João Lima Pinharanda Theatre of the Impossible 2006

Written for the exhibition
The Show Is About to Start / O Espectáculo Vai Começar – Palácio Nacional da Ajuda, Galeria de pintura do Rei D. Luís, Lisbon, 2007

Let's be frank, we don’t have a theatre, any less than we have a God: for those you need community. Everyone has special ideas and fears of their own and reveal only so much of them to others as they need to or as suits them. We’re continually diluting our understanding just so there’s enough to go round instead of wailing our common needs towards the wall behind which the incomprehensible would have time to gather its strength and exert it.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge 

A vast troupe of Columbines and Harlequins, Pierrots and Punchinellos, Scaramouches and Pantaloons has occupied the stages, boxes, wings and dressing-rooms of vacant theatres. Actually, these painted figures are not even illusionistic depictions of living beings – only their contours; immobilised mannequins. All the (‘real’ or ‘stage’) spaces and objects surrounding them become stage settings for an action frozen in time, mute, empty, suffused by an endless, uncomfortable melancholy – something halts and dies before our eyes as we roam through these paintings.

Manuel Amado’s painting appears to face serenely and without anxiety what we could imagine as its own death sentence – a sentence pronounced for being painting within a discursive context that repeatedly and insistently denies it; and for deliberately appearing to ignore the outcome of the most devastating attacks launched by successive artistic avant-gardes against the semantic and technical traditions of representational art. To walk unhesitatingly into this mined terrain is a very special courage test. The painter advances, deaf to what is said and mute as far as the need to respond is concerned. But what is mainly demanded of him is proof of his blindness: he must advance, blind to what is given to him to see. The painter comes across, then, not as someone who sees but as someone who remembers what he has seen, someone who makes us see, who fictionalises what he sees. The coincidence between the time extension each one of Manuel Amado’s images accords us (the illusion that time is stretched indefinitely) and the impossibility of presentifying the places he shows us (which are often recognisable from our own experience of reality) is one of the significant foundations of his painting - the images are permanently there, but we are not allowed, not even for a moment, to claim, inhabit or live them.  

Manuel Amado places himself at the centre of a panoptic scenography that completely encloses him. He imagines a large construction, its walls lined with a variety of images, and his individual body coincides with what surrounds him. By opening his eyes within that universe (within himself), he finds his painting subjects. He uses the appropriate materials and his own gestures as a painter to create the images he likes/needs. It could be said that they manage to remain immune to those images that have been contaminated with/by the reality outside the operative and critical system he employs. Manuel Amado does not make these images in a state of abstraction, or alienation, from historic reality – perfectly aware of that reality, he chooses to make them against the noise of the world. There being no naturalness, only construction, in his pictures, his painting is an architecture of forms that neither flaunts an ideology nor claims its inexistence. It is always a painting of scenographic representation, that is to say, sets prepared for a representation within their representation. However, until the present series,
The Show Is About to Start, apart from the painter (who permanently inhabits/is inhabited by his sets) and ourselves, who are free to cast onto each of them the image of an individual and/but unfulfillable dream, Amado’s painting featured no (re)presentation of actors. There were plays of light/dark that defined time in accordance with the hours of the day, delicate balances between orthogonal lines and vanishing points, lines defining the ground or the sea’s horizon. All this is accompanied by windows and doors (open, closed, or ajar to let in the light), sparse articles of furniture, patterns in tiles and railings, rows of trees or bushes, and finally isolated trees, fragments of things.  His path as a painter has always relied on a painting that is mute and silent, the result of his essential blindness to the outside: inner visions, utopian places that offer themselves, in their unreality, to an impossible real inhabitant.  

In fact, Manuel Amado’s painting is devoid of reality: it has no time (apart from the one we can glean from the light’s trajectories), no place (apart from the one on the pictorial surface) and no action (apart from the one that emerges from the representational elements). However, this negative definition of the classic theatrical unity conceals a positive energy: the long research for sources and the construction of images (via a process of anamnesis or recollection that simulates immediacy) implies a real time span; the studio (a space that, though undisclosed, is omnipresent) is guarantee of a single location; the work on the canvas and paints (disguisedly simple but laboriously carried out) defines coherent action.    

Now, in The Show is About to Start, through the pictures’ characters (representing the various members of an actors’ company), the supposition of an action emerges – however, muteness and silence appear again, as does the effect of an utopian representation, born of the same overriding inner vision. 

The theatre is an intimate memory of Manuel Amado, a memory he got from his father (an illustrious stage director, writer and actor) and from treading the boards since he was a child, up to the onset of adulthood. 

The theatre is also a powerful metaphor of the human condition. Though illustrated here by characters and spaces that are circumscribed in terms of time (the commedia dell’arte and other ‘Italian-style’ theatre) and cultural context (Europe), its reality, which received its Western crystallisation in ancient Greece but is detectable in all times and cultures, can be found in its proper performance space, also called the theatre, but is actually a potential invader of squares and streets, a universally valid symbol. In order to harmonise his painting’s programmatic foundation (the emptying of the scene) with the introduction of characters and actions, Manuel Amado employed a series of thematic and compositional strategies: these characters come from a mime-based, silent theatre, and, anyway, have never intended to trick us into any kind of representational illusion – each one of them is just a cut-out mannequin, devoid of volumetry or even thickness; their gestures are actually fixed in space/time. No illusion, then, in this representational approach: no life apart from the one that reveals itself in our gaze, in our learning and desires, which, though exterior to the painting, project themselves onto it.  

In what measure can Manuel Amado use the theatre’s concise image to further his project? And in what measure does this latest series logically fit in his list of subjects? What protocol does he follow regarding these paintings? One of his techniques consists in selecting, cutting out and rearranging the figures, enhancing their two-dimensionality by enhancing the difference between the plane on which they stand and the illusionistic space of the painting that surrounds them. The closed, ‘Italian-style’ theatrical space he explores is a post-medieval reality, historically coinciding with the triumph of the perspectival illusion defined in Renaissance painting and heightened during Mannerism.

Amado uses the mythography and iconography of commedia dell’arte (as depicted in the drawings by 1600s French artist Calot or in the 1700s paintings by Italian artist Tiepolo). This theatrical style emerged in Venice, but received contributions from all over Italy and became successful throughout Europe, adopting a variety of national subjects and heroes. Popular and provocative, it showed great irreverence regarding absolutist power, but nonetheless managed to thrive in its own strength until the late 1700s, starting to falter only as the bourgeoisie was coming into power. Yet, the commedia dell’arte was not completely wiped out by Romantic or Naturalist theatre. Its leavings were even used by some early avant-garde artists (such as internationally-renowned Picasso and Portuguese master Almada Negreiros, whom Manuel Amado knew personally) to compose a symbology (combining freedom and tragedy, naïve joy and melancholy) that would be intrinsic to the modern man. It was not by chance that Manuel Amado chose figures from commedia dell’arte to use and subvert; by inventing for them scene after scene, none of which are present in the genre’s whole dramaturgy (loose as it is), he enhances the subversive freedom of endless sequencings and the randomness of narrative associations; by conflating ‘representation’ and ‘real life’ he neutralises and abstracts narrative, thus returning to the possible purity of painting.  

Manuel Amado sets his characters in the illusionistic space of an empty theatre, with twilit wings, secluded dressing-rooms and stages offered to the viewer’s eye. There, they interact with canvas backdrops and wood and cardboard furniture, with prop trunks, closed doors and endless stairs. While never relinquishing painting, Manuel Amado nevertheless evokes the tradition of collage in modern art and the symbolism of shadows in the art of the theatre. The collage makes it possible to manipulate images within a space, while the silhouette puts us in mind of how fragile the connections between body and soul are. Manuel Amado does not use collage as an exercise in material/spatial evidence, as Cubism does, or with the ferocious deconstructive levity of Dadaism. His cut-out characters are a device that complexifies the illusory quality of his pictorial three-dimensionality. When he moves them about across the predefined spaces of their backgrounds, he associates collage to decalcomania, or even to photomontage techniques. Manuel Amado brings his cut-out characters into play in scenes that may be divided into three kinds: pure theatrical representation (codified by the plots and the pre-defined personality accorded to each character or wild variations on these same themes); pure intimacy between the members of a theatre company (when free from the gaze of their audience / stage director and the need to rehearse); or stand on the undefined boundary-line between these two realms – thus alluding to the inescapable artificialness of reality and the unavoidable pretence of all action.    

This series explores more deeply (thus making it explicit) a less evident, but more interesting reading of his work. Amado inquires into Man’s individual fate. These figures, being doubly fake actors, are multiple masks of masks; being cut-outs, they are shadows and shadows of shadows – together, they raise the representation of representation to unexpected degrees, illustrating the absolute depersonalisation of the human and the tragedy of its paralysed freedom.   

In this text’s epigraph, Rilke tells of a world in which the feeling of ‘community’ has been lost. What the theatre once united can no longer be whole – later, Beckett would learn how to create a theatre of the absurd. Over time, Manuel Amado has been creating and showing images in which he hopes we may find salvation, offering us a reality that could be paradisiacal. But, in the end, all we can find is the unavoidability of a disturbing world. 

Only a basic incomprehension of the subtle variations in levels of critical intervention our multifaceted present allows to artists can explain that someone could diagnose in Manuel Amado’s (formally traditional) painting a misunderstanding of contemporaneity, both in terms of its immediate problems or of those from a recent past. The staging of the elements in his painting (from the arrangement of objects to lighting work), the cold technique of his drawing, the smooth finish of the materials and the calm colours all contribute to express that modern notion. Only a distracted eye could see this painting as a tranquil surface of reality or as a mere part of the figurative tradition – the figurative outer shell only exists to facilitate our reading of images that emerge from the inner realm, being all subjective, spiritual and abstract.   

While musing about himself, about his past, his time and the time of his future, Western Man never ceases from predicting (civilizational, rather than individual) Death. This vein of melancholy and depression, the by-product of constant critical thinking, seems inherent to our creative spirit. It greatly pre-dates the proclamation of the death of Art (Hegel) and God (Nietzsche), but finds its culmination in these two (often over-simplified) discourses. Even though the two authors are illuminated by different forms of reason (sunlight for the first, black light for the second), both of them feed our present various readings of creative paradigms (ranging from ancient classicism to neoclassic academicism, from mannerist instability to expressionistic exaltation) and of contemporary approaches (from romanticism to modernism and post-modernism). Creative reality, be it artistic or political, becomes neurotic and necrophilic: it announces, promotes or discovers the death of social classes, of the individual, of the novel, of the theatre, of painting and, finally, of the avant-gardes themselves…
Manuel Amado’s serene pictures are full of anxiety. The shadows seem darker than they are, and a thick melancholic mist hangs in the luminous dust that floods his paintings: nature and interiors are carefully crafted in order to make indefinable the line dividing fear from happiness. Now, with the added suggestion of an action (which, as we have seen, is doubly fake: because theatrical action always is, and because in painting not even a simulated action can take place), these signs become more pronounced.  

Manuel Amado’s work displays a scintillation of suspense and horror, making his images permeable to the absurd of reality, which he is a master at evoking. The formal and programmatic intelligence of this painting (channelled by the artist while making it and by the viewer while looking at it) places it at the threshold of the kind of critical awareness that matters in contemporary culture. Series after series, Amado exhausts subjects from his personal memories (places and objects) and from our civilisation’s iconography (light and dark, the house, the garden, the landscape, the sea, ceramic pieces, the theatre). He offers us images that demystify the value of images, by confronting us with the impossibility of their presentification and the inevitability of their emptying. What seems soothing in them ultimately turns into a revelation of the lie of images and of the viewer’s powerlessness before their spectacle: the impossibility of realising, possessing and inhabiting the images that are offered.    

Could Manuel Amado be innocent in all this process? Should we believe there is no provocative intent, critical drive or reflective vocation in him? One thing is certain: with his painting, Manuel Amado constructs, unaware or involuntarily aware of it, a discursive universe that must be understood as a supreme distancing act: his personal world (memories-desires/desires-projects) stands equidistant from both its detractors and its admirers. This definitely ironic stance ensures the possibility of its valorisation within the contemporary context, rather than as a simple resistance solution. In the end, we may perhaps conceive a painter who conceals his anguish behind the stage curtains, who lies when (through the theatre – and all his painting is theatre) he says he is lying and tells us the truth by lying to us like that.