In 2023, fifty-five years will have passed since the PhD study that the then young anthropologist José Cutileiro finished at Oxford and published in England in 1971 under the title A Portuguese Rural Society (Clarendon Press). Illustrated with photographs by Gérard Castelo-Lopes and João Cutileiro (the author’s brother), the Portuguese version was only published in 1977 as Ricos e Pobres no Alentejo and featured unique traits of Reguengos de Monsaraz, using the town as an example to study and as a landmark for a well-defined, complementary class structure and distinct, but still relatively balanced lives. It continues to be taken for granted that there are differences between those with power (materialised as instruments or means of production, or as acquisition values – money, financial shares, anything) and those who are deprived of it, between rich and poor. It is still accepted as a way of life – especially in the Western world, in the so-called “first world”, where such differences, whilst recognised, are toned down when compared to places labelled as “third world”, a lower socio-economic segment – that such differences, however profound, are included in the structure organising people’s community lives. To the point of absurdity, as Cutileiro recalled in the shape of a popular story, where “people say that there shouldn’t be any rich ones; but how could there not be rich people? If there were none, how could a man go into a café, smash everything and say ‘I’ll pay for it!’?” The gap from one class to the other is a wound and the wound is what makes us laugh at it, with a bitter chuckle – or suffer over it.
Sticking our finger into the world’s wound, into this chasm separating social groups, strata of people, throwing equalities out of balance, calls for us to see the rift between them: for it to be identified. The step to identifying it shows points, places where the disaggregated groups come together. Cutileiro’s absurd narrative turns into a joke that accurately pinpoints one of these points, the one where the wealthy exist to institute a chaos that, as a result, they can boast of having replaced with money. Its raison d’être is to hold a false cure for the ills it has ultimately inflicted.
Can charity be seen as the clean edge of a cruel power grab that establishes an insurmountable rift? The exhibition staged by Joaquim Oliveira Caetano and Francisca Portugal in the main area of Centro de Arte e Cultura at Fundação Eugénio de Almeida appears to demonstrate that uncovering poverty through art has been about showing the touch of both sides of the breach carved by inequality – the perfection of the past is ensured by its arrival in the present, which means the continuity of history in the present, while reflecting on that same history. The Foundation’s mission is to reflect on major themes in today’s world through art, and this should be something dynamic, as suggested by the way the most recent works (those from the present) are positioned on the floor against the walls, below those from the past, carefully set at eye level (and, also, as in Breughel’s case, under the transparent protection of a sign with an alarm that goes off as soon as the visitor comes closer).
What is revealed by the art of the past? For instance, it shows that, if wealth is traditionally flaunted, then poverty remains no less prominent and no less recognisable in art. In fact, both conditions have been fertile grounds for depiction in many artistic expressions. On poverty, to quote the British poet Wystan Hugh Auden, the Old Masters were never wrong. His motto, a line from the gorgeous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” on suffering, was true of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, father of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, whose work The Seven Acts of Mercy, exhibited here, is based on a homonymous engraving completed by his father in 1559.
The picture painted by the son, modelled on his father’s engraving, presents a key difference from the former, meaning that perhaps the younger painter was, after all, more accurate than his forerunner in his assessment of the acts of mercy he depicted. The engraving allegorically depicts the charitable deeds of feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, clothing the unclothed, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and prisoners, and burying the dead around Caritas, the feminine image of divine love and the highest representation of mercy. This character’s central role, as well as her symbols (the pelican over her head, the burning heart in her left hand), clearly identify her in the image; the engraver’s work also features a Latin caption, interpreted as a moral precept, leading the viewer and reader to adopt more charitable habits. Its grammatical command (freely translated from the Latin inscription) is unmistakable: “Hope that what happens to others will also happen to you, because you will thereby be motivated to help, when you empathize with the feelings of another who in the midst of misery makes an appeal to you.”
Brueghel the Younger, however, seems not to have wanted to educate, nor was he merciful towards the viewer: with a pictorial gesture that, using colour, acquires realism when compared to the engraving’s black and white, he hurled the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the unburied dead, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned in the viewer’s face. He did not depict Charity or Mercy, but he clearly made evident the abhorrent misery of those who are destitute in this life. In his painting, the ones epitomising merciful acts are those in need – and each one is like a finger pointing resolutely at the powerful, at those who have nurturing habits, food that satisfies hunger, water that quenches thirst, places that provide comfort.
Emphasising this piece, a focal point of the exhibition, must not lead us to overlook the other jewels on display. If Breughel comes out to lay bare misery, using physical deformities or repulsive figures as a vocabulary for neglect, perhaps the most touching painting (and it does intend to touch, this rift) is an anonymous nineteenth-century piece from the wonderful collection of Convento dos Cardaes, one of Lisbon’s best-kept secrets. Waif portrays a clothed child, the vulnerability of a baby who has just been subjected to the life and fate of an orphan: this anonymous painting only intensifies the helplessness depicted.
But the past can be as close to today as shown in another striking image from the middle of the twentieth century: Mercado de Trabalho”Alentejo”, by Manuel Filipe (exhibited on the wall, i.e., where canonised art has its rightful seat), draws, in its renowned neo-realist vein, a near-slavery farming scene to which many peasants (such as those described by Cutileiro, which I mentioned earlier) were subjected to in “Portugal’s granary” – but it rings true in news reports from the second decade of the twenty-first century, where forced peasants from places as far away as Pakistan, Nepal or other poverty-stricken regions appear to be excluded from any dignified representation.
And what does art have in store for today? The contemporary pieces (some still from the 1990s, but others already from 2023) stand out as slogans, images that could have been conceived to be exhibited not in an art gallery, but on a public demonstration march – leaning against the wall, as if ready to fulfil this role. Could this be the trait that makes them more audible, even strident? The finesse of what is heard in João Ferro Martins’ sound piece comes from a piano set up in the middle of one room – but this piano is made of vulgar wood, a cheap material, as if poverty could attain the heights of erudite art, which is a cry that cannot be silenced. More than Breughel’s biting sarcasm (which lingers, for example, as irony in António Olaio’s play), the sensibility of several anonymous ancient figures, or a religious outlook on charity, art today is active, it disturbs us far beyond moral discomfort and urges us to take action: Carlos No blocks visitors from entering through the main door when he piles up a tide of small bird shelters, poor pieces, but which stand out with their overwhelming message that helping the world’s small and defenceless creatures is an act that forces us to change course.
The Fenda exhibition is open until October 29 at Fundação Eugénio de Almeida.