Rio de Janeiro’s show of anxiety-busting comics

In the best Brazilian tradition, the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro is an architectural marvel: gravity-defying and awe-inspiring. The building features a cadence of external pillars which, connected by beams, create an interior free of columns or structural walls. Much like the modernist São Paulo Museum of Art, it just floats. It holds a collection of mostly Brazilian modern art and when I visited in June 2018, it also hosted a broad retrospective of Victor Arruda’s comics.

Located in Rio’s Flamengo Park, a post-war urban planning project built on land reclaimed from the sea, the museum exists on borrowed time. Completed in 1955, the concrete structure is a masterpiece of Affonso Eduardo Reidy surrounded by modernist gardens designed by Roberto Burle Marx. It may have defied the sea but, sadly, couldn’t escape fire. In 1978, the museum burned down along with 90% of its artworks. Since then it has rebuilt its collection with much of its former glory.

Arruda whose artistic trajectory the museum mapped in over 100 works by way of a retrospective is a proponent of Trans-avantgarde. Originally an Italian version of Neo-expressionism, this art movement revived figurative art and symbolism with an added dose of emotion in the late 1970s and 1980s. It rejected the avant-garde’s quest for the new by returning to styles of the past. Its artists, like Arruda, quote not only from art history and mythology, but also from popular culture.

As a genre, comics are an integral part of Trans-avantgarde. After all, that’s what you get when you purposefully inject joy into figurative art and let psychoanalysis inspire your subject matter. By his own admission, Arruda painted in order to deal with his anxieties. His nightmarish imagery, always rendered in psychedelic tones, does a fine job of bringing his unconscious to his conscious mind. In doing so, he has dealt with hypocrisy, racism or homophobia, all of which are his obsessions.

Like Arruda’s Trans-avantgarde comics, Brazilian modern art as a whole is a cyclical affair. This museum’s collection shows that the radicalism of its first Modernists couldn’t last long in a society accustomed to traditional tastes. Brazilian modern art thus became a mix of some achievements of the Moderns, such as freedom from the strict academic agenda, and some conventional stylistic traits. Like Arruda’s apt revival of figurative painting, Brazil’s moderate Modernism is a unique proposition.