The errors of the avant-garde

A study of photography helps us to understand how the prophets of Latin American modernism built ethics into their perspectives


Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil
Esther Gabara
2008, Duke University Press
357 pages, 74 plates and figures

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

TO ERR IS human – but, in the case of the avant-garde founders of Latin American modernism, may have been an intentional act of creative sabotage.

According to Esther Gabara, purposeful errancy may have allowed the arts and letters not merely to imitate European modernist cultural production but to convert it into the language distinguishing a local cultural vanguard.

Gabara’s examination of aesthetic practice in the Brazilian and Mexican modernist movements of the 1920s and 1930s, a period in which intellectuals were fascinated by photography, explores experimental genres – landscape, portraiture and popular culture – as well as photographic essays and fiction.

Modernism was an important literary and visual movement in Latin America during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Different avant-gardes responded to distinct national priorities and experiments, but what they shared was a focus on linguistic innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration across the arts.

Gabara concentrates on the function of photography in the main movements of modernism in Mexico and Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s and the interaction of image and word. Figures who are now considered canonical to the national literary traditions of these countries such as Mário de Andrade and Salvador Novo often looked at life through the camera and were deeply engaged with photography. Andrade was an avid collector of images and, reflecting upon photography’s aesthetic potential, Novo referred to it as “the prodigal daughter of the fine arts”.

As Gabara writes, photography provides a special opportunity to theorise modernism in Latin America by enshrining both the promise of modernity as technological advancement but also the “stain” of past and contemporaneous imperial expansion.

Critique of nationalism

For the prophets of modernism, photography offered exciting possibilities, emphasising the challenge of making art do more than just represent the world realistically. In this way, it enshrined an ethics that challenged antiquated social mores and laid the basis for a critique of the nationalism being feverishly shaped by the centralising states of both countries. The author writes:

“The resulting modernism participated in what Mário de Andrade termed ‘critical nationalism’ – a politics that critiqued the colonial history of the Americas and its twentieth-century formation, yet did not obediently serve the interests of the increasingly centralized and homogenizing modern states in Mexico and Brazil.” [p. 5]

The author develops a challenging theory of errancy by which the ideas flowing from centre to periphery in the global expansion of modernism are turned against the dominant power’s intent. De Andrade’s landscapes, for example, create abstraction through formal distortion but one which contains an ethical judgment about how to live in the particular, invented place. The polymath began to photograph during the journeys that comprise his travel narratives in O turista aprendiz, and these images and his experimentation helped him to develop a modernist ethics. Gabara writes:

“Mário’s collaged photographic landscapes reveal the error of picturing the horizon of Brazil as if it marked the boundaries of Brazilian identity, and still deny a view of the country to an uninitiated audience. They instead compose an ethics and aesthetics of really living in Brazil.” [p. 71]

Novo considered the medium of photography as an out-of-control, effeminate tool whose aesthetics were machinistic, exiled from the world of high culture yet dressed up in its old clothes. At the same time, however, the Mexican writer defended photography’s position within the bellas artes, precisely because of its ability to bridge the distance between fine and popular arts.

As a result, Gabara has chosen to look less at the established Mexican photographic canon as the images that circulated in mass culture in this period, and in particular depictions of women and how these challenged male determinations of nationalism emerging from the centralising state. She argues that many modernist fictions showed letrados reproducing the varied performances of modern femininity in their literary texts:

“This performance of femininity by men within the (governmental) public sphere – hombres públicos acting like mujeres públicas – is doubly threatening to a ‘virile’ model of nation and makes something like a critical nationalism possible.” [p. 195]

Through more than 70 plates and figures, Errant Modernism offers rich insights into the modernist ethos by which aesthetic innovation and ethical concerns intertwined that emerged from the overlap of literary texts and modern print culture. If at times theoretically challenging, it does at least offer a provocative reinterpretation of the more formal definitions that have dominated the study of photographic modernism.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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