The transparent museum

by Renato Anelli

| versão em português |

The Museu de Arte de São Paulo (Masp) was conceived by Pietro Maria Bardi (1901-1999) and Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992) in 1947. When they arrived in Brazil from Italy, businessman Assis Chateaubriand invited them to design the new museum. Masp became an important pole of cultural modernity in a city which was at the core of the Brazilian industrialization process, but was still culturally provincial.

The acquired collection brought to Brazil artworks of great importance, from various origins and periods. The Bardis designed modern ways to display art, aiming to avoid reinforcing conservative positions through the pieces shown. Lina presented her museography and explained her strategies in the first edition of Habitat magazine in 1950. The intention was to offer the “viewer a pure and unguarded observation,” free of preconceptions that would highlight this or that artwork, avoiding the automatic reproduction of values that had become consolidated in Europe throughout the centuries. To achieve this, the architect positioned the paintings loose in space, with the captions at the back — a subordinate position — to allow a first judgment that was free of preconceptions.

This way of exhibiting originated in the European artistic vanguard of the 1920s. Neoplastic and suprematist artists attempted to conquer the space with works that broke the boundaries of their supports. Frederick Kiesler (in 1925) and El Lissitzky (in 1927) applied this goal to their exhibitions. In his Galleria d’Arte in Rome (1930), Pietro Bardi also called attention to some paintings without frames on the walls, just like Edoardo Persico would do a short while later (in 1934) in his exhibitions and storefronts in Milan. Franco Albini, BBPR, Ignazio Gardella and Carlo Scarpa adopted similar supports in their adaptations of old historic buildings to be used as museums. Transparency in the exhibitions was restricted to the interior of these buildings, as was the case of the first Masp headquarters in the Diários Associados building, on Sete de Abril Street.

The limitations of that first location led to the design of the current museum at Paulista Avenue, started in 1957, but finished only in 1968. Lina took a radical approach to the transparency of the supports, building them out of glass panels and displaying them in a room whose façades were also transparent.

In the words of the architect, to make art more popular, “I’ve attempted to strip the museum of that church atmosphere that excludes the uninitiated.”

Detached from the walls by the glass easels, the paintings “floated” in a single space that encompassed the museum and the city, creating spatial and temporal continuity between the works and the urban environment.

Masp’s pinacotheca. Museum of Art of São Paulo, Brazil, by Lina Bo Bardi. Photo: Paolo Gasparini. Attribution: © Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi (Archive).
Masp’s pinacotheca. Museum of Art of São Paulo, Brazil, by Lina Bo Bardi. Photo: Paolo Gasparini. Attribution: © Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi (Archive).

The end of transparency

The construction of a piece of glass architecture in the tropics faces the adversities of heat and insolation. Opting for all glass façades without any protection was part of the radical approach with which Lina Bo Bardi wanted to stand out amidst Modern Brazilian Architecture, against the extensive use of brise-soleils. To ensure the visual continuity of the glass façade, the blinds used presented yet another challenge: either the exposed works would be protected from the sun or the transparency would be fully realized despite the risk of deteriorating the pieces. This difficult choice was carefully managed while Lina Bo Bardi was alive and Pietro Maria Bardi was responsible for Masp. Lina’s death in 1992 and her husband’s retirement due to health problems shortly after, however, opened the way for those proposing the suppression of the original concept for the pinacotheca.

In 1996 a drywall system was built, simulating the interior of a traditional museum inside the pinacotheca’s hall. The façades, with permanently closed blinds, received giant external billboards showcasing the museum’s programming.

The technical justifications for the removal of the glass easels were based on the supposed objectivity of the “white cube”, the banal shape acclaimed by conservative museology. Initially temporary, the walls that were built became permanent. The cultural and artistic conception of Pietro and Lina was simply disqualified as an error to be fixed.

The return of the glass easels

Masp’s character is too strong to allow it to become the opposite of what it was conceived to be. Fifteen years after the suppression of the glass easels, the new managers of the museum (Chairman Heitor Martins and curator Adriano Pedrosa) were touched by the growing international recognition of the importance of Lina Bo Bardi to our times. Their decision to revert back to the original arrangement of Masp’s pinacotheca, including the transparent supports, must be celebrated. The density and broadness of the celebrations of Lina Bo Bardi’s centenary between August 2014 and July 2015, in Brazil and many other countries, certainly contributed to that decision.

What is important is that Lina’s centenary commemorations can now be concluded with the celebration of this achievement. It opens a period in which the contribution of all who fought for this to happen can enhance the way the museum will be restored. Masp’s new managers will certainly be able to reinstate its vanguard role, positioning it to face the challenges of a 21st century museum.

Top . Masp building, by Lina Bo Bardi. Photo: Fabio Torres.