He has a child’s gaze. A blue, liquid gaze, like the sea he sometimes lets into his paintings. He is discreet, almost shy, gentle in manners and words. He has established himself among Portuguese painters through his perseverance in exploring the fields of painting. Things began in earnest during the 1970s. Since then, he has kept to his observation-deck, offering us, with unrushed regularity, new works in which the forms and atmospheres of spaces (interior and exterior, but all of them made by human hands) are being continuously reinvented.
With a background in Architecture, Manuel Amado is familiar with the rules of the drawing-board – exactitude in lines, in drawing, in composition. From that discipline, which he has since abandoned, he has kept the command and precision with which he gives form to the forms he chooses to depict in his paintings. But it was the winds of painting that made him change course in the middle of his journey. It seems that his paintings always want to tell us stories, namely those we may invent for the gardens, rooms or windows he offers to our eyes. These stories come in the form of questions: who passed through here? Who opened this door? Who sat on this chair? Nearly always void of human figures, his serene and beautiful paintings may seem melancholy settings for the scenes of a dreamed life. But what they do, most of all, is ask us to take them to the place of our imaginings and memories. They ask us to make them feel inhabited. The painter, who enjoys constructing sceneries, counts on the staging skills of those who look at his paintings and puts us on the stage of his themes. There, on the canvas, his issues will become ours… We will be the ones who populate his paintings. Just visit King Dom Luís Gallery, in the Ajuda Palace, and see his latest exhibition – "O Espectáculo Vai Começar…” [The Show Is About to Start...]. With the theatre as their sole subject, the fifty paintings on show remind us of plays we once watched, actors we would have liked to applaud, wonderful texts we have never forgotten, backstage facilities we were unable to visit, corridors that once took us to the most restricted and desirable dressing-room. Go there.
Manuel, tell me who you are.
— What I’d like to say is that I am a Portuguese man, born in this peripheral extreme of Europe, who fell in love with painting at a very early age (I happened to make my studies in Architecture, and was an architect for many years, but painting was always around the corner). That passion continues now, and has indeed become more intense with the passing of time.
From a very early age?
— Yes, but it grew little by little. Ever since I was a kid, I was in contact with the art world, with the books on painting that were around the house, with my father’s friends, who were mostly artists. Almada Negreiros and lots of people from the theatre were constant visits. But I started to become really interested while studying at the Fine Arts School. I was part of a group that got a studio, where we would meet to talk and listen to music. A few easels, brushes and paints were lying around, so I started painting. My work was pretty awful, since not only I was quite clueless, but also seemingly the least talented of the bunch. Still, I kept going, and in Angola, during my military service, I painted two or three portraits as a way to pass the time; then I happened to make a little picture that blew my mind. I was so excited when I finished it; I thought: this is what I’m going to do! That was really my first picture; it was very hard to do, because I was still clueless about painting, but it became my guiding light, it took hold of me. I gave it to a friend, and lost track of it.
In order not to lose track of what you see, given that you regularly paint spaces — gardens, rooms, windows overlooking the sea, etc. —, do you always carry a notebook and pencil around?
Yes, I draw a lot; I make drawings to get ideas for future paintings. But it is on the canvas that the real drawing comes about. At the very beginning of my days as a painter, long before I even thought of making exhibitions or becoming a professional artist, I did everything from memory. Memory was actually what interested me: childhood episodes, houses, impressions, the recollection of a certain light flowing through a window… Then, little by little, I began to connect more to what I was seeing. I often resorted to photos, like most painters do, but memory remained in the background, developing concepts for the paintings. Inspiration has always been my gold mine. We are all made of memory; nothing is more important, more inspiring than that.
When did your first solo show took place?
— It was already in the 1970s, I think it was 1978, by invitation of Cruzeiro Seixas, who at the time managed the gallery of the Costa do Sol Tourism Board, in Estoril. It featured twenty paintings, which were not for sale. They were all on loan from family members and friends. For twenty-five years, I worked as an architect, with a fixed schedule and income. During the final ten years of that period, I was already painting regularly, alongside my job. Eventually, that situation became impossible: I lacked the energy to properly fulfil both roles, and consequently decided to make painting my sole profession.
Signs of your architectural training and work are quite visible in your canvases. They clearly stand out, as a sort of dominant note, in most of your painting subjects.
— Of course, that would naturally stand out, even because I paint many built spaces. But perhaps that representation of spaces is not the sole reason that dominant note is noticed by the viewers of my pictures; there is also my knowledge of architectural materials and objects, a knowledge earned from many years of practice. I know what makes a window, a door, a floor, a wall, a piece of furniture…
When you turn your attention outside, is it because a nostalgic landscape artist has manifested in you?
— No. I am always the same painter, though my subjects vary. This urge to paint trees came up late in my path as a painter. Gardens are constructed landscapes that please me much, and that is the reason I put them on canvas. They are a very special human construction. You just need to look carefully, and soon you will see magnificent compositions, be it an isolated tree, a clump of bushes or a set of trees, from the same family or different from one another. I have never had pretensions to make "landscape painting/architecture”; in fact, my relationship with architecture was always distant and relatively cool. What I enjoyed most while working as an architect was doing urban planning, helping to design plans for districts. I really liked such projects.
Do you habitually visit museums?
— Yes, although I find annoying those museums that were the product of some sort of trend, which I believe is already cooling down, in which both the architectural project and the profusion of highly spectacular features in it do their utmost to distract the viewer’s eye from looking, calmly and attentively, at the works of art on display, i.e. the main reason for the existence of any museum. That aside, I have long enjoyed visiting museums, whenever I can. Museums and galleries. I like to discover painters and paintings I had not seen before and I love to revisit those I already know and admire.
Any favourite among favourites?
— There is a very special figure, which I only discovered after I had started to paint – Edward Hopper. It was a dazzling discovery. I felt that he was like a sort of older cousin, a close relative, a member of my tribe of painters. He is a wonderful painter. No one else has managed to convey with such rawness and intensity the tragedy of American loneliness. No one else has gone so far in depicting all the weightiness of that tragedy.
Your painting possesses a very staging-like quality. Each painting is like a "scene”, even though human figures are very rare, heightening the loneliness of your actions as a painter. Yet it seems that you expect that those who look at your paintings will be able to imagine a personal narrative through their gaze, with characters entering and exiting the rooms, strolling through the gardens, gazing at the sea.
— You are right, my paintings are "scenes”. I am perfectly aware of that staging-like quality. I come from a generation that was very informed by the cinema: the language of images and sounds in motion is essential to the way we think, see and depict the world. I have, indeed, made few paintings with human figures, but they exist. Teresa appears, here and there, in some of them. This exhibition (a monothematic show, focused on the theatrical universe), which is currently at the Ajuda Palace, will be followed by another one, at the end of the year, in Cascais. It will be a wide-ranging event, mixing old pieces with more recent ones; in one of its sections, I wish to show some of the portraits I have painted and a few pictures with people in them.
From staging to staging, from scene to scene, you have arrived at this grand homage to the theatre. You got there led by your memories of the theatre, which are present in that magnificent show at King Dom Luís Gallery, in Lisbon. As someone who was formed by the cinema, what place has the theatre in you?
— It is a major legacy from my father, who utterly loved the theatre. It was his lifelong love. He was constantly committed to the theatre, but, being a very special person, he also did other extraordinary things.
Before we start travelling through your memories of the theatre, tell me about that most extraordinary legacy your father, Fernando Amado, left to his children.
— My father was a rare individual. A really special person. To give you an idea about him, he even created an athletics scoring table, which for years was considered the best in the world. Yet, because it was the creation of a Portuguese man, a citizen of a country whose government saw no value in such breakthroughs, that scoring table never received official recognition from such entities as the Olympic Committee, for instance.
An athletics scoring table?
— It was a table to set scores for pentathlon and decathlon. These contests include a number of diverse events, which need to be compared, in order to define the athletes’ placing. The French sports newspaper "L'Équipe”, one of the world’s authorities on athletics, showed great interest in my father’s tables. The amazing thing is that he did these things out of sheer enthusiasm for athletics: he thought it was important to assess the scores in each event and in the overall contest as well as possible. But his ruling passion was always the theatre. A graduate in Geography and History from the Lisbon Faculty of Arts, he never abandoned that greater love. After two years presenting his earlier stage productions at Ginásio, a theatre that no longer exists, he and Osório de Castro finally found a location for establishing Casa da Comédia. It was a tiny space in Lisbon, near the Ancient Art Museum. Years went by, my father got weary and sick, and Casa da Comédia came into the hands of Filipe La Féria. My father had also been the director of the Lisbon Faculty of Arts’ Theatre and of yet another theatre, this one with an all-girl cast; plus, he taught theatre at the Lisbon Conservatory. What he liked most of all, more than seeing the final production on stage, was the whole preparation and set-up work that went on before the premiere, especially the rehearsals. He wrote and staged many plays, but his greatest excitement came from the rehearsals. Some time ago, Couto Viana, who was a friend of my father’s, though younger than him, told me a story I was unfamiliar with: at Teatro do Salitre, a play written and directed by my father was under rehearsal; one day, the actors in the cast found out that my father was already rehearsing on the stage, but his "actors” were the cleaning lady, the doorman and the ticket booth lady. That was what he liked to do: to try and create theatre with everybody. Any passers-by were fair game to him.
Was there a "family theatre” at home?
— I don’t recall that. I started doing theatre while at Colégio Moderno. The school would hire Manuel Lereno to prepare its theatrical events. They produced new plays, two or three times a year. I was always there at every rehearsal. I did a lot of performing on stage when I was a kid, right until I was 18. There was even a time when I was performing both at Colégio Moderno and at Couto Viana’s theatre. I could have had a career as an actor, but I was a bit afraid of professional theatre at the time, so when I was about 18 I drifted away from that.
Working as a scenographer wouldn’t have interested you?
— I was very interested in that; actually, I worked a bit in that area, though much less than I would have liked to. I once made a set design for one of my father’s productions, and I enjoyed it greatly. Maybe I should have insisted on that and even gone professional, but it was not to be.
17 January saw the opening, at the Ajuda Palace’s King Dom Luís Gallery, of your exhibition "The Show Is About to Start...”. Once again, the actors and audience are absent from your paintings, but the theatre is fully there, melancholically suggested. It seems like a cartography, made to fulfil an ancient promise.
— Yes... My latest exhibitions were organised by themes – gardens, railway stations, etc. But, as always, my paintings are devoid of literature. They are images made of encounters and memories that perhaps will evoke in those who look at my canvases a number of encounters and memories of their own. There is nothing else in them, just the things depicted. For the first time, now, with the theatres, we have something a little different. That difference is also reflected in the titles I chose for the paintings. It’s not that they have a story, actually perhaps they have many stories, but there is a specific content, made up of theatrical memories, that was not usually present in my previous work. I don’t know if that content is poetic; perhaps it is. When Helmut Wohl saw these paintings, he told me they were a profound reflection on the essence of the theatre. Hearing that from him moved me. I know, to me that is a given, that the gesture of painting is something quite special, something that has nothing to do with thoughts or words, even when the pictures contain writing. When you paint, you paint and nothing else. That is also the case with the paintings in this exhibition, but I felt a new need, the need to offer a "nod” in my titles, so that people will not look absent-mindedly at the paintings. In your question, you mention an "ancient promise”. I wouldn’t put it like that, but it is true that I had long wished to create something about the theatre. I have done it now. And with great pleasure, as you mentioned.
Is it a celebration? An homage? A return to a time in life when the theatre took up hours of your day?
— I think it’s all that at once. We always dream the dream of returning. In the words of Mephistopheles, in Goethe’s Faust: "What we were used to still is paradise”.
Did it take long to paint these pictures?
— It took about three or four years, longer then the paintings for the previous exhibitions. Then again, this one is larger, with fifty pictures. The others averaged about twenty canvases.
Do you remember which painting first set you truly on your way, defining a route map for you?
— I began with a corner of scenery, with a few green flames, a memory of stage sceneries from when I was a kid, made for a children’s theatre performance. Then, the painting itself was set aside for a while, waiting for the others to arrive. But it was that bit of scenery from a children’s play that summoned them all, until I had done fifty paintings.
Do you take your time preparing canvases and paints?
— Formerly, I would only let go of a painting when I saw it was finished. Now, I don’t do that; I go from canvas to canvas as I see fit. I may start on a new painting, leaving others aside for a while, until the time comes to take them up again, often in a different direction than initially. As for canvas preparation, I am not at all a highly refined craftsman – I use widely available paints and canvases, and I like to paint with ox hair brushes. I just like them to be of a certain brand, that is all. I am self-taught, and I think I can achieve my goals using the techniques I have developed over time and the materials that I have found suit me. I have a number of easels, but essentially I use two. I always start with a charcoal drawing; then I lay down a few turpentine washes, that is the start, things are quite discreet yet; then I continue to draw over these first layers of paint; then, if there is a need for that, I trace vertical and horizontal lines using a T ruler and a set square; finally, I start applying the layers that will give the painting its final form. I work very much in layers, very fine layers, using little paint, in accordance with the velatura technique. Regarding size, my paintings are neither very small nor huge. Some sizes, I believe, ensure that the canvases will be most properly enjoyed, without drawing the viewer too close to them and, on the other hand, without overwhelming the space where they are displayed, especially in private residences.
Do you clearly know when a picture is finished?
— When I feel satisfied with what I did, I do whatever finishing work I see fit and then decide that the painting is finished. It’s fairly clear, actually.
Is signing the painting always your final touch?
— It usually is. I never liked to sign the pictures in the front. I always thought it spoiled something of what had been done.
Do you get involved in the display and arrangement of the paintings at your exhibitions?
— Oh, yes. I like to have the pictures displayed on plain walls, painted white if possible, with empty space around them to allow them to breathe. I don’t like elaborate stagings, with elements that distract the viewer’s gaze. In this exhibition, I made only one change to the layout – a few (relatively small) low walls in two of the larger rooms, to keep the space from looking too vast. Aside from that, the walls are snow-white and the canvases have air around them. They breathe.
We have been talking about painting. But what is painting?
— I think it was Gauguin who said: "Painting is a surface covered with colours”. It is that indeed, but it is also, and especially, much more than that. It is the result of an infinite number of great or small gestures, riddled with options, choices, corrections, erasures; you go back, you start again, all this over a certain stretch of time until the final result. It is hand-to-hand combat between the painter, the canvas, the brushes and the paints. The painting always carries within itself the huge physical weight of the artist’s dedication.
During that hand-to-hand combat, is it possible for the painting to become autonomous from the painter’s intentions?
I suppose it is, as it is indeed the case in other creative areas. Writers tell that sometimes they are no longer leading the text, and are running after it instead. The same goes for painting.
Concerning "The Show Is About to Start...”, tell me now what is the theatre.
— The theatre is a combination of the audience and the scene. All that is human and all that is art is communication. The theatre is a complete reality. This man-made reality is a form of community elevated to its maximum expression.
Tell me a favourite word of yours.
— Would you mind if I told you a brief fictional dialogue instead? Say this: — "Look, what a lovely painting. Who painted it? — You did.”