LONDON — IN the 1920s and '30s, Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral lived and worked in Paris. A critic has observed that she created quite a spectacle when she returned for visits to her wealthy father's Sao Paulo ranch - ``with her Poiret dresses, to teach the people how to be Brazilian.'' The strangely distorted figures she painted, which owe something to Picasso's most surreal images and to Leger, were exhibited in Paris and Moscow a couple of decades before they received a major showing in Sao Paulo.
Now they are part of a gigantic and bewildering exhibition, ``Art in Latin America,'' at London's Hayward Gallery.It features 421 works by 170 artists from many Latin American countries. The paintings span the centuries from the end of the colonial period up to the present. After closing here Aug. 6, the exhibition moves to Stockholm (September to November) and finally Madrid (December to March, 1990).
Amaral was part of a rich elite that could afford to be drawn to the world's artistic center - which was definitely not Sao Paulo. Paris was the art world. In fact, it is hard to find a single artist in this show, however concerned with the fight for national artistic or political identity in his or her own country, who didn't have direct contact with, or at least a crucial awareness of, art in Paris or New York.
Although I'm not sure , that this sort of vast, multiple presentation is the best way of catching the public's imagination, its interest lies in what it has to tell about the way the European or US influence was put to use, as the stronger artists adapted these influences to their own culturally diverse Latin American needs.
From the start, the academic easel painting of Europe was what had been taught in Latin America, while native, so-called ``Indian'' art used no such materials as oil paint, brushes, and canvas.
Much of the most individual art made in these countries over the last 200 years strikes a balance between European modes and an attempt to revive or just plain invent some kind of indigenous vision that acknowledges the pre-Columbian past. Even the most recent works displayed here are encounters of this sort.
For example, Antonio Berni's ``The World Promised to Juanito Laguna'' - a collage-assemblage work about dispossession and urban poverty - is a conscious criticism of the super-technology of developed countries vis-`a-vis the backwardness of developing countries. However, Berni's art, with all its ephemeral found materials, has unmistakable ties with assemblage art produced in both Europe and the United States.
Amaral, though painting half a century earlier, was one of the ``modernistas.'' To what extent her vision can be called Brazilian is a difficult question. In the '30s she visited Moscow and turned to a Social-Realist style. In this complex exhibition, her work appears in the 13th section, headed ``Modernism and the Search for Roots.'' The conflict or inherent paradox suggested by this section title and by Amaral's not-at-all atypical need to develop her art away from home was hardly confined to the 1920s. It is the duality associated with all the periods of art represented here.
The exhibition's organizers admit that there is no attempt at a complete survey. Their aim was to create more of ``a temporary museum'' of Latin American Art, inevitably selective and partial. All the same, this ambitious exploit amounts to a very good introduction of its subject to what is unquestionably an ignorant European audience. And it is supported by a book-catalog which discusses at length each section and fills in a number of the gaps where loans were evidently unavailable.
Some Latin artists are familiar here, of course - Colombian artist Fernando Botero, Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, Argentinian-born sculptor and painter Lucio Fontana. Then there are the giant figures of the Mexican Mural Movement - Diego Rivera, Jos'e Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros - plus the still stimulating Venezuelan kinetic artists of the '60s, such as Jes'us Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, who worked in Paris and were given notable exhibitions in London. But, apart from these, very little Latin American art can be said to have dented European public awareness.
A concentration on fewer artists might well have provided, not only a more intense feel for their individual visions, but also a deeper insight into the cultural identity they sought to express.
Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, is a case in point. Her sophisticated-na"ive investigations of herself (much of her work is self-portraiture, but in a very original sense) are given quite a bit of space. But more would have told more.
Kahlo was taken up by Andr'e Breton and the Surrealists as a kind of natural painter of the dream-subconscious. But she was also greatly concerned with her nationality, roots, family tree, relationships. Like so many of the others, she was perfectly aware of European and US art, but her sense of Mestizo culture is the deeper part of her work.
The section she comes under is called ``Private Worlds and Public Myths.'' She is revealingly and, in contrast with her husband's murals, very perceptively an artist of the first rather than second part of that heading. And it is this very private stance of her paintings which gives the viewer as strong a feeling of national character as any in the exhibition.