Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks
QUOTES BY SWIFT
(found in the Gandon Editions Biography)
Not to paint is the highest ambition of the painter but God who gives the gift requires that it be honoured. It is in the gesture that it lives. There is no escape. Picture-making is ludicrous in the light of the awful times we must endure. It is sufficient to contemplate the nature of composition to see that the picture itself is impossible. Each square inch of Titian contains the whole pointless — between the cradle and the grave. My paintings are merely signs that the activity was engaged in. — PN
To paint even a bottle is dramatic. A leaf will do. — PN
To know what it is to look at things, life as a prayer, a mass, a celebration. — PN
One who opens his eyes and sees. To be good at seeing. How difficult not to see anything but the visible. And nothing will be left but dust and manure. Attempting the impossible. Approach the mystery. - PN
Metaphysics — what metaphysics do those trees have? - PN
What trace of the creature subsists in the work. It is a way of staying alone, passing the time subjected to the object — silent, still. Walk with humility in the landscape. To be some natural thing — an ancient tree — no thinking — not to think is central to the activity. - PN
There is the modern phenomenon of the artist declaring all is void, nothing is possible, and soon is making his fortune out of despair and emptiness. I am too romantic to accept the dishonesty inherent in such a role, or perhaps it is my religious education. Such a position cannot be a religious position. (I) do not accept that the artist should not engage in other activities though when he does he must accept a different responsibility. — PN
Life is more important than art — quantity is only important in that the amount of activity is greater not the number of works. — PN
Obey God by living spontaneously. — PN
I believe when you bring, say, a plant into a room, everything in that room changes in relation to it. This tension — tension is the only word for it — can be painted. — Time Magazine, 1952
Swift on Caravaggio: " It is in the fact that no detail is unworthy of his love that affects us deeply, in painting the gesture in full rhetorical flower, he is at the same time in love with the very simple existence of the object apart from its significance in action." — Nimbus, 1956
(found in the Gandon Editions Biography)
I think that I probably have a real talent for painting trees if I developed it assiduously. I want to give them great density and depth pile heaps of detail into them and yet keep the sense of presence which is the whole point.
I have started the painting of the palm tree outside the window. I can go straight at it because I have wanted to paint one for so long and have looked longingly into them so often in so many places. — Swift, Italian notebook, 1954/5.
In 1958, I had the privilege of painting George Barker’s portrait.
It is the emanation that is the real subject of the painting.
This can only be painted via the concrete, the aim is to make it concrete, exclude time and expression because expression introduces the notion of time.
I believe in the theory of emanations though perhaps in a different modified form since I do not deny this capacity to the inanimate object. Such feelings as reverence and respect may inhibit. One has to be open and sensitive to the emanation to sense its character.
It is intuitive activity.
To get a likeness which does not depend on facial expression is the aim. But there is a very sad moment when we can no longer refer for one’s revisions to the subject, the equation has assumed its own life. I hadn’t in fact painted a human being for a year.
I had painted trees in the countryside which also have their emanations. I have made no use of the knowledge which the privilege of friendship necessarily brings, that is not conscious use. These being merely notes on what is in the poetry. In the man a great generosity of spirit. — Swift, London notebook
All this puts me back in a situation I have purposely avoided for twenty years. But I have made the mental decision (or should that be spiritual choice) to put out my work again. — Swift in a letter to Patrick Mehigan offering The Fig Tree for sale.
Nano Reid, by Patrick Swift, Envoy, March 1950
Every new artistic genius must be judged according to the aesthetic which he, himself, brings. — Heine
Each work of art is a complete entity existing in its own right and by its own particular logic. It has its own reality and is independent of any particular creed or theory as a justification for its existence. This is not to say that artistic development may be considered as a self-sufficient process unrelated to social reality, because art is always concerned with the deeper and fundamentally human things; and any consideration of art is a consideration of humanity. But it does mean that we cannot apply the principles and logic of the past to a new work of art and hope to understand it. The eternal verities with which the artist is concerned do not change, but our conception of art does, as does our conception of form, and these must be extended if we are to understand fully and basically the meaning of a new work.
It is a complex matter, but the elemental principles are always simple. The mass of modern art theory that developed around the fantastic changes of this century's painting can be largely ignored; only one or two fundamental principles are important. Probably most important in the new aesthetics from the painter's point of view was the statement of Degas, seventy years ago, in his unheeded advice to the Impressionists. He spoke then of a "Transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory... It is very well to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what one has retained in one's memory." Amongst the Impressionist he stands as the most significant painter relevant to modern art. This attitude, and all it implies, underlines the work of practically every painter of importance since 1900. Ultimately, it meant that the day of stage props and models was gone, and that imagination was recognised as the most important quality in an artist. Gertrude Stein records the astonishment Picasso produced by his first pictures without models. It was the beginning of a great freedom for the painter; it revolutionised the entire approach to subject. Beginning with this, the emphasis shifted from representation, and the artist was free to modify or even completely change appearance according to compositional needs. Even painters working in a tradition very different to the Ingres-Degas school were fundamentally affected by it. Bonnard worked completely from memory and composed his pictures in the studio from the slightest sketches. And to-day, after over half a century of revolution and upheaval in the arts, is it this principle which sets modern painting apart from the false traditions which were rejected, including, of course, defunct Impressionism? It is directly in this tradition of draughtsmanship allied with the freed imagination which Nano Reid works. I do not wish to imply that she studies or is even directly influenced by Degas as a painter. What I speak of is a simple fundamental element in the modern artist's approach to subject which, though rooted in French tradition, is not particularly the property of any school. In Ireland there is no tradition of painting. Nano Reid began to work at a time when the first impact of modern art had subsided in Europe. Cubism had already been left behind by its originators and had passed into the hands of the imitators, and young students were turning, without exception, to Paris. Even German Expressionism was under the shadow of the French achievements. The notable thing about the approach of Nano Reid was that she instinctively avoided the too strong, too near influence of Paris, and began with pure and firmly realised preoccupation with drawing, with insistence on line and structure. It is this element, coupled with the freedom of her approach to subject that, places her, I believe, in the great tradition of Ingres-Degas-Lautrec and Picasso (who will always be remembered as a draughtsman above all). It is important that we should understand this basis on which her work is built. Among Irish painters, she is outstanding for her draughtsmanship, and her vitality, so often praised, is rarely understood as existing by virtue of this passionate insistence on the structure of her subject.
Nano Reid was born in Drogheda and came to Dublin to study at the School of Art. Three years later she went to Paris and survived her student days there without falling a victim to the easy seduction of imitative painting after the French manner. Then, after studying in London, she gave her first exhibition in 1933. There is little more to say about this early period. She drew incessantly. Her approach was distinguished by the fact that she was concerned not with the production of pictures as such, but with the struggle to express a reality in paint which was a personal, a painter's reality. It is necessary to stress her concern with drawing, because it has its roots in her essential conception of visual reality. In so far as it is concerned with truth that goes beyond appearance and form, art is transcendental. The consciousness of this is often a snare for the painter who is led by a false preoccupation with some literary or intellectual conception of reality into a time-conscious literary form. Nano Reid realised with the instinct of a painter that for her the whole truth existed in the head, the body, the structure of life: it lay there revealed in the form, the line, a timeless and profound reality. It was a difficult struggle for the young painter who was gradually finding out that nobody else's vision could be substituted for her own. She had a great personal honesty and a great humility in her attitude, and the slow development of her style represents heroic and intense work. In 1933, the year of her first show, the real struggle for personal expression was just beginning. She herself considers this exhibition to have been unimportant and premature. At this point, though her drawing was highly developed, she had not yet discovered the freedom that would enable her to really paint.
New knowledge is only useful in so far as it opens up new vistas for the imagination, and no more so than the old forms which the artist must understand only in order to reject. Nano Reid discovered the liberation she needed in the year after her first show, in the work of an impressive Belgian painter who exhibited in Dublin after two years painting in this country. I have no hesitation in saying that I consider Nano Reid to be the finer artist. It is strange that after Paris and London, with the violent atmosphere of artistic change in both cities, she should encounter, back in Dublin, the work that was to set the spring and give beginning to her painting. But so it was, and it is significant that she did not merely paint pseudo-Howet pictures and work her way out of the influence. In a way it was scarcely an influence for her, but a revelation. Her reaction shows that already she possessed a deep personal vision, and knew that whatever aid she might receive in the expression of it would not come in the form of direct derivation. She thought, on looking at Marie Howet's work, not "this is what I want to paint" but "it is with a freedom such as this that I wish to paint." Therein lay the real value of Marie Howet for Nano Reid. Of the former I may say in passing that her approach to painting was fundamentally expressionistic. She was concerned with more than either the creation of impression or of pattern. At her best, she could invest a landscape with a strongly personal mood and convey really deep feeling. She was an original artist who saw things more in terms of line than colour.
It is difficult to give an exact account of the period immediately following. It is marked by a consistent development of style that is scarcely paralleled outside a handful of the greater artists of our day. Apart from Picasso (who is partly guilty of being what Wyndham Lewis has called him; a great eclectic), such consistency and purposefulness have marked the development of all great artists. It is highly remarkable in our own J.B. Yeats.
Looking now at the picture of this early period, it seems as if her development followed a peculiar logic of its own. One can feel in the general construction of her paintings the germ of her now mature style. It was about this time that circumstances forced Nano Reid to attempt a living by portrait painting, thus complicating her whole existence as a painter by the introduction of the most disastrous discouragement of all, the unsympathetic and exacting patron. But it was inevitable that, painting for a public who want flattery and not portraiture, she could not continue. The final crux came when a sitter demanded money back; and so ended her one unsuccessful effort to compromise with commerce. Also, she had the not unexpected experience of having five submitted pictures thrown out of the Academy Exhibition. Amongst these were portraits, and a notable academician informed her that a head was an object surrounded by light, and she showed no highlights! But Nano Reid was not concerned with light. The Impressionists had said sufficient about that, and in her concept of reality, highlights were purely accidental and superficial, and however indicative of shape or texture, had no importance in her insistence on structure. One is again reminded of Degas' comment on the Impressionists when he said they were slaves to the accidents of nature. In 1936 she exhibited once more. It was this exhibition that revealed the beginning of her real painting. She commanded attention for the vigour and strength of her work and was recognised as a significant artist. In any case, this was the beginning, and from then on she worked with a greater intensity and a more rigorous integrity than even before. To say simply that she worked hard is to leave out of account the most difficult aspect of the progress she achieved in the next few years. One must remember the nature of her essential problems; she was concerned with real seeing, and not simply the nature of objects in themselves, but in the complex relation of things to each other, either in landscape or in interior. I may say that only those who have themselves experienced the tortuous nature of such work can appreciate the gigantic and yet minute development in Nano Reid's painting. Working with courage and great self-criticism, she progressed slowly after the first few years of initial discovery. In 1938, she exhibited in New York. Later, her work was to be seen in London at the Redfern and St George's Galleries, and of course always in Dublin at group shows, and in Victor Waddington's.
But recognition was slow to develop real recognition. Her vitality and originality commanded attention, and, for those who look, her influence may be seen in other important contemporary Irish painters. Tributes from well-known artists like Liam O'Flaherty and John Betjeman, although they drew attention to her work, did not show any appreciation of the really important aspects of her art. Often she had been judged by the standards of painters whose concept of art is wholly different, whose approach to the art is literary and poetic as compared with the much more primal and real attitude of Nano Reid. This is not an attempt to invalidate their work in the exposition of hers, but to point out the profound divergence between them. To some degree, they approached painting as a form through which they could express an outlook, a message, a poetry. With Nano Reid, the essential quality of her work is that it is a painting first, and her poetry is the pure poetry of paint. Outside of the finished picture her painting never existed; within the canvas it exists, a separate entity, a new reality on its own right and by its own original logic.
Throughout her career, Nano Reid has held exhibitions at more or less regular intervals in Dublin, and her position as an Irish painter is secure. But much more important than her merit relative to Irish painters is her position by general European standards. Seeing her work in London at St George's Galleries, one is truck by the tremendous force of her composition. Surrounded entirely by English and Continental work, she seems to emerge with a profound realisation of structure, whether in figure or landscape, which is all the more astonishing since she is a woman. An essential part of her power is a deep understanding of tonal values. She has been accused, in a silly way, of being doleful, because of the sombre quality of her previous work. To-day her painting is becoming more lyrical, less hard, less calligraphic, although still conceived in line.
The painting Men Tarring a Roof, not illustrated here, shows her previous insistence on the lines of her composition. It is essentially a massive conception, and captures the structure of her subject. The opposition of the planes of the roofs and the left space of the street create a strong feeling for the actual scene as it existed. It is a profound thought that in getting at the reality of the structure of a scene, one inevitably produces this individual atmosphere of the place. This is even more clearly demonstrated in portraiture. Nano Reid does not begin a portrait with any ideas about the person she draws. She is concerned with the head, its existence as a structure with certain characteristics. She is so much concerned with this that her portraits are inevitably deep studies of character and personality. The head, the face, the lines and features, contain everything for the painter who understands well enough to put it down. The portrait reproduced here is one of her late works. It is fluent and colourful, showing her thorough understanding of tone. Her last exhibition, a few years ago, included three outstanding portraits and at that time she still conceived her heads in strong, deep lines and in deep, subtly balanced tone. A comparison between these and the present, so much more lyrical work, shows how the painting has progressed from the stage where one could feel the very elemental structure on the canvas, to a style where, as in Portrait of a Young Man, the structure is more in the nature of a strong base for a lyrical conception. Her portraits are always deep, psychological studies, full of meaning, but their real value lies in the fact that they are beautiful paintings. Her portraiture, in particular, marks her as a great draughtsman.
Also reproduced here is a painting which has a great significance in her recent development. It is only recently that Nano Reid has painted Drogheda town itself. The brilliant canvas, bought by the Haverty Trust at the Living Art Exhibition of 1949, was a most exciting study of Drogheda from a hill. Now there are several more pictures of the town itself. Boyne Bridge and Gulls shows a view, through a window, on to the Boyne. It is painted in vivid colours, but with a masterly control of values. It is a small canvas but there is a sweep and precision about the proportions that make it suitable to any scale. I consider it a significant picture because it combines the two elements of her work which seem to be merging more surely in a mature command of colour and composition. The structure is evident and powerful but the colour (and even in the reproduction, the tone shows how balanced and subtle it is) is equally important as a force in conveying the atmosphere of the scene. Her watercolours have for some time shown this new phase of colour. With her unusual understanding of tone values, it is evident that she will make a great colourist.
There are other aspects of Nano Reid's art which deserve consideration: her line drawings, and watercolours, and her mural paintings in the Four Provinces House. But it is evident that her enthusiasm and life are stronger than ever and the vigour and power of her work increase. Everything she paints shows a new searching and a new discovery. Recent illustrations in lino-cut show a new interesting facet of her activity. She works to-day with all the energy and fire that marked her early painting and drew so much comment on the vitality of her brushwork and composition. As a painter, she is still young; her attitude is marked by a modesty and a determination that make one feel she is always just beginning. Such freshness in maturity is again a mark of her greatness. In Ireland, we are inclined to think of our painters as particularly 'Irish', and to readjust our attitude in considering continental or English artists. There is no especial value in attempting to say how great Nano Reid may be in the Irish scene, but one can say, without pretension, that she has her place in European painting.
— Nano Reid, by Patrick Swift, Envoy, March 1950
Later that year Nano Reid was selected to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale
Painting – The RHA Exhibition’, The Bell, Vol. 17, no. 13, June 1951.
Swift uses a review of an exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) to pass comment on the two main art schools in Dublin at the time, the RHA and the National College of Art, and abstract art (it should be noted that when Swift started painting abstract art was dominant and figurative artists he admired, such as Freud and Bacon, were being overlooked)
I can think of no way of killing talent in a young person more surely than by teaching him not to observe and this was the effect of the type of art training which became the official and accepted art-school method... To teach art the first concern must be to allow for the temperament and individuality of the student, to teach him no more in fact than to ‘see’ the object. There exists then the world of technical knowledge and elementary information which will give him the machinery with which to grapple with his own feelings. The teaching of this should not be tied up in the stylistic idiosyncrasies of dead traditions. Freedom should be the key note...
I may add here that I think abstract art played a very important part in freeing us of old academic shackles, and I am certain may still prove a useful form of exercise, but if pursued as a manner of painting I fail to see what the end can be. It will cut the artist off from life, and leave him for subject only his own plastic methods; he will become a 'connoisseur of his own tricks'.
By Way of Preface
In November 1954 the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of External Affairs in Ireland awarded Patrick Swift (it was Anthony Cronin who entered Swift's name for the award when Swift was abroad) a grant of £500 to be used for the purpose of studying the art of painting in Italy. Swift wrote a report on his return in December 1955 after twelve months travelling in Italy. This is the preface to his report.
I have always felt that painters above all should avoid falling into the attitudes of the Art Historian in their approach to paintings of the past. In particular the comfortable assumption of absolute aesthetic values as a starting point. Since it is necessary to use some books this is not easily avoided, because the aesthetic rules are rarely stated simply or clearly, but rather underlie the interpretation of the work discussed. For all historical purposes these rules are fairly adequate — for instance, Mr Berenson can scarcely put a foot wrong in the whole of the Renaissance, but the cat is out of the bag when we find him unable to appreciate Degas. This is particularly important in relation to scholars of the Renaissance among whom two very dangerous historical-aesthetic notions are commonly found, that of Progress and Experimentation in Art, which involves the idea of visual curiosity and scientific knowledge (in these terms Leonardo da Vinci becomes the great master) and the idea of Ideal Beauty and Style. These notions permeate the writing of art historians everywhere and it seems to me that in these terms the subject becomes a very dull one. It is chastening to reflect awhile on the limitations of Mr Berenson's aesthetic when we see that it leads him in fact to a belief in the death of art, or worse to ridiculous equations such as that of Rossetti and Botticelli. A real painter cannot afford such charming indulgences. For the painter, for whom painting is a vital activity and a way of life — not merely a profession — such attitudes as we find in the histories are deadly. For him the only benefit, at least the deepest and most important benefit which he can get from the study of the Masters comes from his capacity to see the painting in a thoroughly contemporary way. I mean in the present tense — the tense after all in which it was painted. Not for instance as an early this or a late that, nor as a good example of chiaroscuro or some other aesthetic or technical quality but as an immediately important human statement completely relevant to his life at the moment and convincing for that reason. If a work does not strike the painter in this way all further analysis of it will be futile, but if he sees it in this light and it assumes this kind of reality for him, then he will be able to learn from it on all levels, in particular it will repay detailed technical examination. My contention is that the Art Historian so far has made this difficult by assuming as a set of values on which to base his approach, aesthetic principles which act as blinkers to a fresh and personal vision of painting.
There are exceptions to the rule, and I think Sir Kenneth Clarke's book on Piero della Francesca is an example of a first class job. But nevertheless the use of books in the study of painting remains a depressing business. Although I went to Italy merely and humbly to look at the work of the great painters, once I contemplate describing my experience I find myself involved in these questions. My worse suspicions were proved true when I discussed the subject with some art historians of the younger generation in Venice and found that among these young men (one of whom was Mr Berenson's Secretary) the attitude, or rather point of departure, lay in the consideration of painting as a public movement — the emphasis on the social aspects of art.
A more rewarding approach to painting, in my opinion the only valid one, is to regard it as a deeply personal and private activity and to remember that even when the painter works directly for the public — when there is sufficient common ground to allow him to do so — the real merit of the work will depend on the personal vision of the artist and the work will only be truly understood if it is approached by each in the same spirit as the painter painted it. We must be willing to assume the same sort of responsibility and share the dilemma out of which the work was created in order to be able to feel with the artist. Since the deepest and truest dilemma, from which all good art springs, is the human condition we have every right to regard the needs of our own consciousness as the final court in judging the merit of a work of art, we have in fact a moral obligation to do so. This demands the precise honesty from the spectator as was required from the artist in making the painting. It is their common ground, the area within which communication can occur. Art in the end speaks to the secret soul of the individual and of the most secret sorrows. For this reason it is true that the development that produces great art is a moral and not an aesthetic development.
Such questions as these which students of art history took very seriously — is it possible to paint a socially realistic portrait today — for example, cease to have any meaning if we view the art of painting as a personal moral activity aimed at clarifying the painter's relationship with reality, and one moreover which will serve the same purpose in the life of anyone who has the honesty to avail of it. It is by deciding what is real for him and portraying it convincingly that the painter serves the true ends of art. The question of 'social' reality does not arise on this profoundly personal level. On the other hand the question of personal salvation and our relationship to God does. Art if it is successful in the task of questioning reality, if it is good painting and not merely a performance of dexterity, will be an affirmation of God.
The above, I fully realise, is not a completely satisfactory statement, but will serve to indicate my attitude rather than to explain or justify it. I regard as public the acceptance of standards based on absolute formal ideals. These standards are exterior to the world in which art is created and in which it exists, they are in the deepest sense 'post hoc'. Painting is created from within and we must begin from within if we are to understand it.
I do not deny that it is possible to discuss validly the genesis of art in public and sociological terms, but when this is done we should be clear where we stand. If such an attitude underlies a view that presents itself as a full evaluation of art and its development, it seems to me pernicious. I do not know if there are in fact such things as definable social standards of aesthetics that would have any historical or artistic value, but whether there are or not it seems clear to me that for the painter nothing less than complete personal involvement of a moral nature will do.
It is not an accident that Histoire de la Peinture en Italie remains readable; as Cézanne found it, who read it many times, or Baudelaire, who borrowed from it. This pleasant and incisive book provides us with an example of a kind of critical writing which is illuminating, instructive, and wholly delectable. And its importance does not depend on the validity of Stendhal's comparative judgements. It is an eccentric personal work full of specific observations and we get the sensation of being in the presence of a temperament and an intelligence* excited by pictures. This is an exciting experience. It is a personal matter. [*In the stricter meaning of the word — a spiritual being capable of choice.]
— X, The Painter in the Press
Some notes on Caravaggio, Nimbus, 1956
Caravaggio speaks to us out of a consciousness that is brooding and obsessive, and affects us in a way that is not simply artistic. By this I mean that he comes close to presenting us with a sensation of amorphous and desperate desire unredeemed by an authoritative vision. It can be felt in the apprehensive boredom of the unsuccessful pictures and in the oppressive intensity of the best. If this sensation were deep enough it might have destructive effects, since we all live within that margin of order which we succeed in imposing on life, i.e. on the unfulfilled longings of the heart, and his work might then be truly diabolic. His genius operates in that world of antithesis where the conflict between ideal and reality rages, and the moral victory, i.e. the ultimate affirmation of the goodness of life, is always so tenuously won that we feel the dread of chaos intensely — even when he is completely successful. If there could be such a contradictory phenomenon as the uninnocent artist he might be it. He indicates the sort of sensations we might expect from such a monster. But since he is wholly innocent beneath the apparent evidence of corruption he ends by moving us in a profound and religious way. It is the difficulty he experiences in standing outside his situation that creates the impression of an impure involvement. For the same reason there is no trace of the comic in his work, for that depends totally on detachment. On the other hand everything he does is tempered by a deep seriousness, and it is this seriousness that is his most attractive quality.
His work is full of the signs of those two cardinal sins from which (as Kafka pointed out) all the others spring: impatience and laziness. The work of every artist is conditioned by the way in which he resists or yields to these temptations, although it is possible to see clearly whether we are faced with a small talent well served or a great talent sinned against. From the walls of the Church of St. Luigi dei Francesi a great talent mysteriously glowers at us. These enormous paintings seem always to preserve their mystery sufficiently to shock me again with the grotesque and intimate nature of Caravaggio’s sensuality. All art is probably erotic in its ultimate character, but painting more than anything else is a purely nervous erotic activity. Perhaps it is for this reason that it attracts so often the irrational, who fail to see that its purpose is moral, that is, the evaluation of experience; in the deepest sense, the development of taste.
The eroticism of Caravaggio is special because it exists in that area between the simple sensual appreciation of the object which produces the desire to posses it, and the passionate but detached concern of the Observer, which also seeks to posses but to posses through understanding.
Caravaggio frequently painted out of the first, and less intense eroticism, and thus left us with representations of desirable things, yet failed to move us on the more exhilarating plane of true art. The failure is one of energy and it robs the observation of that last illogical step that would carry it into the realms of wisdom. I believe that if the representation is good enough there is a kind of enjoyment to be got from an art that attempts no more than to show how lovely, ugly or whatever else certain aspects of life can be. It is a form of expression that attempts to go no further than the obviously definable qualities of the object described, those qualities apprehensible on a level where love is not involved but merely curiosity. The interest that such art may have is limited by the degree of our curiosity in the objects involved, when these objects bore us, we are as unmoved as we would be by an art that described nothing. It is wholly on the level of deep and passionate concern that I wish to consider Caravaggio. For this reason it appears to me as wrong to labour such aspects of this extraordinary man as, for instance, what is called mannerism to-day, or what previously was called cellar painting. Both labels, like all labels, are useful only to the servants of the Goddess of Dullness in reducing the true significance of the art to boredom.
I have said that the paintings in the church of St. Luigi shocked me by the intimate sensuality that they emanate, or rather the atmosphere of sensual intimateness that they create. But of course these pictures are not shocking; good painting never is. What I am shocked at is not the sensation itself, which is deep and convincing precisely because it illuminates an aspect of my consciousness and brings into play emotions which have dimly sought just such a fusion with the concrete world for as long, it seems, as I have existed. Now that they are released they have the familiarity of an old possession; but I am shocked to find on each recurrent contact that it still works; that these rhetorical fulsome compositions have this quality so strongly. I feel that it is grotesque in so far as it combines the form of the large public blood and thunder painting (Michelangelo) with the deeply personal tender and profound indoor feeling for objects that we find in Giorgione. The intimacy has a stronger sharper flavour, there is a brooding quality in the observation that makes one feel that all is not well. At least I think that something may easily happen in the picture; and am consequently surprised to find, each time I return, that the characters are still transfixed in the same fateful moment of action. Although the gestures remind me of Michelangelo the characters are no longer the loose types with which Buonarroti inhabited his painting, but convincing individuals, with a unique personal existence. They achieve this quality through the sensation of surface textural reality that is so strong that I find myself unable to avoid touching the canvas or at least wanting desperately to do so. Looking at them I become acquainted with their quality of existence in an intensely sensual way, and this carries with it a feeling that they are in some way threatened. They are at least very vulnerable. There is another dimension to their existence besides their own being. It seems that the presence of Caravaggio still haunts them. He has given such absorbing obsessional attention to the clothes and the flesh that he does not merely convince us of their existence but seems himself to remain restlessly hovering in the atmosphere that surrounds them. The mirror is not held up to nature but to the secret breaking heart of Caravaggio. The world of his longing and despair is intimately laid bare.
The quality of the indoor private revelation is also to be found in Rembrandt but with a significant difference. Although a greater painter by far he attracts me less. The particular quality I seek to explore is of course part of the technical device of chiaroscuro. But it will easily be seen that this explains nothing if we turn to any of the thousands of dull technical experts who have used it, and in whose work there is no atmosphere of any kind. In Rembrandt we find always the keen detachment of the supreme Observer. We see the object cornered and shivering under the scrutiny of the artist. On the other hand in these paintings of Caravaggio the object seems to expand, if somewhat apprehensively, in the less critical eye of the lover. This is an overstatement, but will serve the purpose of clarifying the special nature of the intimate quality of these paintings. They verge on the realm of the confession — hovering on that vital line between the simply revelatory and consequently vulgar, and the honest statement that is moral and consequently dignified. It might further define their existence to say that Rembrandt’s vision could only have been produced from a Protestant point of departure, whereas Caravaggio is conspicuously catholic and Latin in temperament — the dago — so suspect to the English, or more correctly, to the puritan mind. There is no element of righteousness in Caravaggio’s vision. In terms of the painting this is difficult to define, technical examination only brings us nearer to a rebuff from the Mystery, the paint that is not paint, the object that is made profoundly important only to be lost in a transcendent sensation more fabulous still. Since the point at which a painting becomes important to us is that at which it transcends the nice qualities of paint and material, close technical criticism is always likely to impose another barrier, except when used by the painter himself who is concerned with the business of pushing paint about in order to observe its accidental effects and to learn from the manner of their occurrence how to direct them towards an understanding and a statement. It is clearly not the business of the spectator to approach painting in this manner precisely because it presupposes a desire and intention to paint a more relevant picture than the one in question. Thus the spectator will find himself making criticisms in terms of a picture which he would have painted or would have someone else paint for him, but which he can do nothing about; a ridiculous position and one that will endanger his peace of mind — one in which art will play the opposite of its true role of integration and catharsis, producing frustration, not fulfilment. I feel that it is in the difference in emphasis in the paintings of the individual detail that the righteousness in Rembrandt, and its absence in Caravaggio, can be observed. Not to add confusion to a difficult point, I will simply concentrate on the element in Caravaggio that gives me the sensation of a generous commitment that is catholic and Latin in its fullness. When I speak of the emphasis I mean the form of the head or figure as it exists for me when the illusion is absolutely convincing. I am not interested in breaking down the illusion to its material components. But I am anxious to pin-point the character of the illusion.
To begin with it is rhetorical. Each gesture is slightly more so, and if we look at the figure surrounding of St. Mathew in the painting of his vocation, we see how expectation can be a crucifixion of expectancy. These are elements in the illusion, and when all is said not the important ones. Yet if we look at any final and simple conception of the object here, I mean a head or a single figure, a hand or a foot, the same quality is to be felt in the same manner — the rhetorical placing of emphasis in terms of the feelings that dominated the artist. But which precedes which, the feelings or the object? Does Caravaggio attach his fantasy to the hand and the head, or do they provoke the emotion? I think we are near the secret of this harrowing work if we see in it a profound declaration of the sacred importance of the innate character of each particular Thing to the painter. It is a real genuflection to the fact that the artist lives dependently in the world of Things. In a bad painting of Caravaggio it is possible to see this gone wrong and to learn how tenuous and fine is the relationship on which these pictures are built. The involvement is very much concerned with the touch, smell, taste, and presence of the objects, it is a deeply complete commitment. In the bad pictures it is merely an involvement and fails to achieve Vision: preoccupation without triumph. Yet (and this is the point about this painter) when he succeeds in raising himself above the mire, of going through with the relationship until he has come out the other side, as it were, we get something as specially valuable as these paintings in the church of St. Luigi dei Francesi, something that is moving in an intimate and a nervous sensual way. And this gives it a stronger impact than is achieved in more rhetorical or more realistic art. Caravaggio is finally rhetorical about the so called realistic aspects of the Object. In this way he goes deeper than the rhetorical realism which does not attach itself to the loved individual detail. If for instance his concern was merely for the great effect (in the way in which we later find it in Tiepolo) he would not interest us as he does. It is the fact that no detail is unworthy of his love that affects us deeply, in painting the gesture in full rhetorical flower he is at the same time in love with the very simple existence of the object apart from its significance in action.
This dualism, where we have a tiresome rhetorical composition that in itself is boring but contains exciting passages of vivid observation, is what we normally find in Caravaggio. Frequently the disparity between the conception as a whole and the manner of execution in the details makes it difficult for us to appreciate the profound love that is there behind the facade. For instance it is difficult to accept the painter’s understanding and love for a sensual Roman porter from Trastevere if it is presented to us as a conception of Christ — and how often does Caravaggio grotesquely inhabit his religious pictures with debauched faces. It is a quality of this work that its reality is never a religious reality in the sense bestowed on that word by the great tradition of Italian religious painting. It is religious in so far as it presents a deeply honest and passionate view of man, but as for the conventions of religious painting they will not contain these portraits in sensuality. The sensation I get in this respect is that of finding myself intensely present in a studio where a group of people are posing for a religious painting. It is a fair criticism of Caravaggio to say that he fails to move us in terms of the religious belief behind his subject, and that the subject when it is a religious one is never what it seems to be. The painter’s love for the earthy and sensual aspect of his subject in nearly every case dominates. Yet in spite of this it would be wrong to try to reduce Caravaggio to the status of a “realist” who has strayed into the world of rhetorical religious painting by accident and to his detriment. It is certainly a reasonable speculation whether Caravaggio would have painted these subjects for choice (the sort of thing that the latter mannerist derivative painters, especially the Dutch, chose to paint seems nearer to the true taste of the man who painted the Vocation of St. Matthew). But when the two lines cross, that is on the one hand his concern for the physical sensual existence of the object, and on the other his sympathy for the circumstances in which it is to be painted, and when this crossing is focused dead on in relation to the composition, we get a painting that is superb by the highest standards. And moreover we get a picture that is doubly religious, religious in the deep respect for the object, in its profound love of life, and also in the manner in which it presents a situation full of religious significance. In such a picture it becomes impossible for us to divide these two elements, so profound is the simultaneous focus of both these kinds of love and respect.
It seems to me that in the Vocation of St Matthew this happens. Consequently my remark about the taste of the man who painted it is only valid in terms of those other paintings where this does not happen. Perhaps this is the great weakness of all criticism, that it tends to take facts derived from the examination of unimportant works and applies them in making a judgement about a man whose whole importance rests in the successful work, where these facts do not exist — such as the dualism in the attitude of Caravaggio in his religious paintings. Faced with this masterpiece I can simply say that he is a great religious painter and a great realist rhetorical painter as well. I gratefully acknowledge a debt to a great and mysterious genius. We must be prepared to acknowledge the “perversity of the poetic imagination”, because that is what we are up against here: the sensual earthy rhetorical realist has painted the superbly transcendent religious picture.
Having said this, however, I would like to return to my original view of Caravaggio the supreme sensual realist. Because it is in so far as he achieves this transcendence which I find in the Vocation of St. Matthew (through submitting himself to the physical presence of objects) that he is particularly interesting to me. I am only too aware that this painter is just now the subject of fashionable revivalism, but like most revivals and rediscoveries its true roots lie in the relation that Caravaggio has to contemporary painting. There can be no doubt that the brooding quality imparted to his canvases by his sensuous and disturbing feeling for texture and presence is very much of our time. We can see the quality of his work because it is of a kind that we have been made aware of as relevant through the work of such painters as Max Ernst and Francis Bacon for instance, Bacon’s horrific sense of texture as something not just a matter of paint but as a gateway to sensations that belong to a level of our consciousness where our real life goes on, by this means revealing to us what Proust called “that reality far from which we live, from which we get further and further away as the conventional knowledge we substitute for it becomes thicker and more impermeable” is very close it seems to me to the intense awareness of texture that we find in Caravaggio. The disturbing presence that Ernst in his best pictures can impart to Things, both human figures and still life, has a close relation to this very quality in the older painter. In any case to me his importance lies in the fact that he moves me in a direct personal way very much relevant to the sense of doom, and the desperate need for a clarifying vision of the mess, that is at the heart of our present dilemma. The nervous tenor of his work, and for that matter of his disordered and tragic life, can only be sympathetic to anyone burdened with the deep sense of chaos, injustice and despair inherited by those born in the twentieth century. It is by no means an accident of fate that Caravaggio had to wait till now to be rediscovered.
I have referred principally to the paintings in the church of St. Luigi dei Francesi and especially to the Vocation of St. Mathew because for me this is the supreme expression of Caravaggio’s genius, but of course Rome contains many other important pictures by this painter. He is perhaps nearer to Rome in spirit than any other painter of the Renaissance. There is none of the lightness of the Etruscan character in his painting, but there is that beautiful seriousness of the Roman mind, the cultured enquiring mind (in his case tortured and obsessed) of the highly conscious and sophisticated. Still, we feel at last the value of that heavy sensuality (here serving a deeply valuable human purpose) that elsewhere seems more often to serve the degradation of the race.
— Some notes on Caravaggio, Nimbus, 1956
The Artist Speaks, Envoy, Feb 1951
John Ryan asked five Irish painters to contribute to a symposium of artistic opinion. Louis le Brocquy, Nano Reid, George Campbell, Gerald Dillon and Patrick Swift all wrote short and succinct pieces.
No real painter ever wants be known through any other medium than his painting. At the same time it is to be regretted that in these days of professional art criticism so much should be written in so boring a manner about the subject. Now, as in the past, the only worth while things said about paintings are said by painters, good painters. There is no reason for the issue to be confused by post hoc chat about representation, reality, truth, beauty, abstraction and so forth:
We all know art is not truth — Picasso
And no good painter ever has a message, nor have the themes a painter uses anything to do with the quality of his work:
grandiose subjects have nothing to do with the
matter but only the talents, the power and love
of whoever treats the subject — Rouault
Any painter who thinks he has something to say to the people, or anything to contribute to the world of ideas or literature, is treading dangerous ground; the influence of literature on painting is at all times dangerous if not deadly. Painting is a visual art; and the job of the artist must be to create in visual terms the tension experienced. One cannot argue or explain in paint. The aim is not to put in everything that will help, but as little as one can help, so that a picture is in one sense a 'sum of destructions'. It is a question of honesty and courage:
One produces only the necessary — Degas
And there are no rules. Picasso again:
What a miserable fate for a painter who adores blondes to have to stop putting them into a picture because they did not go with the basket of fruit.
In this respect technical criticism in particular is the despair of the artist. No one but an idiot would offer a poet his comments in terms of spondees and trochees; why must the painter daily suffer the indignity? Any picture which makes one conscious first of its technical qualities, good or bad, is not a good picture, whatever else it may be. And the idea of technical progress has caused great confusion, especially among the young who imagine that they should take up where Picasso left off:
The several manners I have used in my work
must not be taken as an evolution or a step
towards an unknown ideal of painting. — Picasso
The fallacious idea that a painter 'experiments' is harmful to the simple-minded, who conceive painting to be a game in which one casts about in all directions in a effort to hit the jackpot. The only indication of an individual vision is an individual style:
What I seek above all in a picture is a man
and not a picture — Zola
It is also a mistake to imagine that such a thing as the stupid genius exists, or did at any time. Good painting is not produced by any unintelligent following of inspiration or temperament. Every genius is a great intelligence:
Of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know
nothing — Degas
You may know a good painter by his habit of work: a good painter works constantly.
And finally, everything written about art is profoundly unimportant; most of it, unfortunately, is also boring, except for the statements of a genius about his art, which always have interest because of his work. For this reason I may, I think, be excused the quotations. A last word from Degas: 'Art is deceit'; and Van Gogh: 'to be simply honest'.
X, The Painter in the Press
...The Art of painting is itself an intensely personal activity. It may be labouring the obvious to say so but it is too little recognised in art journalism now that a picture is a unique and private event in the life of the painter: an object made alone with a man and a blank canvas...
A real painting is something which happens to the painter once in a given minute; it is unique in that it will never happen again and in this sense is an impossible object. It is judged by the painter simply as a success or failure without qualification. And it is something which happens in life not in art: a picture which was merely the product of art would not be very interesting and could tell us nothing we were not already aware of.
The old saying, ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’, expresses the opposite idea to that which animates the painter before his canvas. It is precisely what he does not know which may destroy him. (Though of course the meaning of the adage really depends on the quality of the deception)...
The idea of objectivity in the evaluation of pictures introduces the concept of rational and scientific assessment.
There are some sciences involved in the making and in the study of pictures, but the art itself is finally not a science and will not submit to scientific regimentation because its life depends on the degree to which it is inhabited by mystery, speaks to us of the unknown. It is simply an avoidance of the interesting difficulty to subject the inexplicable to the process of rational explanation. For since the real pleasures of painting and the reality of its meaning exist in the part of its structure which cannot be explained, all suggestions and pretensions at explanation must lead us away from the area of greatest interest. This is to say that such analysis as purports to lay bare the machinery which makes a painting work — makes it a good painting — not only leaves out the most important factor, the element of mystery, but actively denies the reality which is the justification for the art at all...
This idea of art as an instrument of salvation, social or psychological, is so widespread and has become such common currency... that it may be foolhardy to attempt to throw doubt on it.
Nevertheless it may be remarked that this idea devolves finally on the extent to which the activity is a function of hope. Hope for a better life, a better civilisation or whatever term one wishes to use; meaning anyhow some far off desired perfection of life; implying that art is animated by a pious aspiration for this state. The virtue of hope becomes the animating principle of art. But the virtue of hope has only a serious position within the eschatology of true religion. To the man who prays it is the supreme virtue.
Art on the other hand speaks to us of resignation and rejoicing in reality, and does so through a transformation of our experience of the world into an order wherein all facts become joyous; the more terrible the material the greater the artistic triumph. This has nothing at all to do with 'a constant awareness of the problems of our time' or any other vague public concern. It is a transformation that is mysterious, personal and ethical *[* An ethos is a difficult thing that cannot be formulated and codified; it is one of those creative irrationalities upon which real progress is based. It demands the whole man and not just a differentiated function — Jung]. And the moral effect of art is only interesting when considered in the particular. For it is always the reality of the particular that provides the occasion and the spring of art — it is always "those particular trees/ That caught you in their mysteries" or the experience of some loved object. Not that the matter rests here. It is the transcendent imagination working on this material that releases the mysterious energies which move and speak of deepest existence...
...the tendency to elevate (or degrade, if one happens to be a humanist) the activity into a surrogate for religion. In doing so they involve categoric prohibitions inimicable to the spirit of art which is the spirit of real freedom...
I state the case more or less in philosophical terms taking the attitudes as relevant to some degree: but in the end they are not relevant at all. This is my real objection.
That the mass of art criticism should have drifted so far from the reality of painting that no one any longer wishes to speak of enjoying pictures* [*Instead one speaks of understanding — '"Understanding" is something that people more respectable than myself assure me that they burn to apply to everything. If they look, for example, at a picture, and are in danger of feeling pleasure from it, they either declare that "they don't understand it" or they apply their understanding to some object which, but for their assurances to the contrary, I should have suspected wasn't the picture: in either case, it seems, they feel the better for having avoided submitting to the indignity of pleasure.' — A review in The New English Weekly, July 28, 1949.]... It may well be that the difficulty is endemic in the manner of analysis rather than in any philosophy of the art.
The manner of analysis most often used may be distinguished by its two main characteristics: the historical and the technical...
Pictures are labelled 'avant garde' 'reactionary' or more dubious labels still, and all serious standards of judgement or enjoyment go by the board...
For the notion of progress in the arts, (either spiritually or artistically) has been discredited by many respectable intellects (Kierkegaard and Baudelaire above all, both of whom encountered the idea when it first reared itself in its present form in Europe)....
Also part of this category, but strictly an extension of it, is the obsession with derivation, and the premium on any obvious kind of originality which follows from this. Discoveries made by such methods are of doubtful validity if evaluation of particular pictures is the aim, and this is even so in their own terms, i.e. historically...
The co-existence at one moment of two such painters as Ingres and Delacroix, or the odd derivations that started great painters such as Cézanne (from Delacroix himself at the beginning) or Van Gogh (from Mauve at one point) on their path towards a shocking individuality incline me to doubt the usefulness of these criteria when applied to contemporary painting. That is to say in the judgement of paintings at the time when they are made.
The historical view with its doubtful presumption of understanding laws of time and development leads to the pedantic and the dry side of the study of painting, but it is really less irrational and remote than the technical element in critical analysis.
Technical criticism of painting is a very dubious activity if the aim is evaluation and not merely identification or the examination of master-work by painters themselves...
...For even the painter himself cannot be fully aware of the way in which the picture gets made: there is a wide area of the unpredictable in the act of pushing paint about in the definition of an image...
There are ambiguities in the art of painting but they are the ambiguities of a fine precision: the discovered fact of the image containing at the same time the reverberations of the unknown, the truly mysterious...
I would take this further and add that painting is itself precise in its ideas. In the sense that the image is the idea in its purist form* [* The image is a principal of our knowledge. It is that from which our intellectual activity begins, not as a passing stimulus but as an enduring foundation — St. Thomas Aquinas, Opus XVI.]...
I believe that a reorientation is necessary. That certain facts must be accounted for and some vigorous redefinition pursued. Not formal or scientific definition, but that clarity about the nature of the experience of art which will bring back a note of immediacy and personal gaiety into the effort to articulate the sensations produced by good pictures.
The interesting thing is what happens in the specific picture: its precision in terms of the sensations it produces — the illusion it creates and the effect of this illusion on the psychology opposed to it.
General philosophical and technical information however interesting in itself is secondary to this reality.
Certain illuminations may be possible; chiefly about the mind of the man who made the picture. Thus it is revealing that Soutine made no formal preparations for his painting and occupied himself with desultory reading in the poets and philosophers... Such illuminations, even when they consist of small factual information, may reveal to us a morality of approach which might otherwise remain beyond us and ignorance of which might make it the more difficult to share the more secret levels of the picture's existence.
In this respect the words of painters themselves are always of value...
The sever judgements so often passed by painters on critics are not without reason. For the painter finding what for him is a collection of unique objects treated as a vague expression of personality...:
Mr.—'s exhibition is not quite convincing and must be regarded as transitional. He's proceeded from his earlier nervous lines and bland washes towards more solid forms.
Is the art of painting such a dull matter as this implies? We know that it is not...
What I would advocate is a form of subjective writing about art which would eschew the dry impersonal notion that the picture had an existence outside our experience of it: that there was some absolute formula whereby its value could be estimated... The passionate voice of a man speaking clearly about the things he loves and castigating that which threatened their existence or the justice of their survival...
But the reader most likely sees by now the ground I wish to occupy which is exactly that of a famous dictum voiced unheeded in 1846:
To be just, that is to say to justify its existence, criticism should be partial passionate, and political, that is to say written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens up the widest horizons. [— Charles Baudelaire]
— X, The Painter in the Press
X, Official Art and the Modern Painter
To-day it is not uncommon to hear art experts predict the next step in the history of painting... A common claim of this kind, for instance, has been that America has 'taken the lead' from Paris, or Europe simply, and that certain American painters are making the sort of pictures which shall determine the next direction the art of painting will take (though it must be noticed that it is a plain fact such pictures are also being made in Japan, Bulgaria, Chile, etc.) These claims nearly always deal in large numbers of painters at once under the cover of 'movements'. Any one with a small knowledge of history must realise how far the number of great painters involved in these movements exceeds that of the richest period ever recorded.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter
A situation has occurred wherein a premium is put on any work qualifying for the term ‘progressive’... the whole machinery of organised culture... all compete to produce and to patronise 'modern and progressive' art... In fact we now have an official art to the furtherance and protection of which the whole Establishment is committed... Those painters who to-day work under the banner or label of the Modern, the Progressive, can hardly accuse the public of not taking notice.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter
For I am not interested in taking a stand on the grounds of aesthetics (one respects Mondrian) except to say these techniques which lay claim to freedom and to releasing powers of an imaginative order depend in fact on a strict aesthetic both narrow and constricting. And here we have the prime characteristic of an Official Art. It is noticeable that rejection and selection no longer operate in terms of merely quality but on kind. This is exactly the situation confronting the Impressionists who attempted to show their works in the salon of 1865.
— X, Official Art and The Modern Painter
...It would be phony, however, to pretend too great a concern for the effects of the system of selling pictures on the character of contemporary painters. It is very likely unhealthy and occasionally disastrous even to some people of real talent. Yet the nature of art is so strange, so unpredictable, and the circumstances of its production so remote from the world of commerce that it would appear the truth is less alarming than the facts might lead one to suppose. It is possible that the occasions of corruption being so frequent the flowering of genuine vision is all the more intense, the more purified, and consequently more valuable than ever.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter
Il faut être absolument moderne — Arthur Rimbaud
Behind all the muddle that fills the philosophical justifications for the new art there lurks another old bogey it would be well to drag out into the air for a minute.
It is the idea of progress in the arts; the notion that we move forward from one good thing to another in a simple progression and in a single direction.
Baudelaire dealt so profoundly with this that it requires a certain arrogance to set up an attack on it from any other angle. Also Wyndham Lewis in a more muddled way, but still forcefully and with vigour... But this can be said: if there were such a thing as a direct and simple progression from the work of one generation to the next the historical difficulty of the Progressive Artist could not exist...
The point is this;... the popular notion of the Progressive and the New Art may not after all be the last word on a complex subject. That there may be, even to-day... such a thing as the absolutely modern. That as before it may be something unexpected, and not completely accounted for in the arrangements for encouraging the arts.
For to be contemporary is not necessarily to be part of any movement, to be included in the official representations of national and international art. History shows that it may well be the opposite. It may be that it is the odd, the personal, the curious, the simply honest, that at this moment, when everyone looks to the extreme and flamboyant, constitutes the most interesting manifestation of the spirit of art.
...It may be necessary to be absolutely modern.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter
X, Mob Morals and the Art of Loving Art
It is not necessary to subscribe to the tiresome conception of the artist as rampaging Bohemian to understand that the activity of painting is socially useless, or at best occupies a dubious position. (I take it as unnecessary to remark on the futility of the notion of art as a social function of man.) In the remote purity of his solitariness, where the work of art is made, the artist is supremely the anti-social creature. This solitariness is not necessarily achieved in the country or by the seaside; one can be very much alone on the top of a bus, etc. The artist, as artist, occupies a position that is fundamentally neither social not amenable to social arrangement.
Society has always honoured this fact in one way or another. Despite the effect of the great men of the late 19th century, who it might be thought would have rendered the world safe for those who came after them, it was still possible even for Picasso to spend some time in the wilderness...
— X, Mob Morals and the Art of Loving Art
Encountering a work of art is in many respects rather like meeting a person. One may not recognise his quality at first, may be put off by a surface aspect and find out later he is quite different etc., but if one's response takes the form of a moral judgement one is unlikely ever to find out anything about him...
Mob reactions can be recognised in that somewhere, if one has an ear for such things, the voice of the preacher of the moral code may be detected adding its dead tone. That note of dead insensibility by which life is reduced to dullness.
Nowhere is this more frequently apparent than in that sort of comment on a work of art which starts out from a position of moral complacency.
For here is the phenomenon one constantly encounters in art discourse: the evident distaste and occasionally the open hatred with which the critic views the personality behind the work he professes to criticise as art or even to admire.
It is a comic phenomenon and historically is often a pathetic one. When one reads on the faded page Sir Edmund Gosse's comment on James Joyce's prose: 'worthless and impudent, a perfectly cynical appeal to sheer indecency' one recognises the hysteria of the mob reaction; but now it has the pathos of someone making a colossal ass of himself publicly and unconsciously.
But we should resist the temptation merely to laugh: for there is involved in such cases a dilemma in which even a man of sensibility may find himself trapped when he unconsciously slips into the comfortable bog-hole of moral righteousness...
The dilemma arises from the confrontation of the merely educated mind with an expression of that violent free force which is the human imagination in movement.
It may be said that this is a confrontation of moralities. There is a sense, and a very exciting sense, in which art is moral. When Stendhal says a good picture is nothing but a construction in ethics, one recognises a truth about art which opens up vistas that are at the same time liberating and terrifying. The ethics of art are terrifying because real art by increasing our knowledge of ourselves increases in exactly the same proportion the ethical commitment. This is an indecent thing to do from the point of view of the established moral code. For the moralist like Sir Edmund suspects rightly that the very code itself, like the law of the land which is an extension of it, can be transformed by successful crimes. His alarm is well founded...
...in the end each man experiences only himself. To refer to your neighbour or twenty million of them for your touchstone of reality is a logical nonsense in the life of the individual person... The painter celebrates life where he finds it. His morality is the morality of enjoyment, of the continuous development of his own taste without shame or fear. It is a sort of heroism.
— X, Mob Morals and the Art of Loving Art
Lisbon: A Portrait And A Guide
Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa
Eça de Queiroz
What I am talking about when I speak of the Chiado and its immediate environs is fashionable Lisbon. And it is just as fashionable now as it was when it was the show place for the janoto, the dandy, of the world of Eça de Queiroz. I cannot pass through this district without thinking of Eça. All these streets, from the Baixa up to the Chiado and the Bairro Alto, and down to the river, make up the Lisbon of the books of Queiroz. The street names evoke those encounters the novelist so frequently arranged for his characters with devastating poignancy or intolerable angst, accidentally on the pavement. In a way, Eça did for Lisbon what James Joyce did for Dublin. He brought to life and defined a whole world. His prose is very like the early Joyce in character. It is clean, hard, and real, with a capacity for romantic and sensuous evocation. His spare but moving use of place names is also similar. This will mean nothing to the English reader, however, for Eça still awaits a translator of genius. It is certainly not good enough to suggest, as I have heard Eng. Lit. gents do, that he is a poor man's Flaubert. Although this is not the place, maybe, for disquisition on the work of Queiroz, it must be remarked that it would be impossible, or utterly blind, to treat Lisbon and not bring in his work at some point. It is possible that there can be no real understanding of the Portuguese character without reference to this writer. Nor is this any accident. His influence has been vast. It is unlikely that any interesting writer in Portuguese has escaped the shadow of his satirical yet wise and comprehensive vision. He re-created the conscience of the race (to use Joyce's phrase) to such a degree that in a certain sense his work is Portugal.
Dealing specifically with Lisbon his novels cover a truly Shakespearean range of life. In Os Maias, for instance, we find a picture of the rich and noble, the sensitive successful hero with all the upper-class background of the period; in Cousin Bazílio the scene is the world of the moderate professional middle class of the time with vivid scenes of low Lisbon too. In A Capital — for me one of the most fascinating books as far as the portrait of the city goes — we see the world of the cafés, the newspapers and journalists, the political underworld, Socialists and Royalists, fanatics and spongers, poets and tarts, the fashionable salon and the low hotel.
The book moves through all the levels of Lisbon life in the late nineteenth century. Eça with brilliant, sometimes savage, comic strokes takes his hero (or anti-hero) through the gamut of experience, starting with the innocent excitement of the provincial would-be writer arriving with his small inheritance to conquer the literary world of Lisbon to the brutal end of real vision. Personally I can never walk down the Rua do Século past the gloomy façade of the newspaper of the same name without seeing the ghost of the wretched Artur seeking out the depraved and the outrageous Melchior, the hack journalist who has ruthlessly sponged off him, looking for his fare back to the country and his dying aunt. It is not that Eça has endowed the town with character, it is that his vision sharpens the eye and adds a new dimension.
The fact that Lisbon is physically much the same today as it was then is important. Unlike London, where the transformations are so drastic that it is becoming futile to look for those places hallowed in literature (even modern literature — Pound's Kensington, or Eliot's City for instance), Lisbon can still offer almost intact the stage on which Eça's characters are made to act out their tragi-comic roles. This is a privilege we can enjoy in Lisbon.
It was the conscious aim of Eça de Queiroz to create a full-scale portrait of Portuguese life. In letters to his publisher he sketched out such a scheme. And he had the attitude of a modern artist: there would be no digression, he said, nor declamation nor philosophy, 'something you will read in a night but will impress you for a week' he added modestly. In a way, although he never fulfilled his scheme and the Portuguese comédie humaine was never published, his complete work does add up to the sort of portrait of which he spoke. It is a comic vision that understood the passion, the gloom, the tragedy of the race. Having read him, one can never again be happy with the superficial, the trite and picturesque view of the Portuguese, found so repeatedly in English travel writing about the country from the eighteenth century onwards.
But as I have remarked earlier, it is the fact that so much of old Lisbon has survived intact into our day that allows us to enjoy these insights. And this applies to other eras and other parts of the old town aside from the world of Eça.
It is remarkable given the rate at which the city has expanded in the last twenty years, that so much has been preserved. It is also encouraging to notice that in spite of the pressures of big business there is a high degree of awareness of the value of the city's heritage. A typical example of this is a recently published book by one of the country's leading architects, Francisco Keil Amaral, surveying the dilemma of a rapidly expanding metropolis: Lisboa: Uma Cidade Em Transformação (Lisbon: A City in Transformation). This writer draws attention early on in his book to an interesting aspect of life in a city not yet overwhelmed by the demands of modern mass-housing and concomitant problems. People in Lisbon, he points out, were Portuguese and Lisboners in a special way. In a concrete and real manner were inhabitants of Alfama, of Madragoa, of Bairro Alto, of Campo Ourique, of Poço do Bispo, of Alcântara, of Belém ... or in a more concrete way still, of certain patios, streets, or sectors of these quarters. The customs of the neighbourhood, habits and communal interests — whether of hate or love — moulded the district into a real community: a situation where even the football clubs – Benfica, Sporting, or Oriental – were basically clubs of the quarter, the bairro, supported by local enthusiasm and expressing a local cohesion. Much of this is passing under modern pressures. But for those of us who visit Lisbon, coming from places where this process is so much more advanced, where nothing, or nearly nothing, has escaped brutal levelling progress, Lisbon still presents a picture of how more pleasant life can be when the scale is not utterly shattered, wherein human beings can converse, communicate and care for each other.
The old self-contained quarters of Lisbon are a joy. In one district we will find ourselves in an atmosphere belonging to a certain era: in the Bairro Alto, for example, we are in the seventeenth century. Down below, it is all eighteenth century, Pombal’s Lisbon. This is very much French influenced; while now very lisboeta to us, it was a foreign intrusion when first built. To the east the rising hillside of Castelo de S. Jorge brings us back to ancient Lisbon, to the world as it existed before the disaster of the earthquake. Baixa in that pre-earthquake period was also a dense mass of alleyways and lanes — becos in Portuguese — very much in the style of the Alfama. It is hard to imagine how it must have been: a maze of antique buildings, all on different levels. But that venerable monument of Lisbon, the lift which will take you up from the Rua Santa Justa to the Carmo, gives a clear view of the great drop between the Alfama and Castelo de S. Jorge on the one side and the Bairro Alto on the other. Where now there is a flat bed, with its straight streets criss-crossing in orderly fashion there was a mass of unruly detail. There was the heart of ancient Lisbon. This included in its time the Jewish bairro, Judiaria Grande, with its synagogues, and its extension the Judiaria Pequena. The river covered much of what is now the Praça do Comércio. At that time the palace (from which the square gets its other name Terreiro do Paço) did not reach more than half-way down the length of the present space.
Looking on this cityscape from Eiffel’s lift at Santa Justa, one is presented with a paradox — a curiosity of town architecture that must be among the most fascinating of its kind. Here is a perfectly self-contained and largely untouched expression of the eighteenth century stuck artificially in between two almost equally untouched sections of a medieval city. The one is an elegant exercise in logical reasoned town planning. The others express the organic growth of a city over its centuries of existence, the natural higgledy-piggledy charm of an unplanned conglomerate obeying laws and embodying a personality not susceptible to the operations of the ruler and drawing board.
The intrusion of the eighteenth-century logic on such a drastic scale into the character of the city also symbolises the powerful effect of foreign influence in Portugal at that time and subsequently. Somehow the older city holds more of the soul of the true Portuguese. I do not find the spirit of Portugal in the Baixa.
There is some confirmation of these notions in the writing of many of the nineteenth-century generation of Portuguese poets and philosophers, who found that the national identity was being undermined by essentially French influences, and who were responsible for what can properly be called a Portuguese renaissance. Men like Teófilo Braga, Antero do Quental, Oliveira Martins, Leite de Vasconcelos, Alberto Sampaio and not least of all, Eça De Queiroz himself. The latter gave fairly strong expression to the sort of dilemma this generation felt when he wrote in an essay entitled O ‘Francesismo’: ‘I have been accused with bitterness in the periodicals, or in those pieces of printed paper that in Portugal pass for periodicals, of being turned foreign, of being Frenchified, and more, by my writing and by my example trying to de-portugalise Portugal. But this is an error of the salon…Far from being guilty of de-nationalisation, I was one of the melancholy products of it. No sooner born, hardly having taken my first steps, still wearing little crochet boots than I began to breathe France. All around me was France only…All my generation with the exception of some superior spirits like Antero do Quental or Oliveira Martins, we have all turned fatally French in the midst of a society which was frenchifying itself and which throughout every part from the creation of the State down to the taste of the individual had broken with the national tradition, divesting itself of all its Portuguese clothes in order to put on — in thinking, legislation, writing, teaching, living, cooking — rags brought from France.’
Eça played his role, of course, in the re-creation of the national image. And although he may have exaggerated in this essay he does express the dilemma — essentially a dilemma of identity — that preoccupied his generation, and most Portuguese writers since. I feel that Eça left out of account the degree to which the Portuguese can absorb foreign influence and make it their own. A great and obvious example is the Italian architect Nazzoni, the master of the Portuguese baroque in the north of Portugal. And one of the sculptors of the Jerónimos was a Frenchman, Nicolau Chanterene.
These writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century in Portugal (even the more journalistic of them like Ramalho Ortigão were brilliant and witty writers) introduced in an acute way the whole question of what ultimately was Portugal and where Portugal was going. It was a sort of nationalist renaissance comparable to the Irish literary revival of a slightly later date.
In modern times, a poet has demonstrated again that this is a basic concern with the thinking Portuguese. Fernando Pessoa was obsessed with the question of identity. He also shared the messianic character that repeatedly asserts itself in Portuguese literature and life. Pessoa was a major European poet. He was a complex personality to begin with. So much so that his own thought and work led him to an assertion of the impossibility of a simple identity. A man is now one thing and again another. One expression is as valid as the next, and there is no simple truth. He developed four separate personae for himself. Each a poet, publishing under his own name, each with a history, a profession and even a horoscope for himself. They not infrequently wrote critiques and introductions one for the other.
Without a knowledge of the poetry this sounds fairly crazy. But the world Pessoa created by this device is utterly convincing. In it, he can range from the romantic and heroic to the wry, satiric, and comic.
Pessoa applied his notions to the analysis of the Portuguese character in general and, for the purposes of the present remarks, this is where the interest lies for me: for Fernando Pessoa, like Eça, haunts Lisbon once one gets to know his work.
It is worth quoting some of his earliest statements on this problem of identity written in 1915, ‘I do not know who I am, what soul I have’. ‘When I speak with sincerity I do not know with what sincerity I speak.’ ‘I feel myself multiple. I am like a room with innumerable mirrors that turn into false reflections a single anterior reality which is not in any one of them and in all of them.’
He wrote: ‘Being Portuguese it is as well to know what we are,
a) adaptability, which in things of the mind gives instability and therefore diversification of the individual within himself.
b) a predominance of emotion over passion. We are tender and little intense, the opposite to the Spanish – our absolute opposites – who are passionate and cold. Never do I feel myself more Portuguese than when I feel different from myself — Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, Fernando Pessoa.'
(The names of these various ‘personae’. N.B. his own name comes last)
It seems to me that Pessoa’s note on the national character here is enlightening. It even seems to me, too, that the city expresses this feeling: diverse, tender, poetic, rising in tiers of pastel shades from the warm hazy river where dark triangular silhouettes of sails move gently through the afternoon. This is one face of Lisbon.
The Portuguese Enigma
by Patrick Swift
I brought back from my Lisbon trip two valuable acquisitions — both gifts from António Quadros: his essay, 'O Enigma de Lisboa', and a curious old guide to the city which spoke of things like the 'stony abandoned land' beyond the top of the Avenida da Liberdade (now the Ritz). The first contained several enlightenments, the second a mass of fascinating details.
The essay revealed itself to be a work of ideas, and a type of writing not easily rendered into English. Essentially a reflective philosophical exercise of the mind. A stylish performance. Modern English usage does not accommodate the gentle, slightly romantic, nature of this sort of writing. For instance, 'The variety of form and the variety of colour situates man before the reality of nature. They lend to wandering man, to epic man, to man with a mission, a support which is indispensable and irreplaceable. This is one of the greatest lessons of Lisbon, a city where nature reveals herself and is systematically symbolised, as though deriving by syllogism from an open concept of being and of being human.' What seems beautiful and meaningful in Portuguese loses in translation. Nevertheless, I found it rewarding to consider this little philosophy or psychology of the city.
The premise is that the development of a city is not accidental: that inevitably it expresses the very soul of a people. Quadros draws attention to the common misuse of the term 'Manueline' in reference to the architecture of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Portugal — this he calls Atlantic Baroque. A consideration of the meaning of the Manueline style is central to the essay. In the aesthetics of the city's structure there subsists, for him, an intentional element. Through this we can diagnose the psychological Lisbon through the psychographic evidence.
Lisbon is generally agreed to be naturally beautiful by virtue of its position. Rising on hills from the great expanse of the Tagus, it is, as Quadros puts it, beautiful 'a priori'. But, he adds, the significant thing is that in the structure of the town we find a form of urban landscape that instead of shutting man off from nature attempts to reconcile him to it. This trait is so persistent that it cannot be called accidental. It forms a psychological line that cuts across all those diverse elements that have gone to create the conglomerate we call the lisboeta, the Lisbonese, of today: the Luso-Latin, the Luso-Arab, the Luso-Semite, the Luso-Atlantic, the Portuguese. This long line of mixed cultures, races, civilisations and religions, that has resulted in the Portuguese of today had a persistent original element: a special relationship to nature. Something which came to be logically theorised in the work of the Portuguese, Espinoza.
Lisbon is a city impregnated by nature. Quadros sees in the cities founded by Portuguese in far-off Brazil, India, Africa, China — in Rio de Janeiro, Luanda, Macau — a re-creation of this spirit; a nostalgia for Lisbon. There is no other Lisbon in Europe, and similarly there is no other Rio in South America, no other Luanda in Africa. A characteristic of all these is the survival of nature in the urban context; nature living in the midst of the city. Lisbon is, for him, archetypal, symbolic, mythical.
This point of view is in itself so expressive of something central to the Portuguese character that it throws light on the enigma: to me, it is clear that the Portuguese are — in a way impossible to define — unique and individual. They are apart from the European main stream yet closely involved in Europe at various points of history. To say the nation is 'Atlantic' does express something.
Any visitor travelling by road or rail into Portugal will have been struck by the vivid and startling difference immediately noticeable on crossing the frontier. This applies to any point of the compass, whether from Galicia, Estremadura or Andalusia. There is at once apparent in the air — the ambience — a radical change. H N. Savory in his prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula, goes into the reason for writing of Spain and Portugal as one whole. In doing so he succeeds in emphasising the point I am now trying to make. He draws attention to the climatic boundary that separates 'wet' Spain from ‘dry’. The temperate northern coastal strip with its heavy rainfall and its natural forest cover of oak, elm, and ash extends as far as the Tagus. Its eastern limits roughly coincide with the edge of the Meseta — the inland plateau of the Peninsula. This climate forms the raison d'être of modern Portugal. The western coastal strip has mild wet winters and sufficient summer drought to enable Mediterranean type flora to flourish even as far north as Galicia. This mingling of two diverse climatic conditions — the hot and dry and the mild and wet — is most apparent in the areas between the Tagus and the Douro. In other words, in the very heart of Portugal. The whole of this strip, with its particularly heavy and luxuriant vegetation, turns its back on the harsh interior and looks out to the sea. As Savory puts it, looking to sea-ways, leading in early days to the Mediterranean and northern Europe, and more recently to all parts of the world. It was the basis in prehistoric times for an 'Atlantic' cultural sphere (and this has particular interest for French and British prehistory).
All of this is very relevant to understanding the essence of Portugal. Quadros' essay extends this Atlantic idea to an understanding of the personality of the people. It seems reasonable to suppose that it was the settled and civilised farming communities of the seaboard who, persisting as such basic communities do, throughout changing phases of history and prehistory, lent the deepest notes to the personality of the nation. They had a genius for absorbing and transforming foreign influences from the very earliest times (Eastern influence, Greek influence, Celtic influence). Thus the notion that the recurrent dominations — Latin, Visigoth, Arab — and the great impact of the Jews (and Negroes?) could all have been absorbed, transformed and given a coherent character is not by any means fanciful.
Quadros calls the vital element in this sort of absorption and transformation a 'cult of nature'. He sees in it a key to the cultural and religious character of the Portuguese.
Your true Portuguese is deeply religious. Lisbon can be seen, if looked at from this point of view, as a town composed of temples to the cult of nature. The innumerable miradouros, and belvederes, each with its garden (a tiny bit of nature humanised), lodged on the edge of steep hills looking over those unsurpassable views, are temples of an esoteric cult. These places are nearly all legendary and sacred in some way. Even a short list is impressive — Castelo de S. Jorge, the fortress turned into a quiet garden where the peacock struts on the lawns; Senhora da Monte, like a little village square; Santa Luzia, gazing over the rooftops of the Alfama down to the river (a view unchanged since the caravels of the Order of Christ anchored off below); S. Pedro de Alcantara looking across at the Castelo de S Jorge over the dense life of the city beneath; the Alto de Santa Catarina, a strange little platform set perfectly for watching the ships pass up and down the river; Janelas Verdes, a rich profusion of greenery presiding over the rumble of activity along the docks. Lisbon in modern times again gives expression to this cult of nature: the magnificent park of Monsanto, incontestably one of the finest stretches of woodland within a city that exists, crowned by a hilltop that offers over immeasurable tracts of the Estremadura with the river rolling seawards.
There is an interesting point about the vegetation of Lisbon. When Lisbon offers us a park, it is not merely a rich growth of European trees and flowers — it is a feast of the exotic and strange, a botanic fantasy. Flowering trees and shrubs from the remote and luxuriant corners of India, Guinea, and Brazil fill the parks of Campo Grande, Ajuda, Estrela, Estufa Fria and the Jardim Botânico. And where in Europe is there a zoological garden which is so much a garden as that of Lisbon? The city is full of remote corners shaded in exotic foliage, little shrines to nature, mysterious retreats where couples linger amid the blessings of a beneficent earth goddess.
António Quadros carries this line of thought a step further. Maybe too far. Yet when one thinks of the city, and the streets that climb the numerous hills to little squares looking out on the river, it is difficult not to be convinced. The lisboeta is not satisfied merely with his parks and his gardened miradouros, he brings this cult into the intimacy of his daily life — his window becomes his gardened miradouro, his shrine to nature. Here he conducts this intimate dialogue between man and his primordial environment. Throughout old Lisbon, it is rare to find a house un-bedecked with a variety of pots, cases and boxes bursting forth with a host of different plants and flowers, some trailing many feet down towards the street. The cheering sight of a morning is the ladies of Lisbon watering and caring for their little window gardens; one of the joys of the capital.
The visual aspect of the city supports Quadros' thesis. There is an inherent impulse to grow in harmony with nature, with natural laws. The streets have their own logic in space and time. They follow the contours and do not attempt to contradict the natural lie of the city's position on the hills by the river. In the pictures of the Portuguese painters Carlos Botelho and Maria Helene Vieira da Silva we see confirmation of this feeling; and it can be seen from any of the miradouros, where the cityscape rises before one like a watercolour in faded wash. A gentle blending from yellow to green to blue and pink, with ever-present foliage breaking the lines. The configuration of Lisbon is essentially irregular — a natural form of growth. No great monuments strike across the accumulations of haphazard shape clinging to the steep hills; what monuments there are seem inevitable — pinnacles to a natural mountain of houses and streets.
Architecture reflects in turn harmony and devotion to nature. The applied arts — ironwork, azulejo, precious metal — show a tendency for the fluent and natural form. The spiral, the curve, the elliptical flowing line of the wrought iron of the innumerable balconies of old Lisbon show this. The jewellery, the filigrana, though admittedly pretty degraded in popular reproductions for tourism, is an ancient lisboeta art. In its way it too shows the same tendency. But above all the emergence of the Manueline style, Altantic Baroque, shows this marriage of the natural with the artefact in full flower. This is a triumph of Atlantic man. It emerges with the same burst of genius and energy that saw the discoveries and the rise of a type of Portuguese — the man with a sense of mission.
Quadros' essay had made me reflect on the phenomenon that is Lisbon. It is true that nature is present in and throughout the city. Where else in Europe is there a great central avenue with two complete and very natural gardens plonk in the middle? While the traffic roars up and down the Avenida da Liberdade one can meander by the flowing waters of these little gardens. It is almost possible to be unaware of the flood of poisonous machinery on both sides of these oases. But what Quadros is saying is that there is a 'Portuguese' truth. A Portuguese truth and, at a certain historical moment, a Portuguese mission, a national destiny.
It was between the times of D. Diniz and the great Manuel I that Portugal fulfilled its historic role, its great mission. This is not merely, as an English reader might suppose, a conceit of modern Portuguese reflection on more glorious times. The notion of a mission, of a nation with a high destiny was prevalent in the times of the Navigator. In Camões it is given expression on the epic scale (and Camões is one of the great poets of Europe). Other poets such as Guerra Junqueiro, Teixeira de Pascoais, and, more recently, Fernando Pessoa have been obsessed with the idea, have devoted a considerable amount of time and talent to the attempt to understand the national identity — a mission. Pessoa, whose talent belongs to the Parnassian level beyond national considerations, believed that the Portuguese epic cycle that closed with the era of the Discoveries had entered another phase and again awaited completion — that the nation had before it a destiny to fulfil.
Ideas of this order can only be interesting when expressed in forms that are convincing. What is important is that the idea informs literature of a high order, that the concept of 'man with a mission' haunts the Portuguese imagination.
Quadros sees in the Jerónimos at Belém the visible monument to this national mission accomplished through the Navigators. In discovering new continents, new seas, they were discovering a truth of Portugal — in other words, man's relation to nature. The spirit of man oscillates between transcendentalism and humanism, but there is the third dimension of nature herself. Through the dialogue between man and nature lies a way to God.
Unless one can grasp that notions of this order are the stock in trade of the Portuguese mind, one can never hope to understand Portugal. It is for this reason, I think, that so many modern visitors are fascinated and baffled by the mystery of the Portuguese character. To the rational, logical mind it is romantic madness; to the closed political mind it is nationalism. To such people, a passage like this from Quadros' essay, referring to the Jerónimos, cannot mean much:
I am going to say what a secular and ancestral voice says to all who penetrate the cathedral of Santa Maria at Belém, a cathedral of Portuguese religious feeling, consecrated to the Virgin, protectress of Portugal and whose patrons, significantly, are the Three Magi: 'Thus do you enter the kingdom of God through the gates of nature. It is nature, in the world of generation and corruption, in the world of birth and death, that human life unfolds. Do not aspire, egoistic man, for a unique and exclusive salvation for your soul. Meditate on what is inscribed here on this doorway: these are the roots of the earth and the waves of the sea, they are the creatures of the clay and the coral of the ocean, they are the continents and countries, the human race. Behold, man, your destiny: go round the world and ascend with it, if you wish for the triumph of redemption.
This attempt to relay some of Quadros' ideas is very crude. But it may give a hint of this side of the Portuguese personality. There is in Portugal a continuous form of dialogue carried on from generation to generation, and indeed between generations, and it hinges on the obsession with identity.
In the poetry of Camões where it is epic, it is in full flower of accomplishment. Despite the dark fates that haunt Camões (and find their most beautiful expression in his sonnets), his is a poetry of confidence. Camões, though in life a tragic figure, belonged to an age of optimism and achievement. His is a large and complex world, encompassing the full gamut of human agony and of human glory. It is when we come to Fernando Pessoa that the obsession in its more intimate and human scale is apparent. Pessoa belongs to the company of W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. He is one of the great poets of this century. Like Camões, he frequently comes across in his writing as a tragic figure. His poetry ranges from the epic to the lyric. But for the purpose of these remarks about the Portuguese character it is his extreme self-consciousness that is interesting. He was intensely aware of himself as a Portuguese. This was an extension of his fundamental introspection. His creation of a theory of poetry called 'sensationism' is very much in tune with the psychology Quadros tries to define in his reflections on Lisbon. In 'sensationism', Pessoa denied the possibility or validity of any form of 'objective' reality. To be open to the world in an affirmative way, to accept and to merge with experience, with life, was central to his aesthetic (though of course he would deny having an aesthetic). He used to quote Espinoza: a philosophy is right in what it affirms, wrong in what it denies. This is close to the idea of being at one with nature. It is worth while quoting Pessoa, for he is both witty and enlightening on being Portuguese:
We cannot admit a man writing in his native language unless he has something to say which only a man speaking that language could say. The great point about Shakespeare is that he could not but be English. That is why he wrote in English and was born in England. A thing that can just as well be said in one language as another had better not be said at all.
The Portuguese Sensationists are original and interesting because, being strictly Portuguese, they are cosmopolitan and universal. The Portuguese temperament is universal; that is its magnificent superiority. The one great act of Portuguese history — that long cautious, scientific period of the Discoveries — is the one great cosmopolitan act in history. The whole people stamp themselves there. An original typically Portuguese literature cannot be Portuguese, because the typical Portuguese are never Portuguese. There is something American, with the noise left out and the quotidian omitted, in the intellectual temper of this people. No people seize so readily on novelties. No people de-personalise so magnificently. That weakness is its great strength. That temperamental non-regionalism is its unused might. That indefiniteness of soul is what makes them definite.
I am tempted to go on quoting this paradoxical mind. I must at least give one more sample both contrary and enlightening.
They [the Portuguese] have no stable elements as the French have, who only make revolutions for export. The Portuguese are always making revolutions. When a Portuguese goes to bed he makes a revolution because the Portuguese who wakes up the next day is quite different. He is precisely a day older. Other people wake up every morning yesterday. Tomorrow is always several years away. Not so this quite strange people. They go so quick that they leave everything undone, including going quick. Nothing is less idle than a Portuguese. The only idle part of the nation is the working part of it. Hence their lack of evident progress.
Considerable intimacy over a period of eight years has not lessened the mystery of this people for me. I can say this, too: Portugal is a closed book to any but the imaginative and generous spirit; it is no country for
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard's eye.
I would go further. It seems to me that a country so radically different in spiritual temper from the rest of Europe, a country where the religious instinct of man is alive, cannot but have a contribution to make in a world daily going more rapidly down the path of boredom and despair, of technocratic dreariness, the arid desert of modern civilised life.
Here are the last words of Antonio Quadros' essay:
We must take cognisance of what we are and of what others are and what they represent. If we wish to fulfill our vocation we must discover and realise our individuality, the character of our relationship with our end and our beginnings.
Lisbon is a unique city which has not yet taken account of what she is and what her value is. This is the key, I readily confess, to this essay which I offer on the place where I was born, where I live and where I will die.
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Note: many of the reproductions displayed here are of poor quality
Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition 1951 - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks - All
Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal - IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue - Dublin 1950-2 - By His Friends - X magazine - Poems - Further Quotes About - All
By His Friends
Anthony Cronin - John Ryan - John Jordan - C.H.Sisson - Martin Green - John McGahern - David Wright - Lima de Freitas - Katherine Swift - Tim Motion - Lionel Miskin - Jacques D'Arribehaude - Brian Higgins - George Barker - Patrick Kavanagh
Brian Fallon - Aidan Dunne - Derek Hill - Brendan Behan - Lucian Freud - Patrick Kavanagh - Elizabeth Smart - Further Quotes About