Manual of painting and c.., p.24
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 24
I ALREADY KNOW what I shall do with the canvas on the easel. It is still too early for the portrait of M., but my time has come. The canvas has matured (in the atmosphere and light of the studio), the mirror has matured if such a thing is possible (tarnished with time), I have matured (this lined face, this canvas, this other mirror). I look at myself in the polished surface, the tubes of paint unopened, the brushes dried out after weeks of gathering dust. I gaze at myself in the mirror, not distracted nor in haste, but attentive, appraising, measuring the depth of the cut I am about to make. A brush, gentlemen (I am not addressing anyone in particular, it is a somewhat rhetorical form of address I have adopted before in these pages), a brush resembles an engraver’s scalpel. It is not a scalpel but something like a scalpel. It can be used, for example, to prize off and gently scrape away the skin of the couple from Lapa in order to find out what is underneath. It has helped me to graft skin onto skin, as I have explained at length elsewhere, and I can claim to have carried out this operation during the last twenty years of my life as an artist (there is no other way to define it) some eighty times. As a skilled practitioner of this other type of plastic surgery, I compare more than favorably with the specialists. There are never any seams, scars or marks showing after I have carried out this surgery. I fear that once they unhook me from the wall they will not find it easy to replace me. The Eduardo Maltas of this world are a dying breed of painters and I might well be the last in the line. I am working on designs for packaging, I slip the art supplement into publicity campaigns and tactfully ask the copywriter, who is very jealous of his work, whether he would mind moving his phrase to the right to give one of my lines some breathing space. And so I find myself in the interval. It is time to put this entire face onto canvas, and what those eyes in the mirror see around them, all those lines and planes which in one way or another always converge to the pupils of the eyes, which are the vanishing point. Besides, there is another reason. This narrative is about to end. It has lasted the time that was necessary to finish one man and start another. It was important that the face which still exists should be recorded and that the first traces of the one about to emerge should be sketched out. Jotting these things down provided a challenge. I am now facing up to another challenge, but on my own territory. Would that I might succeed in putting onto this canvas what has been written on these pages. Painting must at least achieve this much. I ask no more, for I am asking a lot. (Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Luca Signorelli, Paolo Uccello, Bosch, Pieter Brueghel, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Matthias Grünewald, Van Eyck, Goya, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Giotto, Picasso, Van Gogh and so many others put everything into their painting.) Would that I (H.) might be able to put something, however modest, into mine. I cannot say how long it will take me to paint this self-portrait. I have learned at last not to rush things. Writing has taught me this first lesson. Will the portrait also reveal the face of this apprentice? But let us not anticipate. What concerns us here is the soil today and not tomorrow’s wheat. Tomorrow this mirror will be broken, today is its time and mine.
And now for the portrait, self-portrait, autopsy, which means, above all, inspection, contemplation, self-examination. On this side, the mirror; on the other, the canvas. I am between the two, like the rotifer between two sheets of glass, hovering in its last drop of water and about to be observed under the microscope. All the light one can capture, but not so much as to blot out the traces, or so little as to conceal them. The brush is very firm, a hybrid, being both animal and vegetable, a hard, long stem with bristles instead of willow leaves. The canvas is still white. The canvas itself another mirror covered in dust. I would say my own face is painted beneath this thick layer which must be removed. I repeat, the paintbrush is like a scalpel. Could it also be a penknife, a scraper, perhaps even a pickax? This, too, is akin to archeological excavation.
I have certain clear ideas about the picture. There will be a black band below, vaguely resembling a parapet or wall. My left hand will be placed on this smooth uniform balcony, and my right hand resting on it and clutching some sheets of paper. On the top sheet, folded at an angle allowing one to read what is written there, are the first three words of this manuscript. This shows that the spiral can be represented by the letters of the alphabet. I decided my portrait should be down to the waist. Behind me, as if peering over the wall to see who is passing, there is a flat landscape on a lower level with trees and perhaps the meanderings of a river (the Meandra: a river in Turkey noted for its many bends. Nowadays known as Büyük Menderes). Above everything as well as me, as one might have expected, sky and clouds. This picture will bear a coat of arms. In the upper left-hand corner there will be a coat of arms in miniature of the couple from Lapa, and in the upper right-hand corner another reduced copy: that of the picture I copied and modified from a painting by Vitale da Bologna. As a continuation of the handwritten manuscript the portrait must imitate something. Like the manuscript, and contrary to custom, it will make no attempt to disguise the seams, joins and repairs carried out by another hand. Quite the opposite: it will accentuate everything. The copy will seek to express more than is actually expressed in the original. It may not succeed in the end, but however disappointing the outcome, at least it will express something new. The portrait of Paracelsus painted by Rubens is undoubtedly superior to the portrait I am about to produce, yet the Rubens portrait is my model and point of reference, and it is the very same that is in the portrait I have just described. In a word, this picture of mine (as in the case of the manuscript) will not reject the copy but make it explicit. Therefore it is verification. Every work of art, even if as modest as this one of mine, must provide verification. If we want to look for something, we must lift up the lid (stone or cloud, but let us call it the lid) which is concealing it. And I am convinced we shall have little value as artists (and needless to say as men, people and individuals) if after finding, through good fortune or our own efforts, what we were looking for, we do not go on lifting the rest of the lids, clearing away stones and pushing the clouds back, each and every one of them. We must never forget that the first thing might have been put there deliberately just to prevent us from noticing the second one. To verify, in my humble opinion, is the truly golden test.
I am starting to mix the first tint on my palette. It is not an intermediate color I need to combine and harmonize, like the voices in Monteverdi’s Magnificat, which fill my studio as I write. I simply squeeze the paint out generously, making no effort to economize. Black. This time intent upon revelation rather than concealment. I mean to work all day.
THE REGIME HAS FALLEN. As expected, there has been a military coup. The day’s events are beyond description: soldiers, tanks, a sense of relief, people embracing, words of joy, excitement, sheer jubilation. At this moment I am all alone. M. has gone to meet up with a Party member somewhere or other. Her clandestine activities are about to end. My self-portrait is making rapid progress. M. and I were asleep in my apartment when Chico, a real night bird if ever there was one, rang up shouting his head off and telling us to switch on the radio at once. We jumped out of bed (Are you crying, my love?): “This broadcast is coming from the headquarters of the armed forces. The Portuguese Armed Forces appeal to all the people of the city of Lisbon . . .” We embraced (My love, you are crying), and wrapped in the same sheet, we opened the window: the city, ah city, the night sky still overhead but the first glimmerings of diffused light way in the distance. I said, “Tomorrow we’ll go and fetch Antonio.” M. snuggled up against me. “And one of these days I’ll give you some papers of mine I’d like you to read.” “Secrets?” she asked, smiling. “No. Just papers. Things I’ve written.”
About the Author
JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Jose Saramago, Manual of Painti
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