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Arts and Culture

Brazil is a cultural melting pot. Brazilian culture has been shaped not only by the Portuguese, who first settled the country, but also by Brazil’s native Indians, the considerable African population, and other settlers from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The varied heritages have been woven together so intricately, and transformed so radically by the shared climate, geography and history, that something entirely new has emerged.

Brazil’s language was Portuguese from the beginning. It still is, albeit a progressively softer and more musical version of the mother tongue, which eventually absorbed many African, Amerindian, Arab, American, and other European words.

During most of the first four centuries after the Portuguese settled in Brazil, the inhabitants looked toward Europe for inspiration. With few exceptions, their buildings, paintings, and writings closely followed Portuguese styles. But during the 18th century gold boom, many cities in the state of Minas Gerais prospered and had a spate of building. The city of Ouro Preto, capital of the region at that time, is a typical example. Its steep streets are still paved with blocks of iron slate and granite. Many tourists go there every year, attracted by its thirteen splendid churches, built in the baroque and rococo styles, some with interiors almost entirely covered in gold leaf.

It was in Ouro Preto that a genius of American colonial sculpture and architecture was born in 1738. His name was Antonio Francisco Lisboa, but he was best known by the nickname of "O Aleijadinho", or The Little Cripple, because of the progressive debilitating disease that attacked him in middle age, withering his fingers and disfiguring his face. His terrible afflictions notwithstanding, he went on working tirelessly turning out scores of sculptures. He was already an old man when he created his masterpiece, a series of sculptures for the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos, at Congonhas, a small town near Ouro Preto.

In the realm of literature, the first important Brazilian works were written by Machado de Assis. As the 19th century drew to a close, he wrote a succession of novels whose skeptical and ironic tone disguised a fine sensitivity toward the human condition. Several of his books have been translated into English.

Castro Alves was the first really popular poet in Brazil. The son of a slave, his great abolitionist poem "Voices of Africa" is still recited in family gatherings and public meetings.

For all their individual talent, Machado de Assis’ and Castro Alves’ works did not add up to a national school. Most of the other writers of their time tended to be strongly Eurocentric. It was only after Brazil became a republic in 1889 that the literary search for the country’s soul began in earnest.

The Week Modern Art Week of 1922, an artistic symposium held in the city of São Paulo, showed that Brazilian musicians, painters, and writers were ready to forge a new and strong national identity.

Although he was born in Rio de Janeiro, Heitor Villa-Lobos, who was to become Brazil’s foremost classic composer, was drawn toward Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian themes. By no means, however, all of his work is dominated by percussion rhythms. Much of it is subtle and elusive, such as the Bachianas Brasileiras number 5.

The modernist movement set off a flood of talented painters. The foremost among them was Candido Portinari. An immensely versatile figure, Portinari painted most often in a stylized form of realism that conferred majesty even on everyday subjects. His images - coffee plantations and peasants in the northeast, for example – were unmistakably Brazilian.

Brazil’s spectacular modern architecture is one of the most potent expressions of its 20th century artistic confidence. A key figure in the nation’s architectural development was Lucio Costa.

It was he who, at the end of the 1950’s, drew up the master plan for the new capital of Brasília. The buildings within his grand design were executed by another world famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and were acclaimed by critics and colleagues as highly original masterpieces of contemporary architecture.

The 1930’s and 1940’s saw a succession of vigorous novels and poems on Brazilian folk and regional themes. Brazil’s best known post-war novelist is Jorge Amado, whose "Gabriela, clove and cinnamon" and "Dona Flor and her two husbands" take a humorous view of the rural establishment’s pretensions.

But nowhere is the strength of Brazilian folk culture more obvious than in the field of popular music, which has become the country’s best known art form internationally. African influences predominate in the peculiarly Brazilian shapes and rhythms of the samba.

The samba is simply a dance in two-part time, but it is what happens to the basics that count. The secret of its fascination lies in the syncopations (stressing the off beats), the deviations from the norm. There are innumerable varieties of the urban as well the rural samba – Bossa Nova is one of them.

At Carnival time, whether in Salvador, Rio or elsewhere, there is a samba for everything. The music, the dances, and the costumes are constantly updated and refurbished, adding excitement to the existing formulas.

These days, the samba struggles to maintain its popularity in the face of rock music. However, the sound of Brazilian rock has itself been influenced by the samba tradition, since Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, together with the other participants of the Tropicalist Movement, started composing and singing rock songs grafted on the rootstock of Brazilian music.

Nothing can drown the Brazilians’ love of music, but in the late 20th century they have developed two competing passions: tv soap operas and soccer. Brazil now has one of the largest television networks in the world. The most popular programs are the soap operas of extraordinarily high quality produced in Rio, São Paulo, and many other cities. A number of them have been broadcasted abroad.

Soccer is Brazil’s national obsession. Immense soccer stadiums can be found in every city worth its salt. Brazil is the only country to win five World Cup championships. Its players are famous for bringing soccer to new heights of skill, developing an unrivaled repertoire of kicks, dribbles and swerves. For Brazilians, soccer is more an art form than an aggressive sport, and the crowds judge the play with the appreciation of connoisseurs.