Lisbon through Almada´s eyes
An artist with a yearning for the future
When the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Lisbon) assembled over 400 works for a major exhibition to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Almada Negreiros’s birth, one of the aspects that most impressed visitors was the diversity of work he produced.
Painting, ceramics, mosaics, stained glass, drawings, caricature, scenography, film, plays, literature, poetry, essays, dramaturgy and ballets were the “instruments” the artist used to compose one of the most remarkable “scores” in 20th-century Portugal.
A man of his era, the art he left us reflected not just his innate talent, but also the influence of the Modernist movement, which was born at the start of the last century and endured, in Portugal, until the 1970s. The Modernists advocated an unrestricted, non-compartmentalised art in which techniques could intermix freely to create something new.
This incessant quest was the key to its “extraordinary artistic dispersal”, as its surprising eclecticism was described at the time. Not by chance, two years before his death, at 75, Almada created a mural entitled Começar [Beginning] for the Gulbenkian Foundation. More than a title for a new artwork, Começar is a statement. It reveals the attitude to life of this intrepid Portuguese Modernist, who was also a leading figure of the Futurist movement which urged a break with the past and a celebration of modern technology and geometry, the artistic expression of mathematics.
Born in São Tomé and Príncipe on 7th April 1893, José Sobral de Almada Negreiros moved to Lisbon with his family as a child, where he spent most of his life. He went to a Jesuit-run school where he developed an interest in the classics, but he never had any formal training in the arts.
Even without encouragement, his vocation soon became evident. His first works were humorous drawings and his first signed work dates from 1911. As a youth, he frequented the debates in the Baixa district of Lisbon and became familiar with leading figures in the art world and intelligentsia, such as the poets Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá Carneiro, and the painters Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso and Santa Rita Pintor. With them, he formed the Orpheus Group, responsible for the introduction of Modernism in the Portuguese arts and letters.
While still a young man (1919), Almada was drawn to Paris where the Modernist movement was in full swing. For about a year, he wrote and painted there while doing a wide variety of jobs to sustain himself.
He only left Portugal again in 1927, when he settled in Madrid. During that time, he socialised with the poet Garcia Lorca, the filmmaker Luís Buñuel, and met Marinetti, the founder of Futurism. During his stay in Spain, he created artwork for the Ciudad Universitaria de Madrid and was responsible for decorating the San Carlos and Barceló cinemas and the Muñoz Seca Theatre.
Though irreverent and, as a leading member of the Orpheus Group, set on giving “public taste a slap in the face”, as the Russian poet Mayakovsky, one of Modernism’s advocates, proclaimed, Almada Negreiros was never a political activist. An important part of his work was commissioned by architects and engineers working for Portugal’s dictatorial Estado Novo (New State) (1926-1974), such as Duarte Pacheco and Pardal Monteiro, but through it contributed decisively to the building of 20th-century Portugal.