Melancholy encounter: Lasar Segall and Brazilian modernism, 1924-1933

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Wolfe, Edith Angelica Gibson

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Focusing on racialized representations of Brazil, this dissertation examines the work of Lithuanian-born, German-educated, Jewish artist Lasar Segall (1891-1957) in Brazil between his immigration in 1924 and the end of World War II. Segall’s arrival in Brazil coincided with the emergence of a local avant-garde, forging a modern, national aesthetic that satisfied the dual imperatives of cosmopolitanism and nativism. Symbols of Blackness resolved this dilemma: consummate symbols of Brazilian authenticity, yet defined and valorized by the European cult of the “primitive.” Thus, when Afro-Brazilian themes came to dominate Segall’s production in Brazil—including numerous self-portraits as a mulatto—he was applauded for expressing the “spirit of the nation.” I argue, however, that Segall’s work did not conform to the Brazilian modernist agenda, nor did his treatment necessarily reinforce an affirmative identity discourse. On the contrary, I propose that his deeply empathetic depictions of Afro-Brazilians, as well as of European immigrants, Jews and Jewry, prostitutes and indigent women and children, disrupted any coherence of modernist brasilidade (Brazilian-ness). This dissertation, therefore, explores the gap between artistic production and reception, observing that despite the frequent misconception of Segall as a primitivist, he did not imagine Brazil as an escape from “civilization,” but rather as refuge from the nationalist politics that increasingly adulterated European art and hindered his spiritual humanist artistic mission. While Segall’s Brazilian contemporaries celebrated his “Brazilianization,” interpreting his assimilation of Blackness in terms of their own nationalist agenda, his identification with Afro-Brazil posed a trenchant critique of the nation, invoking a shared diasporic condition and universalizing alterity that Segall positioned as the heart of the modern condition.