On January 11th, 1928, the painter, Tarsila do Amaral, gave one of her recent paintings to Oswald de Andrade as a birthday present, without knowing that it would become the catalyst for one of the most original theoretical formulations of the specific nature of modern Brazilian art. While he was looking at that strange man painted by Tarsila, with enormous feet driven into the ground, with a little head apparently supported gloomily by one of his hands, and surrounded by a dry and hot environment, with only the blue sky, the sun and a mysterious green cactus as witnesses, Oswald de Andrade was asked by his friend, the writer, Raul Bopp, who was also observing: "Shall we start a movement based on this picture?". Abaporu, 1928, which in the Tupi-Guarani language means 'man-eater', was the name chosen for that wild and solitary figure.
He then founded the Clube de Antropofagia [Cannibalist Club], together with the Revista de Antropofagia [Cannibalist Review], which published the Manifesto Antropófago [Cannibalist Manifesto], written by Oswald de Andrade, as the theoretical kernel of the nascent movement that dissolved with his separation from Tarsila, in 1929. The text reelaborates, in trenchant sentences, the Eurocentric and negative concept of cannibalism as a metaphor for a critical process in the formation of Brazilian culture. If, for the civilised European, the man of the Americas was a savage or an inferior being, because he practiced cannibalism, in the positive and innovative vision of Andrade, it was precisely our cannibalistic nature that would, in the field of culture, permit the critical assimilation of European ideas and models. As man-eaters, we are capable of digesting imported forms to produce something genuinely national, without falling into the old model/copy relationship that dominated part of the art of the colonial period and Brazilian academic art of the 19th and 20th centuries. "Only what is not mine concerns me. Law of man. Law of the cannibal", the author cried in 1928.
In general terms, the Modernism of Semana de 22 [1922 Week] was characterized by a double vocation: the updating of the Brazilian artistic environment to bring it into contact with the various languages of European avant-gardes, and a simultaneous attempt to capture Brazil in a conscious project of creating an autonomous Brazilian art. A proposal to equate the two inclinations (internationalist and nationalist) is already present at the heart of the Manifesto Pau-Brasil [Brazil Wood Manifesto], 1924, of Oswald de Andrade, in which the author solves the problem of the tension between the civilised and intellectual culture of the coloniser and the native and primitive culture of the colonised through a "harmonious accord that would be produced in reality by virtue of a process of spontaneous assimilation between 'the forest and the school' ", as Benedito Nunes has noted.
If, in 1928, the writer did not completely abandon this utopian ideal of a synthesis between the European model and the experience of the primitive, he nevertheless added primitivism to it as a selective critical weapon, with the image of the savage who devours and assimilates only what interests him, destroying everything else. He proclaims against all of the 'proselitysm', all importers of canned consciousness, Father Vieira1, the figurative for alienated elites, the truth of the missionary peoples, the native torchbearer, Anchieta2, Goethe and the court of Dom João VI, and finally, the oppressive and clothed social reality - the "reality without complexes, without madness, without prostitution and without prisons of the matriarchate of Pindorama". Since, if the assimilation of the conquests of modern civilisation is inevitable, the Brazilian needs to raise himself to this culture, "provided that he conserves the barbarian qualities of his African and native origin", as Mário Pedrosa observed.
It may be noted that Oswald de Andrade carries out the same cannibalistic procedure in transforming the stigma of the cannibal into a quality, which he affirms in positive terms as a constituent of the unrestrained essence of Brazil. He was evidently not the first to use the image of the cannibal, which was present in European literature of the 1920s, appreciated against the background of rediscovery of the primitive cultures of Africa, the Americas and Oceania by the artistic avant-gardes of the day. The theme of cannibalism appears in authors as diverse as the Futurist poet, Filippo Marinetti, the Surrealist painter, Francis Picabia, who edited his review, Cannibale, in 1920, and the poet, Blaise Cendrars. Andrade thus carries on a dialogue with the European movement, but confers an originality on the image when he transforms it into the metaphor for a creative, active and critical process that generates a modern and autonomous Brazilian art.
The poetic procedure of Tarsila do Amaral's painting that was termed 'anthropophagic' (1928-c.1929), which in addition to Abaporu, also includes O Ovo [Urutu], 19283, A Lua, 1928 [The Moon], Floresta, 1929 [Forest], Sol Poente, 1929 [Setting Sun] and Antropofagia, 1929 [Cannibalism], and of which A Negra, 1923 [The Negress] is considered the precursor, is characterised by the "disarticulation of the constructive form", through submersion in the "cultural materiality" of Brazil. Without forgetting her modern apprenticeship of formal reduction and planning of the pictorial space, the artist uses rounded forms and emblematic colours (principally strong tones of yellow, green, blue, orange and purple) in a stylised way, to create a lively 'savage' universe linked to a dreamlike, magic (of indigenous and African legends) and primitive world with deep roots in Brazilian popular culture. It is nevertheless worth remembering, in accordance with the argument of Sônia Salzstein, that Tarsila's "cannibal" phase should not be considered as the simple illustration of a theory. Her own artistic development would have brought her to this moment of a critical relationship with her French apprenticeship, to some extent anticipating in pictorial terms the cannibalist platform of Oswald de Andrade.
From the 1930s onwards, and with the deterioration of the economic and social situation stemming from the Wall Street Crash of 1929, of which Oswald de Andrade was a victim, as well as the advent of the Vargas regime (1930-45), the question of the 'modern' as tension between the domestic and the international changed course, being discussed in different terms, at least until the end of the 1960s. Oswald repudiated the "severe epidemic of anthropophagic measles" during the 1930s, only returning to it at the end of the 1940s. The idea of Cannibalism as an aesthetic procedure was only consciously resumed in the mid-1960s, with the staging of his play, O Rei da Vela [The King of the Candle], by the Teatro Oficina theatre, and the Tropicalista movement of 1967-1968. This concept was institutionalised in a questionable way in 1998, when the 24ª Bienal Internacional de São Paulo [São Paulo International Biennial] was organised around the theme of 'The Cannibalist Movement and Stories of Cannibalism', proposing the construction of an alternative world history of art, i.e. one that adopted a non-Eurocentric viewpoint that proposed the updating, and curiously, the internationalisation of Oswald de Andrade's Cannibalism.
1 A 17th century Jesuit priest noted for defending the human rights of the indigenous Indians
2 A 16th century priest responsible for catechising Brazilian Indians, as well as the first grammar of the Tupi-Guarani language.
3 A Brazilian snake of the viper family.