Histories of a Collection. Modern and Contemporary Art from CAM

In Espaços da Recordação: Formas e Transformações da Memória Cultural, Aleida Assmann addresses two distinct forms of cultural memory: cumulative and functional. Cumulative memory refers to cataloguing, conserving and structuring, to institutions such as archives, libraries and museums, repositories that store and amass accounts of the past. Latent memory, «a storehouse of provisions for future functional memories[1], a space where renewal is always possible. In turn, functional memory carries out a sorting and meaning-making process, «delineating frames»[2] where the elements of cumulative memory are related, oriented and bound, fostering the updating of cultural knowledge.

Seemingly articulating these two kinds of memory, Histórias de uma Coleção. Arte Moderna e Contemporânea do CAM is at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (FCG) until September 18. A multidirectional mural, similar to a museum depository – where cumulative memory resides -, houses 73 works by national and international authors, made between 1890, Retrato do Eng.º João Burnay by Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro (1857-1929), and 2021, Mondo by Jorge Queiroz (1966) and Assalto by Fernão Cruz (1995). This selection – part of the functional memory – establishes the broad approach to the Collection, made by curators Ana Vasconcelos, Leonor Nazaré, Patrícia Rosas and Rita Fabiana, in an exhibition that celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Centre (CAM), anticipating its reopening in 2024. It shows how art is selected, presented and interpreted according to social and cultural guidelines of each period, exploring the Collection’s stories, and how they fit into the institution’s own history.

Along the exhibition route, which begins in the Main Gallery and spans the FCG’s Main Building, Museum and Garden, we see the key moments of the FCG’s vast and highly regarded Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, currently with 12,000 works of varied eras, techniques and media, mostly Portuguese, but also a significant number of British, Armenian and Middle Eastern pieces.

Founded in 1956, the FCG’s main objectives were to support artists and educate audiences for art, displaying the artistic output of that time through exhibitions in Portugal and abroad. The Collection’s birth followed the development of the institution and its principles, whose decision-maker for the acquisition of works was José de Azeredo Perdigão, the then president of the Foundation, together with the Fine Arts Department, all of which is shown in the first section of the exhibition, entitled O Início: 1958-1978. We see the first acquisitions in the 1960s, underscoring some of the Collection’s foundational cornerstones. On the one hand, the purchase of works from artists supported by the FCG through scholarships abroad, such as Arcanjo (1962) by João Cutileiro (1937-2021) and Retrato de Grimau (1964-1965) by Paula Rego (1932-2022). On the other, the importance of the relationship with the British Council’s Fine Art Department in the first acquisitions for the British Modern Art Collection, such as Renaissance Head (1963) by David Hockney (1937) and Ripple (1963) by Phillip King (1934-2021). Título desconhecido (Coty) (1917) by Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918), acquired in 1968 from Lucie de Souza-Cardoso, the painter’s widow, and Les Degrés (1964) by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992), acquired in 1968 from Galerie Jeanne Bucher; all recall the significant presence of these two artists in the Collection, the former with 200 paintings and drawings, the latter with 172 paintings and prints[3]. Finally, Retrato de Fernando Pessoa by José de Almada Negreiros (1893-1970), commissioned in 1964, is a reminder of the artist’s role in the Foundation’s history. He was the author of the embossed panel Começar (1968), standing at the entrance to the FCG’s headquarters, and was given particular attention at CAM’s inaugural exhibition on July 20, 1983.

The next section, É indispensável inaugurá-lo: 1979-1989, contains works acquired in the context of CAM’s construction and establishment, the first Portuguese venue with a permanent exhibition of modern and contemporary art, directed by the architect José Sommer Ribeiro until 1994, during which time he made the acquisitions of the Collection, supported by Azeredo Perdigão. Of particular note was the purchase, in 1983, of a significant part of Jorge de Brito’s private collection, including paintings and works on paper by 20th-century Portuguese and international artists. This includes works such as K4 Quadrado Azul (1916-1917) by Eduardo Viana (1881-1967), O Pintor Altberg e a mulher (1932) by Mário Eloy (1900-1951), Prédios e Janela (1930) by Sarah Affonso (1899-1983) and Odalisque à l’Esclave II, d’après Ingres (1969) by Júlio Pomar (1926-2018).

In Depois das Belas-Artes: 1990-2005, the versatility of CAM’s programming and acquisitions of the Collection is brought out, during the time Jorge Molder was director of the institution between 1994 and 2009. The addition of many media and supports is noticeable, as well as the beginning of the integration of photography in the Collection, understanding its artistic and conceptual merit. As early as 1994, 50 photographs by Fernando Lemos (1926-2019) were added, represented in this exhibition by Eu (Auto-retrato) and A mão e a faca (1949-1952), donated by the artist to the Foundation. In this section, the standouts are Torah (1973) by Ana Hatherly (1929-2015), Pintura Cega (Três Instrumentos de Prazer e um de Morte) (1990) by Julião Sarmento (1948-2021), Geografias do Sagrado (1998) by Graça Morais or the disturbing installation The Rest is Silence II (2003) by Noé Sendas (1972).

Finally, Permanentes e temporárias: 2006-2020 features the programming and acquisition of works since the celebration of the FCG’s 50th anniversary, commemorated with a vast programme and a presentation of the collection that brought together established artists with more recent works, when Isabel Carlos and Penelope Curtis were CAM’s directors between 2009 and 2015 and 2015 and 2020, respectively. This section reveals the attention given to the diversification of the works acquired regarding media and techniques, enhancing the Collection with works by Lusophone artists and a greater representation of women artists. We point out Luísa Cunha’s (1949) ubiquitous voice in Senhora (2010), Upa! União dos Povos de Angola (2006) by Miguel Palma (1964), the triptych Vanitas (2006) commissioned from Paula Rego, Lagoa (2006) by Rosângela Rennó (1964) or Bunis (1994-2020) by Joana Vasconcelos (1971).

Also worth emphasising are Bosques Tão Selvagens (2009) by Susan Philipsz (1965) and Paisagem Não-Paisagem (Jardim) (2016) by Fernanda Fragateiro (1962), engaging our bodies and senses in their inventive installation in the Foundation’s Garden.

Revealing countless ways of exploring, interpreting and presenting an art collection, the entire exhibition illustrates how a museum and its collection are understood and conceived as living, changing organisms that preserve the past, offering room for interpretation according to the present, generating different and sometimes unexpected relationships. As Boris Groys argues in Art Power, «This is, perhaps, the true paradox of the museum: the museum collection serves the preservation of artifacts, but this collection itself is always extremely unstable, constantly changing and in flux. (…) The museum exhibition flows permanently: it is not only growing or progressing, but it is changing itself in many different ways.»[4].

In a journey shaped by encounters and reencounters, by the uncovering of CAM’s story and by the history of national and international art, we see how functional memory, as a curatorial selection and contextualisation according to different ways of presenting the Collection’s works, fosters the outbreak of multiple and new stories, unpredictable narratives in flux, complementary and contiguous, antagonistic and anachronistic, updating knowledge and the ongoing possibility of the future.

Histórias de uma Coleção. Arte Moderna e Contemporânea do CAM, curated by Ana Vasconcelos, Leonor Nazaré, Patrícia Rosas and Rita Fabiana, is at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation until September 18.


[1] Assman, Aleida. (2011). Espaços da Recordação: Formas e Transformações da Memória Cultural, Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, p. 150.

[2] Ibidem, p. 150.

[3] Cf. Rosas, Patrícia. (2023). «A Criação de uma Coleção: as primeiras «exposições itinerantes» da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian» in AA.VV. (2023). Histórias de uma Coleção. Arte Moderna e Contemporânea do CAM. Exhibition Catalogue. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, p. 34.

[4] Groys, Boris. (2008). Art Power. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, p. 39.

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).

Signup for our newsletter!

I accept the Privacy Policy

Subscribe Umbigo

4 issues > €34

(free shipping to Portugal)