Essay - World Life and Self-Portraits

João Pinharanda, 2004.

As we look at Manuel Botelho's work from the 1980s and 1990s, we can clearly see the means he uses to make thematic connections. The exhibition represents that period through drawings and paintings produced in London between 1984 and 1987. There are also Lisbon and London works from 1987 to 1996, and pieces produced in Lisbon after that.

Manuel Botelho's work is characterised by a double, linked statement of values. He defined these at an early stage, and they have continually cut across and structured the thematic flow of the pieces. From the period in question, we have thematic pairings such as inner and outer, eros and thanatos, high and low. They are highly individualised, and the observer is invited to interpret them through scenes of social and cultural misery, the battle of the sexes, separation and abandonment.

We shall see, however, that things are not quite so simple. Botelho's art is considerably more complex. In fact, in the work produced after 1995-98 in this exhibition, we can see how these structural elements are merged with the newly explored themes, rather than simple crossings or parallel developments.

Whilst the artist takes on the role of his fictional characters and tends to blur the private and public thematic dimension, the parts of each image come from increasingly diversified and disparate discursive levels. In these works, Manuel Botelho deals with domestic and international politics, the dramas of contemporary society, modernist architecture's ambitions of purity, the learned iconography of classicism and the mass produced images of journalism.

Botelho's family ties led him to painting, illustration and architecture (1) and, in fact, he chose the latter as a profession (2) . He has, therefore, always leaned towards the plastic arts. Structurally, he has consistently bridged personal themes with those of his surroundings. This is due to his upbringing, which was opposed to national policy (Salazar's dictatorship, the Colonial War) and his early interest in international politics (May 68, the Vietnam War). His art has often grown out of a strong urge to link the events of his private life (deaths, separations) to the themes he is working on, even in terms of style (3) .

This urge has produced painting which is rare on the national and even contemporary scene, but which has not always received the appreciation it deserves. The artist's work is connected to the vast 20 th century expressionist programme: subjective and committed, narrative and programmatic, closely connecting drawing and colour, as well as aspects from art of the past and present. Finding roots in symbolism and romanticism, like the historic Anglo-German movements had done (figurative, narrative, psychological and/or political), Manuel Botelho was also influenced by Rauschenbergian Pop, until coming to the neo-expressionist "return to painting" in the 80s, followed by his revisiting of the Quattrocento, mannerism and modernism itself.

His poetics and iconography spring from the adolescent revelation of Goya's "black paintings" and all of Picasso, through historical lessons learnt at the Prado and museums in Vienna and Florence, as well as the influential teaching of the painter, Sá Nogueira (4) . What he learnt about Pop Art through him, and which led Botelho to his first adolescent artistic attempts (collages), did not deter his wish to paint, let alone his liking for figuration and narration, which never waned.

What already disturbed him, and what the political period following the 25 th April made worse, was the difficulty in setting up an effective, balanced relationship between the need for the "figuration of personal terrors and the political duty of serving a cause" (5).

When the political naivety bolstering one side of this dilemma was shattered by the end of the revolutionary utopia, Manuel Botelho pressed on with his moral commitment to making critical statements on what was happening in the outside world. This in no way lessened the tension between the objective and subjective, love and death, and high and low culture mentioned earlier.

Botelho immediately found two means of balancing his work plastically that would allow merger, whilst preventing the shredding of the senses. He would convey his dominant confessional and private themes through work in which current social and political forms and themes would predominate. His clearly engaged stance and critical commentary would be loaded with self-referential or even self-representational images, as well as references to historicism and psychology.

During the 1980s, these two situations alternated in his work, though still in separate images. In some of the polychromatic and monochromatic paintings and drawings chosen for this exhibition, like features of a sociological or even historical reality, the themes commented on are explicit. The main figures are character-types of a collective misfortune, of which the artist is not part. However, because it has become paradigmatic of a national reality, the misfortune they illustrate psychologically conditions the artist, and is interiorised, engraining itself in his being, justifying the dominant pessimism.

Manuel Botelho moved to London in 1983 and Portugal, its democracy 9 years old, moved closer to the European Community. Nonetheless, and apparently paradoxically, the themes he was working on continued to be those of a rural Portugal still under Salazar: violent, bigoted, alcoholic, sexist and obscene. What we see at this time are heroic castle ruins and dilapidated homes, archaic bridges and rough paths, masturbation, vomit and drunkenness, black widows, priests and buried churches, pack animals or humans as beasts of burden, hunting scenes, backbreaking work and arguments ( 023 c , 023 d , 025 , 025 a , 026 , etc.).

The figures appear or stand out as monsters or spectres in a formless mass, a tangle of line on graphite line or textured and scraped patches, in acidic, vile colour. Humans and animals, their shapes blurred, their anatomy unnatural, schematically defined as caricatures, set apart or merged, in a seemingly simplistic manner, in a topsy-turvy setting, leap directly out of the historical expressionist tradition mentioned above. We could look to the stylistic lessons of the Die Brücke group, without the whole metaphysical dimension, or the politically engaged forms and themes of New Objectivity in the 1920s. Manuel Botelho underlines this link, through his contact with the figurative tradition in English painting, which he got to know directly during his student days in London, and in an international context favourable to figurative, narrative and truculent painting (6) .

The artist's work is constructed as narrative, social and critical painting whose realism is not based on the tradition of Portuguese naturalism, extended until Malhoa (because, in contrast to much 19 th century European painting, it contained nothing that could be made use of in a modern context). But his work has also moved away from Portuguese 1940s and 50s' neo-realism, as regards clarity of form and message. In this current, Manuel Botelho could have engaged in thematic and even stylistic complicity through his references to Picasso and Van Gogh or the great, mural-like political-allegorical compositions. However, Botelho's message is critical and, therefore, disenchanted. The way it expresses itself promises not expansive, but rather destructive vigour.

In terms of Portuguese art history, this formal and interpretative style of Manuel Botelho can be directly linked to the post-Germanic experiments of Bernardo Marques and Mário Eloy in the 1930s. Manuel Botelho did not directly pick up themes (social commentaries and psycho-sociological caricatures), or forms (marked by expressionism in the style of Otto Dix or George Grosz) from the illustrations or paintings of either artist. Nevertheless, the study of his grandfather's (Carlos Botelho) work as an illustrator and commentator on national life, through pieces produced in the same period as Bernardo and Eloy's, as well as later ones (7) , probably strengthened the stylistic link between Manuel Botelho and the historic context referred to.

However, the first works in this exhibition show clear signs of a strong contemporary influence which undercuts any idea of simple, historic revisiting.

The technical and thematic presence of the American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980), in terms of composition and colour, has been increasingly more evident and shows how Manuel Botelho has widened his expressionist horizons. This updating necessarily implies the entire history of painting, from Piero della Francesca to the New York School practices, for example (8) . Between 1990 and 2000, Manuel Botelho absorbed, and extended his understanding of Philip Guston's own experience based on Piero ( The Flagellation or The Baptism ), interpreted as moments in which the real chaos of the image is presented through an apparent, formal balance. Here, the true opacity and impossibility of clarity in the references and meaning of the images contrast with seemingly clear aims.

Guston's legacy remains, deepened and independent within Botelho's work. This influence shows itself, for example, through the initial technical solutions, later abandoned, which were marked by density of material, colour and methods of surface application and association. There is also the interest in the banality of everyday social and individual life, shown through his objects and scenes, the daily routine which Guston commented on. Furthermore, this passing, factual commentary is raised to the level of paradigm.

In this context, as well as in technical terms, Baselitz's work in the 60s, fragmenting gigantic figures in carelessly superimposed torn planes ( Waldarbeiter , 1968) is also decisive in Manuel Botelho's return to "cubism" (1989-1996); a phase virtually absent in this retrospective.

A second series of works from this first chronological area of the exhibition ( 008 , 008 a , 009 b , 009 c , etc.) has a style of representation where figuration, staging and nomination determine the plastic and semantic results. There are now fewer actors (rarely more than two, although at times framed by protective animal figures). The way their shapes are set against the backgrounds, their direct interaction and dependent relationship with each other (adult and child) mark the series as different from previous ones (9) , leading us into a more confessional situation, confirmed by the titles themselves. The narrative meaning is clarified in a manner which is never again taken up, and the influence of his English companions and teachers (Timothy Hyman, Ken Kiff and Paula Rego, for example) is perfectly clear. These works must be seen as reflecting on a group of universal questions: protection as a means of oppression and separation as a way of abandoning. All of them are moments of emotional break-up, trauma still to be overcome, the cradle of determinant anguish and despair.

The message of Manuel Botelho, enmeshed in the need for reflection, the awareness of the impossibility of directly transforming action and the abyss of introspection, becomes more complex in the relationship between the pictures and titles. The discrepancy between the two elements of the title, when simultaneously given in Portuguese and English, falsifies the idea of translation and persists throughout his work as an ironic obtrusion, ensuring critical coolness and self-distance in relation to the body of the image, at the same time as adding a supplementary meaning. It appears throughout the artist's production in, for example, Burros Cegos - Pissing and Braying , 1987, A Tralha e a família - She carries it everywhere , 1992, A derrocada - Entropic Pursuit , 1998-99 and Ultimate Surrender - Amputação , 2004 ( 039 , 118 , 151 a , etc.).

In the late 1980s, and into the following decade (1989-1996), some paintings, increasingly larger in size, went on presenting social and critical messages, introducing other stylistic questions as well. They belong to a period that Manuel Botelho himself describes as cubist-influenced, although they clearly come from revisiting the post-Cubist work of Picasso, Braque or even the major figuration of Léger. Here we find separation between planes of colour and contour drawing; the fragmentation of a figure into various elements, with those elements understood as superimposed forms, inexact and ultimately impossible to fit in; heavy, archaic formalisation of bodies; the composition of the figures in planes separated from the backgrounds and, nevertheless, with no empty space between them. These are the formal solutions where the very cutting and placing of paper or other materials (fabrics) on the background of the drawing or painting are complementary resources.

Some of these paintings are highly engaged and with greater compositional stability ( Cannonball Mary , 1992, for example- 119 ). Others plough an intense furrow of erotic violence, or rather, of pornographic imagination; and there are some examples here in the exhibition ( Pigs and Whores , 1990, for instance- 085 , 086 , 087 ). Finally, other works ( Dry Rags , 1988 or Sumo de Cortiça - Black Lemons , 1988/92 - 056 , 057 a ) are radically expressionist with figures and themes, taking the degradation to an extreme, by simulating the crumbling or putrefaction of forms, playing games between acidic chromatic contrasts and darkened densities, between strong textures and intense voids. This group continues the thematic line of the early works, at the same time as consolidating a gallery of solitary beings, made gigantic in the settings, displaced figures wanting to be heroes.

Manuel Botelho's point of view changed in his works from 1994 onwards, although his recent work has had markedly different, successive stages.

The rural becomes urban (although based on a suburban perspective) and the national connects with the international. City and mass consumerism, as well as the perversions born out of the relationship between politicians and citizens, show the signs of everyday reality being presented with a growing number of erudite elements. These may be pictorial or architectural in character but not literary, and are charged with symbolism and allegory. Each of these levels can be displaced, taking or beginning to perform a role traditionally attributed to another. We meet anachronisms in the relationships between figures and between figures and settings; and a constant accumulation of errors and heterodox iconography. These are part of Manuel Botelho's new reinterpretation game.

Increasing signs of disquiet have built up in the artist's painting. The fusion of the personal angst of the artist and critical denunciation has been accentuated. The themes in his work are political, social and cultural in the broadest sense, to the extent that we can more easily understand them as a vast anthropological discourse.

So as to show the outer world (with the catastrophic reality of global and public life), the artist now uses two distinct types of apparent image: swift or passing, recorded and produced by the contemporary media (newspapers and television); and slow images, established as stereotypes through the iconographic tradition of Western art history.

Manuel Botelho uses images that history has now stamped as "classic", as well as images that fall outside this category and some always considered to come from "low culture". The aim is to superimpose them and show the lines of continuity that weave them together. The discarded images (from newspapers and magazines), when compared to paradigmatic images from Western art history, have a formal and compositional continuity that seems to prove that there is a pattern of behaviour which crosses historical boundaries, in other words, civilisation.

Based on such findings, we can follow the path where Botelho risks synthesising contrasts, creating not only a visual and plastic, but also mental and physical fusion. Manuel Botelho updates the past and contributes to the understanding of the present. But that present state, copied, paralleled or superimposed on the testimony of the past, is neither justified, nor pardoned because of that. Nor is it accepted without a critical struggle. It ends, however, as a fatality against which discursive, protesting attention rises up; hopelessly, it seems.

In registering the disquiet of the real outside world (in a kind of new Goyesque Disasters of War ) and making it conform to a stable, patterned reference system, Manuel Botelho is attempting to guarantee a solution that, at least, indicates a meaning for world history, preventing us from being dragged into an abyss. At the same time, Manuel Botelho is masking an inner, subjective disquiet that shapes him as a human being.

When he uses his own image or crosses it with that of other characters in scenes with a socio-political content (a recurrent feature), the artist takes his game of masks and theatrical representation to complex, tense extremes. This is because the discovery of his own personality, stripped naked for the physical and scenographic exhibition of the represented body, is not Botelho's ultimate aim. The presentation in this exhibition of a series of nude models, of portraits and self-portraits (bust, face, body or upper body), constituting independent themes (see the 1985 drawings) or self-representations in much larger works, should not be seen as a contribution to a psychological portrait of the artist or his models, or to a genuine confession. I and the Other in the world is, now and always, made theatrical. Any expected psychological revelation is deferred and mediated through a personification: each real character lessens their individuality by taking on the role of a character-type, already established in the iconography of political history, the history of art, of religion...

Media images invade and confer meaning on our current society. It remains to be seen what kind of thickness or density they possess. Manuel Botelho denies high and low culture the possibility of becoming meaningful in themselves. Linking them to the learned references referred to, he achieves an opacity that enriches the discourse and builds the complexity of his work. Nonetheless, the artist guarantees no stability whatsoever as to the images thus produced.

It seems that each of his paintings and drawings makes itself understood through the parameters of narrative painting, within whose borders we could set historical, religious and genre painting. However, in crossing, without creating hierarchies, all or a number of the different discursive levels invoked by each of these images, in superimposing and displacing each of those language levels, Manuel Botelho makes them cancel each other out. He cancels out the clear determination we might expect from socially critical painting - but not what we might expect from the self-reflexive and self-critical painting that he really practices.

The predominance of a permanent expressionism, rare in Portuguese art, is increased in the works of this phase by a growing stylistic and mannerist, even baroque, composition which is more common to the dominant national sensibility. It is given new life as a neo-mannerist and neo-baroque situation through the first post-modern context in which it is set, and whose directions would be developed in his later painting. The way in which drawing is superimposed on painting or how painting appears more as a free and running patch of colour than filled or defined planes; the way the line of the drawing almost becomes calligraphy; the already accentuated unbalanced scale; the very historical field from which figurative quotations have been gathered, in terms of thematic and formal quotation from the self or from others: everything comes together to underline the certainty of this statement.

The profane themes of the latest paintings deal with lack of discipline at school, street fights and muggings, invasions, massacres, genocide and death by natural causes (such as floods) and ecological ones (such as the contamination of coastal areas), murders, rapes, kidnappings, cases of paedophilia and other sexual, as well as financial, scandals, types of media intervention, political ceremonies such as receptions, taking office, weddings, renouncement and destitution, surrender, trials and confessions, press conferences and parliamentary speeches, etc., etc. ( 221 , 241 , 271 , 279 , etc.).

The themes taken from sacred ceremonies and Christian iconography, from Catholicism particularly, are descents from the cross, pietas, enthronements, holy families and sacred conversations, confirmations, baptisms, penitence, flagellations, blessings, visitations, etc., etc. ( 168 , 170 , 171 , etc.).

Finally, in modern architecture, which appears as a setting drawn from superimposed or isolated perspectives, Manuel Botelho uses a large number of works by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, etc. or its perverted version in Nazi architecture ( 171 , 172 , 295 , etc.). The main feeling we get, however, is the accentuated absence of Nature in these works. This absence heightens the feeling of asphyxiation he creates: there isn't a single landscape, a suggestion of a mountain, a stretch of beach, only an isolated tree or two. There are, however, animals that appear as characters, patterns or scenographic features: the dogs, wretched; the insects, invaders, rhythmically marking the space, playing games of meaning with burning airplanes and these, in turn, with birds.

Together with these complementary elements to the action, the objects and stage props (catapults, machine guns, pistols, drapery, microphones, stools, chairs, etc), there are a group of new iconographic scenes created by Manuel Botelho. The protagonists of these paintings form an alternative gallery, both in terms of the popular iconography of the mass media, as well as that of modernism. Here we have child-soldiers, male and female saints, ministers and car parkers, the cream of intellectuals and media heroes, figures from classical antiquity mixing with anonymous characters, people taken from newspaper and magazine photographs or models from Poussin and Botticelli collected from art reproductions. And there are also the compositions where spatial articulation games establish an extreme difference in scale between the figures, a solution that we have seen in his work since the 80s, taken from Goya and confirmed in Jeff Wall (10) .

Absolutely anything can get mixed up together in a controlled way or flow like a torrent. The raw layers of our civilisational memory are thus thrown up, reminding us that times continue, intact or in rags, some upon others and some within. The violence of individual and social decompression through Catholic confession is repeated in the humiliation of confession through the media. The terrible pain of a mother clutching her child's corpse is echoed in the man who clutches himself. The terror of the surrendering Jewish child is the terror of the hostage. The ritual delicacy of the kiss and the sacred embrace return in the profane ceremonies of the Republic, the oppressive-protective image of he who blesses remains, and the serene or punishing imagined presence of a legion of guardian angels can spread over the broad time and space of a whole civilization.

Many of the outside settings of these scenes are punctuated or framed by historic modernist buildings shown from multiple perspectives, their shapes and proportions sometimes altered. The indoor scenes evoke the ceremonial rooms of various seats of political power, once again deforming perspective and altering proportions. In both cases, the existing space is emptied of some elements that would give guidance and balance. This works as a strategy to lighten the image. By removing some details and accentuating others, this solution ultimately leads us into anguish. Every pause created in the images is significant: areas unfilled by visual information. All these blank intervals can function as shadows serving the artist's thematic strategy.

The weight and initial density of the figures and settings (in the 1980s) are then replaced by progressively transparent, less weighty solutions. The absence or indecision of the ground line, the fluctuation of the human bodies and animals, of the objects and buildings and the dominance of the line over colour accentuates this tendency. In the drawings or paintings (which we can always think of as large drawings), the controlled superimposition of some figures or the occasional presence of strong colour does not jar with the strategy of light composition and empty space. It rather creates a rhythmic pulse leading to its reinforcement and understanding.

Media ephemerality and factual superficiality seem to dominate the central group of Manuel Botelho's recent scenographic compositions. In these, we can recognise the artist himself, politicians and intellectuals, public ceremonies, routine events, traumatic but banal moments in the context of contemporary history. The situations set these images between the foolish and tragic. They are clearly critical views through their themes and way of bringing disparate elements together in a single image (figures, props, scales). There is disenchantment, here, in the way they present the hollowness of political life, media pressure on the individual, the suggested inevitable fragility of the rebellious or the generalisation of humanitarian or ecological catastrophes.

Simultaneously, however, paradigm and rule set the entire stage for these images. There is a deliberate effort to control collateral damage caused by the tension between images of contradictory origins, times and feelings, or by the excessive and non-conforming scale of elements. If in this period Manuel Botelho continues to develop, once again, a differentiated ordering of themes, the aim is to generalise the message, or rather, to make it universal, making the paradigmatic interpretation of different contemporary realities possible. In this search for unexpected coincidences between these realities, the aim is to find a stability within instability, orientation lines preventing the total collapse of the outer and inner world.

Indeed, it is clearly after the start of the new century that we can confirm this aspect in Manuel Botelho's painting. The desire for commentary and reflection on the real increasingly blends with the need for reflection on the artist's actual individual condition in context. The inner and outer worlds meet. The artist, through self-representation, takes on the personalities of his characters. And, through the quotation from and recreation of historical paintings, as well as Western culture with its particular themes, he stages his pain as the pain of the world - or takes on the world's pain as his own.

Transvestism and performance are latent in this desire for self-representation, which has led Manuel Botelho to pose as Christ or the Virgin, or both simultaneously in strange masculine Pietas and double self-representation. He proceeds in ways that can be read as contrasts: profaning sacred iconography or making everyday banality and individual anguish sacred by making them conform to the rituals of representation in religious painting.

In addition to underlining a personal ethic of reflection and action, which the artist has persistently displayed in his work over a long period, time does not favour certainties. However, the strategies of Manuel Botelho guarantee density and historical status to the vast social and psychological (the individual being confronted with himself or with the group) or artistic themes (the relationship between the contemporary, the modern and the traditional). It is this reality, constructed on "the razor's edge", which sustains Manuel Botelho creatively and personally

João Pinharanda
Lisbon, 31st December 2004

(This essay was published in the exhibition catalogue: Manuel Botelho: Desenho e Pintura, 1984-2004 , Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa, 2005)

  • NOTES:

    1. His paternal grandfather, Carlos Botelho (1899-1982), has an important place in the history of Portuguese painting and his father, Rafael Botelho (b. 1923), made a significant contribution to the history of modern Portuguese architecture.

    2. Manuel Botelho finished the architecture course at the Escola de Belas-Artes de Lisboa in 1976 and, for some years, worked in various architects' studios.

    3. One of the most significant aspects of his biography, written by the artist himself for Manuel Botelho , Editorial Estar, Lisbon, 2000 is the way in which he feels the need to interweave family or personal events with the development of his artistic work: friendships with masters, deaths in the family, the birth of children, marriage, divorce and another marriage...

    4. Rolando Sá Nogueira (1921-2002), twice his teacher (see biography), played a decisive role in the development of Portuguese Pop painting, having been one of the first Portuguese artists to choose, in the 1960s, to emigrate to London rather than Paris.

    5. Quoted from a letter from Manuel Botelho to António Matos dated 2002.

    6. On arriving in London, Manuel Botelho enrolled at a school and had a great deal of contact with a group of artists who helped him develop his figurative and narrative painting. See biography.

    7. We are particularly referring to the relationship that could be established with Carlos Botelho's illustrative drawing. At a time of strong political censorship, between 1928 and 1950, his grandfather regularly produced a page of critical commentary on national and international daily affairs ("Os Ecos da Semana" or "The Weekly Echoes") in Sempre Fixe . Manuel Botelho has turned the factual and ephemeral dimension of the humorous commentary into paradigmatic discourse. The study in question brought about three retrospective exhibitions of painting and drawing: in Lisbon at the Palácio Galveias (1994) and at the Museu Arpad Szenes-Vieira da Silva (1999) and, in Almada, at the Casa da Cerca (1999).

    8. In order to come within the parameters defined by Guston himself, see his conversation with Joseph Ablow, 1966, in Philip Guston, Peintures 1947-1979 , Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2000

    9. There is also a series of drawings, from the same period, dealing with relationships and break-ups between couples. These are not included in this exhibition.

    10. The Colossus and The Giant , respectively, for example.