Getting to know you
From the beginning, long before I started making portraits of Fernando Pessoa, critics have been saying that my work looks as though it has been painted by a number of different artists. Although personally I never find a problem with the concept of working in a diversity of idiom, it is generally expected of artists, by critics and public alike, that they should acquire and develop a singular style, without really deviating from it. So when I discovered Fernando Pessoa, through my friend Zbigniew Kotowicz writing a book about him, I was fascinated to learn the way Pessoa wrote, using his heteronyms. There are two things about this which struck me as significant, firstly the business of becoming a character, like a method actor, who then writes as his new personality dictates. Secondly, how outwardly there’s no change. No matter who he becomes and whichever author he is writing as, Pessoa’s physical appearance, the style of his dress hardly varies; the cut of his suit is always of a man in society, never of an outsider. The few photographs there are of Fernando Pessoa provide little clue to his inner life but they ground the iconography and form the image which remains – reserved, discreet and dapper. At the time this was the modernist way; to dress in strict bourgeois fashion while producing wild and shocking art.
So how does this – the alternating voices in his writing, on the page, and the man in real-life who never changes – translate into the exhibition we see here; this array, or parade of portraits all around in the air & on the walls of the gallery? Firstly, I have inverted and recast both the constant and the variable. As we can see; it is the same man in every picture in the exhibition, only different in all of them. There are references to the art historical, cutting-edge styles of his day – fauvist, cubist, futurist, expressionist – but two precedents from 20th Century art history get us closer to what I am after, examples of the interplay between individuality and uniformity which makes the anonymous distinctive – the first is René Magritte, yes, him with the bowler hat, and not a pipe. In thinking of the way Magritte presented himself both to camera and on canvas the image which springs to mind is an urban sky filled with nearly identical men in dark coats and bowler hats, “Galconda”, a painting of immeasurable strangeness. The second example is Joseph Bueys who took this strategy further; the idea of always dressing in the same way to make one’s outfit into an instantly recognisable visual signature. His was not a conventional bourgeois look. It was smart in other ways, going beyond self-promotion, Bueys’ appearance came to signal Art itself, it worked to unify work in different disciplines to create a trademark image across a range of production. This was further on from Pessoa’s time. Now, looking back, Pessoa’s period look marks him out, at least as a distinct literary type of the James Joyce generation, and then latterly in Portugal, his posthumous promotion into a national icon makes Pessoa’s features instantly recognisable to anyone who has been exposed to them – his nose, jaw-line, glasses, moustache, hat, dark suit, starched collar and tie.
Like a man possessed
What am I thinking of as I make pictures of the poet, Fernando Pessoa? I think of the material I am painting with, its resistance or fluidity, and also what I am painting on, its transparency, opaqueness, delicacy or toughness. I think of the size, its scale, epic or intimate, and whether the image is bigger or smaller than life size.
The objective is always to get a Pessoa out of what happens. What happens varies.
Sometimes I have a clear idea of what I am after – I want Pessoa perched on a chair, in an artist’s studio, discussing the latest developments in painting in Paris, or less specifically, to picture him pensively, perhaps thinking of the appropriate phrase for the poem he is writing. I have a number of these scenarios I imagine from the poet’s life waiting to be articulated or, more accurately, rendered in paint.
At other times, I simply begin with no idea of how it will turn out. All I do then is focus on the energy I am about to channel onto the paper or canvas; I decide what to do first, then I lose myself and let the brush go dancing or stabbing or moving steadily across the surface, quickly or slowly, applying pressure or hardly touching, alternating in rhythms familiar or new to me. The artist in me is watching out from the sidelines for when the push and pull between structure/behaviour and improvised reaction, the balance of light and dark, areas of tone, the skein of lines suddenly coalesce. Because, of course, the composition – the dynamic of shapes within the borders of the canvas – is vital, as it is to know when to tie it all together – the point at which Pessoa’s features come into play. At this moment, to make his portrait, I may turn towards the symbolic archetype, the permanent form, or look to try to capture the incidental fleeting expression of a particular moment.
How I think of the way the work is displayed begins with the idea of Pessoa’s trunk, stuffed full of his writing; thousands of scraps, fragments and fully finished works. I have seen that my pictures, once they are sold, framed and put behind glass, turn into precious objects. In the exhibition, I want them to be seen in the raw, like an original manuscript before publication, vulnerable and exposed. Coming from the studio and brought into the gallery, or brought out of the box in which they are stored, the paintings and drawings, as they are being sorted appear to be strewn randomly across the room, which would be a way to exhibit them if the work could be handled like loose-leaf pages of a book by visitors who have time to look through them. Since this is neither practical nor desirable with originals which can be easily damaged, we have to think more about presentation and display. So what decides how and which works will be selected to hang together? Categories, based on density, size etc. Ways to show the work, whether in the air, or against the wall, placed close to, far apart or overlapping – these sorts of things make concrete where short sequences of pictures, in conversation with each other, will go. Simple rules, like alternating dark and light drawings help to make choosing what goes where in the final hang easier. Although I will want to include new work I make for each exhibition I don’t expect all of it to find a place in the show. With the idea of more rather than less, I am always going to try to make full use of what space is given over for the portraits to be shown in. Even as the exhibition is being installed I am rethinking my plans for the shape of the show and where work will be placed until, finally when all the uncertainties are settled and there is no reason to make any more changes and it is ready to open, then, like the business of becoming a character, the way a heteronym might develop, or like the fragments in each edition of The Book of Disquiet, the drawings find themselves arranged in, not just in any order, but one with an air of inevitability I am always surprised by.
Assembled, tied and bound
To begin with, when they were new, the freshness of the paper pinned to the wall worked well. With each exhibition different considerations came into play. To accentuate the sense of vulnerability I thought of an oriental screen and used thin, translucent Chinese and Japanese paper to float his portraits suspended from the ceiling – swinging gently in the air.
Now this body of work is older. For ten years it was shown in all kinds of venues, added to and constantly handled, then put away, back in its trunk. It has worn well, but the signs of age are there to see – oil turned yellow discolours the surface, creases and corners are scuffed – so the work, while still raw, needs a smarter, more careful dressing. Consequently, aluminium bars have been substituted for sticks of wood; and coloured rectangles, like the painted houses of Lisbon, define uneven arrangements of drawings on the wall. In a move away from the flimsy and homespun, five columns of five double-sided drawings hang in the air, stepping diagonally across the gallery in lines, or storeys, above images of the poet composing his verse at his desk, in the street, at the bar… One thing I wanted to do with the drawings at the top and bottom of these columns is to play with view-point (looking up to see the image from a bird’s eye view, looking down to see a picture with a viewpoint from underneath) positioned in this way, the drawings simply show how easy and unproblematic it is to take a view from the opposite perspective.
Unmasking the play of perception
Fernando Pessoa peopled his universe with imaginary friends, whose identities materialise as words on the page. A reality we experience in and for ourselves. As for Fernando Pessoa himself, he is now a dead famous public figure with an established iconography, but what I have done is picture him as if he were new to you, much more like a personal discovery than an official portrait of the great man. My idea is to make a visual equivalent of his world so that going between the portraits is a voyage around the poet – here, the unseen author; there, a symbolic representation, sometimes at the limits of legibility; to the left & to the right, facial expressions, body language, existential action, the look in his eye, the masking and unmasking of the artist, the person, his heteronyms – the exhibition feeding back the impulses which make up who and what I imagine this person to be. At the end, and this is the final inversion, the idea is to engage the viewer with as many ways of looking as I can parade before his or her eyes. We know we are seeing Pessoa in each and every picture. We also know painting is a one to one communication, so it is the way we look and what we are looking for which is the real the subject behind the object we are looking at. If that sounds confusing, forget what I have said and simply take it in without supposing anything and allow associations to come to mind, and just as freely, let them go again – looking up, down, right and left and sometimes behind you.
Bettina Lienhard says
I would be interested to acquire one of your Pessor portraits. I already left a message on Facebook and sent an e-mail to your University Middlesex e-mail address, without success.
Perhaps I’m more lucky with this form.