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Women artists lead the way in Brazil

Unlike their Western counterparts, female Brazilian artists are at the forefront of the market

While prices for female artists in Europe and the US continue to lag behind those of their male counterparts, women are leading Brazil’s art market. The numbers tell the story: women hold seven of the top ten auction records for Brazilian artists, and women created 11 of the 15 Brazilian works to have sold at auction for more than $1m. “Brazil is completely unique in this respect,” says Henry Allsopp, the worldwide director of Latin American sales at Phillips.

The female dominance of the market is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nine of the top ten prices for Brazilian female artists were achieved in the past two years. But women have played a central role in Brazil’s art history for almost a century. Anita Malfatti, who travelled to Berlin to study German Expressionism in the 1910s, is widely credited with introducing Brazil to European Modernist painting. Her brightly coloured, slightly distorted portraits sent shockwaves through the art community when they were exhibited in São Paulo in 1917 (one contemporary critic called it “the Malfatti earthquake”). In the 1920s, Malfatti and fellow painter Tarsila do Amaral went on to help form the influential “Grupo de Cinco”, a collective of writers and artists who pioneered Brazil’s own version of Modernism.

“Women broke through elsewhere in Latin America, but what is extraordinary is the number of Brazilian women artists who were at the forefront,” says Tanya Barson, the curator of international art at Tate Modern. “They were not just participating in artistic movements—they were creating them.” Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, for example, were among four visual artists to sign Neo-Concretism’s founding manifesto—which promoted a less rational, more phenomenological approach to art—in 1959.

Scholars, curators and critics are divided over the reasons for the success of Brazilian female artists. The critic Aracy Amaral suggests that traditional Latin cultures regarded art as handcrafted work, a space perceived to be occupied solely by women. “This may be the reason why Brazilian women, unlike their European or American counterparts, do not need to struggle to penetrate the art world establishment—it is ‘their’ world,” Amaral wrote in a catalogue essay for the 1997 exhibition “The Art of Ultramodern: Contemporary Brazil” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

Others look to Brazil’s more recent history for an explanation. The economic boom between 1945 and 1964 created “a period of optimism and opportunity for most people in the country, whether they were women or immigrants”, Barson says. A number of the most important women artists from the period, including Tomie Ohtake and Mira Schendel, who is famous for her complex drawings of the alphabet, are immigrants, Barson notes.

At the same time, the absence of a formal gallery or museum system in the country until the 1970s meant that women did not need to break into restrictive bureaucracies in order to fully participate in the art world. “When you have an open artistic order, women can enter more easily, and we see over and over that they do in large numbers,” says Susan Fisher Sterling, the director of the National Museum for Women in the Arts. This openness may also explain why so many of Brazil’s top art dealers, including Raquel Arnaud (Raquel Arnaud Gallery), Luisa Strina (Galeria Luisa Strina) and Marcia Fortes (Galeria Fortes Vilaça), are female.

Outside Brazil, it has taken longer for women’s artistic contributions to be recognised. There were no female Brazilian artists included in “The Other Half of the Avant-Garde, 1910-40”, a survey of women artists held at Milan’s Palazzo Reale in 1980, or in Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris’s exhibition “Women Artists, 1550-1950” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum in 1976 and 1977. On an international level, “Brazilian women artists—whether it is Clark, Schendel, or Pape—have been recognised later than their male contemporaries”, says the London-based dealer Alison Jacques.

A turning point came in 1989, when the exhibition “Art in Latin America: the Modern Era, 1820-1980” opened at the Hayward Gallery in London. It introduced European audiences to Do Amaral, Malfatti and Clark alongside male Brazilian artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Sergio Camargo. Six years later, Do Amaral’s painting Abaporu, 1928, sold at Christie’s, New York, for $1.43m. At the time, it was the highest price ever paid for a Brazilian artist at auction.

That record has since been surpassed by a number of contemporary Brazilian artists, including Beatriz Milhazes and Adriana Varejão. These artists, who have gallery representation in the US and Europe as well as in Brazil, have benefitted from a more professionalised art world and a global marketplace, according to Katia Mindlin Leite-Barbosa, the president of Sotheby’s Brazil. “Artists who came before them did not have those benefits,” she says.

Meanwhile, current museum exhibitions both within and outside the country are taking a closer look at the individual contributions of Brazilian women artists. The Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo is hosting an exhibition of the Modernist sculptor Maria Martins (through 15 September), while a solo show devoted to Schendel is due to open at Tate Modern on 25 September (until 19 January 2014) before traveling to the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. A retrospective of Clark’s work is scheduled to open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in May 2014.

Brazilian art experts note that these figures are celebrated on their merits as artists—not because, or in spite of, their gender. “I never think of it in gender terms,” says dealer Marcia Fortes. “There are lots of artists in Brazil, male and female, who are beginning to get the recognition they deserve, and many more who have not.”

Top 15 auction prices for Brazilian artists

1 Lygia Clark, Contra Relevo (Objecto N. 7), 1959, $2.25m Phillips, New York, 23 May 2013 (est $600,000-$800,000)

2 Beatriz Milhazes, Meu Limão, 2000, $2.1m Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 2012 (est $700,000-$900,000)

3 Adriana Varejao, Parede com incisões a la Fontana II (Wall with incisions a la Fontana II), 2001, £1.1m ($1.78m) , Christie’s, London, 16 February 2011 (est £200,000-£300,000)

4 Sergio Camargo, Relief, 1964, $1.59m Sotheby’s, New York, 18 November 2009 (est $350,000-$450,000)

5 Sergio Camargo, Hommage à Fontana, 1967, $1.53m Sotheby’s, New York, 23 May 2012 (est $600,000-$800,000)

6 Beatriz Milhazes, O Elefante Azul, 2002, £937,250 ($1.46m) Christie’s, London, 27 June 2012 (est £400,000-£600,000)

7 Candido Portinari, Meninos soltando pipas, 1941, $1.44m Christie’s, London, 27 June 2012 (est £400,000-£600,000)

8 Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu, 1928, $1.43m Christie’s, New York, 20 November 1995 (est unavailable)

9 Beatriz Milhazes, Dança dos Reis, 1998, £847,650 ($1.36m) Sotheby’s, London, 12 October 2012 (est £400,000-£600,000)

10 Beatriz Milhazes, Dança dos Reis, 1998, £847,650 ($1.36m) Sotheby’s, London, 12 October 2012 (est £400,000-£600,000)

11 Adriana Varejao, Trois Petites Morts, 2003, $1.17m Sotheby’s, New York,

14 November 2012 (est $600,000-$800,000)

12 Beatriz Milhazes, O moderno, 2002, £713,250 ($1.14m) Phillips, London, 27 June 2011 (est £650,000-£750,000)

13 Candido Portinari, Navio negreiero, 1950, $1.14m Christie’s, New York, 22 May 2012 (est $700,000-$900,000)

14 Beatriz Milhazes, Madame Caduvel, 1996, £668,450 ($1.07m) Christie’s, London, 11 October 2012 (est £320,000-£380,000)

15 Beatriz Milhazes, O mágico, 2001, $1.05m Sotheby’s, New York, 15 May 2008 (est $250,000-$350,000)

All data courtesy of Artnet or the auction house direct

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Women lead the way'