The Johann Jacobs Museum is exhibiting part of the popular art collection amassed by Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. It is reasonable to ask why the architect, who defined herself as a modernist and rationalist, was concerned with this form of cultural expression.
Maybe one answer lies in her partnership with Pietro Maria Bardi, who in 1949 organized Brazil’s first exhibition of popular art in a museum. The show was held at the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP), and his gesture represented a profoundly symbolic shift, as the objects migrated from popular market to museum display.
Another possible answer to the question can be found in Lina’s contacts in Bahia, where artists like Mario Cravo used to collect ex-votos and other “popular” objects. This was, of course, nothing new, because we know that former modernist writer Mario de Andrade and his contemporaries had private collections of both “fine” and “popular” art.
When Lina arrived in Brazil, folklore and popular art were an aesthetical, cultural and political issue. In the period of democracy following the Getulio Vargas era (1930-1945), the ideas and knowledge of the common man were key factors in, among other things, debates on education and the Cinema Novo. Lina, then, was not alone. Although she avoided the term “folklore” herself, she maintained an interesting dialogue with folklorists such as Renato Almeida and Augusto Nunes, with young filmmaker Glauber Rocha, and with a network of artists and intellectuals to whom the question of popular knowledge was a key concept.
Perhaps she recognized the intensity and significance of this debate because it related to her former social experiences in Italy. In some of the texts in his Prison Notebooks, communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci engaged in a polemic with conservative thinker Benedetto Croce. On the one hand, Lina borrowed the notions of “time” and “history” that appear in her thinking from the writings of Croce; on the other, she recognizes the validity of some of Gramsci’s ideas, such as the distinction between being “national” and “nationalist”. Other ideas, such as the notion that since every man can think, every man can be a philosopher, are subsumed in her writings. Many are implicit not only in her choice of artefacts for display at the Nordeste Exhibition (1963) and other such shows, but also in the way she proposed to exhibit them.
According to some specialists, Lina was the first person in Brazil to raise awareness of Gramsci, and she was involved with the translation of his books into Portuguese. Understanding the relationship between some of Gramsci’s ideas and the dialogue she established with representatives of Brazilian culture together with the political circumstances prevailing at the time can perhaps help us gain a deeper (but no less fascinating) insight into her marvellous collection.