The Challenge of a Global Modernism

Kaira M. Cabañas, Learning from Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 240 pp.; 61 b/w ills. $45, $10–45 ebook

Sarah J. Townsend, The Unfinished Art of Theater: Avant-Garde Intellectuals in Mexico and Brazil. Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 2018. 312 pp. 35 b/w ills. $99.95, $34.95 paper, $34.95 ebook


Latin America has long occupied a precarious position within a “global” history of modernism written from the center: the region’s art has been either dismissed as derivative or celebrated for ocular affinity with “mainstream” Euro-American forms. Although the past few decades have seen a proliferation of serious scholarship on post–World War II Latin American art, the prewar period has garnered significantly less attention. At least part of this neglect derives from the comparative scarcity of painters and sculptors working in the region in the 1920s and the dominance of social realism in the 1930s and 1940s, often slighted as anachronistic and doctrinaire. Two new studies redress these gaps by looking beyond avant-garde art as traditionally conceived and mining sources more germane to the specificities of Latin America’s discrepant modernities. Sarah J. Townsend’s The Unfinished Art of Theater: Avant-Garde Intellectuals in Mexico and Brazil explores an array of performative gestures broadly classified as “theater” to understand what it meant to be “avant-garde” in the 1920s and 1930s on capitalism’s periphery, where development and underdevelopment were part and parcel of a single modernist project. Kaira M. Cabañas’s Learning from Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art, in turn, examines the influence of the art of psychiatric patients on emergent theories and institutions of modern art in Brazil from the 1920s to the 1960s. Brazil’s singular impulse to position the art of the insane not as expressions of pure alterity but as internal to a local discourse of modernism provides a cogent model of provincial specificity by which Cabañas rethinks notions of “inclusion” as they play out in the “global” contemporary.1 Read together, these books suggest both the revisionist promise and the methodological challenge of writing a genuinely global art history able to evaluate local modernism on its own terms and treat modernity not as universal but as complex, heterogeneous, and fundamentally situated.

A situated history of modernism by no means implies isolation, as these volumes attest. The curious appearance of a drawing by an “unknown psychiatric patient from São Paulo” in a Parisian exhibition of art brut organized by Jean Dubuffet in 1949 constitutes a signal event in Learning from Madness, establishing a flurry of intellectual and artistic exchange in both directions across the Atlantic. The international notoriety of noted Brazilian physician Osório César explains the inclusion of the painting, which also exemplifies the cross-cultural development of modernism and advances globalization’s timeline by half a century. César is one of the central protagonists in Cabañas’s study; his research on the art of his patients at the Juquery hospital outside São Paulo in the 1920s established him among a pioneering psychiatric coterie that included renowned German physician/art historian Hans Prinzhorn. Like Prinzhorn, César was also an art critic who published widely on modern art. Yet Cabañas’s close reading of their early writings yields subtle albeit consequential distinctions in their clinical and critical approaches to patient art. Cabañas argues that Prinzhorn’s use of patient art as a diagnostic tool preserved the patient’s marginality, reifying the pure alterity that attracted Surrealists and other European modernists to the art of the alienated (as the Surrealists would have called it). César, in contrast, employed psychoanalytic theory to interpret the art’s symbolism, preserving the objects’ autonomy while positioning patient art within a broader engagement among Brazilian modernists with the writings of Sigmund Freud.

How the autonomy of patients’ art was institutionalized through its exhibition occupies much of the first two chapters of Learning from Madness. Chapter 1 details César’s collaboration with iconoclastic modern artist Flávio de Carvalho, a friendship that personifies the deeply imbricated relationship of modern psychiatry and modern art in Brazil. A frequent visitor to Juquery, Carvalho was a devotee of Freud who conducted his own experiments with collective psychology (most notoriously walking hatless against a public religious procession, resulting in calls for the artist’s lynching—an event Cabañas relates in rich analytical and anecdotal detail). Together, Carvalho and César mounted the first public exhibition of patients’ art in Brazil in 1933, held not in the asylum but in one of the few institutions of modern art in Brazil at the time, the politically and artistically radical Modern Artists’ Club (CAM). Contrasted with André Breton’s famed Surrealist exhibition of 1938, which included art of the mentally ill as illustrations of modernist principals, Brazil’s inaugural exhibition—informed by its avant-garde context—set a curatorial precedent, respecting “identity and provenance” of the artists as artists and their art as art.

Cabañas turns, in chapter 2, to the place of madness in contentious critical and institutional debates over what the form and character of modern art would constitute in Brazil. Within a year of the founding of South America’s first museum of modern art in São Paulo in 1948, the institution opened a landmark exhibition featuring work by nine patient-artists. Produced under the care of physician Nise da Silveira of Rio de Janeiro’s Engenho de Dentro hospital, the exhibition at São Paulo’s Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM-SP) predated similar efforts in Europe and the United States by more than a decade. Cabañas argues that the institutionalization of modern art produced a policing of patient art, eschewing those who produced figurative work as incompatible with Brazilian modernism. The curatorial mandate for abstraction suggested that madness could accommodate Brazilian modernity, but only so long as it “assimilate to a particular conception of aesthetic modernism based on autonomy and aesthetic quality” (58). Adherents of figuration, in turn, decried abstraction’s association with madness, seeing in it a deficiency of reason and expertise at odds with modernity. In Brazil and France the value of patient art for the avant-garde resided in its challenge to bourgeois artistic and social norms, yet Cabañas critiques the French reception of patient art as “pure spontaneous expression” for “upholding madness as a myth” (76). Learning from Madness depicts a Brazilian context where artists and critics worked within the art studios of mental institutions, which expanded significantly with the increased interest in patient art. Although not explicitly stated, it is suggested that this experience exposed the Brazilian art world to “disciplinary subjugation” (77) that informed patient creativity, which was denied by the French avant-garde, and is critical to Cabañas’s broader critique of contemporary practices posed in the second half of the book.

The twofold connotations of “autonomy” implied in these debates—conflating the autonomy of patients’ art with national cultural autonomy—are confirmed in chapter 3, which turns from the institutional to the theoretical. The chapter delivers a critical reassessment of the implications of Gestalt theory in the writings of Mário Pedrosa in light of his work with Silveira at Engenho de Dentro and his publications on patient art. Cabañas’s identification of what she calls a “physiognomic turn” in Pedrosa’s interpretation of Gestalt—which softened the emphasis on reason and vision with “physiognomic” faculties sensitive to the more affective properties of form—has stunning implications for the history of postwar Brazilian modernism. The late 1950s witnessed what historiography has consecrated as a “rupture” between the generally two-dimensional, geometric aesthetics of concrete art and its neoconcrete reaction, which focused on the corporeal and the participatory. Yet Pedrosa’s “physiognomic turn” reduces the distance between the Gestalt theories that underpinned concretism and the interest in phenomenology that galvanized neoconcretism, suggesting less rupture than continuity. More than a trivial question of terminology, this revision calls into question the foreign origins of the country’s most highly regarded modernist patrimony in that Max Bill’s participation in the 1951 São Paulo Biennial is widely considered the flash point of neoconcretist thought. The influence of Silveira’s patients on Pedrosa’s thinking repositions neoconcretism within a unique national trajectory dating to the 1920s, thus provocatively placing its inception in the eminently local forms of abstraction produced through patients’ art.

This locally situated history of Brazilian modernism serves as a point of departure for the reassessment of curatorial strategies of inclusion that, in the second half of the book, reveals they at once herald the global contemporary and vex its practices. The final two chapters employ the example of Brazilian mental patient Arthur Bispo do Rósario as conduit between the historic-aesthetic inquiries that opened the book and the polemic-ethical focus of its conclusion. Chapter 4 outlines a rich profile of this immensely popular yet misunderstood figure known as “Bispo,” institutionalized since the 1930s, who became posthumously famous in the 1980s for his apparel and constructions made from found objects. Cabañas analyzes his work not as “art” (which Bispo himself denied) but as a resistant counterpower against his institutionalization, critiquing Brazilian curators and critics for their formalist approaches that “affirm the pure autonomy of his work” (121), thus allowing its exhibition as modern art. In a gesture anathema to the discursive legacies documented in the first three chapters, Cabañas calls for recognition of Bispo’s psychological and physical abjection so as not to merely liberate his work from “one type of epistemic control (psychiatry)” only to “inscribe the work within another” (11). Chapter 5 extends this critique to contemporary exhibition circuits. Discussing Bispo’s prominence at the 2012 São Paulo Biennial and 2013 Venice Biennale, she reproaches the tendency toward pseudomorphism—the assumption that “visually similar forms yield similar meanings” (123) that has facilitated the fraught entrance of outsider art into the global contemporary. Yet Cabañas’s study suggests how difficult a truly situated interpretation can be, in that her focus on the clinical and critical is at the expense of the social and political context. Indeed, the discourses of madness and modernism so meticulously delineated in the first three chapters appear oddly hermetic. Removed as this narrative is from the machinations of history and society, the fact that it unfolds in Brazil seems oddly irrelevant, as if it could have happened anywhere.

The Unfinished Art of Theater, in contrast, positions Mexican and Brazilian artistic production in a rich ideological and social landscape of the 1920s and 1930s marked by a tension between rapid progress and the delay, dependency, and discontinuity it produced in Latin America. “Unfinishedness” becomes a central metaphor for the antinomies of modernity, invoking a host of unrealized modernist spectacles, alternately frustrated by developmentalist utopian ambitions and the dystopian realities of underdevelopment. Unlike in Cabañas’s account, the state looms large in Townsend’s study, appearing as modernism’s custodian and antagonist as represented by antithetical anecdotes that bookend the volume. The book opens in Mexico with a pharaonic celebration of the revolution’s youth and progress in the newly constructed sixty-thousand-seat national stadium. The performance by some five thousand schoolgirls is interrupted by dozens of them fainting from sunstroke, an eerie harbinger of the failure that will see the razing of the state-of-the-art stadium (due to shoddy construction) ten years later. The book concludes with the closure of Flávio de Carvalho’s experimental theater by Brazil’s notorious secret police during the authoritarian Vargas regime of the 1930s, which, ironically, thwarted the staging of an unperformable production intended to feature an all-black cast of thousands and fantastical talking horses.

Between these spectacular benchmarks unfolds a dizzying panoply of oddly unstageable proposals and interrupted, incomplete, or unrepeated undertakings of “theater,” broadly conceived to include ethnographic opera, puppetry, radio, phonographic recording, and architecture. The first two chapters treat theater in its more familiar form to rethink the central trope of synthesis relative to revolutionary ideology. Exemplary of Townsend’s penchant for wordplay and coincidence that animates her text is her exploitation of the double meaning of ensaio, which translates as both “essay” and “rehearsal,” to offer a revisionist account of José Vasconcelos’s seminal essay on Mexican identity, La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race). The secretary of public education in charge of the development of postrevolutionary culture, Vasconcelos embodies the unevenness at the crux of Townsend’s inquiries: a conservative bureaucrat with a predilection for classicism who conscripted the avant-garde to a massive popular (re)education project. Townsend consults a range of eclectic sources, including the design of the national theater-stadium, rehearsals for a massive performance to be staged within, and other Vasconcelos texts, most importantly a little-known “closet drama” (a play never intended to be performed) entitled Prometeo vencedor (Prometheus Triumphant), to probe the divide between art and ideology and to liberate Vasconcelos’s construction of “synthesis” from the narrow racialist ideologies misattributed to it.2

Chapter 2 examines the regional theater project spearheaded by Vasconcelos and the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) aimed at incorporating indigenous tradition into national culture. The chapter focuses primarily on the only dramatic performance ever produced by the avant-garde Estridentistas, Teatro del Murciélago (Theater of the Bat)—which the author notes was “curiously un-avant-garde.” Townsend contrasts the Estridentista project to the synthetic theater of the Paris-based Soviet émigré group Chauve-Souris, which inspired the Mexican version. Whereas Chauve-Souris’s synthesis of class and labor aimed to critique and transgress the exploitative nature of primitivist accumulation, Teatro del Murciélago performed folk and indigenous cultures inscribed in “post-revolutionary labor regimes and institutions.” The divergent contexts and forms prompt Townsend to distance Mexico’s synthetic theater from its predecessor’s critique of capital, repositioning it in an affective economy in which emotion circulated with the itinerant performance of popular traditions, where it amassed emotional and cultural capital with which to bolster national identity and foreign economic alliances.

The book’s inclusion of the Estridentistas is one of its most compelling contributions, revealing a nuanced image of the Mexican avant-garde often obscured by the pictorial and historiographic bombast of revolutionary muralism. The examination of Estridentistas forays into radio and puppet theater in chapter 3 presents one of the book’s most cogent allusions to the regional vagaries of capitalism and the local avant-garde’s arbitration thereof through the playful robot puppet Troka el Poderosa (Troka the Powerful). Puppet theater was a consummately traditional art form, employed by the SEP in its massive literacy campaigns in which several ex-Estridentistas (for by then the movement had collapsed) were instrumental. Despite the importance of Troka to Townsend’s analysis, the puppet’s identity as an Estridentista marionette relies on an “unsubstantiated” claim that he appeared in puppet theater and a contemporary toy theater production celebrating Estridentismo (122). That the science-fiction character entered the state’s folk-based ideological repertoire as a means to naturalize the demands of industry in a largely agricultural society charged Troka with contradiction, only exacerbated by the puppet’s move to radio when he appeared in several broadcasts in 1933. Townsend’s inquiries concern the reception of new media, a consideration that complicates the equation of technology and progress often measured solely by production. Underscoring the discontinuities of modernity, the chapter ends with a whimsical image of children drawing their own versions of the archaic-futuristic Troka and sending them in to the radio station, thus embodying the disembodied voice of Troka and making the one-way broadcast of the state dialogic.

The Unfinished Art of Theater comprises six discrete essays loosely tied together by common themes and intersecting inquiries. Thus the author makes little effort to connect the final three chapters on Brazil to any prior observations about Mexico. Situated in the industrial mecca of São Paulo, the chapters consider how modernism’s relation to capitalism appears quite different in Brazil. Chapters 4 and 5 look primarily at poet Mário de Andrade in the interdisciplinary undertakings that earned him the moniker “Pope of Modernism.” Chapter 4 positions him as a dramatic participant in the 1922 Week of Modern Art, a movement famously born in São Paulo’s stately Theatro Municipal that, as Townsend points out, ironically produced no avant-garde theater. Andrade’s discourse on modernism at the event, which was not presented on the stage but shouted in a stairwell over the jeers of the public, precipitates a profile of shame and abjection tied to his mixed-race, queer identity, which Townsend extends to national aesthetics. Chapter 5, in turn, presents him as an ethnographer, juxtaposing his explorations of Brazil’s remote cultures with a fascinating account of the arrival of phonographic recording and the location of the Victoria Talking Machine Company in São Paulo. Intended to distribute foreign music, namely opera, against which modernism mobilized, the recording industry arrived amid growing national enthusiasm for popular music such as samba, and nationalized its enterprise. Townsend explores Andrade’s recordings of popular music, his avant-garde novella Macunaíma (famous for its traversal of Brazil’s cultural heterogeneity), and his little-known plans to adapt the story to opera to examine how all of these endeavors alternately sought to decontextualize, recontextualize, and archive national culture.

Chapter 6 functions as a sort of conclusion, bringing the study into its contemporary relevance and issuing a trenchant defense of the necessity of peripheral modernisms to the understanding of modernism writ large. The chapter examines Flávio de Carvalho’s experimental theater, staged at the CAM, a critical institution in the development of Brazilian modernism that also appears in Cabañas’s study and warrants significantly more scholarly attention. Townsend examines poet Oswald de Andrade’s unstageable play O homem e o cavalo (The man and the horse) to expand the definition of total theater. Defying interpretations of the play as a “harbinger of a theatrical revolution that never made it across the Atlantic” (211)—a characterization that, nonetheless, epitomizes the unfinishedness, dependency, and delay she attributes to the avant-garde—Townsend studies the play on its own terms, claiming its author uses avant-garde forms to create a different model of art “premised on the work’s incompletion and its incompatibility within revolution and within capitalism itself” (212). Her positioning of the resultant form not as indebted to Europe but as anti-imperialist resistance is not to claim Oswald de Andrade’s removal from total theater but to expand the concept of total theater through the inclusion of Brazil.

Like Learning from Madness, The Unfinished Art of Theater thus bespeaks a more pluralistic conceptualization of modernism based on a multiplicity of experiences with modernity that complicates claims of universalism. Accommodating the vital exchange that attended modernism’s global itineraries, Townsend demonstrates an encyclopedic command of both Western theory and Latin American intellectual and cultural history. Yet at times the assiduous references and comparisons beyond Latin America beg a certain intellectual pseudomorphism, that is, a tendency to employ Western theory less as a hermeneutic strategy than for legitimacy, or to quote Cabañas, “as a way of lifting the work into the realm of high art” (122). After a paragraph engaging Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Georg Simmel, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, and Richard Wagner, among others, to understand Vasconcelos, Townsend remarks that “Vasconcelos doesn’t cite any of these ideas” (41). This concession prompted me to wonder how often scholars of Western art employ non-European theory to expand their analysis. If this happens, it is not often enough. By example and polemic both of these books issue a call not just for situated approaches to Latin American and other “peripheral” modernisms, but likewise for the provincialization of American and European narratives of modern art through which we can construct a genuinely inclusive account of global modernism.


Edith A. G. Wolfe is administrative assistant professor and assistant director of the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans. She has a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin with a focus on Latin American modern art. Her writing has appeared in The Art Bulletin, The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, and KulturConfusão: On German-Brazilian Interculturalities (De Gruyter, 2015) and will appear in the Museum of Modern Art’s forthcoming Among Others: Blackness at MoMA. Her interests include comparative cosmopolitanisms, transnational and diasporic cultures/identities, postcolonialism and subaltern expression, and the cultural politics of exhibition practices.


  1. Cabañas explains in a note on terminology (11) that she opts for the use of the terms “patient-artist,” “patient art,” and “patient’s creative production.” She also at times uses “asylum art,” “art of the insane,” “art of the alienated,” and “psychopathological art” in their historical usage.
  2. The Cosmic Race has been read canonically as a call for racial homogenization, which at the time of its publication seemed radical (in its defying of social Darwinist predictions of racial degeneration) but was also code for “whitening.” Townsend argues that the work is not crucial in Vasconcelos’s oeuvre (and even that it is a “prologue,” not a true essay) and that if one reads these related materials, “synthesis” applies to more than race, extending to spirituality, culture, and “literary genres.” This critiques the ideological co-optation of Vasconcelos and his recent discrediting by scholars who associate him with the politically bankrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that held power until 2000. She argues that Prometheus Triumphant is not ideology but rather a deconstruction of how ideology functions; the stadium, meanwhile, functions as an ideology.