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Adele Nelson: Forming Abstraction. Art and Institutions in Postwar Brazil (= Studies on Latin American Art; Vol. 5), Oakland: University of California Press 2022, XIV + 369 S., ISBN 9780520379848, USD 50,00
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Rezension von:
João Gabriel Rizek
Freie Universität Berlin
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Verena Straub
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João Gabriel Rizek: Rezension von: Adele Nelson: Forming Abstraction. Art and Institutions in Postwar Brazil, Oakland: University of California Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 10 [15.10.2022], URL:

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Adele Nelson: Forming Abstraction

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Brazil, the land of the future. This notion, first proposed by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who found an emblem of all sorts of cultural and civilizational potentialities in the tropics, would dictate much of Brazil's imagination throughout the second half of the 20th century, even when it remained unarticulated or its author unnamed. The country, it stablished, has a future stored somewhere.

Fundamentally idealistic, this idea saw Brazil as a bastion of a series of promises interdicted to Zweig's beloved Europe due to the emergence of authoritarian governments during the 1930s. Thus, through the trips Zweig undertook to this new, exotic land, he started to envision a new world, completely different from the old one. It was a world forged by a new democratic regime, an innovative public dynamic, and an authentic culture, all configured by the combination of ethnicities, creeds, and social backgrounds. That, according to Zweig, equipped Brazil to disclose what the future had in store for the world.

In 1945, Zweig's view seemed ripe, even if three years earlier he had decided to take his own life together with his wife, Elisabeth Charlotte Altmann, in the city of Petrópolis, in Rio de Janeiro. Still, with the end of the war in Europe and the demise of Brazil's Estado Novo regime, Zweig's visions seemed like a feasible utopia. And in no other area, in no other capacity, has that future been better materialized than in the national cultural realm, through the establishment of artistic institutions, museums, and a whole new scene of artists, critics, and market undercurrents. It is this chapter of Brazil's cultural and artistic life that Adele Nelson's new book, "Forming Abstraction: Art and Institutions in Postwar Brazil," is about.

The book tells the story of how abstraction became paramount in Brazil, specifically in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sâo Paulo. How it mobilized the inspiration of several important artists like Geraldo de Barros, Ivan Serpa, and Lygia Clark, among many others, at the same time as it was articulated and promoted by prominent figures within art criticism, chiefly Mário Pedrosa. Furthermore, the introduction of abstraction into the country, still a very provincial cultural landscape at the time, was also achieved through the extraordinary efforts of practitioners trying to establish proper art institutions.

Right away, Nelson understands that one cannot comprehend abstraction as a derivative language, one emerging elsewhere in the northern transatlantic and only later being applied to Brazil. The process of acclimatization, so to speak, implicates complex vectors of influence, criticism, and the action of multiple actors. Besides, multiple temporalities are also at play. What unfolds in Brazil, in the end, has its own power, forged precisely from the mixture of foreign and local elements connected in a tense combination. Through a historical analysis, this book tracks the gradual unfolding of ideas and their movement across land and time, allowing one to understand their meaning more accurately.

The book's methodical scheme is noteworthy. Nelson moves smoothly from the macro to the micro in a heartbeat. While the first chapter, for instance, is dedicated to a grander scheme following closely how a handful of businesspeople, with Ciccillo Matarazzo at their center, decided to create the institutions where abstraction would proliferate, from the Sâo Paulo Museum of Modern Art to the Biennial, the second chapter revolves around the concept of forma or form. This notion would grant nonobjective art its most prolific theoretical framework. Here, we witness the intricate discussion captained by Pedrosa with artists close to him formulating the limits of expression, medium, and artistic perception. To do so, Nelson examines new and still little-researched documents, thus opening new perspectives of research on these issues in Brazil.

In the third chapter, Sâo Paulo Biennial's creation is discussed. The event would eventually promote the city to the international stage, presenting the most advanced international artistic languages to the country, influencing local artists, and creating, consequently, a different understanding of Brazil's potentialities, both at home and abroad. Its influence, as the influence of the historic second Bienal, discussed in the fifth chapter, would impact the creation of many of the 1950s nonobjective groups. As the fourth and sixth chapter demonstrates, the emergence of major artistic groups, like the Grupo Ruptura and the Grupo Frente, were closely connected to the impact of these new institutions and events.

The historical arc and the narrative Nelson mobilizes are cohesive and convincing throughout. However, precisely where Nelson's book draws its strengths, namely in the careful reading of forgotten documents and in the close-knit narrative, also lays a somewhat minor shortcoming. At times, one may find the author's voice missing; her own interpretation of the chapters she presents, one feels, could be more robust, a bit more present. Furthermore, albeit Nelson recognizes that in postcolonial realities, such as in Brazil, the local products are always the results of complex relations with foreign elements, the name of the literary critic Roberto Schwarz, for one, is missing. Already in the 1970s, Schwarz delineated what he called "Misplaced Ideas," articulating the dialectics at play between local and foreign elements and demonstrating, eventually, how there is a reciprocal tension in concrete outcomes. Both the center and the periphery end up being transformed in some way. In this sense, it would be interesting to stress the influence the formation of abstraction in Brazil had on other cultural centers across the world. Did the artistic production elsewhere change after the consolidation of this new pole in the so-called Global South? What could the appearance of a local abstractionism tell us about abstractionism being developed in more advanced economies? What was the nature, in short, of the connection between the postwar artistic scenes across the world?

In any case, "Forming Abstraction" is an excellent contribution to Brazilian art historiography, in which significant chapters of the country's cultural history are still poorly researched and understood, both by the local and the international public. New voices are heard, new narratives articulated, and critical historical events are brought to light to a public outside of Brazil. In this regard, it is ironic that it took a foreign academic to tell the history of the land of the future.

João Gabriel Rizek