Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 5, 2016
Gabriela Rangel and Jorge F. Rivas Perez, eds. Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978 Exh. cat. New York: Americas Society, 2015. 280 pp.; 124 color ills.; 97 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (1879128799)
Exhibition schedule: Americas Society, New York, February 11–May 16, 2015; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, October 11, 2015–January 17, 2016
Miguel Arroyo. Coffee table (1956). Wood. 13.8 x 47.1 x 44.5 in. Producer: Pedro Santana, Carpintería Colectiva. Collection: Emilio Mendoza Guardia, Caracas.

The exhibition Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978 is a significant contribution to the study of modernisms and their relationship to processes of modernization. It focuses on domestic design in countries undergoing rapid change due to investments in infrastructure and economic growth, driven by the developmentalist policies of their governments. The home features as an important laboratory for design, where modernist ideologies with broad social implications were first tested in material form. Much attention is devoted to the simultaneous absorption of international design trends and creation of nationalist aesthetics, and to tensions between these seemingly contrasting operations. Although at times failing to tackle some of the complex issues it raises, the exhibition offers a rich visual panorama upon which the catalogue expands.

In the publication, a rare academic, comparative study of mid-century Latin American modern design and an excellent scholarly resource, co-curator Jorge F. Rivas Pérez (Venezuela) theorizes about Latin American design. Co-curator Ana Elena Mallet (Mexico) concentrates on three case studies that reveal the utopian ideals of mid-century designers, and Maria Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos (Brazil), the third curator, highlights important designers in Brazil. Essays by Lourdes Blanco (Venezuela) and Christina L. de León, the assistant curator at the Americas Society, add depth, revolving around particular figures in Venezuela and Mexico, respectively, who promoted design in their countries. Luis M. Castañeda, a Syracuse University art history professor, contributes a crucial critical view of design’s official dimensions by detailing key instances where designers helped construct highly charged, problematic governmental ideologies through public projects. The catalogue also includes several primary texts, translated into English for the first time, and brief biographies of each designer in the exhibition. This impressive volume demonstrates Gabriela Rangel’s dedication, as the director of visual arts and chief curator at the Americas Society, to producing beautifully illustrated, well-researched exhibition publications.

At the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, Moderno included 150 objects in an expanded version of the original show. It continued the institution’s decades-long commitment to scholarly exhibitions of Latin American modernisms and complimented its strong permanent collection of twentieth-century Latin American paintings and prints, some of which were in the exhibition. Pairings of furniture with the museum’s art, such as Mexican Arturo Pani’s acrylic and metal chair and mirrored bar cart, both circa 1970, with the diaphanous painting Superposition of Squares (1974) by Brazilian Arcângelo Ianelli, astutely highlighted modernist aesthetics. Rarely seen furniture designed by the German-born Venezuelan Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt) appeared in a wonderful pairing next to one of her Blanton-owned lithographs.

The variety of objects was a strength of the exhibition. One potent cluster comprised Alejandro Otero’s painting Tablón de Pampatar (1954) with Miguel Arroyo’s Mendoza coffee table and Butaca Pampatar (1953), a modern version of the low-slung colonial chair derived from a pre-Columbian type. Linear rhythms enliven all three mid-1950s Venezuelan artifacts. Proximately displayed was a large photograph of the living room of collector Alfredo Boulton’s beach home in Pampatar, Venezuela, showing the painting and chair in their original environment. Also nearby were a glass vase by Rubén Núñez, plans for Arroyo’s furniture, a magazine article by Arroyo about designing for the house, and a maquette of a front door by Otero and Arroyo. Other groupings were less historically precise but nonetheless powerfully suggested how modern design impacted daily living. Throughout the exhibition, plans and magazine articles gave glimpses into both the process of design and the way a taste for modern design spread, at least among certain educated consumers.

Of course, what is lost in exhibitions of vintage furnishings is that key characteristic of modern design, functionality. Viewing such a show without trying out the furniture is difficult, especially when some of it, like Brazilian Sérgio Rodrigues’s iconic Mole armchair (1957), beckons so persuasively. With functionalism rendered untestable by necessity, the focus inevitably becomes aesthetic. The curators grouped objects into roughly chronological thematic sections, determining immediate adjacency based on strong visual compatibility and eschewing presentation by nationality or strict chronology. These decisions made for a highly attractive viewing experience and easily digestible stories about the development of modern Latin American design, both aspects tailored to a general audience. Lost was a specific sense of historical context.

An important factor in mid-century design, closely related to functionalism, was utopianism. Designers created many of the objects with the goal of improving the daily lives of the laboring class through eminently functional and affordable furniture, a theme Mallet explores in her catalogue essay. She profiles three furniture companies in São Paulo, Mexico City, and Caracas, and relates the ideals behind their production of streamlined, rationalist objects to social design in Europe between the World Wars. As Mallet explains, the social and political conditions in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela from 1940 through the 1970s were marked by modernization programs different than the kind found in continental European countries during the Bauhaus era, but they nevertheless provided fertile ground for idealist designers who shared some of the values of earlier European visionaries. The tension in Mallett’s account between dreams of social improvement and the reality of capitalism during a time of incipient industrialization generates questions about “progress” that are still pressing today. This tension was less prominent in the exhibition, although one section highlighted how a lack of materials and small markets limited serial production.

The exhibition sections introduced potentially complex and problematic themes, but did so in neat packages that provided vague explanations and often stressed dichotomies between Latin American and “international” (European and U.S.-American) modernisms, particularly in the adjacent areas devoted to “The Past as a Source for National Identity” and “Influence of Popular Culture and Folklore.” This ultimately reinforces the kind of center-periphery model of modernism that so many scholars have been struggling to leave behind. Missed here was an opportunity to explore the much-criticized modern impulse, existent in Europe and the United States as well as in Latin America, to turn to the past and non-European or indigenous cultures, which were seen as purer and more primitive, for inspiration and renewal. It was an impulse fundamental to the emergence of many modernisms, a strategy for dealing with the problems of modernity and creating new, improved designs.

In the exhibition, indigenism is equated to nationalism, which is posed as a category strongly linked to Latin America and in opposition to the internationalism of modern design. But what kind of national identity were artists constructing, and for whom? Was the incorporation of indigenous elements a manifestation of a reconfiguration of values, a desire to empower indigenous people, or was it merely fashionable appropriation? The exhibition does not address such questions. An interview with Sérgio Rodrigues published in the catalogue suggests that the indigenous in his work functions not strictly as a sign of the national but also as a template for the integration of design and architecture, form and function, art and life, which were common goals of many modernisms and therefore not at odds with international currents. Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García made related arguments in the 1930s and 1940s about pre-Columbian art as an important source for universal art.

The next exhibition section cited vernacular traditions, likewise, as bestowing a local identity. “Local” is a less vexed term than “national,” since it does not imply service to geopolitical power structures. Yet here, too, the possibility that sources outside of elite Western culture could serve as bases for modernism was overlooked. According to the wall text, the vernacular, like the indigenous, often appears within Latin American design in the application of decoration “to mass produced and otherwise modern objects”—that is, the inclusion of the vernacular is also additive and decidedly non-modern. Setting all decoration outside of modernism privileges a very particular, stringent variety of modernism as Platonic ideal. Cannot the vernacular, in either decoration or form, contribute to modernism rather than being a contradictory addition? The designs in the exhibition, particularly the modernist butaque chairs but also more decorative objects such as wall hangings by the U.S.-born Mexican textile artist Cynthia Sargent, argue yes, they can.

What is at stake in these ways of positioning the indigenous or vernacular vis-à-vis modernism is what belongs to the modern and what does not. While the introductory exhibition text defined moderno as “more often linked to ideas of novelty and accelerated development than to a particular style or art movement,” Rivas’s essay gives a more precise definition of what he conceives to be modern design. Rivas places Austrian architect Adolf Loos, with his condemnation of ornament as crime, as a founding figure of an “international modern design avant-garde” (24) particularly represented by the Bauhaus, its U.S. diaspora, and its successor, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. This strain is an influential one, no doubt, and by mid-century the model was streamlined to exclude the contradictions of its own development in interwar Europe. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York was instrumental in asserting this version of modernism as the international style, particularly through its 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition curated by Philip Johnson and Henry Russell-Hitchcock, which focused on aesthetics rather than social purpose. Later, MoMA presented Latin American architecture as derivative of the international style in its 1955 exhibition Latin American Architecture since 1945. MoMA similarly reified a certain centralized take on design through Machine Art (1934), also curated by Johnson, and Organic Design in Home Furnishings (1941), which marginally included Latin American objects. These exhibitions influenced design development throughout the Americas, as De León shows in her essay on the designer Clara Porset. Yet while De León explains how Porset problematized the predominant discourse, Rivas does not critically examine its ideological implications, presenting it as a pure version that Latin American designers took, absorbed, and augmented.

Rivas uses well-worn concepts of hybridization, anthropophagy, and the neo-baroque to situate Latin American modernism as diametrically opposed to the “international” Eurocentric version. One problem with these categories, thoroughly critiqued in scholarly discourse, is that they lend themselves not just to a vision of European culture as somehow pure but also to one of Latin American culture as mainly reactive. Concepts of the hybrid, anthropophagus, and neo-baroque have the potential to challenge myths of purity, highlighting both the impossibility of essentialism and the existence of structural inequities, but Rivas does not employ them thus, rather celebrating them as ways of creating national styles compatible with “local tastes” (29).

The manner in which exhibitions and catalogues like Moderno present Latin American culture has important implications for how we view our own changing culture. The current Latin American exhibition boom is linked to Latino population growth in the United States. Interpreting Latin American cultures in a way that emphasizes their reactions to a primary European-U.S. model—an interpretation which though traceable in Moderno was surely not the intention of the curators, organizers, or catalogue authors—shapes how we view the growing Latino part of our culture and can be a subtle way of enforcing internal cultural hierarchies. Although the center-periphery dichotomy of cultures creeps into the project, the group effort culminating in Moderno resulted in a rich multivocal production that, critically consumed, provides valuable insights into modern impulses and contradictions that manifested in compelling ways in Brazilian, Mexican, and Venezuelan design.

Gina McDaniel Tarver
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Texas State University