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Neoconcretism and the making of Brazilian national culture, 1954-1961


In the 1950s Brazil experienced transformative changes including the nascent emergence of democratic elections after 15 years of repressive dictatorship, the suicide of its President and the construction of a new federal capital city in Brasília. Optimism and a forward-looking spirit, summarized in the 1956 Presidential motto, "50 years of progress in 5," suffused all spheres of the national experience. The modernization of Brazil would translate into the end of underdevelopment and a structure of dependency put in place with colonialism. My dissertation explores this historical moment through the Rio de Janeiro-based geometric abstract art movement, Neoconcretism. I study how this group of artists intersected with and contributed to the growing network of modernizing institutions that held the promise of a Brazil finally "catching up." Influenced by early twentieth century European avant-garde art styles, Neoconcrete art brought together an art practice and theory based in expressiveness, intersubjectivity and sensorial experience, which continues to influence contemporary Latin American art production today. In this project I argue that Neoconcretism was a transformative cultural force that shaped Brazilian modernism and national culture. Neoconcrete artists and aesthetic ideals contributed to many areas of national production including literature, the newspaper industry, education, and architecture and urbanism. Departing from scholarship that examines Neoconcretism within the internationalization of Latin American art, I am especially attentive to the influence of local discourses on its stylistic and intellectual formation. Given the group's collaborative nature, I use an interdisciplinary and cultural studies methodology to examine the artworks and writings of the group members in relationship to the national project of modernization and nation-building developed by the governmental sectors, private institutions and the intellectual and cultural classes. My dissertation underscores the way culture operated as an essential political tool, distinct from traditional genres such as propaganda, in the production of the "national". The collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the Neoconcretists structures the organization of the dissertation and each chapter is conceived as a dialogical relationship between members of the group and Brazilian society. Chapter one establishes the broader Brazilian concrete project, and positions the emergence of abstract art in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as directly tied to the developing political and social climate proposing the construction of a "new" Brazil. In chapter two I argue for the equally generative roles of word and image in the production of meaning in Neoconcretism through an analysis of Neoconcrete poetry and the two main theoretical texts that defined Neoconcretism. I demonstrate how the movement was marked by positions of anti-progress and anti-rationalism that challenged the dominant political ideology. Chapter three turns to the Brazilian newspaper, Jornal do Brasil, which served as a place of employment for Neoconcrete artists, as well as a place of publication and circulation of Neoconcrete artworks and writings. I argue for the paper's generative role as a site of publicity for the group and its significance as a place of translation between high art and popular culture. Chapter four puts Neoconcretism and the construction of Brasília into direct engagement to argue for the influence of the national architectural boom on the artistic production of the Neoconcrete artists, but also to demonstrate how their works performed a critique of the state-sponsored project of modernization. In the dissertation I argue that the study of Neoconcretism unsettles any single narrative of Brazilian modernism and provides a lens to re-evaluate Brazil's "Years of Confidence" and the making of the nation through industrialization

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