Walking on a Möbius Strip
The Inside/Outside of Art in Brazil

Luiza Proença
publication date: 02.2019

This text investigates how the topological figure of the Möbius strip, famously propagated by Bauhaus proponent Max Bill, was used in Brazil within dissident artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s as a tool for reflection on the subject, alterity and public space. The Möbius strip is revisited in this essay as a conduit for thinking critically about possible subversions of Eurocentric forms, as well as various appropriations of traditional popular culture by modern and contemporary art in Brazil.

A milestone in the mainstream history of Brazilian art was the presence in the country of Swiss artist Max Bill at the beginning of the 1950s and his influence on Brazilian art and design in that decade, along with the uneasiness provoked by his opinions about the tendencies in modern architecture that were then being consolidated in the country.[1] In 1927, Bill entered the Bauhaus in Dessau, then led by Hannes Meyer, where he studied under Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy, and got to know school founder Walter Gropius. He shared with his teachers the conviction that there should be no distinction between art, handicraft and industry, believing the designer should be an agent for social transformation. After leaving the Bauhaus, Bill developed a singular career path, becoming known not only as an artist who popularized concrete art, geometric abstraction and the language of artistic universality but a designer, architect and educator as well. His pre-war fame led Pietro Maria Bardi and Lina Bo Bardi, founders of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), to hold a retrospective of his work in March 1951, the same month the couple, alongside architect and interior designer Jacob Ruchti, inaugurated Brazil’s first school of design (Instituto de Arte Contemporânea or IAC), whose curriculum was influenced by the Bauhaus teaching philosophy.[2] 

Max Bill visited Brazil twice in 1953, the year he himself founded a new school—also based on Bauhaus ideas—the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm.[3] The example of the HfG soon led to proposals to create a second school of design in Brazil—the Escola Técnica de Criação (ETC). In its conception, the ETC was integrated within the pedagogical programming of the Museu de Arte Moderna of Rio de Janeiro (MAM-RJ), but never came to fruition (although the proposal was revived in 1962, with the founding of the Escola Superior de Design Industrial (ESDI)). Bill’s presence at the pioneering institutions of art then forming in southeast Brazil explains the fact that his work ultimately achieved a wide and lasting impact throughout South America, informing the development of different local constructivist movements. The historian of architecture Ana Luiza Nobre suggests that “it is possible that the condition of underdevelopment these countries (of South America) were struggling to escape from offered an especially receptive context for the constructivist project that Max Bill was then aiming to rehabilitate.”[4] 

Bill espoused the development of an art with a mathematical basis to approach the unknown spaces of reality:



“Human thinking in general (and mathematical thinking in particular) need, in the face of the unlimited, a visual support. This is where art comes in. From this point onward, the clear line becomes indefinite, while abstract, invisible thinking arises as concrete and visible. Unknown spaces, nearly unbelievable axioms, acquire reality and begin to move through regions where they did not exist previously; sensibility is enlarged; spaces that were until recently unknown and unimaginable begin to be known and imagined.”[5]



In parallel with Bill’s retrospective at MASP was the pedagogical exhibition Vitrine das formas (“Showcase of Forms”), where objects of different origins and periods were exhibited, creating juxtapositions such as Olivetti’s typewriter placed alongside pre-colonial Marajoara pottery. In a detailed essay on the steps of Max Bill in Brazil, art historian Rodrigo Otávio da Silva Paiva writes that it is important to understand both exhibitions in relation to one another, in the sense that both demonstrated MASP’s interest in “teaching the vast expanse of art, from tradition to present, from rural to urban, from metaphysical to mundane, as well as from innumerable open and horizontal fields where mixtures, ruptures, findings, losses and transformations can happen.”[6] Da Silva Paiva also mentions an article published in Folha da Manhã newspaper in which Lina Bo Bardi discussed Bill’s exhibition in relation to the work of Cássio M’Boy, whose paintings portray legends and myths from rural Brazilian folklore: “the popular sensibility of folklore is purposely placed next to Swiss high-tech.”[7] 

Bill’s retrospective at MASP featured the sculpture Tripartite Unity (1948/9), which a few months before had won the acquisition prize at the inaugural Bienal de São Paulo—an exhibition marked by a predominance of, if not preference for, abstract art; a tendency contemporary art in Brazil developed from that point forward. The prize, formulated by the two institutions which were managed by an only recently industrialized bourgeoisie, hailed the sculpture as an icon of the “transformation of national artistic culture,”[8] as well as its internationalization.

Tripartite Unity is made of sheets of twisted and interlaced steel shaped into a Möbius strip—a topological space obtained by joining two ends of a flat band twisted 180 degrees, resulting in a surface with a single, continuous, convergent face. Bill was one of the first artists to explore the Möbius strip. In the 1930s, he created the Endless Ribbon sculpture series—essentially Möbius strips produced in granite or metal, one of which was shown at the exhibition at MASP in 1951.[9] Although he has ultimately gone down in history as an artist who sought to visually represent the new physics of the early twentieth century, he was unaware that this figure had been described and explored seventy years before by German astronomer and mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius. Even after the disappointing realization came that he had not invented the strip, Bill continued working with it as a sculptural object representing the infinite and the interconnectedness of opposites.[10] 

The recurrent use of the Möbius strip in the practice of Brazilian artists in the decades following Max Bill’s exhibitions and visits to Brazil[11] suggests that, alongside introducing constructivism’s rational ideas, the Swiss artist also opened pathways for the emergence of a more phenomenological and relational version of his aesthetico-social proposition. The formation of the movimento concretista in Rio de Janeiro around the Grupo Frente (1954–1956), led by artist and professor Ivan Serpa (who was also given an award at the first Bienal de São Paulo), included artists who did not necessarily practice geometric abstraction—as was the case with Elisa Martins da Silveira, whose paintings were at the time classified as “naïve.” This was also the case with the artists/patients of the studio formed by Nise da Silveira at the psychiatric hospital Centro Psiquiátrico Nacional Pedro II (also known as Engenho de Dentro (Ingenuity Inside), due to its situation within the hospital).[12] Art historian Adele Nelson reminds us that “Serpa had a reputation as both an emergent abstract artist and an art teacher for children,” so he would have also shared the understanding that art and creativity should not be regarded as the exclusive province of artists.[13] This unorthodox characteristic of the Rio de Janeiro group, coupled with the interest in subjectivity and concern for the figure of the other, led it to a greater freedom in relation to Bill’s ideas and, consequently, to the formation of the neoconcreto group (1959), where artists like Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape bestowed a new direction and meaning to its premises.

In their work the two Lygias referred to the Möbius strip to approach the continuous relationships between inside and outside. Clark produced a series of artworks involving the strip, such as Caminhando (Walking, 1963), O dentro é o fora (The Inside is the Outside, 1963), Obra mole (Soft Work, 1964) and Diálogo de mãos (Dialogue of Hands, 1966), the latter in collaboration with Hélio Oiticica. Philosopher and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik has stated that Caminhando marked a turning point in Clark’s practice, insofar as this work functioned as a proposition that needed to be experienced through direct action (in this case, the cutting of the strip with a scissors). “If I use the Möbius strip for this experience,” Clark wrote in a text on Caminhando, “it is because it breaks our spatial habits: right-left, obverse-reverse, etc. It makes us live the experience of a limitless time and a continuous space.”[14] 

Rolnik uses Caminhando to argue that subjectivity consists not only of the subject (the familiar) but also constitutes a zone where we are also affected by others (the stranger). Destabilized by the paradoxical experience between the familiar and the strange, subjectivity registers the tension between the two in the effort to create a balance (homeostasis). In this unstable state, different “politics of desire” are enacted: on the one hand, a reactive movement (conserving existing modes of belief) and, on the other, active, flexible forces oriented towards the potential of life and alternative modes of existence, as well as towards the production of thought as such and possible alternatives to modern/Occidental/colonial modes of thinking and being.[15] 

Comparing Lygia Clark’s propositions with the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, who concurrently was using the Möbius strip in his seminars, writer and psychoanalyst Tania Rivera emphasizes how both Clark and Lacan were engaged in subverting the representational universe, turning the “imaginary inside out.” Rivera also sees echoes of the strip in Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés,[16] stating that when worn by performers, “the action, the participation, far from being mere modalities of the work’s reception, are the results of the complex operation that we can call the subversion of the subject: the activation of the one’s division in relation to oneself, which corresponds to an opening to the other.”[17] More than simply integrating the “spectator,” the work displays a concomitant desire to dilute the artist’s very subjectivity, undoing the separation between artist and non-artist, work and object.


Uneasiness is Ambiguous

In the 1950s, the other Lygia—Lygia Pape—produced a series of abstract-geometric woodcuts in which she utilized the wood’s grain and texture as preexisting graphic elements. In her prints, including those of the Tecelares (Weavers) series, Pape sought to organically integrate positive and negative, effecting a balance where black and white possess equal degrees of expressivity. Perhaps the tension between darkness and lightness, considered primarily as opposites, was already involved here, leading Pape to also become interested in the Möbius strip. In 1975, she wrote:



My work is developed within what I call Poetic Space. Structurally, it is based on the mathematical principle of the “Möbius strip” and it slides on any language or ideological space that interests me. … Poetic Space is a dynamic, yet ambiguous, continuum supported on the SIGN and should also set off a process of a continuum in the interior of people—a permanent inside outside, without a privileged side. Inner and outer space mingling and feeding off one another. The “Möbius strip” is a project for objective and subjective structures.[18]



The above passage is taken from her introduction to descriptions of some of her projects: Eat me = A gula ou a luxúria? (Eat me = Gluttony or Lust?), where she dealt with patriarchal relations in poetic and institutional space, as well as Espaço natural e espaço cultural (Natural Space and Cultural Space)—work undertaken in collaboration with students “without an artistic background,” and therefore “without a privileged position.” In her description Pape also refers to the ideas of “topological space” or “counter-readings” concluding: “the approach is ambiguous. Uneasiness is ambiguous.”

Concurrent with her artistic projects, beginning in the early 1960s Pape also worked with design and film. She was close to the Cinema Novo movement, producing lettering and posters for films by Glauber Rocha, Paulo Gil Soares, Nelson Pereira do Santos and Cacá Diegues. These graphic works also utilized what she had learned from Bauhaus visual language to treat themes related to Brazilian reality.[19] 

Perhaps it was this contact with Cinema Novo that enlarged her interest in popular traditions and indigenous cultural expression. Besides making her own films dealing with traditional cultures (such as A mão do povo (The Hand of the People, 1974) and Our Parents (1975)), in collaboration with art critic Mário Pedrosa she conceived the exhibition Alegria de viver, alegria de criar (Joy of Living, Joy of Creating, 1978), where the audience “would see the Brazilian Indian from the aesthetic rather than anthropological or ethnological point of view, showing the Indian as a created being, a producer of beauty.”[20] In 1980, Pape also defended her MA thesis in philosophy, Catiti Catiti na terra dos brasis, at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Here she sought to expose the crisis of contemporary art and the individual professional artist while also addressing the need for genuine, popular and collective creative actions.

An abiding concern for the popular and marginal is perceptible in the work of a generation that included, among many others, the artist Hélio Oiticica, designer Rogério Duarte, theater director José Celso Martinez Corrêa, and the architect Lina Bo Bardi. In their own way each championed (sometimes collaboratively or within Tropicália movement), the unleashing of the creative artistic act—the desire to encounter the other; the attempt to conjugate inner with outer. One prime example of this motivation is Lina Bo Bardi’s design for the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (opened in 1968), in which a tension is clearly evident between the modern and the popular, between spaces reserved for art and extra-artistic space. Through the use of glass and by designing areas of the building open to the city, Bo Bardi encouraged museum visitors to actively inhabit its premises—twisting the relationship between the space inside and outside the museum. On the floor reserved for the display of the collection, for instance, Lina created devices made of glass which allowed visitors to view artworks from both the front and back, thus breaking away from both spatial and art historical notions of temporal progression and linearity. Naming this device an “easel,” Bo Bardi suggested that artworks be presented as trabalhos,[21] objects involving effort and creation rather than luxury goods to be admired by those few possessing “cultural privilege.” Seeking to distance the institution from the European colonial museological tradition, she wrote that “the Museu de Arte de São Paulo is popular.”[22] 

On the occasion of the inauguration of MASP’s building, Lina also curated the exhibition A mão do povo brasileiro (The Hand of the Brazilian People) featuring about one thousand objects of so-called Brazilian popular culture, mostly found at street markets, rural centers and communities in different cities of Brazil’s northeast. In Bo Bardi’s view, this popular culture, in which the hand of the people was at work, should provide the basis for Brazilian industrial design. The show at MASP was an unfolding of her previous projects, such as the 1963 exhibition Civilização do Nordeste (Civilization of the Northeast) at the Museu de Arte da Bahia, where she conceived a center to document popular art, as well as a school that would bring together designers and masters of various local handicraft traditions.[23] 

Revisiting A mão do povo brasileiro, historian Durval Muniz de Albuquerque Junior wrote of the cultural agents of the time this way:



“Coming from the people or not, the subject of national-popular action should approach forms of life, understand customs and values, valorize popular cultural repertoires and gestures, seeking to displace them from the place of naturalization and alienation where they were found, establishing a critical and creative relationship with the forms and materials of popular expression, aiming through their use to return them transformed into mediums for rationalizing the world and raising awareness about it, as well as (suggesting) concrete possibilities of changes in the life of their agents.”[24]



Still, incipient debates have begun to question the legitimacy of some of these “national-popular actions,” subsequently commodified and integrated into the great international art canons of the elites. Contemporary critics also point out that much of Brazilian modernist art neglected the struggles of identity groups on whose behalf they were interested and inspired, failing to treat them as protagonists in their historical becoming.[25] Conversely, institutions currently continue to produce and disseminate narratives about the relevance, for example, of Tarsila do Amaral and Lygia Pape while failing to emphasize or evince care for voices from peripheral communities or threatened traditional peoples in the process of disappearing. It is possible to state that although much was produced about “the people,” this production continued to be largely irrelevant to the people.[26] 

A response to this criticism regarding the cultural logic of appropriating traditions can be found in another text by Suely Rolnik, describing the “mode of anthropophagical subjectivization”[27] known as anthropophagy. This term was first coined to describe a ritual practiced by certain indigenous groups involving the consumption of portions of their human enemies’ bodies in the belief that they would then acquire their qualities, knowledge or power. In the late 1920s, the anthropophagic thought was appropriated by the cultural elite of Brazil’s southeast, assuming a deliberate stance in relation to European culture (an external other) and, simultaneously, the diversity of the culture existing inside Brazil’s national territory. With this insight, members of the movimento antropofágico and its successors, such as the tropicalistas, demonstrated an acute awareness of contemporaneous discussions about alterity.

It is this juxtaposition of officially separate worlds—a juxtaposition which in principle does not adhere to any center, improvising a language based on a “universe of alien references”[28] in a process of continuous creation— to which Rolnik refers through the term “mode of anthropophagical subjectivization.” Depending on the degree of openness to alterity—of “perceiving and wanting the singularity of the other”—we can speak of “high” or “low” anthropophagies. High anthropophagy, as practiced by indigenous peoples, does not betray any shame or fear of contamination. In its most active manifestation it produces in the body a vibration and a happiness that perhaps corresponds to what Pape and Pedrosa called, when referring to indigenous cultural production, the “joy of living, joy of creating” and which in her propositions Clark called the “the singular state of art without art.”[29] Low anthropophagy, on the other hand, is marked by a reactive facet, where narcissistic criteria prevail over ethics. This latter type involves a perverse instrumentalization of the other, serving the egotistical interests of those who incorporates him. Rolnik concludes that one has a duty to combat low anthropophagy and affirm the anthropophagic mode of subjectivization in its ethical dimension.

In the work of Lygia Clark we also find an image for this ethical dimension. In the action proposed in Caminhando, where she made a cut along the length of a Möbius strip, Clark, unlike in the exercise of cutting proposed by Lacan in his seminars, postpones the breaking of the strip, seeking to make it progressively longer and narrower each time the scissors completed its circuit round the strip. It is an exercise for creating tension with the other, referring implicitly to preserving life. It is an art in which the straight line that divides, distinguishes, distances and defines has been exchanged for an organic line that joins and multiplies. This was the goal of many of the younger generation of Brazilian artists who sought to detach themselves from the formal and cultural impositions implicit in Max Bill’s Tripartite Unity. However, their pursuit of more active, integrative artistic propositions could not be a matter of denouncing Bill, or any other foreign influence for that matter, through anthropophagic digestion. After all, as we have seen, this would reproduce the same reactive movement[30] embodied in the white and bourgeois Brazilian art field. On the Möbius’s strip, inside and outside are ultimately both one side.





  1. ^ Regarding the controversy unleashed by Max Bill’s criticism of Brazilian architecture, see: Aleca Le Blanc: “Palmeiras and Pilotis,” in: Third Text, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2012, pp. 103–116; and Ana Luiza de Souza Nobre: “Fios cortantes: Projeto e produto, arquitetura e design no Rio de Janeiro (1950–70),” PhD thesis, Postgraduate Program in Social History of Culture, 2008.
  2. ^ For more about the history of the IAC, the context of its creation and its pedagogical proposals, see Ethel Leon, “The Instituto de Arte Contemporânea: The First Brazilian Design School, 1951–53,” in: Design Issues, Vol. 27, Number 2 Spring 2011, pp. 111–124.
  3. ^ In his introduction to the catalog for the exhibition Tempo dos modernistas on Brazilian art, coincident with an exhibition about the Bauhaus brought through the Goethe-Institut (both held at MASP in 1974), Pietro Maria Bardi writes that Gropius visited Brazil only once, in 1954, to receive an international architecture prize: “about him, the only thing known is a joke he made, raising his right arm when he nearly hit his head on one of the branched columns in the building (one of the pavilions in Ibirapuera Park) …: – Heil Hitler!” Although various retrospectives about the Bauhaus were held in Brazil from 1950 onward, Bill seems to have had more significance for the country’s art history.
  4. ^ Nobre, “Fios cortantes …,” p. 40.
  5. ^ Max Bill, “O pensamento matemático na arte de nosso tempo,” in: Aracy A. Amaral (ed.), Projeto Construtivo na Arte: 1950–1962, Museu de Arte Moderna São Paulo, Pinacoteca do Estado, Rio de Janeiro 1977. Bill’s book was also translated to English as The Mathematical way of Thinking in the Visual Art of Our Time (1949), pp 5–9, in: Michele Emmer (ed.), The Visual Mind: Art and Mathematics, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 1993. The author is unaware whether the translator used an earlier translation.
  6. ^ Rodrigo Otávio da Silva Paiva, Max Bill no Brasil, Verlag 13, Berlin 2011, p. 40.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 40.
  8. ^ Ibid., p. 56.
  9. ^ Concerning other artworks by Bill that used the Möbius strip and his exhibitions in Brazil, see Ronaldo Calixto, “Max Bill e a Unidade Tripartida” (MA thesis), Postgraduate Program in Interunities in Aesthetics and History of Art of Universidade de São Paulo, 2016.
  10. ^ Bill wrote: “Sometime later I was informed that my creation had been known to mathematicians for nearly a century, which I thought I had discovered or invented, was only an artistic interpretation of the so-called Möbius strip, and theoretically identical to it.… I was shocked by the fact I was not the first one to discover this object.” In: Eli Maor, To Infinity and Beyond: A Cultural History of the Infinite, Birkhäuser, Boston 1987, p. 140.
  11. ^ It is important to emphasize here that Mary Viera’s Polivolumes, dynamic sculptures comprised of stacked kinetic strips, preceded Bill’s exhibitions in Brazil. However, Mary Vieira is mostly known to have followed Bill, having been his student in Ulm.
  12. ^ Concrete artist Almir Mavignier was essential in setting up the studio, where he taught from 1946 to 1951. Influenced by Max Bill’s ideas, he moved to Ulm to study at the HfG in 1954. Mavignier stayed in Germany and remained active until his death in 2018. Art historian and critic Mário Pedrosa was another key figure in encouraging the artistic activities of both Ivan Serpa and Nise da Silveira.
  13. ^ See Adele Nelson, “The Bauhaus in Brazil: Pedagogy and Practice,” in: ARTMargins, Vol. 5, Issue 2, June 2016, pp. 27–49.
  14. ^ See Lygia Clark (1964), “Caminhando.” Available at: issuu.com/lygiaclark/docs/1964-caminhando_p (accessed 15 November 2018).
  15. ^ See Suely Rolnik, “The Spheres of Insurrection: Suggestions for Combating the Pimping of Life,” in: e-flux journal #86, November 2017.
  16. ^ The idea for Parangolés were the result of Oititica’s experiences with a samba school in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. These are works made of painted fabric, plastics, canvases, cords and other malleable materials. Also understood as paintings in social space, they were made to be worn or carried in public space, and are thus equally contextual and performative works.
  17. ^ Tania Rivera, O avesso do imaginário:arte contemporânea e psicanálise, Cosac Naif, São Paulo 2013.
  18. ^ See: Lygia Pape (1975), “EAT ME = A GULA OU A LUXÚRIA?.” Available at: www.ppgav.eba.ufrj.br/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ae11_dossie_pape.pdf (accessed 15 November 2018).
  19. ^ For more information on Lygia Pape’s relationship with filmmaking see: Viviane Merline Rodrigues: “Neoconcretismo e design: A programação visual de Lygia Pape para o Cinema Novo, de 1961 e 1967.” MA thesis. Postgraduate Program in Design, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, 2009.
  20. ^ Vanessa Rosa Machado, Lygia Pape: espaços de ruptura, São Paulo, Annablume 2010, p. 34.
  21. ^ In Portuguese, the term obra normally corresponds with the English word “artwork” or “work.” For its part, trabalho can also be used in this sense, but carries a more direct relation to the other sense of “work” as labor and toil. (translator’s note)
  22. ^ Lina Bo Bardi, “Explicações sobre o museu de arte,” O Estado de S. Paulo (São Paulo), 5 April 1970. Reproduced in Concreto e cristal: MASP nos cavaletes de Lina Bo Bardi (Concrete and Crystal: MASP’s collection on Lina Bo Bardi’s easels), Adriano Pedrosa and Luiza Proença (eds.), pp. 135–136.
  23. ^ Lina Bo Bardi founded and directed the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia from 1959 onward and left her position there on the occasion of the coup d’état in 1964. Her museum proposal with a pedagogical and popular approach led filmmaker Glauber Rocha to state that, “The MAMB is not a Museum: it is a School in Movement,” in: Jornal da Bahia, September 21, 1960.
  24. ^ Durval Muniz de Alburquerque Junior, Um povo sem cabeça: soltando arte pelas mãos: anotações históricas acerca de A mão do povo brasileiro. Em A mão do povo brasileiro 1969/2016 (catalog), MASP, São Paulo 2016.
  25. ^ For example, see Sara Roffino, “Is Brazil’s Most Famous Art Movement Built on Racial Inequality? A New Generation Argues Yes,” artnet News, March 13, 2018. news.artnet.com/art-world/tarsila-part-ii-1238654 (accessed 15 November 2018).
  26. ^ This assertion is inspired by the concern that Cacá Diegues shared with his filmmaking colleagues, documented in the film Cinema Novo, by Eryk Rocha, 2016.
  27. ^ Suely Rolnik, “Subjetividade antropofágica/ Anthropophagic Subjectivity,” pp. 128–147, in: Herkenhoff, Paulo, and Pedrosa, Adriano (eds.), Arte contemporânea brasileira: um e/entre outro/s. XXIV Bienal de São Paulo, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo 1998.
  28. ^ Rolnik, “Subjetividade antropofágica ...”, p. 140.
  29. ^ Cited in Lygia Clark (1965), “A propósito da magia do objeto,” in: Lygia Clark, Col. Arte Brasileira Contemporânea, Funarte, Rio de Janeiro 1980, p. 28.
  30. ^ Da Silva Paiva called it “xenophobic simulations”. Da Silva Paiva, Max Bill no Brasil, p. 55.

Lygia Clark, Caminhando, The World of Lygia Clark.

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