recall Baudelaire’s famous lines: “Man passes through forests of symbols which look at his with understanding eyes ...”?[4]

Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega
Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega

Pedrosa’s reliance on Lina Bo Bardi’s innovations, her architectural sense of the relationship between the building and the display of images, needs to be seen within the context of a program that effectively reconciles exhibitions of important South American modernists (Pedro Figari, Teresinha Soares and Tarsila do Amaral) with contemporary international figures (Guerrilla Girls and Tracy Moffatt) alongside striking survey shows like the ground-breaking Afro-Atlantic History.

But, as regards Pedrosa’s recovery of Lina Bo Bardi’s easels, his is a retroactive and, in a sense, atemporal mode of presenting artworks, an attempt to transform the notion of the picture gallery, to emancipate simultaneously the viewer and the work of art from their normative positions as a continuation of modernity’s critique of institutional power.

Seen from within a greater historical perspective, this freeing of the image from the wall, this apparent enabling of its escape from the usual architectural constraints matched by its unmooring from its place within timelines and other epochs and conventional narratives is in keeping with of one of the key projects of modernity – its iconoclasm. Indeed, it may be that the digital circulation of images today is a hyper‑modernity, the accelerated and ultimate deracination of the image. This transformation of the MASP as a spatialisation of time, doubling that of the screen, is similarly unstable, empty and virtual.

Pedrosa’s institutional capture, its hijacking, of the image, might be less a detournement of space, than a recoupment, as the antithesis of time. Those images from other times and places might not be, as is presumed, stable, pacified and established; rather, they are unreliable, surprising and conceptually wild. Through the act of reinstating Lina Bo Bard’s glass easels, Pedrosa has replaced, for these shows at least, the art museum’s power as a place for the articulation of stabilised, empowered, lucid art-historical narration with an opportunity to assert the inarticulacy of both the logic of the image and narration.

In so doing so he has affirmed the transcendent power of the institution, its reality as architecture. This is architecture’s usual implementation of power in space, and of the power of space over time. At present, there is a trend to foreground design over art, in teaching institutions and in galleries and museums, which Pedrosa’s decisions have, perhaps unintentionally, further empowered. In revifying the politics of the decontextualised image, implicit in Lina Bo Bardi’s exhibition design, vis-à-vis her architectural design, Pedrosa has intentionally ceded the inherent and perennial tension between the image and its surrounding architecture – the tension of “meta-optical space” as the art historian David Summers has termed it – to the reality of actual and symbolic institutional architecture.[5]

As someone with an appreciation of art history and a certain scepticism towards the strategies of contemporary museum programs, I felt a great excitement on seeing Picture Gallery in Transformation: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago at the MASP in late 2018. Facing row after row of extraordinary artworks, my impression was that this mode of display is a vivid, physical manifestation of what is now an everyday, if randomised and somewhat authoritarian, miracle – the “image search”.

It was more diverse than most exhibitions and almost as reassuring as a “selfie”. But therein lies the risk. This near-erotic swoon is exactly the ease and pleasure of the image – simultaneously momentary and deceptively infinite – that the methods of the history of art, as writing and politics, has attempted to counter and critically describe for at least the past two centuries.

Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega
Installation view, courtesy the São Paulo Museum of Art. Photo: Eduardo Ortega

Footnotes

  1. ^ Fernando Sarapião and Guilherme Wisnik, Infinite Span: 90 Years of Brazilian Architecture, published for the Casa da Arquitectura by Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich, 2019.
  2. ^ Maria do Carmo M. P. de Pontes, Interview: Director Adriano Pedrosa on his quest to make the MASP multiple, diverse and plural, conceptualfinearts.com, 9 March 2016.
  3. ^ Picture Gallery in Transformation: Tate at MASP, 17 May 2018 – 16 February 2019.
  4. ^ Charles Baudelaire (trans. William Aggelers), L’homme y passe a travers de foret de symboles/Q l’observent avec des regards familiers [The Flowers of Evil: Poems of Charles Baudelare], Fresno, CA: Library Guild, 1954.
  5. ^ David Summers, Real Spaces: World At History and the Rise of Modernism, London: Phaidon Press, 2003.

John Mateer is a writer, curator and poet. His most recent exhibition/book project was Invisible Genres for the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University, Perth. Currently he is researching the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel, and international artists who make feature films.

São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). Photo: Eduardo Ortega.

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