Maria Martins: the woman has lost her shadow

"[. . .] it was the Amazon itself which sang in her work that I had the joy to admire in New York in 1943. With all its voices from time immemorial, it sang of the passion of man, from birth until death, condensed as it were, in symbols more all-encompassing than all others[. . .] Maria better than no one, was able to tap into the primitive source of her origin, and draw forth wings and flowers, owing nothing to sculpture, past or present[...]"2 Breton’s text, written for one of Maria’s shows in New York, is emblematic of the charm that her work exercised on the surrealist aesthetic of the 1940s in the United States.

Maria Martins’s artistic production from 1942 on marks precisely her cultural difference vis-à-vis her European and American colleagues. This difference is clearly outlined in the personal character of some titles of her works such as Não te esqueças nunca que eu venho dos trópicos [Don’t ever forget that I am from the tropics], as well as in the use of icons from the Brazilian religious and narrative popular traditions, in works such as Yemanjá, Boiuna, Cobra grande, and Yara which were shown at the artist’s Amazonia exhibit in the Valentine Gallery in 1943.

The works from that period weave the image of a staged "Brazilianness." They embody the nostalgia for a primeval exuberance and sensuality which took hold of the European imagination. They also carry the mark of discomfort brought about by the conjunction of the image of Brazil, her country of origin, as a land experienced in real life, and the primitive and imaginary Brazil of the Amazon legends, a depository of images of wildlife symbolizing desire.

And indeed the freedom with which she delves into and emerges from diverse aesthetic and cultural worlds, marked by a deeply personal, intuitive and emotional narrative imprint, identify Maria’s work with surrealism from the very beginning. From the 1940s on, Maria took part in the main exhibits connected with the movement. For instance, she exhibited at the major show Le surréalisme, organized by Breton at the Maeght Gallery in Paris in 1947, and she was included in several Breton’s texts.3

In the United States, the European and the American avant-garde, nurtured by surrealist and abstract trends, interacted in a natural way. In 1942, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton organized the show First papers of surrealism, in New York. Concurrently, they frequented Peggy Guggenheim’s newly-opened gallery, Art of this Century, where, for the first time is exhibited the work of Jackson Pollock, an artist who would become one of the pivotal forces of abstract expressionism. Another example of the interaction of artistic languages took shape that same season in 1943, when the Valentine Gallery showed Maria Martin’s Amazonia, side by side the paintings of Piet Mondrian. Next to dramatic and narrative works such as Cobra grande, Yemanjá and Boiuna, the Dutch artist who had moved to New York in 1940 showed the paintings from his New York series, which use only primary colors and geometrical shapes transformed into pulses of light, color and movement.4

2. From the text written by Breton for the catalog of Maria’s exhibition at the Julien Lévy Gallery in New York in 1947.

3. Maria Martins was included in the 1947 show entitled Le surréalisme, and is quoted in Breton’s book, Le surréalisme et la pinture, Paris: Gallimard, 1965. Breton also wrote texts for several catalogs of her exhibits.

4. While Maria Martin’s Amazonia was a commercial success, none of Mondrian’s works were sold. At the end of the show Maria bought Broadway boogie-woogie for 800 dollars. Her intention was to donate it immediately to MoMA in New York, but Alfred Barr Jr. initially did not accept the donation. It was thanks to the help of Nelson Rockefeller that the donation was finally accepted. Today, it is one of the most popular pieces in the Museum’s collection.