The Pau-Brasil movement—Brazilwood, like the local timber that was exported during Brazil’s colonial period, from 1530 to 1822—included works by Oswald de Andrade, the painter Tarsila do Amaral (who was de Andrade’s wife at the time), and the Swiss-born poet Blaise Cendrars. The movement was founded in 1924, the result of a trip taken by a group of modern art aficionados to a number of historic cities and towns in the mining region of Minas Gerais. This trip was subsequently baptized the “Discovery of Brazil” caravan. At that time, Brazilian “modernism” was in search of a primitive or local form of expression, and identified with Indian culture and the rural landscape of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. The group kept up with international trends but also identified with the local “caipira” [interior of the country, rural, ranch] style. Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) studied under André Lhote (1885–1962) in Paris, although some of her oil paintings from that period reveal the unmistakable influence of Fernand Léger (1881–1955).
Mário de Andrade (1893–1945) was a seminal writer in the field of Brazilian “modernism” if we consider a key work written that same year, his essay about “Tarsila”—Macunaíma: o herói sem nenhum caráter [Macunaíma: A Hero With No Character] (1928) [Latin American version by Héctor Olea, Macunaíma (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1977; Barcelona: Anagrama, 2005)]. In this novel-rhapsody, the author creates a “de-geographization” of the vast Brazilian territory—as indicated in its two (unpublished) prefaces—through the book’s combination of speech, terminology, flora, and fauna, all united by his imagination. An imagination that he underscores in his “Tarsila” essay by identifying in her “a creative imagination at the service of an intelligent and critical culture.” One of the most remarkable aspects of the cultural anthropophagous approach of the group from São Paulo is their desire for a nationality, but a more flexible ideal that can assimilate all manner of cultural traits and devour them. In that sense and with no prejudice whatsoever as he points out, Tarsila do Amaral’s work is able to assume the self-reference of the painting, just like the “artistic essence that painting needs in order to truly be painting.”