sexta-feira, setembro 12, 2014

A moment in life

Recently, a post on the facebook page of A Máquina da Arte - a site created by young Portuguese artists I recommend - reminded of a brief encounter I once had with Mário Botas. I was 16, and out Portuguese teacher took our class to the National Library to see an exhibition of drawings inspired by Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, and the painter, Mário Botas, was there to show us around.

I was captivated and charmed by the drawings - small compositions, soft and delicate colors, of a kind of dreamy, fantastic and childlike nature. They were strange and enticing. The artist, a tall young man (I have a terrible memory for faces) went around with us, occasionally making vague remarks about a drawing, like "I was thinking of Mário de Sá-Carneiro at the time..." or "I kept listening this line in my head..." (this was about the first line of a poem by Pessoa, Antinous: The rain outside was cold in Hadrian's soul, written in a drawing - it was the first time I read it, and it has also haunted me ever since).

At some point, in front of a particular surreal drawing, somebody asked him: "Yes, but was does it mean?" "What do you mean by that?" "Yes, this figure, what is it? And who is this guy, and why is he flying?". He looked at us with an attentive and slightly puzzled expression through his thick round glasses, and answered very seriously, not at all condescendingly (we were after all a bunch of teenagers, and only a few were paying attention): "What does it mean?... Well... I wouldn't know... I know what I felt when I painted them, but I didn't plan them. I painted what I felt was right... Then sometimes a friend sees something, another something else. I myself see different things at different times when I look at them, you might call them meanings, but don't know if it's that... You know, after I finish it, I really don't feel it belongs to me; someone may see something, or other... I really couldn't say it means this or that."

I remember listening and being fascinated by his words, it felt like something was finally making sense. I knew nothing about Surrealism at the time, didn't know Klee, Kandinsky or Pollock, but the question of the meaning of works of art was a frequent subject of conversation with a group of older friends I used to hang out with at the time, around cuba libres in bars; I was the kid and looked up to them, and the subject came up usually about the meaning of poems or more or less abstruse rock lyrics, not painting. They used to say: if the author says it means this, then it's what it definitely means, you don't have to look further; but that statement somehow never satisfied me (how I wish I would have known then what Neil Young said about the purported meaning of the lyrics of After the Gold Rush: "I think I wrote each line under a different drug, how am I supposed to give it a meaning?"). And now, here I was listening to the real thing, a real artist telling what I suspected but never had been able to put in words. Somehow, I remember this casual encounter as a defining moment in my relation to art; maybe it's silly to attach importance (meaning?) to these small things, but I somehow believe our views in life, our life actually, is actually shaped by these kinds of moments, that often seem quite insignificant at the time.

Our teacher commented a few days later that Mário Botas was very ill, and in effect he died a few months later from leukemia, barely 30 years old. I think it was a great loss, he was an excellent artist and seemed genuinely a very nice guy. I remember I read Almeida Faria's books because the covers were designed by him. And I still feel grateful for having helped to shape me in some, even if modest, way.

(Note - This teacher - I was in 11th grade - was by far the best Portuguese teacher I had; I owe him the discovery of the beauty of the Troubadours' poetry, that I still love, and of Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro. He was a passionate and talented teacher, he even made Almeida Garrett look interesting!)

(Second note - I couldn't copy the drawing with the Pessoa line, but it's on the Mário Botas foundation website - very worth a visit.)

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