Maria Martins: Metamorphoses

Let me confess just the following to you: it costs a lot to believe that we don’t come back after death. It would be tragically inhuman not to come back. But I would want to come in another form: stone, animal or flower. And who said that it won’t be like this?
Maria Martins in an interview with O Jornal, November 9, 1956.

On March 22, 1943, Maria Martins opened her third solo exhibition, at the Valentine Gallery in New York. Maria: New Sculptures shared the gallery space with Mondrian: New Paintings. To Mondrian’s clear vertical and horizontal lines, then colorful and fragmented, Maria counterposed her dark, intertwined forms. It was the Amazon that she sought to represent in this show, not only in images but also in words: to accompany the exhibition of the pieces she prepared a catalogue in English, in which she briefly told the myths surrounding the eight characters presented: Amazônia, Cobra Grande, Boiuna, Yara, Yemenjá, Aiokâ, Iacy and Boto.

This set of sculptures marks a decisive change in the formal conception of Maria Martins’ work. If her pieces previously tended towards a more traditional representation of the human figure, with defined curves, her characters, though still recognizable, are now fused in an intricacy of leaves and branches that represent the tropical forest The human figure begins from this point to be integrated into nature, becoming confused with it and, ultimately, metamorphosing into it.

This exhibition seeks to capture the continuous transformations of form throughout Maria’s artistic development, not only in her sculptures, but also in the paintings, drawings, and prints that dialogue with them. The idea is to show how the disfiguration of the human, in her work, is always the beginning of the figuration of another form, which at times comes close to being vegetal, and at others, animal. To this end, the exhibition has been divided into five sections – Trópicos, Lianas, Deusas e Monstros, Cantos, Esqueletos – determined from the communication of form rather than by chronology. The sections are not intended to be stagnant, but on the contrary, fluid (metamorphosis has no end). There are works that meet in the passage between one and the other, that oscillate between here and there.

Extracts from Euclides da Cunha, Alberto Rangel, Mário de Andrade, Raul Bopp and Clarice Lispector punctuate the exhibition. The aim of these is to show how the work of Maria Martins was in tune with all Brazilian modern thought (not just modernist) of form as unceasing formation.

As a complement to the sculptures, paintings, drawings and prints exhibited, a piece of jewelry designed by Maria Martins and a series of seventeen ceramics from her house in Petrópolis will be on display. The artist’s activity as a writer is also considered here, with her three books and articles published by her in the Correio da Manhã newspaper, the latter almost unknown today.


Before the 1943 exhibition, Maria Martins had already turned her attention to Brazilian themes, but was also shaping her Samba, Negra, Yara in conventional forms. Works like Yemanjá and Iacy, exibited here, already signal the interlacing of the human and the vegetal element, though the figures represented are still clearly discernible. In the passage to the next section, N’oublies pas que je viens des tropiques (don’t forget I come from the tropics) and Glèbe-ails, very similar to each other, we see variations of a body in full transformation.


In this second group of sculptures, there is a certain concentration on the elements that were secondary in the first set: the entwined forms that encircled the principle figures. In Comme une liane, it is the feminine figure itself that has its limbs converted into something like flexible branches or lianas. Orpheus – which avoids the theme of the forest, but not the form rehearsed there – is confused with the interlaced surroundings of which it is part. In the passage, Hasard hagard and Sur doute point to the strangeness of the forms in the next section.


“I know that my Goddesses and I know that my Monsters/
will always appear sensual and barbaric to you”, writes Maria Martins in the poem Explication, which is part of the special-edition catalogue for the 1946 exhibition, on display here. Throughout her career, Maria produced a series of goddesses and monsters, in which the human figure appears transformed. In Impossible, the most famous sculpture in this group, the erotic character of the metamorphosis is self explanatory: two bodies, one female, one male, are prevented from getting completely together because of the strange pointed forms of their heads, and at the same time they appear magnetically – amorously – connected forever. In the passage, the open mouths of A tue-tête, O galo and Chanson en suspens give a foretaste of the mute songs of the next section.


In her book on Nietzsche, Maria Martins shows special admiration for the songs of Zarathustra. In O canto da noite (“Night song” – a name she borrowed for one of her sculptures), Nietzsche writes: “A thirst is in me, unsated and insatiable, which seeks to raise its voice.” In O canto do mar (Sea song) and in the untitled sculpture, the forms are more rounded, more indefinite, more abstract, in a possible attempt to give form to what is not palpable, like the voice. Calendário da eternidade and Très avide, for their part, suggest the apertures in the body, points of dissolution of form in the mysteries of profundity without form: perhaps mouths, perhaps vulvae.


Generally, Maria Martins’s work focuses overall on organic forms. However, there is a set of works that tend towards the form of a skeleton, or rather, that concentrate on that which, in the organism, borders on the inorganic. Tamba-tajá and Rito dos ritmos (belonging to the Palácio da Alvorada and represented here in objects, photographs and drawings) lose corporality, if compared with other sculptures of hers, and are reduced to skeletons. Pourquoi toujours, which can recall the shape of a plant, is completely dotted with tiny skulls. It is as if Maria, baroquely (and ironically) were reminding us that what remains of the human, at the end of the metamorphosis, is the bones. Perhaps only to them does the utopia of a final form correspond.