The enigmatic zone of Horácio Frutuoso

«My dear, the world is so unutterably boring. There’s no telepathy, no ghosts, no flying saucers. They can’t exist. The world is ruled by cast-iron laws. (…)  Every house had its goblin, each Church a God. People were young. Now every fourth person is old[1]

In an opening dialogue of Stalker (1979), a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the three characters who sets off to discover the Zone, a place thought to grant the innermost desires, laments that the world, ruled by reason, has renounced belief in wonder and mystery. That mysterious and enigmatic side, with tense works between medieval engraving and contemporary painting, seems to exist in Horácio Frutuoso’s Zone, until February 4 at Projectspace, a space for sharing and dialogue held by the Jahn und Jahn and Encounter galleries.

Throughout his career, Horácio Frutuoso (1991) has developed art based on the thought and organisation of a painting where poetry, typographic drawing, digital images, installation and performance blend together. In the intimate relationship between word and painting, apart from a deep knowledge of the history and technique used, he has explored language, the media, the social codes of representation and the performative gestures of everyday life. He has also developed several editorial projects, collaborating regularly with Teatro Praga since 2016.

In zone he presents works inspired by emblem books, quite common in Europe between the mid-16th and the end of the 18th century, where poets’ fables, classical allegories and art came together. By choosing fragmentary images of these references, taking them out of the coherent and sequential narrative, depurating their form and painting them in colourful planes on linen, the artist recontextualises and subverts the meanings.

In 1531 the first Emblematum Liber was published, an unauthorised version edited from a manuscript by the Italian jurist Andreae Alciati (1492-1550). The first authorised edition, Andreae Alciati Emblematum Libellus (Andrea Alciati’s Little Book of Emblems), was published in 1534. Alciati conceived the emblem as a whole composed of three elements: a motto, a short text versed in Latin, and an illustrative image. With woodcuts attributed to Hans Schäufelein, possibly based on paintings by Jörg Breu the Elder, they were allegorical portraits of humanity and historical and mythological events. In zone, Horácio Frutuoso rescues, from a commented version of 1608, the emblem Obliuio, paupertatis parens (Oblivion, father of poverty), highlighting the figure of the wolf on a ram. The writhing prey and the predator distracted from what it has to covet the uncertain: a shepherd and his flock in the distance. The agitation of a moment where anything can happen, in the intense desire to reach that which eludes us.

In another painting, Frutuoso takes Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (1557), a book published at a time when natural phenomena and the existence of strange creatures were regarded in Europe as bad omens about the end of days. By the Alsatian humanist Conradus Lycosthenes (1518-1561), this Chronicle of Portents and Prophecies is an anthology of curiosities and natural wonders. Through the re-use of over 1500 woodcuts[2], we see depictions of comets, monsters, exotic and mythological animals that illustrated the description of extraordinary events and discoveries from the beginning of time to the present day. From this book, the artist reclaims the image of fire. Orange flames and puffs of white smoke painted on the raw linen. The fire, all-consuming and all-lighting in its passage. A force that can be comforting, transforming and creative, but also threatening and destructive. We remember the fire that warms our hands. The clouds of smoke rising into the sky, providing one of the oldest ways of communicating at a distance. The flames calling on us to commit our gaze, our thoughts and our imagination to them.

In addition to the aforementioned works, there is also the illustrated version[3] of Iconologia, which Cesare Ripa (c.1555-1622) published in Rome in 1603. A book of symbolic emblems, representing allegorical figures and their attributes – passions, vices, virtues and psychic dispositions, arts and sciences. A widely diffused work, translated into different languages, used as a primary source in the design of allegorical images in 17th and 18th century painting and sculpture. In 2022, Horácio Frutuoso uses this dictionary of symbols, especially the woodcut illustrating the emblem Errore in Della novissima iconologia, enlarged version of 1624. We see a man in a traveller’s habit and blindfolded. The engraving text outlines the inevitability of the error in the pilgrim’s journey. The blindfold obscuring his eyes symbolises the darkness into which he submerges when he is troubled with worldly matters. In Frutuoso’s painting we see this same man, groping his way with a stick. His other hand, orange, the colour of the earlier fire, is in the air, searching for the right direction. Blindness seems to open the door to a secret and profound reality. It forces one to know the world in other ways, using the other senses.

These anachronistic paintings by Horácio Frutuoso show a particular way of being in time, questioning it, problematising the present from the past. He embodies the contemporary as an attitude, as postulated by Giorgio Agamben. According to the Italian philosopher, the contemporary is not tied to his time. He can adhere and distance himself from it simultaneously. This shift allows him to look critically at the present, to analyse its core, through the fractures of its «shattered column»[4]. This understanding, which negates the traditional idea of contemporaneity as a simple historical period, is a way of accessing actuality. By using objects, whose text and image allowed the construction and dissemination of knowledge, Frutuoso questions not only the didactic and moral side of these fables and allegories from the past, but also reflects on how in today’s societies it has never been so easy to access information. With supposedly more effective memory aids, we remember less and less.

In a present where experience seems increasingly tepid given its brevity and permanent obsolescence, with virtual, alienated forms of life and capitalised relationships that lose meaning and increase dullness and boredom, it seems important to note how these works reflect a journey, an expedition, a fascination for seeking and discovery. A zone of enigmatic tension, with multiple layers that conceal mysteries and liberate the gaze and thought. A zone that stimulates and suggests other ways of knowing the world, of relating and walking. When appropriating symbols and changing their meanings, these paintings, besides assuring the survival of old images through the transformation of the artistic process, allow new possibilities and meanings.

zone by Horácio Frutuoso is on show until February 4 at the Projectspace of the Jahn und Jahn and Encounter galleries. Until the same date we can also visit the exhibitions high noon by German artist Hedwig Eberle (1977) and Inhabitants, by French artist Caroline Achaintre (1969), who lives and works in London.




[1] Stalker (1979). Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky. USSR: Mosfilm. Available in: <> (13’09’’ – 14’09’’).

[2] In 1552, Lycosthenes published Liber de Prodigiis (Book of Prodigies), a compilation of phenomena that occurred in Rome between 249 BC and AD 12, described by Julius Obsequens. It was a profusely illustrated edition, with about three images per page. Many of these woodcuts were reused in Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon. One of them is Albrecht Dürer’s famous depiction of a rhinoceros made in 1515.

[3] The first publication of Iconologia is from 1593, a version where the texts were not illustrated.

[4] Agamben, Giorgio (2010). “O que é o contemporâneo” in Nudez. Lisbon: Relógio D’Água. p. 21.

Inês Grincho Rego (Lisbon, 1994) graduated in Multimedia Art - Audiovisuals from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon and holds a master’s degree in Contemporary Art History from the NOVA University of Lisbon – School of Social Sciences and Humanities. Besides developing her research in contemporary art history she has been working as a mediator and collection assistant in several museums in Lisbon (King D. Carlos Sea Museum, MAAT - Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, among others).

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