Museums Brazil report Brazil

Off the beaten track

Brazil’s cultural offering is far richer—and more widespread—than many realise. Here are some of the country’s hidden gems

Cultural destinations in Brazil. Map: Katherine Hardy

Although Brazil has, in recent years, become almost as well known to contemporary art enthusiasts as it has long been to football fans, most cultural tourists still limit their itineraries to a small slice of this vast country and their focus to the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s rare to find anyone from the international art world who has travelled much beyond the triangle defined by São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Inhotim, the extraordinary contemporary art centre in the mining state of Minas Gerais that the collector Bernardo Paz opened to the public in 2006 and which has expanded almost every year since then.

In fact, the geographical boundaries of Brazil’s artistic monuments are expansive, and the country’s rich visual history begins with pre-Columbian ceramics and reaches its first apogee as far back as the 18th century.

According to a famous quote attributed to the composer Tom Jobim, “Brazil is not for beginners”. Here are some suggestions intended not for beginners but for seasoned art lovers who have already made plans to visit the Bienal de São Paulo (6 September-7 December) and would like to expand their itineraries to include some lesser-known destinations and sights.

Manaus: Right in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, Manaus briefly thrived in the late 19th century as the centre of Brazil’s rubber boom. Its most famous surviving monument from that period is the Teatro Amazonas, a 700-seat opera house in Renaissance style that hosts the Festival Amazonas de Ópera every April and May. Although the city is more than three-and-a-half hours by plane from São Paulo, it can also be reached in around five-and-a-half hours directly from Miami, travelling with American Airlines.

Belo Horizonte: Known to the international art world as a stop-off on the route to Inhotim, Belo Horizonte is the capital of Minas Gerais state. This region’s gold and diamond mines fuelled Brazil’s first great economic boom in the 18th century, while its hearty cuisine gave birth to feijoada, the bean and pork stew that is the country’s best-known dish.

Visitors who know Minas Gerais only as the home of Inhotim are missing some of Brazil’s greatest art attractions. Belo Horizonte is also the gateway to the state’s famous Baroque mining towns, including Ouro Preto, a World Heritage Site, with its gold-encrusted church interiors created in the 18th century by artists such as Aleijadinho, and Congonhas do Campo, an otherwise unremarkable town that is home to unforgettable sculptural ensembles by the same artist in the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos.

Enthusiasts of Modern architecture should visit Pampulha, a celebrated residential complex on the outskirts of the city. Designed around an artificial lake by the young Oscar Niemeyer in the early 1940s, it has a church decorated by Cândido Portinari as well as a dance hall and a casino, which is now a museum of Modern art.

São Paulo: Every visitor to the Bienal is certain to catch the shows in the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo in Ibirapuera Park and the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo downtown, but it’s also worth considering some of the less familiar institutions nearby.

The University of São Paulo recently opened a branch of its Museu de Arte Contemporânea in a repurposed building designed by Oscar Niemeyer, directly across the highway from his more famous Bienal headquarters, while the Museu Afro Brasil, founded by the celebrated curator Emanoel Araujo, is in another Niemeyer-designed pavilion within the park.

Although the Luz neighbourhood surrounding the Pinacoteca can best be described as sketchy (it is known locally as “Cracolandia” because of its drug problems), it does contain significant cultural attractions, including the distinguished Museum of Sacred Art. The Estação da Luz train station houses a multimedia museum of the Portuguese language, and the Sala São Paulo, a remarkable new concert hall, is in a courtyard of the Júlio Prestes train station, which also contains a branch of the Pinacoteca.

Lina Bo Bardi, the architect of the Museo de Arte de São Paulo, designed other masterpieces in the city, including the SESC Pompeia complex, a social centre for industrial workers that features gym facilities, theatres and art exhibition spaces.

Recife and Olinda: Now the capital of the state of Pernambuco, Recife—named after the reef that encloses its harbour—was, in the 17th century, the capital of a short-lived Dutch incursion into Portuguese Brazil. Its finest colonial monument is the Golden Chapel of the Church of Santo Antônio, which features extraordinary gilded decoration.

A city with an important Modernist movement, Recife boasts a number of significant museums. The Joaquim Nabuco Foundation runs both the anthropological Museu do Homem do Nordeste and the visual arts space Diretoria de Cultura. The museum of the Ricardo Brennand Institute documents the history of 17th-century Dutch Brazil, including a celebrated collection of paintings by Frans Post, while the work of the Recife-based sculptor Francisco Brennand occupies an open-air museum. For a look at the contemporary art scene, visit the various spaces in the Edificio Pernambuco—including Espaço Fonte, Orbe, Casa como convém and Casa Navio—and Bcúbico, a centre for digital media and the moving image.

Just a few miles north of Recife is the older Portuguese capital of Olinda. Its Baroque monasteries, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, appear frozen in time amid palm trees in a delightfully bucolic setting. One of the churches, in the Mosteiro de São Bento, furnished the huge gilded altarpiece that dominated the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 2001 exhibition “Brazil: Body and Soul” and the smaller altar included in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros” show in 2006.

Salvador da Bahia: Salvador da Bahia, famously the epicentre of Afro-Brazilian culture, occupies a hill above the picture-perfect Bay of All Saints. The lower town is home to the 18th-century church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, where visitors buy cloth bracelets granting wearers their wishes, as long as they allow the ribbon to fall apart naturally (but beware—the current versions are made of polyester and stubbornly refuse to disintegrate).

As well as Pelourinho, the touristy colonial centre in the upper town with its spectacularly decorated churches, the city offers many visual riches. The Museu de Arte Sacra, a religious art museum belonging to the Federal University of Bahia, has on display the finest collection of Baroque art in the country. The Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, with its changing exhibitions, occupies a former manor house overlooking the bay. It was repurposed by the celebrated architect Lina Bo Bardi, who crowned her renovation with a beautiful wooden stairway, without railings, between the floors.

Rio de Janeiro: The Museu de Arte Moderna and the dynamic new Museu de Arte do Rio—both bastions of Modern and contemporary art—are the major attractions of Rio de Janeiro’s downtown museum scene, while Paço Imperial and the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil are the principal temporary exhibition venues. Yet few foreign visitors realise that one of the country’s most beautiful colonial churches, the Mosteiro de São Bento, is hidden up a paved ramp just a few blocks from the Museu de Arte do Rio. Another Baroque gem is the church of Nossa Senhora da Glória, on a hill overlooking Flamengo Park.

Farther afield, in the Gávea neighbourhood, is the Instituto Moreira Salles, a museum that specialises in the history of photography, in what was formerly the handsome Modernist residence of a prominent banking family. In the Barra de Guaratiba, around an hour’s drive from Copacabana (depending on the traffic), is the 100-acre Sítio Burle Marx, a delightful botanical garden where the famous landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx grew the plants he used in his installations.

Porto Alegre: The capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state and a centre of German immigration since the 19th century, Porto Alegre overlooks a freshwater lagoon at the edge of the vast pampas (plains), home to Brazil’s gaúcho (cowboy) culture. Its twin distinctions are the Bienal do Mercosul, which was established in 1997, and the art museum opened in 2008 by the Fundação Iberê Camargo, which was created to preserve the legacy of a native son who rose to fame in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s as a painter and printmaker.

The next edition of the well-received biennial, which focuses on the art of the Southern Cone (southern Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay), will not open until September 2015, but the Camargo foundation’s active programme of temporary exhibitions and rehangs of its permanent collection continues all year round. The museum occupies a narrow plot of land on the edge of the lagoon that inspired the celebrated Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira to create one of his finest buildings, intriguing from the outside with its covered ramps and light-filled and open within.

Visitors to touristy Pelourinho can see spectacularly decorated churches
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