“It is nearly impossible to make people understand each other.”
This insightful quote from Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins (1894–1973), is highly suggestive of what she strove for in her work, a sense of a shared understanding of human nature and its deepest motivations. Despite the downplaying of her importance, an experience of most women artists throughout history, (in the ground-breaking ’31 Women’ 1943 exhibition in NYC, Time magazine critic James Stern argued that women should “stick to having babies”. However, recent exhibitions, a documentary, articles and books have re-established Maria’s place at the epicentre of the Surrealist movement and Brazilian Modernism. She preferred to be known professionally as ‘Maria’ (calling her first show in New York – ‘Sculptures by Maria’) carving out her own unique identity. So, I will address her as such in this essay. Her second husband’s work as an ambassador allowed her interest in sculpture to be nurtured in France, Ecuador, Japan and Belgium. They moved to the United States in 1939, and in New York she began classes with sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, studying bronze casting. Her early sculptures like the bust of her husband she is seen sculpting for ‘Life Magazine’, shows her Expressionist, figurative style. Her samba dancer sculptures of this period also show Maria’s interest in representing Brazilian culture, including Amazonian Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities, as well as exploring the movement of the female body, its sensuality and how it expresses emotions; ideas she returned to in her Surrealist works.
“I know that my Goddesses and I know that my Monsters/will always appear sensual and barbaric to you.”
Her sculpture ‘Boiuna’ asserts the shift in Maria’s style to Surrealism. In 1942, she met and conversed with Surrealist artists in New York, including her future lover Marcel Duchamp, André Breton – who greatly admired her work – Leonora Carrington and others. Abstract in style, her sculptures often depict woman fused with animal and plant forms, the interconnectedness of living beings. Many of her pieces were inspired by myths from her homeland. Bouina is a mythical figure of Amazonian Amerindian origin. In the Amazonian legend, the Boiuna can take the form of a woman, that seduces and terrifies. Her legs look like coral swaying under the water, perhaps referencing her ability to lure sailors to the bottom of the river. Her legs fused with two upright vines, also mimic the curling of a snake. In the myth, the Boiuna is also a snake that lurks in the Amazon River, ready to attack. This sculpture speaks to the fundamental impulses of attraction and destruction, women’s desire, lurking in the depths of the river, and in the depths of the psyche. Accentuating her legs, crotch, hands, breasts and face are toothed vaginas- a common symbol in the culture of the Indigenous communities of the Americas, and a feature of Freudian psychoanalysis. The hunger of a mouth, the active nature of the biting teeth, collides with the perceived passiveness of a vagina, turning gendered stereotypes of sexuality on their head. One can see the beginnings of her tendril motif in the legs and extra vines attached to them. This motif later becomes more abstract.
‘It costs a lot to believe that we don’t come back after death. (…) I would want to come in another form: stone, animal, or flower.’
The tendrils depicted in ‘Boiuna’, attached to the legs of the figure, is returned to relentlessly in Maria’s work, and evolves. Two years later, in ‘However’ the elongated and simplified female form is overcome by a smoother, single tendril. This vine-like structure is erotically intertwined around her body and orifices, evoking masturbation. The tendril originates from the top of her head, suggestive of the vine coming from within her, from her brain – the erotic being internal and intellectual and not evoked by any external, masculine figure. This is at odds with the patriarchal views of the mid-twentieth century. A later work, ‘The Impossible III’, returns to the erotic charge of these tendrils but depicts a male figure entangled erotically with the female.
‘The great song of energy and desire, howling growling overflowing desperate wind in a breathless uproar cries its monstrous love.’
This extract from a poem by Maria appears alongside this artwork in the 1946 exhibition catalogue, and captures the force and eroticism of her sculptures. One of her most iconic artworks is ‘The Impossible III’; she created three versions of it – suggesting that the ide preoccupied her. Some have described this art work as ‘the battle of the sexes’. Both Venus flytrap heads are in violent battle. The passive-active dichotomy often depicted as gendered experience of sex in art is eradicated. This equality of passionate engagement in Maria’s sculpture is also a critique of male Surrealists representations of violence against women in their artworks. For example, in Duchamp’s ‘Etant Donnés’, his last artwork, he depicts a dead, nude woman. The recent disclosure that Maria is the nude model in this artwork, and the analysis of their romantic relationship, often unfortunately, dominates the conversation around her work. Maria rejects this depiction of a woman’s sexualised and passive body: in her art female figures are often monstrous and driven by their desires.
“ She is far too sure, for that, of the original rhythm which is increasingly lacking in modern sculpture; she is prodigal with what the Amazon has given her”. André Breton, 1947.
Maria returns to questioning her identity and influences in ‘The Shadow, Too Long, Too Narrow’. It’s is a large artwork, that confronts the gallery viewer. A physical manifestation of Maria’s complex connection to the indigenous cultures of her homeland. Having been immersed for years in the New York art world, steeped in the European tradition of art, this artwork reflects her estrangement from her Brazilian culture, whilst also showing she is inextricably linked to it. The tendrils represent this identity. The female figure has her back to the tendrils whose pincers don’t quite reach her, though the shadow originates from her feet. The messiness but corporality of the shadow, the tendrils that reach out are juxtaposed with a sedate outer appearance. She emphasises the importance of central American thought in her Surrealist art while the paler female figure speaks to the racial prejudice in European art.
“A thirst is in me, unsated and insatiable, which seeks to raise its voice.”
In ‘My Song’ Synaesthesia is evoked – hearing and the most abstract art form, music, are the focus. The tendrils evoke the stave and treble clef musical notes mutated, with the end nodule on the far left appearing like a disembodied head with hair. Her body is the musical note. Maria made a golden brooch of this artwork. A version of performance art, Maria invites a conversation around the interplay of the living, breathing woman who would wear the brooch and create sound and music around the abstracted form of ‘My Song’. The brooch and sculpture represent the impulse of women’s desire to be heard, in a society in which they were often drowned out by men. In conclusion, we can chart the growing abstraction and influence of Surrealism on Maria’s works over her career. In turn, Surrealism is indebted to her innovative approach which advocated for the importance of indigenous storytelling in interpreting the universal human unconscious – looking outside the western tradition. Maria’s artworks both elucidate her personal, complicated identity, and speak to the universality of these impulses.