Artful: Tarsila do Amaral

Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) helped shaped  Brazilian Modernism. The exhibition of her work at the Art Institute of Chicago (which ended January 7, 2018) focused on the decade of the 1920s, when she moved back and forth between São Paulo and Paris and drew influences from the cultural, social and creative life of both cities.

Her important contribution was part of a broader Brazilian movement called Anthropophagy, whose proponents imagined their work as a sort of “aesthetic cannibalism” in which they consumed and digested a variety of artistic forms and traditions to create a new artistic language of their own.

The information at the exhibit said that Tarsila do Amaral is quite famous in Brazil, but almost unknown in the United States. I talked to my Brazilian sister-in-law about this artist, and although she didn’t know her by name, she did recognize some of the paintings that I sent her photos of.

These are my favorites of the 120 works displayed.



Abaporu (1928), oil on canvas. The name comes from two words in the indigenous Tupi-Guarani languages: aba, which means “person” and poru, which means “who eats.”  This is one of Tarsila’s most famous works, which my sister-in-law was familiar with.



Anthropophagy (1929), oil on canvas. The faceless figures, which may be identified as male and female, are set against a green wall of cacti and a banana plant. Inspired by European paintings of bathers, the landscape sets the figures in a Brazilian rather than European setting.





Sketches for Serra de Mantiqueira






Carnival in Madureira (1924), oil on canvas




Hills of the Favela (1924), oil on canvas. Favela is the Brazilian word for shantytown or slum, which began to crop up on the hillsides surrounding Rio de Janeiro and other cities in the late 1800s. In visiting the favelas, Tarsila and her companions explored the rich Afro-Brazilian music and culture.



The Bull (1928), oil on canvas



Study for Blue Woman (Water Spirit) I, (1925), graphite and water color on paper



The Lake (1928), oil on canvas



Manacá (1927), oil on canvas. A stylized portrait of the manacá plant of Amazonas, used by the native Tupi people for medicinal and magical purposes.




Anthropophagic Landscape (1929), oil on canvas





The Papaya Tree (1925), oil on canvas



Sleep (about 1928), oil on canvas





A Cuca (1924), oil on canvas. Tarsila wrote to her daughter about this painting: “A cuca is a strange animal, in the forest with a frog, an armadillo and an invented animal.” The cuca is adopted from Brazilian mythology. This painting is possibly the last of Tarsila’s paintings in its original frame with faux-snakeskin trim, which adds to the exoticness of the work.



Workers (1933), oil on canvas. In 1929, Tarsila experienced a series of setbacks including the loss of her family fortune and the end of her relationship with Oswaldo de Andrade, which resulted in the end of the Anthropophagy movement. She became interested in socialism and traveled to Moscow in 1931 where she became inspired by the “great collective effort.” As a result of her involvement in left-wing politics, she was imprisoned by the Brazilian government for one month in 1932. This left her very cautious, but she continued to participate in socialist activities for a short time and painted this work the following year.

I found Tarsila do Amaral’s work to be very colorful, creative, unusual, and VERY Brazilian. Which of these paintings did you find most interesting or beautiful? I welcome all comments, as well as links to any artwork you find inspiring!










One thought on “Artful: Tarsila do Amaral

  1. I love Tarsila‘s work! She was really impressive and super influential. Funny how your sister-in-law didn’t recognize her name, I studied her work in my high school art classes. 😊
    Super fun that you got to see all that. I’ve only seen it in books.

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