HANCOCK, Caroline — “Points of Convergence”, in Femme qui passe, Artes, projecto de Arte Contemporânea, Fundação Manuel António da Mota, Porto, pp. 32-47. Trad. Marinela Freitas.
Close the eyes and look attentively at what goes on in the field of our vision. Many persons questioned on this point would say that noth- ing goes on, that they see nothing. No wonder at this, for a certain amount of practise is necessary to be able to observe oneself satisfac- torily. But just give the requisite effort of attention, and you will dis- tinguish, little by little, many things. First, in general, a black back- ground. Upon this black background occasionally brilliant points which come and go, rising and descending, slowly and sedately. More often, spots of many colors, sometimes very dull, sometimes, on the contrary, with certain people, so brilliant that reality cannot compare with it.(1)
Dreams, Henri Bergson
Dreams, Henri Bergson
This proposed action and its consequences stated by Henri Bergson in his lecture on Dreams, in 1901, was one of the texts Isabel Carvalho relayed to me as having been essential in her quest. We had met two years earlier in a café one evening when she first told me about this dream of hers to pay hommage to another Porto artist, called Aurélia de Sousa. At the time, she highly recommended I visit the collections that present her work, which I determinedly achieved during the following and last day of my stay since my curiosity had been ignited. Isabel Carvalho recently invited me to return to Porto since her project is about to come to a form of realisation. Over the course of several years, Carvalho entered a process which has consisted in collecting data, pondering and exchanging around and about this artist who was active one hundred years ago. Very little information is available about Aurélia de Sousa in any other language than Portuguese. Since I can only decipher general gists with great effort and slow pace, my knowledge of Portuguese art history is extremely limited if not non-existent. Therefore Isabel Carvalho set about a patient process of translation, summary and analysis to accompany my entry into the subject. Most of this now forms the basis of this text.
That evening we strolled in increasingly thick misty rain to where the project is to take place in a few weeks’ time, hence starting an Aurélia de Sousa tinted guided tour of the city. In the 19th century, Porto was a thriving industrial port, a international city attracting architects and engineers such as Gustave Eiffel to build cutting-edge bridges, hospitals, stations and the like. The English mercantile community had firmly settled there to trade since the 17th century but cultural ties were particularly strong with France. The city is often identified as a Romantic microcosm, as captured in the Museu Romântico da Quinta da Macieirinha. The ennui, self-destruction or sacrifice, and anxiety described by Gustave Flaubert or the Brontë sisters might be useful to set an atmospheric scene. Having traversed streets charged with history, we stood amongst towering contemporary housing developments peering into the glass space which had been the sales room and now welcomes art exhibitions. This is where “it” will happen. Multiple urban lights glistened in these wet circumstances as cars slipped past and other passers-by were far and few between. How will Isabel Carvalho occupy or reveal this curious stage with her august prede- cessor in mind?
One of the most important women artists in Portugal, Aurélia de Sousa started her artistic training in painting and drawing relatively late with António da Costa Lima. João Marques de Oliveira then taught her, primarily history painting, at the Academy of Fine Arts, in Porto, from 1893. Along with Silva Porto, he had travelled to France in the 1870s and returned to Portugal to introduce naturalism. Aurélia de Sousa was born in Chile in 1866, where her family had briefly emigrated to accompany her father’s business which was related to the building of railways. This fact seems to have been of great importance to her since she battled all her life to regularly renew her Chilean passport and retain this distant specificity and foreign status. As if being or remaining an outsider was essential to her understanding of her own self or vis-à-vis her position in the world. On their return to Portugal, her father bought Quinta da China, an 18th century property close to Porto (now near the Campanhã train station), on the northern bed of the river Douro. It is in this peaceful house and well-to-do environment that Aurélia de Sousa lived most of her life. She often portrayed the splendid views and comfortable, albeit dark, interiors. The current spectacularly large camellia bushes are said to have already been there in her time. Isabel Carvalho and I circumnavigated this beautiful location on the following day on a long moist walk encapsulating the east of the city, along the river to the sea, following her likely footsteps. Aurélia de Sousa’s life in Porto seems to have veered between modernity and conservatism: it involved cycling, cold baths in the ocean, a Danish neighbour and friends from Berlin, photography and cinema, teaching local girls at the Quinta, religion and superstition. Aurélia de Sousa never married but she was given support and patronage by her family. Many of her sisters married into wealth, they variously sponsored her art training and travels, and collected her work. This allowance seems to have come with strings attached which we discussed at length.
In her thirties, Aurélia de Sousa went to Paris between 1899 and 1901 to attend the renowned Académie Julian (created in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian) where she followed the relatively classical tuition of Jean- Paul Laurens and Benjamin-Constant. They were both known for rigorous history and religious painting. Imagining her in the capital of the arts at this touchstone moment between two centuries, during the 1900 Paris World Fair, at a time of great optimism in modern progress, exposed as she must have been to different society values and liberties (including debate for women’s rights), is of course a matter of speculation. What is certain is that it must have contributed to some changes in her perceptions of the world and broadened her awareness of more avant-garde artistic practices. Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers Of Evil (1957) poems became favourite reading. During this period, she also spent time in Étaples near Boulogne-sur-Mer, in North-East France and, two summers in Britanny following the footsteps of the Symbolist Nabis group who famously arose from the Académie Julian ten years earlier. The Femme qui passe drawing (circa 1900) she realised in Britanny demonstrates a keen interested in a pre-Giacomettiesque strive. Her sister Sofia, also an artist, joined her and in 1902 they traveled Europe and to visit the most important museums in Brussels, Antwerp, Berlin, Rome, Florence, Venice, Madrid, Seville. Occasional mobility (including to spa towns for various ailment cures) recurred until she passed away in 1922, but her life was primarily tied to Porto.
Aurélia de Sousa’s oeuvre comprises portraits, landscape and daily domestic scenes. Immediate experiences in Porto are her primary source. Her style tended towards figurative realism or naturalism and persevered in this direction even after her training in Paris, with toned-down touches of symbolism and impressionistic effects in the landscapes (though less prominently than her peer António Carneiro). Her subjects include tenebrous interiors, Douro-inspired localities and vistas, the Quinta gardens and plants, children or women at work (reading or sewing), interspersed with more mysterious, dark, contemplative, quasi-mystical treatments of the Visitation, churchyards or studios. Could this reflect an expression of her split experiences in times of change, from the green lights of cosmopolitan Paris back to the rural Quinta setting? Isabel Carvalho admits a profound identification with Aurélia de Sousa and as a consequence freely allows herself to interrogate what might be hinted at behind the artist’s work in order to revisit its interpretation a step further and allow new perceptions to open up today.
Aurélia de Sousa is said for example to have been particularly inspired by the likes of Velázquez, Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Jan Steen, Gerard Terboch, Holbein, Van Dyck, William Hogarth, Thomas Lawrence, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet(2). But also by James Abbott McNeill Whistler whose Académie Carmen in Paris was active from 1898 to 1901; indeed her Portrait of Mother (c. 1900) is compared to his Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
Self-portraits were possibly her favoured genre, certainly these are the works that seem to have brought her the most renown posthumously. Even though the backgrounds are minimal and the compositions strict, her treatment of her own self, alone, tends to be more playful and free, full of irony and humour, from her Self-Portrait with a giant black bow tied around her neck (circa 1897) to the enigmatic self-portrait as Saint Anthony. On the other hand, in her Self-Portrait with the red jacket, the intensity of the gaze and eye contact with the viewer are practically confrontational.
In terms of asides, Aurélia de Sousa also regularly made illustrations and caricatures for magazines and for Júlio Brandão’s short story book Perfis Suaves. And as the reproductions from glass plates in her monographs indicate, Aurélia de Sousa used photography very early on in her artistic career. She was trained in this medium by a neighbour Aurélio da Paz dos Reis (1862-1931, who photographed the 1900 Paris World Fair) and had her own studio purpose-built for developing photographs which she used as substitute for sketches, for the pure pleasure of documenting her surroundings and to document her work as a painter. This early interest in a new technology proves her openness to experimentation behind the scenes. She clearly did not present her photographs as artwork in her life- time, but this specificity of her studio practice usefully demonstrates her pushing the boundaries of convention.
Interestingly and undoubtedly significantly, Aurélia de Sousa stopped dating her paintings after the Parisian sojourn, as if she wanted to avoid any notion of stylistic “progression” in her work and the comparison with art scenes of the cosmopolitan capital cities. Her loyalty and obedience to her family were strong binds in Porto, and her respect for their standards of social morality and the limited possibilities for a woman artist in Portugal at the time might have determined her confinement to a certain way of working that could appear traditional to an eye informed of the wider context of contemporary European creativity. Was she deliberately avoiding controversy or was this her freely chosen career path?
During her lifetime and to the present day, Aurélia de Sousa’s national repute is undoubtable. In August 2014, the permanent display of the collection of National Museum Soares dos Reis in Porto presented four paintings by Aurélia de Sousa. Her famous Self-Portrait (circa 1900) with the red jacket stands proud, facing you directly on a freestanding wall as you enter the room. Further along, the hang also includes Family Scene (1911), Memorial Day (undated), and Visitation (undated). But the main repository for a significant selection of her work—including sketch- books, photographs and materials—is the House Museum Marta Ortigão Sampaio built by the architect José Carlos Loureiro in the mid-1950s on the Rua Nossa Senhora de Fátima. Aurélia de Sousa’s sister, Maria Estela de Souza, married Vasco Ortigão Sampaio. Said Marta was their daughter and Aurélia’s niece. Born in 1897, she left the house and its belongings to the City of Porto when she died in 1978. The collection here also includes work by other contemporary artists of the time including Marques de Oliveira, Silva Porto, Sofia de Sousa, as well as family jewels and decorative arts. The interior is typical of Portuguese bourgeois interiors at the time.
In an upstairs bedroom stands a screen with a humanoid rabbit-related cartoon painted by Aurélia for Marta when she was a child. Beatrix Potter’s early 20th century repertoire with all its lighthearted playfulness was the source of inspiration. It was a little surreal visiting this House-Museu for the second time with a guide who systematically presumes that as a tourist you can only know nothing about the art of Aurélia de Sousa. Little did they realise that I had just been given a detailed personal art historical lesson and walking tour specifically about her and was therefore bouncing in anticipation to be left alone to contemplate these paintings. This context could indeed be more conducive than the previously cited Museum display where the linear presentation is a little clinical and apologetic. But if you stay longer than the allocated time the lights go off and you have to dance around to activate them again. I thankfully experienced this since my guide got so bored as I poured over the loose brushstrokes of Santo António’s hands again that she left me to attend other visitors.
Of course, a key concern for Isabel Carvalho and others is that Aurélia’s sister, Sofia, would also deserve to be better known and she, in fact, suffers from less visibility. Concentrating on portraits, interiors and still life, her work tends to have less gravitas, yet the humanity and sensitivity in her startling painting of a laughing woman in the House-Museum collection points to a gift to capture life with spontaneity. Future art histor- ical research could bring due credit to a blatant missing, or certainly underestimated, chapter.
In the case of Aurélia de Sousa, it is essential to mention a key instance of international exposure during 1900: Art at the Crossroads (3), the exhibition organised at the Royal Academy, London and the Guggenheim Museum by Maryanne Stevens and Robert Rosenblum in 1999-2000. The focus was entirely on the one painting on loan on this occasion: Self-Portrait (circa 1900) with the red jacket. This project placed her work on a par with turn-of-the-century peers, such as Auguste Rodin, Franz von Stuck, Thomas Eakins and Gwen John. Among the few other women artists repre- sented were Harriet Backer, Cécilia Beaux, Mary Cassatt, Camille Claudel, Elin Danielson-Gambogi, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Clara Southern. Perhaps Aurélia de Sousa’s practice wasn’t so far from the canon of the day after all.
As Isabel Carvalho spoke to me, I had been wondering how to compare Aurélia de Sousa with other artists of her time whose works and struggles I was already aware of. In a sudden flash, Gwen John’s (1876- 1939) paintings had come to mind; therefore, seeing this distant parallel made in the pages of the above mentioned catalogue brought some further credence to this intuition. Obviously the context and work are diametrically different and particular, but it is interesting to begin to compare two artists who were active in the early twentieth century in major cities that were nevertheless considered cultural backwaters in terms of fast spread- ing modernity and who variously benefited from their sojourn in Paris, the City of Lights. John was born in Wales in the United Kingdom, sister to the always more famous painter Augustus John, went to Slade School of Art in London (1895-1898) and then to Paris where she attended Whistler’s Académie Carmen. She went back to London in 1899 and exhibited at the New English Art Club, then returned to Paris early 1904. In 1906, she met Rodin as mistress and model and her palette changed from warm browns to colder mauves, blues, greys. Relatively unconfident, she worked slowly with similar compositions for portraits, interiors, and still lives. But her Self-Portrait dated 1902 (oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London) where she stands in a red shirt with a neck brooch can offer striking comparisons with Aurélia de Sousa’s Self-Portrait with the red jacket. Though her bust is further removed from frame, she is also frontal to the viewer. In subtle or deliberate defiance, or certainly direct dialogue with their audience.
Although the painting that is always referenced is Aurélia de Sousa’s self-portrait in a red jacket, Isabel Carvalho has chosen to focus on this curious large-scale full-length self-portrait as Saint Anthony: Santo António (c. 1902 oil on canvas, 1890 x 999 cm, House Museum Marta Ortigão Sampaio). Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon. Having joined the newly founded Franciscan order, he found himself in Italy where he was particularly admired for his preaching, teaching and hospitality. Characteristic representations of this saint involve hand gestures which are full of expression and the humble brown habit with a string around the waist and a separate cap that covers the shoulders. There is also a drawing by Aurélia de Sousa in the same collection of a young person with Franciscan cap dated 26.3.94. This choice of representation is highly intriguing amongst such an otherwise demure body of work. Apparently the Ukrainian artist Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884) who was also an earlier student at the Académie Julian would dress up as Franciscan when she was sad. Could this painting have been a disguised, silent, slightly irreverent revolt against her situation on returning to Porto? The expressionistic hand gesture seems to request permission to talk or silence. Could the exact positioning of the fingers be symbolic of something? Is the cross on the wall behind masonic? The Douro Valley and its lively businesses also hid secret esoteric societies.
Not only had Aurélia de Sousa posed for a photographic study in this Franciscan and masculine disguise, but also as Madeleine. In this second instance, her attitude has potential parallels with Charcot’s use of photography as a tool in his study of hysteria, or with photographs of Alice (in Wonderland) Liddell and family by Lewis Carroll. In an article about Claude Cahun and Lee Miller’s photographs in the 1920s and 1930s, Whitney Chadwick wrote: “The possibility of gender mobility implied by the choice of neutral clothing styles has also characterised the dress of the dandy, yet another figure of sexual ambiguity with a long visual tradition. From Charles Baudelaire’s modern hero to James McNeill Whistler’s cosmopolitan artist to Montesquieu’s flamboyant aesthete, in modern art the dandy—always elegant, detached, aware—crossed gender, as well as class lines. The dandy, like the homosexual, stood outside bourgeois culture, flouting conventions of dress and social role.” (4) Claude Cahun or Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy’s role-playing, trans-gender performances and cross-dressing push the boundaries of the territory of the self as image, challenging notions of femininity and masculinity.
Without going so far in Aurélia de Sousa’s case, the self-por- trait as Saint Anthony was certainly a sign of self-exploration, testing internal and external zones of acceptability and non-acceptability with a heightened sense of restraint, faced by a world of prejudice in which it was probably considered best to avoid educated women. The powerful but subdued sense of ridicule exuding from this painting carries the violence of caricature. Did this inversion transpire at the time as a comic effect? Dressing up was not unusual in her circle, as a family photograph where they are dressed in oriental fashion taken in Seville suggests. Aurélia de Sousa’s intellectual androgynous identification with this figure of a well-respected saint could be interpreted as a veiled (or hooded) will to escape or to protect her internal identity from the outside. Isabel Carvalho is highly sensitive to the complex web of paradoxes she sees appearing in this painting. In her investigative process, she imagines the black cap transforming into an urban modern accessory (via the clergy or academia) for disappearing egos attempting to loose their identity and blend into the mass. Questioning self-identification is at the core of this research which aims to establish a distance from her subject by somehow unlocking Aurélia de Sousa from her status quo and bringing her forth into the present day. Carvalho described how the plot thickened as she learnt more about Aurélia de Sousa and considered their common engagement in and with Porto, one hundred years apart. The city has changed. But something captured by Romantic times remains. There is a strange permanence along the Douro. Carvalho’s old dream of green lights and fireflies had returned to the fore as some enigmatic key to the liberating potentials of what she is about to make manifest.
Elements combined and Luisa Mota’s invitation to Carvalho to think of a project at the Fundação Manuel António da Mota in Porto in October 2014 came as this chance to impulse an experience in the open glass stage that is the ARTES space and its immediate surroundings. The adjacent agora-like landscaping, the housing blocks, the nearby Hospital de Santo António and Museum Soares dos Reis contribute as principal characters in the created environment. Highly signifying props could include camellias, black caps or hoods, fireflies and green lights, snakes and dreams. Memories, knowledge and speculations distill into an ephemeral interpretation that intently moves the matter forward. Carvalho, the author, might have written a play inspired by Bergson’s “occasionally brilliant points which come and go”. In reference to Aurélia de Sousa and Saint Anthony, she converts the dark colours of her paintings to bright green lights. Transit lights: red to stop; green to go. The convergence seeks to bring release from past ties and open future creative possibilities. Close your eyes and look attentively.
1. Henri Bergson, Dreams, trans. Edwin E. Slosson, B. W. Huebsch, New York, 1914, p.16. (Viewed September 2014: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20842/20842- h/20842-h.htm). First presented as a lecture at the Institut psychologique, Paris, 26 March 1901.
2. Bibliographical references: Raquel Henriques da Silva, Aurélia de Sousa, ed INA- PA, Lisbon, 1992; Maria João Lello Ortigão, Aurélia de Sousa em contexto a cultura artistica no fim de século, INCM Imprensa Nacional Casa de Moeda, Lisbon, 2006; Adelaide Duarte, Aurélia de Sousa: [artista de transição: século XIX-XX], Quid- Novi, Matosinhos and Instituto de História da Arte, Lisbon, 2010.
3. 1900: Art at the Crossroads, exhibition catalogue published by the Royal Academy, London and the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1999. Another instance was: Soleil et ombres. L’art portugais du XIXe siècle, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, 1987- 1988, Paris Musée/ AFAA, 1987. This exhibition included the following 4 works by Aurélia de Sousa: Family Scene (undated) and Interior (undated), Self-Portrait (undated, in red jacket), Landscape (c 1900, from Lisbon).
4. Whitney Chadwick, “Claude Cahun and Lee Miller. Problematizing the Surrealist Territories of Gender and Ethnicity”, in Gender Nonconformity, Race and Sexuality, ed. Toni Lester, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, p. 155.