This article was originally published in Domus 963 / November 2012
Flávio de Carvalho (1899-1973) was one of the first examples of artistic expression lived out in the first person, capable of establishing an autonomous relationship with the media of his time in all their complex forms. His unique creative approach allowed him to recognise and kindle specific circumstances through which to stimulate and directly experience audience reactions. His were attempts to break down cultural barriers imposed by the society in which he lived.
Reflecting on the idea of transition, we may posit that historical revolutions display the characteristics of a collective trance, a kind of common effervescence that typifies moments of passage. It was a phenomenon that certainly affected Flávio de Carvalho, as seen in his artistic endeavours which were often provocative and ahead of their time.
During my stay in Campinas, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, I had the opportunity to view the private archives and newspaper articles that Flávio de Carvalho kept. In the archives of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), I was able to familiarise myself with, and understand more closely, the extraordinary human and artistic breadth of a personality who consistently favoured synthesis and exchange over theory and practice. Also in my own practice, I am interested in exploring the potential that the medium of performance — a hybrid vehicle halfway between action and communication — can engender, thanks to its intrinsic characteristics of unpredictability and randomness, its emotional intensity and organic nature, as if the performance acquires a life of its own.
Born in 1899 in Amparo, Barra Mansa, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Flávio de Carvalho was educated in Paris and England where he studied philosophy, civil engineering and painting, earning his degree in engineering in 1922. That same year he returned to Brazil and began working as a structural engineer in the São Paulo office of Barros, Oliva & Cia.
At the same time, he began attending modern dance performances and frequenting artists and writers who identified with Brazilian modernism and were prominent cultural figures of the time: Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Di Cavalcanti, Tarsila do Amaral and Raul Bopp. In 1930, in Rio de Janeiro, he attended the 4th Pan-American Congress of Architects where he presented his urban utopia "The city of naked men", through which he envisioned humanity liberated from religious taboos and living in urban structures arranged in concentric circles.
One cannot speak about Flávio de Carvalho without mentioning his broad interest in ethnology, anthropology and Freudian psychoanalysis. He was a complete artist, architect, writer, designer, engineer, painter, cultural promoter and founder of CAM (Clube dos Artistas Modernos). Already in the early years of his career, he was recognised for the great originality of his programmatically avant-garde stances and became known as an intellectual provocateur, to the point that many of his exhibitions and theatrical performances were censored by the police. A case in point is Experiencia No. 2 (1931) in São Paulo. On this occasion, while participating in a Corpus Christi procession he decided to wear a green velvet hat and consequently risked being lynched: the crowd was so incensed by this apparently irreverent act that it almost attacked him. He recalls this experience in a book he wrote the same year. One might say that he was physically seeking to feel the extreme emotional states of fear and anger, using himself as the subject of an empirical experiment. After these first episodes, he became imbued with an eccentric, even devilish aura; these were the years in which he read Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo.
De Carvalho designed numerous architectural projects — for example his 1939 project for the town hall of São Paulo (a proposal to which he would return in 1946 and 1952), or the plan for the International University of Music in 1955. During his lifetime, however, few of his designs were realised. From 1936 to 1937 in São Paulo, a complex of 17 independent houses was erected on the corner of Alameda Lorena, and in 1938 in Valinhos, near Campinas, he built his personal estate, which went by the name of Fazenda Capuava.
This latter project is the most striking example of his conceptual creativity, an art form that embraces the fluid, unitary nature of art and life. The house was built as a unique blend of pre-Incan forms on the scale of a mastaba, a monumental Egyptian tomb, with a majestically tall central doorway welcoming guests in a spectacular fashion. Inside the hall, long multicoloured curtains would sway in the wind, creating a special relationship between the garden and the large multipurpose space.
In a successful osmosis, the living room was furnished with pieces custom-designed by Flávio de Carvalho — a credenza and a large brass table — along with carefully selected elements such as masks, ritual objects and spears displayed on the walls. One of the two large walls still today houses the fireplace, built using an ingenious system that mixed evaporating water with coloured light to create a vapour that set the tone of the room's atmosphere. Built into the walls, rectangular niches contained shelves illuminated with a sophisticated system to generate suffused pools of light.
The house displays intriguing features such as an 18-metre-long ceiling, along which runs a strip of aluminium that reflects and amplifies the effect of light during the day. Sheets of aluminium cover the walls and furniture in the kitchen, while the fireplace in the great hall sports a copper hood. The side walls are partly covered by horizontal wooden planks and strips of black ceramic. The curtains were made of a very light material in order to flutter in and out of the living room towards the surrounding garden. In the fazenda, light and colours intertwined, taking on a life of their own that followed both intuition and a project, founded on grand individual freedom. Symmetrical to the building's central structure, two pavilions extend out laterally like light, elegant wings. It is important to recall the presence of the interactions between various colours that are juxtaposed and associated.
Describing the building, Mário de Andrade said that "the landscape, light and air all flow inside the house". The project for the entire fazenda stems from Flávio de Carvalho's highly personal language and imagery. His lifestyle as a refined and eclectic aesthete would seem inspired by poetry.
In the chronicles of time, evidence remains of the artist/ architect's great vitality and the social and intellectual life he led: numerous personalities of Brazilian culture — actors, musicians and artists — passed through Fazenda Capuava, including the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose portrait De Carvalho painted in 1941. Flávio de Carvalho loved parties and the company of others; he would invite his guests into the garden where a large, deep swimming pool illuminated by glowing red lights brightened up the warm summer evenings, creating an evocative nocturnal setting. Paola Anziché, artist