PRINT February 1997


Lisbon and Porto

If the films of Portugal’s most famous cineast, Manoel de Oliveira, are any indication, the Portuguese national character is distinguished by a melancholic romanticism and a propensity for sorrowful passions, mourning, and contemplation. In movies like Amor de perdição (Doomed love, 1978), O Convento (The convent, 1995), or more recently Party, 1996, de Oliveira has mined this territory to compelling, sometimes humorous effect. More recent cinematic efforts, such as Joaquim Sapinho’s first feature-length film Corte de cabelo (Haircut, 1995), which recounts the misadventures of a young couple on their wedding day, have focused instead on everyday urban life in ways that reflect the cultural miscegenation that gives semi-peripheral countries like Portugal their distinctive flavor. Thus, while some maintain that Portugal has an essential national identity marked by fatefulness and saudade (a peculiar combination of nostalgia and longing), others share sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ view that “Portuguese culture has no content, only form, and that form is the frontier.” That is, to borrow a phrase from Portugal’s modernist poet Fernando Pessoa, “The Portuguese people are essentially cosmopolitan. No true Portuguese was ever Portuguese. He was always everything.”

Mapping the territory between these two poles, contemporary artistic practices in Portugal reflect not a fixed national identity but the diversity and contradictions of a society marked by a long historical experience of the border: through crossings, journeys, and migrations national traditions have mixed with broader cultural influences. Indeed, in the absence of a national cultural agenda like that of France or Germany, the activation of Portugal’s artistic scene over the last decade is the result, above all, of the initiatives of artists, critics, and gallerists who, while making inroads abroad, widened the audience for contemporary art at home.

Galeria Luís Serpa, a highly influential gallery in the ’80s, has continued to show some of the most outstanding artists of the last ten years, including Pedro Calapez, Daniel Blaufuks, Jorge Molder, and Rui Sanches, though it no longer represents them. Molder, perhaps the most well-known of these artists, has made photographs that privilege literary references throughout his two-decade-long career. Most recently his work has revolved around the self-portrait, which is not, in his case, a form of narcissism, but a way of staging fictions. Though, taken together, his photographs suggest narratives, no interpretive key or dramatic sequence is ever given; rather, mysterious clues, enigmatic objects, and incomplete journeys force the spectator to become both detective and inventor of fictions.

Like Luís Serpa, the galleries Módulo and Pedro Oliveira maintain an international profile. Módulo represents artists such as Pedro Casqueiro, whose paintings explore the language of abstraction; Miguel Ângelo Rocha, whose sculptures experiment with various materials to suggest the corporeal; and Ângela Ferreira, whose reflections on architecture question models of conceiving and occupying territories. Located in Porto, Pedro Oliveira shows both emerging and established artists, such as Gerardo Burmester, Alberto Carneiro, Pedro Proenca, and Julião Sarmento. Of those galleries that made their presence felt in the late ’80s and ’90s by paying particular attention to the latest generation of artists, the most notable are Galeria Alda Cortez and Galeria Graça Fonseca. The former shows the work of sculptors such as José Pedro Croft and Rui Chafes, as well as the ironic critique of art-world fashions that comprises Ana Jotta’s work; while the latter represents Paulo Feliciano, Paulo Mendes, and João Louro, whose explorations of the connections between high and low—integrate pop music, comic strips, and graphic design—and frequently offer a political critique. Also a significant presence are the artist-run galleries Monumental and Galeria Zé dos Bois.

Curiously, no traces of the African culture that began to infiltrate the closed Portuguese society of the early ’70s, during which the country fought the end of a losing battle in its colonies, can be found in the visual arts, though such signs abound in nightlife and popular music—witness the growing success of a wave of Portuguese rap produced by young people born in Portugal but of Cape Verdian, Angolan, or Mozambican descent. This absence is indicative not only of a general social marginalization of African communities but also of Portugal’s inability to achieve a political and cultural balance with its colonial past and the traumas of its “dirty war.” It is a symptomatic deficiency. A number of equally unpleasant issues—racism, AIDS, and sexual discrimination—are rarely addressed either in the media or by politicians. During the final years of the recently ousted right-of-center government, this lack of dialogue was exacerbated by the absence of a coherent cultural politics—which in the realm of the plastic arts, for example, translated into the absence of a public museum dedicated to contemporary art. The new government—whose minister of culture is the prestigious philosopher Manuel Maria Carrilho—has taken steps to remedy the situation, granting more exhibition space to contemporary art and promoting the work of Portuguese artists abroad.

Indeed, despite a history of limitations, there have been a few signs of progress on Portugal’s cultural front since the ’80s. The Gulbenkian Foundation, which for decades was the pillar of national cultural life, opened its Centro de Arte Moderna in 1983 with a permanent collection of Portuguese art from the beginning of the century to the present. The Fundação de Serralves in Porto, now headed by Vicente Todoli, former curator of IVAM in Valencia, began to mount regular shows of contemporary art, recently hosting the retrospective of Cildo Meireles that opened at Boston’s ICA last month, as well as a show of Dennis Oppenheim’s work. In 1993, two new exhibition spaces, receptive to contemporary art—Centro Cultural de Belém and Culturgest—opened at the outskirts of Lisbon. Culturgest’s rather eclectic program has included exhibitions devoted to the work of Robert Mangold, CoBrA, Tom Wesselman, and Nam June Paik, while the Centro Cultural de Belém is scheduled to present, over the coming year, the work of Paula Rego, Donald Judd, and an overview of European and American Pop art. The first Portuguese collection of international contemporary art, the Berardo collection, will be permanently housed in an exhibition space in Sintra, scheduled to open in the spring. In Porto, at Serralves, Alvaro Siza designed the country’s first national museum dedicated solely to contemporary art, which will open its doors in 1998. Siza, the primary reference point for an influential school of Portuguese architects, is regarded as having reinvigorated Modernist architecture by paying particular attention to local contexts, and in that sense, emerges as a curious example of the negotiation between global and local cultural values that typifies modes of expression in semi-peripheral countries.

Such a negotiation is evident in the twenty-year-long career of Julião Sarmento, who has been selected to represent Portugal in the 1997 Venice Biennale. Heavily influenced at the beginning of his career by post-Conceptual practices, Sarmento then turned to painting, although never in a formalist way. Elliptically broaching questions of desire and sexuality, his work sets up a game between artist and spectator. The partial figures that populate his canvases read as elements of the artist’s memory or sexual imagination, fragments that the viewer must link together in a narrative of his own construction. Also centered on the body is the work of Rui Chafes, which stands out from that of the youngest group of Portuguese artists. Based on elaborate readings of German Romanticism, his sculptures suggest objects for the torture and seclusion of an always absent body, as if the body were an ideal object impossible to represent.

Pedro Cabrita Reis is the most well-known of those artists who came to the fore in the ’80s and who attained international recognition late in that decade. Many of his works evoke simple forms, often those of southern European architecture, that signal the occupation of a territory, sites of communication, or habitation. Yet these references are in no way parochial; rather, Cabrita Reis reclaims for artistic practice a language divorced from that of mass media, which fascinates so many contemporary artists.

In a society like that of Portugal, on which Catholicism has had a strong and lasting influence, discussions of the body and sexuality were taboo until quite recently. For that reason, the work of a new generation of choreographers and dancers, among them Vera Mantero and Francisco Camacho, acquires particular significance, even on a sociological level. Both these artists work in an intermediary zone between dance, theater, and performance. Mantero explores what everyday gestures and neurotic behavior have in common, contorting her body as if to evoke a seemingly inconquerable individual and collective disease. Camacho draws on well-known historical or literary figures to create fragmented narratives that perversely enact the collective imaginary. In his most recent piece, Dom São Sebastião, 1996, Saint Sebastian confronts Dom Sebastião, a Portuguese king obsessed with colonial expansion in Africa, who was defeated and killed in the battle of Alcázarquivir in 1578. After his death, Portugal suffered a similar fate: the country lost its independence and was dominated by Spain until 1640. Camacho reveals the underlying sociopolitical significance of the myth that grew around Dom Sebastião—which has it that the young king did not really die in battle and would return one day to save his homeland—a myth infused with “saudade” and dreams of miraculous salvation.

Filmmaker João Cesar Monteiro examines similar themes in his movies, such as Recordações da casa amarela (Recollections of a yellow house, 1989) and A comedia de Deus (God’s comedy, 1995). In the latter, the main character is tormented by sordid intrigues and misadventures that collectively form a sad commentary on contemporary mores. Our antihero attempts to transcend his madness and his miseries by searching for salvation in erotic and metaphysical deliriums. Salvation is finally attained through his fetishization of the female body and his discovery of a perfect new ice cream flavor called “paradise.” Is this twisted vision of utopia a metaphor for a country that has often been called, no irony intended, “a garden by the sea”?

Alexandre Melo is an art critic and professor of the sociology of culture at the University of Lisbon. His latest book, Velocidades contemporaneas (Contemporary velocities), was published by Assirio & Alvim (Lisbon, 1995).

Translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Glaser.