Sérgio Milliet

Other Names: Sérgio Milliet da Costa e Silva
  • Analysis
  • Biography
    Sérgio Milliet da Costa e Silva (São Paulo, 1898 - São Paulo, 1966). Writer, art critic, sociologist, lecturer, translator, painter. Received his primary and secondary schooling in São Paulo. In 1912, he went to Switzerland, beginning a course in Economic and Social Sciences in Geneva and completing it in Bern. In 1916, he became a contributor to the magazine Le Carmel. He published his first books of poetry Par le Sentir, in 1917, and Le Départ Sur la Pluie, in 1919. He returned to Brazil at the end of 1920. Taking part in Modern Art Week of 1922 in São Paulo, he adhered to the modernist platform and became a defender and promoter of the new ideas on art and literature disseminated by the group. He returned to Europe in 1923, settling in Paris, where he accompanied the development of new theories of art. He contributed to the Brazilian magazines Klaxon, Terra Roxa, Ariel and Revista do Brasil, sending foreign texts for publication in Brazil and translating poems by Brazilian modernists for the magazine Lumière. He mixed with modernist Brazilian writers and artists until he returned to Brazil for good in 1925. In this year, together with Oswald Andrade (1890-1954) and Afonso Schmidt (1890-1964), he created the magazine Cultura. In 1927, he became the manager of Diário Nacional, the São Paulo newspaper of the Democratic Party, founded in this year. In 1935, he joined the group of intellectuals formed by Paulo Duarte (1899-1984), Mário de Andrade (1893-1945), Rubem Borba de Morais, Tácito de Almeida and others, who planned the creation of the Department of Culture of the Municipality of São Paulo, and was appointed head of the Historical and Social Documentation Division of this department.

    From 1937 to 1944, he was a lecturer at the School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo, with which he had been associated since its foundation, having held the position of secretary from 1933 to 1935. He met the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908- ), aiding the latter to organise his ethnographic expedition. From 1938 onwards, he wrote regular articles on art and literature for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, initiating a period of intense output of art criticism. He published Pintores e Pintura [Painters and Painting] (1940), O Sal da Heresia [The Salt of Heresy] (1941), Fora de Forma [Outside of Form] (1942) and A Marginalidade da Pintura Moderna [The Marginality of Modern Painting] (1942). Milliet intensified his contacts with São Paulo painters and began to paint. Between 1941 and 1944, he contributed to the magazine Clima. He travelled to the United States in 1943, and on his return, published A Pintura Norte-Americana [American Painting]. He became the director of the Municipal Library of São Paulo, promoting a series of cultural activities, such as lectures and round-tables, participants in which included Luís Martins (1907-1981), Lourival Gomes Machado, Osório César (1895-1980), Roger Bastide (1898-1974), Luis Saia (1911-1975). In 1944, he published Pintura Quase Sempre [Painting Almost Always] and the first volume of the Diário Crítico [Critical Diary], an anthology of ten volumes published until 1959. On the opening of the 1st Brazilian Congress of Writers in 1945, he inaugurated the Art Section of the Municipal Library, forming the first public collection of Brazilian modern art, becoming a militant of the Democratic Left in the same year.

    One of the main figures behind the creation of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MAM/SP), created in 1948 and opened to the public in 1949, he was a member of its council for the painting and sculpture section. He took part in the meetings which prepared the return of the Socialist Party in 1947. He was one of the founders and the first chairman of the Brazilian Association of Art Critics (ABCA), created in 1949. He designed the retrospective exhibition of Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973), held at the MAM/SP in 1950, for which he edited the introduction text for the catalogue. In 1952, he published Panorama da Poesia Brasileira [Panorama of Brazilian Poetry]. He was the artistic director of the MAM/SP from 1952 to 1957 and director of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th São Paulo International Bienal, between 1953 and 1958. He retired in 1959.

    In 1967, the MAM/SP organised a retrospective exhibition of his painting. In 1981, the re-editing of the Diário Crítico was reinitiated, with the first volume containing a famous preface by Antonio Candido. By way of commemoration of the centenary of Milliet's birth, events were organised in 1998 at the Mário de Andrade Municipal Library of São Paulo, at the Museum of the Image and Sound (MIS/SP) and at the University of São Paulo (USP).

    Critical Commentary
    A literary critic and intellectual active within Brazilian artistic and cultural circles, especially in São Paulo, a major figure on account of the influence that he exerted both over the Modernist generation and over the generation of artists and writers who despontam/emerged in the 1930s and 40s. Greatly interested in the problems of his time, his critical reflections accompanied the development of Brazilian modern art  from the 1920s until the start of the 1960s. He initially contributed to the media predominantly as a literary commentator. Influenced by the dominant ideas in the Brazilian socio-cultural milieu of the period, he adopted a stance in favour of a Brazilianism in artistic and literary output, albeit with reservations regarding the more nationalist stances.

    The 1930s marked a shift of orientation, when he moved away from poetry to devote himself to critical activity. In 1932, the book Terminus Seco [Dry Terminus] was published, this being the name of his column in the Diário Nacional, which included articles on art criticism. In 1937, he published Marcha a Ré [Reverse Gear], a collection of commentaries on art and literature. His texts included reflections on problems of modern life, contemporary man and the crisis in which he was involved. Beside discussions on art, he dealt with political ideas and issues in the Brazil of the day, such as the so-called social literature. From 1938 onwards, he began to write for the daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo and his activities involving the visual arts became more regular. In the same year, he published Ensaios [Essays], a collection of texts on literature, the arts and social history, many of which had originally been published in the Revista do Arquivo or in his column in the Estado. His texts on art almost always referred to events of the day: exhibitions by emerging artists, salons, cultural themes in vogue, etc. Almost all of his books of criticism bring together articles, notes, essays or personal notes, generally published in newspapers. Having a highly personal, fluid, poetic, malleable style, he adopted the diary as his preferred form of expression, which was also influenced by the journalistic character of most of his output.

    The newspaper was one more vehicle through which he established a dialogue with other intellectuals, involving himself in debates and polemics. One of the most famous of these was with the Concrete Artist Waldemar Cordeiro (1925-1973) during the 1950s. The reservations of Sérgio Milliet with regard to abstract art and the aesthetic project of concretism related to hermetism, the risk that artists run by emphasising formal exercise to excess, which compromises the communicability of the work. Cordeiro, who wrote articles for the newspaper Folha da Manhã, argued against this, accusing him of defending an official and traditionalist art. When the debate had cooled, Sérgio Milliet recognised the importance of the participation of Concretism in Brazilian art, but continued to warn of the danger of the inexhaustible exploitation of formulas, with him opposed for the same reason to so-called engaged art.

    Until 1945, he was highly active in the field of the visual arts, marked not only by his written output, but able all by his involvement in many cultural events and movements on the São Paulo scene. One of his principal concerns was undoubtedly acting with regard to the public in a didactic fashion, seeking to free it from prejudices with regard to modern art and to bring it closer to the new aesthetic values. His critical output and activities in cultural circles were based on this premise. For him, the task of the critic is to inform, explain, clarify and understand a fact in accordance with its historical perspectives, to place these relationships and meanings within reach of the public, opening an understanding in multiple directions. His output was guided by the objectives of elucidating, guiding and stimulating the public.

    Committed to introducing the understanding of modern art into society, he did not adopt a single theoretical position, but was moved more by the concern with revealing the different points of view. He found the ideal way of expressing his thought and impressions in the form of the Diário Crítico [Critical Diary], of exposing the transience and malleability of ideas, without adhering to one stance or movement. The diary allowed him to signal a reflection in progress, recording without obligation to reach a conclusion. In the ten volumes of the Diário Crítico, he revealed his understanding of the function of critic - the intertwining of reason and intuition, the relativity of arguments about facts and the central problems which concerned him: the communicability of the work of art, the capacity for transmission, the participation of the artist in society, the relationship of artists with the age in which they live, the social and cultural conditioning of the works, etc.

    His work for the Municipal Library, clarifies the ethical and humanist orientation, present in his work, which aimed at dissemination as well as care of the preservation and record of the arts. Extending the restructuring work begun by his predecessor and friend Rubem Borba de Morais, during his administration, he organised the collections, made new acquisitions, promoted series of lectures and created the Art Section, which played an important formative role for a generation of young artists and the public in general.

    The collection of art on paper in the Art Section, formed on the basis of European and American libraries, contains drawings, engravings and paintings. Sérgio Milliet and his assistant Maria Eugênia Franco gave priority to artists committed to the languages of the historical moment, including many of the young artists of the 1940s and 1950s.

    The importance of his participation in the process resulting in the creation of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MAM/SP) should be highlighted. Since 1938, Milliet had argued in the press for the foundation of a museum of modern art in São Paulo, insisting on the importance of creating bodies to legitimate the various artistic movements of the day.

    His activity of organising the first bienais revealed his critical project of a pedagogical character. The exhibitions which he organised, in addition to exhibiting contemporary output, reviewed the principal artistic movements of the 20th century in a clear strategy of familiarising the public with the course of international modern art.

    His suspicion of orthodox positions, which freed his analysis from prejudice, at times made him too flexible and benevolent with the output of his time. For Sérgio Milliet however, flexibility and reticence with regard to rigid positions follow an overall orientation of a methodological nature, deriving from his contact with American sociology and anthropology, and his activity as a lecturer at the School of Sociology and Politics, as well as his choice of a relativist approach to artistic phenomena.

    His lecture entitled The Marginality of Modern Art, presented at the 1st International Congress of Art Critics (Aica) in 1948, carried a reflection of a sociological character on art. In it, Milliet thematised the functionality of aesthetic taste in the organisation of society, based on readings of anthropology and sociology, questioning the influence of art in constructing a social consensus. On the basis of this approach, he constructed his interpretation of modern art, linking the formal characteristics of production to experienced aspects of the modern period, such as the multiplication of contacts between subjects, the freeing of conditioning, the uprooting caused by a rapid change in the social order. This led, in his understanding, to the marginal situation of modern art in relation to the predominant taste and the position of isolation of contemporary artists.

    The articulator of organised action in favour of modern art, always involved with the practice of intellectual and artistic life, Milliet exercised an undeniable influence on the artistic and cultural development of Brazil and left an important contribution to criticism of the Brazilian visual arts.

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