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Di Cavalcanti 


Emiliano Augusto Cavalcanti de Albuquerque Melo, best known as Di Cavalcanti, was a Brazilian modernist painter, draughtsman, illustrator, muralist and caricaturist. Given its vibrant colors, sinuous forms and typically Brazilian themes, such as carnival, mulatas, and other tropical motifs, his oeuvre went a long way toward setting Brazilian art apart from other artistic movements of the time. Alongside Anita Malfatti, Tarsila do Amaral and other major names, Di Cavalcanti is considered one of the most illustrious representatives of Brazilian modernism.    

The Exhibition

The exhibition showed nine works Di Cavalcanti produced between the 1920s and 40s,    all handpicked by Kuczynski over the course of three years combing private collections. While all the chosen works pertain to the most significant period of the painter’s career, which pretty much began with the famous Modern Art Week in São Paulo in 1922, some of them had never been exhibited in public before. The oil painting “Descanso dos Pescadores” (Fishermen at Rest), which the artist gifted to the novelist José Lins do Rego, is a case in point, as was “Bordel” (Brothel), pastel on card, which stands out for its geometric forms. The watercolor “Poeta com Flor” (Poet with Flower), produced as an illustration for an Oswald de Andrade poem published in a magazine, remains something of a mystery. The scenography was by the architect Pedro Mendes da Rocha and the catalogue presentation by the poet Ferreira Gullar.

Di Cavalcanti,

Brazilian Painter

Ferreira Gullar


Emiliano Di Cavalcanti was one of the masterminds of the Modern Art Week of 1922 (he created the title). Still very young at the time, it is true that he had not yet developed his own pictorial language and was showing only the first hints of the imaginary universe he would leave to us in his strikingly original paintings. Indeed, what really mattered to the young modernists was to break from the past so that they could be free to create Brazil’s new art, a dream they nurtured with boundless enthusiasm. As they saw it, the nation they had inherited was still the expression of cultural dependence and colonialism, represented by artistic academicism, and they had to liberate themselves from it. At that stage, certain painters, such as Eliseu Visconti, had already stepped timidly away from academic art and towards Impressionism or Symbolism. But these were languages that had also run their course and been repelled by the new European vanguards inspiring rebellion in our young artists. Di Cavalcanti’s originality did not blossom overnight, and his early paintings displayed echoes of primitivism and Cubism, especially Picasso. However, beneath all that, if we compare those initial outings with the work of other modernist painters, we see the presence of a different thematic, one infused with the flavour and sensuality of Rio. In his search for a language of his own, Di Cavalcanti  embraced a reinvention of the Brazilian spirit that came to characterize our modernism, which strove for an identification with our country and its culture over and above the essentially aesthetic concerns of the European movement. One of the fundaments of the early 20th-century European vanguards was their fascination with the wild side of life, whether internal or external. For the Europeans, it was that wildness art needed to express. In Brazil, where the prevailing art was the expression of the culture of the social and cultural elite, the pursuit was to rediscover that primitive Brazil, which was wild too, but also innocent. Instead of descending into the subconscious like the expressionists, our modernists turned to that forsaken Brazil that predated industrialization. And that’s where Di Cavalcanti’s painting differs from that of his fellow artistic revolutionaries, as it speaks of the urban and suburban Brazil of that time and of the search for a mestizo Brazilian woman as the expression of a new concept of beauty that countered that of the sophisticated white ladies of academic art.  Di discovered a new Venus: mulatto, thick-lipped, large-breasted and wide-hipped. It was a discovery that fed his painting for many years and became something of a trademark. He became known as the “painter of mulatas”, which was true, but also somewhat anecdotal, a superficial vision that missed the main point: his choice of the mulatto woman as a theme responded to both an erotic identification and a need to manifest his refusal to conform to the established standards of feminine beauty. So he recreated the figure of this quintessentially Brazilian woman and transformed her into a painterly-thematic reference of modern Brazilian iconography. At the same time as he beat a path of his own, Di was turning it into the expression of a new conception of feminine beauty, one that not only replaced the artistic canons of the past, but bestowed a new social value upon the mestizo woman as the inspiration for a simple, sensual love. That’s what made Di Cavalcanti the poet-painter of this erotic muse of the people. However, it is also true that this feminine figure is more than just a painterly sex symbol, and is not the only theme in his work. It would be no exaggeration to say that no less important as pictorial creations and artistic expressions were his landscapes and still lifes, which he conceived and crafted with the same dedication and artistic quality. Perhaps many admirers of Di’s art, fascinated by his depictions of women, have not regarded the beauty of his other, less obvious works with the same attention. But the truth is, if one has the opportunity to appreciate the various phases of his landscape paintings, it becomes crystal clear just what a consistent, vigorous and imaginative painter he was. But not only that. It is also important to mention one further and fundamental quality of his art: its continued relevance; the novel and intensely present power it retains, as a gimmickless pictorial expression grounded in the essential qualities of painting.


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