In 1916, the 28-year-old Portuguese painter Amadeo de Souza Cardoso described his work as "impressionist, cubist, futurist, abstractionist. A little bit of everything." But he belonged to no particular "school," he insisted. "The schools are dead. We, the new ones, seek originality."
The passionate quest for originality clearly propels Souza Cardoso's Corcoran Gallery retrospective, the first in America for this tragically short-lived modernist pioneer.
He was, indeed, one of the "new ones"--those countless young artists, writers and performers who flocked to Paris from all over Europe in the first decade of this century to take part in the avant-garde revolution that was underway. There were giants among them: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani, Umberto Boccioni, Robert Delaunay and Constantin Brancusi--all innovators who helped transform subsequent art.
Their rapid-fire innovations--cubism, futurism, abstraction, Orphism, even a premonition of dada and surrealism--were quickly absorbed, as if intuitively, into Souza Cardoso's thinking and his art. They were still swirling through his paintings when he died at 30 in the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, his brilliant promise unfulfilled.
Largely forgotten since--except in his native Portugal--Souza Cardoso's art is now undergoing revival and reappraisal with the help of the Portuguese Ministry of Culture. Intriguing on several counts, the 53 paintings and drawings assembled here not only reintroduce a remarkably gifted modernist, they also offer a firsthand look at the maelstrom of new pictorial ideas that were blowing through Paris when Souza Cardoso arrived there in 1906, just as Picasso was inventing cubism.
The son of wealthy landowners and vintners in the northern provincial town of Manhufe, the 19-year-old Souza Cardoso (1887-1918) had gone to Paris to study architecture. But along with his new friends Modigliani, Brancusi and Robert and Sonia Delaunay, he was soon swept up by revolutionary developments in contemporary painting, especially abstraction. And though he began by drawing caricatures and ink illustrations for folk tales and Flaubert, he was soon making semi-abstract paintings and drawings that exhibit a remarkable originality and sophistication of line and decorative composition that echoes art nouveau.
Within a few years he'd made sufficient inroads into the avant-garde community to be included in major exhibitions in Paris, Berlin and London, as well as the historic 1913 New York Armory show, which also traveled to Chicago and Boston. The poster for the Armory show even featured his name, along with those of such luminaries as Cezanne, van Gogh, Brancusi, Braque, Duchamp-Villon and Matisse. Remarkably, he sold all but one of the eight paintings he sent to that show, three to Chicago collector Arthur Jerome Eddy. On loan to the present exhibition from the Chicago Art Institute, these charming, highly stylized ink drawings and paintings of leaping rabbits, stag hunts and falconers seem remarkably tame today. But they also reflect the pervasive influence of the newly invented cubist and futurist styles.
By 1913, having abandoned narrative illustration, Souza Cardoso was still painting scenes of the hilly landscape near his home in Portugal, but they were increasingly abstract. And soon his ability to make convincing cubist works led him into the realm of total abstraction--a remarkable and early leap.
But it was more than influence: Souza Cardoso had an uncanny ability to grab the essence of the new styles exploding around him--from the cubism of Picasso, Braque and Gris to the futurist forms of Boccioni and the spinning, rainbow-colored disks of his good friend Delaunay. As a result, there are several fine abstractions here that even an advanced student of early 20th-century art might mistake for a long-lost work by Gris or Braque.
These abstractions inevitably raise the central question that must be answered before this work can be fully assessed: Was Souza Cardoso really an original? Or did he just have a sharp eye for the new and an uncanny ability to ape it? Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough for the question to be answered definitively.
Clearly, he borrowed from his contemporaries. And yet his works do not seem derivative because they are so fully realized. In no way copies of existing works, they seem more like variations, virtuosic riffs on the latest avant-garde styles.
It even seems at times that Souza Cardoso made some of his most blatant "borrowings" tongue-in-cheek, as if to prove that he could do it. We know he had a sense of humor: We see it in the decorative, often punning ways he used Delaunay's disks, which were originally conceived as serious studies of color and its effects. Here they turn up as targets or as eyeglasses on a masklike portrait, or as the sound hole in a guitar. One of these disks even plays the part of a stethoscope in the amusing "Portrait of a Physician," a cigarette-loving doctor friend depicted as a smoking machine that puffs away while taking its own pulse.
In Souza Cardoso's small abstract painting titled "Mucha," the central target-form is topped by the word "Mucha," which, in Portuguese, means bull's-eye, or target. It also sounds like the French word for "fly." And in later works, flies (or flylike creatures) often occupy the center of these bull's-eye forms--in one case spinning a painted web across the middle of the painting.
Though Souza Cardoso did make some total abstractions early on, he didn't do it for long. For the rest of his short career, he made increasingly large and dynamic compositions that, while rooted in abstraction, included more and more complex, collagelike assemblages of words, signs and objects painted in a super-realistic manner. In one large, late work titled "Cash Register," he seems to anticipate pop art.
Souza Cardoso often traveled back to Portugal for vacations. He was there when World War I broke out, and he was forced to work there for what turned out to be the rest of his life. But Paris remained in his thoughts, as we see in three remarkable paintings that hang together at the end of this show and represent this artist's most mature and original achievements. Including elements of photo-realism, increasingly tactile surfaces and fool-the-eye collage, they look uncannily as if they could have been painted yesterday.
That is especially true of "Coty," titled after a French perfume. This dynamic jumble of a painting--perhaps reflecting the chaos of the war--includes segments of a nude female body (including breasts and buttocks) that could have come straight out of a billboard-style pop painting by photo-realist Tom Wesselman. "Coty" also includes a vividly painted, almost illusionistic red rose, the aforementioned painted cobweb and, embedded in the paint, real hairpins, broken mirrors, beads and other dressing-table doodads that uncannily anticipate the feminist compositions of the '70s and '80s by photo-realist Audrey Flack.
In 1916 Souza Cardoso finally had his first solo show in Lisbon and was acknowledged by critics to be the most advanced painter in Portugal. Two years later, only weeks before his 31st birthday and the end of the war, he died.
Since then, scholarly interest in this artist (including the translation of his letters) has gradually increased thanks in part to the efforts of the Portuguese government and the Gulbenkian Foundation, which acquired the bulk of Souza Cardoso's work from the artist's widow and has lent it to this show. "At the Edge: A Portuguese Futurist--Amadeo de Souza Cardoso" leaves us with a tantalizing picture, but one that remains frustratingly incomplete. It will remain at the Corcoran through Nov. 28 before moving on to the Arts Club of Chicago.
SOUZA CARDOSO SYMPOSIUM, EXHIBIT
A symposium on "Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, European Modernism and Portugal, 1900-1920" will take place Oct. 30 at the Corcoran. The event is free, but seating is limited. Call 202-639-1727 for reservations.
The exhibit will continue through Nov. 28 at the Corcoran, located at New York Avenue and 17th Street NW. The gallery is open daily except for Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.