entry: General Conditions
The First Modernity
Nadir Afonso began his visual experiments in the 1930s, when he was an adolescent. His first works, which were open-air paintings in the impressionist style, depicted views of Chaves, his home town. Early on, his attention was drawn to architectural forms, revealing his grasp of geometric elements.
Also dating from this period are landscape depictions of the rural environment in which he grew up, after which he moved quickly to a more expressionist aesthetic and showed evidence of a further element that would come to structure his artistic career: movement. It is surprising to find in this group of works an initiatory rhythmic marking of forms, arranged in a linear sequence, with the introduction of the additional concept of movement guided by mathematical precision, which he would explore later.
In 1938, he went to study architecture at the Escola de Belas-Artes do Porto, where he joined the Grupo dos Independentes. He took part in exhibitions, contributing works whose quality and modernity were recognised at the time, allowing him to sell one of his paintings, A Ribeira, to a museum collection for the first time. In noteworthy creations such as Vila Nova de Gaia (1942) and Cais de Santos (1944), Nadir progressed towards more simplified content and the notation of forms and parallel lines that revealed a path leading away from landscape art towards a more refined aesthetic that paid more attention to geometric forms. Since then, the theme of urban life and the city has retained a privileged place in Nadir’s world, to the detriment of human figuration.
The Approach to the Surrealist Aesthetic
The first works with which Nadir Afonso made incursions into abstraction date from the former half of the 1940s. In part, he was exploring a more liberated language, an oneiric lyricism with a pioneering surrealist quality, and in part he was turning to themes of a surrealist nature to undertake a chromatic geometrization of forms. In 1945 he painted Évora Surrealista, in which he evoked the aesthetic influence of the international movement. Nadir Afonso went to Paris in 1946, when the surrealist movement was gearing up for a second international foray. With the support of the Brazilian artist Cândido Portinari, he was awarded a scholarship by the French government to study in the French capital. Shortly afterwards, he began working at the architect Le Corbusier’s ATBAT studio, an opportunity that would define his career and provide him with future contacts. He met, among others, Picasso, Calder, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger and André Wogenscky, who pleaded with Le Corbusier to allow Nadir more time to dedicate to painting. A lover of this practice, and a visual artist himself, Le Corbusier permitted Nadir to spend the mornings painting. Nadir’s interest in surrealism sprang only from an investigative impulse and a search for artistic freedom. He remained outside the spirit of the movement. He opted for an isolated, individualist path marked by a spatial quest within an abstract aesthetic that moved towards a geometrization of shapes and colours.
During the period in which he was working and in contact with the Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, Nadir Afonso began a series of paintings dedicated to geometric composition. The influential but demanding presence of architecture in his professional life, which worked against his growing need to devote himself to painting, led him to develop an aesthetic philosophy. He theorised about his preoccupations with harmony and his need to discover the essence of what he believed to be the universal laws of art. He focussed on geometric forms and granted them an exclusive place in his work. His lines-limits are rigorously defined. He limited his palette, showing a preference for the primary colours. Through the use of an affirmative and vibrant chromaticism, he gave life to the geometric shapes that he chose, which included squares, circles, triangles, and rectangles. On flat surfaces, painted in soft, neutral colours, the geometric shapes are arranged in an individualised manner and combined in multiple variants, as in a game of “logical blocks”, at times containing overlappings that give rise to other complementary shapes among the elementary forms and intervening spaces. Mathematics definitively acquired a decisive importance in Nadir’s work; geometry was the fruit of this interest and the harmony of the relations of proportion and modulation in space could only be achieved through the sensibility of the intuitive route, the fruit of artistic experience. This series of works would later be developed during his stay in Brazil, where he conveyed a different dynamic in space and a greater sense of vibration.
“ Barroque period”
Having conquered the path of abstraction, a new referent emerged to serve as a stimulus for this working concept: the baroque architecture of the city of Porto. Although painting had become his activity of choice, architecture asserted itself as a focus of attention par excellence. In the years that he spent in Porto, the expressive presence of the Baroque, both inside and on the outside of civil and religious buildings, awakened sensory impressions that would lead him to new formal conceptions in the syncretism with modernity. In stylised and geometrised interpretations that he started in the late 1940s and largely developed between 1953 and 1955, Nadir’s neo-baroque compositions even evoke some traditional motifs such as floral and spiral patterns. The pictorial elements are elaborated in a synthesis of three to four plain colours in formal approaches that include arabesques and twisted shapes. The use of straight lines, linked by curves and counter-curves, repeated in parallel formations and antitheses, suggests the movement of the Deleuzian concept: “the characteristic of the Baroque is the fold that goes on to infinite”.
Almost in parallel with the neo-baroque abstraction and the formal approach explored within the scope of this concept, a new historical reinterpretation took shape in Nadir’s creative process that followed on from his previous work. The world of ancient Egypt became the motif of a series of paintings with titles that evoked this new theme. Egyptian mythology, hieroglyphics, and nature are sources of interest possessing symbologies that serve a moment of transition which facilitates the cataloguing of aesthetic and formal foundations that had been previously mastered. This was a period of inquiry that corresponded to his stay in Brazil, his return to Paris, and his decision to return to Portugal. The principles of beauty, proportion and order, chosen in the search for the goal, which is harmony, are tried out in new directions involving the mastery of the concepts of space and time. After Friso do Falcão (1950), and the “pre-geometric” compositions, which he developed in parallel in the first half of the 1950s, during the second half of that decaade Nadir progressed with experiments such as Offrande and Jeux, in which he set challenges involving repetition applied to changes in chromaticism, scale, and orientation with a view to uncovering guidelines and a new sense of balance.
On his return to Paris in 1954, Nadir Afonso renewed contact with the artistic community, namely, Vasarely, Mortensen, Herbin and Bloc, who at the time were focussing their attention on explorations in kinetic art. Nadir, who´s first studies in the phenomena of optics were done in 1943, immediately shared the interests of the moment, and, together with the precursors of kineticism, devoted himself to pictorial compositions to which he gave the name “Espacillimité”. The white space of the canvas acquired scale within the overall dynamic. Taking advantage of the experiments that had been developed thus far, Nadir worked rigorously on filling the white of the canvas and focussed on the importance of dialectical movement, the refinement of geometric elements and their corresponding alignment within the chromatic synthesis and the subsequent rhythmic structuring of forms in the balance dictated by an intuition that was shaped by the laws of mathematics. The mathematics in question emanated from perceptive practice and not from the intellectualisation of art or the resolution of philosophical conceptions. In 1956, Nadir created in Paris what was a unique work in this period, the kinetic picture Espacillimité, which he exhibited in 1957 at the Galerie Denise René (a key venue for the presentation of kinetic art), and in 1958 at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. The project of conceiving a form of painting that would exceed the spatio-temporal limits of the canvas was realised in a picture animated by a mechanism which, via a continuous systematized circular movement, introduced the avant-garde concept of the loop, or the illusion of the limitless, into the domain of painting.
Following a series of periods devoted exclusively to painting, Nadir once again took up various architecture and town planning projects in 1955-56.This return to architectural experience and a project-based practice that considers the urban context (to which he had never been indifferent) awakened a renewed interest in the theme of the city, which now extended to an international scale. The path of geometric abstraction that he had hitherto followed and the exhaustive language that he attained in Espacillimité were now used in the interpretation of the readopted referents. Whole metropolises, or parts of them, are formulated according to a stylised approach, in compositions that are sustained by relations of rigorous geometrization or a recovered free stroke, systematized in compositions that pay due attention to the “exactness of proportion”. A new pictorial element was introduced during this phase: perspective, which emerged as a response to the need for a new way of representing the geometry of space. It was during the first half of the 1960s that Nadir developed those architecture projects of his that became realised. However, in 1965 he decided to abandon architecture for good in order to devote himself exclusively to visual arts, focussing on the theme of cities.