Hellmut Wohl1995

Text in reference to:
Pintura  1971 - 1994 - Fundación Arte y Tecnologia, Telefónica, Madrid, 1995
If one were to trace a genealogy of the works of Manuel Amado of the past twenty-three years in the present exhibition one would have to begin with the panels painted at the beginning of the Quattrocento by Filippo Brunelleschi of the Baptistry and the Piazza della Signoria in Florence as demonstrations of artificial perspective. The two panels have been lost; but they were described in the later fifteenth century in a biography of Brunelleschi by his friend Antonio Manetti, who in 1470 was named by Benedetto Dei as one of the masters of perspective in Florence.

Perspective was not an invention of the Renaissance. It had been known in antiquity, and reached a high level of sophistication in illusionistic architectural murals at Pompei and Boscoreale during the age of Augustus. In the later Middle Ages perspective was studied by philosophers and theologians as a branch of optics. At the beginning of the fourteenth-century, it became part of the painter's formal vocabulary for representing the visible world.

The antique and medieval systems of perspective differed from Brunelleschi's - and from Manuel Amado´s - in that they operated not with one but with several vanishing points. The innovations of Brunelleschi were the establishment of a horizon line, and the placement on the horizon of a central vanishing point that served as the unifying and organizing focus for the representation of simulated three-dimensional objects receding toward it in a fictive, mathematically coherent, seemingly measurable three-dimensional space.

The method of constructing a perspective system according to Brunelleschi's rules was first theoretically formulated in 1435 by Leon Battista Alberti. Perspective, however, was only part of Alberti's definition of painting. Indivisibly linked to it was what Alberti called «the reception of light», the realistic depiction of light in the projected three-dimensional space of the picture, and the distribution of light and shade on the surfaces of objects in accordance with the way we see objects in nature, so as to produce what writers of the Renaissance referred to as relief, the illusion that objects are three-dimensional. Alberti did not, however, think of perspective and of the realistic rendering of light and shade as ends in themselves. Rather, they served the istoria, which he considered the ultimate objective of painting, and which he defined as the representation of an action in such a manner that the spectator would experience it as if it were being performed on a stage in front of his eyes, and would be emotionally and psychologically moved by it.

The representation of the istoria holds no interest for Manuel Amado, and it is expunged from his work. In respect to perspective and the depiction of light and shade, however, his paintings follow Alberti's directives; and they are in this regard comparable to wood inlays (intarsie) and paintings of architectural perspectives of the Italian Renaissance. The panel of an Ideal City in the Museo Nazionale delle Marche at Urbino by a Florentine painter of ca. 1500 is an excellent example. Devoid of narrative or human content, these works, especially Renaissance architectural intarsie, have striking affinities with Amado's equally empty, silent canvases. Henri Focillon in La vie des formes referred to such affinities as «families of the mind», relationships that he thought of as bearing out his theory that one of the ways in which the creative impulse in art manifests itself is that at different places and different times, without knowledge of each other and in unrelated contexts, artists will arrive at similar formal inventions and solutions.

Yet there are also inherent differences between the architectural perspectives of Manuel Amado and of Renaissance intarsie, differences that point to the gulf that separates the Renaissance from the twentieth century. In the Renaissance renderings of perspective views of architecture had a primarily decorative function. They were admired as ornaments, and prized for the inventiveness and virtuosity of their mathematical tricks and illusionistic effects. Such factors play hardly any role, or no role at all, in the perspectival images of architectural exteriors or interiors of Manuel Amado, neither in how he conceives them, nor in how we perceive them. «When I am painting», he has said, «there is... only the conscious effort of finding luminous signs that imitate what we all know without being sure of knowing it». He paints, he has also said, «in order to attempt to see better what I have already seen, to be sure».

Artists' statements - the writings of Mondrian are a case in point - should be approached with caution. Do not believe the artist, D. H. Lawrence warned us, but the tale; the task of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it. What Manuel Amado has said about his work should, nevertheless, be taken seriously. It suggests that while the aesthetic equilibrium of his paintings endows them with a compelling serenity and beauty, his purpose in creating them is less ornamental than philosophical, less decorative than existential, in the sense that in and through them he endeavors to authenticate his visual perceptions and memories.

The pursuit of the authenticity of individual experience is a modern, not a Renaissance project. The Renaissance looked upon the world with supreme confidence in human reason and in man's capacity for imposing rational form on the irregularity of nature. Today we are less sure. In art that uncertainty was first manifest in the paintings of Cézanne, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty elucidated in his celebrated essay Cézanne's Doubt. In the art of the past century doubt and uncertainty have been expressed in many ways, among them the Cubism of Bracque and Picasso, which put into question the validity of the perspectival tradition by projecting the fragmented, interpenetrating forms of objects directly onto the picture surface; or the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, in which mystery, enigma, and paralysis hang over the precariously tilted perspectives and hypnotically oppressive contrasts between light and shade of empty railroad stations, abandoned towers, and deserted squares. Amado's pictures share with de Chirico's their silence and air of nostalgia. 

The logic and coherence of Renaissance architectural perspectives suggest that the world could not be represented otherwise than they depict it. They are composed from the vantage point not of an actual but of an ideal observer, a point of view that enables the artist to describe clearly and to maintain control over the totality of all that is in his field of vision, The perspective rendering of a building in Renaissance picture could serve as a model for its construction, The paintings of Manuel Amado show us no more of a facade, or of a room, corridor, or stairwell than an observer is able to see at close range. Unlike the compositions of the Renaissance, in which perspective and light and shade are at the service of objective visual explication and coherence, the images in Amado's pictures, often staged at an oblique angle and cut by the frame so that they consist not of whole structures of objects but of parts or fragments of them, are subjective reflections on what the artist has seen or remembers having seen.

Amado's paintings are in this respect emblematic of a change that has taken place since the Renaissance in the nature of vision. The Renaissance model of vision was the mathematically grounded, geometric system of linear perspective in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the Italian word for optics was prospettiva - with its ideal point of view, fixed mathematical relationships, and suppression of subjective visual experience. At the beginning of the nineteenth-century this impersonal, geometric system of perspectival vision, with its objective truths and immutable rules, ceased to be valid or useful in a rapidly changing world. The new model of vision that evolved in the course of the nineteenth century was physiological and subjective. Its primary object was the process of perception itself, and it relocated vision in the subjective visual experience of the observer.

The principal vehicle as well as the primary agent of this modern model of vision has been photography. As a result of the ability of the photographer to frame and compose his subject from whatever vantage point he may choose -close up, far away, above, below, frontally, obliquely- photography has created a new kind of image that is dependent on the point of view from which it is seen and on the exact moment -Henri Cartier-Bresson has called it «the decisive moment»- at which the photographer releases the shutter, fixing that moment on film like a fly in amber.

Beginning in the second half on the nineteenth-century painters -Degas and Caillebotte come to mind at once- have also assimilated the influence of photography, and have composed pictures in accordance with photography's subjective mode of vision. Manuel Amado has followed in their footsteps. His sharp, clean definition of shapes and of patterns of light and shade on frontally or obliquely aligned walls, doorways, windows, or stairways are also devices of the language of photography. The photograph that Andre Kertesz made in 1926 of the landing of Mondrian's Paris studio (Chez Mondrian) is a particularly apt case in point.

Like the photographer, though not constrained by the limitations of the camera or of the photographic process, Manuel Amado concentrates his pictorial resources on creating the illusion of a moment at which light illuminates and casts shadows on the forms in his paintings at a specific angle and with a specific pattern and intensity. The purity of means with which he achieves that illusion is reminiscent of the uncluttered geometric shapes and unornamented surfaces of Portuguese vernacular architecture. The rewards of this concentration and purity; of «finding luminous signs that imitate what we all know without being sure of knowing it», are the clarity and assurance with which the paintings realize the artist's objective of seeing better what he -and what we too- have already seen. The spell of silence and nostalgia that pervades the pictures, as if nothing in them has been or should be disturbed so as not to break that spell, suggests that they are private, personal dialogues not only with what the artist has seen, but also with places, rooms, corridors, walls, steps, terraces - that he knew long ago - in a past that although it has all but vanished persists in his memory and in his paintings.