A native of Rio de Janeiro, Milhazes’ most profound influences are those closest to home. The whirlpools and mandalas and the flowery shapes of her canvases instantly reflect the lush tropical vegetation of Brazil and recall scenes from the Jardim Botanico, or botanical gardens of Rio, located only a few blocks from the artist’s studio. The rhythm, patterns and waves call to mind the the raucous Samba during Carnaval or the soulful cadence of bossa music from the streets of Rio. They also recall the landscapes of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx who famously sculpted and embraced Brazil’s natural vegetation in the 1930s and 40s, most notably the boardwalk of Copacabana. In Meu Limão, multicolored polka-dots fan out and collide with concentric circles, flowers and multicolored dots that come together against a geometric backdrop evocative of the Brazilian concretismo of the 1960s or even the canvases of Bridget Riley. The left side of the composition is dominated by elongated florals and arabesques, reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s Pucci fabrics - still in fashion to this day.
At first glance, Milhazes’ paintings are seemingly decorative and simple, but her uninhibited use of form and color masks a profoundly controlled and complex composition, both technically and intellectually. Perhaps in response to Henri Matisse’s use of paper cut-outs, Milhazes developed an elaborate technique through which she paints directly onto cut-out plastic sheets, transfers them onto the canvas, then peels the plastic off once the paint has adhered to the surface – almost like a sticker or decal. The gestural mark of the of the artist is disguised. In describing her technique she says: “even [in] a work like mine, which is very hand-made, the technique I use denies you the possibility to touch the hand signs of the painter. The organism of the construction of my paintings is subverted by the smooth and quite equal texture of it.” (Interview with Beatriz Milhazes in RES Art World/World Art, no. 2, May 2008, p. 7)
The surfaces of her paintings, however, reveal irregularities inherent to the tradition of collage, which result in an imperfect, almost weathered look. There is an immediate tension between her controlled technique and the uncontrolled, organic quality of the composition that immediately invites the viewer in. Richard Armstrong describs her paintings as “the product of the mad struggle between figuration and rigorous construction.” It is not just the collage-like technique that links Milhazes so closely to Matisse’s legacy. Like in Matisse’s Harmony in Red from 1908, flat planes of color collide and distort the viewer’s perception of space. In Harmony in Red, the fruits and arabesques collate in the foreground, and patterns and colors dominate the composition much like in Milhazes’ work. Working almost a century after Matisse, Milhazes adopts and reinterprets his aesthetic hierarchies to create an oeuvre completely devoid of narrative and that decadently embraces a flamboyant adoration of color and shape.
Given the visual lushness of the present work, it is not surprising that Brazil was the artist’s muse, but what is surprising is that Milhazes takes a critical view of the common stereotypes of Brazilian culture in Meu Limão. Coined by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade in his 1928 Manifesto Antropófago, “anthropofagia” or “cannibalism” describes the synthesis of foreign and local cultures. Indeed, Milhazes was aware of this theory, and her oeuvre serves as a self-aware testament to the canonized Brazilian modern and post-modern artistic traditions. Milhazes digests and translates these local and foreign influences, which hamoniously come together in this majestic canvas.
In the decorative flourishes of Meu Limão, Milhazes points to the excess of the imported cliché of “Brazilian-ness,” as epitomized by Brazilian singer and actress Carmen Miranda. Art critic Paulo Herkenhoff explains this: “In Milhazes’ pictures, hybrid forms proliferate. These are apparently extracted from nature, yet that is not where they came from. Some recall the pseudo Carnavalesque decorations designed by Miriam Haskell for Carmen Miranda. Flowers, fruits, and necklaces are formal pretexts for the morphological system of color distribution where she explores the logical levels of forms. Integrating itself to the image, all forms fulfill the function of distributing color throughout its extension and harmonizing the surface in chromatic tones and figurative evolution.” (Adriano Pedrosa, ed., Beatriz Milhazes, Mares do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, 2002, p. 147). One can almost find Miranda’s flamboyant headdress in the garlands of fruits in Meu Limão. But where one expects to find tropical fruits, we instead find strawberries, pears and grapes – fruits foreign or imported to Brazil. Although the overall aesthetic of Meu Limão is overwhelmingly Brazilian, the specific details do not depict realities of Brazilian culture, but rather the false illusions of Brazilian-ism, thus breaking down the viewer’s initial assumptions. Ultimately, through its ornate composition and luscious hues, Meu Limão is a visually stunning ode to the complex and multifaceted façade of Brazilian culture.
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