The Beat Goes On

For nearly 70 years, the São Paulo Bienal has been South America’s most influential cultural event, introducing the continent to some of the art world’s biggest names. Stephen Bayley traces the history of this enduring success story.

What do we think about when we think about Brazil? Football, coffee, the bossa nova, the samba, carnivals, caipirinhas, Astrud Gilberto, Copacabana, the Amazon, Gisele Bündchen… But major art exhibitions? Perhaps not.

Ciccillo Matarazzo (far right) visits Picasso’s Guernica in 1953


A visitor surveys a sculpture by Alexander Calder at the second Bienal, held in 1953.


Next year, however, sees the 34th edition of the São Paulo Bienal. In the fractious, bitter and competitive world of art, longevity is rare. Roberto Muylaert, a one-time president of the São Paulo Bienal, said:

“In Brazil, anything that endures even a decade deserves to be celebrated. Even some of our currencies have not lasted that long.”

And that’s true, but the Bienal has endured since 1951.

Of course, along the way there have been calamities, wild vicissitudes, lurches in taste, management crises and political interference (especially under the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, when the musician Gilberto Gil, among others, chose exile abroad over fascist oppression at home), but the São Paulo Bienal became and remains the Southern Hemisphere’s outstanding art event.

It was created in deliberate imitation of the Venice Biennale, inaugurated in 1895 on the silver anniversary of King Umberto I and Margherita di Savoia. But São Paulo’s Bienal was more commercial than royal in inspiration. Its founder was an apex-predator industrialist called Ciccillo Matarazzo, also founder of MAM-SP, the city’s Museum of Modern Art. His ambition was to confirm Brazil’s place at civilisation’s top table by reviewing, biannually, current movements in international art. Since the 1920s, modernism had been seen by Brazil’s intelligentsia as a welcome repudiation of the colonial past, and while the Bienal has flirted with indigenous and non-European art, it has essentially been a celebration of the modernist aesthetic – and that, of course, is no bad thing.

From the very beginning, this aesthetic has been boldly declared with the graphics that are the real glory of the São Paulo Bienal, and a survey of every poster since 1951 is no less than a survey of the entire history of graphic design in the second half of the 20th century. The force, clarity and variety are all remarkable, but there is a unity in the diversity – because a certain freshness is shared by every print.

The catalogue for the second Bienal


Opened in 1957, the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, headquarters of the Bienal de São Paulo, was designed by stellar Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The sinuous three-storey interior provides an exhibition space of 30,000sq m.


The poster for the first Bienal was designed by Antônio Maluf: a São Paulo-born artist and muralist then just at the beginning of his career, who would later emerge as an important dealer and collector of Brazilian art. In this work, an illusionistic corridor leads the eye into the distance while a primitive but simultaneously modern sans serif font seems to occupy the picture-plane. (This device appeared again in 2008). The second Bienal’s poster was designed by Paris-based Brazilian artist Antônio Bandeira, who employed a Miró-like device, at once decorative and surreal. And then we trip through the history of graphics: op and pop appear, so do whimsy, sampling of Hans Arp, photo-realism, Push Pin Studios and Robert Indiana derivatives, and exquisite typography.

But let’s not forget the art itself. Signal events in the Bienal’s history included showing Picasso’s 1937 Guernica in 1953, while the heroic canvas was lodging at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, since the artist refused to show it in Franco’s Spain. In 1955, Mexican socialist-realist heroes Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros headlined, as did Jackson Pollock in 1957 (Jack the Dripper was even given his own room). Knowing people, meanwhile, declared that exhibitions of work by Max Bill and Piet Mondrian exerted a decisive influence on the course of Brazilian neo-concrete art.

In 1959 the Bienal introduced Brazilians to Van Gogh and, as if to prove art’s relationship to the zeitgeist, in 1965 – when the creepy military dictatorship came to power – Max Ernst, Man Ray, Magritte, Delvaux and Picabia were presented as a surreal affront to conventional, uniformed authority. Then, in 1967, the US delegation used the Bienal to present Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, in this way introducing Brazil to the luminous absurdities of New York pop.

Meanwhile, the 10th Bienal was boycotted by artists protesting political freedom; then, more positively, in 1973, Kandinsky was shown for the first time in South America. By the 17th Bienal in 1983, performance art and video had become part of the programme. Perhaps as a result of this inclusiveness, in 2008 the entire second floor of the Bienal building was left empty to demonstrate the crisis in contemporary art.

But the Bienal was at least as much associated with architecture. In the early years, it took place in temporary premises in São Paulo’s Parque Ibirapuera, a lush imitation of an English park. But in 1957, the Bienal acquired its own permanent premises. These were designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the superhero of Brazilian architecture who had come to international notice with his design of the Brazil Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Niemeyer designed a three-storey building and aimed to maximise the sense of large open spaces. The plan is sinuous and Niemeyer, who had an explicit thing for women, declared that “form follows feminine”. He said of his design: “It is easy to understand and hard to forget.” He believed that “curves are the essence of my work because they are the essence of Brazil, pure and simple”. He would soon confirm his form-giving genius in the designs for Brasilia, the nation’s new capital.

So when we think of São Paulo Bienal, what it represents is a compelling demonstration of an evolving national identity:

“Novo homem, Brasileiro e moderno.”


A selection of posters for the Bienal, showing the varied styles that have dominated graphic design over the past six decades

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