The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil


The present studies on Brazilian modern art seek to specify some of the dominant contradictions of capitalism’s combined but uneven development as these appear from the global ‘periphery’. The grand project of Brasília is the main theme of the first two chapters, which treat the ‘ideal city’ as a case study in the ways in which creative talent in Brazil has been made to serve in the reproduction of social iniquities whose origins can be traced back to the agrarian latifundia. Further chapters scrutinise the socio-historical basis of Brazilian art, and develop, against the grain of the most prominent art historical approaches to modern Brazilian culture, a critical approach to the distinctly Brazilian visual language of geometrical abstraction. The book contends that, from the fifties up to today, formalism in Brazil has expressed the hegemony of the market.

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Biographical Note

Luiz Renato Martins teaches art history at the Visual Arts Department of the University of São Paulo, working also as a researcher associated to the Economical History postgraduate programme at USP. As a visitor, he lectured in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Spain, France, UK and USA universities, and has published books and articles on modern art, film and the contemporary global crisis’s issues.

Dr Juan Grigera is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at University College London Institute of Americas. His research focuses on the political economy of Latin America, particularly Brazil and Argentina and has been a visiting lecturer in Argentina, Brazil, Belgium and USA.

Review Quotes

"Martins’ deeply engaged and richly informed reflections on the particularities of the Brazilian situation analyse the vicissitudes of artistic and architectural modernism as it took shape in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century, and its subsequent replacement by an apolitical formalist aestheticism in the postmodern age of neoliberal capitalism."
Alex Potts, Max Loehr Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan

Table of contents


Alex Potts

From Formation to Dismantling

1 Strategies of Occupying Space in Brazil, from Tarsila to Oiticica

2 ‘Free Form’: Brazilian Mode of Abstraction or a Malaise in History

3 All This Geometry, Where Does It Come from, Where Does It Go?

4 Trees of Brazil

5 The Situation of Art and the ‘Pensée Unique’

6 Formation and Dismantling of a Brazilian Visual System

From Dismantling to Struggle

7 From the Debate about Formation to Strike as Formation

8 The Indignity of São Paulo

9 Art against the Grain

Against Formalism: Art, History and Criticism

10 Work, Art and History: A Counterpoint between Periphery and Centre

11 Notes on Modernisation, from the Periphery: On David Craven’s ‘Alternative Modernism’

12 Art as Work (Interview)

13 International Benefit Society of Friends of Form and Bulletin on the Brazilian Division

Index of Artworks Cited


Undergraduate, post-graduates, academics, artists and museum professionals: Art Historians; historians and theorists of modernity; students of revolution; readers of Third-World history; Marxists; Third World specialists.

Index Card

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