Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 11
Already in the car, Adelina asked me, “When did you make that journey?” “About two years ago.” “Are you thinking of doing some more writing?” “It’s possible. I didn’t give it much thought when I began writing. But perhaps I’ll carry on.” We kept silent for a few moments. She returned to the subject: “You should try publishing your story in a newspaper. Or in some magazine.” Then she paused before adding, “But I suggest you get rid of that title about an exercise in biography. People won’t know what you mean.” That word “people” again. Such an odd expression. I decided to cut the conversation short. “One can never tell what people need or understand.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Adelina turn her head in my direction. I heard or thought I heard her take a deep breath, as if determined to ask a serious question, but then I could feel or hear her relaxing and her expression became less bright as she turned her head away again. We said nothing more until we reached the restaurant.
Carmo and Sandra were already seated, poetically nibbling at fresh cheese and sipping wine. These friends of mine appreciate this kind of restaurant, popular ma non troppo, with floral-patterned tablecloths and tiled walls, a real family atmosphere with homely types doing the serving and cooking. Yet for some strange reason the clientele always has that civilized look which smacks of intellectualism and pretentious simplicity, a new way of giving the impression that one is cosmopolitan in an age when everyone either is or is on the way to becoming so. Carmo’s eyes were shining, his lips moist. Sandra was laughing as if greatly amused, but knowing her as well as I do, I could tell she was also furious at our late arrival while she sat there being seen with an old man. As we took our seats, I looked coldly at Carmo. I bear him no grudge, I even like him, but it is myself I detest as I look at him, and see what I shall look like in a few years, as old as him and with whom at my side? Whom will I amuse? What younger man, no matter how little the difference in our ages, will sit and stare at me like this? Sandra took over the conversation, interrupted Carmo in the middle of a sentence. The waiter arrived with the menu, we made our choice, settled down to enjoy our meal, the wine was from Alentejo and excellent. Peace be with us.
During dinner, Sandra, fickle as ever, started being sweet to Carmo. It is true that she kept giving me signs with her foot, but I am sure with no intention other than to make me watch her amusing herself as she flirted with Carmo. And my oldest friend (and certainly older than me), as the saying went in my childhood days, was in his seventh heaven. The rules of our frivolous little game demand that we should ask no questions when we are with friends spellbound by love: they will confide in us whenever they find it necessary, if they should find it necessary, because more often than not the hard facts fit into our daily routine without the need for any questions or explanations. In this case, the flirtation was simply a more serious replay of previous episodes. But Carmo probably had his own good reasons. In appearance he looked twenty years younger and seemed to be intoxicated by something other than wine. Lucky Carmo. If he can hold on to Sandra for at least a week, he will either die or pass into immortality.
Adelina asked, “Did you know that H. (which is my name here) is going to write about a journey he made in Italy two years ago?” Sandra politely said, “Really?” Surprised, but smiling, and resolutely happy, Carmo asked me, “Are you serious, old boy?” I looked at Adelina slowly, fixing her eyes with mine: “It didn’t seem worth mentioning.” “You do keep things very much to yourself. Among friends there is no need to be quite so secretive.” I raised my glass of wine, swayed a little: “I don’t like divulging my affairs. I’m among friends and wasn’t trying to be secretive. Or perhaps I was. It was something I had to resolve, but you’ve resolved it for me.” My words were unnecessarily brutal. I finally added, “But who cares.” Sandra jangled her bracelets to banish the shadow which had been cast over our table and asked Adelina, “Have you read it? Did you like it?” “Yes, very much.” Expressed with such simplicity, this judgment pleased me. My remorseful eyes caressed those of Adelina, but I suddenly flinched because something resembling a smile passed over her face, and whatever it was, it meant that she had stopped being on the defensive. It was then that Carmo, who was leaning toward me from the other side of the table (which allowed him to take advantage and rest on Sandra’s arm and left breast), blurted out, “Write your book and I’ll publish it.” I felt a kind of knot in my stomach, lodged near my solar plexus, and turned down Carmo’s offer: “Either you’re mad or downright stupid.” To which he replied, “I’m serious. Write your book and I’ll see that it gets published. I’ll even pay you royalties.” Of course Carmo was not going to lose the opportunity of publishing the work of the Hemingway sitting opposite him, he was not going to lose Sandra, he was not going to relinquish that arm and breast. I pursued the conversation. “You’re both mad. And if this is your idea of publishing, you’ll soon go bust. How do you know whether my book is any good? The fact that Adelina likes it means nothing. She is not one of your readers, and as far as I know, you have no trust whatsoever in your readers.” Carmo wisely accepted this reservation: “All right, then, I haven’t read it and I can’t really be sure if it’s any good. But once you’ve finished writing it, let me read the book, and if I’m sufficiently impressed I’ll keep my promise and publish it.” As if she were taking part in my little game, Sandra suddenly turned to Carmo and kissed his flushed cheek. The kisses we exchange are never taken very seriously, yet I am convinced that same night Carmo slept with Sandra for the very first time.
Second exercise in autobiography in the form of a chapter of a book. Title: The Venice Biennale.
Watching the film Death in Venice, I found myself mentally asking the director when he would decide to show, however fleetingly, at least one of the city’s “famous landmarks”: St. Mark’s Square, the Moors on the Clock Tower, the Campanile, Sansovino’s Loggetta, the Doge’s Palace, the façade and domes of the Basilica. But the film ran on and we reached the last reel without lapsing even once into the facile picturesque. Why? I left the question in midair, expecting to find an answer one day. Never expecting it to come so soon.
On my first visit to Venice I used my time to explore the city’s epidermis, scrupulously fixing my feet and eyes where millions of other people had already fixed theirs. For this ingenuous lack of originality let the man who has committed no greater crime punish me by casting the first stone. But on this occasion, once I had revisited all the familiar places and confirmed the incomparable attractions of Venice for tourists, I decided to turn my back on the coastal splendors of the Grand Canal and probe the interior of the city. I deliberately shunned the open spaces and allowed myself to wander without map or itinerary through the most tortuous and deserted streets (or calli) until I found myself in the obscure heart of a city prepared to reveal itself at last. And this was when I presumed (and still presume) to have understood Visconti’s conception: if by some magical spell all the salient features of Venice were suddenly to be removed, the city would lose nothing of its unique fascination. The film Death in Venice is set in the only authentic Venice: a city of silence and shadows, with that black fringe imprinted on façades by the water in the canals and that all-pervading stench of dampness which no amount of sunshine can remove. Of all the cities I know, Venice is the only one that is manifestly dying; she knows it and, being a fatalist, is not unduly concerned.
On my last day it rained. The Grand Canal was a great pulsating river and the low tide, forced by the wind, gurgled on the ground of St. Mark’s Square and against the great doors of the Basilica. Venice swayed like an immense raft, she appeared to be sinking, now she was afloat, miraculously sustained at the last minute by some tiny bridge or other there on the city boundaries. In compensation for the inevitable, I found myself thinking of Fabrizio Clerici’s painting which shows Venice without any water, the city’s buildings raised on tall stakes while the bottom of the Adriatic is covered in the same mist which earlier had enveloped the city, now open and with clear,
I have no intention of entering into any arguments about the Biennale. Amid the frenzied protests and impassioned eulogies I wander around with my tiny instruments of understanding, accepting and rejecting (frequently accepting and rejecting in rapid succession or vice versa), and I cherish the memory of a turbulent chaos which, in retrospect, strikes me as being singularly harmonious.
I shall never be able to forget Trubbiani’s birds made of zinc, aluminum and copper, birds with huge wings, tied onto racks used for torture, and paralyzed in that instant preceding death, before that shriek-cum-croak we are asked to conjure up in our minds. And I fear that my nights will be disturbed by nightmares inside that Nursery painted by the Austrian artist Oberhuber: a suffocating, empty room, the walls lined in canvas, with monstrously large children painted in vague tones, almost indistinguishable yet quietly intimidating.
What else should I mention here? Cattle Raising by the Brazilian artist Espíndola, a genre painting with a feeling for ambience which engaged one’s vision, touch and smell; the glass fibers of the Canadian Redinger, crumpled cylinders scattered over the floor and reminiscent of huge, blind worms; the painted panels of The Five Seasons by Otašević from Yugoslavia; People by the Polish artist Karol Broniatowski, dozens of human figures made of papier-mâché, life-size and naked, but covered in newspaper and arranged in every conceivable position, on the ground, seated, lying down, dangling in clusters from the ceiling, invading the space where visitors move around as if trying to attack them, to embrace and possess them; bronze figures by the Hungarian András Kiss-Nagy, which resemble prismatic formations of basalt; etchings by the Uruguayan artist Luis Solari, most of them quite small, Goyaesque, human figures replaced or accompanied by animal doubles; hideous photographs by the American Diane Arbus, or the hideous captured on film.
These references will suffice to show how I responded to works which, in one sense or another, are rooted in an exalted and controversial expressionism. This is probably due to my personal inclinations rather than any attempt on my part to make value judgments which are beyond my competence.
On leaving the castle gardens, where the Biennale wearily scatters its pavilions, I prepare for my departure. The vaporetto advances slowly through the restless, murky waters, along the Riva dei Sette Martiri and the Riva degli Schiavoni, from where I have just emerged. A chilly melancholy hangs over the entire city. The façade of the Ducal Palace, which in sunlight becomes pale orange, turns to dusty pink and becomes quite delicate as the rain starts falling. Under the arcade, looking onto the Piazzetta, five American youths are seated on a long stone bench, genuine hippies who doze off leaning against each other in a fraternity which is altogether touching.
I take my leave of the Tetrarchs, the warriors of porphyry, Egyptians or Syrians embedded in the corner of the Basilica, right at the entrance of the Porta della Carta. Embracing each other fraternally, these comrades in arms, like the hippies, have come from afar but here they will remain, watching the multitudes, clutching their swords in one hand, the other resting on their companion’s shoulder. I love these Tetrarchs, I run my fingers over the red stone as a farewell gesture, then walk on. When shall I return?
On the eleventh of March 1944 (almost thirty years ago), bombs fell on Padua. The Church of the Eremitani was virtually destroyed, and Mantegna’s frescoes depicting the life of Saint James either disappeared or were severely damaged (the painter was seventeen when he first stood with his paints and brushes before the bare surface of a wall). I look at what remains of Mantegna’s pictorial world: monumental architecture, human forms as ample and robust as rocky landscapes. I am alone in the church. I can hear the sounds of a city which has forgotten the war, the drone of airplanes and explosion of bombs. Just as I am about to leave, an elderly English couple arrives, tall, dried up, wrinkled, so alike. As if in familiar surroundings, they head straight for the Ovetari Chapel, painted by Mantegna, and there they stand, lost in contemplation.
But Padua (the city of Saint Antony and of Gattamelata, Donatello’s equestrian statue which no one making equestrian statues in Portugal today appears ever to have seen) is, above all, the Chapel of the Scrovegni, where Giotto painted the frescoes of The Life of the Virgin, The Life of Jesus, Christ’s Passion, The Ascension and Pentecost and The Last Judgment.
These paintings may lack the narrative appeal of the cycle of The Life of Saint Francis, which Giotto painted in Assisi, but I can think of no style more suited to this warm cocoon, to these perfect proportions in the Scrovegni Chapel. The figures appear aloof and at times almost priestly. For Giotto they belong to an ideal world of premonition. In a world thus described, the divine extends serenely over the concerns and vicissitudes of this world, like some predestination or fatality. No one there knows how to smile with their lips, perhaps because of some flaw in the painter’s powers of expression. But the open eyes, with long, heavy eyelids, often light up and exude a tranquil and benign wisdom which causes the figures to hover above and beyond the dramas narrated in the frescoes.
As I strolled through the chapel, once, twice and for a third time, examining the three cycles in chronological order, a thought suddenly occurred to me which I have still not been able to unravel. It was a wish rather than a thought: to be able to spend a night there in the middle of the chapel and wake up before dawn in time to see those groups slowly emerging in procession from the shadows, like ghosts, their gestures and faces, that translucent blue, which must be one of Giotto’s secrets, for it is not to be found in any other painter. At least not in my experience.
Let no one imagine I am betraying some deep religious feeling. I am simply trying to find out in the most mundane terms how an artist can create such a world.
IF I AM CAPABLE of being at the same time, or successively, the author and judge of my actions, then I believe Carmo’s offer had some influence over this second exercise. This time (at least this is my impression) the narrative is much more vigorous, the style more polished and controlled, as if aware of being observed. Both exercises are linked, as much in the period they describe as in the period when I wrote them, but the first exercise is unprepared, exempt, innocent, whereas this one has become literary, who knows whether for better or for worse. I would say probably for worse when one tries to ennoble gestures and phrases, the expressions becoming labored and no longer natural or fluent, and the same care could have been taken to say something more meaningful, more considered, more immediate and therefore probably more personal. If this is the case, then spontaneity should be greatly mistrusted and artifice warrant the highest praise, this so-called art, artifact or artemages as one says in the Alentejo (or used to say at a time when the word was still common) and which is clearly a popular expression for the magic arts. Or do I mean the art of images? Not having entirely forgotten that I am a painter, this last hypothesis whereby painting is called artemages appeals to me. How much nicer to be known as an artemagista than a painter, and how much more suitable a name for someone who can do so many different things remote from painting.
No doubt I am being extremely ingenuous. These writings of mine are worthless and Carmo was not serious when he spoke of publishing a manuscript he has never read and will do everything possible to avoid reading once he has sobered up. Sitting beside Sandra, feeling her heavy breasts and perhaps rubbing his leg against hers, Carmo would have volunteered to go into space, the first man ever to do so should Gagarin have fallen ill at the last moment and the Soviet Union have no other astronaut in reserve. There are many ways of making heroes and saints; the difficulty is finding them in that brief moment when three or four vectors previously disconnected meet each other in optimum space. That moment is brief, and it is common knowledge that the point of encounter is also the point of crossing, and the factors which fail to meet immediately disperse forevermore, unless, as I was taught at school, space is infinite and circular or spherical, and therefore the encounter can be repeated. It is a simple fact that none of us ca
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