O sentido da vida é só cantar: Orfismos, Urdiduras, Sortilégios e Lances de dados, with Nuno Faria

There were two loci classici in Classical Antiquity surrounding the inter-artistic relationship between poetry and painting. “Painting is silent poetry and poetry is silent painting”, the apothegm of Simonides of Ceos (6 BC), mentioned by Plutarch, and the famous saying of Horace, “As is painting, so is poetry”[1]. Whilst Simonides of Ceos’ apothegm reflects an implicit drive to overcome barriers to attain a common language, the latter, devised to overcome its own limitations, was comprehended through a comparison proving that both artistic forms are built on mimesis. This is shown by History, where the analogy between the visual arts and poetry is tied to truth-telling principles and restricted to a mirrored representation of reality. Visual arts and poetry share a visual appeal, evoking imagination, and yet they address the senses through a different medium.

Nuno Faria was thus invited to curate the exhibition O sentido da vida é só cantar, which, as a triptych, not only celebrates the tenth anniversary of zet gallery, at Braga, but also the fiftieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution and the hundredth anniversary of the Surrealist Manifesto.

The group exhibition features works by Alexandra de Pinho, Filipa Leal, Jorge Feijão, Mafalda Veiga, Marta Bernardes and Zélia Mendonça who, as part of a tradition of orality, combine different works based on “the research undertaken by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) during the last decades of the nineteenth century into the power/role of happenstance in the creative process and the sound and visual implosion of the printed word”[2]. In an attempt to avoid succumbing to an analytical view of the exhibition, this article will be structured around this approach.

Nuno Faria argues that the exhibition is modelled on this articulation, composed of two strands. The first is formed from the idea of fabric, of weaving with works, starting with poetry and drawing. The second will be discussed later.

In his essay The Impressionists and Edouard Manet (1876), Mallarmé provides a substantial defence of Manet and the Impressionists, saying that they put air and truth at the centre of their work. “The quest for truth, proper to modern artists, allowing them to see nature and reproduce it as it appears (…), should lead them to adopt air almost exclusively as their medium, or, in any case, to grow accustomed to working in it freely and without restrictions.” Mallarmé tries to define air as “daylight (…) space with the clarity of air alone. Natural light (…) that penetrates and influences all things, even if it is invisible itself”, a supreme and real air that “dominates despotically over everything else”.[3]

The poet’s emphasis on the “ever-continuing fusion or struggle (…) between surface and space, colour and air” and “perpetual metamorphosis” not only suggests immediacy and temporal flux, but also rhythmic oscillation, extension, gaps and intervals. This is exemplified by Jorge Feijão’s work #Políptico D (2021) which, as the name suggests, consists of a polyptych, found in a long religious pictorial tradition from the Middle Ages, through an altarpiece of images with different origins, articulating a narrative between them. As in the moment when charcoal is laid on the white that opens the page, through the naivety of those who see themselves forgetting even the line that could speak louder. And when such chance, mastered gesture after gesture, aligns itself in the slightest and most widespread disruption, the white inevitably returns, free before, certain now, to infer nothing but to authenticate the silence of the drawing.

The word blanc becomes important in his interpretations through white and emptiness. Mallarmé connects the whites of writing and reading to naivety, oblivion, chance, dissemination, nothingness, silence, transparency, air, song and invisibility. Blanc refers to the white, unwritten page, where the imprints of a trace, of a time, can be inscribed and woven. Likewise, the poet establishes associations with other blancs, such as veil, candle or cloud, as in Desenhuras com Versítulos (2024), the title of Marta Bernardes’ various drawings/paintings, offering a vision into memory and the mind that is drawn on paper, acting as an exercise in catharsis.

A revival of stories that break out of the artist’s authorship and which, through the word associated with the image, are presented as an offering to the observer. Despite the challenges Mallarmé poses to the reader, it indicates the functioning of blank spaces (blancs), intervals, pauses (brisures) and spacing in writing and reading, often associated with rhythm and music, silence, nothingness (rien) and non-signification.[4] As Mallarmé puts it, air is similar to these notions of blanc, building the second axis of the exhibition, as mentioned by Nuno Faria. The emphasis on air and emptiness is built around the printed word and the blank page, fabric and weaving, as in Alexandra de Pinho’s Liberdade, which gives the viewer an empty rectangle or blanc over the sewn word.

Mallarmé’s emphasis on air as a medium for poetry and music is evident in his use of concepts such as “idea” and “aspect”, easily shifted to the concept of ventriloquism – which, like air, is the medium for the final form, vocalised in the word. O sentido da vida é só cantar (2008), the title of a poetry anthology by António Barahona, brings together a highly diversified group of voices that he attempts to organise in the form of a choir. To do this, artists “must adopt air almost exclusively as their medium”, as stated by the French poet, air that bears a “life that is neither personal nor sensitive”[5], like the corridor designed for Filipa Leal and Mafalda Veiga, bursting with types, words and blancs, suspending the spoken moment from the thought word, all the way to the images conjured up through a visual appeal that they both share.

Air reigns supreme and real in this case, as if it had an enchanted life granted to it by the magic of art and the spoken word, just like the Oracle of Delphi which, through a ventriloquist effect, makes Apollo’s word real through the air. Air as a tangible material of concept and form for a scene wrapped in belief. Belief that makes the Oracle’s word as real as Apollo’s; a life that is neither personal nor sensitive, but subject to phenomena, thereby summoned by science and shown to our eyes with its perpetual metamorphosis.[6]

In his essay, Mallarmé explains the importance of “modernisation” for painting and literature, examining the “aspirations” of the past and the “freshness” to be found in the “coordination of widely dispersed elements”[7]. This layout is rescued by Zélia Mendonça, either through a female torso, Deusa Luça (2022), Deusa-Mãe (2024), or through the plethora of colours and unusual elements she uses to re(dis)cover them and draw us into a dream. Dreams reminiscent of surreal theatre sets that, all the while, seem to be steeped in a ritualistic magic of their own.

In a letter to Henri Cazalis (1864), Mallarmé writes of his aspiration as a writer to represent “not the thing, but the effect it produces (…) all words must fade before sensation”[8]. In O sentido da vida é só cantar, as in Mallarmé’s poetry, things are dissolved as details are removed, forms are shortened and elements vibrate; mimesis and convention are denied, meanings abandoned and, in this lyric, through the air, Nuno Faria is the aedo.

O sentido da vida é só cantar is on show until April 27, 2024.


[1] Ver Henryk Markiewicz and Uliana Gabara, 1986, Ut Pictura Poesis …: A History of the Topos and the Problem, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Wendy Steiner, 1982, The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in The Relation between Modern Literature and Painting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[2] Nuno Faria in the exhibition text of O sentido da vida é só cantar.
[3] Stéphane Mallarmé, The Impressionists and Edouard Manet, in set. 1876, The Art Monthly Review and Photographic Portfolio, London, p. 119.
[4] Ibid, 118.
[5] Ibid, 119.
[6] It should be stressed that the Oracle is actually a woman named Pythia, the first supreme priestess of the Oracle of Delphi. In Classical Antiquity, passing on History and the memory of the community is tied to women, through the idea of fabric and the act of weaving. Much like the mills weaving the thread of life, Nuno Faria observes that this exhibition is not by chance mostly comprised of female artists.
[7] Ibid, 118.
[8] “Peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit… toutes les paroles s’effacer devant la sensation.” Tradução de Margaret Werth. Stéphane Mallarmé, in carta para Henri Cazalis, 30 out. 1864, in Stéphane Mallarmé, 1998, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, ed. Bertrand Marchal, Paris: Gallimard, p. 663.

José Pedro Ralha (Chaves, 1994) has a degree in History of Art, with a specialisation in Philosophy of Art obtained at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Coimbra. He also has a Masters in Curatorial Studies, obtained with the dissertation A Instalação Artística através da obra de João Maria Gusmão e Pedro Paiva: Análise às obras 3 Suns, Falling Trees e Papagaio (djambi), by the College of Arts of the University of Coimbra. He has collaborated in several projects such as LAND.FILL, 2019, with Gabriela Albergaria for Laboratório de Curadoria, Anozero ‘19 Biennial of Coimbra - A Terceira Margem, Terçolho, 2021, with João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, at the Serralves Foundation. He has collaborated with Serralves Foundation and is currently contributing with articles and essays for Umbigo, as well as working at the Museum and Libraries of Porto as Executive Producer of Museum Projects.

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