No Reino das Nuvens: Os Artistas e a Invenção de Sintra at Museu das Artes de Sintra
In December 1995, Sintra was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Cultural Landscape category. The exhibition No Reino das Nuvens: Os Artistas e a Invenção de Sintra, organised to commemorate the twenty-five years of a political and cultural event, was due to open in 2020. But it was rescheduled for 2021, given the atypical situation we have shared as human beings. This postponement is somewhat symbolic. After all, as the curator Victor dos Reis says in the catalogue presentation, this is “demonstrative of the unpredictability of life”. But the unpredictable also provides good surprises. Commemorative exhibitions always run the risk of responding only to protocol demands, in a risk-free approach. But that is not the case with this one. Like a meta-space, the rooms of Museu das Artes de Sintra are as vertiginous and open as the landscape that precedes our entrance.
We could say that the route has a narrative structure, with six nuclei (or five chapters and an epilogue). These present an internal coherence, also respecting the architecture that shapes the discourse. But the tone of the narrative is poetic and recommends the reader to constantly leave the central pathway, getting lost in the relationships established within the nuclei, shining here and there as reminders of their unity. Each person must construct their own image of Sintra. It is like walking through a garden or labyrinth, with the desire to get lost. If the city is not enough inspiration for this wandering, let’s remember The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luís Borges, to whom Umberto Eco attributes the metaphor that a forest is also a garden. “Even when there are no defined paths in a wood, everyone can trace their own, choosing left or right at a particular tree and, at each tree, choosing this direction or another.”
This poetic vibe is in the titles of the nuclei. Clinging to landscape or nature to construct meanings and concepts, they establish relationships with themselves, feeding a vertical axis, even if we can’t get our feet off the ground to walk. In each nucleus, we always seem to be a little closer to the earth, descending slowly from the skies of the first moment. But we land delicately, where looking ahead shows us that the last nucleus has the fragility of a mist or moisture, rather than of dew. The opening with two large works, positioned face to face, is like an epigraph: the sculpture by Rui Chafes and the painting by Michael Biberstein mark the verticality and the gravitational challenge, where the exhibition’s imagination is associated with the concept of the sublime. This sublime element, as stated by historian Maria de Aires Silveira in the first text of the exhibition catalogue, recovers the wonder and mystery that always fascinated the artists who passed through the region, creating a “sintrense profile”, quite visible in the 19th century. And, in relation to Biberstein’s work, it is interesting how two other efforts of his, always marked by transparencies, appear at moments like Ariadne’s thread. Only, in this case, we get stuck in the labyrinth.
In this enchanting circuit of the exhibition, there is something important: making works from different times dialogue, without hierarchising any technique or language. This allows even archaeological objects to have a different status in the dialogue. Watching Christopher Schissler’s Globo Celeste from the 16th century and immediately afterwards a cyanotype by Ana Caria Pereira from 2019 updates the mythology engraved on the globe, while the more recent images acquire a historical impact. Also profound is the parallel between an oil painting by Alfredo Keil from 1879 and Nuno Teixeira Maya’s photographs from 2009, where the photographic and modern side of painting is ultimately highlighted. Or the fallen Roman column next to the work One Million (2019-2020) by Fábio Colaço, which makes us apprehensive and raises the question about what we give importance to.
Some decisions about the use of space and the positioning of works are important. I may be being unfair to other points in this exhibition, but I would like to highlight two rigorous moments. One of them is the room in the penultimate section, Da bruma, da névoa e do orvalho, with works by Pedro Cabrita Reis. The natural lighting on Reis’ work, particularly the almost six-metre painting close to the light entrance, allows for unique moments. The work changes depending on our walk, our distance to it. The luminosity changes instant by instant, without us being able to observe the shift, only to notice it. The exhibition text refers to the intoxicating green of the Sintra landscape, a toxicity like that of the spell in Reis’s painting. A furtive work, which demands attention and which deceives us, just like nature.
Another important and exciting moment is the passage from the first to the second nucleus, Dos ventos, das águas que correm e do mar, with the work of Ângela Ferreira Hotel da Praia Grande (O Estado das Coisas) from 2003. Whoever looks at the image may not realise that, almost in its counterpoint, beyond what we see, is the Atlantic Ocean (a hidden path of this labyrinth). The clue to the enigma is the wall that emerges after Ferreira’s work, the photograph Cabo da Roca by Thomas Joshua Cooper. But this reference to what is outside the image also points to what is outside the exhibition’s narrative. A reminder of the unease, the mistrust felt by the Romantics towards what we call civilised. The hotel in Ângela Ferreira’s photograph (a photograph with symbolic references to the Carnation Revolution) hosted part of the ‘returnees’ after the Portuguese decolonisation of Africa. The image affects the notions of utopia associated with Sintra’s eerie universe.
This is a warning for those who get lost in the dark woods. Given what an image or exhibition demands of its viewer, we must be attentive to that which is not evident, but which is nevertheless connected to the discourse. In Epílogo, ou um novo começo, the exhibition’s last nucleus, unease resurfaces and helps us to better reflect on our role in the face of the most urgent uncertainties every day and what we may lose, as a community and species. As an ephemeris, it is important to underline that the curatorship, in the face of praise, upholds its critical perspective.
No Reino das Nuvens: Os Artistas e a Invenção de Sintra is on view at Museu das Artes de Sintra until October 17.
 Eco, Umberto. (1994). Seis passeios pelos bosques da ficção. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras. p .12.