Maria Martins, born to a wealthy family, studied music at a French school in Rio de Janeiro, destined to become a professional musician. But as a young woman, she became interested in sculpture. She met the diplomat Carlos Martins Pereira e Souza, and after they married in 1926 she travelled extensively alongside him.
Martins’ travels gave her the extraordinary opportunity to learn a variety of artistic techniques. She studied in Paris under Catherine Barjansky; she learned woodcarving in Ecuador; she was introduced to ceramics in Japan; in Belgium, the expressionist sculptor Oscar Jespers taught her modelling; and in the US, where she lived between Washington and New York from 1939 to 1948, Jacques Lipchitz introduced her to bronze casting, which would eventually become her method of choice.
Martins began to work on bronze lost-wax casting and introduced an innovation: She added a little fat which made the beeswax traditionally used in this process extraordinarily ductile, allowing her to cast narrow bronze shapes with unusual outgrowths.
Martin’s work focused on the myriad ways in which the body–especially the female body–expresses itself. Her small figures combined dance and sensuality in an increasingly loose manner. Heads, hands, and feet gradually became more and more distended. While in New York, she associated with André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson, Marcel Duchamp, and other surrealists in exile.
Also during this period, she moved closer to surrealist themes by adding short texts about desire to her works. The bodies she depicted became more and more complex, organic, plant-like, phantasmagorical, and often cruelly erotic. Her subjects, on the other hand, remained Brazilian-centered and drew liberally from Amazonian folklore.
In 1943, Martins met Marcel Duchamp and they had a romantic affair.
Martins helped found the first Venice Biennale in 1951 and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio in 1952, after which she turned to writing essays on poetry, Nietzsche, and China.