Rio on the Hudson

The Guggenheim’s “Brazil”: Fabulous trinkets in search of a map.

Brazil may not be America’s twin, but it’s a sibling with strikingly similar features—blessed with bountiful resources, haunted by the murder of much of its indigenous population and the importation of slaves. Like America, Brazil has welcomed immigrants from everywhere on Earth, and also like us, it makes a self-conscious habit of restating its purpose every so often and updating its sense of destiny. I bring up these kinships, along with the less happy fact that Brazil has struggled through dictatorships and gross corruption over the past century, because the new “Brazil: Body and Soul” exhibit at the Guggenheim is short on context to an odd and irritating degree.

Nevertheless, the show has an underdog, seat-of-the-pants charm that wins you over. Not only does its cheerful spirit of cross-cultural exchange seem a good thing to support these days, its very existence was threatened by terror, and if you go now, you can see it fighting like the rest of us to recover. After Sept. 11, Brazilian officials debated whether or not to send along the show’s centerpiece, a massive gilded church altar, for fear that it might get hurt if more chaos struck. The piece finally arrived, late; when I visited a full eight days after the opening, the lobby was still roped off by yellow “caution” tape and given over to garbage bags full of Styrofoam and men on ladders, cautiously drilling.

The distraction is actually useful. The Guggenheim hired French architect Jean Nouvel to refashion Frank Lloyd Wright’s famously stark, hospital-white rotunda for the show. Nouvel’s strategy was to paint the ramps and walls a dull black—which, combined with the huge, florid monument in the middle, evokes nothing so much as a disco. If not for the clutter and the workmen, Guggenheim-goers might expect thumping house music to start up and a stranger to approach and try to sell them Ecstasy.  

But vulgarity can’t hide the fascinating stuff gathered here. There are early European studies of Brazil that resemble Holland with palm trees, and fluffy headgear to be worn during a male initiation rite. There’s a plenitude of carved objects, from sophisticated 1950s takes on African ancestral gods with the rounded, ebony sheen of beetle’s armor to centuries-old Pentecostal figures with hungry-looking glass eyes, and a whole wall of body parts—feet, hands, even breasts—representing thanks for a cured disease. Standing out among the sculptures are the expressive Rococo figures by an 18th-century unfortunate nicknamed “The Little Cripple,” who suffered from a progressive disease that forced him to work, in the end, with sticks strapped to his arms.

Most interesting are the few galleries devoted to Brazil’s brilliant burst of modernism in the 1920s. If one name emerges from the show with greater U.S. fame it should be Tarsila do Amaral, a woman who hung out with Fernand Léger and Constantin Brancusi in Paris, then came home and adapted avant-garde approaches to color (both in the painterly and the human senses) for Brazilian use. Like Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo, Tarsila was romantically linked to another arts figure—her husband was an influential poet-pamphleteer obsessed with “Brazilian-ness.” But unlike O’Keefe and Kahlo, she was not a semirecluse or a hothouse flower. Her paintings are ambitious public statements, rigorous yet generous, and I can’t think of another woman who did so much of the theoretical work necessary to make her country modern.

But if the art is rich, the show could be richer. Commentary next to the art is perfunctory, succumbing in places to Yogi Berra circularity. The wall text on Afro-Brazilian tradition, for example, announces that “Afro-Brazilian art is a contemporary phenomenon, encompassing any expression in the visual arts that recaptures, on one hand, traditional African aesthetics and religiosity and, on the other, the socio-cultural contexts of blacks in Brazil.” If this means anything other than “Afro-Brazilian art is Afro-Brazilian,” I invite readers to write in and explain.

Information-wise, the show is organized in a dramatically lopsided class system: Visitors can either starve for context or consume far more of it than the average person needs. You can wind your way up the rotunda, taking in stunning gold jewelry crafted by slaves and travelogue video images of a great 1960s monument to architectural modernism—the capital city of Brasilia—and connect these things in your mind as best you can on your own, like a pre-verbal child. Or, if you are extremely motivated and have spare time, you can attend scheduled lectures; you can check out the ambitious, well-curated film series that includes groundbreaking 1960s features championed by French New Wavers; you can sit down with the heavy 600-page catalog and work through informative essays, many translated from the Portuguese.

What’s hard to do is find a nice balance between blithe, forgettable engagement with the objects on view and a specialist’s insider zeal. Time and again, the show hops and skips periods with barely a nod to what changed in Brazil and how artists responded. I’m not talking about scholarly fine points here, but basic stuff. Imagine screening Apocalypse Now for an audience that knew nothing about American history and failing to mention Vietnam, and you get the idea.

I know the rap on the Guggenheim under current director Thomas Krens is that he dumbs down exhibits to lure bigger audiences and puts corporate ties ahead of public duties, hence the predictably criticized shows on motorcycles and Armani. Certainly, there’s a degree of cynicism in Krens’ assumption that people who attend an art show about Brazil aren’t really curious about Brazil. And the Guggenheim’s rumored pursuit of a branch in Rio may explain why the show feels so bleached of distressing themes. But those who see Krens as just a deal-making P.T. Barnum underestimate his idealism. “Works of art can easily overcome the constraints of time and space to communicate knowledge and friendship between people of different ethnicities and cultural traditions,” the press kit quotes him as saying. This is classic global-village wishful thinking, well-intended and naive. “Brazil: Body and Soul” represents both the glory and the disappointment of a vision that seemed invincible until practically yesterday, but now feels out of date. These days, we don’t need images to liberate us from time and space. We need informed empathy. We need context, above all else, and fast.