Manual of painting and c.., p.10

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 10


Manual of Painting and Calligraphy

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  However, there is no God. There are many ways of knowing and mine is enough for me. When the anthropomorphic image of the deity was lost, everything was lost. None of the subsequent attempts to justify immateriality were able to renourish or revive beliefs. The Greeks had excellent gods who thought nothing of fornicating with perspiring mortals in their sordid beds. The admirable Moloch proved his existence by feeding on human flesh in public. And no less praiseworthy was Jesus, the son of Joseph, who traveled on a donkey and was afraid of dying, but once these stories ended, stories about ancient gods and those who worshipped them, there was no longer any place or time for God and he could achieve no more than Defoe, writing and rewriting the life of Robinson. A God who is not solemnly enthroned in the heavens, a God whom we have no hope of knowing in person, one and triune, is an imaginary Robinson, the second creator of a religion of fear which needed a Man Friday in order to become a church.

  I am saying things others have said before me, but this well-trodden fabric, known as culture, ideology and even civilization, consists of a thousand and one strands, namely legacies, voices, superstitions, which have become hardened convictions. In this first exercise in autobiography, the heads of the apostles Peter and Paul stick out of this fabric made from wool in different colors, and both apostles smile as if they were the last to do so. And not just them. I enter Italy on my knees. There I speak of a deity who metes out justice, there on the periphery rises Mecca where pilgrims flock, with whose culture I have nothing in common, whereas I can now see (or saw before) that I share the culture of the pilgrims who crawl (on their knees) to Fatima, along the roads and within the sanctuary, making votive offerings, confessing their sins aloud and nourishing Moloch in their own way. First there is the smile, then laughter followed by loud guffaws. Religion comes fourth on the scale. “He that has ears to hear, let him hear,” as the carpenter’s son said when he spoke in riddles to his friends. But none of this prevents a man who started out writing as naturally as possible (without trying to be controversial or defensive, and with no other aim than to narrate a journey which he will subsequently call an exercise in biography) from discovering between the words religions he does not possess but which demand to be heard and frequently contradict what has already been said. This leads me to question whether we possess what is knowable about this world or we are simply the interpreters of the knowable or known, which hovers over the earth like one more atmospheric layer capable of surviving the death of civilizations and the gods they worship. In this age of formidable women, the Venus of Willendorf is probably still an obsession.

  A man advances through spaces, through rooms crowded with faces and forms, and clearly does not emerge as he went in, otherwise he might as well have kept away. I said this in praise of museums. I say this every time I enter a museum so that no one may wonder at each new quest for the secret or message I know remains intact inside, even when brought to light. I say this to anyone who claims that museums are outdated institutions, tombs, musty-smelling warehouses, and that art should come onto the streets and into the squares. Those who make such claims may be right. And I am such a mediocre artist that I feel I have no authority to contradict them. However, it strikes me that one sees two quite different expressions on the face of the same man when he stands still before a work of art in the silence and intimacy of a museum or attentively treads the paving stones around the statue of Donatello’s Gattamelata. This question of what is good or bad about museums is nothing other than a pastime for scholars and critics. It is simply a matter, as far as I can see, of knowing where the works of art are kept, how one can get to see them and, above all, the reasons why any of this (being, seeing, looking) should be necessary. I believe (convinced as I am that no painting of mine is ever likely to arouse any interest) that no one visits any of these museums without some good reason for going there.

  It has not been easy to express these thoughts. I keep having to remind myself that I am not in the habit of writing, that I have not acquired certain techniques (glimpsed in the act of writing, but not within one’s grasp and difficult to master), yet I can see that by this route I am reaching certain conclusions which have so far escaped me, and one of them, however straightforward it may seem, comes to me at this point in my writing, namely the satisfaction of knowing that I can discuss painting, even though convinced I am a bad painter, without allowing it to worry me, that I can talk about works of art in the knowledge that my own paintings will not affect the discussions and opinions of the experts. It is as if I were to say to myself, “Their views have no effect on me.” The man without talent is as immune as the genius, perhaps even more so, but it has not been proven that his life is any less useful. An odd conclusion. And not just mine, not just some facile self-justification, for it is, and always has been, a universal fact that the rich and endowed have resorted to deceit in order to conceal their various methods of control; everything in our museums deserves to be salvaged, the paint on the canvas and the canvas beneath the paint, the roof covering everything and the guide who repeats what he has been taught, the wooden floor I am treading and the soles of my feet doing the treading, the inscription identifying the painting and the absent hand that wrote it.

  So many words written from the beginning, so many lines, markings, paintings, such a need to explain and understand and, at the same time, so much effort, for we have still not finished explaining or reached any real understanding. In Milan, some of the walls spoke, used words which surprised me since they are prohibited in my own country plagued with disquiet and fear: “The Struggle Goes On,” “Power to the Workers.” In Milan the police invaded the university, attacked and wounded demonstrators and carried out arrests, while the reactionary press gloated and praised the authorities. I declare that men are not brothers. Or rather, not all men can be brothers. Capitalists like Rockefeller, Melo, Krupp, Schneider, Champalimaud, Brito, Vinhas, Agnelli, Dupont de Nemours are not my brothers, just as the police in their service are not my brothers. The police and financiers behave like brothers even though not born of the same father and mother. In Milan the brothers of this fraternity, poor bastards and rich bastards, were congratulated by the bastardized press. The world is old and sorrowful.

  Could I have been born then? I doubt it. I should have known before now and would not be here after all these years, interrogating myself like Hadrian about the date and place of my birth. But it could have been during the time of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) when a policeman in Lisbon caught me with some leaflets in my hand, rectangular sheets of paper, crudely printed and with the ink not yet dry, leaflets protesting about the supplies of wheat being sent to feed Franco’s troops and attacking fascism both at home and abroad. These leaflets carried the signature of the Portuguese Popular Front (undoubtedly influenced by the French Movement), and I had no idea what it meant. There was some feast day or other being celebrated in Amoreiras and I had gone there, who knows why, since I never much cared for such festivities, especially when on my own, for even at that age I was prone to this melancholy which has never left me. The leaflets were piled up on top of a low wall, and even now I can sense how nervous the person must have felt who put them there, lying in a pile for any passersby who might be curious to learn of the crimes that were being committed. I was much too young. Grabbing the pile of leaflets, I stood under a streetlamp to get a better look. There was music, some popular melody coming from a band, people dancing in the streets, twinkly lights, shooting galleries and something else I can no longer remember. But I do remember (“One never tires of nursing old grievances,” as Luis Augusto Rebelo da Silva once wrote) the hand which suddenly gripped me by the arm (with such force that all the leaflets scattered to the ground) and the policeman’s voice. The only thing I cannot remember is his face. I know he was no longer young, and must be dead by now, but I continue to ask myself if he ever thought about what he had done, whether his suffering was that little bit greater at the hour of death (if there is any justice and he ha
d no more serious crimes on his conscience). He bent down to pick up a leaflet, read it and ordered me to pick up the rest and hand them over to him, gripping my arm all the while with unnecessary force because there was little chance of my being able to escape. I experienced a fear I had never known before: the fear of the chosen victim, of those condemned without trial, the fear of the guilty, doomed from birth. I am now trying to define this fear and am in danger of exaggerating as I struggle to find the right words: “You’re coming with me to the police station,” he told me. I protested my innocence, pleaded with him to let me go, explained how I had found the leaflets and only started reading them to see what was written there and nothing else. The policeman asked if someone had given me the leaflets to hand out (“Own up, you little rogue, you were going to hand them out”). Sobbing, I repeated my story, which was true but difficult to prove. For the policeman my truth could only be false. The people who had gathered around at first now moved away, when it dawned on them that this had something to do with politics. They were careful not to look back, showed no further interest, nervous and relieved, as I now realize, that they had escaped any danger of becoming involved. And I began to ask myself if the person who left the leaflets on top of the wall could still have been there, gazing at me from afar with compassion and hoping they would do me no harm. I was taken to the police station some blocks away, after being roughed up and threatened as I was led through the silent streets. And all because of something so trivial and innocent. Just to remember that episode fills me with uncontrollable rage.

  I was interrogated by the chief of police. I was kept standing while he remained seated. Then they locked me up in a cell for two hours. I was no longer weeping. Slumped in a chair, I was dumbfounded, sitting there in almost total darkness. The guards outside were chatting among themselves while their chief telephoned headquarters two or three times, repeating the same question over and over again: “Should the prisoner be taken below or what?” They finally released me and said I should consider myself fortunate. Those “below” had decided I was not worth bothering about. However, they took my name and address. It was unusual for me to arrive home at such a late hour, and I was severely rebuked. I was asked where I had been but said nothing. My parents must have thought I had decided to lose my virginity that night. It was true, but not as they imagined, the only thing they could imagine.

  WRITING IN THE FIRST PERSON is an advantage, but it is also akin to amputation. We are told what is happening in the presence of the narrator, what he is thinking (should he wish to divulge his thoughts), what he is saying and doing and what those who are with him are saying and doing, but not what they are thinking, except when what is said coincides with what is thought, and this is something about which no one can be certain. If my friends were characters out of a novel written not by me or one of them but by a third party other than ourselves (the author), each one of us would only have to read this novel in order to become as omniscient as the author himself presumes to be. And so, since they are as real as I am and just as reserved or not so open that others might truly say “I know,” and because I can only convey some of my thoughts in this narrative which is not a novel, I resign myself to ignorance, to the impenetrable nature of faces and the words those faces utter (it is the faces that speak, the faces that understand), and I shall go on speaking about my friends without knowing what they are thinking, but only what they are saying and doing. And even then on condition that they say and do it in my presence, otherwise I shall never know whether they are telling the truth about what they did and said when I was not there. And if they were to tell me any of this I should have no way of knowing whether they had agreed among themselves what they would tell me if they should testify on behalf of each other. If this narrative were not in the first person, I should have found it an even better way of deceiving myself. In this way I should be able to imagine every thought as well as every action and word, and in putting them all together I would believe in the truth of everything, even in any inherent falsehood, because that falsehood, too, would be true. The real falsehood is what is unknown and not what was merely formulated in accordance with that hundredth of the hundred ways of formulating what one normally calls a lie.

  I showed Adelina my traveler’s tale, detached, of course, from the other pages coming before and after. I felt rather wicked as I smugly watched her reading it in front of me, calmly sitting there with her legs crossed, so self-assured, while I knew (the only person on earth to know) that on previous pages she was more than the figure visible to me and aware of herself, because she was something I alone manipulated, pulled toward me or pushed away, without her knowing it, without her so much as suspecting anything. I discovered that my feeling (or should I say impression?) was not merely mischievous but one of genuine malice, malevolence, ill will, something the slave master, a despot or the powerful owner of a plantation might have felt. I had good reason to feel embarrassed and fortunately felt ashamed of myself. I can lay Adelina naked on my bed, yet cannot bring myself to force my hand up her skirt.

  “I had no idea you had a talent for writing.” Those were the words she used as she rested the papers on her lap. There was an expression of surprise in her eyes (do eyes have an expression, or is it because of what surrounds them, eyelashes, eyelids, eyebrows, wrinkles?) and an impending question mark, which I might have placed at the end of her sentence had I felt more certain. “I have decided to write an account of my travels until another commission turns up.” “It’s nicely written. Not that I understand much about writing, but in my opinion it’s good.” She paused and then, averting her eyes from mine, she added, “I don’t understand why you’ve called this article (it is an article, isn’t it?) ‘a first exercise in biography.’ How can a travel book be considered biography?” “I’m not sure that it can, I really don’t know, but I couldn’t find anything more interesting to write about.” “Either it’s a travel book or a genuine autobiography. In any case, why should you want to write your biography?”

  Logic personified. I know my own feelings and susceptibilities play some part in this, but Adelina, though not normally aggressive, might just as well have asked me, “What could there possibly be in your life that is worth narrating?” I had no answer to give to either question, even less so had she remembered to add, “And to whom?” Therefore I seized the alternative which Adelina had earlier proposed: “Either it’s a travel book or an autobiography.” “I believe we reveal something of ourselves in everything we do and say, in our every gesture, in the way we sit, walk and observe, in the way we turn our head or pick up an object from the ground. This is what painting tries to do. Obviously I’m not talking about my own painting.” I saw Adelina blush: “Why not?” I took pity on her and broke off at once: “Well, in that case a travel book is just as good as a genuine autobiography. The problem is knowing how to read it.” “But anyone who reads a travel book knows what he is reading and it never occurs to him to look for anything else.” “Perhaps people ought to be warned. If they don’t need to be told that a picture has two dimensions rather than three, then they should not have to be warned that everything is biography, or, to be more precise, autobiography.” Adelina carefully assembled the sheets of paper and handed them to me: “You haven’t numbered the pages.” Of course I had not numbered them. I only copied them out to show her. I had no intention of coming clean. “What you’re saying is interesting, but I’m in no position to argue with you. It never dawned on me you had these ideas.” “What ideas?” “This business about writing and thinking about what you are writing. I only saw you as a painter.” “A bad one.” “I never said that.” “But it’s what you are thinking. It’s what everyone thinks.”

  I suddenly found myself saying the wrong thing, something I had no intention of saying. Adelina had risen to her feet, was looking flushed again, as if I had offended her. And this impression was so strong that I felt I must apologize. She came up to me and said what she should have left unsaid—“Id
iot”—and did what she should not have done: she patted me on the wrist (I have two wrists, so perhaps I should have specified which wrist Adelina patted, but apparently one does not explain these things in a narrative unless it is absolutely essential, for example, if my wrist were bruised and painful and I complained, because then it might be crucial for the rest of the plot, if I happened to be writing a narrative). I simply asked her, “Shall we go?” “Let’s go.” We had arranged to have dinner together and Carmo was to meet us at the restaurant, perhaps with Sandra, who, as Adelina, smiling without malice, informed me, “is sure to flirt with you.” “To amuse herself,” I suggested, paying no attention. Whereupon Adelina, as if thinking about something else, remarked, “People feel this need.” Uttered in all innocence, certain phrases coming from Adelina leave me intrigued. I would even go so far as to say that there is something irritating, barbed, sharp and abrasive about them, yet if written down none of this would show. When I hear them, I feel somewhat betrayed. It sounds as if she is threatening to leave me while I had always assumed that when the time came to split up she would be the one to suffer and not me, because I would be the one to take the initiative. As we walked downstairs, she went first and I followed behind. Listening to the tapping of her heels on the stairs, I went on repeating and pondering her words: “People feel this need.” What do people need when they come together? What are they, or what were they unwittingly looking for when they decided to separate? I realized that our little stroll together was almost over, not because I wanted it to end (always lost in thought and somewhat remote) but because she had become tired for some reason, one more reason why we should separate without delay, before enough time elapsed to warrant further explanations, increasingly futile and compelling, when all it needed was a simple and somewhat discreet gesture to put a period once there was nothing more to be said.

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