There are no records that Maria Martins has set foot in the Amazon. But all it took was a plane trip and an area view of winding rivers for the artist to return her sculpture production to mythologies and stories told about forests in the 1930s.
The sculptor’s most mythical exhibition, when she shared the Valentine gallery in New York with none other than Mondrian, in 1943, was a gathering of pieces inspired by these Amazonian stories, such as the great snake that entangles the most beautiful woman in the forest to crown her queen.
Somehow, she created a new universe from the Amazonian imaginaries that circulated at that time. By reviewing these narratives, Maria Martins also began to devise a set of creatures that would flirt more and more with abstraction and that would become a kind of mythology of the artist’s own. They were “my goddesses” or “my monsters” as she later defined it.
This erotic, feminine and also visceral sculptural body is reviewed in the exhibition “Maria Martins: Desejo Imaginante”, which opens this week at Masp, with 45 pieces, including sculptures, engravings and paintings by the artist produced between the 1940s and 1950s.
The marriage of Maria de Lourdes Faria Alves to ambassador Carlos Martins Pereira e Sousa was important for Martins to circulate in decisive spaces in his life as an artist. It also created an almost double identity — “Maria” signed the sculptures, “Maria Martins”, with the surname of her second husband, circulated at official dinners and events.
Where these two personalities seem to meet most is in the role of Maria Martins as a cultural articulator, presented in documents in the exhibition’s first windows.
“She ended up using the position of ambassador to make the works of Brazilian artists circulate abroad and foreign works to come here”, says the organizer of the exhibition, Isabella Rjeille. “Maria was fundamental in the first three biennials in São Paulo, she acted in a very incisive way behind the scenes. She even went to Picasso’s house and asked for his work to bring here.”
But between her life as an ambassador and as an artist, exhibition documents also show that art was her career, not her hobby, as part of the critique of the 1940s and 1950s hinted at.
In an interview that Martins gave in 1968 to Clarice Lispector, with whom she shared the fact that she was married to a Brazilian diplomat, she says that she was locked in her studio from nine in the morning until late in the afternoon. For the most part of her day, she described, her concerns were only about shape and volume.
They are already in the artist’s first pieces, presented in the wing called “Imaginários Amazônicos”, complex relationships between male and female figures, who flirt with desire and violence in the same act. In addition to the elements of stories from native peoples, there are also elements from Afro-Brazilian culture.
The man who turns into a bird to conquer his beloved by singing, the Uirapiru, is built in a shape that seems to make the whole bronze vibrate, in a movement that must originate from the small flute in the animal’s mouth. It is a call to seduction, but whose ultimate goal is to kill the beloved.
“All her work is articulated around these complexities of human and non-human relationships as well. Maria has, in her work, figures who are anthropomorphic, who are confused with vegetables, for example. We can’t attribute the nature of that one. kind of figure always,” says Rjeille.
In the slightly larger forms of bronze, the female bodies are formed in this metamorphosed process. The liana, this tropical forest plant that resembles a vine, physically structures a woman with ample breasts — a characteristic, in fact, that marks part of the eroticism and an idea of the feminine that permeates the sculptor’s work.
Again, it is a plant that is capable of hugging a tree, and suffocating it. This image of the vine is also repeated in a drawing, but there is a figure there that seems lost within the limits of its own body, undoing or wrapping itself around itself.
“This domination is not always an external threat,” says the curator. “She also poses it as internal issues for her own characters.”
“O Impossível”, one of Maria Martins’ most iconic works, deepens the battle between dependence and repulsion, bond and estrangement — and three of the “Impossíveis” works, in bronze and different among them, are in the exhibition.
Two concave figures, one female with marked breasts or even a slit in the belly, and the other male, have their heads formed by pointed shapes, which resemble tentacles and look towards each other as if there were an inevitable attraction. It is a union that never materializes, however, with these figures that do not fit together and seem on the verge of clash.
These undefined figures by Maria Martins make up a mythological universe of the artist’s own, which are sewn together in the last room of the “Personal Mythologies” exhibition. It is in the poem “Explanation”, from the late 1940s, that Maria brings this idea of her goddesses and her monsters.
At the end of the show is “Don’t Forget that I Come from the Tropics”, a work that Martins does after a review by Edward Alden Jewell, published in The New York Times, in which he assesses that Martins seemed to have gotten rid of the tropics after being branded as the “sculptor of the tropics”.
“In this sculpture, there is no element that you can identify as something tropical. At that time, in the 1940s, there is no exotic, joyful, and enchanting tropics in this work that existed in other works”, says the exhibition’s curator. It is a rough texture, full of hachures, that covers the winged creature, with full breasts, hardly identifiable as an animal or as a person.
According to her, Martins at that moment subverts the idea that people had of the tropics and reveals a fictional interpretation of the southern border. Like your own personal mythology, the tropics are a great fiction.
It is the sculpture of a slender woman who closes this wing. A snake —another recurrent figure in Martins’ sculptures— comes out of the base of the piece and wraps around the figure’s legs. In the woman’s head, however, wings open and suggest freedom as a premise for the artist.
Freedom also defines one of the most emblematic relationships in the sculptor’s life, that with Frenchman Marcel Duchamp. She participated in the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1947, which was made in partnership between André Breton and Duchamp, with whom she maintained a relationship until returning to Brazil in the 1950s.
The intense dialogue between the two artists, incidentally, gave rise to the famous “Étant Donnés”, a secret work by the French in which Martins appears as the great muse.
In the same interview Martins gave to Lispector at the end of her life, the writer asked the sculptor what fate she would choose if she could start her life from scratch. “I would be an artist as I am, free and liberated,” she replied.