04/05/2013 11:48 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

Art Under Dictatorship: Art in Brazil in the 1960s-1970s

Cildo Meireles, Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos Projeto Cédula, 1970Cildo Meireles, Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos Projeto Cédula, 1970

Art often flourishes in response to repressive conditions as artists find ways to express their message in a clever, yet subtle manner.  The military regime that ruled Brazil from the 1960s through the 1980s was a difficult yet important period for the Brazilian art scene.

Curator and art historian Claudia Calirman is the author of “Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles”, examining the actions carried out by artists under the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985 and their attempts to escape censorship by developing modes of expressing themselves indirectly.

Antonio Manuel, Soy Loco por ti (I Am Crazy for You), 1969Calirman pays particular attention to the artistic events that occurred as a consequence of the passing of the Institutional Act no.5, also known as AI-5, decreed in 1968 by the military dictatorship, suspending political and civil rights.  Speaking from her home in New York, Calirman begins: 'The Brazilian art scene was quiet interesting at the late 1960s. Artists were experimenting with conceptual, visual and body art and there was a lot of innovation. When the repressive Institutional Act no.5 came out, it was hard for artists to know what is forbidden and what is allowed and of course it affected their art. In addition, it also created a lot of self-censorship among artists.'

Antonio Manuel, Soy Loco por ti (I Am Crazy for You), 1969, Photo: Rômulo Fialdini

The international boycott of the 10th São Paulo Biennial in 1969 was another low-point for Brazilian art. The Pre-Paris Biennial was scheduled to open in May 1969 as a preview of the Youth Paris Biennial at the Paris City Museum of Modern Art.

Among the works that were to be displayed was a photo by photojournalist Evandro Teixeira,  showing a Brazilian Air Force motorcyclist falling into the ground during a street riot, an image that made the police look foolish. Another provocative work by Antonio Manuel examined conflicts between the police and students. The work encouraged viewers to expose images from the news by lifting up dark curtains that covered them.

Evandro Teixeira. Queda de um motociclista da FAB

As a result, the Pre-Paris Biennial was shut down by the police before it opened to the public. The international call to boycott the 10th edition São Paulo Biennial which followed was supported by prominent Brazilian artists and gained solidarity in Europe and later in the USA. 

Evandro Teixeira. Queda de um motociclista da FAB, 1965

Calirman describes what happened during this period in the visual arts and how artists were using politics in their work, while dodging censorship. ‘The art they practiced’, she says, ‘is not your usual kind of art. Viewers who saw their work often didn’t even recognize it as art. These artists wanted to convey a message, to let the viewer think. Their art was used not as a weapon but to pass a message.’

Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles responded through their work to the censorship and the violence of the military regime, particularly during the period 1968–1975. ‘I chose these artists because for me,’ continues Calirman, ‘they were opening the language of visual artists. Although they were not activists, they did act against the regime in their own way.’

All three artists found innovative ways in which they each responded to both censorship inside the country and international artistic trends. They rejected the concept of traditional media such as painting and sculpture. Manuel worked with performance and body art. Barrio practiced land art with a political tone and Meireles work was mostly conceptual.

Cildo Meireles, Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos: Projeto Coca-Cola, 1970

Antonio Manuel worked in media and in his own way, he used censorship to talk about censorship.  He began his work as an artist during the 1960s and his art was political in nature and often defied the restrictions imposed by military rule and censorship in the 1960s and 1970s.

Manuel made interference with news articles and images and later on distributed printed newspapers to newsstands as if they were authentic.
Cildo Meireles, Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos: Projeto Coca-Cola, 1970.
Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Wilton Montenegro.

In 1970, he proposed his own body as a work at the Salon of Modern Art, held at the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art. After being rejected, he appeared at the opening night naked, claiming “The body is the work.” It was his way of taking a stance against the political and artistic system.

Artur Barrio is known for working with unusual art-materials such as animal bones and entrails and bodily fluids.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he used to leave "bloody bundles” containing animal parts wrapped in white cloth stained with red paint on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Around that time in Brazil, people were disappearing and bodies were sometimes found floating in the river. In his own way, Barrio was responding to this horrific situation.

A large number of Cildo Meireles's best works were made under the military dictatorship as a response to the increasingly bleak political situation. In 1970, he stamped money and consumer items before putting them back into circulation. He stamped bank notes with political slogans such as "Who killed Herzog?" (Herzog was a journalist who was tortured to death in prison by the political police) or “Yankees Go Home” or changed the value of the notes to zero.  Portraits of national heroes were replaced by images of a native Indian and Coca-Cola bottles were inscribed with "Yankees Go Home" before being recycled. He also encouraged people to write their own messages.

Artur Barrio,

‘The art scene in the late 1960s - early 1970s was an important moment for Brazilian culture although it wasn’t an easy one’, Calirman says. It goes to show that, in the short term, there isn’t necessarily a connection between the making of good art and good governance and freedom. However, it is probable that these artists would not have gained recognition and become so influential if the regime had not changed.  

 Artur Barrio, “Bloody Bundle”, Brazilian Art under Dictatorship:
Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles”, Claudia Calirman


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