"No Fear of Beauty"
Her opulent compositions have made Beatriz Milhazes one of the best-known Brazilian painters in the world. Matisse, Op Art, the brilliant colors of the carnival-a wide range of influences merge in her stunning paintings. Achim Drucks introduces the artist, who lives in Rio de Janeiro and is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
||An explosion of form and color; circles of beautiful turquoise and silver surfaces, between them a blossom painted in hues of lilac that looks as though it had been made with a Spirograph set. The 1960s drawing tool also seems to have been used to draw the other violet spirals on the large-scale canvas. More stylized flowers hover around them, curlicues recalling seventies wallpaper; together with discs in orange and gold hues, they partially cover a massive black square-Malevich's icon of a radically reduced abstraction is on the verge of being swallowed up by a colorful armada of ornamental forms.
Beleza Pura, pure beauty, is the title Beatriz Milhazes gave her painting from 2006-it seems programmatic for the work of the artist, who was born in 1960 in Rio de Janeiro. "The word decorative is normally pejorative when it's applied to art. I don't have any fear of beauty," she declared in 2006. Her title also refers to the hit of the same name by the singer Caetano Veloso, one of the chief figures of the Tropicalismo movement of the late sixties. Without being explicitly political, the vital energy of this movement of artists and musicians was directed against cultural monotony as it was propagated by the Brazilian military regime at that time. Folklore elements blended with American and European influences.
Her paintings are the product "…of the mad struggle between baroque figuration and rigorous construction," as Richard Armstrong, the current director of the New York Guggenheim Museum, formulates it. Armstrong was one of the first curators outside Brazil to take notice of the artist. In 1995, he invited her to take part in Carnegie International, the exhibition that led to her international breakthrough. In 2003 she represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale.
But Milhazes's painting with its disappearing black square can also be taken as a reference to another influential artistic movement in the country-Modernismo. One of the most important representatives of this Brazilian answer to the early European avant-garde movements was the writer Oswald de Andrade. In his Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalistic Manifesto) of 1928, he developed his own, Brazilian version of modernism under the motto "Instead of pushing the foreign away, eat it." He countered dominant European culture with tropical growth, naivety, savagery, and poetry. He recommended ingesting the most enriching parts of European culture, transforming them, and simply throwing the rest away.
This strategy of transformation is crucial to Milhazes's work. She operates from a variety of sources: along with the most important protagonist of Modernismo, Tarsila de Amaral, whose paintings blend European influences with indigenous forms, she cites Henri Matisse's cut-outs and color combinations and the dynamism of Piet Mondrian's late work as sources of inspiration-such as his famous painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43). Op Art influences and the wild fabric patterns of Emilio Pucci collide with decorative motifs from colonial architecture. The floral and plant forms she uses in many of her works-including O Pato (1996/98) from the Deutsche Bank Collection-were not made from nature, but based on various different models including Frida Kahlo's self-portraits, tablecloths, and the "exotic" jewelry Miriam Haskell made for Carmen Miranda, the "Brazilian Bombshell" who conquered Hollywood in the 1940s and who embodied, in her bizarre costumes and fruit-bowl hats, the exaggerated cliché of the temperamental South American woman. Milhazes re-imports this phenomenon of exoticism, so to speak.
The tension in Milhazes's work is not only between figuration and abstraction, but also between the global and local influences that merge in her work. "I am an abstract painter and I speak an international language, but my interest is in things and behaviors that can only be found in Brazil," she explained in a conversation with the musician Arto Lindsay. And this can mean the delirium of colors and forms at the Carnival in Rio, the melancholy bossas of Antônio Carlos Jobim, or the wave-shaped patterned promenades the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx designed for the Copacabana beach.
To many viewers, her brilliantly colored painting seems typical for Brazil-an error, as Milhazes explains in a catalogue to her project for the Fondation Cartier in Paris: "We don't have a strong tradition of painting in Brazil, and especially not painting with color. When I became internationally known as a Brazilian painter, the international audience thought that I came out of a strong tradition of Brazilian painting. This is because there is a general lack of information on Latin American art. Due to Spanish colonization, some countries like Mexico or Venezuela have a strong painting tradition. This is not the case for Brazil. The most important and well-known Brazilian art is conceptual and constructivist. There is no special interest in color. Brazil is a colorful country, but its art isn't. That is why people get confused. I use elements from my culture, and color is one of them, but I'm the only one to do so."
Pink, dusty rose, turquoise, orange-red-her silkscreen Rosa branca no centro from 1997 in the Deutsche Bank Collection is drenched in intense color. A stylized flower appears in the middle, surrounded by circles of pearls and filigree patterns reminiscent of lace tablecloths. Milhazes's paintings are rarely arranged around a center as this one is, which lends it a kind of quietude. The images usually seem as though one spectacular explosion of color outshone the next, like fireworks. The precise compositions prevent the paintings from falling apart into individual elements; despite all their differences and tensions, they cohere as a whole.
This is also due to Milhazes's unusual working process. She worked with collage early in her career by introducing fabrics into her paintings. In the late 1980s, she began to draw the contours of her flowers and mandalas on transparent plastic foil, coloring them in with acrylic paint and then cutting them out after they dried. She can then shift these forms around on the canvas until they find their final position, where Milhazes adheres them to the surface with the colored side down and then pulls off the plastic backing, which she often uses for other paintings. This is why identical shapes often appear in different paintings. The artist explains: "I like the resulting smooth texture, the way in which the painting seems 'frozen' in time. I love painting, but I do not want the texture of the brushstrokes or the 'hand' of the painter to be visible on my canvases."
This "anti-expressive" strategy makes her paintings appear cool, while the process of construction remains visible. This process takes place entirely on the canvas; Milhazes does not use sketches for her paintings, and the transference of painted forms doesn't always go perfectly. The paint tears, or a portion remains stuck on the plastic foil. The resulting irregularities seem like points of erosion and give the surfaces the impression of being weathered. Her canvases recall palimpsests in which multiple layers of time are superimposed.
This sets her paintings apart from Bridget Riley's flawless, purist Op Art compositions. The 2001 Riley show at the Dia Art Foundation left such an impression on Milhazes that she began experimenting with rectangles and straight lines for the first time. Since then, the range of her paintings has expanded further. She's gone back to her early collages, this time adding variously colored paper to her works instead of fabrics-shiny, metallic-blue candy-wrapper paper, marbled wrapping paper, chocolate wrappers. In this way, she further intensifies the overabundance of visual stimuli that characterizes all her work. She directs the viewer's gaze around the picture surface, without providing anywhere for it to rest. Milhazes's paintings hover between a stunning ornamental beauty and an overload of forms, colors, styles, and quotes. It is not the kind of beauty in which the eye can rest, however; instead, it absorbs the gaze and threatens to overpower the viewer.