Júlio Pomar: Pintura de Histórias, at Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar

The exhibition begins with Dom Quixote e os Carneiros from 1961. It is an energetic composition, with unstoppable brushstrokes, but always dramatic, gravitational, ochre. It is like the cloud of dust from which figures, ideas, painting appear. The figures are not perceptible. Everything seems implicit, but saying this may also reject the clear, epic statement.

Twenty years after this, Pomar eventually returned to this trend. He reclaimed the stories, the mythologies. But what had been fast and violent, with a youthful impulsiveness, became condensed into a time that always seemed suspended. Movement occurs, but it appears paralysed, as if there were a processing difficulty or a hypnagogic state. The painting became more difficult, mature, less obvious. The materials breathe and the painter opened himself to the spontaneity imposed by them. His gesture became more defined, without looking at provisional planes and effects. The ideas were traced according to the same impact with which they emerged in his head. The figures seem to want to wake up, to reveal themselves, but they do not rouse from their deep sleep. In Don Quixote, they would already be up.

Beside this first composition we see an extensive painting, also entitled Dom Quixote e os Carneiros, but from 1997. The same theme separated by 36 years. Here is the purpose: Pomar’s last artistic periods cannot be ignored. Some themes disappear and reappear cyclically. These are parallels that allow us to understand the painter’s work and that is what the exhibition wants. And the pieces are equally urgent. In this dialogue we see what has changed: the painter has freed himself from the (already loose) reins of myth, the cloud of dust from which the rams emerge, which is mentioned in the book, has disappeared; we see a triptych, where the rider is a skull. A carcass is skewered on a large spear and everything seems grotesque, ghastly, reminiscent of the carnivorous still lifes of the Baroque. Here they have no gravity, they are opaque, screaming in spurts of paint down the canvas. The vividness of the colours makes this sickly, overly animated.

This impulsive and intense use of colour was constant in Pomar’s late phase. This already had its place in the formal rigidity of his early paintings, but it came to have new consequences. Here we see it everywhere. We highlight Adão, Eva e a Serpente num frasco IV, a composition presented with variations. In this painting, the dissonance between the painter’s impulsiveness and the subject’s religious idealism provokes a disturbing but compelling contrast. The two-dimensional snake is converted into a blue knot that could be a 9. In the closed jar, there is also an apple and naked Eve, who gnaws her nails, brooding, after having captured the viper. The subversion of the myth – in the original story, the serpent deceives Eve – is almost spontaneous through suggestions that emerge in that dusty mental cloud. Pomar opens other paths: in another painting arranged in this section, which takes up part of the gallery’s left wall, Pomar uses the pineapple as the fruit of knowledge.

On the gallery’s ground floor, we highlight the works dedicated to the legend of Dom Fuas Roupinho, made in the 1980s. Pomar returned to equestrian references to emphasise speed and momentum. The best example is a triptych, where we also see A Fumadora de Ópio, an interesting composition, with light colours, more breathable compared to the other intense paintings. The early exotic paintings are converted into recurring (and problematic) themes of the early 20th century: primitive scenes, colonial worlds, erotica. Highlights include Macaco, Avião, Câmara de 16mm e uma Índia com o seu Bebé with a bright, straight, red palsy.

As we go up the stairs, we see classicist revisitations, between Poussin and the myth of Diana and Actéon, converted into body movements. The first floor is experimentalist and radical. The few assemblages on the lower floor – which do not do justice to the symbolic stimulation of these productions – find here a point of dialogue. The evocative revisiting of Via Láctea de P.P Rubens builds this passage. Through reference to the myth of Leda, whom Zeus transformed into a swan, Pomar brings assemblage and painting together to support “ghosts of other worlds much more concrete than my own”. In Imagem, Discurso e Memória by Laura Caustro, an extensive monograph on the painter’s work, this is how the painting O Sinal, also exhibited here, is defined. It is a silent and chaotic work, of assemblage and painting, myth and impulse, subversion and eroticism. It is a dialectical and beautiful compendium of Pomar’s work.

Fables in oval frames in O Feirante or Um Touro numa concha (Rosa) take us to the show’s last section, with three large panels, two of which are dedicated to Ulysses: Ulisses Libertado e a Sereia Canário, and Ulisses e as Sereias (com guitarra portuguesa). In both, we see dormant and sombre faces. In the first, Ulysses covers his ears. In the second, he plays the guitar. The third, O Julgamento de Páris, from 2002, it is a composition divided into sections, which remind us of a drawing by the author from 1960, shown alongside, where he reproduced some African statues, he had seen at the Musée de l’Homme, Paris. Another subversion: the Greek goddesses are converted into African figures, with hieratic poses. The angular movements of the faces and the atmosphere’s rosy hue make the painting hallucinatory.

These panels culminate in the exhibition’s final painting, on the left-hand side, as an epilogue: a reinterpretation of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, made by Pomar in 2012. The original composition’s naturalism becomes phantasmagoric. The original is noticeable, but it became more diffuse. Including the table that Pomar pictorially introduced into this composition, Eileen Gray’s Adjustable Table E1027, is an interesting decision.

Picking this painting (also one of Pomar’s last) to finish with is telling. It seems to say that all his work is painting. And, when it is not, he takes it into account. It condenses everything to that primary act, like a memorial. Next to it, more discreet, is a self-portrait of the painter, an impulsive and grotesque sketch – reality turned into a fable, also subverting a story, which is now a mirror.

The exhibition’s narrative is like one of these stories, not necessarily chronological. It has a starting point, ripples and a final climax, wanting to be a memory. It is an impactful curatorial strategy, typical in this museum’s exhibitions. It is complex, comprehensive, it is a Júlio Pomar exhibition. And that is enough.

Júlio Pomar: Pintura de Histórias is at Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar until October 2.

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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