Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 1
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy
About the Author
First Mariner Books edition 2012
Manual de Pintura e Caligrifia was first published in 1983 © Editorial Caminho, SARL, Lisbon. Published in Great Britain by arrangement with Dr. Ray-Gude Martin, Literarische Agentur, Bad Homberg, Germany.
This translation from the Portuguese copyright © 1994 by Giovanni Pontiero, first published in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Instituto da Biblioteca Nacional e do Livro Instituto Camões. This edition first published in 1994 by Carcanet Press Limited.
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
[Manual de pintura e caligrifia. English]
Manual of painting and calligraphy: a novel / José Saramago; translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero.—1st Mariner Books ed.
I. Pontiero, Giovanni. II. Title.
This book is part of a series: From the Portuguese
1. Miguel Torga: Tales and More Tales from the Mountain
2. José Rodrigues Miguéis: Happy Easter
3. José Saramago: Manual of Painting and Calligraphy: A Novel
In association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Each book I write is a conversation with my reader.
JOSÉ SARAMAGO FIRST began to attract attention outside his native Portugal in the early 1980s with a steady output of substantial novels. The author was already sixty when he published Memorial do Convento (Baltasar and Blimunda, 1982), a passionate and compelling narrative set in the eighteenth century, which won critical acclaim and several prestigious literary prizes. His books were soon being translated into more than twenty languages. Further explorations of Portugal’s cultural heritage followed: o Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1984); A Jangada de Pedra (The Stone Raft, 1986); A Historia do Cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1989); and his most controversial work to date, o Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1991).
Self-taught, Saramago did various manual jobs before turning to journalism, editing, and translation. In the late 1960s he published a book of verse, and this was followed by collections of essays and short stories and a play. Then, in 1980, he published a political novel, Levantado do Chão (Raised from the Ground), which was much praised in Portuguese literary circles. This was encouraging, insofar as his first novel, Manual de Pintura y Caligrafia (Manual of Painting and Calligraphy), had aroused little interest when it first appeared some three years earlier. Critics might have been misled by the title into thinking this was some kind of handbook for art students. When the novel was reprinted in 1983, critics came to realize, however, that this was the matrix of the more capacious books that were to bring Saramago fame.
The Manual is narrated in the first person by H., a portrait painter of no great merit who, like all the main characters in the novel, goes unidentified for, as the author warns the reader, “names are not persons.”
There are striking similarities between H.’s quest for self-awareness and Saramago’s own reflections on the function of art. By the end of the novel, both author and protagonist have defined their objectives, and the sense of inner freedom they achieve coincides symbolically with the Portuguese revolution of April 1974 and the overthrow of Salazar’s dictatorial regime. The tense atmosphere in which this novel was written cannot be underestimated. Dogged by poverty and ignorance, Portugal was controlled by a backward-looking oligarchy. The rich and powerful thrived while the rest of the nation stagnated.
The influential industrialist referred to as S. who commissions a portrait is a typical nouveau riche of the Salazar era. Formidable and arrogant, he demands a portrait in keeping with the canons of bourgeois taste, namely, an acceptable and flattering resemblance. H., on the other hand, is in search of an “inner reality” capable of exposing the real person behind the mask. From the outset, relations between painter and client are awkward and strained, and a clash of wills becomes inevitable.
Convinced that anyone who paints portraits portrays himself, H. would argue that the finished picture is worth only as much as the painter himself. Painfully aware that he is no Rembrandt or Van Gogh, H. nevertheless feels that his portraits could be more expressive and truthful. Accurate observation, alas, is not enough. The real test is to transform seeing into knowing. Here the protagonist speaks for Saramago, who in several interviews insisted that “each of us sees with the eyes we possess and our eyes see what they can . . . Besides, the human beings we see around us are not one but multiple.”
H. eventually turns to writing in the hope of transcending the limitations of pictorial representation. Lines and colors on the canvas can convey only so much. Certain ambiguities are beyond the painter’s powers but might prove to be less elusive if written. H. sees painting and writing as two skills “so closely related that they are interdependent,” but writing offers the greater freedom because, unlike the painting of a picture, a narrative can be prolonged indefinitely and the written word teaches us to listen to the human voice. He believes the important books of antiquity reveal a close resemblance to paintings and altarpieces and the most lucid and concise of those texts have been written with an eye for visual detail. A quotation from Quintilian’s treatise on rhetoric reminds us that “the orator (or writer) should not simply master the distribution of words but in his own hand he should be able to trace out the pattern . . . that is why great artists are referred to as men of letters.” These words refer us back to one of the novel’s central themes, namely, that “biography is to be found in everything we do and say, in our every gesture, in the way we sit, the way we talk and stare, the way we turn our head or pick up an object from the floor. And that is what the painter (or narrator) must try to capture. Everything in life that is lived, painted and written adds some new link to our prehistory.” Confronting the empty canvas or blank sheet of paper, H. must reflect and fill the void waiting to be inhabited, and this is the crucial test for any artist.
The details we glean of H.’s past also suggest a close affinity between author and protagonist. Both experienced a childhood of poverty when sacrifices had to be made to acquire any kind of formal training. Both confess to being timid and somewhat insecure, introspective and skeptical by nature. Like Saramago himself, H. is a compulsive reader and thinker, a creature of habit, disciplined in his working habits and with few interests outside his studio apart from dinner with friends or visits to the cinema. He shares the author’s fascination with women. Both feel irresistibly drawn to “the sphinx and her mysteries,” and H.’s amorous adventures persuade him that there are uncanny similarities between making love and the artist’s tense struggle with paints and words.
Both as a man and as an artist, H. feels diminished and jaded. His relentless musings about the meaning and validity of art develop into a subtle debate about cognition. Images are fleeting and the creative process whereby th
A tour of Italy’s museums and galleries, starting in Bergamo and progressing south to Naples and Pompeii, confirms H.’s intuitions about the cultural influences which have shaped Western civilization, but the artistic legacy of successive generations is somehow incomplete. This gives no cause for pessimism but is simply an invitation to find the links in the chain and divine new paths for artistic creativity.
Overwhelmed by the art treasures of Italy and exhilarated by the welcoming “voice and smile of Siena,” by “gentle Ferrara,” by “seductive Bologna” and Naples, “a gymkhana of placid madmen,” H. is no less sensitive to the political and social tensions which continue to plague a nation still contaminated by fascism. Filing past the canvases and statues keeping vigil in those museums, H. becomes increasingly aware that works of art somehow withhold as much as they reveal, however patient or experienced the observer.
Once back in Portugal, H. abandons portrait painting and turns to scenes from everyday life for fresh inspiration. The sudden news of a friend’s arrest by Salazar’s secret police brings him into confrontation with the fear and mistrust which has gripped the entire country. Ironically enough, it is in this grim climate of repression that H. finally falls in love. M. helps him to discover that “perfection exists,” and she provides the reassurance so propitious for an artist’s work.
Under the guise of a painter’s odyssey, Saramago is already mapping out the itinerary of subsequent novels. His fictional works emphasize the importance of harmonizing aesthetics with ethics, ideals with social and political realities. As in all his novels, the most commonplace detail in the Manual throws new light on the complexities of life and death, love and conflict, fact and circumstance. Serious and mocking in turn, Saramago invites the reader to reexamine values and objectives. Self-questioning must precede any process of renewal. Like Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian, H. reacts against an existence which seems “less vast than our projects and duller than our dreams.” Like the Roman emperor, H. studies self, his fellow men, and books in order to investigate “those intermediate regions where the soul and flesh intermingle, where dreams echo reality, where life and death exchange attributes and masks.” Opposed to the concept of an absent, impartial narrator who limits himself to registering impressions without reacting to them, Saramago defines art as a magical operation capable of evoking a lost countenance for the author, his characters, and his readers. Reflection is the hallmark of all Saramago’s writings, and his Manual of Painting and Calligraphy convincingly demonstrates how paintings and literature can teach us the art of living and dispel fear of death.
Manchester, January 1994
On revient de loin. La formation bourgeoise, l’orgueil intellectuel.
La nécessité de se réviser à tout moment. Les liens qui subsistent.
L’empoisonnement de la culture orientée.
I SHALL GO ON painting the second picture but I know it will never be finished. I have tried without success and there is no clearer proof of my failure and frustration than this sheet of paper on which I am starting to write. Sooner or later I shall move from the first picture to the second and then turn to my writing, or I shall skip the intermediate stage or stop in the middle of a word to apply another brushstroke to the portrait commissioned by S. or to that other portrait alongside it which S. will never see. When that day comes I shall know no more than I know today (namely, that both pictures are worthless). But I shall be able to decide whether I was right to allow myself to be tempted by a form of expression which is not mine, although this same temptation may mean in the end that the form of expression I have been using as carefully as if I were following the fixed rules of some manual was not mine either. For the moment I prefer not to think about what I shall do if this writing comes to nothing; if, from now on, my white canvases and blank sheets of paper become a world orbiting thousands of light-years away where I shall not be able to leave the slightest trace. If, in a word, it was dishonest to pick up a brush or pen or if, once more in a word (the first time I did not succeed), I must deny myself the right to communicate or express myself, because I shall have tried and failed and there will be no further opportunities.
My clients appreciate me as a painter. No one else. The critics used to say (during the brief period many years ago when they still discussed my work) that I am at least fifty years behind the times, which, strictly speaking, means that I am in that larval state between conception and birth: a fragile and precarious human hypothesis, a bitter and ironic interrogation as to what awaits me. “Unborn.” I have sometimes paused to reflect on this situation, which, transitory for most people, has become definitive in my case, and to my surprise I find it painful yet stimulating and agreeable, the blade of a knife one handles cautiously while the thrill of this challenge makes us press the living flesh of our fingers against the certainty of that cutting edge. This is what I vaguely feel (without either blade or living flesh) when I start on a new picture. The smooth white canvas waiting to be prepared, a birth certificate to be filled in, where I (the clerk of a civil register without archives) believe I can write in new dates and different relationships which might spare me once and for all, or at least for an hour, this incongruity of not being born. I wet my brush and bring it close to the canvas, torn between the reassuring rules learned from the manual and my hesitation as to what I shall choose in order to be. Then, certainly confused, firmly trapped in the condition of being who I am (not being) for so many years, I apply the first brushstroke, and at that very moment I am incriminated in my own eyes. As in that celebrated drawing by Brueghel (Pieter), there appears behind me a profile carved out with a cutting tool, and I can hear a voice telling me once more that I am not yet born. Thinking it over carefully, I am honest enough to dispense with the opinions of critics, experts and connoisseurs. As I meticulously transpose the proportions of the model onto the canvas, I can hear an inner voice insisting that painting bears no relationship whatsoever to what I am doing. As I change my brush and take two steps backward in order to focus more clearly and work out the distinctive features of this face I am about “to portray,” I reply inwardly, “I know,” and carry on reconstituting an indispensable blue, some landscape or other, white strokes to provide the light I shall never be able to capture. None of this gives me any satisfaction, because I am merely observing the rules, protected by the indifference which critics have used like a cordon sanitaire to isolate me; protected, too, by the oblivion into which I have gradually fallen, and because I know that this picture will never be exhibited in any gallery. It will pass directly from the easel into the hands of the buyer, for this is how I do business, by playing safe and demanding payment in cash. There is no lack of work. I paint the portraits of people who have enough self-esteem to commission them and hang them in the foyer, office, lounge or boardroom. I can guarantee durability; I do not guarantee art, nor do they ask for it even if I were able to oblige. A flattering resemblance is as much as they expect. And since we are in agreement here, no one is disappointed. But what I am doing cannot be called painting.
Yet, prepared as I am to confess to these deficiencies, I have always known that no portrait is ever faithful. I would go further: I have always thought myself capable (a secondary symptom of schizophrenia) of painting a true portrait but always forced myself to remain silent (or assumed that I was forcing myself to remain silent, thus deluding myself and becoming an accomplice) before the defenseless model who patiently sat there, feeling nervous or pretending to be relaxed, certain only of the money he would pay me but foolishly intimidated by the invisible fo
There are moments when I manage to persuade myself that I am the only portrait painter left and that once I am gone no one will waste any more time on tiresome sittings or trying in vain to achieve some resemblance when photography, which has now become an art form by means of filters and emulsions, seems to be much more successful at penetrating the surface and revealing the first inner layer of a human being. It amuses me to think that I am pursuing an extinct art, thanks to which, because of my fallibility, people believe they can capture a somewhat pleasing image of themselves, organized in terms of certainty, of an eternity which does not only begin when the portrait is finished but was there before, forever, like something that has always existed simply because it exists now, an eternity counted back to zero. In fact, if the client were able or willing to analyze the viscous and amorphous density of his emotions and then find ordinary words to clarify his thoughts and actions, we would know that for the sitter it is as if that portrait of him had always existed, another him, truer than his former self because the latter is no longer visible, whereas the portrait is. This explains why clients are often anxious to resemble the portrait, if it has captured them at a moment when they like and accept themselves. The painter exists to capture that fleeting glance, the sitter lives for that moment which will be the one and only pillar of support for the two branches of an eternity which is forever passing and which human folly (Erasmus) sometimes believes it can mark with the tiniest of knots, an outgrowth capable of scratching this gigantic finger with which time obliterates all traces. I repeat that the best portraits give the impression of always having existed, even though my common sense may tell me, as it is telling me even now, that The Man with Gray Eyes (Titian) is inseparable from that Titian who painted the portrait at a given moment in his own lifetime. For if there is something which participates in eternity at this moment, it is the picture rather than the painter.
Other author's books:
- BlindnessThe Collected Novels of José SaramagoBaltasar and BlimundaThe DoubleTale of the Unknown IslandSeeingSmall MemoriesDeath with Interruptions
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