– Spring 2011

‘This Exhibition Is an Accusation’: The Grammar of Display According to Lina Bo Bardi

Roger M. Buergel

Lina Bo Bardi, interior installation display, 1957—68, Museum of Art of São Paulo. Photograph: Paolo Gasparini. Courtesy Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi and Paolo Gasparini

Lina Bo Bardi, interior installation display, 1957—68, Museum of Art of São Paulo. Photograph: Paolo Gasparini. Courtesy Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi and Paolo Gasparini

There are two good reasons, at least, to lay claim to the architectural legacy of Lina Bo Bardi, her technologies of display and her sense of spatial texture.1 The first reason is artistic: the formal stagnation that haunts contemporary exhibition design. While curators are willing to talk endlessly about mediation (and are taught in so many curatorial courses to do just that) the realm of display gets shamelessly neglected. Art is made to look as if it were tied to nothing but artistic production, while context gets reduced to mere text. The second reason is political: Bo Bardi is exceptional in her formal understanding of that equally vast and mysterious entity called 'the social'. Her poetics of sensual collaboration could be the antidote to the populist inclinations of Western art institutions (including their predilection for big exhibitions). Faced with the relative disappearance of their traditional constituency (the educated middle class) and simultaneously challenged by a curious mob of aesthetic illiterates, art institutions need to learn that cultural illiteracy will only be sustained by the business of mediation - at least as long as the latter is conceived to be primarily a service for unenlightened savages to which institutions eagerly 'reach out'. Bo Bardi, in contrast, took clues from Paulo Freire's 'pedagogy of the oppressed' - she based her work on the creative resources of the populace and advocated the democratisation of knowledge.2

Learning from Bo Bardi today entails conceiving of institutions in terms of their self-perforation, their own undoing. They have to learn how to dramatise their key dilemma - namely, what counts as teachable and why. Attempting

  1. The quote stems from Bo Bardi's 'Account Sixteenth Years Later', in Marcelo Carvalho FerrazandMarcelo Suzuki (ed.), L'Impasse del design. Lina Bo Bardi: L'esperienza nel Nordest del Brasile, Milan and São Paulo: Edizioni Charta and Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi, 1995, p.5 (of the English insert). In 1980 Bo Bardi started editing material for this book, which was to become a testimony of her Northeastern period, which will be discussed further on in this text. In 1981 Bo Bardi stopped the editing, convinced that the whole undertaking would be of 'no use, all this is going to fall into a void' (p.1). Fortunately, the Instituto Bo Bardi, which fights for the preservation of Bo Bardi's legacy, continued and eventually finished the editing. From the account the book provides, it becomes clear that the research done from the late 1950s until 1964 was part of a larger collective effort that, like Glauber Rocha with his 'aesthetics of hunger', pursued an artistic agenda with the aim of aligning the practical, mostly raw aspects of this culture with a politics that sought to address the actual living conditions of its people. An excellent source that covers the wider history of this period in Bahia is Roger Sansi's Fetishes and Monuments: Afro-Brazilian Art and Culture in the 20th Century (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007). See in particular chapter 6, 'Modern Art and Afro-Brazilian Culture in Bahia'.

  2. Paulo Freire, born in 1921 in Recife, was a highly influential educational thinker whose programmes to teach and emancipate the illiterate poor became officially implemented in Brazil in the early 1960. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), a treatise about an education that was both modern and anti-colonial, he states that '[n]o pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption'. P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (trans. Myra Bergman Ramos), New York: Continuum, 1970, p.54.

  3. SESC, or Social Service for Commerce, is a private non-profit organisation that promotes cultural and educational facilities all over Brazil.

  4. The quote comes from Olivia de Oliveira, Subtle Substances: The Architecture of Lina Bo Bardi, Barcelona and São Paulo: Editorial Gustavo Gili and Romano Guerra Editora, 2006, p.205. The book, which is based on Oliveira's doctoral thesis, offers a particularly rich and careful account of Bo Bardi's architectural principles.

  5. Italy's finest architects, it is well known, supported the Fascist cause more or less openly. Razionalismo, Italy's most radical branch of modern architecture, was unambiguous about its Fascist leanings. And it was Pietro Maria Bardi, later Lina Bo's husband, who organised in 1931 in his gallery in Rome the second exhibition of 'Architettura Razionale', a show accompanied by a manifesto in open praise of the 'civiltà mussoliniana'. The point here is not to denounce the Italian architectural milieu of the 1930s and 40s, years in which Lina Bo finished her studies and started to work in association with Gio Ponti in Milan. It suffices to say that Lina Bo was in a privileged position to contemplate the sinister affair between advanced architecture and planning on the one side and an utterly perverted res publica on the other.

  6. The architectural language of progressive 'ugliness' with its bunkerish masses and unfinished surfaces is characteristic of the Paulista School (Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Joao Batista Vilanova Artigas and others). Its aesthetics were heavily inspired by Oscar Niemeyer's self-criticism in the late 1950s, when he condemned his own former striving for originality and surface appearance at the cost of architecture's social functioning. Bo Bardi explicitly stated: 'I want SESC to be even uglier than MASP.' Quoted in O. de Oliveira, Subtle Substances, op. cit., p.203. It should also be mentioned that at the time SESC Pompéia was planned, the integration of the suburbs became part of the official line in urban politics. Selfmanagement models based on neighbourhood groups or participatory building sites were especially encouraged.

  7. Bo Bardi also called São Paulo a 'pile of bones'. Quoted in O. de Oliveira, ibid., p.245. Her sensitivity for questions of cultural heritage and its preservation drew her back to Salvador de Bahia in 1986, where she was invited by the mayor to intervene in the historic district around the Pelourinho. See L. Bo Bardi, 'Obra construida/Built Work' (text by O. de Oliveira), in 2G International Architecture Review, no.23/24, 2003, p.142.

  8. See O. de Oliveira, Subtle Substances, op. cit., p.246.

  9. Ibid., p.248.

  10. See M. Carvalho Ferraz and M. Suzuki (ed.), L'Impasse del design, op. cit., p.1.

  11. Ibid., op. cit., p.5.

  12. What I have in mind here is an operation called 'cathexis' in Freudian discourse, by which an object assumes a particular value or embodies beauty primarily because it comes to symbolise a much-desired lost object. Kaja Silverman conceptualises the relation between appearance and visual affirmation in her book World Spectators. Any theory of display would have to start from this question: how can appearance be initiated from the side of the object rather than from that of the visitor? See K. Silverman, World Spectators, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

  13. For Bo Bardi's concept of 'reversibility', see M. Carvalho Ferraz and M. Suzuki (ed.), L'Impasse del design, op. cit., p.4.

  14. Ibid., p.3.

  15. O. de Oliveira, Subtle Substances, op. cit., p.323.

  16. Ibid.

  17. The planning and building of MASP is a remarkable story in itself, with Bo Bardi acting in many different capacities. It was she who secured the site at Avenida Paulista in a backroom deal with the local governor, after which her husband, nominally the museum's director, characterised her bold plans as a 'beautiful female dream'. See O. de Oliveira's interview with Bo Bardi, in 2G, op. cit., p.244-46.

  18. Ibid., p.82.

  19. Ibid., p.81.

  20. The controversy about the demolition of Bo Bardi's display within the museum and other narrowminded architectural changes at MASP are summarised by de Oliveira in 2G, op. cit., pp.8-20. Unfortunately, this is no singular case and many of Bo Bardi's buildings and urban proposals were destroyed or carelessly altered in the decades following her death.

  21. Theodor W. Adorno opens his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory with the famous remark that 'nothing can be taken for granted anymore when it comes to art [...] not even its right of existence'. T.W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1970, p.11. Translation the author's.