Lygia Pape and the Sensorial Art of Resistance

Lygia Pape (1929–2004) proved to be one of the most prominent Brazilian artists of the 20th century. Her work is marked by a shift from a formalist concern with geometric abstraction to a multimedia approach, encompassing installation, performance, video and conceptual art. Pape’s early years (1940s-50s) were characterized by her affiliation with the Concrete movement, which was profoundly influenced by European avant-gardes such as De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus. This development in the Brazilian artistic scene was largely due to the return to democracy in 1945 and the industrialization after the eight-year long dictatorship of GetúlioVargas. At a time of rapid economic growth, Pape’s explorations of line, space and form belonged to a context saturated with optimistic views of the future.

Pape’s prints exemplify an exploration of these themes by reconsidering the associations of defined borders and reproducibility, carried by the medium. Her works from the 50s present a rather organic exploration of line and form in relation to space, but moreover they emphasize the inherent materiality of the print and the most simple of its elements — line and visual contrast. Pape’s Tecelar (Weaving), 1960 demonstrates her concern for texture, creating a reminiscence of wood grain. Geometric shapes are suggested, yet Pape’s controlled lines unfurl and intersect, creating an unprecedent conceptualization of space. Hints of underlying geometric shapes are dominated by strong linear patterns. Negative space and line interact rhythmically, conveying an illusion that the print can easily unfold beyond its frame. As Pape herself stated, these works exhibit the careful structuring methods of the Constructivists, yet they exceed the established limits of the print, rebuking any notion of reproducibility, almost turning into paintings.

Lygia Pape, Tecelar (Weaving), 1960, © Projeto Lygia Pape.

However, in 1964 a military coup brought these artistic explorations to a halt, especially in the aftermath of the Institutional Act-5 (1968) which eliminated civil rights, in addition to instituting censorship and employing torture as a normative practice of the state. These circumstances dwarfed the pursuits of the Concrete movement, instigating the transition into Neo-Concretism. It presented an artistic ideology alternative to that of artists dealing with political content or to those engaged with the countercultural movement (following a disengaged philosophy of preaching peace and love).

Lygia Pape, alongside with Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, adopted a marginal stance, informed by Neo-Concretism, which allowed her to have a certain artistic authority, while still being able to produce works critical of the sociopolitical conditions. The principal tenets of Neo-Concretism involved an introduction of the artwork into the public space, thus incentivizing viewer participation in addition to a concern with how the body interacts with that space. Moreover, Neo-Concretism was characterized by a phenomenological view of knowledge — considering the sensorial connotations of art through which the beholder acquires information — contending that the artist has no control over the way their work is perceived. By embracing these concepts, Pape managed to create works, which constituted a critique of the now exhausted rationality of geometric abstraction, of the politics of the contemporary art institution and of the repressions of the military dictatorship.

Pape’s practice thus evolved to encompass a variety of artistic media. She understood her prints as being the origin of her Neo-Concretist approach to art. In the period of the dictatorship Pape would even consider her early prints sensorial, describing them as ‘expressive’, indicating her break with the concerns for visual aesthetics and a turn towards the empirical and the transitory. She grounded this view on the same characteristic that allowed the prints to be affiliated with the Concrete movement: the importance of space. Thus, Pape abandoned her investigations of its pictorial significance and directed her attention towards the space of the public.

Her performance piece, O Ovo (The Egg), 1967 is paradigmatic of Pape’s Neo-Concrete art. Its first iteration was a solitary act, performed on an empty beach. It consisted of a giant wooden cube covered in white plastic, from which the artist burst out, her body breaking the cubic structure, thus metaphorically tackling issues such as destruction, birth and liberation. This liberation can be understood as breaking away from geometric abstraction quite literally, given the role of the cubic structure. Thus, O Ovo would be presenting a sharp critique of formalism and a personal change of direction. However, it can also be seen as a rupture with the white cube of the gallery by taking the artistic act outside of its presumed space, which usually guarantees a certain status to a work of art. O Ovo may also signify the necessity to break free from the prison of the authoritarian regime in an act, which by its title signifies a new beginning. It may as well be all three. In any case, it was a violent, even primeval rupture, unlike the quiet aesthetics of Pape’s prints. In a subsequent version of the performance the cubes were colored and from within emerged not the artist, but Samba dancers, the piece thus acquiring a more nuanced meaning. Not private anymore, O Ovo now carried all the connotations of the Brazilian carnivalesque, becoming a true celebration of life.

Lygia Pape, O Ovo, 1967

As mentioned above, Neo-Concretism centered on involving the viewer through a sensorial experience of art. From this, Pape evolved the notion of ‘epidermization’ — the acquisition of knowledge through sensory stimuli. In her oeuvre, this was often expressed by addressing the abject through often provocative artworks. Visual Poems (Stabbed Tongue), 1968 is a conceptual piece, exhibited next to a stack of newspapers. The artwork depicts the artist’s bleeding tongue. The connotations are clear enough — a wounded tongue would not allow for speech, however the fact that she’s sticking it out implies an indirect attempt at resistance. In the Portuguese title of the work, Lingua Apunhalada, the word ‘’lingua’’ means both ‘’tongue’’ and ‘’language’’, suggesting a violation of language as a by-product of the physical wound. Thus, the work becomes a commentary on the censorship, enforced by the government, especially with the detail of the stacked newspapers denoting the press.

Lygia Pape, Visual Poems (Stabbed Tongue), 1968, © Projeto Lygia Pape.

Another similarly graphic work is the short film Eat Me, 1975, which consists of a close-up of the mouths of two men swallowing and spitting out fragmented objects, creating a paradoxically repulsive, yet fascinating visual rhetoric. It was inspired by the Brazilian cultural notion of anthropophagy — cannibalism with the aim of devouring someone’s power. This served as a metonymy for the violence seeping through Brazilian reality at the time of the dictatorship, while also conjuring up sensations of the abject and the visceral, in an attempt to imbue the work and hence the viewer with a consciousness, that is not predefined by any artistic discourse, but is rather individual and irrational.

Lygia Pape, Eat Me, 1975

Lygia Pape’s oeuvre is a statement of the intricate ways in which sociopolitical conditions are bound to define the artistic concerns and explorations of a generation of artists. The cultural background of Pape’s move from abstraction to a disregard for medium specificity, is crucial to the understanding of the inner mechanisms, which prompt an artist to reevaluate and abandon the artistic ideology which they stand for. Neo-Concretism’s and Pape’s own phenomenological concerns thus signal an inherent need for an experiential involvement in the artwork of both artists and viewer at a time when shared experience was essential for the intellectual and cultural survival of those who lived and worked in the shadow of repression.

NOTES:

Claudia Calirman, “‘Epidermic’ and Visceral works: Lygia Pape and Anna Maria Maiolino, Woman’s Art Journal. 35(2):19–27, Old City Publishing, Inc., 2014.

Claudia Calirman, ‘Marginália’ in Brazil’s ‘’Stone-Throwing Age’’, Art Journal. Spring2019, Vol. 78 Issue 1, p48–65. 18p.

Adele Nelson, ‘Sensitive and Nondiscursive Things: Lygia Pape and the Reconception of Printmaking’, Art Journal. Fall2012, Vol. 71 Issue 3, p26–45. 20p.

“Eat Me” Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2019. https://hammer.ucla.edu/radical-women/art/art/eat-me

Art History and Russian MA student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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