25 September 2020

Mediterranean Light

Curators' Choices: Leonor Nazaré highlights the photo 'Sophia de Mello Breyner' by Fernando Lemos.

Fernando Lemos, 'Sophia de Mello Breyner' (detail), 1949-52. B/w photo printed on Agfa paper. Modern Collection

In 1952, in Casa Jalco, on Rua Ivens in Lisbon, Vespeira, Fernando Lemos and Fernando de Azevedo showed their work in a surrealist exhibition that went down in history. Fernando Lemos presented 20 oils, 22 gouaches, 29 drawings and 75 photographs, among which were thirty portraits of prominent figures from the intellectual and artistic circles of Portugal in the 1940s, which form part of the collection of 184 photographs by Lemos in the Gulbenkian Museum’s Modern Collection. […]

The low angle from which Sophia de Mello Breyner is shot in this photograph is arguably the only one suited to making metaphorical reference to her greatness as a poet. The firmness of the right hand gripping a post reflects that of her character, her upright torso and posture suggesting a certain proud integrity. Her vague, absorbed gaze seems at the same time to fix on one point, not quite looking at the camera, but equally not ignoring it.

Beneath the sparse leaves on the trellis, it wouldn’t be true to say that the poet is sheltering from the light, which invades the space almost entirely, in a scene that is largely open and infinite sky. The wooden structure appears as a point of support in this infinity, interrupting it to indicate a presence, like a drawing in the atmosphere or the possibility of a faint shadow gently defined in the halves of the face and arms. Behind her right elbow, the shadow of the posts acquires as much reality as the posts themselves, or, looking at this contamination in reverse, all of the wood could be shadow instead of matter.

This effect of harmony in the (de)materialisation is aided by the construction of an image based on the inscription of the black of the figure against a background of light, as if it were a cut-out or low-relief – a statue or a goddess raised on an invisible pedestal, and thus transformed into representation or artistic icon.

Fernando Lemos, 'Sophia de Mello Breyner', 1949-52. B/w photo printed on Agfa paper. Modern Collection

Another kind of formal correspondence is established between the vine leaves and the appliqué plant motifs that adorn the dress. The concise quantity of elements from which this image as a whole is composed serves to emphasise them all the more. Sophie’s world is Mediterranean in the light, in the vine and in her resolute and dreamy countenance.

Text revised and adapted by the author, originally published in the FCG newsletter, no.104, of June 2009 (in Portuguese).

After this text appeared in the FCG Newsletter, I received a letter from Fernando Lemos in which he expressed immense gratitude for my text: he was enthusiastic, affectionate and empathetic. Having most likely forgotten sending it to me, he wrote a second letter with the same tone and purpose, similar but different… Undeniably hilarious, this repetition gave me the measure of his generous joy and a sense of the whirlwind his life could be!

 

Leonor Nazaré
Curator of the Museum


Curators’ Choices

Over the next months, the curators of the Modern Collection will reflect on a selection of works, which include creations by national and international artists.

More choices