Rio de Janeiro 1950–64

Rhythmic city

We are Blacks, Indians, Whites – everything at the same time – our culture has nothing to do with the European
Hélio Oiticica

An unprecedented climate of optimism gripped Rio in the 1950s, as the city emerged from its colonial past to become a modern metropolis of 2.5 million inhabitants, with a strong cultural identity. New forms of art, music, film and architecture appeared almost simultaneously. The names of these movements encapsulated this climate of new beginnings: Neoconcretism, Bossa Nova, Cinema Novo.

Even the President was known as ‘Bossa Nova’, and the city’s burgeoning youth culture was symbolised by the glamorous Copacabana beach. Artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica were developing a unique form of Brazilian modernism that emphasised simplicity of form and spatial construction. Epitomised by Antonio Carlos Jobim’s song The Girl from Ipanema, the Bossa Nova was the height of laid-back cool. Daring, state-led architectural projects made the new spirit physically palpable on the streets. Brazil’s first World Cup victory in 1958 seemed entirely fitting in this moment of great national self-esteem. Only with the military coup of 1964, would the heady period of invention and enthusiasm come to an end.

Curated by Dr Michael Asbury and Paulo Venancio Filho, an art critic and art historian based in Rio de aneiro.

Neoconcretism

The ‘Neoconcrete’ artists developed an approach to abstract painting and sculpture that emphasised experiment and visual expressiveness. Their works have an immediate, sensory impact, often through strong colour and a dynamic use of space. Lygia Clark created sculptures using sheets of metal folded into three dimensions. Her Beasts are comprised of moveable metal elements linked by hinges, which the artist compared to living creatures. Clark originally intended them to be handled and manipulated by the public since, in common with the other Neoconcretist artists whose work is on show, she was interested in stimulating spectator participation. Franz Weissmann described his works as ‘drawings in space’. By moving around his sculptures, the viewer can share in Weissmann’s process of experimentation and discovery of forms within space. Hélio Oiticica’s spatial constructions are assemblages of brightly painted wood, which hang from the gallery ceiling. Oiticica wanted to capture the sensory experience of Latin dance, and studied the samba for ideas on motion through space. Later, he went on to make works created directly through the movement of the spectator.

Bossa Nova

Bossa Nova (or New Wave) appeared in the late 1950s as a quiet revolution in Brazilian popular music. Its suave urbanity was achieved through a rigorous but seemingly insouciant combination of elements including cool jazz, be-bop, samba and classical music. This mix demonstrated a sophisticated, non-hierarchical approach to musical styles. Its flexible structure freed musicians from the traditionally fixed roles of soloist or accompaniment, and allowed stretches of improvised lyrics. Among its main protagonists were the composers Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and poet/lyricists Vinícius de Moraes and Newton Mendonça. Classics of the genre are Jobim’s How Insensitive, along with Girl from Ipanema, Desafinado and Chega de Saudade. In 1967, when Frank Sinatra recorded an album of Jobim’s compositions, he commented ‘I haven’t sung so soft since I had laryngitis’.

Pioneering architecture

Architecture was a key element in Rio’s confident new vision of itself. In 1936, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier provided a set of initial designs for the Ministry of Education and Health building, which became the first significant modernist building in Latin America. Le Corbusier influenced a generation of Brazilian architects, who developed a singular style combining international modernism with a Brazilian vernacular that was particularly responsive to the natural environment. Oscar Niemeyer’s Canoas House of 1953, for example, employs characteristically Brazilian organic shapes, integrating architecture with the surrounding hills and tropical vegetation. In buildings such as his Parque Guinle, completed in 1954, Lúcio Costa was similarly inventive in his employment of traditional Brazilian architectural elements. Other notable projects included Affonso Eduardo Reidy’s Pedregulho complex, a social housing apartment block raised on pillars that followed the sinuous contours of a hill; and the Flamengo Landfill by Reidy and the painter and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, that transformed a former landfill site into what was then the largest urban park in the world.

Graphic design

The Journo do Brasil is a national daily broadsheet newspaper. In the late 1950s it employed two avant-garde artists and members of the neoconcrete movement, Amilcar de Castro and Reynaldo Jardim, to work on the graphic design of its weekend supplement. Their radical typography reflected the content of some of the writing published in the supplement, which included sophisticated art historical surveys and polemical manifestos.

See also