Gertrudes Altschul, "Arquitetura ou triângulo ou composição (Architecture or Triangle or Composition)" (date unknown), gelatin silver print, 38.5 x 28.5 cm (long-term loan MASP Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante, photo by Eduardo Ortega)

SÃO PAULO — São Paulo is a dense and vibrant metropolis that’s home to diverse ethnic groups. In my neighborhood, Higienópolis, for example, I’m often reminded of the profound impact that Jewish immigrants from Europe had on the city, particularly its modernism. In the late 1930s and ’40s, as Europe’s Jews fled World War II, they established roots and launched cultural vanguards in Brazil. The arrivals often saw Brazil as a peaceful haven that put them at a safe distance from Europe’s mayhem. Looking at their works today I can’t help but think that their resilience and desire for renewal shaped their robust art that often looked hopefully to the future.

Immigrants arriving in Brazil, however, didn’t always find it all tolerant or welcoming — Brazil’s president Getúlio Vargas espoused the Nazi ideology, with swastika-clad children and “Heil Hitler!” salutes during military parades in the country’s major cities. In 1942, under the persistent pressure from the United States, Brazil joined the Allies, but the prejudice had many permutations: from the influential critic Mário Pedrosa noting that the melancholy in the paintings by the Jewish painter Lasar Segall meant that he could not be a “real” Brazilian artist (an argument that rings troublingly close to the Apollonian vs. Dionysian distinction used against Jewish artists by the Nazis) to architects who, due to their immigrant status, couldn’t open their own firms.

The dwellers of São Paulo can nevertheless appreciate the works of Jewish architects such as Lucjan Korngold, who owned a thriving architecture studio in Warsaw, designing villas inspired by Le Corbusier (an inspiration for a generation of Brazilian architects including Oscar Niemeyer) and fled to Brazil in 1939. Korngold’s undulating residential buildings are characteristic of the elegant, fluid mid-century style — a far cry from the ungainly postmodern behemoths and reflexive-glass towers that followed.

At mid-century, visual artists captured São Paulo’s rapid urbanization in striking abstractions that conveyed energy and vertical ambitions, but also a haunting anonymity creeping in, and acute social divides. Such contrasts permeated Brazil’s modernity: The country underwent a rapid industrialization yet saw mass migrations that gave rise to urban poverty; cities like São Paulo modernized and thrived but this progressive push belied the struggles of the lower classes — a contrast even more acutely felt in Brazil’s ultra-modern and totalizing, quasi-futurist new capital, Brasília, built in 1960.

Fayga Ostrower, Illustration for the book God Bless You (1945), linocut on paper, 6.7 x 9.1 cm (image courtesy Isabella Matheus/Pinacoteca de São Paulo)

Social inequality features prominently in the early work of the Polish-born Jewish artist Fayga Ostrower, who arrived in Brazil at the age of 13, in 1934. Financially strapped, Ostrower moved from odd jobs to an executive secretary to the president of General Electric, while taking art classes in Rio de Janeiro, before she devoted herself to art. The Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo’s survey of Ostrower’s oeuvre earlier this year gave me an opportunity to admire her prodigious production. The artist got her start with illustrations for magazines and books depicting urban poverty. Her linocuts for the 1945 novel Fontamara, for example, reveal the influence of the German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz, whose socially engaged art was also championed by Mário Pedrosa.

But like many artists of her time, Ostrower intuited the limitations of figuration and transitioned to abstraction. Her vibrant silkscreens on fabric, evoking bamboos or the sounds of jazz, are fine examples of geometric sublimation, which was then gaining a foothold in São Paulo’s newly founded museums, the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP, 1947), and Museum of Modern Art (MAM, 1948). Ostrower moved seamlessly between printmaking and aquarelle and silkscreen, the latter strongly conveying the energy of both Japanese calligraphy and nature.

Fayga Ostrower, “Beauty of Life” (1973), color silkscreen on paper, 21.1 x 29 cm (image courtesy Isabella Matheus/Pinacoteca de São Paulo)

Nature, as a theme or organic form, features in enough Brazilian modernist works to suggest that the tensions — between technology and ecology, utopian progress and social dystopias — produced nostalgia and a renewed appreciation of nature. I thought of this when visiting two current shows of the Jewish Brazilian photographer Gertrudes Altschul at the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MASP) and at Galeria Luciana Brito. In its beautiful compact survey, MASP highlights Altschul’s experimentation. Particularly stunning are her film frames, in which she abstracted natural elements, such as branches and leafage, to flat, graphic shapes and interlaced shadows. Some compositions channel May Ray but also Edward Weston. Brito Gallery shows off Altschul’s small-scale nature photographs, a perfect pairing for its airy garden-house, designed by the Brazil-born Jewish architect Rino Levi and by Roberto Burle Marx.

Gertrudes Altschul, “Margaridas (Daisies)” (circa 1959), gelatin silver print, 34 x 27.5 cm (long-term loan MASP Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante, photo by Eduardo Ortega)

Altschul and her husband, Leo, sold Leo’s Hats, their business in Berlin, to a gentile, placed their son in Kindertransport, and fled the Nazis in 1939. The couple rebuilt their business in São Paulo, selling artificial flowers to milliners — which provided Altschul with the upper-middle class income to pay the fees at the recently formed photography club, Photo-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB), whose most adventurous members broke free from the older school of pictorialism (heavy with romantic tendencies) and embraced the abstract vanguard and latest technologies.

An active club member from 1952 to her falling ill with cancer in 1958, Altschul embraced mechanical experimentation, using techniques such as multiple exposure, solarization, cropping, and superimposition. Creative boldness made both MAM-SP and MASP look kindly on photography; some FCCB members (though not Altschul) showed at the museums. Altschul, meanwhile, won a number of internal FCCB contests and showed on the national and international circuits of photo clubs.

Gertrudes Altschul: Filigrana at MASP (image courtesy MASP, photo by Eduardo Ortega)

I could first appreciate Altschul’s ingenuity when, in April, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had put on the exhibition, Fotoclubismo: Modernist Photography, 1946-1964. Altschul’s photograph “Lines and Tones” (1953) was in that survey, a landscape that I took to be industrial — indeed, I think that Altschul got at the nascent claustrophobia and concrete crush that São Paulo experiences today, decades later.

But it wasn’t until MASP that I realized that, in fact, Altschul combined different takes of the same residential building on Higienópolis Avenue — a building I pass by daily — and its wavy walkway, to create her disorienting gray image, as if smog-choked and with columns suggesting chimneys. Here, modernist architectural form, industrialization, and environmental fallout are intricately connected — a link we can appreciate even more today amidst alarming environmental devastation. Whenever news breaks about the Amazon or the Pantanal burning, smog filling São Paulo’s streets, I think of this photograph, its sinuous line like an anxiety-inducing question mark.

What became clear after seeing these two shows was that modernists like Altschul could really have it both ways — she was using mechanical technologies to throw the underlying geometry of nature into a sharper relief, while, in other images, she was constructing scenarios that felt much more artisanal, evoking handmade crafts and a much earlier modernity that’s Benjaminian, rather than of the future. It was Benjamin, after all, who wrote that there’s nothing more avantgarde than outdated forms.

Frans KRAJCBERG Sans Titre (Révoltes), cir. 1990 Burned wood from deforestation and natural pigments.

No Brazilian modernist was more alarmed about environmental depredation than Frans Krajcberg, a Polish Jewish immigrant who fled a concentration camp to study engineering in Leningrad, but then fought the Nazis instead. Krajcberg’s post-war journey was via art school in Stuttgart, Paris, through the studio of Fernand Léger (who mentored generations of Brazilian modernists including Tarsila Amaral), and then on to Rio de Janeiro, in 1948. Jobless and speaking no Portuguese, Krajcberg continued his vagaries between France, Spain, and Rio. He got hired at MASP as a maintenance man, becoming fast friends with influential artists like Alfred Volpi and Waldemar Cordeiro. According to one anecdote, Krajcberg’s career began when he shyly placed two of his works before the 1953 São Paulo Biennial jurors and, to his astonishment, made the cut.

Krajcberg was fluid in oil painting, mixed-media, sculpture, and installation, yet today it’s his ecological sculpture that stands out the most. In the ’50s, Krajcberg, whose profound affinity for nature dated back to his hiding out in the woods from the Nazis as a child, made sculptures inspired by Brazil’s local minerals, while living in Minas Gerais. In the ’80s and ’90s, he often protested the exploitation of Brazil’s natural parks — his famous “After Burn (Após Queimada)” (1994), in which a rust-colored vein twists as if trying to break out free from within a rigid-looking frame, was one such protest work. Krajcberg maintained a natural reserve in Bahia until his death in 2017.

Of all the modernist Jewish artists, Krajcberg’s skepticism — indeed, a more profound rebellion against status quo — is perhaps the most urgent legacy of Brazilian modernism: A clear signal that the modernist utopia is far from complete, or perhaps more pointedly, was always fraught. The São Paulo that the Jewish modernists once showed has become not only vaster but also infinitely more unequal. With the rich increasingly living in gated communities, behind barbwire, and electric fences, is it any wonder that the civic will to address the dire lack of affordable housing is lacking? With their gardens and communal areas, the once middle-class modernist buildings in my neighborhood are a faint reminder that the European émigrés who built them dreamed of a more egalitarian world.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.