Conversation between António Costa Pinheiro and Bernardo Pinto de Almeida
This conversation took place in the studio of António Costa Pinheiro in Quelfes, in his house in the inland hills of the Algarve. A generous August heat allowed through from the outside the buzzing of the cicadas and, heavier than this, the silence falling on the house lost in the middle of the hills like a small oasis. A few chilled German beers, a cigarillo or two, and António’s grave, sonorous voice, contemplating before responding with his wise precision, to each question posed. Every now and then, one of those sonorous fits of laughter that betray in him, under a bushy, respectable moustache, his deep child’s soul.
August 2000, courtesy of the author.
Costa Pinheiro. Navegadores. Text: Bernardo Pinto de Almeida. [Bilingual publication marking the awarding of the “Grande Prémio Amadeo Souza Cardoso”]. Edition: Galeria Fernando Santos. Porto 2001.
Monographie on A. Costa Pinheiro by B. Pinto de Almeida.
Costa Pinheiro: ensaios de psicomitografia
A few decades on, how do you remember the most important moments of your career?
Before the Kings there was a series of works – which will be part of the KWY Group [Ká Wamos Yndo] at CCB [Centro Cultural de Belém, Lissabon] – that belong to a period in which I made the transition from what I call the black pictures, or the “cycle of pain”, to a re-encounter with figuration. This was around 1963–64, and it was a big surprise to rediscover them not long ago in my Munich studio, where they have been forgotten, rolled up all these years. At the time I put them away and gave them no further thought. When I saw them again recently I was really surprised.
I realised they were an extraordinary phenomenon. Looking at them I thought: “Here it is”, because I could perceive the hints of a language that was later stratified in the Kings but which, in spite of a certain rigidity, already contains features of an autonomous plastic adventure. Things were sketched and they remained like that. Or else they were erased and the marks of the erasure stayed. When I see them now they seem very modern to me.
This is the first truly identifying phase of my painting. The figuration I had painted in Lisbon, in the 50s, influenced by Klee and others, which I knew from the books that we all used to go and look up in Bertrand did not yet have the maturity of this first moment that followed the informalist, abstract, lyrical stage, the so-called “cycle of pain”, which emerged, I think, as a tribute to my father, who was an extraordinary man.
Was there already a concern with organising a mythography?
My icons, from 60–61, already contained the concern that would re-emerge with the Kings. These were studies that remained on cardboard – because there was no money for canvas –, and which remained forever at the project stage. I think that, conceptually, the Kings were already being prepared. There is still a field of formal abstraction, but at the level of the idea and even the reason that made me call them icons, I was already conceptually preparing what would later become the Kings.
Did you exhibit these works with KWY?
When do the Kings emerge as such?
This imagery emerges in my studio sketchbooks from 63-64. One of these large canvases, after the black paintings, was already called “Alcácer-Quibir” and another “The Boy-king has not returned”. As you see, things were being internally prepared.
What can you remember about the KWY Group?
To start with, I think that one of the situations that will occur when the group’s exhibition is seen – besides affinities of style or epoch, which are natural – is that another affinity will be perceived, that of our friendship, our comradeship, later joined by Christo and Voss.
I think there are co-ordinates that identify us because we were at the threshold of the so-called “nouvelle figuration”. I was in Munich, away from the centre, but used to visit Paris a lot. And the group was also a way to try and maintain a cultural identity.
Working as resistance or as integration?
Both. Even if apparently antagonistic. We were all very young and in Paris things were rough and merciless, and I don’t know if it didn’t satisfy a need to create a little block of collective statement in that capital. It was also a problem of learning, which was for me a fundamental issue, and still is. As I recently said to Jorge Martins, I am unlearning again.
Was integration difficult in Munich?
They saw me as an Iberian painter. And they bought one of my paintings for the Art Gallery.
It was difficult at first. When I was in the Academy of Fine Arts I was thrilled. I was on a scholarship which allowed me to learn, although I didn’t yet speak any German. And, because the relationship with Paris was always kept alive, Munich always seemed to me more distant, in terms of the artistic milieu than the close relationship I found in Paris. For a couple of years it was difficult.
The rise, let’s say, came with the Kings, which were generously respected and well received. From then on, I became aware of doors opening, meaning it was an important place for the young man I then was.
How did you perceive it then?
Today I feel, because of the distance, that in those times I didn’t have the awareness or the lucidity of the situation I was getting myself into, by recreating images related with the history of Portugal from a language which seemed to me a very interesting stage, though full of risks. From the formal point of view of what was going on in my painting, it was only later that I realised a side to these works that I later called “dead images”.
Then I worked around this and managed to fit it into a pictorial modernity. Only later did I realise that something different happened. There was a whole architecture and even an idea of pictorial assemblage – which was what interested the critics and the amateurs who knew nothing about my historical frame of reference – which brought something new.
I think the Kings are the summary of an almost canonic learning of everything I had done until then. However, from then on I stopped and didn’t care any more about painting for many years. I think I was blocked by success.
What would I do after that? I would paint repetitions that would always produce the same result, denying creativity itself? Only much later, in my poetic world, after the long phase of objects and Citymobil was I able to tackle Fernando Pessoa.
Formally it was completely different. People would ask me: After the vivacity of your former paintings, how did you open yourself to this static-ness, this almost metaphysical rigour? But in fact there had been a long incubation, and that’s how it came out.
And now I’m somehow back into a way that has to do with what I did in the 60s. But I think that the artist is entitled to use the languages he sees fit for his imagination, and in this sense I always rebelled against schools.
How do you recall the period of interruption that followed the Kings?
Obviously these things happen when we have company. Don’t forget that these were the years of protest against the war in Vietnam and those of the idea of a project. This whole idea which crossed Europe of creating a new society. And for a man of thirty-odd years, as I was, it was a strong experience.
I had become very suspicious of the art market, after the unexpected success of the Kings. And I didn’t want to go back to painting and become rich, something all the invitations I was getting pointed to. This protest had to do with the period in which the easel had become an academic thing. Hence my projects and Citymobil, which relate to my experience and the troubles of the time. Objects kept me busy for many years, in which I didn’t paint.
How did the critics receive this activity?
Even bearing in mind their project and theoretical nature, things were well received. In spite of the surprise element, I think that things were not deviating essentially from the previous work, even if they were done in a different space. But I never had the chance to carry out such a project to the end. It wasn’t in vain that we developed close relationships with artists such as Julio Le Parc, Sotto and the Atelier de Recherches de l’Art Visuel group. This was taking place in a wholly different aesthetic legislature.
How did the Fernando Pessoa series come about?
That, I think, is very complicated. It never crossed my mind to illustrate the poet. It emerged from a dialogue that I wanted to establish between a painter and a poet around a poetic space.
I had a feeling, after all those years of holding back and refusing and rejecting, something that led me to think that I could establish a dialogue with Pessoas poetic world, because it is a world that has a lot to do with us, the Portuguese. I knew Pessoa from the fifties, and even from participating in a group of which França, Azevedo, Casais Monteiro and others were part. Now, at this level of approximation, it was about the meeting between two different spaces. Pessoa had invented a fantastic poetic space which I think is totally ours.
These were seven years in the studio, in secret, because nobody knew what I was doing or what I was living on …
What were you living on?
I worked as a barman in the evening, in a bar frequented by artists in Munich. I also sold one or two works that I had kept. So I could disguise my secret activity.
Then I made these twenty or so paintings, which I only showed when I exhibited in Munich, and this was again an unbelievable success. Enough reason for me to stop paintíng again, with my usual doubts. I entered a new phase of suspicion and rebellion, and that’s when I made the series, “La Fenêtre de ma Tête”.
Which was a consequence of Pessoa …
They are about thirty paintings, where, I believe, the experience of that poetic space, that I told you about, contributed. What this series brought after all was a different proposal to deal with the self-portrait.
They are always self-portraits. The fact that I call it self-retrospective has to do with the subterfuge that it resumes all I have done since the beginning of the 60’s.
What about the most recent series, the Navigators?
Here is still a certain duality. In the last three or four years I remembered the studies I had made after the Kings, which were the Navigators.
After all these years, looking at those studies, I thought it could be interesting to bring them into a mental present of my own. I hesitated for a whiIe, but suddenly I realised that they were part of a space that belongs te me, and it seemed legitimate to do it without fearing repetition.
But at the same time I wonder why I’m doing that other series – the “Retratos d’Ele e d’Ela” (His and Her Portraits) – which look like they have nothing to do with the others?
I think that this new series launches a path to other opportunities, for me to become independent from the theme of the Navigators, which is an inheritance from the Kings. They are almost anti-portraits. I cut loose in them from a chosen theme.
But these portraits, or anti-portraits, aren’t they conceptually a kind of advance from the issues raised in “La Fenêtre de ma Tête”? I see them as continuity. Which rather than focusing on an inner space, an inner poetic space, would instead project itself in a cosmic dimension …
They could in fact be seen as such. Your interpretation seems fair to me. As for these new portraits, his and hers, I think that they formally have to do with a simplification of the space. Now this is a very serene space. There aren’t too many or too few things. It is all the summary of a permanent learning, even about life. To die and to be reborn, as Paul Klee said. Very complicated things within the world of art.
Each artist, I believe, has the exact module of his own creativity. I don’t want to signify to myself things that are part of an exteriority. I only try to navigate in my own waters. I used to say: “I am like a ship, moored in a harbour without refuge.” That’s where I am. That’s it.