The great baroque altar from the monastery of Sao Bento in Olinda rises four stories from the floor of the rotunda like a sacred flame in a black velvet sanctuary. Nothing like it has ever been seen before in an American museum. It is the centerpiece of a show designed by French architect Jean Nouvel that might have given blockbuster its name.
The disassembling of the carved and gilded cedar altar, its year-long restoration, shipping it to New York, and the engineering of its reassemblage at the Guggenheim is a story in itself. Its arrival from Brazil was delayed by the Sept. 11 terror attack and the altar was only 40 percent installed for the opening of the show, which will run through Jan. 20.
"This is the most complex exhibition the Guggenheim has ever undertaken, and undertaken in trying circumstances," Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim's director, told United Press International. "By this show, we recognize another country in the Western Hemisphere that has a vibrant contemporary culture -- Brazil -- at a time when we are looking to take on a project south of the American border."
Krens confirmed that the project might be a Guggenheim satellite museum in Brazil similar to those the museum has established in Bilbao, Spain, Berlin, and Venice. The museum's favorite architect, Frank Gehry, already has visited Brazil with Krenz to scout a site, and the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Salvador, and Curitiba are reportedly interested.
The new show, "Brazil: Body and Soul," sponsored by the not-for-profit BrasilConnects organization, will be moved to Bilbao next spring.
Verging on the excessive, it is essentially a sampler of Brazilian art beginning with baroque masterpieces, moving on to the polychrome wooden sculptures reflecting a mix of Catholic-Portuguese and African imagery, then to works by later artists in the baroque-rococo style, and concluding with Brazilian modernism from the 1920s to the present day.
Included is six of the seven paintings Dutch landscape artist Franz Post painted, including a view of Olinda, when he visited the country during the Dutch Republic's brief control of the Portuguese colony in the 17th century. These were painted years later from memory and are idyllic in their depiction of European buildings in a lush, tropic landscape.
There also is an ample display of objects from the culture of Brazil's native Indians, the Tupi-Guaranis, including crowns, collars, and hats made of brilliant feathers, costumes with ritual masks, ceremonial arrows, and small wax dolls embodying supernatural spiritual forces. A video shows the descendants of these native Americans at work, worship, and play.
The first offset room on the Guggenheim's ramp is set up like a chapel with a baroque polychrome altar, man-high candelabra, and religious paintings in the European style. Nearby is an Afro-Brazilian oratory, a home shrine full of religious medals, miniatures, rosaries, crucifixes, and flowers that might have been used in a slave home after the Portuguese began importing Africans to work their plantations.
A large section of the show is devoted to Baroque sculpture in terra cotta and wood, some with real hair and glass eyes to heighten the realism of these deftly worked religious figures clothed in elaborately cascading draperies painted to look like damasks and brocades. This is art at its theatrical best.
One pieta by an unknown artist, its Virgin crowned by a magnificent sunburst halo, approaches Michelangelo's for drama and graceful form. Other works are more naïve in spirit, such as a St. Francis receiving the stigmata from a Christ unaccountably adorned with large, clumsy angel wings.
Such unfamiliar saints as Efigenia and Elesbao were especially venerated in churches established by slaves and former slaves and a number of their depictions are on display along with those of Saints Philip, Benedito, Balthazar and Moses the Hermit, always depicted as black men. Wooden mastheads carved as the bodies and the heads of animals, and elaborately filigreed Afro-Brazilian jewelry in silver and gold bring the exhibition into the 19th century.
The most significant sculptor of this era, Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as "The Little Cripple" who carved with tools strapped to his arms, is well represented. Memorable are his powerful St. George, a knight in a hunting cap, and a haunting Our Lady of Sorrows, her breasts stabbed with seven swords, a masterpieces of this or any other culture. On the same high artistic level is Francisco Viera Siroes' ecstatic angel bearing a cornucopia-like candlestick.
Religious processional art is represented by pole-held lanterns, portable paintings of Christ's passion, and articulated wooden sculptures of the saints. A section devoted to the splendor of Brazil's ecclesiastic silver, made with ore from Peru to European designs, is breathtaking, especially a silver crown for a Virgin effigy. Ex-votos, little wooden figures of body parts offered in thanks for being cured of a malady, also are on display.
Contemporary art is displayed in upper galleries with white walls, a welcome change from the cavern dimness of the rotunda. There is much to enjoy here, although it never rises to the excitement of some of the traditional art displayed below, especially Antonio Manuels' 1993 all-white room installation, "Phantom," into which a viewer can stroll amidst black flakes of carbon suspended on invisible strings.
Brazil's art of the 20th century was rooted in European Expressionism, Futurism, and Cubism, although some artists represented -- Tarsila do Amaral, Victor Brecheret, Emiliano di Cavalcanti, Anita Malfatti, Vincente Molnteiro and Lasar Segall -- have been able to find a unique "Brazilianness" in their art. One good example of this is Amaral's "Anthropapagh," a painting of two human figures entwined with one exaggerated breast against a frieze of banana leaves and cacti.
A room is given over to Rubem Valentim's Afro-Brazilian white totems and the sculptural wall plaques by Ronaldo Rego, a priest of the Ubanda religion who combines elements of Bantu and Christian traditions in his works. Even more unusual are Arthur Bispo do Rosario's textile works, in the form of sacred mantles, and wall hangings.
Generous space is given to so-called "Concrete" art, which originated in Sao Paulo as a means of distancing visual expression from figurative art. Outstanding are Lygia Pape's wall of brightly colored wood blocks called "Book of Time," each block sculptured differently, and her aluminum cut-out and folded sculpture, and Luiz Sacilotto's painted iron cutouts and aluminum foldouts.
In a more tradition vein are Candido Portinari's beautiful oils, often views of lower class life such as his 1935 "Shantytown," a painting of a handsome mixed blood (mestizo) youth against a rural slum background. Alfredo Volpi's paintings of patterns of doors and windows in old house facades are representative of some artists drawn to abstraction.
A six-pound catalog including illustrations of all 350 objects on view has been published (Harry N. Abrams, 598 pages, $85, softcover $49.95).