We forget that many great works of art were not created for the mausoleums we call museums. They were made not to be laid out for inspection, like butterflies stilled, but to be put to use. Often, such works were intended to be held in the hand and moved – to shake, rattle, and roll. In Brazil: Body & Soul at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the poignancy of objects removed from their origins seems particularly acute, for Brazilian art lives to move.
It could hardly be otherwise. Three powerful traditions clash and collude in Brazil, creating a restless, mongrel intensity that is felt both physically and spiritually. Each tradition – indigenous, African, and Roman Catholic – independently has a strong visceral sense of the body. Each has been forced into new forms by the pressures of Brazilian history. The excitement of Brazilian art comes from the mix-up. The organizers, led by Edward J. Sullivan of the Department of Fine Arts at New York University, include some video clips to emphasize this movement and cross-fertilization. It would be a mistake, for example, to look at carvings of the saints as static. Many were paraded through the streets as processional figures.
There is a mesmerizing “too-muchness” to Brazilian art, which overwhelms ordinary reality. In Mardi Gras, the outlandish costumes and ceaseless dancing overload the senses, creating a physical trance – a soulful bliss. The visual vocabulary of the Baroque and rococo, which the Europeans brought to Brazil, also lends itself to sublime extravagance. Amid the spirals of the Guggenheim, the organizers have actually brought to New York a magnificent altarpiece – a vision of gold from the Benedictine church of São Bento de Olinda. The altar is an astonishing sight as it swirls and smokes upward in the rotunda of a celebrated modern building. What a clash between “altars” – a golden calf placed in the temple of modernism.
Not surprisingly, the presentation is often ungainly, chaotic, and subversive – like the subject. Even the light of the Guggenheim is transformed, its walls blackened and its radiance dimmed to churchy darkness. (I’m surprised no one added incense and the perfume of jungle plants.) Visitors in a modern masterpiece can move between the white-bread platitudes of Norman Rockwell – the other show on view – and south-of-the-border extravagance. And then walk into New York. What a world.
Brazil: Body & Soul
At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; through 1/27/02.