“The word decorative is normally pejorative when it’s applied to art. I don’t have any fear of beauty.”
The artist cited in: Achim Drucks, ‘No Fear of Beauty: Beatriz Milhazes’, ArtMag, no. 59, 2012
Impressive in scale and bursting with the energy of its eclectic motifs and vivid colour, Dança dos Reis typifies the virtuoso compositions for which Milhazes is so revered. Executed in 1998, it is thematically and stylistically companion to Succulent Eggplants (1996) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and The Beach (A Praia) (1997) at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Channeling the lush natural environment of her native Rio de Janiero, where her studio is located, its palette recalls tropical flora, as well as festive Brazilian costumes. In homage to this rich milieu, Dança dos Reis translates to “Dance of the Kings” in English, which is a Brazilian religious celebration that occurs near Christmas. A public performance involving the Magi and a wide host of biblical characters, the traditional association of the Three Wise Men with exotic riches corresponds to the visual riches of Milhazes’ canvas.
The Dança dos Reis thereby emblematises Brazil’s so-called “cannibalism” of foreign, colonial, and native cultures into a rich and idiosyncratic polyphony. The pioneering Brazilian modernists, such as the Oswald de Andrade who authored The Cannibal Manifesto (1928), identified the intelligent and instinctual synthesis of unique traditions as a defining trait of Brazil’s modern ethos. Reviving this practice for the 21st century, Milhazes transmutes past art historical lessons into a novel and scintillating visual project.
Milhazes regards Matisse as her “first and permanent reference” and cites Bridget Riley as a subsequent inspiration (the artist quoted in: Barry Schwabsky, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: From Painting to the Book’, Parkett 85, 2009, p. 146). Transforming decorative motifs into abstract contemporary art, Milhazes combines elements of 1960s psychedelia, Victorian ephemera, Baroque colonial art, Retablo, and eastern arabesques into a highly refined and coherent idiom. Dança dos Reis possesses these characteristic elements via beadwork, abstract florals, lace patterns, and circular medallions of ruffled fabrics – adorned with a 1960s peace sign. Playfully assembled and yet rigorously organised, the composition of Dança dos Reis may possess “the surging, breathtaking rhythm of a good fireworks display” (Philip Auslander, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: Birmingham Museum of Art’, Artforum, November 2001).
Channeling graphic elements into her practice, Milhazes has adopted a unique method. After making preparatory sketches on the canvas, she paints individual sheets of plastic and cuts them into the required shapes once dry. She then transfers the paint onto her canvas using glue, pulling the sheet away for potential reuse. The result is uncannily smooth – Milhazes has said: “even [in] a work like mine, which is very hand-made, the technique I used denies you the possibility to touch the hand signs of the painter” (the artist quoted in: ‘Interview with Beatrice Milhazes’, RES Art World/World Art, no. 2, May 2008, p. 7). Yet its surface bears small irregularities, as the acrylic does not always stick perfectly. These losses appeal to Milhazes for their weathered and antique feeling, and for revealing the work as a palimpsest in the tradition of collage.
Floating up and across the canvas, the decorative forms in Dança dos Reis equally recall Gustav Klimt, especially by its sensuous gold and silver gilding. Unsurprisingly, Milhazes believes that beauty and a serious interrogation of the human condition go hand in hand; she has said “one could write the history of humanity through the decorative arts” (the artist quoted in: Barry Schwabsky, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: From Painting to the Book’, Parkett 85, 2009, p. 146). Dança dos Reis then stands as a visual summation of this historical interrogation, its lessons dazzlingly adapted to the contemporary moment.