Fernando António Baptista Pereira Ekphrasis Revisited 2000

Text on The Great Flood (1996), paintings by Manuel Amado, and The Play of Reflections (1997), poems by Nuno Júdice

Circumstance and History

In 1996, Manuel Amado channelled the impression left by the floods that, after a few distressing years of drought, had ravaged Portugal during the 1995-96 winter, into the creation of a series of thirteen paintings under the general title of ‘The Great Flood.’ This group of paintings would remain away from the public eye until recently (January 2001), when they were shown at the Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian, in Paris. Throughout March 1997 Nuno Júdice, who had seen the pictures and felt ‘thrilled by their newness,’ as Clarice Lispector would say, wrote a cycle of thirteen poems on the paintings of Manuel Amado, under the title O Jogo dos Reflexos [The Play of Reflections]. A book with the same title has now been published, combining the poems with photographic reproductions of the paintings.  

This fertile play of seduction and contamination between Word and Image, or, if we wish, in even broader terms, between Painting and Writing, is part of a long tradition that dates back to Pre-History, that is to say, to History before it became conventionalised by the omnipresence of Writing as a means of communication and memory.   

Over a period of millennia, Painting, in its earliest incarnation on rock walls, not only created Humanity’s first symbolic space, the painted cave, but also birthed, during a long process of progressive but fitful abstraction and geometrization, the figures that would become the very signs employed in Writing. 

Having fulfilled what can be described as its first mission – endowing Man with an efficient and lasting system of communication – painting was reborn as figuration and representation. Then, there came its emulation by Poetry, which drove Classical Antiquity and its modern derivations to create a rhetorical system of equivalences and mutual compensations that would be synthesised in the useful formulation Ut Pictura Poesis. For instance, and in accordance with that theory, if Painting is a mute Poetry and Poetry is a talking Painting, Poetry cannot benefit from the added value of forms and colours which the Painter uses to reinvent his references. But, curiously, it was thanks to the exercise of ekphrasis – the poetic or narrative description, usually in the form of eulogies, of such pictorial compositions (or other kinds of art works) as the very lifelike paintings by the legendary Apelles, the famous murals depicting Trojan history mentioned in the Ennead, or Achilles’ shield in the Iliad – that many creations by the masters of Antiquity have managed to survive as imprecise, purely literary memory, from which the concrete image is absent… 

Other forms of association/contamination between the two arts were cultivated during the Middle Ages, with interesting developments that continue in the present. 

On the one hand, there was the homology between visual signs and writing as materiality and processuality, either as an epiphany of the Mystery in the skilled recording of the Divine Word or as an automatism of the creative gesture, a venture that had a brilliant start in Irish illumination and reached its akhmé in contemporaneity, with Concrete and Visual Poetry; on the other, the use of the Image as a means to illustrate or comment on the Word, starting a genre that had many notable practitioners up to our days, from Botticelli to Picasso.

During the Renaissance, the Albertian notion of the painting as a window began a long cycle of five centuries of near-absolute rule over the various modes of representation (which would be thoroughly put into question by the various currents of 20th century Modernism) and made a decisive contribution to the revalorisation of both the illustrative approach and of the ekphrasis’ role as a literary discourse on images, and also as the (perhaps involuntary) starting-point of an artists’ biographies-based memorialism and even of the criticism of images, the source of Art History and Philosophy.  

In response to the creative possibilities offered by the Image to the literary text, Literature did more than limit itself to the description of existing or lost images, and began creating a number of fictional pictures, from the famous silk flags of Vasco de Gama’s ships, on which Camoens poetically depicted the heroic scenes from Portuguese History ‘described’ by Paulo de Gama to the Governor of Calecut (The Lusiads, Canto VIII), to Oscar Wilde’s astounding portrait of Dorian Gray, which grew older instead of the portrayed.

The poems Nuno Júdice wrote on a series of paintings by Manuel Amado go beyond a mere (but doubtlessly healthy) return to classical ekphrasis, nonetheless tempered by decades of modernity, during which the representational limits of language were constantly being put into question through the highlighting of its processual self-awareness. 

In my opinion, Nuno Júdice’s neo-romantic cycle reformulates the ekphrasis’ original problem, by appropriately emerging from the Pessoan unrest Manuel Amado’s paintings (with their remote neoclassic references) generate in the poetic persona and then trying to translate it into a new language, reinventing, re-centring and amplifying it as a lyrical expression dominated by the fascinating death/rebirth binomial suggested by the pictorial series itself, with its strange world of images, deserted by the human figure (the Poet writes: ‘I dream / that a life may exist on the other side / of the casements,’ from ‘Perspective’) but characterised by the excess, pregnant with ambivalent meanings, of water, and also by the somewhat voyeuristic (already noticed by others) presence of the painter-character who sees and represents.   

The Poet makes the apparent absence of the Painter in his paintings explicit by turning him, in his poems, into the subject of a gliding enunciation that turns being and feeling into the act of writing, and writing into a superior form of imagining, remembering and even loving:    

‘...I lost a shudder
of tides while crossing the patio
of your voice. I picked the words one by one,
like leaves dragged by sundown’s vague
flow. I laid them on the table of morning,
well spread, so that the first sunlight
would dry them. With the heat, they flew
up to your lips: they begged you to open them,
to receive each one of their syllables,
to drink their consonants’ acid liqueur.
Once out of the lips, the words
die with a mossy groan. I ran
after them, with a butterfly collector’s 
yearning. I saw them slip through my fingers;
and wiped a residue of sounds on the foam of song.’ 
(from ‘Bust’)

Space and Time

The world inhabited by the harmony of forms and feelings Manuel Amado’s painting has cultivated over decades, via an original aesthetics that manifests itself through a veritable splendour of seeing, appears, in this unique and revealing (in more than one sense) series, definitively transfigured and drastically disturbed by the excessive figuration of water, which has subverted some of its fundamental space-time values. 

In a painting that constantly displays its Painter’s architectural training through rigorous spatial definition, skilled interior / exterior articulation and masterly manipulation of light and shade, everything, or nearly so, changes when a liquid mass becomes a dominant motif, even when it is no more than a mere plane of mirroring reflections. Up and down become almost equivalent, as if ‘a shipwreck of horizons’ (from ‘Perspective’) had taken place; the references that have defined the major structuring lines of space since the Egyptians – the vertical and the horizontal – are disturbed, and images become duplicated through a mirror-like effect, imprecise but indisputably effective.   

The powerful, intensely solar daylight to which Manuel Amado’s paintings had accustomed us has also changed: the sophisticated lighting in these paintings, reflected on many levels, is cooled by the omnipresent liquid surfaces (‘This is where light / ends: exhausted reflections, longing / for shade,’ from ‘Declining Perspective’), taking on fascinating gradations, in a skilful exercise of representation / re-creation.  

However, the most radical changes concern the notation of Time. In fact, Manuel Amado’s painting aspires, especially on the level of enunciation, to a certain timelessness, which comes from sacrificing the incidental (just as the Poet refuses   ‘those who lose themselves in the poem’s / circumstantial atria,’ from ‘Principle’) in favour of absolute necessities; hence its deeply idealised realism, once defined by someone, with some accuracy, as abstract. 

While some previous pictorial series have already showed instances of a certain taste for the capture of instants, in a rhetorical effect that is closer to a naturalistic approach (as was the case of Baroque and Impressionism, but also of Lucian Freud and Paula Rego’s more recent works) than to the realism that generally defines Amado’s work (which had its origin in Jan Van Eyck, and kept developing through a series of neoclassical revivals until reaching David Hockney or the latest phase of Amado’s contemporary compatriot Jorge Pinheiro), nothing can truly compare to the unstable temporal equilibrium these paintings display. 

It is not, then, by chance that one of the most recurring concepts in Nuno Júdice’s poetic cycle is, precisely, the ‘instant’: ‘Everything you told me / fitted that exact instant, / which time has covered with / the weight of its waters,’ from ‘Revelation,’ or ‘Drop by drop, his life fills the cup / of the instant,’ from ‘Voracity,’ or yet ‘In the reverse instant, night becomes / too exhausted for moss,’ from ‘Isis.’

Water has invaded every location, transfiguring the spaces by withdrawing them from their telluric immobility and introducing the shudder of change and transformation (‘Beneath a must of clouds fermentation / changes the being,’ from ‘Voracity’), be it the one associated with the inferred slow process of material decomposition through excess humidity (‘...Algae proliferate on their / texture, drinking the window’s last / glare’, from ‘Angle’), or the one that manifests itself in the fluidity and reverberation of surfaces, those false floors that conceal the death of everything organic (‘A distillation of darkness: its black / light falls on the weight of other lights, / the dead reflection of ancient universes, / leaving behind the echo that will not return,’ from ‘Vortex’), but is also the harbinger of an ineluctable Spring (‘…in the buds that multiply among / the leaves, a future blossoming of colours,’ from ‘Botanics Lesson’).

In summary, and in global thematic terms, this pictorial series shows us, within a context of sublime serenity (‘I push the door of the diurnal hemisphere. / I invoke the logic of solar explanations, / the thirst for a sublime rhetoric,’ from ‘Arrival’), the symphonic magnitude of devastation: desolation and death seem to emerge out of all compositions, enveloping spaces, lurking around the houses and invading them (‘What / blurred entity awaits me behind the glass? / No voice shows me the way,’ from ‘Initiation’); however, once the storm is replaced by calm, a re-emergence of life becomes manifest here and there (‘A bird has leapt off the stanza’s branches,’ from ‘Play of Reflections’).

The paintings / The poems

How do we ‘read’ the paintings and poems? Devoid of narrative concerns, the pictorial series, which pre-dates the poem cycle, has a random sequencing that will change with each showing, in accordance with a variety of criteria, even if, should we take the effort to inquire into the memories of their execution, we would be able to find out – if that were relevant – the order in which the painter created each painting. We know that Manuel Amado began the series with the two paintings to which the two first poems in the cycle are connected, and then continued to execute the paintings one by one or sometimes in pairs, without applying any order to them prior to the conclusion of the whole. 

Looking at the poems’ dates, it quickly becomes clear that they were all written in a month, but not in the (homologically non-narrative) order the cycle adopted on its completion. This being a book of poems, the order in which the paintings’ sequential reading should be made must be the one imposed by the final organisation of the poetic cycle. By an irony of fate or as an interesting consequence of this new ekphrasis brought by Nuno Júdice, the paintings are quite independent from the poetic creative effort later brought to bear upon them, but their reading as a sequence ended up being defined by that same poetic imagination, thus strengthening the symbolic interdependence of the two series, which had actually been triggered by the ekphrasis

While the paintings can be seen, ‘read’ and enjoyed without resorting to the poems, the poetic cycle only makes full sense if we know it was conceived from the pictorial series and have access to it in some way, even if only through photographs, thus missing the ‘aura’ of the originals… But the paintings, in turn, have gained symbolic added value by having triggered the poetic cycle, which has amplified and enriched their universe of references, making them remarkably ‘eloquent’ and increasing their seductive power over both viewers and readers.