After his best seller about the War of Canudos swept through Brazil, Euclides da Cunha went to Amazonia. It nearly killed him.
There’s an argument that 1922 was the moment modernism took flight. It saw breakthrough works by a slew of writers including Joyce, Eliot, and Fitzgerald; Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus while Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago; Hitchcock directed his first movie as Disney made his first animations; Mussolini’s Fascists took hold of Italy, and Einstein got his hands on the Nobel Prize.
Less known than those canonical events is the modernist happening that struck São Paulo, where a festival of exhibitions and lectures gave many Brazilians their first exposure to modern art, unveiling young, homegrown creative talents with a radical vision: to ditch the long-burning obsession with emulating European civilization, and instead glory at the beauty beneath their own feet.
In the nineteenth century, this would have sounded absurd to educated Brazilians, Eurocentric to the core. But the 1922 generation was the first to have grown up with Os Sertões (“The Backlands”), a classic of Brazilian literature largely unknown to the outside world. Published in 1902, the book is a unique, genre-defying exploration of the country’s arid northeast and the calamity that befell it in 1897, when, in the name of the Brazilian national motto “order and progress,” the federal government flattened the town of Canudos and butchered as much of its population as it could get its hands on. It was written by Euclides da Cunha, a young civil engineer whose experience of the so-called War of Canudos turned him from a zealous government propagandist to the anguished voice of the Brazilian conscience. Read More