José Cardoso Pires Lisbon Revisited 1998

Written for the exhibition
Pintura 1975 / 1997 – Palácio Galveias, Lisbon, 1998

Somewhere, ‘sitting at the counter of silence,’ one poet (António Franco Alexandre, 1974) wrote: 

‘because I celebrate light and I find you and embrace you
I have the words’

Now, as I travel through this Lisbon according to Manuel Amado, these verses come to my mind, because here the city’s voice is made of silence, ‘without interference from words or fictions,’ as the painter himself once said on the subject of his oeuvre.  

An essential city, I would call it, on seeing it thus, so admirably restrained by the strictest syntax of light and shadow, so free from eloquence. So still, so free of characters, symbols and allegories. This, it is plain to see, is a Lisbon inhabited by carefully drawn walls and objects.    

Free of people and voiceless (the objects speak for it), a discreet serenity envelops it, a domestic serenity that extends itself through open streets and squares, which, by means of either the light or the framing, have become closed in unexpected intimacy.    

Everything here is in a state of innocent suspension and, because of that, everything surprises and invites questioning. An orderly line of chairs in an otherwise empty room or a half-open door suggest some mystery in the reality behind them, due to the extreme simplicity of their evidence. The obvious inspires new readings, as is the case here, and the same happens with the evidence of the architectural precision with which, for instance, the painter describes the buildings in Rua do Comércio, lending them a public, near-Renaissance dignity. 

Precision in line and in light. To tell, without a story or characters. Therein lies the miracle: as in António Franco Alexandre’s poem, in Manuel Amado silence becomes word through the celebration of light. And more: he makes the city come alive via a most subtle hint of poetry and secrecy, which permeates this world deserted of characters. This world seemingly suspended in tones from the past, I mean. But, deserted though it may be, it shows no sign of the urban loneliness that spreads from Babel’s vociferous labyrinths to the cold disenchantment of postmodern metropolises, or from the universe of Chirico’s statuary to the resigned desolation of Edward Hopper. No, the Lisbon we now traverse is made of spaces, walls and objects that are static but not soulless. These landscapes or particular spots are described with such deliberate precision that each painting appears before us as a probing of our memory.  

Closed upon themselves, these images taken from objective reality become open works, which we people with figures or experiences from the past they have elicited from us. Thus, the transfiguration the artist has operated by eliminating the human presence and any stories that may situate the depicted scenes in the city leads to another transfiguration, processed by the viewer.    

It is precisely so. In ‘each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory,’ writes Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities. And that is the reason why Manuel Amado’s Lisbon is also the in absentia Lisbon featured in his paintings. Behind that solitary suitcase in the middle of an empty room, I can glimpse Álvaro de Campos’ announced traveller ‘on the eve of never leaving.’ I see nobody in the Sunday-deserted barbershop room, but I can hear Alexandre O’Neill’s voice snipping away at naughty verses.  

Now, I receive news of ‘Milady, O you noble salon ornament,’ whose praises Cesário Verde sang, as I imagine her strolling on that Campo Grande square with fine pruned trees from the painter’s childhood. And, can you imagine, a little ahead another painting leads me to admit that Tobacconist Alves may still be alive: I can see him from the window of Fernando Pessoa’s room or standing at the door of that tile-fronted building, so typical of Arroios or Campo de Ourique. Finally, my discovery of a Praça do Comércio free of clichéd ferryboats or columns by the Tagus leaves me suspended: my God, how amazing that all one needs are a few lines, and a single location, to move away from Botelho’s provincial city and the set designs of Lisbon’s Futurists. 

Painting by painting, house by house, street by street, Manuel Amado’s Lisbon becomes more and more familiar to us; as familiar and secret as the extremely difficult light he uses to set his city in motion, in a flutter of shadows outlined with geometric precision. I come out to the street, and lift up my eyes. The light is different, but, after contemplating it for a while, I conclude that I am looking at a version of Manuel Amado’s light.