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|The Dawn of Abstraction
by Kimberly Bradley
|"At the Edge: A Portuguese Futurist -- Amadeo de Souza Cardoso," June 15-Sept. 16, 2000, at the AXA Gallery, Equitable Building, 787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, New York, N.Y.
"I do not follow any art schools. The schools are all dead. We, the new ones, seek originality. I am Impressionist, Cubist, Futurist, abstractionist. A little bit of everything."
These are the words of Portuguese artist Amadeo de Souza Cardoso in a 1916 interview in the Lisbon newspaper O dia -- and how right he was. Though not widely known, Souza Cardoso was one of the first nonrepresentational artists, and this exhibition at the AXA Gallery (formerly the Equitable Gallery) is the first in the U.S. to focus on his work (the show has previously appeared at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and at the Arts Club of Chicago). The exhibition includes some 31 paintings, 19 works on paper and a smattering of archival materials.
Born in northern Portugal in 1887 to a prosperous landowning family, Souza Cardoso moved to Paris to study architecture on his 19th birthday in 1906. He started painting a year later, and by 1910 had become friends with Amedeo Modigliani, exhibiting with him in 1911. Souza Cardoso's circle also included other Modernist pioneers -- Boccioni, Gino Severini and Sonia and Robert Delaunay -- whose sensibilities influenced his work.
World War I found Souza Cardoso in Lisbon, where his radical style of painting found little favor. In 1916, he exhibited 114 paintings in a show titled "Abstraction" -- and was physically attacked for his trouble. His short life ended in 1918 in the midst of the influenza epidemic. He was 30 years old.
Souza Cardoso's legacy was preserved by his family, and in the 1950s his work was rediscovered in Portugal and across Europe. In the 1980s the Gulbenkian Foundation began acquiring his work, and organized a major retrospective of 262 works in 1987.
Though the show declares him a Futurist in its title, Souza Cardoso was a little bit of everything during his brief career. The presentation piece of the exhibition, Don Quixote (1914), is a large-scale painting of a mounted horseman (one of the artist's favorite subjects) composed of curves and discs in brilliant colors. The painting is an impressive synthesis of Delaunay's Orphism, the nature Primitivism of Franz Marc and the colorful Cubism of (early) Francis Picabia and the School of Paris.
Souza Cardoso's background in drafting served him well. In a series of ink drawings from 1911-12, viewers can clearly see what was influencing the young artist: The Bath of the Sorceresses features stylized nudes with mask-like faces not unlike those in Picasso's work or Modigliani's drawings. Other drawings, such as The Falcons, are beautifully calligraphic and hint at art nouveau. Bold bright colors are used in nearly every piece, including a series of images of primitive masks.
During Souza Cardoso's brief asylum in Portugal, he embraced Synthetic Cubism with a vengeance, and most of his works became jam-packed with abstract and representational motifs. Real Dynamic Arabesque Ocher Red Café Red Singing Zig-Zag Cuirassier Mandolin Metallic Vibrations/Mechanical-Geometric Splendor (1916) -- a bit of Futurist poetry that suggests the latter-day titles of Damien Hirst -- incorporates blocks, splotches and lines of bright color and stenciled letters spelling out nonsense syllables. Coty (1917), a work that some consider the artist's masterpiece, is notable for the extreme disjunction of its collage elements, definitely a proto-postmodernist touch.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a writer, editor and translator based in Hamburg and New York.