Discovering one of Portugal’s greatest modernists, José de Almada Negreiros

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In 2016, the Grand Palais, in Paris, hosted a hugely successful exhibition of another Portuguese artist, Amadeu de Souza-Cardoso. His fellow modernista Portuguêsa has not yet, however, broken through onto the international stage. Almada Negreiros certainly deserves to, and this is one reason why the major exhibition of his work which recently opened at the Gulbenkian is such an exciting event.

Almada was not only one of modernism’s great “Renaissance men”, immersing himself in every available medium of expression, but equally a talented captor of its many international currents.

Defying traditionalist society

Almada was born in the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome in 1893, to a Portuguese father and a Santomean mother who died when he was only three. His father then went to live in France, leaving the young Almada to be educated at a Jesuit school in Lisbon.

Almada was a member of “Orpheu’s generation,” the group of artists and writers, such as Fernando Pessoa, that gravitated around the avant-garde review Orpheu, founded in 1915 to promote the new modernist literature and art.

In the same year, Almada rocked the boat of traditional, bourgeois Lisbon society by publishing his Manifesto anti-Dantas attacking the conventional values of one of its principal figures, Julio Antas. Throughout his career, Almada continued to provoke the establishment through satire and caricature.

As soon as the First World War had ended, Almada travelled to Paris, a compulsory centre for any modernist, where he worked in a factory and as a dancer, a typical Almada grand écart! The works at the Gulbenkian show us that, at this period or later in life, he absorbed countless modernist influences such as the Ballets Russes, Picasso’s Pierrots, Cubism, the works of Sonia and Robert Delauny, early and late Matisse and, in particular, that most defiant of art movements: Futurism.

Exploring every link in the modernist chain

The modernists claimed that all forms of art are linked and Almada was the embodiment of this conception. Besides being a painter, he was equally a writer, illustrator, actor, dancer and choreographer! An impressively prolific artist he worked with oils, graphite, pencil, gouache, on tapestry, as a print maker, and on mosaic, azulejos and stained glass. Almada’s line is always decisive, sometimes decorative, often humorous, and his paintings full of passionate colour. At the start and end of the exhibition the viewer confronts two versions of Almada’s portrait of Pessoa, in RED! The writer is seated at his writing table, on which there lies a copy of Orpheu, his gaze simultaneously myopic and penetrating.

Acting ambiguous under Salazar and making love on the beach

Like any artist living in a totalitarian society, Almada faced the challenge of sustaining an acceptable distance vis-à-vis the fascist regime which held power in Portugal throughout most of his career. He has often been criticized for his ambiguity in accepting the numerous official commissions that replaced a liberal art market. Whenever this repressive environment allowed it, he would continue to take subversive pokes at the establishment.

I will not attempt to replace here the pleasure of a visit to the exhibition itself, but it is impossible to resist mentioning a graphite drawing of 1939, Sesta. A man and woman are sleeping on a beach. The man is naked and, we suspect, they have just finished making love. He cradles his head on his arms, while the woman rests her head on his back, her mouth slightly open in a sensual dreamy expression, the contours of her body visible to us beneath her tight summer dress. It is an image of perfect repose … and freedom.