Maison Caillebotte opens the door to a little known, even secret, history of modernism in Portugal

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Maison Caillebotte opens the door to a little known, even secret, history of modernism in Portugal
Antonio Dacosta, Cena Aberta, 1940 Oil on canvas -159.5 x 200 cm, Inv. 80P123 Photographer, Paulo Costa CAM-Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.

YERRES.- The “Modernist Portuguese Art” exhibition which is being presented from 21 May to 30 October 2022 at the Maison Caillebotte opens the door to a little known, even secret, history of modernism in Portugal.

This history took place between Portugal and Paris, attracting artists, intellectuals and writers worldwide. From the XIXth Century Paris, the international art capital, was THE destination for Portuguese artists in search of modernism. It covers a huge period from the 1910s to the 1970s and brings together artists of different generations and with very different styles, all of whom have lived in Paris. It clarifies some areas in a long history with many exchanges.

The “Modernist Portuguese Art” exhibition enables the public to discover artists they have never heard of and look at those they know from a new perspective.

The modernist adventure started in the XXth Century, around 1910, led by a handful of young poets and artists, who had decided to get to grips with the destiny of Portuguese art and culture: Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Mário de Sá-Carneiro (1890-1916), Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918), José de Almada Negreiros (1893-1970), Santa Rita Pintor (1889-1918), Eduardo Viana (1881-1967), José Pacheco (1885-1934) wanted “to create cosmopolitan art in space and time” (Pessoa) which was contemporary, European and, of course, Lusitanian. This initial modernism, perfectly in tune with avant-garde, futurism and cubism in particular, was an intense, prolific and dazzling adventure (1910-1918).

It was rich in masterpieces and decisive productions, reflected by poems and manifestos written by Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro in particular and published in their review, Orpheu. At the end of the First World War the adventure came to an end with the death of three key people: Sá-Carneiro in 1916, Amadeo and Santa Rita in 1918.

The exhibition unlocks three moments in the modernist puzzle.

The first is through the choice of the symbolic works of Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Eduardo Viana, Almada Negreiros, and the Delaunays. It evokes the relationships and exchanges between Paris and Portugal to which the review, Orpheu (1915), run by Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro, bears witness. So we talk about the “Oprheu generation”.

There were many other episodes in this first moment: the time spent in Northern Portugal by Sonia and Robert Delaunay, around whom a friendly circle of four artists (Viana, Amadeo, Almada, Pacheco) was formed between 1915 and 1917, the futurist conference at the Teatro República (1917) in Lisbon, the only edition of the review, Portugal Futurista, designed by Santa Rita Pintor.

There were few protagonists for this Portuguese avant-garde movement. Furthermore, most of Santa Rita’s works have disappeared. The dying artist ordered their destruction so only several rare examples escaped. In addition, the amazing work of Amadeo seems all the more unique: inventive and prolific it was produced over about eight years (1910-1918), in Paris, and Portugal. He was the most international artist of his generation. His work was unveiled in France at the Grand-Palais in 2016. It will have no direct posterity, probably as an implicit consequence of Salazar's dictatorship (1933-1974) and a society which was firmly stuck in detrimental conservatism pushing a number of artists into exile (Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Mário Cesariny, António Dacosta).

The exhibition spotlights an important aspect of the first modernists: the interest in traditional Portuguese culture shown by Souza-Cardoso, Viana, the Delaunays, especially Sonia, which combines modern form with popular culture, whereas the avant-gardes were still not taking any interest in it, with the exception of the Russians. So Sonia found “her Ukraine” in the rural life of Minho province in Northern Portugal.

Two women, Sarah Affonso (1899-1983) and Ofélia Marques (1902-1952), conducted unique, discreet work. In the 20s Affonso painted portraits using firm, synthetic lines and took inspiration from popular culture. Ofélia made the most of a private, erotic world in her sensitive, ironic drawings.

Our puzzle is completed with two other important moments. Vieira da Silva and Árpád
Szenes continued their independent work in a long-term dialogue. The exhibition takes us into the studio and the intersecting world of this exceptional couple. They were stateless (until their naturalisation in 1956) and Parisian, and the very embodiment of humanist modernism.

Finally, the exhibition is a reminder of Portuguese surrealism, founded in 1940, with two figures who were unknown outside Portugal: Cesariny and Dacosta who took up residence in Paris at the end of the 1940s. Cesariny was also a poet and was moved by a desire for experimentation and produced works alternating between surrealist, abstract and informal. Soon after he arrived in Paris Dacosta kept his distance from the art world for several decades and then returned to the artistic scene with a new painting style: modernism turns inwards in a melancholic, post-modern reverie.

What does modernism do for Portugal? What does Portugal do for modernism?

For Portuguese modernists it seems that the question of Portugal’s position, and that of the artist, in time and space, history and European and international culture holds existential meaning, haunted by a mythologised colonial past and the concept of lost grandeur. The position he occupied and from which he saw things is an essential, political, poetic, aesthetic and spiritual question which preoccupied Pessoa. This question is ever present, driving a plural modernism which is constantly questioning itself and moves forward in time and space.

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