Emiliano Augusto Cavalcanti de Albuquerque Melo (1897 – 1976), known as Di Cavalcanti, was a Brazilian Modernist painter who is best known for his scenes of mulatas surrounded by the lush tropical imagery and his extravagantly colorful renditions of contemporary Brazilian culture. His work draws on a wide range of influences, including Cubism, Fauvism and Picasso’s Neoclassicism of the 1920s. While his Mexican contemporaries Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros idealized the struggles of the indigenous working class, Di Cavalcanti turned to the streets, bars, cafes, cabarets, nightclubs, and carnaval, to portray the diverse makeup of a youthful metropolis where socialites, the working class, and social deviants mingled in harmony in the distinctly local flavor of Brazilian urban life. Common themes included indigenous women, doves, and carnival scenes.
Di Cavalcanti aspired to to break free of traditional European imagery to portray Brazil’s distinctive cultural identity. In the early 1920’s, Di Cavalcanti, along with a small fellowship of Brazilian artists, began to promote a nationalist artistic ideology, which is now recognized as the origin of the Brazilian modernist art movement.
In 1922, Di Cavalcanti helped to organize a series of art exhibitions and poetry readings in the São Paulo Municipal Theater to run alongside the national centennial celebration of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. For seven days, artists painted, sculpted, lectured, performed music and read poetry, creating some of the most avant-garde works of art ever seen in Brazil. The emphasis of the week was modernism – lectures about modern art were given, new styles of music were played and difficult poems were read aloud. Among the works showcased at the Modern Art Week was poetry by Mario de Andrade, sculptures by Victor Brecheret and controversial art nouveau paintings by Di Cavalcanti.
Entitled, El Semana De Arte Moderna, the week long festival endeavored to showcase Brazilian artists. The country was celebrating 100 years of freedom from Portuguese oppression – so why, the artists wanted to know, was European art still considered by most to be superior to the work of Brazilian artists? In Di Cavalcanti: Grandes Artistas Brasileiros (1983), Luis Martins writes, “Di Cavalcanti’s portrayal of his country’s racial diversity (in the presence of the mulata) was a divergent split from the then academically-taught and European-based standards of beauty where the visualization and prevalence of the indigenous population symbolized modernity and a voice unfettered by colonization.”
Today the Semana De Arte Moderna of 1922 is recognized as a pivotal moment in the development of modern art. At the time, however, at the time it was greeted with expressions of anger, horror, fear and derision. There were stories of performers being pelted with missiles by shocked audiences and critics harshly denounced the controversial new art form as immoral.
In 1923 Di Cavalcanti relocated to France where he studied at the Académie Ranson in Paris. While employed as a correspondent for the newspaper Correio da Manhã, Di Cavalvanti would meet European modernist painters Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Fernand Léger. Picasso and Di Cavalcanti developed a long-standing friendship, and the painter’s influence can be seen throughout Di Cavalcanti’s later career.
Di Cavalcanti returned to Brazil in 1925, where would twice be imprisoned for his political sympathy towards Brazil’s poor indigenous population. In 1932 he met his future wife, painter Noêmia Mourão, shortly after being released from prison for his previous support of the Paulista Revolt of 1924 (Revolução Paulista). In 1933, the couple married. By 1936, Di Cavalcanti and Noêmia were incarcerated for their associations with the Brazilian Communist Party.
In 1937, Di Cavalcanti and Noêmia relocated to Paris. Over the next three years, Di Cavalcanti would produce approximately 40 works and was awarded a Gold medal in the Art Technique Exhibition in Paris for his murals in the French-Brazilian Coffee Company. These works were thought to be lost in 1940, when Di Cavalcanti and his wife were forced to flee France on the eve of the German invasion. The missing works were later recovered in 1966, turning up in the basement of the Brazilian Embassy in Paris.
Life was a beautiful and fascinating spectacle for Di Cavalcanti. His paintings reflect an aesthetic charm which appealed to the common man and the gentry alike. His cheerfully unreserved brand of modernism and his preference for traditional Brazilian themes make him one of Brazil’s most beloved artists.