On seeing the recent Brazilian works on view as a juror at the fourth Bienal de São Paulo (São Paulo Biennial) in 1957, Alfred H. Barr Jr. notoriously characterized them as “Bauhaus exercises” and mere “diagrams.”1 The prominent display at the exhibition of geometric abstract works by Lygia Clark, Waldemar Cordeiro, Hermelindo Fiaminghi, Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, Luiz Sacilotto, Franz Weissmann and others were undoubtedly the target of Barr’s dismissal of Brazilian contemporary art.2 Instantly controversial in Brazil, the remark was understood, then as now, as a dismissal of Brazilian abstract art as a latter-day, derivative replay of early-20th-century innovations in European modernism—by none other than the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.3 Certainly, he was not wrong to identify the German school and its philosophy of design as an important reference for Brazilian artists—a relationship underscored by the biennial’s special exhibition dedicated to the Bauhaus. What he failed to recognize or value were the ways artists in Brazil were engaged not in a project of imitation but of transformation. Barr’s comments also make clear that the claims on the history of European modernism made by artists working in developing nations were placed in a particular context of contestation. Engagement with Bauhaus ideas at both the institutional and individual levels proved a key forum for Brazilian actors of the 1950s to articulate tactics of citation and adaptation, asserting different non-derivative, radical conceptions of modernism.4
Two art schools that opened their doors in the early 1950s, at the recently established museums in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, were key interlocutors in this complex negotiation of claims on the German school and its pedagogy made by the emerging Brazilian postwar avant-garde. The first, the Instituto de Arte Contemporânea (Institute of Contemporary Art, IAC) at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (Museum of Art of São Paulo, MASP), was inaugurated by MASP director Pietro Maria Bardi in 1951, with architect Jacob Ruchti serving as a key teacher. The second was the art school of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro, MAM RJ), which opened in 1952 with the artist Ivan Serpa as lead teacher. Both schools were short-lived in their original configuration, with the IAC lasting less than three years in its original form and Serpa’s courses at MAM RJ suspended upon his departure on an extended visit to Europe in 1958.5 What each school originally offered was instruction grounded in nonobjective abstraction and an emphasis on instruction in the history of modern art—alternatives to the training oriented by naturalism, Expressionism, and Cubism at Rio’s Escola Nacional de Belas Artes (National School of Fine Arts, ENBA), São Paulo’s Liceu de Artes e Ofícios (School of Arts and Crafts), and other private schools in both cities. In what follows, I examine the curricula of the school of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, highlighting the important roles of certain thinkers and teachers, including Serpa and Mário Pedrosa, as well as works by artists trained at the school. I conclude with an analysis of the series of paintings by Lygia Clark that were partially the object of Barr’s comments. I argue that far from being “exercises,” the pedagogy and practice these artists and thinkers created reveal how the Bauhaus served as a crucial point of both avowal and disavowal for the emerging Brazilian avant-garde and its supporters, one which they used to establish connections to European modernism, assert a basis of art-making in nonobjective abstraction, and develop an ethos of research and materially grounded experimentation.