Imagem em Fuga: Júlio Pomar, Menez and Sónia Almeida at Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar

Imagem em Fuga is the name of the new exhibition at Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar, presenting a dialogue between the painter and two artists: Menez and Sónia Almeida. It begins probably with the most recognisable work of all: Resistência by Júlio Pomar, one of the great works of neo-realism in Portuguese painting. Opening an exhibition entitled Imagem em Fuga with Resistência – a witness-painting of the oppression of the Salazar regime, a symbol of the anti-fascist struggle, the illustration of imprisonment – would be enough to make us wary. And with good reason. The work is a starting point, inaugurating this first wall that features other standouts from Pomar’s neo-realist period. Next is Marcha, at the obvious beginning of a journey, where we initiate a dissociative act, forever fast, where the objects hide in the patches of their suggestions, as if they lost consciousness, evading categorization and making visible the process of immersion and contemplation, necessary for the confrontation with art.

In the center of this first room, facing Pomar’s first wall, we find an installation by Sónia Almeida, Search Engines. Parts of paintings are placed under triangular prisms that seem to form a puzzle-like image. The work, created especially for the exhibition, shows us some essential clues to its outcome – some of the figurative elements reveal a running leg, whose parts cross the different panels, and footstep marks, punctured as if they were traces. Seeming to refer to Pomar’s Panels for Cinema Batalha, not only by the medium used, but also by the sense of movement, the work illustrates an initial stage of this “elusive image”, but trapped within itself, set in a structure similar to closed, immobile screens, ironically supported by tiny wheels: this is the show’s frontier, its touchstone, the passage from object to suggestion, from figuration to form.

The second wall is behind it, in opposition to Pomar’s initial neo-realism – a sense literally translated into the exhibition venue itself – where works by Menez are mixed with some of Pomar’s abstractionism, liquid pieces, which mysteriously elude us: we can still see concrete outlines, vivid, carnal, but already nameless, as if it were a forgotten word that remains on the tip of the tongue. Quoting part of the documentary on Menez, on display on one of the parallel walls of this room, we see a painting situated “outside the traps of the word”, which is less concerned with abstraction and more with a lack of figuration. The highlight is Fruit, Barque II by Pomar and the set of untitled ones by Menez, painted mainly in 1969, as representations of amalgams, collections of vivid forms that seem to have an inner body within them, a kind of dissection exposed coldly, in a clash of painted cuts and scrapings – juxtaposed to Pomar’s collages beside them – where colour turns into a shiver. At this moment, we realise that, intentionally or not, the exhibition is not so much about escape, but more about its absence: even if the senses evade us, we find ourselves condemned to their absence, we are simultaneously rigid and animated, like any quasi-figure around us – jagged, outlined, limited, trapped, but always occluded, asking for an escape, help, transcendence.

As we climb the stairs towards the exhibition’s upper floor, conscious of this first conclusion, we start again where we left off at the lower level. A wall that is literally the continuation of that bottom one, where we have become amnesic. We see paintings by Menez, now diluted in cold, bland, horizontal colours like landscapes, almost reminiscent of Rothko’s first aesthetic and somatic incursions. In this section, the highlight is also Júlio Pomar’s Estudo em vermelho (As corridas), a work that seems to exist between the lyricism that unites him to Menez, but in a futurist theme, fleeting, but epic – and slightly figurative. We now move progressively in that direction: we see Paisagem (Azenhas do Mar) from 1952, where Pomar begins to switch from neo-realism to a more abstract side, still with the physicality of his first incursions; next to it is an ethereal set of straight forms, painted by Menez, almost translucent in their chromatic smoothness. From this painter we also mention Paralelepípedo, another clearly figurative example of that image that wishes to escape: we see the representation of a woman in a prismatic structure, set on the ground, where her watery limbs develop on each of the object’s faces, spontaneous derivations of some instinct, flowing like rivers.

The first and self-evident highlight goes to Menez’s large figurative paintings, most notably her gorgeous Sem Títulofrom 1986, depicting a studio with her brushes and paints erupting like the jugs emerging in a vase to her left.  Although lyrical, the painting is messy, wanting to connect itself to the space it reproduces, the inks wanting to spill out in the painting’s lower section into our world, making us part of it – I wouldn’t have minded. But the exhibition ends in a small section, which extends this one. Below we see a painting under tile by Menez, Ramos, where each human figuration in frieze holds a palm-like plant. Its spontaneous branches, eschewing the solidity of its triangularity, connect with the painting above, Gaivotas by Júlio Pomar. It almost seems as if those trapped branches have come loose, becoming seagulls, in that escape promised from the start.

I note that, somewhat contradictorily, it was figuration that allowed the escape, and not abstraction, bearing witness to an imaginative museology and a very wealthy collection of works. The show’s weak point was the tepid inclusion of Sónia Almeida, who ended up somewhat overshadowed, despite her prominence in the first room – almost as a simple need to contextualise Menez and Pomar, two artists whose works have much to reveal. In the end, despite all the narrative cliffhangers, we realise that the exhibition didn’t escape us – it stayed, to be remembered later.

Imagem em Fuga is at Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar until April 10, 2022.

Miguel Pinto (Lisbon, 2000) is graduated in Art History by NOVA/FCSH and made his internship at the National Museum of Azulejo. He has participated in the research project VEST - Vestir a corte: traje, género e identidade(s) at the Humanities Centre of the same institution. He has created and is running the project Parte da Arte, which tries to investigate the artistic scene in Portugal through video essays.

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