Semana de Arte Moderna [Modern Art Week], realised in São Paulo in 1922 was a symbolic milestone for Modernism in Brazil, and is considered as a watershed in the history of Brazilian culture. The event, organised by a group of intellectuals and artists on the occasion of the Centenary of Independence, declared the break with the cultural traditionalism associated with previous artistic and literary currents: Parnassianism, Symbolism and Academic Art. The defence of a new aesthetic point of view and the commitment to the cultural independence of the country made Modernism a synonym of the "new style" directly associated with the production realised under the influence of 1922. Heitor Villa-Lobos in music; Mário de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade in literature; Victor Brecheret, in sculpture; Anita Malfatti and Di Cavalcanti in painting, were some of the participants in Modern Art Week, highlighting its range and heterogeneous character. Scholars tend to consider the period from 1922 to 1930 as the phase of emergence of a first commitment of artists to aesthetics renewal, benefiting from close contacts with European avant-gardes (Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, etc.). This effort to redefine the artistic language was connected to a strong interest in national questions, which became particularly notable from the 1930s onwards, when the ideals of 1922 spread and became commonplace. While Brazilian modernism must be thought of in terms of its multiple forms of expression, in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco etc., Modern Art Week was an eminently urban and São Paulo phenomenon, connected to the growth of the city during the 1920s, industrialisation, the massive foreign immigration and urbanisation.
Despite the literary force of the Modernist group, the visual arts formed the basis of the movement. The impulse came from painting, from the activities of Di Cavalcanti in organising the event, the sculptures of Brecheret, and above all, the exhibition by Anita Malfatti, in 1917. Anita's works from this period (O Homem Amarelo [The Yellow Man], A Estudante Russa[Russian Student], A Mulher de Cabelos Verdes [Woman with Green Hair], A Índia [The Indian], A Boba [The Foolish Woman], O Japonês [Japanese Man], etc.) present a commitment to the teachings of modern art: the free brushstroke, the problematisation of the relationship between figure and background, the treatment of the light without conventional chiaroscuro. The work of Di Cavalcanti pursues another direction. A self-taught painter, Di Cavalcanti worked as an illustrator and caricaturist. His simple and stylised line became the hallmark of his graphic language. His painting, which began in 1917, does not show a defined orientation, with his works revealing a certain eclecticism, alternating a romantic and "penumbrista" tone (Boêmios [Bohemians], 1921) with the inspirations from Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Paul Cézanne, who led him to the geometrisation of the form and the exploration of colour (Samba [Samba] and Modelo no Atelier [Model in the Studio], both dating from 1925). The chromatic contrasts and the ornamental elements of Henri Matisse's painting, are in turn at the root of works such as Mulher e Paisagem [Woman and Landscape], 1931. An Italian training and French experience mark Brecheret's sculptures. The author of the model for Monumento às Bandeiras [Monument to the Bandeirantes], 1920, and the 12 pieces exhibited during Modern Art Week (including Cabeça de Cristo [Head of Christ], Daisy and Torso), Brecheret is the sculptor of the Modernist group, compared to the French sculptors Auguste Rodin and Emile Antoine Bourdelle by the critics of the day.
Tarsila do Amaral was not present at the event of 1922, although this does not diminish her status as the great exponent of Brazilian modernism. Associating her French experience and training with André Lhote, Albert Gleizes and Fernand Léger to national themes, the painter produced a body of work emblematic of the concerns of the Modernist group. From French painting, particularly the 'animated landscapes" of Léger, Tarsila drew the image of the machine as the icon of modern and industrial society. The gears produce a precise aesthetic effect, supplying a language to the works: their outlines, colours and modulated planes introduce movement to the canvas, as is the case in E.F.C.B., 1924 and A Gare [Railway Station], 1925. This first "Pau Brasil" phase, characterised by native landscapes and lyrical figurations, was followed by a short anthropophagic period (1927-29), which erupted with Abaporu, 1928. The reduction of colours and elements, the dreamlike images and the surrealist atmosphere (e.g. Urutu, O Touro [The Bull] and O Sono [Sleep], of 1928) mark the essential traces of this moment. Her journey to the Soviet Union in 1931 was at the root of a social shift in the work of Tarsila (Operários [Workers], 1933), which coincides with the nationalist tone of the period, of whom the best example was Candido Portinari. Portinari may be considered as a typical expression of the Modernism of the 1930s. With research into national themes and the strong social and political accent of the works may be associated Picasso's cubism, Mexican Muralism and the School of Paris (among other works, Mestiço [Mestizo], 1934, Mulher com Criança [Woman and Child], 1938 and O Lavrador de Café [Coffee Picker], 1939. Lasar Segall, trained in the vocabulary of German Expressionism approached the Modernists in 1923, when he settled in Brazil. Part of his work, which is wide-ranging and diverse, records the landscape and local figures in harmony with Modernist concerns (Mulato 1 [Mulatto 1], 1924, O Bebedouro [Drinking Trough] and Bananal [Banana Grove], 1927.
While the term Modernism refers directly to the production executed under the aegis of 1922, which also included the names of Vicente do Rego Monteiro, Antonio Gomide, John Graz and Zina Aita, Modernist output within Brazil should be thought of in broader terms, including works prior to the 1920s such as those of Eliseu Visconti and Castagneto, and researches that passed Modern Art Week by, such as those of the artists linked to the Grupo Santa Helena [Santa Helena Group] (Francisco Rebolo, Alfredo Volpi, Clóvis Graciano etc.)