entry: General Conditions

Modern art in Portugal

from Amadeo to Paula Rego

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Modernism emerged in Portugal following the Republican Revolution of 1910, the sojourn of various Portuguese artists in Paris, the growing exchange of information and, consequently, the increased contact between local artists and the emerging vanguards. The literary scene that gathered around the poet Fernando Pessoa and the literary magazines Orfeu and Portugal Futurista gave the modernist movement breadth and significant impetus. Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, resident in Paris, was the only local artist to participate in some o the most important exhibitions of the international avant garde. With the outbreak of World War I, he was to remain exiled in the country of his birth, though Robert and Sonia Delaunay kept him company. Until his premature death in 1918, he single-handedly undertook some of the most radical experiments of his day in the conception and organisation of pictorial space. 

After the end of the war, a second generation of artists moved to Paris, but none of them took part in any significant exhibition or developed anything singular, bringing instead a conservative modernism to Portugal, at a far remove from the artistic vanguards of the day. Only Mário Eloy enjoyed broader horizons in Berlin. The local artistic scene remained “misunderstood and with no redress,” in the words of Almada Negreiros. It was only in the mid 1930s that a superficial assimilation of modernity took place, a modernity whose scope at the time was determined by António Ferro. Backed by Salazar, at the very limit of an “indispensible equilibrium,” and seeing no “incompatibility between a conscientious authoritarian regime and modern art,” Ferro was the official promulgator of modernism.

Having recently returned from Madrid where he was both understood and much appreciated, in the 1930s Almada Negreiros’ work enjoyed a return to classicisim, in the footsteps of Picasso. Thus began his research into the Western canon, which was to play a central role in all his future work. At the same time, there were other dispersed attempts at reformulating modernism, with new ideas born of the international vanguards. In Paris, António Pedro reinitiated the exploration of the relationship between the verbal and the spatial that had begun with the Orfeu generation, later to paint the first surrealist paintings, together with António Dacosta. Maria Helena Vieira da Silva began her spatial explorations based on imaginary or transformed architecture. 


The beginning of the 1940s is marked by Almada Negreiros’ profound reappraisal of his work, beginning with the frescos that he made for the passenger ship terminals (garess marítimas) of Alcântara and Rocha do Conde de Óbidos in Lisbon. 

Almada’s work, born of an earlier vanguard, entails an exploration of the synthesis of drawing and a search for the system of proportions underlying much of western art.  Art at the time was reformulating some of the questions that had been tackled by earlier modernisms. Almada Negreiros thus turned into a tutelary figure, a point of reference from the historic vanguard, whose work was re-evaluated in tandem with a younger generations of artists wishing to vex the question of modernity.

The studies for the frescos of the Gare Marítima de Alcântara were made between 1943 and 1945 and show national allegories based on mythical narratives culled from popular oral culture, such as A nau catrineta or Dom Fuas Roupinho.   If they present an image of a conventional, picturesque and dream-like country, they nonetheless oppose the epic glorification of national identity sponsored by Portuguese fascism in self-glorifying exhibitions during this same period.

Painted in a cubist tradition and with recourse to graphic and chromatic schemas akin to those of futurism, the frescos for the Gare Marítima da Rocha do Conde de Óbidos, painted between 1946 and 1949, are more avowedly modernist. In two of the triptychs, emigration meets urban Lisbon on a Sunday afternoon at the docks. The artist’s main concern here is the attention to the details of social life. The pictorial idiom tends towards geometry, with an affirmation of the two-dimensionality of the surfaces, a homogeneous distribution of colour in outlined planes and graphic patterning. With these works, Almada came close to the issues that both motivated and divided new generations of artists playing an important part on the Portuguese artistic scene. 


The years between 1945 and the end of the following decade witness the entry onto the artistic stage of a young generation profoundly involved with giving expression to different aspects of modernity. This was a phase in which artistic practices began to be articulated in more complex ways. In post-war Europe, constructivist abstraction was reconfigured as a vanguard in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris, a tendency that was echoed in the Portuguese context. It was therefore the work of geometric abstractionists that salvaged a vanguard practice that, with the premature death of Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, had been interrupted for three decades.

For artists like Fernando Lanhas, Nadir Afonso or Joaquim Rodrigo, the first premise of painting was the formal specificity of its structural elements. Their work was based on an essentialist understanding of painting and a search for the harmony of its constitutive parts. In Fernando Lanhas’ work, non-orthogonals intersect, delimiting irregular polygonal areas, conferring both tension and an equilibrium of form, while remaining cognizant of the uncertainty inherent to a search for painterly knowledge. From 1949, he began to mix painting with natural elements, such as pebbles, whose shapes inform the inscription of geometric elements in his works. 

Working as an architect in Paris, like Le Corbusier, Nadir Afonso used as his starting point geometric forms in nature and their chromatic intensities in order to manipulate their proportional relations and produce complementary forms. He called this formal geometric unity “harmony”. In his paintings of this period, there are bands on which geometric elements are rhythmically inscribed, extending beyond the outer bounds of the canvas. 

 Joaquim Rodrigo’s work progressively revealed a search for unity between form and the matrixial space of painting in which it is inscribed, arriving at a theory of colour that promoted a sense of unity between all the pictorial elements. His purely mathematical compositional system went beyond the traditional perceptual model, approximating that of minimalism.

In the area of photography, Eduardo Harrington Sena continuously explored an abstract vision of industrial complexes, a dialectic between the human and the immaterial, from a historicist perspective that draws, albeit belatedly, affinities between his work and the vanguards of “the aesthetics of metal.”


Other artists of the generation that emerged in the mid 1940s were dedicated to a socially committed art based on the principles of historical materialism and its relation with the evolution of artistic forms in society. For Manuel Felipe, Júlio Pomar, Lima de Freitas, Arco (Rui Pimentel), Querubim Lapa, and Rogério Ribeiro, the regrettable social realities in which Portual and the whole post-war world found themselves were meaningful references.  These realities informed their work, as did neo-realist cinema, the Mexcian muralists, and the nineteenth-century realist novel. At times, the Neo-Realist movement was allied to theses of socialist realism, but this only happened occasionally, as a result of the broad spectrum of references in the work of the Neo-Realists and the diversity of interpretations that this work enjoyed. The General Exhibitions of Fine Arts that took place between 1945 and 1956 at the National Society of Fine Arts in Lisbon provided the principal forum for the these works. Through the social critiques of Mário Dionísio, Vespeira, Lima de Freitas and Júlio Pomar, the Neo-Realist movement entered into open conflict with other movements, such as Geometric Abstraction or Surrealism, whom they accused of formalism, individualism, or the defence of “art for art’s sake.”

As early as 1944, Manuel Felipe made several triptychs in charcoal, decrying the exploitative nature of the labour market, using an artistic idiom akin to that of the Mexican muralists and to German Expressionist cinema. Through allusions to the art of the Americas – that of Thomas Benton, Tamayo and Portinari –  Júlio Pomar, the most complex artist of this movement, attempted to construct a means of critiquing social conditions in the language of cubism.  

It was also in the context of the General Exhibitions that Adelino Lyon de Castro exhibited a form of photography that was engaged with social realism, playing on the always ill-defined cusp between naturalism and realism. In the 1940s, Neo-Realism served as the site for what was basically a figurative practice that, in the 1950s, would find less socially committed forms of expression, but in opposition to other vanguards.


Surrealism was not a homogeneous movement. Its first manifestation in Portugal occurred in the mid 1930s, first with António Pedro and then with António Dacosta, who, in their works, introduced the notion of the unconscious as the origin of forms, or of the interplay of the otherwise discreet categories of word and image. With their departure from Portugal, surrealist practice just about ground to a halt, leaving behind only the uneven work of Cândido da Costa Pinto. In 1947, the Lisbon Surrealist Group was founded. Although it was short lived, it was by far the most far reaching Portuguese surrealist movement, following André Breton’s idea of establishing surrealist groups in the principal European cities. Artists such as António Pedro, António Dacosta, Mário Cesariny, Vespeira, Alexandre O’Neill, João Moniz Pereira, Fernando de Azevedo, António Domingues and the art critic José-Augusto França formed the group.

Together, they broke away from the Neo-Realists at the Third General Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1948, because they didn’t accept the prior censorship imposed on these exhibitions by the dictatorship. In their conflict with Neo-Realism, they emphasised the subversive power of dreams and of objective chance as opposed to a socially committed art form. But that same year, the surrealist group itself suffered a schism owing to the break-away of Mário Cesariny, giving rise to the group known simply as The Surrealists. This latter group included various poets, such as António Maria Lisboa, Pedro Oom, Mário Henrique Leiria, Carlos Eurico da Costa and Cruzeiro Seixas.

In 1949, the first and only exhibition of the Lisbon Surrealist Group took place. In a bid to show that art is made by all, the show included several cadavres-exquis. The works shown reveal the influence of the first generation of international surrealists (Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy), at a time when the whole of surrealism was undergoing reformulation.

In addition to some noteworthy poetry, The Surrealists left us works in collage, assemblage and new painting techniques such as blowing with a straw onto pools of liquid paint, or seismographs, within a whole that was non-differentiated, in accordance with the surrealist ethic. 

Two independent artists working as surrealists should not be forgotten. By reinterpreting archaic sculpture, and in his thread-like abstract sculptures in bronze, Jorge Vieira reinvented modern sculpture. Jorge Oliveira established a surrealist practice in step with the issues that were being addressed in the post-War period, thus radicalising the notions of psychic automatism and oneiric landscape in painting.


With the demise of surrealism (1952) and Neo-Realism (1956), the decade of the 1950s was traversed by the fissure between figuration and abstraction that, in a sense, had already occupied artistic discussions in the 1930s. Surrealist painters began to experiment with abstraction under the aegis of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. A protagonist of the Second School of Paris, Vieria da Silva’s work received international acclaim at this time. In her more manifestly abstract paintings, colours reverberate in an infinite construction of labyrinthine perspectives of ambiguous spaces, as they José-Augusto França called them. 

In the work of other artists, such as Jorge Oliveira – work that was close to the concerns of contemporary North American painting – gesturalism became a radical form of surrealist automatism, with its notion of the gesture as an expression of an originary psychic trace. The work of other constructivist painters continued to evolve and Nadir Afonso painted the kinetic Espacillimité, exhibited at the Denise René Gallery in Paris at the height of the Kinetic Art movement. In an unexpected and also unusual way, Varela Pécurto also represents the brief incursion of Portuguese photography into a formal, abstract exploration of light, freed of the constraints of a picturesque naturalism, and influenced by the German movement Fotoform that reached Portugal via the international circuits of amateur photography. 

On the other hand, the figurative painters hailing from the General Exhibitions of Fine Arts at the National Society of Fine arts, where Neo-Realism had been the dominant idiom, either continued to explore the implications of Neo-Realism, as was the case with Júlio Pomar, or distanced themselves from Marxist themes in order to work in a realist vein that was external to the naturalist canon and that was simultaneously able to express a certain melancholy pathos in relation to the everyday, as was the case in the work of Sá Nogueira or Nikias Skapinakis. At the beginning of the following decade, these artists were to develop some of the questions that were implicit here, with some important consequences Figurative practice granted continuity to a resistance to the vanguard, inherited from Neo-Realism. 

In turn, photographers manifested two different approaches to the figurative. On the one hand, there was the extensive influence of so-called French humanism, of which Gérard Castello-Lopes and Carlos Afonso Dias were exemplary practitioners, while with their project Lisboa, cidade triste e alegre (Lisbon: A City of Sorrow and Joy), Victor Palla and Costa Martins elaborated a new visual idiom for Portuguese photography. This was the outcome of multiple influences, including cinema and literature. To the purist utilisation of the full negative, which Castello-Lopes and Afonso Dias defended, Palla responded with cut and montage, allusion and editing. 

In 1970, the work of Joaquim Rodrigo underwent significant changes when the artist introduced political allusions into his paintings using his system of sign inscription. It was also at this time that Paula Rego was making her first paintings using collage, with pronounced recourse to narrative, where signs of the political and cultural world constantly traverse individual subjectivity. The works of these two painters would come to redefine entirely the direction that Portuguese art was to take.