In 1971, journalist Zuenir Ventura described the landscape of cultural production under Brazil’s ruling military dictatorship as marked by “the disappearance of political themes and controversy in the cultural sphere” (34–35). Situating Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles in opposition to that characterization, art historian Claudia Calirman enlists an impressive range of primary sources and interpretive lenses to trace the subversive ways visual arts and self-expression flourished under the dictatorship’s Ato Institucional Número Cinco (AI-5), the act that outlined a repressive form of state media censorship in Brazil from 1968 to 1978. A book explicitly about “the intersection of politics and the visual arts” (3), Calirman’s careful and close reading of artworks, reviews, notebooks, and other original documents paints a vibrant history of how Brazilian visual artists navigated this repressive climate by shifting from “institutional spaces to street actions and the emergence of site-specific artworks” characterized by “bold invention born, in spite of impossible odds, out of a desire for expression” (9). [End Page 163]
Chapter 1 traces artistic movements, institutions, and political infighting leading up to the international boycott of the X São Paulo Biennial (1969) in protest of the censorship concretized with the issuing of the AI-5 only months before. Calirman notes the particular impact of the American and French artistic boycotts on the global standing and reach of the Biennial in beginning her highlighting of Brazilian artistic dialogues and parallels with movements in France and the United States. At the same time, Calirman notes that, unlike print media and theater arts, censorship of the visual arts “was never clearly defined, and its enforcement was frequently inconsistent” (18). For Calirman, this means that visual artists, while rarely jailed as political martyrs, retained outlets for self-expression and political commentary denied in other media. Calirman most effectively makes this point through her analysis of a 1969 installation by Brazilian artist Mira Schendel at the São Paulo Biennial, where her presence as well as her work effectively questioned the political efficacy of the international boycott of the exhibition.
The remaining three chapters of Brazilian Art under Dictatorship trace the works of three Rio de Janeiro-based artists, each of which Calirman uses as a case study to trace the development of new modes of visual expression during the dictatorship. Chapters on Antonio Manuel’s body- and media-based art; Artur Barrio’s innovative use of site-specificity and ephemerality in public places; and Cildo Meireles’ participatory conceptual works and interventions of circulating materials serve as much more than artistic biographies. Instead, these chapters are better described as aestheto-political catalogues raisonnés, as Calirman weaves together visual analysis with extended interpersonal biographical studies (frequently starring Hélio Oiticica). Taking the reader through extended visual analyses and readings of primary sources coupled with discussions of relevant contemporary philosophical and artistic works, Calirman effectively situates Brazilian visual art, on the one hand, in the context of prevailing questions of a seemingly depoliticized art world interested in questioning the role and status of artists and institutions, and on the other, in questions of the political role of self-expression in Brazil.
The strengths of Calirman’s history, beyond her impressive range of source material, are most on display when she seamlessly weaves a narrative of local and global political activism with aesthetic and formal engagement, providing her readers with an insider’s view of the artistic scene while allowing the works and their artists to speak independently in the political focus of her overall argument. Chapter 4, “Cildo Meireles: Clandestine Art” is a shining example, as Calirman deftly navigates the problem of projecting a “Brazilian-ness” onto Meireles’ art, while asking if his “conceptually based practice [could] still be politically cogent” (114–115). Calirman’s meticulous research allows her to situate Meireles’ most important works in an impressive range of aesthetic and political dialogues. For example, in analyzing Tiradentes: Totem-monumento ao preso político (1970...