The story and meaning behind Brazil's most iconic and primitive painting
"Abaporu" is one of the most recognizable paintings done by a Brazilian artist. The gigantic figure is a perfect illustration of Brazil and its people. From the disproportional body to the vibrant and bright colors, everything about this canvas reflects the past and present of a diverse and complex country.
The glories and achievements of Brazil are intrinsically attached to the land. We were, and still are, an agricultural country known for exporting primary goods to other nations. Our past has been portraited in other paints, like “Coffee Agricultural Worker” by Candido Portinari, but not with the magnitude that Tarsila did in 1928.
The 73x85cm painting wasn’t intended to be anything more than a birthday gift for her husband, Oswaldo de Andrade. However, the moment he laid eyes on the canvas, a small seed of a new literary and artistic movement started to grow and develop into what was called the anthropophagic stage of Brazilian Modernism.
In Tupi (a Brazilian native language), “Abaporu” means “the man that eats other people”. The reference to cannibalism, not in a literal way, shaped a generation of artists to rethink, genuinely and creatively, what Brazil was and could be.
The idea of the movement was to showcase the beauty and peculiarities of Brazil and its people in combination with the European influences of surrealism. In a metaphorical sense, Modernism allowed for the remaking of our culture and art by ingesting all the best that Europe had to offer with all the best Brazil represented.
The most significant part of the painting, both in size and meaning, is the foot. As soon as the eyes meet the canvas, the hints of white on the skin draw attention to the inferior portion of the painting where the foot is. Even though the foot has an accurate shape, its dimension in comparison to other limbs is disproportional.
The asymmetry, combined with the surrealism that influenced Tarsila to paint this masterpiece, allowed her to explicit the bond that Brazil, as a unity, has with the land. The tropical country was Portugal’s colony for a little more than three centuries, cultivating mostly cane sugar — in the 1500s — and coffee — in the 1800s.
The large skin surface in contact with the soil established an intrinsical relationship between man and land in the sense that the first depends on the second for survival. If it wasn’t for the difference between the light skin of the foot and the deep green of the hill, we could assume they are an extension of each other.
The same goes for the hand and arm, which also symbolize the effort and strength of manual labor. From an evolutionary perspective, Lamarck — a French naturalist of the 18th century — wasn’t exactly right when he created his theory, saying parents with certain characteristics could pass on those same features to their proles. But he was correct when he said that overused limbs develop more than underused ones. From an artistic point of view, Tarsila used this concept to create the perfect representation of manual and agricultural work, especially in Brazil, and all the intellectual potential that is wasted into a repetitive and dull job.
In other words, Tarsila brought a new understanding of Brazilian people considering its historical background that, to some degree, helped shape the nation into what it is today and what it could be in the future.
In opposition to the monstrous foot, hand, and arm, the smallest element in the painting is the head. Analyzing the placement of the hand on the cheek, we see an allusion to the masterpiece “Le Penseur” done by Auguste Rodin. Although “Abaporu” is nowhere near a classical or neoclassical painting, there are a few similarities between the sculpture and the canvas.
The position of the pensive male is similar to the one painted by Tarsila, even though the body proportions and representations are extremely different. The difference between the size of the head is perhaps the most exaggerated. This once again speaks to the theory proposed by Lamarck that the underused limbs would eventually hypotrophy and be smaller in comparison to members that were used more often.
The diminutive size of the head wasn’t an affront to the intellectual capacity of the Brazilian people. Instead, it was a critic regarding the scientific and academic limitations the environment and culture could have on the development of our people.
Another aspect that draws attention when comparing both arts is the facial expression. “Le Penseur” or “The Thinker” shows a philosophical expression as if the man is trying to figure out a puzzle or riddle. As for “Abaporu”, the unhappy and tired expression could indicate how upsetting it was to see a vivid and rich country concentrate most of its potential into a work that was exploited by other nationalities.
Brazil is known for its wild and natural beauty. From the dunes of the Northeast coast and the Amazonian rainforest on the Northwest of the country to the Atlantic rainforest on the Southeast, Brazil has almost every possible clime and vegetation in the book.
“Abaporu” is a masterpiece, but the accurate representation of flora and colors takes the trophy. All the tones in the painting are similar to the ones seen in a natural Brazilian landscape. The connection with nature is, once again, established by the blue, yellow, and green, colors that are also seen in the Brazilian flag. The first represents the sky and ocean, while the second encaptures the sun and flowers, and the third portrays the rainforests.
Although many think the yellow circle in the sky represents the sun, Tarsila herself described the piece as a “cactus exploding into an absurd flower”. This could be a clear and poetic allusion to one of the most beautiful and symbolic flowers that bloom in Brazil.
The Mandacaru is a white and yellow flower that opens at night time in the Caatinga biome. It symbolizes the end of the drought and the hope for a new season of blooming and life. Perhaps that was the wish Tarsila had for the country, to explode into a new and vibrant culture that would transform Brazil forever.
Tarsila was a brilliant artist, not because she created something that was never thought about before, but because she, out of everyone else, managed to capture what was right in front of us for centuries. She was capable of emphasizing the beauty and richness of a country with a diverse historical and cultural background, combined with ideas and movements from other nationalities.