It was long overdue to have a comprehensive biography about one of the most important Brazilian modernist painters, detailing his social and political life, his upbringing, circle of friends, and the sometimes indirect relationship between his art and his life. The recently released book “Di Cavalcanti, Modernista Popular,” by journalist Marcelo Bortoloti, aims to fill this gap. Resulting from over ten years of research, Bortoloti’s primary sources included letters left by the painter, newspaper articles, official documents recorded in notary offices, etc., given that Di Cavalcanti did not leave an organized archive that could facilitate the reconstruction of his personal and professional trajectory. The two autobiographies written by the painter during his lifetime, “Viagem da minha vida” [The Trip of My Life] (1955) and “Reminiscências líricas de um perfeito carioca” [Lyrical Reminiscences of a Perfect Carioca] (1964), also did not make the biographer’s work easier because, composed with a high degree of fiction (Di was inclined to dramatize events in his life), they “seem to push the limits of documentation,” Bortoloti writes.
Bortoloti begins the biography at the end of Di Cavalcanti’s life, with his death in October 1976, and finds it strange that one of the most significant personalities in Brazilian culture during the first half of the twentieth century, the painter who became known and celebrated worldwide for translating the reality of the Brazilian people with sensuality, humor and melancholy, a man who maintained relationships with the most prominent intellectual and political figures of his generation, attracted so few people from the cultural and political sphere to his funeral. Glauber Rocha, who had returned to Brazil months earlier (with permission from the Brazilian military government), saw in that ceremony an opportunity to rethink himself, alongside the deceased, as one of the last heroes of modernism. Without the family’s permission, in a farcical, extravagant, and even violent manner, he filmed the wake and burial, producing a short film, “Di Cavalcanti,” which would be awarded a year later at Cannes.
Finding a justification for the empty funeral becomes Bortoloti’s leitmotif in constructing the painter’s biography, cautious of its reception in these times where Di Cavalcanti would easily be canceled due to racism, misogyny, etc.: “The artist who delved deeply into Brazilian life, seeking to synthesize national identity, could not escape the contradictions inherent in our society, historically marked by relationships of privilege, accustomed to a type of cordiality that barely disguises violent attitudes.”
Di Cavalcanti did not have an easy life, always marked by the struggle for survival alongside his first wife, Maria. The author meticulously retraces the steps and hardships of the couple in Paris and later in Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s. Di matured as a painter gradually and largely due to a herculean personal effort, eventually achieving a synthesis in terms of form and content, of which the canvas “Samba” from 1927 is the emblematic example. In this work, Di devoted himself to constructing a modeling of color, lights and shadows, simultaneously modern and classical, merging music, dance and painting as a substrate to portray the “Brazilian-ness” that then characterized the mixture of joy and melancholy found in the poor and humble people of the Rio suburbs.
Mindful of the historical context in which Di developed, Bortoloti closely follows his family background, studies and friendships, accounting for his complex personality, riddled with contradictions. The book delves into Di Cavalcanti’s personal relationships with seminal figures of Brazilian modernism such as Oswald de Andrade, Tarsila do Amaral, Mário de Andrade, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Cícero Dias (with whom he became enemies), recalls his adoration for André Gide, the convulsive relationship with the patron Ciccillo Matarazzo, in addition to his various love affairs and personal and political relationships. Bortoloti also touches on a sensitive subject: Di Cavalcanti’s artificial appropriation of mulatto women (mulatas), as well as the commercial exploitation of this theme, with some unpublished testimonies from his former models.
A special chapter is dedicated to Di Cavalcanti’s trip to Mexico in 1949 and his attempt to bring mural art from there, albeit belatedly, as it coincides with the beginning of the rise and institutionalization of abstract art in Brazil. The book is very well written, enjoyable to read, but Bortoloti lacks a greater familiarity with the language of painting when addressing it at times. However, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the narratives that contain curiosities and previously unrevealed news, appealing to the Brazilian public accustomed to soap operas (folhetins) and TV novels.
Finally, among the gaps or unaddressed themes, this biography does not mention the artist’s contradictory relationship with “magical realism.” The artist himself referred to his painting in this key, although we know that “magical realism” was the name given to the presence of Novecento Italian painting in Latin America, a painting ideologically committed to the fascist movement, highly admired by Matarazzo, among other great patrons and collectors. Di Cavalcanti would have assimilated only the formal and constructive values of this aesthetic movement (as he did with many others), omitting its ideological precepts, erasing its references. It would be important for the author to revisit this issue, if possible, in a future revision of his work, which, however, should already be read as a fundamental part of the recent history of Brazilian art.
“Di Cavalcanti, Popular Modernist”
By Marcelo Bortoloti
Companhia das Letras, 732 pages, Portuguese