José de Almada Negreiros: a way of being modern

Interview to Mariana Pinto dos Santos
12 jan 2017

Around a quarter of a century on from the last major exhibition dedicated to Almada Negreiros, the Gulbenkian Foundation is to present, in its main headquarters gallery, a broad retrospective that brings together over four hundred works, many previously unpublished, and proposing an innovative perspective on the presence of Almada in the history of Portuguese modernism.


This exhibition is structured into seven thematic sections that reflect the boundless creative energy of a creative who experimented with the sheer immensity of languages. This correspondingly sets out the ways in which this artist opted for and then revisited themes as well as how he worked with different supports and means. In defending how the art of modernity should be in every possible location – in public buildings, in streets, in theatre, in cinema, in dance, in the graphic style of newspapers and the pictures used for illustration–, Almada understood how each work, management or attitude, would become part of a “performance” that the artist, the main agent of modernity, would take on as the main mission for presenting to the public.

This idea of total modernism runs throughout all of the modules that establish the exhibition route in the Main Gallery and the lower floor of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. His paintings and drawings go on display in close connection with the works that he undertook in collaboration with architects, writers, publishers, musicians, scenographers and stage designers. On the lower floor, the emphasis is placed on the defining presence of cinema and the persistence of the graphic narrative throughout the course of his work. These are joined by both unpublished and never before seen works and studies that open up insights into the different artistically creative processes of Almada Negreiros.

The complementary program reveals a more complete dimension to the versatility of the work of Almada: a young persons theatrical performance, the multimedia exhibition of Almada, Um Nome de Guerra, produced by Ernesto de Sousa, a concert within the Gulbenkian Music Season, visits to the maritime ferry station of Alcântara and Rocha do Conde, Óbidos, a cycle of round tables with various researchers from different areas and as well as a film cycle held at the Lisbon Cinemateca.

This also extends to the production of a wide reaching catalogue that reproduces the works of this artist present in the exhibition alongside a set of historiographic essays and critical thinking about the ways in which this artist established himself as a reference benchmark in studies on modernism and modernity, setting off from the place that Almada Negreiros held within them.

The exhibition curator, Mariana Pinto dos Santos, historian of art and researcher at the History of Art Institute at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, explains in this interview the ideas underlying the exhibition and how this serves to open up a new perspective on one of the most creative and fertile of figures in Portuguese art.


What is the central line of the exhibition?

The work of Almada gets perceived as a prism for rethinking the general concept of modernity within the scope of a recent debate in the historiography of art that re-evaluated the role played by countries deemed “peripheral” in this movement. The narrative that dominated and still dominates on the 20th century tells how there were grand centres of artistic production but that the centre-periphery dichotomy needs to be taken apart to approach modernity as a transnational network (as some historians of art so term it). The modern artistic practices that emerged from different geographies and the information that circulated has since been appropriated, reworked, cross-referenced and reinvented. This is what renders modernity so very eclectic and very diverse. The work of Almada is particularly interesting because he was himself a type of polyglot of the arts. Throughout all his life he went about experimenting with different languages, he was an artist that responded to the present moment, in accordance with what the moment called for: whether as an artist or also as a writer, actor, performer, scenographer or as well as through dance or also when he responded to a commission for stained glass windows, fresco paintings or ceramic finishings. Hence, the work of Almada proves exemplary as this enables us to rethink in a broad reaching fashion about modernisms and their hybridity.


Do current studies therefore point to the existence of various modernisms with their own particular characteristics?

The criticism of the idea of some single, unique narrative is longstanding and derives from different fields of study (Philosophy to begin with). In Portugal, this research has been ongoing in various subject fields, including the History of Art, in which some researchers have contemplated a re-balancing of the various narratives prevailing similar to that taking place in other countries. By modernism, we designate the demand for the new. In modernity, there was a belief that it was necessary to change, that there was a need to reach out for something new. The way of life of people had changed with the industrial revolution and the technological progress and the modernisms constituted different interpretations of this reality as well as different responses to it. There was modernism in the authoritarian regimes just as this became part of the movements in resistance and in reaction to these regimes. There are modernisms that encounter the new in the popular, in other cultures, in the national identity, there are those who identify this with that called “civilizational progress” and internationalism. Frequently, these contradictory aspects coexisted in the same artist and as is the case of Almada. There are different modernisms and the work of History of Art should be to grasp the differences and the similarities between them without ever establishing a hierarchy in relation to some supposed ideal norm of modernism.


Almada was a polyglot of the arts, as you said. Does the History of Art not tend to fragment a work that sought to be total?

There is an approach undertaken by the older historians, who unfurled the path of the 20th century history of art in Portugal and that, despite highlighting the multiple facets of Almada, effectively tended to fragment his work. The oldest of the catalogues to the exhibitions dedicated to the artist convey this trend, in dividing his outputs into areas – painting, poetry, theatre, graphic arts, etcetera  –, with the texts correspondingly handed over to specialists from each field. In this way, this ended up losing the joint vision and the ways in which Almada played these transversal arts off against each other. He is extremely pictorial or cinematographic when writing and he is also very narrative whenever he paints. This separation also stems from another trend in the History of Art, which is the downplaying of some artistic languages in favour of others — just as some “centres” got valued in relation to the “peripheries”, they valued the “greater arts” over the “lesser arts”. This aspect has also come in for a rebalancing by more recent Historiographic Art studies.


In what way?

There are some historiographic approaches that criticise the downplaying of drawing, graphic design, ceramics, and etcetera, in relation to painting. The technical revolution brought about by modernity ended up shattering this type of division even while there remained a prevalent discourse, which became naturalised, that always elected painting above these other forms of artistic expression. Furthermore, even within painting, painting on canvas, oils over watercolours, and so forth. However, in futurism and surrealism, for example, the printed word and the typographic composition became part of the artistic language and the vanguard publications established themselves as a means of artistic interventions in their own right. The catalogue to this exhibition shall provide a more integrated approach into the work of Almada while avoiding these sectorial analyses.


Did Almada theorise on this mutual relationship ongoing between the various arts?

Almada refers to this question on different occasions but I would point to a conference entitled Poetry and Creativity, given towards the end of his life in 1962, when he defended that all art is poetry and recalling the Greek etymology of the word – poiesis – that means creation. All of art is creation or all creation is art and revealing a very wide reaching position as to just how the artist may express modernity. From his perspective, the artist is an interlocutor of the modern irrespective of the means chosen for the work.


Having been an irreverent and experimentalist artist, he also left behind his mark on many of the works commissioned by the regime. How did he manage this issue?

Almada was not an artist of the regime. An artist of the regime would be, for example, Eduardo Malta, a painter close to Salazar, with whom he shared a political ideology and, while technically very competent, without any formal or thematic experimental daring. Almada not only contested the taste that Malta represented but also opposed his nomination to head the Museum of Contemporary Art. However, with the founding of the Estado Novo in 1933, there was a vast and huge policy of public works and the decoration of buildings by this new regime that guaranteed work to artists. This policy wanted to convey a renewed and modern image of the nation. Henceforth, artists pretty much had no other source of employment other than the state. Either they had their own resources or otherwise they had to accept commissions from the state. Take, for example, the Portuguese World Exhibition held in 1940, this involved bringing in all architects, irrespective of their political postures. This was a decision based on a practical sense; it was a small world and with the need to take advantage of all the resources it held.


What was the room for manoeuvre for artists under these conditions?

The artists did not have any great room for manoeuvre in the choice of themes as they were almost always commissioned. On this issue, Querubim Lapa provided a relevant account: he declared that the theme was not important but what did matter was the ways in which artists were able to approach it while remaining true to their art. Almada worked a great deal on these commissions in a very particular style and sometimes dealing with the themes with a very subtle sense of humour. Initially, he wrote some articles and gave some interviews reacting against this instrumentalisation of modern artists by the state for purposes of its politics and propaganda. He did not participate in the first official regime exhibitions and in 1936 was in attendance at the Exhibition of Independent Artists, held in reaction to the Estado Novo. The works that he did most directly were part of a campaign put into practice by the state, such as posters and stamps, and may in no way be seen as signing up to the ideology that they conveyed. As from 1941, he was already participating in official exhibitions in conjunction with so many other artists from his generation and below. This question is complex and should not be approached in any Manichaean fashion.


We should also recall that many of the invitations issued to Almada were not made directly by the Estado Novo but rather through the architect Pardal Monteiro

That is an important issue. Some of the most important interventions by Almada were not in fact commissioned directly by the Estado Novo but by the architect Porfírio Pardal Monteiro, with whom the artist worked extensively. In the Rocha do Conde d’Óbidos Maritime Station, where he chose the theme, Almada gave a clear sign of his irreverence in painting panels depicting emigration, the construction of vessels, non-stylised varinas, but robust, African, troubadours asking for money. This went down badly, understood as an affront to the regime and the destruction of the panels did get proposed. At the time, João Couto, Director of the Museum of Ancient Art, defended the work of the artist and blocked this. He also worked with other architects, both in Portugal and in Spain (where he lived between 1927 and 1932), from his own and from younger generations, such as Nuno Teotónio Pereira, on the Bloco das Águas Livres in Lisbon.


What new material does this exhibition present?

In addition to breaking down the compartmentalising by which the work of Almada generally gets approached, this brings together over a hundred of unpublished works, never before seen in public. I would draw attention to a work that is coming from São Paulo, a self-portrait with a woman made in Madrid in 1927, which had been documented by Ernesto de Sousa but which left the country in 1975 and has never been displayed in Portugal. This also features for the first time the magic lantern made up of 64 drawings that tell a story as if a silent film and that was produced in 1934 in a private setting among friends. This also includes the display of other works that exemplify the experiences of Almada in drawing and painting.

The sample also portrays the works Almada completed in Madrid, a city where he maintained intense artistic collaborations. One of them was another of the magic lanterns designed to accompany the music of Salvador Bacarisse and the libretto by the poet Manuel Abril. This performance was entitled La tragedia de doña Ajada and will be reconstructed within the scope of the Gulbenkian Music season on 23 March with the interpretation by the Gulbenkian Orchestra accompanying the projection of Almada’s images.


Is there any documentation or record of this concert?

No, but we shall reconstitute that which is possible. The composer was forced to flee the country during the civil war. The drawings by Almada got saved but the orchestral score did not survive in a complete form. What does exist is a version for a suite that shall be played in this concert. Whilst not possible to reconstruct the story that the images told, we may always imagine it. This performance took place in 1929 and has never been performed since then. The composer’s son, aged 92, is coming to Lisbon to hear his father’s work for the second time — the first time around, he was about five or six.

Another performance taking place on 3 March is the multimedia performance by Ernesto de Sousa, Almada, Um Nome de Guerra (1969-1983) with multiple projections and through which Almada gets nominated as the guiding figure to a performative and experimental neo-vanguard. 


Will the audiences leave this exhibition with a new perspective on the unparalleled artistic figure that was José de Almada Negreiros?

Yes, firstly due to the fact that the exhibition approaches Almada as a particularly rich case study for the consideration of modernity related questions.

Secondly, the exhibition shall contribute towards a better understanding of his work as this also extends to over a hundred never before seen pieces. Some of those presented may come as some surprise to those who already know his body of work and certainly a discovery to those who did not know it.

Furthermore, the presentation of his best known works undergoes a reformulation. For example, the two portraits of Fernando Pessoa painted by Almada get separated with each one in a dialogue with different pieces. The first dates to 1954 and belongs to Casa Fernando Pessoa. The second, more recent, results from a commission by the Gulbenkian Foundation, with the artist having used a mirror effect and hence the two works are not exactly equal.

The exhibition also throws a light on his mathematical and geometric painting based research, the works in public spaces around the city of Lisbon, the character of his graphic narrative that is found in various of his works throughout his career, his dialogue with cinema and the extraordinary importance of the self-portrait to his work. This is an exhibition that is absolutely worth a visit.


José de Almada Negreiros: a way of being modernabout the exhibition and related events
From 3 February to 5 June 2017 – from 10:00 to 18:00
Curators: Mariana Pinto dos Santos with Ana Vasconcelos


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