AuthorAnagnost, Adrian

In February 1928, Brazilian civil engineer Flavio de Carvalho caused a stir with his entry in an open competition to design a new Paldcio do Governo (Palace of Government) for the state of Sao Paulo (Figure 1). Carvalho was a wealthy, white, European-educated Brazilian who would later be heralded as Brazils first performance artist, an avant-garde provocateur whose urban interventions flouted bourgeois propriety. But at the time of the Paldcio competition, Carvalho was simply one of many young Brazilians aspiring to modernize the country's art and architecture. He had recently completed a two-year stint as a structural engineer for F. P. Ramos de Azevedo, the firm responsible for constructing numerous stately civic buildings in the heart of Sao Paulo beginning in the 1890s. Carvalho's design for the Paldcio broke decisively with his former employers staid Beaux-Arts neoclassicism, instead presenting an agglomeration of geometric forms whose architectural feasibility seemed secondary to a desire for visual impact.

Given its fluency with international paradigms and its rejection of prevailing architectural norms in Brazil, Carvalho's proposal for the Paldcio do Governo has been heralded as a visionary and radical break with aesthetic conventions in modern Brazil. Brazilian art critic Aracy A. Amaral called Carvalho's design "modern and bold," while Brazilian art critic Luiz Camillo Osorio has emphasized the design's "creativity, daring and originality," positioning the Palacio as an antiestablishment cry from a young aesthetic rebel. (2) The primary drama of Carvalho's proposal was its stylistic novelty, characterized in the Sao Paulo press as "curious," "modernist," "futurist," and "stunning," in contrast to the other entries in the Paldcio competition in the styles of "the Louis [XIV and XVI of France]" or "the 'Baroque' motifs of the so-called 'colonial.'" (3) Carvalho seems to have channeled content from recent issues of Brazilian architecture and design journal A Casa, one of Brazil's major press conduits for international modernist architecture. The design demonstrated Carvalho's familiarity--through the architectural press--with up-to-date formal idioms in modernist architecture, especially the Paris houses of Robert Mallet-Stevens and Swiss architect Le Corbusier's five points of architecture, as well as artistic avant-gardes such as Russian Constructivism. (4) Thus Carvalho was introduced to a Brazilian newspaper public as an avant-garde architect to watch.

At the same time, Carvalho's 1928 Paldcio materialized a parodic uneasiness about Sao Paulo's emergent urban masses, since he proposed adorning the Sao Paulo statehouse with numerous weapon systems and defensive apparatuses. Three years later, after Brazil's Revolution of 1930 ushered the quasipopulist Getulio Vargas to Brazil's presidency, Carvalho expressed this sentiment less ambivalently. In his best-known work, the Experiencia n. 2 (1931), Carvalho performatively disrupted a Sao Paulo Corpus Christi procession. Originally pitched as an "experiment" in crowd behavior that pilloried religious conventions, the Experiencia n. 2 has become known as a pioneering moment for Brazilian avant-garde aesthetics as an emancipatory practice. However, both the Paldcio and the Experiencia addressed o povo (the people) on the streets of Sao Paulo not as heroic revolutionaries, but as unruly crowds, drawing on Freudian psychological theories to pathologize the paulistano masses. Rather than liberatory impulses countering Brazilian society's traditional hierarchies and artistic conventions, Carvalho's works evince ambivalence about the political power of the urban masses.

While Carvalho has long been recognized as a key provocateur within studies of Brazilian modernism, the past two decades have seen a new interest in his work among art historians, artists, and curators worldwide. For scholars and practitioners seeking to "globalize" aesthetic canons, Carvalho's prescient vanguardism exemplifies transnational modernism on the periphery, and even presages contemporary artistic concerns with conceptualism, intermediality, and performance. In some of the earliest commentary relating Carvalho to later art, Brazilian art historian Aracy A. Amaral inserted Carvalho into a postwar lineage of "non-objectualist"--meaning, dematerialized or conceptualist--art practices. (5) Similarly, Brazilian critic Rui Moreira Leite has argued that Carvalho's strategic use of newspapers to publicize his work made him a "media artist avant la lettre." (6)

Yet as attention to Carvalho has intensified over the past twenty years, many commentators have conflated his formal innovations with radical politics. Writing in 2000, Brazilian art critic Luiz Camillo Osorio positioned Carvalho as a key precursor for Brazil's post-Neoconcrete "experimental" art, at that time becoming more visible for international art audiences. (7) By 2005, Osorio was interpreting Carvalho's aims as "social emancipation and individual liberty." (8) Likewise, around 2010 Colombian-born curator Inti Guerrero deployed Carvalho as evidence of a longstanding tradition of vanguard performance art and "utopian" thinking in Latin America. (9) More recently, Galicia-born literary critic Alva Martinez Teixeiro argued that Carvalho's works offer a "radical alternative... against the mandarins and in search for the liberation of man." (10) However, Carvalho's inclusion in a global art historical canon has ended up suppressing the specificity of his politics--to Brazil, to Sao Paulo. Situated in his time and place, Carvalho's practice offers an intertwining of avant-garde aesthetics with reactionary social relations: his disruption of traditional aesthetic canons did not expand political emancipation but expressed anxiety about threats to elites' hold on political power, a paradox characteristic of one strand of Brazilian modernism."

Carvalho's work emblematizes the particular context of 1920s-1930s Sao Paulo, a city that saw itself as the vanguard of the nation. Rejecting regionalist images of Brazil, Sao Paulo avant-gardes would be characteristically "anti-personalist, anti-regionalist, anti-nationalist, avowedly international," as demonstrated in the famed Semana de Arte Moderna (Week of Modern Art) (1922). (12) But Carvalho's fluency in international styles did not belatedly express the Semana's vanguard impulse. Rather, Carvalho combined modernist architecture forms, modern psychoanalysis, and urbanist theories to diagnose pernicious changes to Sao Paulo's cityscape and its inhabitants--not in the triumphant national centenary year of the Semana, but in a period that saw the decline of old oligarchic power structures and the rise of populist politics.

In challenging extant aesthetic and social conventions, Carvalho was working to carve out a place for himself as a cultural arbiter in the changing city of Sao Paulo. Formerly a sleepy provincial capital, the rapidly industrializing and urbanizing metropolis was now a rising economic and political power whose regionalist ambitions would soon threaten the capital of Rio de Janeiro.' (3) Additionally the late 1920s saw divisions among regional elites, agrarian oligarchs, and rising industrialists that resulted in the Revolution of 1930, ended the aristocratic Old Republic, and brought to power the populist-cumauthoritarian leader Getulio Vargas. In the rising metropolis of Sao Paulo, Carvalho performed a newly conceptualized role of professional artist, among an emerging cultural elite no longer formed of aristocratic dilettantes, but professionals with new expertise. As the oligarchic social order faltered, Carvalho sought to join the new elite, the Sao Paulo technocrat class. Amid such developments, Carvalho's Paldcio do Governo (1928) and Experiencia n. 2 (1931) did not celebrate mass political movements but crystallized elite anxieties in a time of revolution. His art practice is best understood not as liberatory, but as a technocratic effort to maintain social standing; a reactionary effort that tapped into broader currents of social engineering that characterized Sao Paulo in the 1920s and 1930s.


    Carvalho designed the Sao Paulo Paldcio do Governo in a period of militarization and political turmoil that eventually saw the demise of Brazils oligarchic Old Republic. The 1910s were marked by anarchism and labor activism, including a 1917 General Strike, where socialism gained adherents as well; the Brazilian Communist Party was founded in 1922. (14) In 1924, young liberalizing army lieutenants (tenentes) briefly seized control of Sao Paulo as a way to provoke a widespread political rebellion; the national government responded by bombing Sao Paulo. (15) As numerous so-called tenente revolts failed throughout the 1920s, underlying tensions remained high: among land-rich rural coffee planters, wealthy urban industrialists, urban functionaries, burgeoning numbers of urban working classes, and young, idealistic (if somewhat undemocratic) military lieutenants. New regional powers began to emerge in the late 1920s, at the same time that the Great Depression disrupted trade and spurred debates about monetary policy, thus upending a longstanding political compact between the wealthy Brazilian states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais and creating the conditions for Brazils Revolution of 1930, discussed below.

    In this context, Carvalho's 1928 proposal for a new Paldcio do Governo was--unsurprisingly--fortresslike: boxy, windowless, complete with antiaircraft weapon systems. This was a government building that expressed the state's ability to withstand dissent, to crush the opposition. Almost three decades later, Carvalho would frame the Paldcio as an aesthetic comment on the national government's futile efforts to exert control over its unruly populace. In 1928, when the risk of rebellion was real, Carvalho's building reveals a...

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