Maria Martins once said that she would like to be reincarnated as a stone or animal or flower, adding that it would be ‘tragically inhuman’ for there not to be a life after death. Having seen her retrospective, I’d say she would have been keen to come back as all of these things at the same time. Or perhaps a tree or tangle of vegetation – a woman as a forest.
Organized by writer Verônica Stigger, the exhibition emphasized metamorphoses and mutation. Martins began with unconventional representations of mythological figures of the Amazon rainforest, a series she first showed in 1943 in New York, and later progressed to sculpting hybrid creatures, human figures that were at the same time wild forms of plant life.
This duality of her creations, which became all the clearer from this survey, seems rooted in the duality of her private life. In the 1940s, Martins was the wife of the Brazilian ambassador to Washington, D.C., the hostess of diplomatic soirées who was never meant to outshine her husband and his political obligations. At the same time, she was deeply engaged with the avant-garde movement of her time, a constant figure at dinner parties hosted by Peggy Guggenheim, where she met other artists such as André Breton and Marcel Duchamp.
It didn’t take Breton long to fall in love with her work and embrace it as a genuine manifestation of his surrealist movement, saying that the ‘breath of human spirits never ceased to blow from the warmest regions’ of the world. Duchamp fell in love with her, and their secret affair informed much of his work in the later period of his life – she was the main model for Étant Donnés (1944–66). Torn between the tedious life of an ambassador’s wife, with little sense of purpose and even less freedom, and the quick recognition she received from the New York art world, Martins described herself as the ‘high noon of the tropical night’.
Martins was a hybrid herself, a woman of many faces, and Stigger’s decision to remove all the walls from the exhibition space, arranging the artist’s most important pieces along a series of tables, was a bold statement in this direction. When it comes to understanding Martins’ work, it seems all must be seen at once, at a glance, so as not to miss her big leaps forward and some recalcitrant steps back.
While all her figures, human or not, seem to overflow in terms of sexuality, with what Stigger describes as ‘open vaginas whose thick labia become almost phallic’, some sculptures seem ill-executed, borne out of an immediacy that perhaps would have served her better if undermined or more studied. It is perhaps this aspect of her production that led critic Mario Pedrosa to call her a ‘reckless driver’, an artist victim of an ‘excess of personality’ with a touch of ‘exhibitionism’ and ‘total ingenuity’. Yet, despite her flaws, and even to her detractors such as Pedrosa and Clement Greenberg, who dismissed her as anachronistically baroque, Martins remained disarming.
Sculptures such as The Impossible III (1946), seen by some as a metaphor both for the ruinous state of the world after World War II and for her troubled affair with Duchamp, are certainly masterpieces. In this particular case, a male figure tries to penetrate a female counterpart, but their approximation is rendered impossible by the claws and sharp tentacles that sprout from their heads. It would also be no exaggeration, as some critics have suggested, to cast Martins as a successor to Tarsila do Amaral, the modernist Brazilian painter who was a figurehead in the anthropophagy movement that began in the 1920s.
Both Amaral and Martins came of age as artists while living abroad, the former in Paris and the latter in D.C. and New York. Martins, who never visited the Amazon rainforest, clung to symbols of Brazilian identity as readymade commodities to differentiate herself from the common stock of avant-garde production in Manhattan. While feigning tropical origins, she did look deep enough into these myths to build a legitimate, even anthropophagic, body of work, voraciously devouring Goethe, Nietzsche, Breton and Duchamp.
This less autobiographical reading of her work also emerged from the retrospective. Martins remains a figure undigested by Brazil’s critical elite, misunderstood by many and dismissed by others who consider her work the ingenuous fruit of an idle and opulent lifestyle. If anything, the pieces gathered at the Museu de Arte Moderna gave her work new varnish and heft. While her reputation as Duchamp’s mistress never disappears, this retrospective was effective in communicating that Martins was much more than that, an intellectual well in tune with her times, even in love with an avant-garde that, like herself, was still in formation.