“abdcious” struck out three times or as if written on a music sheet. Above and below a line of numbers. First from 1 to 10, then the same numerals with the randomness with which phone numbers or identification numbers are seemingly assigned in public services.
When I asked Sobral if there was some code there, even if simple and similar to what marketing does by deleting vowels from brands, he said no. He played with randomness. However, the combination seems to carry the memory of the abdicant, and the suffix-ous is suggestive of an English adjective, like gorgeous, dangerous, adventurous, fabulous, or vicious.
I found this combination of numbers and letters on a red canvas with oil pastel inscriptions, made a few days ago to create a poster to publicize the exhibition behind this text.
For many years, the only piece by Sobral Centeno I had ever seen was a silkscreen print, produced in 1988, representing a regatta with the numbered sails of several boats. I was a child then, but I enjoyed the numbers and the maritime theme. Thinking that painting numbers on sails and waiting for wind and a starting shot could also be a form of organization freed me from worries and opened the field of possibilities.
As a sailor who fell overboard, I muster the courage to swim toward the place where the journey started. Focusing on the artist’s formative period and early career, the show is organized as a timeline that begins with a small painting from 1961 and closes with a canvas from 1989. Two different environments are proposed, highlighting the changing times.
The grammar of drawing
Some drawings are displayed on the wall so that everyone can see them:
Note how a line can structure a body, running through its innards, suggesting impulses, and defining its center of gravity.
Look at the self-portraits and discover automated gestures, attentive observation, and self awareness—nothing comes out of your mouth, your eyes give nothing away—you know you are s0ll looking for a voice.
Once words are broken, the end of the beginning looms. A graphic silhouette, a single gesture— the head of Saint John the Bap0st on a tray, but others will roll on the plane of the painting.
Cut-out color planes, an outstretched arm. The hand of the drawer and a valley nested on the sun —a red sun, a taste of southern lands. There’s not much time between Homage to Algarve, a pain0ng sent to a contest in 1967, and the geometric compositions made with collages of glossy paper and mirrored paper. The 0me spent at Escola Soares dos Reis is rich in experiences and exercises “in the style of.” There were many meetings with Abílio, Sá Coutinho, and Manuel Porfírio, and the first exhibitions at Galeria Alvarez.
The Barracks Journal
After Porto’s School of Fine Arts entrance examination came conscription and mandatory military service. In Tavira, Sobral Centeno becomes the editor of the Barracks Journal. The weather is fine in Algarve, but the bloodthirsty Colonial War rages in the African jungle.
“No one appreciates more war stories than a peaceful citizen after a nice meal and some glasses of fortified wine. Reading about the last bazles, he can only see the picturesque, the spiritual: shots are mere salvos, and anyone killed is unimportant. Death itself loses its tragic significance in these stories: Three thousand dead? What a bargain!” Lima Barreto, Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma (1911)
Não conto Mais histórias [I won’t tell any more stories], his solo exhibition at Galeria Alvarez II in 1973, was developed from the few drawings that survived from the time he spent in Guinea-Bissau. Made with marker on a block of thin paper, some were glued on a new medium, and others were remade in ink on nobler paper. A line that barely stops—a jump over the stream. Erasures and loose lezers suggest words broken by surprise. Movement planning, happy choreography, or abstraction—a narrative encoded between sheets and vignezes. The line loses speed and the spazer spreads. The twine tied to the bullet and the wounded leaf—the cigarette case and mother’s little boy.
I don’t know the stories. The ambushes in the jungle, the good or bad nights on the way back to Porto. I wonder about those early days, getting back to family, friends, and everyday life in the small city.
A ballpoint pen and a matchbox
Perhaps the biggest shock was to discover that, along with his boyhood, the boxes with the collections of fabric brand labels and hotel stamps collected door to door had disappeared. Tossed away without remorse. But childhood, and even the blackboard, will return in desires—no, in drawings—associated with the discovery of the language of those who scratch and write, creating grooves on the paper—tattoos—the sheet made into a porous body—in tortuous and uncertain movements— of someone who relearns to speak and to use a knife.
It’s time to question rules, titles, and names. A teacher is challenged with a ballpoint pen and a box of matches. One makes fun of life and pretends carelessness while claiming the freedom and autonomy of those who walk light, carrying lizle in their pockets. Drawing a matchbox is a basic exercise. A few lines are enough to reveal the ability to give shape, proportion, and perspective. This was a lesson the artist would keep for the rest of his life, and, twenty years later, not knowing where to go next, he’ll remember to open that matchbox with the same curiosity, or thirst, with which Pandora lifted her pitcher’s lid—magic boxes.
To think outside the square, you need to know how to draw a square. Not a freehand square—that’s not a square—but with a ruler, square, and compass. One does not escape register and cataloging by scratching labels. Messages are not destroyed when we tear our lezers. One does not erase a film by attacking the screen.
The 1970s come to an end with the obscuring of a painting from 1967. A stylized Harlequin made in school is painted over. There goes the memory of his condition as a nomad artist, an outlaw who could only perform, after paying the tax, on the stages he would install on town squares. The saltimbancos brought modernism and Picasso into the classroom. Their delicacy and mystery are preferable to the potential violence of a Minotaur bursting through doors and thresholds.
Portugal in the EEC
“If you are facing the Atlantic, don’t expect silence.”
In 1983 and 1984, the sheet of paper was so excessively used that it disappeared as a support, and it no longer made sense to speak of drawing. The overlapping of repeated gestures and lines, with rare variations, and the choice, either for chromatic vibration or absorbing greys, transforms the explosive gestures into a continuous white noise. They are false monochromes, like the jungle or sulfur deserts where nothing seems to grow. It’s granite and radon, the Titan¹ in full throttle, and erosion—the things we have here.
In the jungle, we summon the spirits by blowing a whistle hidden in our closed hands. Upon their arrival, it is good to have our questions ready. No switch turns on the light and instantly breaks the chain with past, memory, or beyond. What you see and hear is always uncertain. In the jungle, nothing is virgin. There will never be enough presence to face its totality.
“But don’t you want to have lunch with us?”
“No. Let’s cut to the chase.”
In the years that followed the revolution, and into the 1980s, there was a period with annual salary increases of 20%. Even though national production was increasing, public debt was created so that purchasing power could be guaranteed, minimizing inflation and trying to get closer to the economies of our future partners in the EEC.
A salary increase does not always mean an increase in purchasing power, but the rise in supply generates a consumerist frenzy. The long lines at the checkout counter in Continente² de Matosinhos are memorable—Dona Tininha’s grocery store and Senhor Portela’s neighborhood store won’t last long. It is a time of prosperity and confidence in the future.
On April 26, 1986, alarms sounded in Europe. In Scandinavia, an increase in atmospheric radioactivity is detected. Soviet secrecy shazers. A~er five days, the radioactive cloud originating from Chornobyl is already close to the Pyrenees. The mountain range, once again, confirms its power to separate worlds, containing cultures and atmospheric currents. Many people arrived in the Iberian Peninsula from central Europe in the following weeks. They were not nomads, nor did they come for the biggest wave. The threat took on a new form—the time had come.
A pea under the mattress
Artists’ images and their lives are not the same as their work. However, they carry data that feed readings, contextualize and participate in the definition of value, mythologizing or tainting the individual according to the times. I remember a photograph of James Ensor on a summer day in the 1930s, sitting with a group of friends near a table with coffee and drinks on a tray. The hats of some and the shadows they cast on their faces are telltales of the August sun, and the disheveled hair of another suggests a wind much like the one we can feel in Leça da Palmeira.
My memory wanted this photograph by Maurice Antony to have been shot in the summer of 1939. But it wasn’t. We’re not in Leça either. And let it not be a fault, once again, to part summer afternoons from the harshness of winter.
I can’t forget that I visited Sobral Centeno’s studio for the first 0me on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
When I returned to Sobral’s studio in April, I found new pain0ngs in process. Among splazers of color, lines, and drippings, there was the word: Butcha. That’s enough of a reference for those who read the news, but it carries too much weight for those who know war. There’s nothing to say. There is only the right to forget, for those who can, and the duty to remember, for those who embrace it.