Juan Manuel Bonet Manuel Amado, A Painter of Lisbon 2004

Written for the exhibition
Manuel Amado, Pintura 1992 / 2004 Fundación Antonio Pérez, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Cuenca, Spain, 2004

Manuel Amado, born in Lisbon in 1938, and whose work I have been accompanying since 1995 – the year he had an exhibition at Madrid’s Fundación Arte y Tecnologia, and in which we were mutually introduced by our common friend, Lourdes Castro – is a painter in his own city. A painter of Lisbon, just as Jakub Schikaneder was a painter of Prague, Léon Spilliaert of Ostend, Antonio Donghi of Rome or Victor Cúnsolo of Buenos Aires. A painter of metaphysical lineage, in whom we trust as an interpreter of the soul of his city. A painter in the image and likeness of that seemingly timeless city. A slow-paced painter, focused on silently plying his craft.  

Manuel Amado is not the first Lisboan painter to become synonymous with his birthplace. I have always enjoyed the aerial, unreal, transparent Lisbon of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, who never ceased feeling like a Lisbon native in her French and Brazilian exiles, having managed to keep in herself the secret, the essence of the azulejo tiles and of the soul of the city she had left behind; Vieira da Silva, that much-missed tutelary character of my childhood, whom I visited every Christmas at the rue de l'Abbé Carton, and whom I would meet many years later at a small Lisbon square full of trees, in the foundation that perpetuates her and the unforgettable Arpad Szenes’ memory. I have been familiar, too, for almost as long a time – ever since it was revealed to me in the mid-1960s by an article in ABC, a Madrid daily newspaper – the enchanting, melancholic Lisbon of Carlos Botelho. But Portuguese self-portraits are not my sole concern here. Many foreigners have fallen under the matchless city’s spell. The ones that best expressed its charms are perhaps the French writers, as shown by many specific pages in the works of Valéry Larbaud, Paul Morand, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry… In the field of photography, the lenses of another Frenchman, Bernard Plossu, or of Spaniards Javier Campano and Manuel Sonseca have succeeded in capturing the severity of the Pombaline architecture, the floating geometry of the tramways – siblings to the Prague ones depicted by Sudek –, the antiquated charm of the neon signs, the ships in the estuary… 

What is it about Lisbon that captivates us all so much? In this city of stone, as imagined by Baudelaire, who never had the chance to visit it, vegetation has nonetheless an important presence, something that becomes quite clear whenever we climb up to the São Pedro de Alcântara Belvedere, or to Alto dos Limoeiros, or to São Jorge Castle, or when we walk though one of its secret gardens, such as the University’s Botanical, whose entrance can be found in Rua da Escola Politécnica. Swiss film director Alain Tanner calls it the ‘White City’; however, things are not as bright as that, for it always appears to our eyes with a watercolour charm, as a labyrinth of pink, red, yellow, ochre, green and blue walls. This Atlantic city gazes at its reflection on the mirror of the ‘sea of straw,’ the Tagus estuary, while at the same time displaying – and the great Ramón Gómez de la Serna, who was more of a Lusophile than any other Spanish writer of his time, understood that very well – a certain extra-European, Eastern quality, and also somewhat Latin American, more precisely Brazilian. In 1915, with the publishing of Orpheu magazine, and later of Portugal Futurista, the city became a laboratory of modernity; nonetheless, it has always managed to preserve some ancient and (as I stated before) timeless quality, which turns it into a perfect refuge, a city of exile and also of mental travels to the past.  

A few lines previously, I mentioned the São Pedro de Alcântara Belvedere. This is one of my favourite places in the world, one of those places that are to me synonymous with happiness. Whenever possible, it is there that I start my Lisboan itineraries, which, like those itineraries I follow in other cities, are usually obsessive, repetitive, and take me to many of the places depicted in Manuel Amado’s paintings. A former architect, who relinquished that activity in 1987 to dedicate himself fully to painting, Manuel Amado feels a particular affinity for the buildings of his native city; the imposing, centuries-old ones – such as the ones of Rua do Comércio (1994), or Praça do Município (1997) – as well as other, more recent, more nondescript and humbler edifices… ‘Here,’ José Cardoso Pires wrote in his excellent text for the catalogue of Manuel Amado’s exhibition Lisboa, Pintura: 1975-1997, presented in 1998 at Lisbon’s Galveias Palace, ‘the city’s voice is made of silence,’ a city, he adds, full of ‘domestic serenity.’

Giorgio de Chirico and other Italian artists from the 1900s, the American Edward Hopper – who, as shown by Yves Bonnefoy in a definitive text, is also metaphysical in his own way – and, in a way, the more urbane Balthus, the older París and Magritte at his most… normal, so to speak, are all fundamental references in terms of Manuel Amado’s pictorial project, a project from which the human figure is almost totally absent – with one exception: Looking at the Ridge (2001) – and whose metaphysical roots have been highlighted by most of his commentators, particularly José-Augusto França and Bernardo Pinto de Almeida.

The biography included in some of his catalogues informs us that it was during the late 1950s, that is to say, while he was still an architecture student in his native city, that Manuel Amado began developing an interest in Giorgio de Chirico’s groundbreaking work and, in more general terms, Surrealism. A little later, already in the 1960s, he began frequenting assiduously Cruzeiro Seixas, one of the main Portuguese Surrealists, who was often mentioned to me in conversation by the late Eugenio Fernández Granell. As for Hopper, who was for so long a strictly US phenomenon – just as Fernando Pessoa was for decades a strictly Portuguese phenomenon, or Jorge Luis a strictly Argentinean one – Amado only discovered him a lot later, in 1987, in a trip to the United States, after which he became an important reference, as shown by a title like It’s Clearly Sunday (2002).

Praça do Comércio (1989): never has this incomparable urban space, so loved by the aforementioned Larbaud, who in his 1926 Lettre de Lisbonne à un groupe d'amis describes it as ‘la plus belle place d’Europe’, appeared so metaphysical, so serene and peaceful (and yet so disturbing) to our eyes as in the magnificent painting through which Manuel Amado expressed it: in this picture, which has something of a Venetian veduta, the traffic, the pedestrians, the ships and the riverside buildings on the opposite shore (reduced to an almost geometrically rendered landscape) have completely disappeared as if by magic, allowing the deserted esplanade, the street lamps (some ancient and some that, so to speak, could have been installed yesterday), the equestrian statue that presides over the square and the imposing ministerial arcaded buildings that surround it to take centre stage… 

The nearby seaport, which since times immemorial has played such an important role in the Portuguese capital and has lately been rediscovered by the city’s inhabitants, is the subject, together with the large cargo ships that dock to it and its cranes, of Lisbon Quay (1988), another image abstracted from the contingencies of the present, with all its noise and fury. It includes, to the right, a gigantic, monumental truck, with a long trailer, but its cabin obviously does not contain a driver, so as not to change or break the unwritten rules of this painting without characters.  

Railway stations have always been metaphysical locations: that is well known since the founding times of Giorgio de Chirico. ‘Chirico ou l’heure du train’, as the ever ingenious Jean Cocteau wrote around that time. 
Much can be learned about a country by frequenting its trains and stations, thus learning their usages. In 1986, Manuel Amado dedicated a whole exhibition, Trains, Stations and Halts (Comboios, Estações e Apeadeiros), held at Galeria de São Mamede, which at the time represented his work, to this universe, which, in spite of belonging to a past that has been abolished or is about to become so, continues to exert a powerful attraction on us. In 2000 he returned to this subject with Journey Around an Abandoned Station, an exhibition at Galeria Antiks Design.

Several of Manuel Amado’s paintings feature laundry hanging, a frequent sight in the streets and squares of Lisbon’s humbler neighbourhoods. I suggest that these pieces of clothing be read as tranquil, demotic freedom flags, closely related to the ‘tiny flags’ featured in the poetically geometricized paintings of Brazilian Alfredo Volpi.

Streets which are completely anonymous. Streets which, once we reach a certain point, we no longer know whether they are real or imaginary. Where can this Street End I (1997) be found, with its nondescript buildings, its geometry, its lamp, its pink and yellow walls, its light and its shade, its extreme serenity? Where can be found this (even more abstract) Street End II from the same year and, in the background, that powerful glow beneath the dusk? 

I have already mentioned my beloved São Pedro de Alcântara Belvedere, whose fountain’s murmur I hear as I write these lines in Madrid, during this uncommonly torrid and suffocating July. Lisbon is a city of belvederes, and there are plenty of them in Manuel Amado’s work, beautiful overseas belvederes over the blue and the light of the Tagus estuary that dazzles those who contemplate it from the city’s higher spots, belvederes with striped chairs, palm trees and a very maritime, very 1920s feel, belvederes to pass the hours peacefully, in that dream of leisurely exile a journey to Lisbon, a journey to the House Above the Sea, always represents, particularly for people who, like me, hail from the Iberian inland. 

Some of Manuel Amado’s most intensely Lisbon-evocative paintings manage to achieve that quality without alluding to the urban landscape, being instead based on interiors. Interiors filled with windows – rarely more than one, actually, opening onto a peaceful maritime horizon –, geometrically-patterned tiled floors, china-cabinets, curtains, lined-up chairs, as in At the Barbershop (1989), plump armchairs that put us in mind of Matisse’s famous maxim, mysterious trunks full of secrets, suitcases that invite us to a journey, friendly books, lamps like those in Vuillard’s paintings, quite contemporary items, such as a TV set, and, of course, lights and shadows, these being, indeed, the main actors in his painting, one of the finest instances of which, once again a daylight exterior, is Shadows on the Façade (1999), a painting that is part of the beautiful ‘Mateus House’ series, and whose atmosphere and title remind me of certain immortal verses by Paul-Jean Toulet, the French fantaisiste whose work is so admired by Nuno Júdice, one of Manuel Amado’s poet friends and a subtle commentator on his painting. 

In his wonderful and quite personal interiors, Manuel Amado shows a particular liking for long, twilit corridors, and for flights of stairs, neutral passages that disturb us, like those in certain interiors by Magritte. Another surrealist painter, literary-minded Pierre Roy, causes a snake to materialise on his stairs; Manuel Amado, on the contrary, needs resort to no living presence to disquiet us.  

Speaking of disquiet, I must say that the triptych Fernando Pessoa’s Room (1993), seen either as a painting, property of Casa Fernando Pessoa, its commissioner, or as a lithograph, is a veritable tour de force: a thoroughly Lisboan interior, depicted at three distinct times of day and night, tells us of an absent figure – of which we only see, on a chair, his unmistakable hat and raincoat – who indubitably remains the most important presence in the Portuguese capital. Of the three images that make up the series, I particularly like the third, the nocturnal one, in which the viewer’s gaze, drawn at first by the circle of light generated by the lamp inside the room, eventually moves to the lighted window of the pink house in front: the same enigma lighted urban interiors always present.  

Quite significantly, Good Morning, Lisbon (1987) is the title of one of Manuel Amado’s most resplendent paintings, one of those that most grab my attention. Even though I have just discussed a nocturnal vision, there is no doubt that this Lisbon painter’s vedutas, as Bernardo Pinto de Almeida quite pertinently pointed out, nearly always feature daytime, morning scenes, which are nearly always drenched by an intense, de justicia (as we say in Spain) sun. This is, indeed, a painting under the sunlight, driving away all nebulosity, obscurity, and confusion.    

Quite special to me is a 1996 series, entitled ‘The Great Flood,’ which was shown in Paris, in 2001, at the Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian, as ‘La grande crue.’ Quite special – I am particularly struck by the painting entitled The Street Corner – because Manuel Amado displays a somewhat unexpectedly surrealist attitude in it by depicting a number of Lisboan scenes, which are thus familiar to him, as submerged by a devastating flood, like the ones that had ravaged Portugal around the time the series was painted.  

Also very special to me are two series from 1999, ‘The Enchanted Garden’ and ‘My Garden.’ Through them, Manuel Amado conveys the calm and order of certain Portuguese gardens: places that are peaceful and enigmatic at the same time, like his painting. 

Another fine set of paintings is the one that Manuel Amado painted in Setúbal, a city I am not familiar with, but which, looking at these pictures – my favourite of which is 2002’s They Must Be Late, with its darkened, somewhat Magrittean square – I imagine as a paradigmatically provincial place.   

Recently, Manuel Amado decided to concentrate part of his efforts on the still life, a genre with a very long tradition, and he quickly managed to produce, in two series called ‘Groups’ and ‘Small Encounters’, a number of very fine pieces, which show him to be perfectly conversant with the legacy of Zurbarán, Chardin, Morandi and other advocates of the stillness of objects. His silent, twilit still-lives emerge from the further exploration of a world of objects that was already present in quite a few of his interiors: still-lives in which light is, again, quite important, especially considering that they often open onto a landscape, be it an interior or a sea view.   

In a peaceful Lisbon square, the bright and sober house of Teresa and Manuel Amado stands. A few months ago, I visited it in the company of Manuel Fontán; from its secluded garden the Bridge can be seen, and it is one of the most beautiful case della vita I know, perfectly harmonising with the aesthetic personality of this very loving couple. There are books, magazines, yellowing photographs and, on the walls, several pieces by Almada Negreiros, including one of his most famous – and accomplished – line drawings of the 1930s… all this reminds me of the friendship the painter’s father, writer and stage director Fernando Amado, entertained with the author of Pierrot e Arlequim and other modernists. The legacy of his father is also visible in a series of set designs created by Manuel Amado, and in the fact that he was a stage actor in his youth. In 1984, at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Modern Art Centre, Manuel Amado presented a performance of Almada Negreiros’ Antes de Começar, together with his friend, artist Lourdes Castro, whose works can also be found in several parts of his house.