Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2023
Adrian Anagnost Spatial Orders, Social Forms: Art and the City in Modern Brazil New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021. 248 pp.; 62 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300254013)

Rivaled only by Mexico as a center of artistic modernism in the Americas, Brazil, with its wealth of innovative architecture, landscape design, urbanism, painting, sculpture, and performance art, has long attracted the attention of Anglophone scholars and curators. Apart from survey texts, architecture and the other arts have generally been treated separately, in both exhibitions and monographs, which have typically focused on a single person or phenomenon, or positioned Brazilian examples as part of a geographically broader study. Adrian Anagnost, however, brings the country’s arts into dialogue during the pivotal decades from the mid-1920s through the 1960s in Spatial Orders, Social Forms: Art and the City in Modern Brazil. This is one of the book’s major contributions.

Using works by canonical figures of the Brazilian avant garde—Flavio de Carvalho, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, Lina Bo Bardi, Waldemar Cordeiro, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica—almost as case studies, Anagnost knits together a media-crossing narrative of Brazilian modernism by foregrounding artists’ and architects’ attention to space and its socio-political meanings, against the backdrop of the shifting politics just before and during the Getúlio Vargas Estado Novo period (1937–45), through the relatively democratic but unstable Republic of ’46 years (1946–64), and into the era of military dictatorship that began with a coup in 1964. Anagnost argues that works by these artists and architects were linked by a common preoccupation with “sociability,” and marked by various degrees of anxiety about or ambivalence toward a generalized mass of non-elite Brazilians and their literal and symbolic places in modern and modernizing Brazil. The author casts artistic and architectural engagements with urban space in terms of tensions in the positions of avant-garde artists and architects between a desire to control and a desire to liberate nonelite Brazilians. Together, Brásilia and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, as polar icons of Brazilian modernity, almost fetishistically emblematize this tension. Anagnost suggests that Brazilian artistic production can be understood in terms of the dynamics of hierarchical order and control, embodied by the private house, the spontaneous, sometimes picturesque chaos characteristic of the street, and, most potently, in urban edges, gaps, and seams, where the boundaries between order and chaos erode. She finds parallels across time and practices, for example, discovering in the work of both Caravalho and Oiticia “a shared reliance on the seemingly undisciplined bodies of lower-class Brazilians as material for aesthetic interventions in urban social relations” (164).

Anagnost cleverly organizes her text as tightly focused chapters arranged in diminishing typological scale and more or less advancing chronology: from Carvalho and his experimental work in multiple media concerned with the street around 1930 to the plaza of Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio de Janeiro (1946) to the gallery spaces designed by Bo Bardi to the wall (or, really, plane) in works by Cordeiro and Clark (especially after 1959) and the nowhere of “Eden,” embodied by Oiticica’s two iconic installations, Tropicália (1967) and Eden (1969). Reading across scales and media, she concludes that Carvalho “dramatized social conflict in Brazil,” while the plaza in front of the Ministry of Education and Health building and other contemporary public spaces “sought to harness the power of the people by recalling colonial-era spatiality,” and the Bardian museum spaces of the 1940s and 1950s “seemed to neutralize historical inequalities” (131). Cordiero, the Concretist, and Clark, the Neoconcretist, were united in their interest in integrating the arts and linked by their attempts to make “an art and architecture heedless of race, in favor of a generic, perhaps classless array of city dwellers and gallerygoers” (132). Oiticica would reinterpret the spaces of the favela and the Indigenous village in the gallery, in order to encourage “spontaneous interactions that seemed increasingly fragile” in Brazilian cities by the 1960s (165).

Historians of Latin American art will be familiar with many of the works and people Anagnost explores, but they will learn much from her deeply researched accounts of historical contexts and close readings of art, architecture, and spaces. Among the book’s strengths are its challenges to interpretations of Brazilian works as anticipations of avant-garde interventions by European and US artists celebrated by art historians. For example, rather than regarding Carvalho’s anticlerical performative disruption of a religious procession and his other performance artlike activities as “the start of a vanguard lineage leading to performative practices of contemporary art” with theoretically progressive political aims, his works should instead, she argues, be recognized for their “markedly reactionary stance toward the role of art in relation to the political rise of o povo [the people] in Brazil” (59). Similarly, in her rereading of Bo Bardi and her celebrated exhibition strategies at the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP) in its home in the Guilherme Guinle building and the one she later designed on Avenida Paulista, Anagnost contends that there is “no easy link between form and ideology but rather an insistent question about how new ways of ordering space might create new forms of embodiment” (97). Even as she regards the installation of the MASP as a restaging of the experience of chance, disordered encounters on the street, Anagnost emphasizes Bo Bardi’s commitment to shaping an “atmosfera,” [environment] in which new kinds of viewers could understand art. The author argues that with its “supposedly unmediated, spontaneous viewing deemed appropriate for modern art, the MASP always boasted an architecture and exhibition design that actively shaped viewers’ experiences” (128).

Throughout the text, Anagnost resituates major works in terms of their creators’ engagements with Brazilian types and debates (which in many instances were themselves informed by works and ideas from abroad), helpfully recovering her subjects’ historical and cultural specificity, implicitly against narratives that cast them rather uncritically as distinctive examples of international phenomena. She reads the Ministry of Education and Health building in relation to modern and colonial urban patterns: the reshaping of Rio de Janeiro following the designs Alfred Agache and the winding forms of colonial streets. The author argues that the building and its spaces demonstrated a “particularly Brazilian emphasis on interstitial spaces uneasily assimilated into an urban setting” (80). In her interpretations of Carvalho and Clark, she stresses his connections with the anthropophagic circle and her time studying with Roberto Burle Marx.

At points, “sociability” as a conceptual link between the works and their creators feels tenuous and underdefined. This is not a significant problem because the chapters hold together well and the analyses, buttressed by wonderful historical images, are engaging and edifying. One is tempted to wonder if “sociability” here is really a shorthand for conveying artists’ and architects’ efforts to grapple with the gap between their own status as members of a cultural elite and the experiences of an underprivileged, general public whose welfare and prospective political participation concerned them, at least abstractly. An obsession—ranging from mild to severe—on the part of members of the artistic elite with the urban proletariat and/or rural peasantry, formed in the context of rapid urbanization, economic developmentalism, and twentieth-century nationalism, is one of the themes of modern art in Latin America, and it seems that Anagnost is describing one manifestation of it. Her interpretation of this phenomenon in terms of the demographic, urbanistic, and aesthetic issues at play in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo is quite convincing.

Unfortunately, and rather bafflingly, the book lacks a bibliography. Presumably this is a consequence of the requirements of the publisher rather than an authorial decision. The notes are thorough, but let us hope that the omission does not portend the demise of the academic bibliography.

Spatial Orders, Social Forms joins scholarship on twentieth-century Latin American art that understands artistic media, urban space, and politics interdependently, including Luis E. Carranza’s Architecture as Revolution: Episodes in the History of Modern Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2010), Luis M. Castañeda’s Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), and George F. Flaherty’s Hotel Mexico: Dwelling on the ’68 Movement (University of California Press, 2016). Like Fabiola López Durán’s Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity (University of Texas Press, 2018) and Ana María León’s Modernity for the Masses: Antonio Bonet’s Dreams for Buenos Aires (University of Texas Press, 2021), Adrian Anagnost’s work provocatively scrutinizes elite preoccupations with architecture, urban space, and popular masses. Her contribution is a most welcome addition to this impressive body of scholarship, which, in the span of a little more than a decade, has enriched the study of the history of Latin American art and architecture so deeply.

Kathryn O’Rourke
Department of Art and Art History, Director of the Minor in Architectural Studies, Trinity University