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The happy modernism: art deco in Portugal

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Art Deco in Portuguese sculpture

The legacy of Rodin, the modern expressionism of Bourdelle (Cabeça de Apolo [Head of Apollo, 1900-05]) and the elegant mannerist forms of Joseph Bernard’s (Rapariga com  bilha  [Girl with Jug], 1912) an iconic piece exhibited at the 1925 Paris exhibition, and the classicism of Despiau, were the points of reference for the first and second periods of Portuguese modernism.
This expressive appropriation is evident in Francisco Franco’s work (Busto de pintor Manuel Jardim [Bust of the painter Manuel Jardim], 1921; Rapariga francesa [Young French Girl] 1923, Cabeça de rapariga [Head of a Young Girl], 1922), particularly in Torso de mulher [Torso of a Woman], 1922, a woman as tree metaphor. Diogo de Macedo (Busto de mulher [ Bust of a Woman] c. 1925, Busto de Mário Eloy  [Bust of Mário Eloy], 1932) and Rui Roque Gameiro (Busto de José Tagarro, [Bust of José Tagarro], 1927) pursued a modern version of naturalism, as did Raul Xavier (Cabeça [Head], 1938), who practised an equally updated neo-classicising variation. The repercussions of the ‘futurist’ vanguard of 1915-17 were not felt within sculpture, and thus Portuguese sculptural modernism was introduced – and sustained - by these Art Deco formal grammars.

The Origins of the Art Deco Style in Portugal: 1912-1925

Introduced in Portugal via the First Exhibition of Portuguese Humourists in 1912, particularly in the work of Almada Negreiros, the Art Deco style (cosmopolitan, international and full of joie de vivre), drew on German and French graphic art, timidly announcing modernity through a two-dimensional, elegant and fundamentally decorative stylisation which only Cristiano Cruz, with his disenchanted worldview, did not adopt.
The extraordinary ‘futurist’ vanguard of 1915-17 (comprising the poet Fernando Pessoa and the artists Guilherme Santa-Rita, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Eduardo Viana and Almada, among others), radical but short-lived, faced total hostility and incomprehension from the conservative society of the time – and the figurative and often worldly Art Deco tendency which followed it became decisive in ensuring the survival and expansion of modernism itself against the persistence of Naturalism, perfectly embodied by the consensual figure of Malhoa.
The neo-Cézannism of the early work of Eduardo Viana, Abel Manta and Mário Eloy, the echoes of fauvism in Milly Possoz and António Soares and the elegant synthetic drawings of Almada Negreiros focussed on traditional subject matter (portraits, still lifes, landscapes and urban scenes) in a cosmopolitan view of modernity (contradicted by political and economic reality) which sought to encompass every facet of daily life. The graphic design of magazines in the 1920s perfectly illustrated these modern aspirations, played out in nightclubs and embodied by the idealised and stylised image of the garçonne – an approach which seduced even late naturalists such as Sousa Lopes.
In sculpture, Despiau, Bourdelle and Joseph Bernard were the modern references for Canto da Maya and Diogo de Macedo, whose greatest expression of modernity was the 1920 work L’Adieu, with its echoes of classical Greek sculpture. From Leopoldo de Almeida came a modern naturalism which emphasised archetypal poses and contemporary clothing (Figura de Franca Cristina da Silva [Figure of Franca Cristina da Silva], c. 1925; Figura do Arquitecto Carlos Ramos [Figure of the Architect Carlos Ramos], c. 1925).

The mirage of the Paris Exhibition of 1925: projects and artists in the 1920s

The redesign of the A Brasileira cafe in Chiado, Lisbon (1925), an ill-received initiative by José Pacheko, and of the Bristol Club cabaret (1925-26) brought together the finest modernist painters and sculptors (Almada Negreiros, Eduardo Viana, António Soares, Canto da Maya, among others), turning these two spaces into the most comprehensive galleries of Modern Portuguese Art, in contrast to the enduring nineteenth-century naturalism that dominated official institutions, embodied by the conservative stronghold of the National Society of Fine Arts and the National Museum of Contemporary Art itself.
Art Deco’s characteristic zest for life was the common denominator of these modern artistic initiatives, characterised by the tremendously confident linear stylisation and subtle expressionism of Almada Negreiros, the intense, fauvist, neo-Cézannist sensualism of Eduardo Viana, the elegant worldliness of António Soares and Lino António, in painting, and the eminently graphic and refined stylisation of Canto da Maya, in sculpture.
Other artists such as Sarah Afonso, Abel Manta and Dordio Gomes painted intimate scenes of family life and landscapes, also using a fauvist-inspired palette of pure colours, or a geometric and neo-Cézannist stylisation of forms and volumes.

Art Deco and New Classicism

In Adão e Eva (Adam and Eve), 1929, Canto da Maya created Portuguese Art Deco’s most iconic sculpture, using a formal language which he employed in other terracotta pieces, such as the group A Família (The Family), later officially appropriated by the Estado Novo to represent Portugal at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
In José Tagarro’s portraits we encounter virtuoso drawing, with modern neo-classicising qualities, heralding the path taken by Portuguese modernism in the 1930s. In Mário Eloy’s fine, eminently expressionist paintings we also see the elegant stylisation of fauvism, or the inclusion of cubist-inspired decorative elements (Retrato do Bailarino Francis [Portrait of the Dancer Francis], 1930) and, in his iconic, mask-like Self Portrait, structured by geometric volumes, an exploration of Picassian new classicism and African influences.
The Second Modernism, New Classicism and the Estado Novo

The new classicism, based on a Picassian stylisation, characterised Almada Negreiro’s accomplished drawing of the 1930s, in which delicate shading is sometimes employed to create subtle transitions of light or manneristic distortions of form, as in A sesta (The Siesta), 1939, a work of restrained eroticism.
Sarah Afonso, the artist’s wife also pursued this modern stylised and synthetic form of new classicism in the 1930s, as exemplified by her Self Portrait of c. 1930.
New classicism was, indeed, the predominant style within international Art Deco throughout this decade, and it had an immense impact in Portugal, as can be seen in António Soares’ elegant, sophisticated approach, typified by his Retrato da Irmã do Artista (Portrait of the Artist’s sister) 1936, with its subtle background of cubist fragments.
Carlos Botelho was an exception in this milieu, looking to Van Gogh as the inspiration for the elegant stylisation of his Retrato de Berta Mendes (Portrait of Berta Mendes), 1932, a subject reinterpreted by Abel Manta with a Cézannian naturalism. Jorge Barradas took a decorative approach to the revival of religious art in Anunciação (Annunciation), 1936, freely adapting another nineteenth-century style, that of the Nabis and, following the Viennese example, breathing new life into ceramics with themes related to identity and ordinary life (Cabeça de Peixeira) (Head of a Fishwife).
Neoclassical stylisation was most apparent within sculpture, as demonstrated by the work of Ruy Gameiro, an artist whose life and career were brief, or, more representatively, by Leopoldo de Almeida’s austere A Soberania (Sovereignty) of 1940, officially endorsed at that year’s Portuguese World Fair, with its echoes of Nazi art. Above all, it can be seen in the iconic Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), 1940, by Cottinelli Telmo and Leopoldo de Almeida – finally constructed in stone in 1960 –, in which three-dimensionalized graphics are combined with stylised forms reminiscent of the fifteenth-century panels of Nuno Gonçalves, which was the standard adopted by the sculpture commissions of the Estado Novo.

From the 1940s to the long reign of Art Deco in Portugal

The isolation and lengthy duration of the Salazar regime, and the longevity of many artists of the first and second modernism, such as Almada Negreiros, Eduardo Viana and António Soares, allowed the Art Deco style to endure, while also ensuring the survival of modernism itself in a fundamentally conservative environment.
In the 1940s Almada Negreiros explored his Picassian roots with great liveliness and graphic dexterity, depicting figures from that mythology such as acrobats and Pierrots but also varinas (fishwives) and figures in interiors characterised by the exploration of light.
While Viana turned again to fauvism and Cézanne, influences he would never abandon, António Soares revisited the worldly environment he had depicted in the 1920s (Pierrot, 1944) or accentuated the classicism of his compositions (Senhora da Rosa, 1942).
New classicism was also the source of inspiration for artists of the third wave of modernism, such as Martins Correia, and even neo-realists such as Vasco da Conceição or Maria Barreira, with her gentle allusions to Barlach. Even the abstractionist Nadir Afonso evidenced the influence of the graphic style of the second decade of the nineteenth century in one of his early works, although, from the 1940s onwards both abstractionists and neo-realists brought new visual and ideological concerns to their work which were to, definitively, extinguish the Art Deco tendency.
The incomprehension which greeted the radical innovation of the surrealism of António Pedro, from the 1930s onwards, the surrealist groups of the 1940s and 50s, and the abstraction of Lanhas or Joaquim Rodrigo, and official hostility towards the neo-realism of the time, provided the conditions for Art Deco, a happy and gentle brand of modernism, to survive until the 19