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Brazil Imagined

Brazil Imagined
1500 to the Present

A sweeping survey of Brazilian representations—encompassing literature, art, propaganda, mass media, and other realms—across five centuries of evolving identity, brimming with powerful photographs.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment, in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

October 2008
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408 pages | 6 x 9 | 79 b&w illus, 16 repeated in color, 1 table |

The first comprehensive cultural history of Brazil to be written in English, Brazil Imagined: 1500 to the Present captures the role of the artistic imaginary in shaping Brazil's national identity. Analyzing representations of Brazil throughout the world, this ambitious survey demonstrates the ways in which life in one of the world's largest nations has been conceived and revised in visual arts, literature, film, and a variety of other media.

Beginning with the first explorations of Brazil by the Portuguese, Darlene J. Sadlier incorporates extensive source material, including paintings, historiographies, letters, poetry, novels, architecture, and mass media to trace the nation's shifting sense of its own history. Topics include the oscillating themes of Edenic and cannibal encounters, Dutch representations of Brazil, regal constructs, the literary imaginary, Modernist utopias, "good neighbor" protocols, and filmmakers' revolutionary and dystopian images of Brazil. A magnificent panoramic study of race, imperialism, natural resources, and other themes in the Brazilian experience, this landmark work is a boon to the field.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Edenic and Cannibal Encounters
  • Chapter Two: Paradise (Re)Gained: Dutch Representations of Brazil and Nativist Imaginary
  • Chapter Three: Regal Brazil
  • Chapter Four: The Foundations of a National Literary Imaginary
  • Chapter Five: Modernist Brazil
  • Chapter Six: Good Neighbor Brazil
  • Chapter Seven: From Revolutionary to Dystopian Brazil on Screen
  • Epilogue: Land of the Future
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Darlene J. Sadlier is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University-Bloomington. She is the author of several books on Portuguese and Brazilian literature and culture, most recently Nelson Pereira dos Santos.


This book originated in a plan to write a large-scale history of Brazilian literature, showing how different authors have contributed to ideas of Brazilian national identity. Had I followed through with my initial aims, the result might have vaguely resembled Peter Conrad's Imagining America (1980), which describes how certain nineteenth-century English writers who visited the United States imagined the country for their respective readerships. (Niagara Falls, for example, was a mandatory stop for Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, and others, and it assumed iconic status in their works.) My plan changed, however, when in the course of researching in the Lilly Library and Newberry Library's Brasiliana collections I began to realize the importance of early cartographic iconography to the formation of the Brazilian colonial imaginary. From cartography, it was a short step to studying early woodcuts and copperplate engravings, a topic that I had addressed in an earlier study of Nelson Pereira dos Santos's 1971 Como era gostoso o meu francês (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman), a tongue-in-cheek film about sixteenth-century European expansionism and indigenous anthropophagy. Before long, my book had grown to include not only literature but also maps, book illustrations, architecture, painting, films, and broadcast media, and my history of the nation ranged from the sixteenth century to the present.

Although my study is broad, even panoramic, I should perhaps make clear at the outset that it is focused on various forms of art or mass communication and takes a particular approach to the question of national identity. By using this last term I mean to designate anything that contributes to the individual subject's sense of belonging to a nation. Does national identity therefore actually exist? Yes, but as I hope to show, it always exists discursively, as a representation or as an idea that is open to contestation and change over time. How does it take shape in Brazil? In many ways—for example, we can observe its workings through a study of law, politics, religion, and even historical linguistics. My own interests, however, are slightly apart from these matters and indeed from the economic relations, technologies, and institutions that determine ideology. Unlike Benedict Anderson's valuable and highly influential Imagined Communities (1983), which explores many of the material conditions that gave rise to ideas of nationhood, my book exclusively addresses imaginary representations; thus I speak only about the cultural superstructure and allude indirectly to certain concerns of historians, political scientists, and anthropologists. For instance, I have little or nothing to say about constitutional law, definitions of citizenship, geographical-territorial boundaries, industrial economies, or popular customs. I do not deal, except obliquely, with the development of print cultures or representational technologies, and I do not write about the formation of "public spheres" such as the ones that have been theorized by Jürgen Habermas. My subject is the relatively manifest ideological effect of fine art, literature, architecture, film, and television on the shaping of "Brazilianness." The modes of cultural expression I have chosen to analyze are obviously determined by economic and political forces, but in themselves they contribute to the shaping of national identity and give us a window onto political and social struggles. They are worthy of study in their own right and have been given relatively little attention, at least in the academic world, along the lines in which I have tried to discuss them.

The process of selecting writers, artists, and works was challenging, partly because I was covering five hundred years in a changing culture. In lieu of an encyclopedic survey of the arts, I constructed a series of historical moments in which one or more art forms become dominant or strongly influential. Thus my discussion of the colonial period focuses chiefly on cartography and visual arts, while in my chapter on the nineteenth century I give most of the attention to literature. When I reach the twentieth century, the materials under consideration are increasingly public, so that I discuss modern architecture, city planning, films, and television. I have also tried to explore the ways in which both foreigners and native-born Brazilians have imagined the country.

Anyone who has studied Brazil knows that there are myriad accounts of the nation written by foreign travelers. In recent years, scholars José Carlos Barreiro, Felix Driver, and Luciana Martins have focused attention on nineteenth-century illustrations and writings by such individuals as the French painter Jean Baptiste Debret and various British subjects, including the diarist Maria Graham and naturalists William Burchell and Charles Darwin. The nineteenth century is particularly rich in foreign materials on Brazil because shortly after arriving in Rio de Janeiro in 1808, Dom João VI opened the country's ports to commerce. Curiously, the image of Brazil produced by Brazilians themselves has received far less critical attention. This may explain why most of my Brazilian colleagues and friends assumed that I was focusing exclusively on the outsider or "imperial" gaze. My aim instead is to concentrate on Brazilian materials, occasionally showing the relationship between local and foreign imaginaries. In all cases, I have indicated the sociopolitical and economic interests and concerns that played a part in the image-making process.

Although I have attempted to provide as many examples of national imagery as is feasible, by no means is the material exhaustive or complete. The wealth of materials from which to choose is an indication of Brazil's importance as a New World territory of vast proportions, bountiful resources, and indigenous peoples; as the new home of a transplanted European royal court; as a bourgeois society eager for national independence; and as a modern nation of seemingly endless potential, dubbed by a spellbound Stefan Zweig "the land of the future."

Faced with a massive archive, I have necessarily been selective and tried to be mindful of what Raymond Williams described in The Long Revolution (1961) as the "selective cultural tradition":

Within a given society, selection will be governed by many kinds of special interests, including class interests. Just as the actual social situation will largely govern contemporary selection, so the development of society, the process of historical change, largely determine the selective tradition. . . . We tend to underestimate the extent to which the cultural tradition is not only a selection but also an interpretation. We see most past work through our own experience, without even making the effort to see it in something like its original terms. What analysis can do is not so much to reverse this, returning a work to its period, as to make the interpretation conscious of showing historical alternatives; to relate the interpretation of the particular contemporary values on which it rests; and, by exploring the real patterns of the work, to confront us with the real nature of the choices we are making. . . . Every element that we analyze will be in this sense active: that it will be seen in certain real relations, at many different levels. In describing these relations, the real cultural process will emerge. (68-70)

To the best of my ability I have documented and examined representations of Brazil "in something like their original terms." By this I mean that I study specific images in their historical contexts and alongside other images to give a sense of their significance in what Williams refers to as the "lived culture." My study includes canonical texts as well as other works that, for whatever reason, have been neglected or dismissed. A case in point is the poetry of the nineteenth-century African-Brazilian Luís Gama, a gifted writer who was a contemporary of Castro Alves and Joaquim Nabuco. Unlike Alves and Nabuco, who wrote celebrated (and canonical) anti-slavery works during and after the abolitionist movement, Gama focused on the issue of race itself in Brazil. Among his poems are tour de force satires directed at middle- and upper-class Brazilians of African descent who try to pass as white. Perhaps for that reason, Gama never gained entry into the Brazilian literary canon.

My book is concerned with a great variety of nationalistic themes in distinct historical periods and at different cultural levels. I have attempted to show how national identity is shaped in the colonial and postcolonial eras, in times of dictatorship and democracy, and in response to modernity and postmodernity. At certain junctures I also indicate how the image of Brazil has been influenced by the politics and culture of other nations, particularly France and the United States. In addition, I realized during the course of writing the book, however, that for the entire time span of its existence, Brazil's imagined identity has been strongly affected by at least two important concepts that can sometimes take on different qualitative implications at different historical junctures. The first of these is race, which becomes an important issue from the moment European colonizers encounter indigenous peoples and which lies behind the present-day recognition that the nation is made up of a multiracial population, much of it black. The second theme is nature, meaning in this case the flora and fauna of the place, and its value as a "natural resource." From the beginning of the European "discovery" of Brazil, the vast and varied landscape has been seen alternately as an exotic Eden, a savage wilderness, and a source of valuable commodities. The contrast in these views of the natural world is vividly evident today in the long-unequal distribution of landownership and especially in the ever-increasing conflict between ecology and commerce. Both sides of this conflict tend to cultivate a rhetorical technique called ufanismo, which praises to the point of exaggeration Brazil's resources. Although largely a characteristic of sixteenth-century texts by Portuguese writers who were eager to promote the country's colonization, ufanismo continues to inflect contemporary writings about the nation.

At the outset I emphasize the importance of historiography, cartography, engravings, and woodcuts to the construction of the first images of Brazil. As I show in Chapter One, among the best-known representations of Brazil were Belgian-born Johann Theodor de Bry's sensational engravings of indigenous cannibals, images that circulated throughout Europe at the end of the sixteenth century. Those engravings not only refuted earlier images of Brazil as a paradise populated with Edenic inhabitants, as recorded by the Portuguese royal scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha and others, but also helped to bolster and justify an aggressive colonial campaign to enslave and ultimately rid the Brazilian coast of the native presence.

In Chapter Two, I show how the contrasting images of Brazil as terrestrial Eden and barbarous land continued to be explored in Dutch paintings by artists who accompanied Prince Johan Maurits von Nassau-Siegen to Pernambuco in the seventeenth century. Although scenes of anthropophagy appear on Dutch maps and in other works of the time, they are relatively few and always subordinate to images of passive if not friendly natives, happy African slaves, and an energetic commerce—all of which was devised to encourage Dutch colonization. The paradise described in writings by early Dutch visitors is especially evident in the work of Frans Post, who is regarded as the first landscape artist of the New World, and in Albert Eckhout's ethnographic-style paintings of Indians, flora, and fauna. The Edenic vision became a major topos in the earliest literature written in Brazil, and nativist works by poet Manuel Botelho de Oliveira and the Jesuit Vicente do Salvador, among others, extolled the country's natural beauty and abundant resources. Renowned for his satiric verses, the Bahian poet Gregório de Matos took a different approach by criticizing his bountiful homeland for enriching foreigners at the expense of locals. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the mid-eighteenth century confirmed early prophesies of Brazil as a land rich in precious stones, which resulted in representations of the country along the lines of a tropical Eldorado. That image contrasted sharply with pictorials and accounts of the brutal treatment and death of African slaves who were brought to Brazil to work the mines and plantations. If Brazil was a paradise on earth for some, it was at best (in the words of the Jesuit Antônio Vieira) a "sweet hell" for those enslaved.

Chapter Three focuses on the flight of the Portuguese royal court from the Napoleonic invasion and their arrival in Rio de Janeiro in 1808. Early writings by the newly arrived immigrants complained about the lack of civilization in Brazil and drew unfavorable comparisons between the country and the homeland left behind. Following various proclamations and projects to lift the profile of the new royal capital, in 1816 the monarch Dom João VI invited a group of French artists and architects to Rio to train local talent and design buildings in keeping with Brazil's newly appointed status as part of the kingdom with Portugal and the Algarve. The opening of Brazilian ports to overseas commerce in 1808 encouraged the arrival of various foreign scientific expeditions that documented flora and fauna and produced ethnographies of its people. Travelers like the British-born Maria Graham and John Mawe kept diaries of their visits that described in detail the problems and impact of imported notions of civilization on a people and nation eager for independence.

With the proclamation of Brazil's independence in 1822 and the beginning of the Brazilian empire, a new image came to the fore; and the Indian, who was no longer visible, having died or fled into the interior, became an icon of the recently independent nation. As I discuss in Chapter Four, although the Indian had appeared earlier in Brazilian literature, the European romantics, including the Portuguese poet Almeida Garrett and the French Brazilianist Ferdinand Denis, encouraged their Brazilian cohorts to adopt the figure of the noble savage as a national symbol. Meanwhile, as Antônio Gonçalves Dias and José de Alencar were writing popular epic-style works about valiant indigenous warriors and maidens in the wilderness, other intellectuals and artists were beginning to write works about life in the city.

The desire to forge a national literature moved from discussions of the Indian to debates among urban novelists such as Joaquim Manuel de Macedo and "regional" writers such as Franklin Távora, and by the latter part of the nineteenth century, the literary image of the nation was split (albeit unevenly) along geographic lines. On the one hand were works of limited circulation about the Brazilian interior with its "exotic" flora and fauna and regional types such as farmers and storekeepers, muleteers and bandits. On the other hand were the more widely published books about the city and the urban middle class. Blacks rarely figured in either genre; when they did appear, they were usually cast as slaves. However, the image of the slave took on new meaning in abolitionist writings and oratory of the period, efforts toward emancipation that were finally rewarded in 1888. Despite emancipation, the suffering slave continued to be evoked in speeches and writings as a metaphor for a nation eager to wrest its freedom from the imperial monarchy. The freeing of the slaves anticipated by one year the overthrow of Emperor Pedro II and the establishment of the republic. At the same time, novelist Machado de Assis was charting a new course for Brazilian literature that shifted emphasis from romantic nationalism to a more cosmopolitan, proto-modernist sensibility with which he dissected the values and foibles of the growing bourgeoisie.

Chapter Five focuses on the images of modernist Brazil, beginning with the Modern Art Week in São Paulo in 1922. Held in the Municipal Theater during the centennial celebration of Brazil's independence, the week's events were an attempt by writers, artists, and musicians to expand on the nation's cosmopolitan image while emphasizing the importance of its regional character. Once again the Indian was called forth as a national symbol. Instead of the romantic bon sauvage, however, poet Oswald de Andrade summoned the anthropophagous figure as part of a modernist counter-colonialist strategy: the local culture would ingest (as oppose to emulate) foreign sources in order to strengthen what was endemic to the nation. The desire to "make it new" was especially evident in painting and architecture, in which classical forms gave way to futurism, expressionism, cubism, and other modernist schools. This radical shift in the arts and architecture culminated years later with the construction of the futuristic capital, Brasília. The "new way" also produced bossa nova, a cool, hip music whose impact was felt far beyond Brazil.

In Chapter Six I examine the 1940s, when Brazil's national identity was shaped not only by its own artists but also by the U.S. Good Neighbor policy, which fostered cultural exchanges and an emphasis on both modernity and exoticism. During this time Hollywood transformed Carmen Miranda into a colorful, amiable, and tropical Latin icon—an image that endured long after the end of World War II. In the same period Orson Welles functioned as a goodwill ambassador from the United States; through his aborted film, It's All True, and his radio programs broadcast from Rio and New York, he emphasized a very different image of Brazil as a racially diverse, culturally rich, and respected wartime ally of the United States.

The early oscillating images of Brazil as Edenic and barbarous reemerge in the later part of the twentieth century as Cinema Novo films about the utopian possibilities of a poor but developing nation accede to darker pictures of a dystopia plagued by corruption, drugs, and violence. I explore these contrasting media images in Chapter Seven, and in many ways they remain at the heart of the country's view of itself today. The media coverage of Brazil's growing poverty, violence, and corruption coexists with reports on the country's emergence as a global economic power—a contradiction that seems more extreme with each passing year. The contradiction is especially evident in the major cityscapes, where towering multinational buildings and high-end shopping centers appear alongside modest housing and sprawling favelas, or slums. It is impossible to predict what lies ahead for a nation still referred to as "the land of the future"; nevertheless, an examination of the ways the nation has been represented over the centuries should provide us with a better understanding of the imaginary that has shaped Brazil and may shape it in decades to come.


“For transforming 500 years of a country's complex history into an articulate narrative, Brazil Imagined is an effort to be praised and a must-read for introductory courses on Brazil and Latin America.”
Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe


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