- Limitless Museum: P. M. Bardi’s Aesthetic Reeducation
“The task of a museum,” wrote Italian critic and curator Pietro Maria Bardi in 1951, “should be to make resound, to interpret with perspicacity and appropriate technique, those monuments that sing: thus will be avoided the risk of useless sentimentalities, dangerous neutralities, hybrid educations, and eclecticism.”1 Bardi’s proclamation was rooted in a line from Paul Valéry’s “Eupalinos, or the Architect” (1921), a Socratic dialogue in which the ancient Greek architect Eupalinos is said to have distinguished three types of buildings: those that sing, because they are created by master architects; those functional but un-remarkable buildings that merely speak; and mute structures, so lacking in aesthetic vigor that they are inferior even to the amusing “accidental order” found in heaps of rubble “vomited” by the wagons of contractors.2 In his previous life, as a curator and architectural critic with links to the government of Benito Mussolini, Bardi might have deployed Valéry’s dialogue to support the sweeping architectural refashioning of Italian cities by radical young architects, as the master builders of fascism’s new social and political order. But by 1951, Bardi’s vision had narrowed. The fascist regime had fallen, and Bardi had emigrated from Italy to Brazil, where he found work as the director of a newly-founded art museum. Rather than advocating the creation of public works whose grandness would defy Neptune himself, Bardi arranged paintings. Even so, he retained the heroic rhetoric he had developed in fascist Italy, calling upon the museum to make its monuments sing.3
In postwar Italy, Bardi had seen that any future work would likely be circumscribed by the shadow of his activities during the [End Page 687] recently-deposed fascist regime. Thus in 1946 he and his wife, architect Lina Bo Bardi, left Italy for Brazil.4 Almost immediately, the two were drawn into the orbit of media magnate Assis Chateaubriand, who enlisted the couple to work as director and architect, respectively, for his new art museum, the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) (fig. 1). Beginning with the opening of MASP in 1947, the Bardis used innovative exhibition designs as a way to spur the museum’s involvement in social life beyond the space of the gallery. Best known are MASP’s “crystal easels,” freestanding sheets of glass on which paintings were mounted throughout a large expanse of open gallery space (fig. 2).5 These crystal easels were first installed at MASP in the late 1960s, and they have long been understood as an antiteleological mode of display that disrupted canonical art histories, thus democratizing art viewing. But already in the late 1940s, two decades prior to the crystal easels, the Bardis’ exhibition practices began pushing the sensibility of the Brazilian art world from the salão (salon) of aristocratic or bourgeois sociability to the public museum sala (hall). With installations of artworks on industrial metal structures rather than within beaux-arts interiors, classes and pedagogical displays that mixed original artworks and reproductions, and the presence of contemporary design and commercial culture in the gallery, the Bardis sought to expand the range of social classes welcome at the museum.
As in interwar Italy, there was a political undercurrent to these new aesthetic practices, one inflected by Brazil’s Cold War tensions. In a historical development that paralleled the end of Italian fascism, Brazil had also recently cast off a populist-cum-authoritarian regime, that of President Getúlio Vargas. Occurring in the years 1945 to 1946, this transition pushed questions of democratic rule to the fore in Brazil, while at the same time elites viewed the rising political power of Brazil’s working classes with trepidation; the museum was viewed as an ideal place to cultivate agreeable new modes of interclass sociability. Yet accounts of MASP’s exhibition designs have typically viewed the ideology of its 1940–50s displays through the retrospective lens of the 1960s, downplaying or ignoring the ways that the Bardis’ prior careers in Italy might have made their aesthetic work amenable to these political currents in postwar Brazil. Lina Bo Bardi’s position has been privileged, since...