Madalena Schwartz: The Metamorphoses
As metamorfoses [The Metamorphoses] offers an immersion in the long-lasting photographic essay that Madalena Schwartz began producing in 1971, when she started portraying crossdressers, transformists and characters from São Paulo’s nightlife. The theme was not far away: it was on the streets she passed through, travelling back and forth between her flat in the Copan building and the Schwartz family laundry, on Rua Nestor Pestana. It also appeared in theatres, television programmes and illustrated magazines during those paradoxical years of military rule [the so-called “Years of Lead”], when gender issues were gaining momentum in the pop and counterculture spheres, at the same time as political life was suffocating under the military yoke.
True to her favourite photographic format – the portrait – Madalena Schwartz devoted much of her time in the following years to photographing already famous figures, such as Ney Matogrosso, the Dzi Croquettes, Elke Maravilha or Patricio Bisso, as well as stars of brief but intense brilliance: actors and actresses, performers and dancers, crossdressers who frequented the nightclubs in the centre of São Paulo and other “walking metamorphoses” [metamorfoses ambulantes], to use the formula of a song of the time. She did not do this, however, out of documentary or photojournalistic endeavour. In the closed environments in which she worked – studios, dressing rooms and, above all, his own flat – the first thing she did was to open up space so that her models, men and women, could feel free to let the imagery they cultivated within themselves come to the surface, whether it was erotic or aesthetic, gendered or coloured, euphoric or melancholic, bohemian or cinematic. Their photographs were born out of a gesture of welcoming the other.
But how can we explain her interest in and commitment to the theme of The Metamorphoses? Perhaps the answer lies in the arduous circumstances in which her gaze was formed. It had only been three years since the First World War ended and the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell to the ground when Magdalena Schwartz was born in Budapest in 1921 – and it would not be so many years before the motherless Jewish girl emigrated to Argentina in 1935. A life typical of so many immigrants at that terrible time in the 20th century, rounded off by her arrival in Brazil, already married and mothering two children. And if it was in São Paulo that her own metamorphosis took place, one should not forget the extent to which it was due to chance: in 1966, at the age of 45, a camera fell into her hands – it was a prize given to one of her sons in a television entertainment programme. So began a dizzying story. After completing basic training at the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante, Madalena began a career that would lead to her first solo exhibition at Masp (in 1974), commissions from the press, work for Editora Abril or Rede Globo and, finally, to setting up a small studio in the same Copan building where she lived.
Perhaps something of this personal history explains the energy that Madalena Schwartz devoted to the essay she began in 1971; perhaps the photographer glimpsed, in these faces and bodies on the fringes of the prevailing norm, some trace of her own semblance as a foreigner and immigrant, a Jew and a woman. It could be. The photographer herself left no answer – or no answer other than the photos she produced. These Metamorphoses therefore call for deciphering, contemplation, attention, empathy – even more so now, when the norm is once again trying to impose itself with its characteristic violence and indifference.
About the works
In 1973, Madalena Schwartz photographed the Dzi Croquettes in the dressing rooms of the Treze de Maio theatre in São Paulo, where the group was presenting the show Gente computada igual a você [Computerised People Like You], which mixed elements of show business, parody and protest.
In 1974, at the home of gallery owners Rosa and Benjamin Steiner, Madalena Schwartz photographed a performance by Ney Matogrosso (already famous for his role in the group Secos e Molhados). To the hybridity staged by Ney, Madalena responds using the double exposure technique.
[Wall with varied portraits]
Always faithful to her photographic genre of choice, Madalena Schwartz produced an extensive gallery of portraits of characters from São Paulo’s nightlife in the 1970s, in diction ranging from the intimate to the formal and glamorous, always in dialogue with the unique universe of each new model, each new portrait subject.
[Back wall with the sequence/performance in the apartment]
In one of her most beautiful series, Madalena Schwartz photographs a pair of models in her flat, transformed into an ephemeral studio. They gradually move from posing to dancing, performing a formidable metamorphosis, a journey beyond their public identities – made possible, it should be remembered, by the photographer’s welcome in her domestic space, visible in the margins of the negatives.
[Exit corridor, with the “gypsy” and the two older people]
Away from the stage, Madalena Schwartz’s models enter less public areas of their lives. The star of the evening, Meise allows herself to be portrayed with relentless sincerity (and with Madalena’s dog, in a sign of the intimacy between her and the photographer). Another model smilingly displays the marks of age and maternal tenderness. And a third subverts the usual order of gender signs throughout a performance, mixing the doll (in the various senses of the term) and the baby, the bohemian cigarette and the maternal lap, the frontal nude and breastfeeding.
Magdolna Mandel was born on 9 October 1921 in Budapest, Hungary, to Rózsa Fisch and Jenö Mandel. Her mother died young, in 1927, aged 28. Madalena and her younger brother Pál lived for a few years in the small town of Kecskemét with their grandparents, religious Jews; both grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. The father remarried (to Olga Löwy) and left for Argentina, where he took his children a few years later. Magdolna and Pá (now Madalena and Pablo) arrived in Buenos Aires on 14 April 1935. Five years later, in 1940, she married Ernesto Schwartz (1909-1973), also of Jewish and Hungarian descent, with whom she had two children: Julio (1942) and Jorge (1944). The new couple lived in Buenos Aires and Posadas, but eventually decided to try their luck in São Paulo: on 24 April 1960, Madalena and her children boarded the Osaka Maru and arrived at the port of Santos three days later; Ernesto would join them shortly afterwards. In São Paulo, the Schwartzes bought and ran a laundry and dyeing business, Lavanderia e Tinturaria Irupê, in Rua Nestor Pestana – and lived at various addresses in the neighbourhood, until finally settling in the Copan building.
In 1966, his eldest son won a camera in the television programme Bibi 66, recorded at the Cultura Artística theatre. The device aroused Madalena’s curiosity, and in the same year she enrolled in training courses at the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante (then in Rua Avanhandava, a few minutes from the family laundry), where she met photographers like Eduardo Salvatore, Tuffy Kanji and Thomaz Farkas. Thus began – “by chance,” in Madalena’s own words – a life that initially alternated between the house and the launderette, on the one hand, and her photographic passion, on the other. Living and working in the centre of São Paulo, Madalena began portraying characters from the cultural scene around her, often using her own flat as an improvised studio; she frequented theatres to perfect her chiaroscuro technique; and she began collaborating as a freelance photographer with various newspapers and magazines.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, her work for the press led Madalena to travel around Brazil and even abroad – in 1975, for example, she photographed Clarice Lispector in Bogotá, during the World Witchcraft Congress. In 1974, at the invitation of director Pietro Maria Bardi, she had her first solo exhibition at Masp, which included various portraits of crossdressers and transformists; the following year, she had another exhibition at the same museum, featuring in 24 pintores brasileiros e suas obras [24 Brazilian Painters and Their Works]. Throughout her career, Madalena also exhibited at the Galeria Fotoptica, the Bienal, the Pinacoteca and the Museum of Image and Sound. Among her exhibitions, it is worth mentioning O rosto brasileiro [The Brazilian Face], held at Masp in 1983, a year after it was censored and cancelled in Washington due to interference from the Brazilian ambassador. Always faithful to her favourite genre – to the point of being called the “great lady of portraiture in our country” by Pedro Karp Vasquez – Madalena photographed professionally for two decades. In the last years of her life, more withdrawn, she dedicated herself to sculpture. She died in São Paulo on 25 March 1993. Her collection became part of the ims in 1998.