Fernando Lemos

Lisbon, Portugal, 1926 – São Paulo, Brazil, 2019

Fernardo Lemos is a multidisciplinary artist who obtained a different recognition in his country of origin – Portugal – and in the country he adopted as his own, and to which he voluntarily exiled at the age of 27 in 1953 – Brazil. In Portugal, it was his surrealist photography, produced between 1949 and 1952 but only rediscovered and successively exhibited since 1977, that has been most valued and praised. For this body of work, he was awarded with the National Award of Photography in 2001. In Brazil, his photography mostly functioned as an introduction, in two exhibitions, in Rio de Janeiro and in Sao Paulo, in which he took part on his arrival. It was, in fact, through his drawings that he first achieved recognition in this country, having been attributed the award for Best Brazilian Drawer in the IV Sao Paulo Biennial (1957).

Lemos, the son of a weaver and an antiquarian cabinet-maker, always stressed the importance of hand skills, showing interest in drawing since a young age during his time at the Decorative Arts School António Arroio (1938-1943), and in painting, whilst attending a course at the National Society of the Fine Arts (SNBA) in Lisbon.

In Brazil, Lemos focused his attention during the 50’s on drawing and graphic design, continuing the professional career he had already embarked on in Portugal as a graphic artist, drawer and industrial lithography printer. Only in the late 50’s he returned to painting, a medium with which he had already experimented in the 40’s but now revisited in a more informed and emancipated manner.

Photography developed in his career out of a necessity to create an identity and image that, in his view, lacked in Portugal. Portuguese photography from the end of the 40’s and beginning of the 50’s focused, on the one hand, on photo-reportage, the picturesque, and the propaganda endorsed by New State publications, and, on the other, on the amateur aesthetics that dominated exhibitions, competitions and the amateur clubs that had in the meanwhile come into existence. The most politically active artists, organized around neo-realism, didn’t use photography as a consistent form of artistic expression; it was almost absent in the General Arts Exhibitions (1946-1956) these artists organized at the SNBA, and thus failed to become significant as aesthetic intervention.

Fernando Lemos felt that there were strong bonds of companionship, creativity and complicity between a loosely associated group of intellectuals, writers, artists and theater actors, founded on the same sentiment of freedom. A new identity was growing as a “counter-power” against a regime built on censorship, opposed to what Alexandre O’Neill called the “civil servant mode of living” this regime promoted. Therefore, it was needed to register the views of this new generation, not in simple studio portraits but through an aesthetic able to capture this sense of freedom and adventure. Fernando Lemos, the only one who tried this consciously and consistently, found these values in Surrealism. Nonetheless, Lemos never regarded himself as a photographer, but rather considered himself a “primitive of photography”, and stated in an interview that “(…) I’m a poet, artist, responsible and irresponsible for images. I followed photography in the same way that I could have followed ceramics (…).”

This multidisciplinary facet manifested itself already in his first exhibition with Fernando Azevedo and Marcelino Vespeira, in the Casa Jalco in Lisbon’s Chiado, in 1952, in which he participated with 20 oil paintings, 22 gouaches, 28 drawings and 55 photographs. He introduced himself in the catalogue not through his biography, but rather with a poem of his own authorship, a facet that has been equally present and important in the artist’s work. The polemic that arose out of this exhibition – a luxury furniture store completely “remodeled” by a group of young artists, petitions from the local commerce owners to close the exhibition, the queues formed by curious bystanders around the block, the mocking comments uttered by established artists – led to an uncommon agitation within the realm of artistic creation. All this resulted in an intensified monitoring by the political police that from then on began to control the young artists’ movements and meetings. It was this claustrophobic environment, and the feeling of entrapment that consequently developed, which led Lemos to organize his departure from Portugal, which he would only revisit after the revolution of the 25th of April, 1974.

Despite the distance, he nonetheless maintained a connection with Portugal through his interventions in the periodical Portugal Democrático (1956-1975), created by Portuguese political exiles in Brazil, and later as an (irregular) collaborator of the magazine Colóquio/Artes, edited by the Gulbenkian Foundation, right from its first edition (February 1971, “Carta de São Paulo”). His artistic expressions did not go unnoticed in Portugal as well, having exhibited drawings in the Gallery Março (Lisbon) in 1954. In the subsequent year he returned again to drawing, exhibiting along with Marcelino Vespeira and Manuel Cargaleiro at the Gallery Pórtico (Lisbon). In 1959 he participated in the exhibit 50 Artistas Independentes [50 Independent Artists], at the SNBA. In 1961 his work was shown in the II Arts Exhibition at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. In 1973 he participated in the inaugural collective exhibition of the Gallery Quadrum (Lisbon), and, in that same year, he exhibited paintings in the Gallery Dinastia. However, the photographic images of a generation (some of them now political exiles) that resisted as much as it could to censorship, and that effectively constituted an important expression of the Portuguese intellectual and artistic vanguard of the time, could only be viewed once more after the 25th of April, 1974.

It is due to the critic Fernando Pernes (1936-2010) that Fernando Azevedo’s ocultações [occultations] and Fernando Lemos’ photographs of the 50’s were recuperated for the 1977 exhibition A Fotografia na Arte Moderna Portuguesa [Photography in Portuguese Modern Art] he was organizing. Later on, in 1983, his images returned to Lisbon to integrate the exhibit Refotos – Anos 40 [Rephotos – The Forties], at the SNBA. However, the main reference for his photographic work is the exhibit À Luz da Sombra [In the Light of Shadow], organized by the Modern Art Centre of the Calouste Gulbenkain Foundation in 1994. The catalogue of this exhibit comprises a large part of the work produced by Lemos and critical texts. More recently (2004), a retrospective exhibition of his photographic work entitled À Sombra da Luz – À Luz da Sombra [In the Shade of Light – In the Light of Shadow] has been shown in the Pinacoteca in Sao Paulo. In 2005, an exhibition called Fernando Lemos and Surrealism (2005) was organized in Sintra, in the Berardo Museum, which included some works from the Portuguese surrealist movement belonging to the Cupertino Miranda Foundation, works from international artist from the Berardo Collection and a significant number of Fernando Lemos’ photographic work.

Besides his artistic labor, he was responsible, together with the art critic and historian José-Augusto França (b. 1922), for the creation of the Gallery Março (1952-1954) in Lisbon, and commissions for the decoration of Brazilian pavilions in international fairs (New York, 1957 and Tokyo, 1963). He has also worked as professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of Sao Paulo, been president of the Brazilian Association of Industrial Design, and created a children´s books publishing house in 1963 (Giroflé), among other activities. In 2019 Fernando Lemos lived in Sao Paulo and continued his artistic endeavors with the same multidisciplinary spirit that always guided him, affirming, at the age of 82, in an interview for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo: “I write as though photographing, I photograph as though painting, I paint as though drawing (…) People have trouble fitting me into places, they don’t know where to put me.”


José Oliveira

October 2010

Updated on 09 august 2023

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