Manual of painting and c.., p.19

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 19

 

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy
 


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  Here are the houses, the people, the bustling streets, the shadows and sunlight, the trees, those mobile metallic forms, motorcars, trams, buses, here are the shops with goods hanging up or arranged within confined spaces or displayed under glass; here is the stone, the asphalt, the cement beneath the coats of paint or tiles, here are the voices, the noise of traffic; here is the dust, the litter and the wind that blows it along; here is the scaffolding surrounding a new building and the scaffolding around another in the process of being demolished; here are the monuments, nearly all of them of men and a few allegorical women, others with heraldic, symbolic or functional animals such as lions, horses, several oxen; here is the city at close quarters, an image among countless others, and now seen from a distance, from the other side of the river, from the top of this bridge which is also part of the city; here is the living crust over the dead earth, or only alive in the waters and the irrepressible plants which sprout and flower between crevices; here is that undulation, so gentle when seen from afar, of houses and rooftops in colors which, no matter how vivid, fade in the distance and in this light which comes immediately before that other light we generally refer to as twilight. Neither of these descriptions tells us very much, because the various gradations of light cannot be expressed in words, just as words cannot describe this city, which is everything that has been said and been left unsaid, neither near nor distant, and probably as inaccessible as the brain that governs it and the men and women who inhabit it, even though absent. I gaze upon Lisbon from the esplanade, at this ridiculous monstrosity erected by the Catholic Church to honor Christ the King, I gaze upon the city and know it is an active organism, functioning simultaneously through intelligences, instincts and tropisms, but I see it, above all, as a plan which designs itself, attempting to coordinate the lines which curve from all sides or come out straight, resembling the inside of a muscle or giant nerve cell, a dazzled retina, a pupil dilating and contracting in the daylight which is still bright. Locked in the trunk of my car, two heads are immersed in total darkness. They keep their eyes open, will never be able to close them and are condemned to eternal vigil (an eternal painting?), and those pupils will not blink if light should suddenly enter but stare at me self-questioningly, now that they presume to have judged me. This city will be my witness. I am guilty not of what they accuse me of, but probably of what they praise in me.

  From this same spot, or from other vantage points overlooking cities, other men and women have taken advantage of this romantic euphoria, vertigo or sense of wonder upon finding themselves physically towering above others in order to make an act of contrition. In traditional tales from Russia the hero would often kneel in the public square and confess his misdemeanors, crimes and faults in the presence of men and dogs. If novels speak of this, then some men in real life must have done it once upon a time or after reading about it. But in the novels written here in Western Europe, and in the experience of people like myself, it is much more common for men to take themselves off to some elevated spot and spout forth fine words or arrant nonsense, thus transforming this first act of contrition into final justification. I dare say this is precisely what I did. I keep reminding myself, however, that I am no longer on the first stages of my journey, that the distance covered gives me some rights, especially self-respect, and some consideration for myself. I bend down to examine the soles of my feet, however smooth or callused, to test the resistance of the ground I tread, but then my head comes up: my eyes look straight ahead, deciding which direction to take. This is how one should proceed.

  As I write, I glance at my wristwatch, which, as I explained, I usually place before me on the table. It is night, I have finished dinner and am now writing. I watch the second hand hopping along, going round and round, an image in miniature of human existence. Better than a portrait: a reassuring notion of time. One does not know what time might be. It is probably a continuous flow, invisible to the naked eye (a simple image of my own making to help me understand what I am saying), but the invention of watches which advance with tiny jerks has introduced into this flow minute stages, fleeting pauses which in succession and in the continuous sequence of tiny leaps into the void has given us some reassurance that time is an accumulation, an addition of infinite sequences of time which promise eternity. But modern clocks, electric or electronic, have brought back the anguish of the hourglass: as with sand, time runs through them without pause or respite, without anywhere to rest, even for a second. These things, however banal, as no doubt others have said many times before, are of great importance to me at this stage. Like running water, my life has come up against a floodgate en route. During this enforced delay, it fills up, recedes, is disturbed by crisscrossing currents in opposition to each other. I am in the infinitesimal pause of the clock. But accumulated time pushes me forward. I look at the portrait of the couple from Lapa. Their eyes stare back at me, refuse to leave me as I move around the studio. And I feel their presence as I go up to the canvas on which I have finished painting that absurd tiled floor copied from Vitale da Bologna, and the prison narrowing in perspective almost to the point of vanishing. I am now painting the saint. On his side of the grille.

  ADELINA PAID ME a visit. She had telephoned me beforehand, somewhat withdrawn, and I thought she sounded a little nervous. She felt she ought to discuss the letter but I cut her short: No need to bother, there was nothing to discuss, no point in getting into an argument, something I had decided to avoid by not replying. I had the impression (was it simply a question of male pride?) that she was perplexed, perhaps repentant, anxious to talk things over. If this were so, then she must have cherished some hope (of what?) when I agreed she should come to collect her personal belongings, a few clothes, various tubes and jars of makeup, her photograph, those little feminine traces which remain (masculine, too, when the break is made on the other side, the woman staying while the man goes off), even when one thinks everything has been removed. One day you unexpectedly come across a nail file which isn’t yours or you find yourself changing the position of some object, things return to their proper orbit—not the first one, which has been lost for some time, but to the one immediately before, slightly modified, needless to say, because forces once in equilibrium collided in this space when traveling in convoy, and then the equilibrium was disturbed, the journey interrupted and one might almost say life itself knocked off course. It would not be so in this case. Adelina came, collected her belongings while I deliberately set about tidying my books in the studio. She wasted no time, but when she emerged from the bedroom with a small suitcase in one hand, she looked at me in silence, making me responsible for these final moments. I was also looking at her but aware of the situation, and, convinced it was in both our interests, I decided to break the silence. I had no wish to send her away, nor did I want her to stay. I asked, “Have you got everything?” as I went on pretending to arrange my books. I heard her take a few steps; she was now standing before the portrait of the couple from Lapa. I could tell she was curious. Had she made any comment I would probably have lost my temper and said something rude. Suddenly she seemed to be approaching a forbidden frontier. On the other side, I was prepared to open fire, to use heavy artillery (capable of causing death), nonrecoiling cannon. She seemed to understand, who knows how, but she behaved as if she understood. She crossed the studio, left by the narrow passageway. I heard her open and close the door leading to the stairs, sounds covering a raised voice somewhere along the way, a voice which uttered sounds meant to convey some greeting, perhaps goodbye, perhaps farewell, perhaps good afternoon, perhaps see you soon, and then the rapid tapping of heels on the stairs, descending and diminishing down those four flights, the noise gradually dying away into the distance.

  HAVING DONE MY ACCOUNTS, I reckon I have enough money to live on for four to six weeks. There is no hope of any new commissions. I have already been through temporary crises, but this one has come to stay. There is only one solution: advertising. Here in Portugal, those who work
in the arts (a frightful expression), whatever their worth, if they find their career interrupted by fate or collective misfortune, or if, as in my case, they cannot fall back on teaching (I did not finish my course at art school, and half of what I know I acquired later, however badly), they get out their diaries with addresses and telephone numbers and scan the pages in search of contacts in the advertising world, while inventing their past history, in which they naturally appear in the best possible light, otherwise there would be no point in taking so much trouble. They very much doubt that anyone will believe them but are forced into it for the sake of the firm’s good name. My port of salvation will be Chico; at least I hope so. He has bailed me out on other occasions. Meanwhile, I have been working. The picture of the saint is finished. I hung it up in the studio with the postcard from which I made the copy pinned alongside. I also hung up the portrait of the couple from Lapa (so far no sign of any lawyer), and on a piece of paper attached below I neatly pinned the date of my expulsion from their villa. I spend little time at home during the day. I go out with my drawing pad and fill page after page with sketches and notes. I revisit old haunts, the coast where I used to go as a schoolboy to make drawings of boats, of men unloading crates of fish, the fishwives loading baskets onto their heads, to register those voices and expressions, to capture the light reflected in the oily water and choose from among countless scintillations to find the arithmetical means and laboriously transfer them onto the paper in black and white. Everything has changed, but the river still flows between the same walls, unworthy of the name embankments because they are simply made of mud. Here, too, men and women are to be seen walking around or sitting, the men more than the women, staring for hours on end at the big boats on the river, at the oil tankers which scarcely look like boats, the entrance to the Lisnave shipyard, the yellow smoke as dense and tumultuous as the heavy clouds rolling across the sky, the sails of the odd frigate and the frenzied flight of swallows, as relentless and incessant during the day as the chopping and lashing of waves against the ramp of the wall, the water extended like a towel or dishcloth and in circular motion as if the polluted river were intent upon washing those stones with murky water. I notice people looking at me inquisitively and can only surmise that the presence of an artist is rare in these parts. Human faces, gestures and hands are of little interest. Any well-programmed computer can produce a hundred paintings daily, each one different from the other. Any op artist such as Victor de Vasarely can go on repeating the same design with endless variations on the inner and outer walls of today’s intellectual bourgeoisie. I painted the portraits of the upper bourgeoisie and now I am nobody. I no longer count for anything and have no idea what will become of me. What I have kept, however, from my days as a painter are faces, eyes, mouths, heads with or without hair, noses, chins, ears, shoulders, sometimes bare, formal attire for every imaginable occasion, uniforms, and when I get down as far as the hands, with or without rings—what I have kept or never entirely lost was my enduring interest in the human face, in the delicate nature of skin, those faint or deep wrinkles, glistening beads of sweat on someone’s temples or the forehead itself, the subterranean blue river of a vein. Not simply beauty, rare as it is, but ugliness, too, which is much more common among us humans because we are not by nature beautiful but accept our ugliness with a peculiar grace which perhaps stems from the soul. We go on molding our face from within, but this fleeting existence of ours never allows us enough time to complete the task: that explains why the ugly remain ugly, or even grow uglier when they abandon this meticulous task of inner molding or make a complete mess of things. I would like to believe that if the human species were to live two or three times longer than these miserable seventy years biology permits (and to live for seventy years is my great ambition, if not the average lifespan), men and women would reach the end of their life in a state of radiant beauty, different because of the multiplication of features, colors and races, but one and unsurpassable. Nowadays human beings begin (when they begin) with beauty and accumulate ugliness with each passing year and season, by day and by night, with every passing hour and second. A long life (I imagine) would make Helen of Troy and Socrates the same on the last day. Helen would not be more comely than Socrates, she would simply wait for him to catch up and together they would depart this life looking beautiful.

  On returning home, I carefully examine the sketches, use them once more for further experiments. I bring the figures together, agonize over the space, not in the least concerned with the coast in the background. For me this sheet of paper continues to be man’s location. The men and women who used to hire me have turned their backs on me, they have walked off the paper and left it blank. I now trace other figures, who do not come of their own free will nor are they prepared to pay me, they are (or have been) accustomed to posing as models for students studying fine arts or being photographed by tourists. Out of habit they have acquired a false indifference, composed of complacency, a hint of ingenuousness, patience and perhaps a certain disdain. And deep down I am convinced they are intangible. Seated on a packing case, a coil of rope (cable, Mr. Painter, cable) or on an upturned boat, I study them with my eye and draw them, but I have the feeling they are not defenseless. Each of them is independent and self-contained, and at the same time part of all the others and inside all the others. They are the whole and the part of some other totality. Running through them is an invisible (but sensitive) current which links them, which extends and holds (I guess) when they separate for hours or days. More than just the faces, I should like to reach that invisible current behind the faces. I believe that a certain kind of drawing, a certain manner of painting, if only I could master them, would allow me to capture that current through the faces and, once captured, I could then go back to the faces and transform each of them into a manifestation. Painting the bourgeoisie has not prepared me for this task, for this descent to the sun, nor has it robbed me (or could this simply be my intangibility?) of this sixth sense which permits me to capture, although incapable of deciphering it, the subterranean language, the seismal wave, the tremor beneath the epidermis of faces and bodies which are separate from me. And what were those other faces and bodies I painted like? All I can say is that they were just as detached from me. S. was detached from me (and this was how this writing or accounting started), the couple from Lapa were detached from me (and this is how this writing or accounting will end). What am I doing in space which, in its turn, separates people from each other? What does a painter do? When I pick up a pencil or brush and bring them to the paper or canvas, I notice there is a certain similarity in the way they both look at me. In comparing them, I find the same complacency, patience and contempt. And if there is any difference, I believe it to be cunning rather than ingenuousness, perhaps not even cunning but simply utter disdain.

  Each and every one of them detached from me. And I from myself. Attention! I need your attention at this moment. I explained that I began writing when I realized I was remote from knowing S. Now I must tell you that I am about to interrupt or bring to an end what I am writing because I am just as remote or even more so from all those other bourgeois inhabitants of Lapa who belong to the same breed as S., although they are two quite different kinds of remoteness, the second being the logical outcome of knowledge and not its absence. Between the one and the other, it was in order to get closer to myself that I continued to write, when the first of these motives had already lost any importance. So what sum could I make, what total could I arrive at or firm conclusions draw? I continue to be as detached from others as before. And having rediscovered this separation from other men, I continue myself meanwhile with this new awareness. But what about this separation from myself? What finally resulted from this attempt to write an autobiography through different channels, combining fact and fiction in equal measure? What edifice or bridge was built? Of what resilient and lasting material? In reply, I can only say that I got close to myself. I adjusted my body to its shadow and tightened the
loose screw.

  I avert my eyes from the paper and watch my hand move under the light. With certain movements I can see how flaccid my skin has become in certain places, I can see the network of veins, the hairs, the pleated articulations of the fingers, I can feel in my eyes those curved nails, hard as any shield, and I know that I have never felt so little to be so truly mine. I move my hand and know that I am willing this movement, I am this will and this hand. I rest my forearms on the table and feel their pressure against the wood and its resistance. This well-being (to be well, well-being) is not physical or only becomes physical afterward, it is not a point of departure, it is the point I have reached. I reread these pages from the beginning. I look for the place, the situation, the word or space between the lines which might be that certainty which lurks around the corner: with each passing moment I remain the same, with each passing moment I feel myself to be someone different. What I need is a definite pause in time, that point which divides the distance covered from that still to be covered. I need the liquid intermediate state (in memory of those lessons I once received in elementary chemistry) during the transition from the gaseous to the solid, and to pause for a moment to study the process in detail.

  The difference between the portraits of S. and the couple from Lapa is my difference: there one sees the difference. No one would ever suspect they had been painted by the same person, or at least would need time before making up their mind. What does the author’s difference consist of? If this stroke is not the same as that one, what is the difference between them? The movement of the wrist, the tightening of the fingers around the charcoal or handle of the brush? Yet there is no difference in the way I shave, although my hand is holding the brush. There is no difference in the way I hold my fork, although it is my hand which is doing the holding. I have just paused to rub my eyes with the back of my hand (a gesture which has stayed with me since childhood) and both the movement and motive remain the same. Yet this same hand has sketched and painted similar things differently: there is no difference between S. and the couple from Lapa, but they were painted differently; the couple from Lapa are, after all, the second portrait of S. and my perception. I sketch and paint. Over the paper and canvas the hand traces out the same invisible network of movements, but the moment it settles on the material the movement is transformed into material, the sign reproduces a different time image, as if the nerves coming from the eye were about to join up with some new region of the brain, immediately contiguous, it is true, but the archive of some other experience and therefore the source of new information.

 
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