Lisbeth Rebollo Gonçalves and Claudia Fazzolari, The Origins of ABCA and its History: Seventy Years of Art Criticism, from Modernism to the Present.
Any account of the origins of modern art criticism in Brazil would be incomplete without reference to the fundamental role played by the Brazilian Association of Art Critics (ABCA). ABCA was established during a key period of social modernisation in the country, from the second part of the 1940s up to the end of the 1950s. This was a time of intense debate in the cultural field, leading to the articulation of plans for, and the actual founding of, three important art museums – both the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MASP) and the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) in São Paulo, and the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro. Prior to this, the IPHAN (National Institute for Historical Heritage) had already been created under government auspices in 1937, through Law no. 378, signed by then President of the Republic, Getúlio Vargas. Vargas counted on the presence of Rodrigo Melo Franco de Andrade, as the founding director of IPHAN at the start of its existence, and it was he, who did much to encourage the interest in modern art. In the previous decade and at the beginning of the 1940s, some exhibitions of modern art had already taken place, but they had been organised by the artists themselves, without any institutional support. These exhibitions had created an upsurge of modern art criticism, which peaked in the milestone event of The Modern Art Week, of 1922.
The ABCA which started in 1949, was directly linked to the founding of the International Association of Art Critics – AICA – under the patronage of UNESCO. UNESCO had been created in 1945, with the aim of establishing a link between different cultures and regions in the world, at a time when the powerful impact was still being felt of the destruction and conflicts resulting from the Second World War.
At UNESCO, culture was seen as the ideal medium for constructing a new society, which would show greater tolerance of the differences between peoples and engaged in the search for a more humane world.
Brazilian critics took part in UNESCO´s meeting of June 1948, which proposed the creation of an International Association of Art Criticism, with a permanent office in Paris. Sérgio Milliet, who would later be the first president of ABCA, and Mario Barata, its first Secretary-General, were among the delegates invited to this meeting, which would lead on to the founding of AICA. Those taking part in this event included art historians, such as Lionello Venturi (Italy), Paul Fierens and Robert Delevoy (Belgium), Pierre Courthion (Switzerland), museum directors such as Jean Cassou (France) and James Johnson Sweeney (USA), theorists such as Herbert Read (UK), critics such as Denys Sutton (UK), and artist theorists such as André Lhote (France).
At the second international meeting of art critics one year later, in June 1949, the Statutes of the new Association were approved, and it was announced that thirteen National Sections had been founded – among them, a Brazilian Section. Thus, the ABCA came to be among the first National Sections of art critics created immediately after the end of the Second World War, and in Brazil this became the first professional association dedicated to the study of the visual arts. At this second meeting in Paris, Brazil was once more represented by Sérgio Millet, and he was joined on this occasion by Mário Pedrosa and Antonio Bento, both of whom were subsequently elected to the presidency of the ABCA. Sérgio Milliet was one of the three Regional Secretaries elected to the first administration of the International Association, with Paul Fierens as the founding President.
Since 1951, the role of criticism and its connections to theory and the humanities, have been of constant concern to the Brazilian Association, including at the many international congresses to which its members have contributed over the years. Throughout its history, the Brazilian Association has staged numerous important debates. In 1959, the ABCA promoted a memorable Extraordinary International AICA Congress, that was held in the cities of Brasília, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, in turn. Brasília, which would be inaugurated as the country’s new capital in 1960, was chosen as the theme of the entire Congress, in view of the unprecedented architectural and urban challenges that it presented to the world. This exceptional event brought together art critics, architects and urbanists from Brazil and abroad, to discuss the aesthetic significance, culture and urbanism of the new city, built and inaugurated during the government of Juscelino Kubitschek, as the supreme embodiment of progress and cultural modernisation in the decade of the 1950s. The core theme of the Congress was Brasília, New City, Synthesis of the Arts; and the organisation of the event was entrusted to Mário Pedrosa and Mário Barata.
Many other important national and international conferences have been organised by the ABCA, but it is worth highlighting the first one that took place in 1951, on the occasion of the first São Paulo Bienal. A second event deserving special mention was the conference organised by Antonio Bento in 1961, which took as its theme the dominance of the language of abstraction in the first fifteen years after the Second World War. Another event of great importance was the 1987 conference in São Paulo, coordinated by Ernestina Karman at the time of that year’s Bienal, which debated the theme of ‘Contemporary Art and Art Criticism’. ABCA’s fiftieth anniversary conference in Porto Alegre in 1997, on the occasion of the second Mercosur Biennial, which was promoted by Fabio Magalhães and coordinated by José Roberto Teixeira Leite, focused on artistic issues and criticism in Latin America.
An international ABCA seminar in São Paulo, in October 2002, took as its theme the main places where art criticism was practised. By then, the main issue was the revision of the parameters and meanings of criticism, and the point at which it appeared to have become divorced from any form of critical judgment.
Another significant landmark in this brief historical survey was the 41st AICA International Congress in Brazil, in 2007, where the ABCA once more acted as host to the International Association. This served as a reminder of the ABCA’s historic role. This Congress itself focused on the debate about ‘The Institutionalisation of Contemporary Art: Art Criticism, Museums, Biennials, The Art Market’. An ancillary programme to this, organised by the ABCA, focused on the evolution of art criticism in the country and its contribution to art historical research. This event, which was organised by the ABCA, the University of São Paulo and Mac/USP, was sponsored by a number of research agencies and private institutions that recognised the particular relevance of the academic subject that had been selected.
In the August 2013 issue of its journal, entitled Research into Balance and Perspectives, published with the support of the CAPES (Higher Education Council) and Pro-Rectorate for of Post-Graduate Studies at the University of São Paulo, the ABCA published research by some of its associates and peers in a variety of different fields of investigation. This facilitated a fuller articulation and deepening of the existing relations between art criticism and the historiographic practice.
The most recent issue of ABCA’s journal, Concrete Art and Constructive Aspects: Theory, Criticism and the History of Artistic Technique, describes an international event devised in partnership with the University of Minas Gerais, the LACICOR (Conservation Science Laboratory) and the Getty Institute, in June 2018, to discuss the many theoretical possibilities for an historical approach in criticism to the techniques used in the construction of a work of art. It highlighted the Concrete, Neo-Concrete and Constructivist aspects of Latin American art, as a singular phenomenon within the wider context of modern art in the twentieth century.
Cultural Projects Management: the Partnership with the Bienal de São Paulo
Among the partnerships that the ABCA has pursued over the years, one stands out, in particular: its ongoing collaboration with the Bienal de São Paulo.
Many members of the association, including Sérgio Milliet, Mario Barata, Antonio Bento, José Roberto Teixeira Leite, Mário Pedrosa, Ferreira Gullar, Marc Berkowitz, Maria Eugênia Franco, Radha Abramo, Jacob Klintowitz and Olívio Tavares de Araújo have been active participants in some of the Bienal’s most distinctive activities and projects.
Whether as part of the management team, as members of the award-giving jury, as artistic directors of various editions of the Bienal, as members of the cultural and artistic board, or as conveners of congresses and symposia, the members of ABCA have always paid close attention to the activities and impact of the Bienal on the contemporary art scene.
Ever since the beginning, the so-called ‘Bienal of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo’ – an event that gained its own autonomy and profile, when it became simply the Bienal de São Paulo – has enabled ABCA members to play a notable part on the national and international art scenes.
From the very moment of its inception, Sérgio Milliet, the leading art critic of the day, brought to the Bienal an educational dimension that would make history. According to a document in the historic archives of the Bienal de São Paulo Foundation dating from 19 August 1951, the ABCA members, Sérgio Milliet, Mário Barata and Antonio Bento presented the founding president of the Bienal, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, with a proposal to organise a conference of art critics, ‘to be held in Sao Paulo, during the inaugural week of the great international exhibition’.
The ABCA members’ critical positioning, and their commitment to developing a policy for the arts, determined their stance in relation, for example, to a polemical issue that arose from the irregularities marring the tenth edition of the Bienal, in 1969. The background to this was provided by the impact on civil society created by the military coup in 1964 and, more specifically, the Special Decree no. 5 of 1968, which greatly heightened the climate of censorship and political repression, leading, for example, to the cancellation and placing in storage of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro that had been destined for the 6th Paris Biennale.
A thorough analysis of the increasingly repressive social, political and cultural climate that took hold of the country at the end of the 1960s – specifically in 1969 - affords us an insight into the circumstances and impact of the military coup of 1964 and – especially – the oppressive environment that was created by the authoritarian Decree No. 5.
During the preparations for the 6th Bienal, in 1969, Mário Pedrosa, who was then President of the ABCA, got wind of the steps taken by the Bienal Foundation to constitute a Committee for the Visual Arts and managed to ensure that a number of artists and members of the Association were invited to join its main working party.
According to the minutes of the ABCA meeting 0n 29 March 1969, the critics, José Roberto Teixeira Leite, Maria Eugênia Franco, Frederico Morais and Mário Barata followed the line taken by their associates, Aracy Amaral and Edyla Mangabeira Unger, in insisting that the Specialist Advisory Board for the 10th Bienal de São Paulo needed to ‘... request the Biennale Foundation to notify the critic Pierre Restany that a Specialist Advisory Board had been constituted to implement the tenth biennial and that, as members of this Committee, they expected to be able to offer an opinion about further additions to the Brazilian participation in the Art and Technology exhibition.’ (Minutes of 29 March 1969, p. 67).
It is also important to point out that at the following ABCA Assembly, held, like the first, at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro on 2 April 1969, Maria Eugênia Franco and Edyla Mangabeira Unger were already reporting problems with the Art Commission for that year’s Bienal. In the following months, the press released information about the business with the French critic, Pierre Restany, who was drifting away from the international section of the Biennale project (the Art and Technology exhibition, which he was supposed to curate) and instead lent his support to the cultural protest organised by a group of French intellectuals, in the face of the censorship and political persecution practised by the Brazilian government.
In the end, the outside interference grew to such an extent that the Biennial Foundation refused, for example, to appoint the critic, Mario Schenberg, a Brazilian Communist Party member, to the jury for the International Awards, and the activities of the Art Advisory Board ground to a virtual halt.
Pedrosa first showed his opposition to the censorship of works that had been included in the selection for the VI Paris Biennale in a text entitled ‘The Duties of the Art Critic in Society’. The chain reaction this set off eventually led to the boycotting of the 10th Bienal:
‘Everybody knows already about the closure of the exhibition organised by the Modern Art Museum of Rio …. The perplexity of the public regarding this closure became even greater, when the Minister of Foreign Affairs himself announced the reasons and motivations behind this action, in a statement issued to the press. The gravity of his assertions forced the Brazilian Association of Art Critics, publicly to come to the defence of freedom of expression for the practitioners of art criticism in Brazil.’ (Pedrosa, 1995. p. 14).
It is important to emphasise that Pedrosa was, by that time, engaged in forms of active resistance to the military government. He himself was a member of a political group and informed his colleagues abroad about the instances of torture being carried out in the country; he was also persecuted for his actions.
The Archive of Art Criticism
ABCA’s Archive of Art Criticism brings together the minutes of assemblies, letters, personal notes, catalogues, statutes, regulations, exhibition flyers and specialised magazines, and has been developing an ongoing programme which focuses on art criticism and related material produced in the country. In addition to this, ABCA creates a space for debate and has an ongoing series of publications of works of art criticism, amounting to eight books so far, and provides an outlet for the proceedings of ABCA’s annual seminars devoted to critical writing.
The ABCA Archive prioritises the conservation of the Association’s own documentation, with the goal of making everything available online for researchers.
It contains MA dissertations based on documents in the archive, such as: Brasilia, New City, Synthesis of the Arts - AICA´s International Congress of 1959; Antonio Bento, from Twenties Modernism to Abstraction; Antonio Bento on Ismael Nery; the 1961 Congress; and Rapprochements between Mario Pedrosa and the Aesthetics of Form.
In addition to this, a number of these have been composed in recent years, in relation to the project for digitalising the Association’s collection. Those bearing a direct relationship to the ABCA Archive of Art Criticism have included: The Critic and the Tragic – the Death of Art in Sergio Milliet; Antonio Bento and Romero Brest: the Abstract Movement as a Universal Flow; and The Affection in the Thought of Mário Pedrosa.
The following books have been published, to date, in the series devoted to Art Criticism: Sergio Milliet, 100 years; The Places of Art Criticism; Art Criticism and Modernity; Brasilia, New City. Synthesis of the Arts – The 1959 International Congress of AICA; Art Criticism and the History of Art.
The Archives contain a significant part of the critical output of Antonio Bento, Mário Barata, Mário Pedrosa, José Roberto Teixeira Leite, Carlos Flexa Ribeiro, Clarival do Prado Valladares, Radhá Abramo and Carmen Portinho, along with that of a number of other intellectuals who have been members of the Association. Therefore, the ABCA Archive preserves a significative part of the legacy of art critical debate in the country.
In conclusion, it may be said that the ABCA has clearly demonstrated its faith in what is supposed to be the ethical dimension of a critic’s work, and through its actions it has shown that it has an important role to play in the field of knowledge production.
Among its goals, the ABCA has emphasised the importance of creating a rapprochement and interchange between professionals working in the field of art criticism, incentivising research, and reflecting on the significance of specific artistic topics. Thus, it has contributed to artistic production and art theory, extending beyond the visual arts to a still broader area of culture and education.
The Brazilian Section of AICA is, then, interested in collaborating with institutions that essentially share the same goals. One of these goals is to strive constantly to defend the professional rights of the art critic. In its statutes, the ABCA presents itself as ‘a civil, cultural, independent, not for profit association’, with the mission of ‘bringing together professionals in the field of art criticism, including researchers, art historians, theoreticians, essayists, cultural journalists and professors of art and aesthetics, who are either Brazilian or live in the country.’
From the origins of the Brazilian Association of Art Critics down to the present, we can use a contemporary historical and art historical perspective to trace the continuous interaction between critics and their praxis against the constantly changing background of social and political developments.
Bibliography - ABCA Publications
BERTOLI, Mariza e STIGGER, Verônica (eds.). Arte, Crítica e Mundialização. São Paulo, ABCA/Imprensa Oficial, 2008.
FABRIS, Annateresa (ed.). Crítica e Modernidade. São Paulo, ABCA/Imprensa Oficial, 2006.
GONÇALVES, Lisbeth Rebollo (ed.). Sergio Milliet 100 anos. São Paulo, ABCA/Imprensa Oficial, 2004.
GONÇALVES, Lisbeth Rebollo (ed.). Arte Brasileira no Século XX. São Paulo, ABCA/Imprensa Oficial/MAC USP, 2007.
GONÇALVES, Lisbeth Rebollo (ed.). AICA Congress Proceedings. São Paulo, 2007. São Paulo, SESCSP/AICA/ABCA/MAC USP, 2007.
GONÇALVES, Lisbeth Rebollo e FABRIS, Annateresa (eds.). Os Lugares da Crítica de Arte. ABCA/ Imprensa Oficial, São Paulo, 2005.
MARCONDES, Neide, FAZZOLARI, Cláudia (eds.). Crítica de Arte e História da Arte, SBCS. São Paulo, ABCA, 2016.
ZMITROWICZ, Maria. Brasília, Cidade Nova, Síntese das Artes – O Congresso Internacional da Aica de 1959. São Paulo, ABCA, 2011.
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 The Bienal of the Modern Art Museum, held in 1951, originally formed part of the activities of the Museum (founded in 1948) and retained this name up to, and including, the 4th edition. Only in 1959 did it become the Bienal de São Paulo, with its independent profile and role.
 This great exhibition, beginning its trajectory as an event at the Modern Art Museum of São Paulo, gained autonomy during the 1950s. It was later named the Bienal de São Paulo and, from 1977 on, the São Paulo International Biennale.
 It is worth highlighting the fact that among the managers of the Modern Art Museum, in 1951, Sérgio Milliet – then the President of ABCA – was the first Secretary of the Institution, and appointed a member of the International Awards Jury of the First Bienal of the Modern Art Museum of São Paulo, together with René d´Harnoncourt, from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York.
 They were the members of the first Secretariat of ABCA.
 Pierre Restany, ‘Non à la Biennale de São Paulo’, Correio da Manhã, 11 July 1969.
 PEDROSA, Mário. ‘Os Deveres do Críticos de Arte na Sociedade’, in: ARANTES, Otília (ed.), Política das Artes. Selected Texts I. São Paulo: EDUSP, 1995.
Lisbeth Rebollo Gonçalves is the standing president of AICA International. She was president of the Brazilian Association of Art Critics from 2000 to 2006 and from 2010 to 2016. Vice-president of AICA International (2006/2007 and 2010/2011). She achieved her Masters and doctorate degree from the Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences College at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Academic professor at the School of Communications and Arts - USP.
She is full Professor of the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, ministering graduate and post-graduate studies and counseling masters and doctorate students. Also in charge of the “Esthetics and Art History”, graduate studies. In the post-graduate area, professor at ECA/USP, in PROLAM –Latin American Post-Graduate Integration Program and in the Esthetics and Art History Post-Graduate Program (Masters and doctorate counselor).
·Art researcher, since 1980, she was director of the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo, from 1994 to 1998 and from 2006 to 2010. She is currently having many books and essays in catalogues of exhibition published, and she is as well collaborator of the ArtNexus magazine. In addition to this, she is coordinator of the Art Criticism Collection published by the Brazilian Association of Art Critics, and coordinator of the Art Criticism Collection published by ABCA – Brazilian Association of Art Critics.
-> CV at the National Research Council – CNPq: http://lattes.cnpq.br/2753819507135011