entry: General Conditions
Transforming moments in the 19th and 20th centuries
The late introduction of Romanticism into the visual arts in Portugal nevertheless represented a break from the aesthetic conventions of Neoclassicism, founded on the canon and virtue of their imitation and actualization. However, between the demise of Neoclassicism and the advent of Romanticism there was a space of half a century in which the country, mired in civil war, saw no discernible change of any significance within art. Indeed, the emergence of Romanticism marked the beginning of the modern world, its approach to aesthetics no longer favouring the ideal, but rather focusing on the adversities of worldly experience. The genius of the artist was now seen as source of inspiration and the individuality of his vision valued. The world became an unstable place inhabited by the subject.
Landscape painting, developed by Cristino da Silva among others, devoted itself to exploring the ample depths and incommensurable spaces that surpass human reason, approaching an aesthetics of the sublime. On the contrary, genre painting, practised by Anunciação, Marques Pereira and Resende, experimented with the proximity of a hitherto unknown historical subject: the common man. The portraits of Lupi and Cristino da Silva among others were no longer the symbolic consecration of a social place, but rather a reflection of the subject’s anxiety, as with the sculpture “O Desterrado” by Soares dos Reis. History and the related paintings or sculptures that Metrass or Simões de Almeida produced are filled with small narratives containing heroes desperately in pursuit of an impossible dream.
It was therefore the subject and worldly adversity that launched the modern condition.
Portugal in the 1960s, under a fascist dictatorship and an imposed isolation, viewed the series of economic, social, political and cultural transformations in Europe and North America that questioned and profoundly altered the modern world from a distance. In a general sense, artists, even those who remained, adopted languages that were similar to those which simultaneously emerged chiefly in Europe. Nouveau Réalisme and Pop Art were assimilated by New Figuration, which developed through the works of Paula Rego and Joaquim Rodrigo, rediscovering a narrative and critical impulse from political reality. Their development incorporated graphic languages and new industrial materials with Lourdes Castro and René Bértholo, despite the pre-modern condition of the Portuguese socio-cultural context, which limited the fascination for new codes of consumption and directed the attention of artists like Nikias Skapinakis towards existentialism. In their turn, Op Art, through Eduardo Nery, and systemic painting, though Jorge Pinheiro, examined perception and the objectuality of the motif and continued the work of the modern movement, which Portuguese art history saw in episodic terms. Lettrism, exploring the continuity between word and image, was initially adopted by João Vieira and subsequently by António Sena from a gestural perspective and by Ana Hatherly and the Po.Ex. group from the conceptual. It was the works of Helena Almeida and Alberto Carneiro, from the latter half of the decade, that progressively started to question the stability of the genres of painting and sculpture and to raise issues about their limits and scope.
Modernity, almost always a distant entity, became commonplace in Portuguese art at the precise moment that the relationship between avant-garde and emancipation was seen to have ended.