At daybreak on July 8, 1978, a devastating fire reduced the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro to ashes. It was the worst catastrophe suffered by a museum since World War II. Twenty-five years later, there are several things worth recalling about this sad event, not least that it could have been avoided, as the Museum had been alerted by the International Council of Museums that it lacked the basic equipment to extinguish a fire.
Although the origin of the fire was never conclusively established, it is believed that it began in the auditorium after a performance earlier that night. The show had ended late and the watchmen closed the premises just before they left. A hastily extinguished cigarette or a short circuit were listed as possible causes. Someone driving by the Museum alerted the fire department. The first units to arrive were helpless to act, as the Museum's main water supply was shut off because somewhere in the building there was a leaky faucet. When the firefighters finally succeeded in getting the water flowing, it was too late to salvage anything. The fire had rapidly spread through the flammable partitions and the ventilation ducts. The New York Times of July 9 reported the blaze on its front page, describing how hours later, the building's concrete shell was still smoking, littered with piles of dirty gray sludge and broken glass.
It is believed that over one thousand works of art were destroyed, although the exact number will never be known because the archives were incinerated along with the museum. Works in the permanent collection by Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Marx Ernst, and Magritte were lost, along with a comprehensive collection of Brazilian art. Also, there were two temporary exhibitions on view: América Latina: Geometria Sensível, a survey of Latin American abstraction which included more than a hundred works by 26 contemporary artists and Torres-García, Construçao e Simbolos. The Torres-García exhibition of murals, paintings, and wood objects originated at the Museum of Visual Arts in Montevideo and in 1975 opened at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
After the exhibition closed in Paris, the works remained stored in the Musée's basement for three years because the "Commisaire Artistique" in Montevideo did not secure the funds for the return of the exhibition. In arranging for the Rio Museum of Modern Art to bring back the works from Paris, new loan forms were not sent to the owners and tragically, without the lenders' knowledge, the works by Torres-García were not insured.
The Museum of Visual Arts in Montevideo lost seven murals recently removed from the walls of the Montevideo hospital where they were originally painted in 1944, and ten other important paintings. The rest of the works belonged to private collectors in Brazil and Montevideo; the family of the artist suffered the greatest loss. Mr. Jean Boghici, a Brazilian collector who lost six works by Torres-García was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "The only thing you can do now is to be furious."
Latin American art will be forever impoverished as a result of the 1978 fire. The seven Constructivist mural paintings by Torres-García will never again demonstrate the importance and reach that Constructivism achieved in this part of the world. The Museum of Modern Art in Rio, although rebuilt, never fully recovered. Some of the few items that escaped the fire, a 1920 bronze head by Brancusi, and Number 16, a 1950 canvas by Jackson Pollock, attest to the great quality of the Museum's lost collection. After the fire, the economic crisis in Brazil and escalating art market prices made new acquisitions difficult.
[Excerpt from Cecilia de Torres, "Homage: Geometria Sensível - 25 Years Later, Sensitive Geometry Recalled," 2003]