José de Almada Negreiros

Painting made for a café

Our weekend in Porto introduced me to José de Almada Negreiros, a Portuguese writer and artist, of whom, I admit, I had never heard before. The Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis is a museum named after António Soares dos Reis, the Portuguese sculptor who left many of his works to the museum, after committing suicide when only forty-one. Though the museum certainly has a section devoted to his works, it also has a collection of nineteenth and twentieth century Portuguese painting and a collection of decorative arts from earlier periods. More particularly, it currently has a special exhibition devoted to José de Almada Negreiros (link in Portuguese).

José de Almada Negreiros was born in 1893 in São Tomé and Príncipe. His father was a Portuguese cavalry lieutenant based in São Tomé and Príncipe while his mother was born on the island but died when her son was only three. His father was later posted to Paris but José and his brother were sent to boarding school in Lisbon. He graduated from the International School in Lisbon and, by now, was drawing and sketching, particularly satirical works. An exhibition of his work was held at the International School and it was there that he met Fernando Pessoa. As well as producing sketches, he was also writing poetry and other works for Orpheu, a progressive literary journal. He also designed a ballet. He published his first novel, A Engomadeira (it means a woman who starches and irons clothes) in 1915. (I have a copy which I hope to read some time in the not too distant future.)

He was also responsible for the famous Anti-Dantas Manifesto (link in Portuguese). Dantas was Júlio Dantas, a Portuguese playwright, who was fairly conventional. The Manifesto, supported by other prominent modernist Portuguese writers, including Fernando Pessoa, was a pro-modernist, anti-traditional manifesto. It caused quite a stir as Almada Negreiros did not hold back in his views. The text in Portuguese is here.

He spent time in both Paris and Madrid and became involved in a wide variety of artistic activities. In writing, he wrote novels, stories, poetry, plays and screenplays. He worked for a while as a dancer. He acted in films. He painted, he sketched, he designed. He married the artist Sarah Afonso (link in Portuguese). He died in 1970.

There is a wonderful description of his acting career in the exhibition:

I played the part of a very wicked aristocrat who gets killed right at the beginning. So, I was overjoyed. I got murdered in one of the first scenes, for kidnapping a girl. There was actually an incident sort of disastrous there. The girl was Maria Sampiao, and at some point, she fell from the horse we were riding, damn it! But I fell down with her… It was a very bad movie, a big mess, a beastly thing. I had to do a jump, a twenty-feet jump, from the top of a wall. Of course, I would lay (sic) down on my belly with outstretched arms, lower myself as much as possible on the wall and flip my legs over it. I could always pull it off just fine. Well, I used to be a gymnast […] I simply remember that it took them sixty-seven takes to kill me. And it was very hard for me to die, because I had to fall to the ground. Stabbed to death!

[Note that the English text is the translation used in the exhibition and not mine. The original Portuguese is not as badly written.]

Section of storyboard designed by Almada Negreiros for a film

As you can see, Almada Negreiros had a very varied career. Here is what he said about that:

I draw, I write, I sculpt, I do stained glass, I dance, I do theatre, I do cinema, and, if my art doesn’t speak through any of these voices, what can we do then? Just pretend that I am already dead – and that I left behind these posthumous works.

Many of his works can be seen at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. If any of them are available in the UK or US, I am not aware of them. Not surprisingly, none of his written work has appeared in English, the fate of most Portuguese writers, though one or two are available in French and Spanish. I hope to get to get round or one or two of them in the not too remote future. It seems to be stating the obvious when I say that he should be better known in the English-speaking world and undoubtedly would be, were he to be French or German. By the way, this exhibition sadly finishes on 18 March.

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