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date: 23 April 2017

The Politics of Cultural Production during the Vargas Era, 1930–1945

Summary and Keywords

Short and stout in physical stature, Brazilian statesman Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1882–1954) still stands as an outsize figure in modern Latin American history. The politician’s long political career began in the 1910s and spanned terms as state deputy, federal minister, state governor, chief of state four times over, and federal senator. Vargas spent nearly two decades in the presidential palace, the longest of any figure during the republican period. By the time his second democratically elected presidential term (and his life) ended on August 24, 1954, Vargas had been dragged down by personnel scandals, factionalism, and economic destabilization. He likened the political climate of the final months in office to a “sea of mud.” Yet in his sudden death the president was able to free himself from the muck. Among adherents of the Brazilian Labor Party and key sectors of the working poor, “Getúlio” was elevated to the status of civic sainthood. Even after military rule dismantled the Brazilian Labor Party and banished Vargas’s political heirs to exile, the Vargas state managed to endure. Forty years after Getúlio’s death-by-suicide, president-elect Fernando Henrique Cardoso imagined the state interventionism of the Vargas years to be finally over. In reality, Vargas and his era still survive in the enduring Brazilian vocation for statism. Reminders of Vargas and his era are found in the innumerable streets, plazas, and commemorative plaques that bear the name of a politician of enigmatic charms and confounding contradictions.

This complex, resilient legacy draws in part from the bold accomplishments and ambiguous outcomes of the robust cultural policies of Vargas’s successive terms as chief of the provisional government (1930–1934), president (1934–1937), and president-dictator (1937–1945). Federal cultural policies during these fifteen years collectively known as the “First Vargas Regime” were innovative and far-reaching. Reversing decades of elite reverence for imported standards of civilization, official culture after 1930 was unapologetically and self-consciously nationalist. Policymakers, culture critics, entertainment entrepreneurs, and key figures in the arts and letters associated with the first Vargas regime self-presented as advocates for the cultural needs, aptitudes, and aspirations of the Brazilian povo (people). The central state, correspondingly, played a principal role in consolidating a canon of artistic and architectural treasures that endure in global imaginaries of Brazil and Brazilianness.

Paradoxically, the democratizing impulses of cultural management during the first Vargas regime drew their legitimacy from state authoritarianism and anti-popular politics. Most notably during the Estado Novo dictatorship (November 10, 1937–October 29, 1945), cultural policy and programming worked in tandem with censorship and manufactured paranoia. State agents orchestrated acts of violence against ideas, symbols, and creative expressions branded inimical to national interests. “Subversive” books were burned; dissidents confronted silencing. Some authors went into exile and novelist Graciliano Ramos (1892–1953) spent ten miserable months on an island penal colony for unproven charges of participation in a Communist insurrection. The oppositionist newspaper O Estado de São Paulo was outright expropriated by the state. Although the Vargas era included the official elevation of Carnaval, samba, and capoeira as authentically national cultural idioms, Afro-Brazilian popular culture remained under the watchful eyes of local police. Numerous cultural expressions vaunted as organically democratic were, in fact, shaped by regime demagoguery, symbolic violence, and, ironically, internationalism. The bold, sometimes mystifying contours of state- and culture-making in Brazil during Vargas’s first regime are explored here.

Keywords: Brazil, cultural policy, Estado Novo, first Vargas regime, Getúlio Vargas, Gustavo Capanema, modernism, Vargas era, cultural heritage

Cultural Politics, 1930–1934

Son of a wealthy landowning family from southern Brazil who rose through the regional machine politics of the First Republic (1889–1930), Rio Grande do Sul state governor Getúlio Vargas garnered mere tepid support from cultural elites when he launched a frustrated presidential bid in 1930. The intelligentsia that controlled the cultural establishment in Rio de Janeiro maintained its studied distance from a campaign that attempted to channel various reformist projects circulating in Brazil and abroad. Vargas’s candidacy won little traction with the multiform vanguardist movements that had developed in several urban centers, notably São Paulo, since the early 1920s. In the wake of a brief civil war that upended the 1930 electoral returns and delivered Vargas to the presidential palace under a state of emergency, the fields of national culture and national politics remained apart. The “revolutionary” coalition that surrounded Vargas prioritized economic stabilization, labor reform, and interventions in literacy, nutrition, and health. The market forces of global economic crisis, rather than explicit policy, redirected the cultures of consumption inward. Urban media markets carried on largely unfazed by regime change.

Nonetheless, the Revolution of 1930 opened possibilities to reconfigure the state’s role in the arts and entertainment, mass communication, and civic life. Nationalists allied with the Provisional Government urged the central government to assert the supremacy of a unified Brazilian nation over fractious regional cultures and unassimilated ethnic enclaves. Sanitarians and eugenicists appealed for heightened federal powers to fortify the health of the national body through scientific child-rearing, immigration controls, and physical education. Catholic conservatives called for the moralization of the public square. Policing agents stepped up the regulation and censorship of public entertainment and commercial media. As the new regime selectively assimilated preexisting demands to recognize organized workers and the needs of the urban labor, a new generation of state-level and municipal leaders embraced a politics of negotiated governance that expanded possibilities for approximating state authority and popular culture. These new alliances bore especially fruitful developments in Carnaval culture in Rio and in association sports.

Francisco Campos (1891–1968) was a leader among intellectuals drawn to the possibilities of an activist federal government committed to national renewal. A jurist and state official from the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, Campos was among several thinkers to take inspiration from the organizational discipline and symbolic languages of anti-liberal nationalist movements that grew strong in the wake of global crisis. Serving as the first federal minister of education and public health, a position created shortly after Vargas took the presidential palace, Campos promoted an interventionist federal role in formal education, sanitation, and healthcare.

Campos’s arrival in Rio also brought changes to the cultural arena. Rodrigo Melo Franco de Andrade (1898–1969), the minister’s chief of staff and future leader of the federal cultural heritage agency, invited the rising architect Lucio Costa (1902–1988) to lead the reorganization of arts education at the National School of Fine Arts, a venerable institution established in the 1820s. One of the professors that Costa contracted to teach the new curriculum, modernist sculptor Celso Antônio (1896–1984), characterized the changes as the vanguard’s approximation with the revolutionary movement and its aspirations for national renewal. Such a characterization provoked bitter rebuke in certain art circles, especially from defenders of the established order in the national art academy. Art historian and journalist José Mariano (1881–1946), former director of the school and a passionate proponent of colonial revivalism, was especially vocal in denouncing the purported threats of Jews and communists hidden in the “new architecture” that inspired Costa.

Amid heated debate about the quality of works selected for the national salon of 1931, including paintings executed by figures previously denied access to the national exhibition, Costa was forced to step down. A student strike temporarily closed the national arts school. The lingering climate of aesthetic and personal hostilities set the broad terms of a forthcoming politics of culture contested within and around federal institutions. Neither Costa nor his former mentor Mariano commanded a unified group organized around a single aesthetic or political manifesto. Yet the two became the figurative leaders of oppositional camps—modernist and anti-modernist—that shaped future directions in national culture and in federal cultural policy.

Culture under Capanema

The controversies at the fine arts school foreshadowed the contestation of culture during the eleven-year ministerial tenure of Gustavo Capanema (1900–1985), another education reformer who built within the education and health ministry the institutional and bureaucratic supports for a direct, sustained federal role in the patronage, regulation, advocacy, and censorship of the arts, mass media, cultural heritage, and civic culture. Capanema assumed the top post at the ministry shortly after a new democratic constitution took effect in July 1934. Like his predecessors Campos and Washington Pires, Capanema had been seasoned in education reform and youth mobilization in Minas Gerais, their shared home state. Capanema was also familiar with key figures of a regional vanguard as well as leaders of the Catholic revivalist movement in the mineiro capital, Belo Horizonte. Although Capanema was somewhat marginal to the original “revolutionary” coalition that brought Vargas to power, and Capanema did not follow the Comtean positivism that animated educational reform in Rio Grande do Sul, he nonetheless shared a vision of state-led improvements to nation’s spiritual, physical, and intellectual needs. The federal ministry of education and public health was to be the vehicle for such interventions.

In an unfinished memo drafted in 1935, Capanema outlined the ministry’s mandate, like the mandate of the government as a whole, to be bound up in an appeal to national culture. Under Capanema, the defense of cultura nacional came to be a capacious justification for all state action. The minister even considered renaming the education and public health ministry as the Ministry of National Culture, to properly align the federal bureaucratic nomenclature with the idea of a complete Brazil. Although the idea never came to be, much of the administrative dynamism—and its controversies—associated with the first Vargas regime are to be credited to Capanema, who used his post to advance a direct federal presence in Brazilian society.

Throughout the first regime, Vargas strategically enacted the state’s mission in cultura nacional. In July 1933, he signed legislation to designate Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, as a national monument. Five years later, the president-dictator paid a two-day visit to the historic town’s Baroque splendors. During the Estado Novo, Vargas spoke at the ceremonial inauguration of monuments to heroes of the Paraguayan War and the Proclamation of the Republic, and he carefully consolidated an official rapprochement between Empire and Republic that began in the 1920s. The president-dictator toured federal museums in Rio and Petrópolis; he posed for portraits and busts. He faithfully performed the duties of chief of state at civic ceremonies that bordered on a ritualized personality cult. Vargas enjoyed popularity among lyricists and authors of chapbooks (literatura de cordel). Vargas’s own writings were published by José Olympio, a prominent Carioca editorial house whose list included the great figures of twentieth-century Brazilian literature and social thought. The height of the president’s career as a culture producer came in 1943, with admission to the venerable Brazilian Academy of Letters. Although Vargas swore off any intention to be a writer or artist, he stated to the other members of the Academy that “to my thinking, intellectual activity is a duty of a political life; it commands the necessity to communicate to the public with precision and clarity, to explain ideas and problems of government. It forces one to listen and to understand.”1

Oswaldo Teixeira (1905–1974), a painter who directed the National Museum of Fine Arts (est. 1937), once acclaimed Vargas to be peer of the Italian Renaissance arts patron Cosimo de Medici. Ironically enough, the historical archives register few instances in which Vargas took a direct role in cultural policymaking. Notwithstanding the images of Vargas dressed in the uniform of the imortal of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, there is a curious quality of dispassion in photos of the president-dictator standing with figures from the arts. In a 1983 oral history, writer Carlos Drummond de Andrade stated bluntly: “Vargas could not care less [for cultural policy] … Capanema’s accomplishments, which today are credited to Getúlio, were merely tolerated by the President … His great concern was signing papers and making politics.”2 The quote from Capanema’s former chief of staff signals that in the eyes of some, cultura nacional under Vargas could be little more than crass politics.

The education minister, on the other hand, was heavily invested in the development of a comprehensive approach to cultural policymaking, patronage, and programming. Such investment drew Capanema close to the key creative figures of the era. As the de facto minister of culture, Capanema looked widely for models of official cultural policymaking. Early in his tenure, he commissioned studies on educational film and radio in Europe and the United States, to learn of state policy toward mass communication in both anti-liberal and liberal-democratic regimes. (The study may have animated by a desire to reinstitute the education ministry’s short-lived powers to censor commercial motion pictures.) In 1936, he called upon poet Mário de Andrade (1893–1945) to develop the outlines of a comprehensive law on national cultural heritage. (The proposal would later be stripped of its anthropological principles, leaving intact a systematic regulation of cultural artifacts that would now be termed “tangible heritage.”) The minister sought guidance on the acquisition of an international modern art collection to hang in the ministry of education headquarters. Throughout the Estado Novo, he regularly convened work groups to discuss national cultural problems and their technical solutions. Throughout his long ministerial tenure (July 23, 1934–October 30, 1945), Capanema nurtured an ideological and aesthetic heterogeneity among advisers, clients, and beneficiaries of state largesse. Nonetheless, the deep involvement in the cultural politics of the era was predicated upon an intimacy with the authoritarian underpinnings of the first Vargas regime, notably the Estado Novo dictatorship.

The ambitious project to erect the national headquarters for the ministry of education and health was emblematic of the minister’s tactical use of executive powers to shape the cultural field. The design competition also illustrated how divergent projects for a national cultural style functioned in a political context of rising authoritarianism, nationalism, and the embrace of the avant-garde, notably in Rio de Janeiro. Now known as the Palácio Gustavo Capanema, the sixteen-story tower covered in glass curtain walls and sun-shading louvers marked the confluence of domestic and international currents in modernist art, architecture, and urbanism executed in a tropical setting. The protections extended by Capanema during the juried competition (concurso) of 1935 awarded the project to a collaboration between Brazilian architects Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer (1907–2012) and the Swiss-French urbanist Le Corbusier (1887–1965). Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari (1903–1962), landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994), and sculptor Bruno Giorgi (1905–1993), among other figures, also contributed. When Capanema used executive authority to award the project to the modernists, he marginalized competing currents in Brazilian architecture, especially neocolonialism and eclecticism, whose practitioners also sought favor in the design of public buildings. The minister’s choice bolstered the reputation of figures subsequently tapped to bring the ascendant style of tropical modernism to the New York World’s Fair of 1939, where international audiences marveled at the bold lines and calm reflecting pools of the Brazilian pavilion designed by Costa and Niemeyer.

Neither neocolonialism and eclecticism nor other currents outside the Corbusian “new architecture” were unilaterally excluded from state commissions. New headquarters for the labor ministry and treasury as well as temporary structures erected at international fairs in San Francisco and Lisbon exhibited a wide range of architectural and ornamental idioms. The Portinari murals sent to New York City were part of a larger set of artwork of varying schools, styles, and influences still labeled “Brazilian” for international consumption. But there is no doubt that the education ministry headquarters stood as a triumph for the Brazilian variant of the International Style. The triumph would propel Costa and Niemeyer toward the grandest feat of Brazilian urbanism and architectural modernism, the new federal capital city named Brasília. It would also tie Capanema’s principal legacies to the authoritarian first Vargas regime.

Culture and the Vargas State

The ministry of education was the nerve center for a network of newly created or expanded federal agencies and an expanding cadre of civil servants tasked with the administration of the federal presence in the visual and performing arts, literature and publishing, educational cinema and radio, historical preservation, and museums. As the National Library (founded 1810) and National Museum (1818) continued serving the literary and scientific establishments, the 1937 reorganization of the education ministry brought official recognition to the Educational Radio Service, the National Book Institute, the National Institute of Educational Cinema, the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Historical and Artistic Patrimony Service, and the National Theatre Service. The National Council on Culture (created 1938), the National Council on National Symbols (1939), as well as four new federal museums followed. The record of federal expenditures on cultural management is incomplete, but the available data indicates that the federal budget for education and culture grew in excess of 250 percent for the period 1932–1943.

The institutional counterweights to the cultural agencies subordinate to the education ministry were anchored at the Palácio Monroe and the Palácio Tiradentes, downtown Rio structures originally built to house the senate and the chamber of deputies, respectively. After the golpe of 1937 and the shuttering of the national congress, both buildings were repurposed by the federal government’s justice, propaganda, and censorship agencies. Tiradentes was initially taken over by the National Department of Propaganda, an administrative dependency of the justice ministry until 1939, when the autonomous Department of Press and Propaganda (DIP, in the Portuguese acronym) took full possession of the former legislative chamber. From Tiradentes, the DIP and its allied offices in state capitals coordinated the regulation and censorship of the printed press and other mass communication. Alongside justice, the DIP attempted to align the cultural arena with the aims of the Estado Novo dictatorship, through the manufacture of an imagined community of national cultural personalities, symbols, values, and acts that bolstered the legitimacy of the regime and its chief of state.

Concurrently, the DIP produced original materials that influenced the wider, aesthetically heterogeneous cultural field. The agency funded a modest output of original motion pictures and produced a nightly radio program, Hora da Brasil (“The Brazil Hour”) that mixed scripted current-events reporting, cultural programming, and musical performance. Private broadcasters chaffed at the obligation to devote an hour of prime time to government programming; listening audiences were notoriously indifferent. Nonetheless, in bridging popular and official musical styles, the broadcasts influenced the soundscape of a society enthralled by radio broadcasting and recorded commercial music. Moreover, the prestige placed on national music influenced the parameters in which musical performers, impresarios, and fans shaped the private marketplace for genres labeled Brazilian. Similar dynamics were at play in the world of letters. Through in-house publications including Cultura Política (1940–1945) and Atlântico (1942–1945) as well as literary contests and subventions to private publishers, the DIP provided an institutional base for the circulation of a surprising variety of literary forms and sociological ideas. Justifiably hated by individuals opposed to the Vargas dictatorship and likened by U.S. publisher and proto-Brazilianist Samuel Putnam to the propaganda organs of fascist states in Europe, the DIP still influenced the broad, varied landscape of the literary, cinematic, and theatrical arts, advancing a self-consciously national cultural field.

Throughout the Estado Novo regime, the education and justice ministers were often at odds over the scope of their respective mandates. Rivalries and in-fighting hampered the effectiveness of both ministries and their subordinate agencies. Although restrictions on foreign-language educational institutions and newspapers were largely successful in elevating Brazilian Portuguese as the nation’s first language, the influence of each agency diminished outside the national capital. In the breach, private markets in music, publishing, and fine arts operated with limited federal interference. Their limitations notwithstanding, the education and justice ministries as well as the DIP occupied a privileged place to articulate a compelling pageantry of Brazilianness that was national and nationalizing in scope. Examples include the triumphalist DIP newsreel Cine Jornal Brasileiro screened before commercial motion pictures, a handful of historical films produced by the National Institute of Educational Cinema (the most well-known being the 1936 release Descobrimento do Brasil, directed by film pioneer Humberto Mauro), and the “Obra Getuliana” (Getulian work), a monumental illustrated album of the first decade of Vargas rule. The album never made it to print, but the stunning images that survive in archival collections portray a virile, productive, and healthy nation in the throes of orderly modernization. Especially powerful are images of a robust citizenry mobilized in the construction of a nationalist state.

International audiences were enticed to share in the seduction of Brazilianness. With the tacit support of various agencies of the Vargas government, Brazilian performers traveled aboard, especially to the United States, to bolster the image of a modern nation and to sell Brazil-branded products such as coffee. Simultaneously, Broadway producers and Hollywood studios scouted inspiration and talent in the casinos, cabarets, and nightclubs of Rio. With the assistance of Broadway producer Lee Shubert, the irrepressible Carioca entertainer Carmen Miranda (1909–1955) skyrocketed into stardom on the American stage and silver screen. At the height of World War II, the “Brazilian Bombshell” was one of the most successful ambassadors of Brazilian-American fraternal relations, seducing United States audiences with the South American Way. Miranda may have come to be trapped by the stereotypes of sexy and colorful Brazil, but few other figures have ever managed to internationalize such enduring archetypical images of Brazilianness.

A year prior to the release of Miranda’s immortal dance numbers in the 20th Century Fox hit musical The Gang’s All Here (1943), Capanema and his deputies in the national heritage service, alongside DIP tourism director Francisco de Paula Assis Figueiredo, assisted American architect Philip L. Goodwin in organizing Brazil Builds, a well-received exhibition put on by the Museum of Modern Art in early 1943. The highly praised exhibition at MoMA introduced American audiences to five centuries of Brazilian arts, architecture, and culture, placing a heavy emphasis on the technical and artistic achievements of contemporary construction. The exhibition’s detailed photographs and schematic floor plans of the ministry of education headquarters, paired with images of the splendors of the Brazilian Baroque and the drama of massive backlit mango trees, formed integral parts of a successful internationalization of a modern, mysterious, and enthralling Brazil that went alongside the playful caricatures staged by Miranda and Joe “Zé” Carioca, the animated Carioca parrot created by Walt Disney Studios to be the counterpart of Donald’s Duck’s haplessly innocent attempts at Good Neighborliness. Moreover, the images of buildings under scaffolding markedly contrasted a nation under construction with a world in the depths of wartime destruction.

Interagency rivalries notwithstanding, the first Vargas regime tolerated (at the least) and sometimes outright subsidized the work of a number of foreign experts—art historian Robert E. Smith; photographers G. E. Kidder Smith, Genevieve Naylor, Marcel Gautherot, and Eric Joachim Hess; writer Stefan Zweig; social scientists Percy Alvin Martin and Karl Loewenstein; Nelson Rockefeller and the desk officers at the Office of Inter-American Affairs—who helped co-manufacture a polished image of a dynamic and productive South American nation thriving under a progress-minded, future-oriented, Allied leader. A handful of international figures—Putnam and filmmaker Orson Welles—occasionally broke through the veils of local censorship and Good Neighbor niceties to voice criticism of the constraints imposed on creative expression. Anthropologists Melville and Frances Herskovits, Ruth Landes, and Donald Pierson explored a deeply complex world of popular culture, especially Afro-Bahian spiritual practice, that remained under the specter of police harassment. The African American press occasionally picked up on the voices of Afro-Brazilian intellectuals otherwise muffled by the closure of the black press in 1938. Nonetheless, international actors helped consolidate a language of tropical modernism and racial harmony consistent with state ambitions.

Civic Culture and the Cultures of the Everyday

The aforementioned “Obra Getuliana” is one of many registers of state aspirations for a patriotic citizenry, especially youth, engaged in the stagecraft of national cultural renewal. Under provisions of the Constitution of 1937 (largely written by Francisco Campos, who took the post of justice minister in 1937) and at the behest of Catholic leaders, civic and moral education was a bedrock of sanctioned youth culture. The DIP published a handful of original texts for children, simultaneously providing subsidies to private publishers to distribute school textbooks that presented highly favorable images of Vargas and the Estado Novo regime. Representative titles included O Brasil é bom (Brazil is good) of 1938 and Getúlio Vargas para crianças (Getúlio Vargas for children), issued in 1942. Beyond the printed word, the physical conditioning of youth—a mandate of the 1937 constitution—assumed strong paramilitary features as schools became training grounds for a nationalist civic culture that became part of the cultures of the everyday, especially in urban centers, during the first Vargas regime.

The most notorious ritual act of youth mobilization came early in the Estado Novo, on November 27, 1937. In front of an assembly of 3,000 uniformed students from Rio municipal schools carrying small national flags alongside twenty female pupils of the Instituto de Educação, the capital’s premier normal school, Vargas, Campos, and Cardinal Sebastião Leme stood on a makeshift altar erected on the capital city’s Praia do Russell to celebrate a Catholic mass. The Eucharist was followed by the raising of the national flag and placement of the flags of each state of the Brazilian federation into a large urn in which they were burned. Following a rendition of the national anthem, led by composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959), Campos delivered a speech that linked the singularity of the national flag to the sacrifice of soldiers killed two years prior in a failed Communist insurgency. He called upon those assembled and all Brazilians to unite against the threat of internal dissention and discord. Vargas also spoke of the elimination of internal division. (Five days later, he decreed the dissolution of all political parties.) The event concluded with a funerary march to the gravesites of loyalist soldiers killed in the 1935 uprising. The speeches were subsequently rebroadcast by the Educational Radio Service and on privately owned stations.

The Queima das Bandeiras (Burning of the flags) stands as a singular example of the marriage of civic culture and symbolic violence during the Estado Novo. The event has become shorthand for state-sponsored zealotry that hid beneath the mantle of national unity, religious sanctity, and the innocence of youth. Akin to the public torching of nearly 2,000 books authored by Bahian novelists Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rego, and others labeled “propagandists of the red creed” that took place in Salvador da Bahia in December 1937, the events on the Praia do Russell invoke comparisons to the symbolic rituals of Nazi extremism. For its self-evident exceptionalism, the Queima das Bandeiras indelibly marks the Estado Novo as a dictatorship and it marks estadonovista civic culture as totalitarian.

Often overlooked is the event’s relationship to cultural institutions founded before the Estado Novo that survive to the present. After the rituals on Russell beach had concluded, the ashes of the burnt flags were transferred to the National Historical Museum, an institution founded in 1922 to house the artifacts of nationhood. The museum’s original galleries were small and cramped. In the institution’s early years, a bric-a-brac of coins, decorative arts, armaments, and artworks languished in semi-obscurity. Fortunes changed in the early 1930s when founder-director Gustavo Dodt Barroso (1888–1957), an intellectual from the Brazilian northeast deeply implicated in the ascendant proto-fascist Brazilian Integralist Action, initiated a federal heritage crusade. For a short time, Barroso administered the restoration of some of the 18th-century architectural treasures in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais. Authority over restoration activities throughout the Brazilian federation was later transferred to the National Historical and Artistic Patrimony Service (SPHAN), established in early 1937 based upon plans drawn up by the “pope” of Brazilian modernism, Mário de Andrade. Despite the loss of direct oversight of the innovative practice of federally directed historical preservation, Barroso remained committed to expanding the national history museum’s stake in the Brazilian cultural imaginary. Techniques and tactics varied, but the director made deft use of a modest acquisitions budget, transfers from other state institutions, and donations from a handful of private individuals, including the Guinle industrialists of Rio and the widow of nineteenth-century statesman Miguel Calmon du Pin e Almeida, who embraced the relatively new practice of civic philanthropy and private patronage of federal cultural institutions. The museum concurrently inaugurated the field of museum studies in Brazil, publishing a research journal and creating a specialized course in conservation. Finally, the museum became the recipient of periodic donations from Vargas, who turned to the museum as a way to incorporate the artifice of statecraft into museum artifacts displayed in an institution that the director proudly labeled the Casa do Brasil.

The National Historical Museum was a beneficiary (a catalyst, according to Barroso) of innovations in everyday cultural habits that accompanied the expansion of a network of federal museums and federally designated historical landmarks. Between 1930 and 1945, annual visitation at the National Historical Museum increased roughly fourfold, to 24,000. Visitors tended to self-present as elites, yet the very practice of museum-going helped define the evolving cultural habits of an emerging urban middle class that consciously allied itself with federal cultural institutions. The museum helped differentiate the middle sectors from true elites, whose tastes remained highly Europeanized, as well as from the urban poor who by practice and prejudice were excluded from the national museum network. With a dearth of private museums prior to the late 1940s, federal museums also helped tie the urban middle classes to the notion that the Vargas state was a guardian of national cultural heritage.

A representative measure of rising interest in heritage that developed outside Rio was the 22,000 who visited the Museu Imperial, a new federal museum installed in the former summer palace of the Bragança monarchy in Petrópolis that opened in 1943. The trappings of monarchy were especially attractive to a general public who paved its own, popular pathways to the reconciliation of monarchy and republic that Vargas enacted on numerous occasions, including the ceremonial reburial of the remains of the emperor Dom Pedro II and empress Teresa Cristina in the São Pedro de Alcântara Cathedral in Petrópolis. The number of annual visitors to the Imperial Museum quadrupled by 1946, with rapidly rising numbers of children and group admissions. Shortly after the end of the Estado Novo, registered visitation at the Imperial Museum exceeded the combined visitation to all other federal historical museums. As the majority of these museum-goers traveled to Petrópolis (located in the mountains above the federal capital) from other cities, the visitation figures point to a complementary spread in automobile tourism—itself made possible by the gradual expansion of roadways between urban centers and sites of historical interest. The popularization of national heritage led some to Ouro Preto and Sabará, Minas Gerais, sites of the Museu da Inconfidência (f. 1938) and the Museu do Ouro (f. 1945), respectively. Even São Miguel das Missões, an isolated hamlet located in a remote corner of Rio Grande do Sul near the Brazil-Argentina border, experienced the early impulses of cultural tourism and heritage travel following the partial restoration of a Jesuit-Guaraní mission and the construction of the Museu das Missões (f. 1940), a small museum that displayed architectural artifacts, archeological remains, and sacred art from the colonial period.

As this small network of federal museums grew, alongside a more geographically disbursed map of national heritage sites registered in the heritage service’s Livros do Tombo, Brazilians came to share with a small cadre of museum professionals a genuine interest in the personages and curiosities of a national past protected by a state bureaucracy that wove the mystical appeals of ancestors with an incipient science and laws of heritage protocols. Such arrangements were important features of knowledge production in an era prior to the rapid expansion of university-level studies of history, archeology, and conservation. They helped solidify federal officials as keepers of the national cultural heritage, marginalizing the amateur historians, journalists, and preservationists who formerly dominated the field. Finally, the federal heritage crusade shaped private activities in art collecting, decorative arts, and architectural embellishments, lending the imprimatur of heritage designations to a wide variety of aesthetic, industrial, and technical solutions to the challenges and possibilities of modern living, especially rapid urbanization.

The cult of the past was one of the most successful legacies of Vargas-era cultural policy, yet backlashes were not unknown. Commercial property owners resisted restrictions placed on the modification and functional usage of landmarked buildings. Small-business owners disliked restrictions on signage in historic districts. Impoverished vicars were frustrated to learn that landmarking came with few resources to stabilize dilapidated churches or to protect relics from predatory art dealers. Local and amateur preservationists groused at being shut out of decision-making. Preservationist laws and bureaucrats were often the targets of complaints and occasional episodes of outright revolt. Federal preservationists sometimes countered with charges that private property owners were unduly, perhaps unpatriotically, motivated by self-interest, greed, or ignorance.

The selectiveness of federal heritage policy—its territorial focus on the colonial-era built environment and its general disdain for the architectural vestiges of the eclectic tastes of the late empire and early republic—combined with the prevailing logic of elite nationalism in federal preservation policy left large sectors of the Brazilian population outside the everyday cultures of museums, landmarks, and heritage. The Brazilian povo was often unengaged from the collection of national heritage treasures that SPHAN director Rodrigo Melo Franco de Andrade characterized as the nation’s identity documents. That dynamic was reflective of the unevenness of the politics of cultural production during the first Vargas regime. It also helps explain why the cultural institutions that grew quickly in the 1930s confronted stasis by the end of the Estado Novo regime, to be followed by slow stagnation in the late 1940s and 1950s, a period when institutional torpor began to settle upon the public cultural sector whereas the private cultural marketplace, including the rapid commercialization of popular culture, exploded. Cultural policymaking of the populist second Vargas regime (1951–1954) was a pale shadow of the first regime. The next period of dynamic reforms and innovation would come during the 1970s, again under authoritarian rule.


Vargas made no specific mention of federal cultural policy in his suicide letter (the Carta Testamento) of August 24, 1954, and the document makes only passing reference to the first regime. (“After decades of domination and exploitation by international economic and financial groups, I rose victorious as chief of a revolution. I began the work of liberation and I installed a regime of social liberty. I had to renounce.”3) Nonetheless, the chief cultural figures and institutions of the first regime played a central role in the fallen president’s lightening ascent into civic sainthood. Capanema, then serving as congressional leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, delivered a eulogy on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, where the DIP once functioned. By June 1955, the Museu Histórico Nacional took possession of the bedroom furnishings found in the presidential palace the night that he took his own life. Gustavo Barroso made room for a new gallery, the Sala 24 de Agosto, that recreated the mise-en-scène of Vargas’s final hours. Barroso informed the president’s daughter Alzira that the museum would guarantee that Vargas as man and as statesman would be reverently preserved. The bedroom scene would later be reinstalled at the Catete presidential palace, repurposed as the Museu da República in late 1960. The new museum registered more than 150,000 visitors in late 1961, many drawn to the blood-stained mattress in the restaged bedroom. The exhibit remains one of the memorable museum spaces in Brazil. It also stands as an enduring legacy of the first Vargas regime’s multiform attempts to bring the place and praxis of Brazilian culture into national cultural institutions.

Discussion of the Literature

The interpretation of the many cultural dimensions of the first Vargas regime began well before the regime ended in October 1945. As the regime’s chief intellectual, Capanema set the tone for the favorable pro-regime treatment of cultural policymaking that came out under the ministry’s seal, framing questions of culture around the goals and accomplishments of the Estado Novo and its chief. Cultura Brasileira (1942), Fernando Azevedo’s introduction to the 1940 census results, added to a narrative that Brazilian civilization progressed through institutional innovation, including the expanding cultural infrastructure of the Estado Novo. The regime’s propagandists were more brazenly nationalist, adding strong measures of anti-liberalism and anti-communism, occasionally peppered with anti-Semitism, to the appeal of brasilidade. As the ideological climate shifted during World War II, especially after Brazil’s entrance into the war, voices within Brazil—mainly writers—began to associate the national security apparatus with an out-of-place culture of totalitarianism. Outside Brazil, Samuel Putnam and exiled journalist Julio de Mesquita Filho gave more direct voice to the opponents of censorship and state-manufactured paranoia.

Although the overthrow of the Estado Novo included some symbolic violence against the iconography of the regime, including public statuary of Vargas, the prevailing interpretation of the regime’s cultural politicking remained fairly favorable in the period of postwar liberalization. Vargas’s return to the presidency in the democratic elections of 1950 favored gentle retrospective readings of culture between 1930 and 1945. In the meantime, the national cultural institutions established during the first regime, especially federal museums and the national heritage service, extended the professionalization, scholarship, and publication begun in the 1930s. State culture in the post-1945 period began to encompass popular and folk culture, but the institutions of official culture remained fairly faithful to roots set during the first Vargas regime. Moreover, the continued success of the Brazilian variant of the International Style, whose crowning achievement was Brasília, made it impossible to disparage outright the architects and artists who participated in the design and construction of the ministry of education headquarters.

Economic instability and political radicalization in the early 1960s, including the events surrounding the coup of April 1964, disrupted such narratives of postwar continuities. Institutional stagnation at the SPHAN and the death of pioneering figures including director Rodrigo Melo Franco de Andrade, in turn, widened the distance between the cultural heritage infrastructure built during the Vargas era and an increasingly heterogeneous academic, avant-garde, and commercial marketplace of cultural outlets, practices, ideas, and consumption practices. Although literary and arts criticism continued to look to the 1930s and 1940s in the origin stories of Brazilian modernism, the interventions of the Vargas regime were largely overlooked. The first wave of North American “Brazilianist” studies of the Vargas regime, written by Robert Levine and Thomas Skidmore, generally reduced state culture to propaganda and the cult of personality that surrounded Vargas.

Scholarly and interpretative innovation would come in the 1980s, as the historians and social scientists of the Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil (f. 1973) began to write a series of studies about ideology, nationalism, and the Vargas state. The principals came together in Estado novo: Ideologia e poder (1982), a work that drew from an expanding archive of published writings, state documents, and personal papers associated with the key figures of the Vargas era, including Vargas and Capanema. Tempos de Capanema (1984) and Colunas da educação (1996) are the two most important works that combined original analysis and extended transcriptions from the Capanema archives.

From the mid-1980s through the turn of the century, a number of Brazilian, North American, and European historians and social scientists looked to the Capanema archives, among many other sources, to construct complex portraits of state and culture under Vargas. Some of the interest was informed by the political context of re-democratization and attempts to understand how culture and the state had functioned during the authoritarian regimes of 1930–1945 and 1964–1985. Other contextual influences included Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of the cultural “field,” theories of art markets, Pierre Nora’s studies of memory, and the Anglo-American scholarship on the cultures of nationalism and “imagined communities.” At the same time, various cultural institutions created or expanded during the Vargas regime, including the SPHAN and the National Historical Museum, systematized their internal archives (part of a larger change in archives and museum administration), opening up a theretofore underappreciated look at the internal functioning of the state, including the internal politicking, incomplete successes, and unbuilt projects that made culture. Together, fresh archival research and theoretical innovation opened up new fields of debate about the multiple histories of Brazilian modernism, intellectuals and the state, art and artists, and heritage as the repository of national memory. Key works were authored by Regina Abreu, Lauro Cavalcanti, Márcia Chuva, Maria Cecília Londres da Fonseca, Randal Johnson, Sérgio Miceli, and Daryle Williams. Some of these published works, in turn, informed academic conferences and temporary exhibitions at the Palácio Gustavo Capanema, CPDOC, the Paço Imperial (Rio de Janeiro), and federal museums, broadening the scholarly and public’s engagement with the history of “Brazilian” culture under Vargas.

Sylvio Back’s Lost Zweig (2002)Jayme Monjardim’s Olga (2004)Helena Solberg’s documentary Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (1995)Zelito Viana’s Villa-Lobos: A Life of Passion (2000)Rubem Fonseca’s historical novel Agosto (1990)

Documentaries and feature-length motion pictures have served as complementary registers of public understandings about culture and the Vargas era. In films including and , the cultural politics of the first Vargas regime mainly function as background. Conversely, Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s 1984 film version of Graciliano Ramos prison narrative Memórias do Cárcere, , and present the cultural celebrities of the Vargas era in their own light and as proxies for telling the history of culture under the Vargas state. Notwithstanding the setting during Vargas’s final days in office, and the 1993 Rede Globo miniseries of the same title brought the grand narrative of the Vargas era to the living rooms of millions of Brazilians.

Antônio Pedro Tota’s The Seduction of Brazil (2009)

Scholarship of the twenty-first century is informed by a highly diverse set of questions that, in general, looks beyond debates about authoritarianism, the cooptation of intellectuals, and regional modernisms. Vargas is largely displaced from former characterizations of Manichean powers. Other key figures are considered within an ecology of cultural aspiration, innovation, and limitations where state and nonstate roles shifted. is one of many works that seeks to transnationalize the history of culture in an era of nationalism. Although formal state policies often failed to penetrate the commercial marketplace, and the juggernaut of Carnaval culture cannot be reduced to official regulations and incentives, questions of confluence between public policy, private markets, and everyday practice inform contemporary studies of Vargas-era music, car culture, fashion, photography, cinema, and sports, for example. Moreover, the appeal to the national—so central to Vargas-era cultural politicking—was significant to the structuration of the national cultural field. The confluences and divergences of these public and private inflections of Brazil and Brazilianness shape current inquiry.

Primary Sources

The single most important archive of cultural production during the first Vargas regime is the Arquivo Gustavo Capanema, housed at the Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil (CPDOC), Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Rio de Janeiro. See especially the subseries “Educação e cultura” (Education and culture). Other CPDOC resources—chiefly the collections of Getúlio Vargas, foreign minister Oswaldo Aranha, and various labor ministers as well as the audiovisual subseries—contain important complementary materials. The internal archives (arquivo permanente) of many federal museums and cultural agencies established or expanded during the first Vargas regime offer additional documentation about the local workings of cultural production. The collections of the Rio de Janeiro branch of the Arquivo Nacional are surprisingly spotty on culture under Vargas (in part a function of Capanema retaining for his personal collection a good portion of official correspondence, later donated to CPDOC). Nonetheless, the Brazilian National Archive is still an invaluable and necessary resource, especially for the reconstruction of culture under Vargas, registered in letters addressed to the president (in which, for example, one finds local citizen thoughts on historical preservation policies) and select personal archives. The archive also holds some materials related to the Department of Press and Propaganda and related press agencies, including the DIP’s annual report for 1941 as well as a rich collection of photographs taken by the Agencia Nacional. Research on the relationship between culture and the national security state is also possible through creative uses of the juridical records housed at the Arquivo Nacional and at the various state archives that inherited records of the secret police.

The Memorial Getúlio Vargas, a museum run by the city government of Rio de Janeiro, and the Museu da República, a federal museum in Rio, archive ample print and visual documentation on the Vargas state’s relationship to Brazilian culture, especially during Rio’s golden age as the national capital. Other important archives, especially strong for photography and music, include the Museu da Imagem e Som and the Instituto Moreira Salles in Rio, and the Museu da Imagem e do Som in São Paulo. The Academia Brasileira de Letras and the Fundação Casa Rui Barbosa, both located in Rio, are strong in collections of literature and literary life. The Mário de Andrade collection, part of the Universidade de São Paulo’s Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, also documents the world of letters, as well as arts, music, and folklore, during the Vargas era. Also in São Paulo, the Cinemateca Brasileira holds newsreels produced by the DIP between 1938 and 1946.

International collections that contain important documentation on Brazilian cultural life, especially art and architecture, in the 1930s and 1940s include the Archive of Hispanic Culture,4 the Archives of American Art,5 the Oliveira Lima Library,6 and the Museum of Modern Art.7 The College Park, Maryland, facility of the National Archives and Records Administration holds the main records of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, including the textual archives of the Brazil coordinating committee.8

Digital Materials

Further Reading

Abreu, Regina. A fabricação do imortal: Memória, história e estratégias de consagração no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: LAPA, 1996.Find this resource:

Andrade, Rodrigo Melo Franco de. Rodrigo e seus tempos: Coletânea de textos sobre artes e letras. Secretaria do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional 37. Brasília: Ministério da Cultura, 1986.Find this resource:

Chuva, Márcia, ed. A invenção do patrimônio: continuidade e ruptura na constituição de uma política oficial de preservação no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Ministério da Cultura, 1995.Find this resource:

Gomes, Angela Castro, ed. Gustavo Capanema: O ministro e seu ministério. Rio de Janeiro: Fundação Getúlio Vargas, 2000.Find this resource:

Hentschke, Jens R., ed. Vargas and Brazil: New Perspectives. New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.Find this resource:

Horta, José Silvério Baía. O hino, o sermão e a ordem do dia: regime autoritário e a educação no Brasil, 1930–1945. Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ, 1994.Find this resource:

Johnson, Randal. “Regarding the Philanthropic Ogre: Cultural Policy in Brazil, 1930–45/1964–90.” In Constructing Culture and Power in Latin America. Edited by Daniel H. Levine, 311–356. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Johnson, Randal. “The Dynamics of the Brazilian Literary Field, 1930–1945.” Luso-Brazilian Review 31.2 (Winter 1994): 5–22.Find this resource:

Lacerda, Aline Lopes de. “A ‘Obra Getuliana’ ou como as imagens comemoram o regime.” Estudos Históricos 7.14 (1994): 241–263.Find this resource:

Levine, Robert M. Father of the Poor? Vargas and His Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Levine, Robert M. The Vargas Regime: The Critical Years, 1934–1938. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Lissovsky, Mauricio, and Paulo Sérgio Moraes de Sá. Colunas da educação: A construção do Ministério da Educação e Saúde, 1935–1945. Rio de Janeiro: Ministério da Cultura, 1996.Find this resource:

Lowenstein, Karl. Brazil under Vargas. New York: Macmillan, 1942.Find this resource:

McCann, Bryan. Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Miceli, Sérgio. Intelectuais à brasileira. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001.Find this resource:

Oliveira, Lúcia Lippi, Mônica Pimenta Velloso, and Angela Maria Castro Gomes, eds. Estado Novo: Ideologia e poder. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1982.Find this resource:

Putnam, Samuel. “Brazilian Culture under Vargas.” Science & Society 6.1 (Winter 1942): 34–57.Find this resource:

Skidmore, Thomas. Politics in Brazil, 1930–1964: An Experiment in Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.Find this resource:

Tota, Antônio Pedro. The Seduction of Brazil: The Americanization of Brazil during World War II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Williams, Daryle. Culture Wars in Brazil: The First Vargas Regime, 1930–1945. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Williams, Daryle, and Barbara Weinstein. “Vargas Morto: The Death and Life of a Brazilian Statesman.” In Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Politics of the Body in Latin America. Edited by Lyman Johnson, 273–316. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Getúlio Vargas. “Discurso de posse.”

(2.) Daryle Williams. Culture Wars in Brazil: The First Vargas Regime, 1930–1945. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001, 14.

(3.) Robert M. Levine. Father of the Poor? Vargas and His Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 151–153.

(4.) Archive of Hispanic Culture (Hispanic Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC).

(5.) Archives of American Art (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC).

(6.) Oliveira Lima Library (The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC).

(7.) Museum of Modern Art (New York).

(8.) National Archives and Records Administration, Office of Inter-American Affairs, Brazil coordinating committee (Record Group 229.6.4).