Film, 16mm, color, optical sound, 7 min, 49 sec (loop)
Director of photography and editor: Hannes Böck
Music, piano: Susanne Pumhösl,
Recording: Herrmann Platzer
Commissioned by 27 São Paulo Bienal, 2006
A film titled Programm, a film program
São Paulo’s Early Avant-garde
For me film continues to remain poetry today.
Hans Richter, 1971
São Paulo first became economically significant when the growing of coffee, which had reached the city through the Rio Paraíba valley in the 1850s, spread to the north and northwest, influenced by the agreeable climate and the quality of the soil as well as the increasing buying power in Europe in the 1880s. A few hundred thousand Europeans, mostly Italians, as well as many Germans, Japanese, and Lebanese who worked primarily on the coffee plantations emigrated to São Paulo between 1886 and 1905. All these influences aided in the city’s growing wealth. But it was the industrialization at the end of the 19th century that led to the impressive growth into the largest metropolis in South America. In the 1920s, São Paulo became the leading industrial region in the country. The population had already exceeded one million in 1934 and doubled until 1950.
Up to the First World War, Europe remained the cultural framework and point of reference for the Brazilian elite. France was the intellectual ideal; French was the language of the Brazilian upper and bourgeois classes, and until the 1940s journals continued to publish texts in French.
Yet WWI not only influenced Brazil economically, the collapse of the European ideal bore psychological effects as well. The war accelerated attempts at forming a nation and the search for an indigenous creative potential. A younger generation of officers (tenantes), trained in the tradition of positivism, who tried to resolve the grievances in their own country through a national reorientation and overcoming the social backwardness, defined one lobbying group; as did the representatives of the modernist avant-garde around Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade. Around 1910, the latter had first followed European art movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism, Expressionism, and Futurism but later they were developing their own, rather heterogeneous Brazilian Modernism. Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), a central figure of the movement, postulated the right to aesthetic self-determination, the updating of Brazilian art as well as the formation of a creative national consciousness. Thus Europe lost its predominance as a focal point of cultural references.
Gregori Warchavchik (1896–1971), a Jewish architect who hailed from Odessa but was educated in Italy was one of the pioneers of modern architecture in Brazil. The Warchavchiks’ house in São Paulo was a meeting point for the avant-garde, where poets like Mário de Andrade and Guilherme de Almeida and artists like Anita Malfatti, Flávio de Carvalho and Tarsila do Amaral congregated regularly. But Warchavchik was also a significant innovator and informant among Brazilian architects, inspiring later representatives of Brazilian High Modernism, such as Lucio Costa or Roberto Burle-Marx.
The Casa Modernista, built in 1927 and one of the first truly modernist buildings in São Paulo, is located in the middle-class neighborhood of Vila Mariana. The area, nowadays called Parque Modernista, consists of a yard spanning several acres, designed by Minna Klabin-Warchavchik, in addition to the residence of the family and several adjoining buildings. Among these buildings are the architect's studio that was added later, a house for his children, and a small schoolhouse.
Although the park is only twenty minutes from the city center, it is a hybrid between a stately mansion and an urban fazenda, which at the time was a relatively common combination within the developing upper-class neighborhoods of São Paulo. In its original design by Klabin, the yard, which is meanwhile heavily overgrown, was an unusually hybrid yet seminal concept. On the one hand, it shows an almost sculptural, sparse connection to the house, as still evidenced by the gigantic cacti, on the other hand, it integrated japanese influences as well as the local tropical flora. In close proximity to the area were the studio of the painter Lasar Segall (1891–1957), which was later rebuilt to house the Lasar Segall Museum and, on the other side of the street, some town houses designed by Gregori Warchavchik that also belonged to the family.
In its original design, the two-story residence shows clear influences of the French Art Deco architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886–1945), who in the years prior had built many influential mansions, such as the mansion of the Vicomte de Noailles in Hyères (1923), that Man Ray used in 1929 as a location for his film Les Mystères du Château du Dé. Mallet-Stevens’ furniture sketches inspired Warchavchik’s interior designs as well. Mallet-Stevens also played an important role as a film architect; in his studio, Fernand Léger and the Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, among others, worked on the construction of film sets. The most significant evidence of this might be Marcel L’Herbier’s dark silent picture L’Inhumaine from 1923, in which the residence of the opera diva, a modern mansion similar to the Casa Modernista, provides an appropriate background for the glamorous life-style of the time.
A year after completing his own residence, Warchavchik designed a second smaller building at Rua Itapolis, a neighborhood next to the Avenida Paulista. This house, also called Casa Modernista was opened to the public as a sort of Case Study house that could be built industrially, following the sentiment associated with the European movement of Neues Bauen (“New Building”). From March 26 to April 20, 1928, an exhibition with the title “Exposicao de uma Casa Modernista” took place here, which showcased examples of Brazilian and European art and design, among them works by Tarsila and Victor Brecheret, as well as upholstery designs by Sonia Delaunay and Bauhaus tapestries. Although some of the building’s design elements that were supposed to be produced industrially had to be made by traditional craftsmen due to the lack of industry, just like in the case of Vila Mariana, the irruption of standardized residential formats was São Paulo’s talk of the town. A short newsreel sequence, produced by São Paulo’s Rossi Films, is evidence of the attention the media paid to the exhibit.
The film “Programm” was initiated in 2006 during a visit to Brazil that lasted several months, of which I spent a number of weeks filming in Parque Modernista. An invitation to the 27th Biennale in São Paulo facilitated my stay. A few iconic works of the European avant-garde, their Brazilian reception and the subsequent intermingling of the two were the starting point of the picture. My first idea was that the film could consist of two levels so that different events and observations could be combined in the images.
Thus, “Programm” is at first simply a filmic study about a building, the Casa Modernista and the surrounding park. Yet for a few moments the film acquires a second illustrative level, which is based primarily on the reconstruction of a frame from the 1930s Rossi Films newsreel movie mentioned earlier. This frame deals with a short moment at the opening of the “Exposicao de uma Casa Modernista”. The image made an impression on me when I saw its reproduction in a book about Warchavchik because it brings together various aspects that we had learned while studying the early history of Brazilian modernism: specifically, the presence of the predominantly European bourgeoisie of the late 1920s as one part of society on its way into the 20th century. In the image, we see representatives of the avant-garde, among them de Andrade and de Almeida, and the hostess Minna Klabin in the middle with a higher-ranking military representative.
“Programm” is an attempt to capture this image, to reconstruct it, categorize it, and memorize it. The Group reappears in the middle of the Film, as double exposure. Mario de Andrade and the General can be seen in a conversation, possibly conspirational; the figures could be both visitors of an exhibition or just house guests in a garden party. Their last, more close-up appearance follows exactly the scene from the historical newsreel frame, imagining what might have happened the following seconds.
At first, I conceptualized “Programm” as a film that was to be shown on a loop in an architectural space constructed specifically for this purpose. In the context of Paradox and Practice: Architecture in the Wake of Conceptualism, I want to open up this installation context in order to show the film in conjunction with two of the most important Brazilian movies from the 1930s, both of which served as information and inspiration in the formative phase of my film. They also helped me in understanding the specific historic time of the 1930s. Like the historical architecture in “Programm,” I read these films as the result of a transformative reception but also as an emancipation and departure towards a characteristic language of modernism.
Hans Richter by Hans Richter. Events in a Life. Ed. Cleve Clay. Canada: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971. 45.
Ursula Prutsch. Brasilien 1889–1985, Von der ersten Republik bis zum Ende der Militärdiktatur. LASON Study. Department of History, University of Vienna
Ferraz, Geraldo. Warchavchik e a Introdução Da Nova Arquitetura No Brasil: 1925 a 1940. São Paulo: Museu De Arte De São Paulo, 1965
Brazilian Cinema. Eds. Randal Johnson and Robert Stam. Ontario: Associated University Press, 1982