Typically used to assign blame, the act of finger-pointing has prickly connotations. Not so in the Graham Foundation’s latest exhibition, Lina Bo Bardi: Together, where visitors are greeted by a sprinkling of pointing, paper cut-out hands, all suspended from the ceiling. Inspired by architect, designer, writer, and curator Lina Bo Bardi, who used a hand motif to direct attention to important design elements in her drawings, the hands in the Graham Foundation’s foyer gesture toward the visitor, suggesting that you are important, too.
Making its American debut at the Graham, the exhibition presents a unique look at the work of Bo Bardi, an accomplished figure in the 20th-century modernist movement who has only recently begun to garner the attention she deserves. Just as artist Madelon Vriesendorp’s hanging hands encourage Graham Foundation visitors to actively engage as viewers of the exhibition, the show highlights the people and cultures that informed Bo Bardi’s work and continue to activate her buildings with life today.
Bo Bardi began her prolific career in her native Italy before moving to Brazil in 1946. There, she became director of the Museum of Art São Paulo, founded the design journal Habitat, established an architecture studio. Her design portfolio includes furniture, clothing, jewelry, textiles, and theater sets, in addition to several of Brazil’s most progressive modernist structures. Bo Bardi took an interest in the local craft traditions and vernacular art forms she encountered in the Bahia region of northeastern Brazil— her wide range of work married the local and international, as well as the traditional and avant-garde.
The Graham Foundation’s exhibition is as kaleidoscopic as Bo Bardi’s work and professional life. Curated by Noemí Blager, it is organized around three of Bo Bardi’s built structures: her former residence, The Glass House (1951); Solar do Unhão (1959), a museum, design school, and center for crafts; and SESC Pompéia (1977–1982), a community center. Videos, photographs, text, and objects represent distinct areas of Bo Bardi’s practice. They coalesce to convey not just the substance and breadth of her work, but to impart a sense of the continued vitality of her architecture.
Photographer Ioana Marinescu’s images of The Glass House are like windows onto the structure that Bo Bardi called home until her death in 1992. Mounted on stands and designed by the London-based design collective Assemble, the still photographs are illuminated in light boxes, giving the house’s sun-bathed interiors—with their floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of the surrounding tropical landscape—a sense of warmth and life. The photographs hover several feet from the walls to create a feeling of closeness and intimacy. You’re invited to snuggle into Bo Bardi’s playful 1951-designed Bowl Chair—produced in a limited edition by the furniture company Arper for the launch of the exhibition—making yourself at home amid Marinescu’s photos.
Many of Bo Bardi’s curatorial projects showcased Brazil’s distinctive material culture—devotional objects, ceramics, clothing, cookware, and other handmade goods. She was interested in democratizing the arts and diffusing the boundaries between the products of high and low culture. In this spirit, the show features toys, ex-voto figurines, and small utilitarian tools collected by Madelon Vriesendorp in Salvador de Bahia, as well as children’s crafts produced during workshops led by Vriesendorp at Solar do Unhão. While the objects, arranged in theatrically lit dioramas made of metal and rough-hewn concrete, are intriguing, the majority are unlabeled and unattributed to a maker. Their anonymity is perplexing given Bo Bardi’s democratic tendencies.
Tapio Snellman’s films partially compensate for this by documenting Vriesendorp’s workshops, daily life at Bo Bardi’s buildings, and the bustling activity on the streets of Salvador de Bahia. Beyond visually describing the context in which Vriesendorp assembled her collections, the films demonstrate that Bo Bardi’s buildings, with their varied spaces and textures, were conceived with the community in mind. They are aesthetically interesting, buoyant, and supremely functional.
Bo Bardi argued that “love for everyday objects… is a vital necessity to be found in the origins of human life.” The collections, furniture, images, and videos assembled for Lina Bo Bardi: Together entreat you to fall in love not simply with the objects and work on display, but also with the ideas and ingenuity that fueled Bo Bardi’s prolific career.