Interpreting Art History by Brazilian Modernist Anita Malfatti
Faculty Mentor: Rex Nielsen, Department of Spanish & Portuguese
This project is centered around the artist Anita Malfatti and her teaching of art history. Malfatti
was an instrumental figure in the development of Brazilian Modernism. Leaving an oeuvre
composed primarily of portraits and landscapes, the majority of critics and scholars have been
dedicated to recognizing interactions Malfatti had with artists in Germany and New York. She
continued to paint and depict Brazilian life throughout her life but also was a teacher of art and
Her lectures still exist in notebooks, though under-researched and unpublished. The main goal of
this research was to access her archive, then transcribe and document the material. As sources of
valuable lectures, her notebooks also contain manuscripts for conferences on modern art that
Malfatti gave regarding color, form, and the arrival of modern art in Brazil. By transcribing and
studying these lecture notes, I aimed to better understand how she taught art history and
conceptualized Brazilian visual art.
During the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to travel abroad and work directly with the
source material. Malfatti taught a series of art history courses at various educational
institutions in São Paulo, Brazil. The surviving lecture notes are held in an archive at the
Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) within the University of São Paulo (USP). IEB has the
largest collection of original documents related to prominent Brazilian writers, thinkers, and
artists. As the largest archive of its kind, the staff were very organized, professional, and
delightful to work with.
The first week was dedicated to receiving a week long course on archival practices.
Afterwards I had access to Malfatti’s collection. The amount of art history lecture material
was a higher volume than I anticipated. Also the transcription process was slower than
expected as the artist had a script that is notoriously difficult to read. I began to transcribe,
photograph, and read her notes that still survive regarding her teaching of art history.
Following procedures of how to properly handle the documents, I daily processed and read
handwritten notes by the artist. I encountered one notebook that contained writings she
prepared for a conference on modern art in 1933. In addition to this, I photographed and
brought digital images of a number of other manuscripts and lectures by Malfatti.
With the amount of material I gathered, I realized that traveling to São Paulo was only the
beginning of my research. When I first started to work, I was solely focused on transcribing the
notes into digital documents. As digital copies I could bring them back to the United States and
continue to study her teachings. The time to really read and analyze the texts was when I
returned to BYU and still continues today. Some of the most compelling lectures I found were of
Malfatti commenting on the development of what is now considered modern art. Malfatti
dissected the movements of impressionism and cubism. Impressionist wanted the impression of
color and thus did away with form. On the contrary, Cubists wanted to only represent planes thus
doing away with color almost entirely. In seeking to purify one element of art, the other essential
element, according to Malfatti, was lost. She saw the search for color and light as a continuing
battle. Not a fight between the old ways and new ways, but a fight for the truth to reveal itself
because it could no longer be contained. Malfatti herself wondered what the result would be if
both elements could be found together.
Analysis of several texts also revealed that she taught a disproportionate number of lectures of
great detail on Italy. Additionally, some words, such as porcellana, meaning porcelain, belleza beauty,
and, anno s, indicating years, were not written in native Portuguese but in Italian.1
Malfatti’s mother was a teacher of many languages, including Italian. This fact in conjunction
with her father’s heritage and the number of Italian art lectures shows her interest in Italy to be
One of the difficulties was the amount of time it took to learn how it read Malfatti’s script
correctly. Though there was not sufficient time to analyze all the lectures, I did scan through
them looking for specific content. I was hoping to find her thoughts on Brazilian art and how it
was influenced by Western art practices. Unfortunately, it appears this topic was too
contemporary for her to teach at the time.
In researching a woman artist, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter even more material than I
could process in the time constraints of the summer. Studying, comparing her lecture notes, and
finding the Italian portions inspired my thoughts about her hybridization for my senior thesis. I
argued that she equally embraced modern formal elements from abroad and familial
environmental elements in expressing herself. My goal is to perform further study through
continued transcription and analysis of her lectures and hopefully aid in their future publication.
1 IEB/USP. Anita Malfatti Collection: Caderno 06 código
de referência: AM:05.06.0000. Accessed JuneAugust
2016. And IEB/USP. Anita Malfatti Collection: Caderno 07 código
de referência: AM:05.07.0000. Accessed JuneAugust
2016, notebook archive reference codes.