Ruth Rosengarten1990

Written for the exhibition:
Manuel Amado, Pintura Recente - Anne Berthoud Gallery, Londres, 1990
Today I’m beaten, as though I knew the truth.
Today I’m lucid, as though about to die,
As though I had no more brotherhood with things
Than saying good-bye, as this house and this side of the street
Turn into a train with a string of carriages pulling out when the whistle blows
Inside my head,
With my nerves jarring and my bones creaking as it goes.

Today I’m at a loss, like one who thought and found the answer, then forgot
Today I´m torn between my loyalty
To a thing of outward reality-the tobacco - shop across the street,
And to a thing of inward reality, - the feeling that it’s all a dream

Fernando Pessoa [Álvaro de Campos]

Manuel Amado's paintings hold the real and the imagined in tense equilibrium: the dense, opaque quiddity of things is set off against a disquieting, dream-like stillness which seems to question the very existence of those things. A preoccupation with time and sound pervades these works as much as the concern with space which is their most overt ‘subject’. It is as though a room, or a beach, or an alleyway, were being presented to us on film, in slow motion, in an unmoving frame, with the sound-track turned off. Indeed, time seems to have been suspended in the very making of these pictures: not only in the unruffled handling which obliterates  the traces of  the artist’s physical involvement in their facture, but also in the complete denial of diachrony, of a linear stylistic progression trough time. Working around clusters of themes, Manuel Amado’s present pictorial concerns are, essentially, no different from those  he expressed in the late 1960’s and are distinguishable, if at all, primarily by the choice of motif.

These motifs are so absolutely and unmistakably Portuguese, they elicit from anyone who has visited or lived in that country a sense of déjà vu, a gasp of recognition. Yet their moody, brooding quality re-creates a world not so much lost as imagined.  This world is a mosaic, a bricolage, of familiar parts observed and then remembered – the green lattice-work pattern of the tiles lining the walls of railway stations, the wrought-iron railings and stone gates of stately homes, the olive tree casting its abbreviated midday shadow in a deserted town-square, the sash-windows of urban dwellings, the striped beach-tents… Eschewing the notion of a specific genius loci, each scene nevertheless seems to distil something essentially Portuguese. The Railway Stations of the mid- 1980’s evokes innumerable stopping places in sleepy, sun-bleached, half-forgotten towns throughout the country, with their time-tables out of date, the train invariably several hours late, someone’s suitcase left on the platform…

There is nothing of the forcedly nostalgic or picturesque, nor even of the self-consciously mysterious or ominous about these works. Indeed, a lack of self-consciousness is one of the hallmarks of Manuel Amado’s work. Unpretentious, unconcerned with notions of ‘style’, they plot out a universe which seems to withhold as much as it discloses, promising a narrative which they never actually reveal. For just as real time is dissolved into a perpetually present moment in the artist’s denial of the visibility of facture (the building up of structure through brushwork) so fictional time too is held in abeyance. Temporal indices – be they in the form of the traces of a modus vivendi or the marks of time left by weather or decay – are entirely absent. This absence, this paring down and emptying out, results as much from an aesthetic programme as from the fact that the artist works exclusively from memory.

Amado’s training and long-standing practice as an architect (which he abandoned in 1987 in order to dedicate himself entirely to painting) have bequeathed him not only a rich vocabulary of forms but also a facility in the articulation of that vocabulary. This has obviated the need to work either in situ or from photographs, thus leaving the artist at liberty to invent, to dream. His keen eye for the suggestive or quasi-narrative potential of constructed spaces (empty rooms, enclosed patios, stairwells) reinforced by a long standing passion for the theatre. His father, Fernando Amado, was a play-wright, and in his youth the artist painted sets for his productions; the grand house in which he lived until he was 19 even included a little theatre. It is the formative experience of living in this house, the Palácio Pimenta, - now the Museum of the City of Lisbon – that informs Manuel Amado’s paintings to this day; the 18th century mansion, surrounded by extensive grounds, had been bought by his grand-parents, and despite the three generations living under its roof, a large part of it always remained empty. It is the memory of these empty, silent rooms – redolent with potential, waiting to be inhabited, first the arena of childhood games, later the refuge of dreamy adolescent solitude – which stalks Manuel Amado´s paintings.

In addition to these early memories, it is perhaps the cinema which, even more than the theatre, has left its mark on the artist’s work, not only in the sequences of empty ‘frames’ and frames-within-frames – doors, windows, mirrors – but also in the continued deployment of shadows cast by objects or persons outside the picture frame and occupying the position of the viewer himself. This playing on the thin edge which separates absence from presence owes a debt to the cinematic use of the ‘subjective camera, for instance by Hitchcock; the camera, in the words, which occupies – and hence locates the spectator, quite literally in – the protagonist’s shoes, following him or her slowly up a flight of shadowy steps to push open a creaking door… While everything suggests that the walls in these rooms have served as witnesses to secrets and histories, fears and desires, they remain intractably mute.

In Manuel Amado’s paintings, the haunting sense of absence is rarely stagey; indeed it is sometimes so laconic and reticent as to thwart all attempts to read narrative into it. If the denuded rooms or the beach tents nudged together collusively tempt us into the luxury of hoping to explain the suggestions of foreboding and menace they also deny us the easy gratification and ultimate banality or sentimentality which such closure of meaning would invariably bring. The unoccupied deck-chairs do not, like Van Gogh’s empty chairs, reify or symbolize some absent human being. (One has only to think of the contiguity of persons and things, what Pessoa calls their ‘brotherhood’ to understand the sudden shock which is elicited by the contact with objects belonging to someone not long dead or recently departed).  Rather it is as if someone sitting in a chair on a terrace looking out onto the ocean, should have ambled indoors to fetch, say, a newspaper; only that moment of absence has been stretched out into an eternal pause, suspended interminably, forgotten by time itself.

If Manuel Amado’s paintings suggest a certain kinship with the early work of de Chirico and Magritte, perhaps the most obvious precedents lie in an American tradition which extends from Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins through to Edward Hopper and, later, Andrew Wyeth. It is to Hopper – whom the artist admires – that one most readily refers when talking about Manuel Amado.

And yet, in many ways the apparent affinity with Hopper is misleading. Manuel Amado’s concern with ‘Portugueseness’ is intrinsically different from Hopper’s concern with ‘Americanness’. The latter’s low-key, deadpan style an off-centre compositions suggest a preoccupation with specificity of space and time – sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant – which are foreign to Amado’s work. While Hopper’s paintings are tense with expectation, with an uneasy sense of waiting for an arrival which may never occur, it is abandonment and departure which hang over Manuel Amado’s work. Most significantly, Hopper deploys points of view which invite certain somatic responses from the viewer. These points of view are only plausible in one posits not only the viewer’s spatial position in very specific locales, but also the viewer’s body itself in particular attitudes: looking out of a window  on the fifth floor of an apartment block, leaning against the window of a moving El-train, crouching in the grass or seated in the upper circle of a theatre. Hopper’s works, then do not so much invoke the disembodied eye of Albertian perspective as what Norman Bryson calls the ‘spectating body’ the ‘persistence of the body as privileged term’ within the visual economy of the representational system. 

Amado’s compositions, on the other hand, are usually drawn from a front-on vantage point; the viewpoint is almost never oblique, and the space organizes itself around a centric ray (the line running from viewpoint to vanishing point) which often breaks up the pictorial space symmetrically. Light and shade, as the principal protagonists, become virtually palpable: their interplay is rendered almost abstract, setting up a series of tensions which operate on the picture surface, inviting an optical rather that a somatic engagement on the part of the viewer. (It is as if to extend the cinematic metaphor – the ‘subjective camera’ were to use as a point of departure the spectator’s eye alone and not his or her whole range of somatic experience). The viewer’s gaze – in reality ambulatory, flickering, scanning – is here suspended: it becomes a hypothetical, fictional gaze which encompasses all that is spasmodic and accidental in the real, embodied, gaze. All things have the same weight, equal focus, but, bathed in the light of memory, it is not a sharp, ‘photographic’ focus. Rather, there is a laconic level of omission of detail. Thus a rupture is effected not only with the ‘real’ time of the durée but also with the ‘real’ space of perception. Seen from close on, the paintings do not reveal a hard-edged tightness; rather, the paint is applied in thin, translucent veils which grant works their shimmer, imbuing them with unexpected liveliness.

Jean Baudrillard has spoken of the transubstantiation of modern man in the objects he fabricates and the spaces he inhabits. Human space, as defined and articulated by architecture, acts as an analogy to the human body itself. Baudrillard compares the latter-day home , with its obsession with clean lines and space-saving devices (to each object its allocated space, and vice versa), to the hypochondriacal body with its obsession with the circulation of substances and functionality of the primary organs. If this is the case, then the myth of the ‘old’ as opposed to the ‘modern’ domestic space may be equated with the opacity  of messages, dead-ends, the romance of the integrated body not fearing disease, casually indifferent to the intercommunicability of its ducts, truly eccentric in the etymologically precise sense of the word (ex-centric). It is to this hypothetical, fictional, integrated body that Manuel Amado’s paintings are addressed. 

 Thus, we are confronted with paintings which reveal the interchangeability of dream and reality, both stressing and denying the preponderant materiality of things; paintings subtly orchestrating the gaze to which they are directed, a gaze at once disembodied and held in custody by an idealized, spectating body.  Above all, these pictures tantalize us with the enigma of visibility itself.