São Paulo-based art collectors and philanthropists Adolpho and Fulvia Leirner assembled an extraordinary collection of Art Déco and Constructive Art. In 2020, the Leirners donated forty-seven pieces to the MAC USP museum (Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo) now being shown at the exhibition “Art Déco Brasileiro—Doação Fulvia e Adolpho Leirner” (Fulvia and Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Art Déco) through September 2023 located in the museum’s modernist high-rise (by architect Oscar Niemeyer) overlooking Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo’s largest green area.
The Leirner Collection reflects the high-spiritedness of the first half of the twentieth century through outstanding pieces of Brazilian design in furniture, textile and light design, reliefs and prints, produced for São Paulo’s coffee barons and industrial elite, eager to embrace a modern lifestyle.
Many of the pioneers of Brazilian design were young Europeans who fled local authoritarian regimes to establish themselves in the New World. With their legacy still felt today, the eight designers on show are among those who were paramount to the development of a made-in-Brazil aesthetic. Swiss-born John Graz (1895-1980), his future Brazilian wife Regina Gomide Graz (1897-1973), and Regina’s sibling, Antonio Gomide (1895-1967), all met at the Geneva Academy of Fine Arts. Ukrainian-born architect and designer Gregori Warchavchik (1896-1972) left his native Odessa, then part of the Russian Empire. After his studies in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, Warchavchik fled fascism, established himself in São Paulo and introduced Art Déco architecture in the country. Italian-born sculptor Antelo Del Debbio (1901-1971) designed modernist and neo-classical monuments that adorn the city public spaces. Cassio M’Boy (1903-1986) was a painter, sculptor, interior decorator, designer, costume designer and stained-glass designer. From a coffee-wealth milieu, iconoclastic intellectual Flavio de Carvalho (1899-1973) was one of Brazil’s most gifted and irreverent personalities in the realms of the arts. Another restless and forward-thinking intellectual was charismatic Waldemar Cordeiro (1925-1973), who left a far-reaching legacy in local arts and design.
However, this is not Leirner’s first major donation. Between 2005 and 2007, the Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and in 2016, he donated his personal archive and library to the Texas-based museum. The donation of ninety-seven artworks caused heated debates in the local art world. It was offered to Brazilian museums, but the local scenario has always been marred by lack of funds, muddled policies and excessive red tape: the negotiations with MAC USP took eight years to resume. Because of this, it is rare to see major donations from private collectors handed down to public institutions.
The son of Polish Jewish immigrants who arrived in Brazil in the 1930s and founded a prosperous textile company, the young Leirner moved to England to pursue studies in the family trade in textile engineering and design. In the UK, he became acquainted with the international Constructivist movements of the first half of the twentieth century and developed a passion for architecture and design. Upon his return to São Paulo in the 1950s and already wed to Fulvia, a practicing psychologist, they repurposed their aesthetic sense and sensibility into a love affair with Art Deco. The cosmopolitan and cultivated couple plunged into a modern lifestyle and began collecting through their friendship with living artists and contact with influential local dealers. By 1972, they had garnered sixty percent of the collection, now transformed into a remarkable legacy of Brazilian Art Deco and Constructivist art.
Something else should be mentioned about the Leirner family. Art has always been the raison d’être of this brainy family, the closest in Brazil to an art royalty clan. The first Leirner to embrace the arts was Adolpho’s aunt, sculptor Felicia Leirner, with works in the collection of London’s Tate Gallery and Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris. Adolpho’s father, Zimon, was a textile industrialist who emigrated from Poland before WWII, and became an art baron, museum director and one of the founders of the São Paulo Biennal in 1951. His uncle, industrialist and visionary Isai Leirner, created the Leirner Award for Contemporary Art in 1957 and was director of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM/SP). Adolpho’s sister is installation artist Jeanete Musatti. The late provocateur of Brazilian contemporary art, Nelson Leirner, was his first cousin as is visual artist Giselda Leirner, whose daughter art critic Sheila Leirner was curator of the 1985 and the 1987 São Paulo Art Biennials. To wrap it up, the couple’s daughters are renowned conceptual artists. Since 1981, video artist Betty Leirner lives and works in Europe and has works published internationally. Jac Leirner first participated at the São Paulo Biennal in 1989 when she was twenty-eight years old, and has since built a solid global career.
Following we have an interview with Adolpho Leirner, and testimonials from Ana Magalhães, director of the MAC/USP museum, and Márcio Roiter, president and founder of the Instituto Art Déco Brasil.
Adolpho, how do you summarize the art of collecting?
To collect is to nurture a love affair, a passion; it is to uncover findings in a game of search and find, all of which are part of my life.
What moved you and Fulvia?
Fulvia and I were drawn by the same things from the beginning. We wanted everything different from what we had experienced in our parent’s homes: from the gifts we received in our wedding to the first things we initially bought as a couple. As we began acquiring our own things, every new acquisition was immediately incorporated into our daily lives at home: artworks, crockery, rugs, etc.
What is the ethical responsibility that comes with being an art collector?
Collectors should be aware they gather their collections not only for private fruition but for the benefit of society, and for this reason the pieces must be well kept and preserved for future generations. Collecting comes with social responsibility.
Ana Magalhães, director of MAC USP museum, São Paulo:
“The Fulvia and Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Art Déco,” donated by the collectors at the end of 2020 to MAC USP, came to enrich and further illuminate the existing collection and research on the history of visual arts from the first half of the twentieth century under constant development in the institution. This collection is a unique set of works made for modern living, which was so appreciated by the modernist elite of São Paulo, as well as revealing of the modes of circulation of modern forms among us. Some of the objects now received by the museum complement many other pieces already present in it—such as the works by the Gomide-Graz family and the chairs by Flávio de Carvalho. Finally, it is worth mentioning the furniture that Lithuanian architect Gregori Warchavchik designed for his Modernist House in 1930.
Márcio Roiter, president and founder of the Instituto Art Déco Brasil, Rio de Janeiro:
1958 was the year the Bossa Nova was born in Rio, Brazil’s soccer team won its first FIFA World Cup and the expression Art Deco was officially coined. Eight years later, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris opens the grand exhibition “Les Années 25” (The Year 1925), dedicated to Art Deco, while São Paulo’s MASP museum, under the direction of Professor Bardi, opened the exhibition “Tempo dos Modernistas” (Time of the Modernists), in 1974. The year before, the French magazine Connaissance des Arts, had the Yves Saint-Laurent /Pierre Bergé Art Deco Collection on its cover. In August 1976, our Brazilian Casa Vogue magazine publishes the cover, “Art Deco Forever,” with pieces from the Fulvia e Adolpho Leirner Collection. I met them during this time. I shall never forget the caricature by Di Cavalcanti of Josephine Baker from their collection that they were kind to let me publish in an article that I wrote on the love affair Baker and architect Le Corbusier had in Rio’s summer of 1929. Fulvia and Adolpho took a significant step when they decided to focus their magnificent, ever-growing collection solely on Brazilian-made pieces with works by brother and sister duo Antonio and Regina Gomide, Swiss naturalized Brazilian John Graz, Cassio M‘Boy, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, J. Carlos, Ferri, Humberto Cozzo, Tarsila do Amaral and other greats. This makes me immensely proud. It’s so rare to have a collection based solely on Art Déco Brasileiro (Brazilian Art Deco), and rarer still to make its donation to a Brazilian museum.
Coleção Fulvia e Adolpho Leirner do Art Déco Brasileiro
Through September 17, 2023
Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo
MAC USP, São Paulo
Rio-born Cynthia Garcia is a respected art historian, art critic and journalist fluent in five languages stationed in São Paulo. Cynthia is a recipient of the 2023 APCA (Paulista Association of Art Critics) award as a contributing editor of Newcity Brazil since its founding in 2015. Her daughter America Cavaliere works in the contemporary art market and her son Pedro Cavaliere, based in LA, is in the international DJ scene.
Contact: [email protected], www.cynthiagarcia.biz