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Over the past few years, Brazil has become known as one of the up-and-coming ‘BRICS’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), tipped to dominate the global economy in years to come. It is as if the country is newly emerging from the economic ‘shadows’. Yet in the 1930s and in the post-war period, Brazil and its South American neighbours were already seen as exciting, dynamic societies and economies.
Europeans wanting to get away from the rising power of Nazi Germany flocked to South America, bringing with them new ideas and stimulating the economies they joined – and their arts and culture. In addition, South American artists had long visited Paris to learn in the city that until mid-century was seen as the centre of the art world.
The art produced in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela from the 1930s to the 1970s has been collected assiduously by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. A few pieces have been donated to New York’s MoMA but the majority remain in her collection. From this, with a few loans from MoMA, the current exhibition ‘Radical Geometry’ has been assembled. Much of the work on show does have a certain ‘geometrical’ character, hard-edged, rigorous, coolly composed. Here, as much as in the Russian Constructivism that influenced many of these artists, we see the origins the Op art that was to sweep across continents in the early 1960s, and its relation, Kinetic art.
The exhibition is in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Galleries, a light airy space that suits the work on show. It is a fascinating show, though marred by labelling that is even more difficult to read than has become the norm in art shows. Usually, one contends with the label that is several feet from the work. Here, the labels are placed flat on a sort of skirting that is only a few inches off the floor, so that one has to squat down to read them. Curators seem universally convinced that to appreciate art it is necessary to be ignorant of its maker and title.
We start in the first room with Argentina, a country whose economy grew faster than Canada’s and Australia’s in the early 20th century. By the mid-1940s its elegant capital, Buenos Aires, was the largest city in South America with a population of 2.5 million. A leading artist was Joaquin Torres-Garcia, a painter who wanted to build a new art based on what was known of the art of ancient civilizations – pre-Columbian South American art and that of ancient Egypt. He wanted to unite ancient and new, physical and spiritual within his work. There is a certain ‘hieroglyphic’ quality in his Constructive Painting (1931) while the metallic surfaces of Construction in Black and White (1938) suggests machine parts and conveys a sense of the industrial.
Torres-Garcia was not particularly political, whereas some younger artists had strong communist sympathies and were interested in Russian Constructivism. Geometric principles were believed to underlie a universal mode of communication, breaking down language barriers. For Juan Melé and others, the restrictions of the regularly shaped canvas and its traditional frame also needed breaking down, resulting in such works as Melé’s Irregular Frame No.2 (1946). This and the diagonal emphasis of the work give the painting a highly dynamic sense.
In room 2, Brazil, a sensibility akin to what would come to be called ‘Op art’ is evident, as in Hermelindo Fiaminghi’s Alternated 2 (1957), where red and grey spindles intersect with a sense of electric charge. Judith Lauand’s Concrete 61 (1957) uses simple shapes in black and white to create a sense of dynamism. Movement is not always virtual – the seeds of kinetic art are apparent, with several works on show being created with movable parts. These include Lygia Clark’s Machine–Medium (1962), a handmade metal sculpture hinged in places so that its shape could be manipulated.
The Op art/Kinetic art trend is even stronger in Room 3, where Venezuelan art is shown. In the centre of the room you cannot miss Jesus Soto’s Nylon Cube (1990), consisting of strands of nylon, white at top and bottom and black in the centre where they create the optical illusion of a cube. As you pass it, objects seen through it seem to ripple. Other works by Soto hang on the walls, seeming to move as you pass. Here also are Gego’s beautiful wire sculptures, which look too fragile to survive for very long but actually date back to the 1970s.
At the end of the show is Carlo Cruz Diaz’s Psychocromie No. 500 (1970). This beautiful work, nearly five metres wide, again relies on the movement of the spectator to show its ‘true colours’ – which change as you walk past or even move your head.
The show is accompanied by a very informative catalogue, with short, well-written and engaging essays on the 20th-century history of art in the countries concerned by Gabriel Perez-Barreiro and Maria Amalia Garcia. Isobel Whiteleg writes about Signals Gallery, which in the 1960s brought much South American art to London. You can read the whole thing in a couple of hours and learn a great deal from it. This is a part of the art world that has often been neglected; the show and the catalogue teach us what a loss that is.