Modernism in Latin America By Oliver, Amy A.

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO13-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 13 June 2024, from


In Latin American intellectual history, modernism is a term that can be usefully and accurately applied to at least two distinct intellectual movements: a clearly definable modernist movement in Spanish-speaking Latin America (1880–1920) and another in Brazil (1922–45). Both modernist movements exploded on their respective scenes and represented cultural ruptures. Understandably, these two movements have somewhat different origins, contexts, consequences, trajectories, and groupings of thinkers as well as different legacies of influence and community. In most of those senses, therefore, they are largely unrelated, yet both have left enduring cultural legacies in their respective regions. Literature, thought, art, architecture, photography, and music are principal areas in which modernism has made its mark.

Modernism in Spanish America

There is a critical tradition associated with Rubén Darío, the leading modernist figure, who effectively inaugurated the movement with his collection of poems and stories, Azul (1888), a radical departure from previous traditions. His mature work, Cantos de vida y esperanza (1905), incorporates his heightened awareness of world events. With the collapse of the Spanish empire in 1898, Darío traveled to Europe as a correspondent for La Nación, a Buenos Aires newspaper, and was exposed to continental perspectives on political developments. Both Spaniards and Latin Americans became acutely concerned about the spectre of American imperialism after the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War. Latin Americans were essentially confronted with the notion that they would have to take a stance toward the United States, and it became clear that they would not sympathize with a country that would become infamous for dollar diplomacy, big stick diplomacy, and its ‘good neighbour’ policy. Instead, Spanish Americans elected to reaffirm their Hispanic and Latin heritage by relying on Greek and Roman classics and Spanish baroque poets such as Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo.

In his poem ‘Ode to Roosevelt’, Darío embraces pan-Hispanism as he disdains US imperialism and Protestantism. Theodore Roosevelt represented US invasions of Latin America and, as president, supported a revolution in Panama in 1903 that resulted in the annexation by the United States of territory for the Panama Canal. In 1904, he announced a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that justified the use of the US military to police Latin America. Thus, modernism initially contrasted the Latin American with the American, but quickly came to oppose the north within the hemisphere.

Rubén Darío self-consciously disseminated the modernist movement widely during stays in Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Cuba. Modernism in this Hispanic context was trans-Atlantic in scope because it included peninsular Spanish poets and writers, especially the members of Spain’s Generation of ’98, who also grappled with what its definitive departure from the New World might mean. Some leading Spanish modernists were Rosalía de Castro, Ramón del Valle Inclán, Antonio Machado, and Juan Ramón Jiménez.

There is some consensus that literature is the medium most associated with modernism in Spanish America, a multi-national but self-aware movement that began to be taken somewhat seriously coincident to other developments that have come to be called naturalism and realism. Modernism was the first literary movement to focus deliberately and self-consciously on the New World. From its beginnings, it was usually anti-bourgeois and anti-imperialist, and announced itself through significant ruptures with conventional forms. While modernism received influences from Parnassianism and symbolism, and often consciously rejected the naturalism of Émile Zola, its Spanish American practitioners often sought to create a distinct literary style that showcased Latin American realities.

To provide a general background, Théophile Gautier was a key Parnassian influence who promoted the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, the exaltation of form and style over content, and a taste for Asian decorative arts and exotic landscapes. French symbolists who influenced Spanish American writers include Stéphane Mallarmé for his use of metaphor; Paul Verlaine for his sense of rhythm in metre; and Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud for their use of synaesthesia, a phenomenon in which one kind of sensation produces a secondary subjective sensation (e.g. when one hears certain music, one thinks of a certain colour).

In addition to Rubén Darío, some principal early literary modernists in Spanish America were the Cubans José Martí and Julián del Casal and the Mexican Manuel Gutiérez Nájera. Among second-wave modernists were the Bolivian Ricardo Jaimes Freyre, the Mexican Amado Nervo, the Argentine Leopoldo Lugones, and the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig. Although poetry and the short story were their predominant genres, the Latin American novel, especially the regionalist novel, later manifested modernist characteristics as well. One of Martí’s books, Versos Sencillos, is set to music in the popular Cuban song ‘Guantanamera’, which begins:

A sincere man am I

From the land where palm trees grow,

And I want before I die

My soul’s verses to bestow.

Spanish American modernists adopted Parnassian tendencies toward a cult of beauty, a preoccupation with historical themes, and a focus on earlier periods in history. Modernist work was often imbued with a liberal presence of colours (especially jewel tones), exotic animals, an obsession with form, anti-clerical sentiments, and liberal use of relatively obscure vocabulary. Graceful swans, the colours blue and white, and cool marble are images that appeared often in Spanish American modernist poetry and short stories. Included in Darío’s Azul is ‘The Death of the Empress of China’, a prime example of a modernist short story. As an associated dimension, an influential pair of modernist journals began to be published in Mexico, La Revista Azul (1894–6) and La Revista Moderna (1898–1911).

In philosophy, modernism reacted against positivism, preferring instead the new philosophy of life as put forth by figures such as Henri Bergson. The Uruguayan thinker and essayist José Enrique Rodó authored a seminal modernist piece entitled Ariel (1900), subsequently published in various languages in over 60 editions. On the one hand, Ariel had a political, consciousness-raising mission on several levels. It was published just two years after the Spanish-American War when memories lingered of earlier imperialist episodes, such as the Mexican-American War and the annexation of Texas. There was considerable, deep worry in Latin America about the ambitions of the Colossus of the North; and yet there was no small amount of fascination with the United States. Rodó was aware that, with the close of the nineteenth century, Latin Americans needed to think carefully about their future. After 1900, Latin American nations became involved in rebuilding their continent, which had lost its way under the influence of economic and political policies that threatened their sovereignty.

On the other hand, Rodó’s essay was noteworthy for its elegant style, artistic prose, and cosmopolitan references and allusions. Ariel contained an argument supporting an innate Latin American aesthetic sensibility linked to high moral development along with the hope that Latin America’s youth would use their aesthetic and moral gifts to advance Latin America’s rightful place in the centre of twentieth century culture. Many still timely themes in Rodó’s Ariel emerge partly from the historical context of its publication.

At the same time, Ariel is a kind of anti-positivist manifesto. Like many intellectuals of his generation, Rodó had been steeped in the Spencerian positivism that pervaded Latin American universities in the 1890s, including the University of Montevideo, where Rodó taught. However, by the turn of the century, he was primed to think in new ways that would demonstrate positivism’s shortcomings and the damage it could do to societies. The sense of the aesthetic in Rodó runs counter to the spirit of positivism, which holds that the real is the measurable, and thus does not allow for the complexity, depth, breadth, flexibility, nuance, and broad associations of aesthetic phenomena. Rodó encouraged Latin Americans to regularly explore these latter dimensions of aesthetics. He was well read in Greek classics and European (especially French) thought, though his philosophical preoccupations were concerned with Latin America rather than Europe or Greece.

In photography, Manuel Álvarez Bravo of Mexico was another exemplar of modernism. After exploring cubism and all the possibilities offered by abstraction, he began to explore modern aesthetics. His arresting photographs generally involved inhabited space, even if obvious inhabitants were not always present. His aesthetic sense joined the documentary and the poetic, moving toward an insistence on an ethical dimension in photography. His work inspired generations of excellent photographers in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Highly visible Mexican modernist architecture is found in the buildings and grounds of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, designed by Carlos Lazo, Enrique Del Moral, and Mario Pani, and built beginning in 1950. This architecture is noteworthy for its inclusion of the art of the well-known Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Architect Juan O’Gorman’s enormous, natural-stone mosaic mural, which depicts the history of Mexican culture, adorns the exterior of the university library and serves as a familiar landmark in Mexico City.

Luis Barragán, born in Guadalajara, was one of the most creative modernist architects in Mexico. Light, water, primary geometric forms, and vivid colours were his favorite components. Although Barragán was exposed to the work of Le Corbusier and the landscape architecture of Ferdinand Bac during a trip to the Exposition des Arts-Décoratifs in Paris in 1925, he did not develop his modernist style until the 1930s after having met and befriended the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco on a trip to New York, where the latter was living in exile. Barragán moved to Mexico City where most of his modernist designs were erected. His work did not receive much international attention until late in his career when the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized an exhibition of it in 1977. Luis Barragán won the Pritzker Prize in 1980.

Although modernism as a self-consciously formal movement has been viewed as ending around 1920 in Spanish America as the result of the early deaths of several of its practitioners, many vestiges of it remain. Beyond the regionalist novel, many authors of prose fiction of the ‘boom’ of the 1960s and 1970s (famously, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez) utilized chromatic imagery, imagery of exotic animals, elaborate story developments, and unorthodox forms. While there is some debate about whether the writers of the ‘boom’ were modernists or whether they should be classified in some other way, a spirit of modernism encouraged the embrace of the autochthonous, the self-confident valorization of Latin American culture, and the opening of new avenues for artistic expression.

Brazilian Modernism

Modernism in Brazil was a rupture that challenged what Brazilians were thinking upon the outbreak of the First World War. Brazilian modernists revolted against European influences that had dominated the arts in Brazil. Mário de Andrade, the ‘pope’ of modernism, viewed the movement as a rebellious and revolutionary state of mind. If Spanish-American modernism primarily encompassed poetic and literary innovation in form and Latin American tradition, modernism in Portuguese-speaking Latin America was a substantially different kind of movement. It added new traditions to old, creatively blended local and international cultures, and joined popular culture with high cultures. Modernism in Brazil appeared much later than it did in Spanish-speaking Latin America. Arguably, the first modernist phase in Brazil spans 1922 to 1930. Brazil won political independence in 1822, and modernism came on the scene a century later in a concentrated burst when avant-garde intellectuals and artists celebrated the Week of Modern Art in February of 1922 at the Municipal Theatre in São Paulo. This crucial week was organized into three festivals: painting and sculpture, literature and poetry, and music. Many of the Brazilian modernists adapted ideas and language they experienced in Paris in the 1920s by applying European avant-garde themes to their own nativist art. The Week of Modern Art featured paintings by Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral, poetry readings that included deliberately experimental, intentionally ungrammatical use of the Portuguese language, manifesto readings, and concerts. The classical composer Heitor Vila-Lobos added percussion and folk music to traditional works. One seeming result of the festival was to take art out of the academy and associated privileged institutions and bring it closer to more social groups, all in more popular and accessible ways.

The Modernist Group of Five consisted of key figures associated with the festival and with endeavouring to bridge a perceived gap between the metropolis and the backwater: Tarsila do Amaral, Anita Malfatti, Menotti del Picchia, Mário de Andrade, and Oswald de Andrade. Other influential Brazilian modernists include the poets Manuel Bandeira and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, the painters Emiliano di Cavalcanti and Lasar Segall, and the essayist Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, who was the author of key studies of Brazilian cultural history such as Raízes do Brasil (1936) and Caminhos e Fronteiras (1957).

Tarsila do Amaral represented the nativist movement called Pau-Brasil (a native Brazilian tree with reddish wood). The subjects of her paintings, such as EFCB and Morro da Favela from 1924, combine the industrialized modernity of São Paulo (a city of little green space) with the picturesque, lush, tropical environment of suburban and rural Brazil. Emiliano di Cavalcanti evolved from an art nouveau style to a cubist style, as seen in his Samba (1925) and Cinco Moças de Guaratinguetá (1930). Lasar Segall moved from German expressionism to a cubist style, as seen in Banana Plantation (1927). During the 1920s, nationalism expanded in Brazilian art and Tarsila do Amaral’s Pau-Brasil style grew into the Antropofagia movement, in which artists assimilated foreign influences while fiercely maintaining an independent, Brazilian stance. Paintings had less to do with the everydayness of Pau-Brasil and became more oneiric and mythic. In 1930, the Depression devastated Brazil’s coffee industry, and the political revolution of Getulio Vargas altered its political climate. Such events affected the arts world and combined to bring the first phase of modernism to a close.

The second phase of modernism in Brazil, from 1931 to 1945, featured greater interest in social art while maintaining modernist stylistic techniques. Two primary groups of painters during this period were the Grupo Santa Helena and the Família Artística Paulista. Both groups emphasized the perfection of technique. Cândido Portinari was the best-known painter of this period. His modernism was influenced by Mexican muralism and cubism. His paintings of labourers incorporated many of Brazil’s natural resources such as coffee, minerals, and cotton. The Brazilian government commissioned his murals in public and government buildings. Portinari also painted murals in the Hispanic Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and in the United Nations building in New York. In June of 1931, a group of artists who were students at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro formed the Núcleo Bernadelli to nurture free artistic expression and to move away from the academic tradition. These artists included Bruno Lechowski, Manoel Santiago, José Pancetti, Quirino Campofiorito, Bustamante Sá, João José Rescala, and Milton Dacosta. Although production of predominantly modernist painting declined around 1945, access to an overview of the movement was just becoming possible around this time. Museums of modern art opened to the general public after 1945, such as the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, São Paulo’s Museu de Arte Moderna, and the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro. These brought together many paintings that had been in private collections and made them accessible to the general population. In the 1950s, modernism spread throughout Brazil as exhibitions were held in other cities such as Ceará, Salvador, and Recife. In turn, more modern art centres were established.

In the Brazilian context, modernism represented a rupture from stances looking primarily to France and occasionally to Portugal for cultural aesthetics and instead often involved self-conscious decisions to ‘cannibalize’ those elements of European aesthetics that could desirably be adapted to the Brazilian context (e.g. French cubism and Italian futurism), while then adding some native components (e.g. the African, indigenous, and rural elements of the country), all to create something new and authentic to Brazil. The poet Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto, 1928) developed this concept of cultural cannibalism.

Within this new direction, some salient characteristics of Brazilian modernism are captured within an appreciation of Indigenous and Black elements. While racism was pervasive in Brazilian society, there existed simultaneously a new insistence on openness to the more ‘exotic’ parts of the population and recognition that they represented a source of potential enrichment. In an apparent contradiction, together with the appreciation of Indian and Black elements, this Brazilian modernism retained aristocratic components in which there were careful and self-aware moves by the white elite to appropriate and nationalize modernism, so as to continue to control the course of cultural developments.

Hybridity, or blurring the distinction between tradition and modernism, and between the national and the cosmopolitan, was another modernist characteristic. Brazilian modernists sought to retain certain elements of the country’s colonial legacy as well as to adapt some European doctrines without being dominated by them, and to celebrate native, tropical, post-colonial innovations without falling into nationalism. In literature, the first phase of modernism saw competing artistic and political ideologies. Oswald de Andrade represented the left. Brazilians surpassed some limiting nationalist trends such as verdamarelismo (green-and-yellowism, the national colours), practiced by the novelist and fascist leader Plinio Salgado and by the poet-historian Cassiano Ricardo. The latter’s visual poetry was part of concrete poetry, a genre in which the typographical arrangement of words into shapes conveys meaning as much as traditional poetic components such as words, rhythm, and rhyme. How best to represent the uniqueness of Brazilian character was the focus of national debate.

While many of the early Brazilian modernists excelled in poetry and painting, more of the second-wave modernists were novelists and architects. Regional novelists showcased Brazilian features such as cane fields, the jungle, the sertão, cacao plantations, and gauchos in the south. José Lins de Rego, Raquel de Queiroz, and José Américo de Almeida wrote novels that portrayed northeastern Brazil in decline from drought, banditry, electoral fraud, and other social problems. Among the novelists whose works are available in translation are Graciliano Ramos, Erico Verissimo, and Jorge Amado. Amado portrayed the underclasses of Bahia in more than 20 novels such as Jubiabá (1935), The Violent Land (1943), Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon (1958), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), and Tent of Miracles (1969). Perhaps the most highly regarded novelist of the period, however, is Graciliano Ramos, who was less a regionalist writer than a psychological realist and stylistic innovator whose novels happen to be set in the arid northeast. Many of his best novels are available in English translation, such as São Bernardo (1934), Anguish (1936), and Barren Lives (1938). Some outstanding urban novelists include Dionélio Machado, Lúcio Cardoso, and Erico Veríssimo. Machado was a psychiatrist who wrote 11 novels, among them Os Ratos (1935), which covers a day in the life of a lower middle-class protagonist. Cardoso’s Crônica da Casa Assassinada (1959) is a psychological portrayal of decadence in a powerful, wealthy family. Veríssimo wrote 16 novels about lower middle-class gauchos in Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, such as the four-volume The Time and the Wind (1949–61).

Of the many modernist figures in Brazil, historian Richard M. Morse determined, ‘Mário de Andrade was perhaps not the leader of modernism. But more nearly than anyone else he was modernism, with his iconoclasm and concealed nostalgia, his lyricism and social consciousness’ (Morse 1950: 449). Mário de Andrade embodied the movement so well because he practiced in so many of the disciplines associated with São Paulo modernism: he was a poet, novelist, musicologist, art historian, and photographer. His informative essay, ‘The modernist movement’ (de Andrade 2008 [1942]), was a reminiscence and analysis of the Week of Modernist Art 20 years after the event, noteworthy for its valorization of Brazil’s cultural and racial diversity (rural, African, and Indian contributions).

While the Week of Modernist Art in 1922 was crucial to the modernist explosion in literature, music, and painting, it had little effect on architecture, which came to modernism more than a decade later and was encouraged by President Getulio Vargas who promoted a ‘new state’. In 1935, Lúcio Costa accepted a commission to design the Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio de Janeiro. Costa added to his team Oscar Niemeyer and Affonso Eduardo Reidy and later Le Corbusier, who had lectured in Rio in 1929 to great acclaim. Reinforced concrete became a signature material of curvaceous Brazilian modernist architecture, partly for its aesthetic value in sculptural plasticity, low cost, and adaptability to tropical environs, but also because structural steel became scarce during the Second World War.

Costa seized on a rare and unique opportunity for architects when he won the competition for the design of a new capital of Brazil to be constructed in Goiás in the interior. President Juscelino Kubitschek announced the competition in 1955 and unconditionally supported Costa’s project with unlimited funds and a broad freedom of design. Niemeyer, who did not like the right angles and straight lines of traditional architecture, designed many of the public and government buildings, full of folded concrete curves, for the capital. Together, Costa and Niemeyer created Brasilia in the form of a cross (like an ‘x’ marking a spot on a map), which was thought to look like an airplane, laying out two broad, perpendicular avenues that define the city, which were then sprinkled with modernist structures, some more distinctive than others. Perhaps the most stunning is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Aparecida, which consists of 18 boomerang-shaped concrete columns with stained glass between them and looks like a sheaf of wheat gathered together. Visitors descend below ground to enter the cathedral and then ascend to the sanctuary, which heightens the effect of the light coming through the stained glass and attracts the gaze upward to dramatic effect. Modernist architecture was made uniquely Brazilian by combining it with tropicality. Signature features were such functionalist components as the brisesoleil and all-glass walls. The futuristic city received international attention and became Brazil’s most famous architectural achievement. Niemeyer’s influence on subsequent generations of architects continued unabated throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.

The modernist movement contributed to a famous, common sentiment that Brazil is the land where tomorrow never comes, a nation where all is yet to be done. Modern Brazil set out to build its civilization with the building blocks it determined to be appropriate and possible for its context while also conserving desired elements of its colonial past. In Spanish America, modernists advocated for a kind of pan-Hispanism that paved the way for Latin Americans to be Latin American in their own way and on their own terms. Initially, the Spanish-American modernists turned away from a conscious emphasis on a Latin American identity and looked inward to the imagination and creativity of the artists.

Both the Brazilian and the Spanish-American modernists sought to conserve valued elements of heritage and tradition while at the same time forging a unique style that took into account autochthonous foundations and defined an aesthetic path toward the future.

Borrowing from the French Parnassians and symbolists in Spanish America and, in the Brazilian case, ‘cannibalizing’ European artistic contributions, both Spanish-American and Brazilian modernists adapted these international influences in ways that became distinctly Latin American.

Further Reading

  • de Andrade, M. (2008) [1942] ‘The modernist movement’, Portuguese Studies, 24.1: 95–115.

  • Morse, Richard M. (1950) ‘Brazilian modernism’, The Hudson Review, 3.3 (Autumn): 447–52.

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Oliver, Amy A.. Modernism in Latin America. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/modernist-intellectual-currents-in-latin-america.

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