It has long been recognized that the ranks of what came to be called the School of Paris-the brilliant confluence of painters and sculptors who set the pace of modernist innovation in the early decades of the 20th century-were never exclusively French. Paris was then the art capital of the Western world, and to its intellectually adventurous atmosphere talents from every corner of Europe flocked in remarkable numbers. One of them was the Portuguese painter Amadeo de Souza Cardoso (1887-1918), whose work is currently the subject of an uncommonly interesting exhibition at the AXA Gallery in the Equitable Tower.
Don’t fret if Amadeo’s name is unknown to you. Although he was represented in the 1913 Armory Show in New York-the mammoth exhibition that introduced the modern movement to the American public-not much has been heard about Amadeo’s work on this side of the Atlantic since then. In the Armory Show, he was represented by a single picture- Leap of the Rabbit (1911)-which had been selected by one of the exhibition’s principal organizers, the American critic and painter Walter Pach. Amadeo had been working in Paris since 1906, and Pach was one of those curious American aesthetes who made it his business to know what was going on in the studios of the Paris avant-garde in the period preceding the outbreak of World War I.
He wasn’t the only American to take an interest in Amadeo at the time. When the Armory Show moved to Chicago after its tumultuous reception in New York, a collector by the name of Arthur Jerome Eddy, who is remembered today as the author of Cubists and Post-Impressionism (1914), acquired Leap of the Rabbit for his own collection. He also bought a Kandinsky out of the show,whichiswhy both the Amadeo and the Kandinsky are now, among much else, part of the Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Now comes the first exhibition of Amadeo’s oeuvre to be mounted on this side of the Atlantic since the Armory Show. It was jointly organized last year by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the Portuguese Ministry of Culture in Lisbon. Called At the Edge: A Portuguese Futurist-Amadeo de Souza Cardoso , it was first seen at the Corcoran Gallery and then at the Arts Club of Chicago. The new AXA Gallery was added to the show’s itinerary after its sumptuous catalogue went to press.
Amadeo is certainly a remarkable discovery: a young artist from the provinces-which, in his case, was a country village in northern Portugal-who quickly aligned himself with the Paris avant-garde. He had come to the French capital at the age of 19 on an allowance from his father to study architecture, but he soon altered his course to take up painting, for which he proved to have an amazing facility. He seems instantly to have moved in the right circles, forming friendships with Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera and Constantin Brancusi, and thus acquainting himself with the most audacious new developments Paris had to offer.
From this ferment of modernist innovation Amadeo took “a little bit of everything,” as he himself acknowledged in an interview with a Lisbon newspaper in 1916, citing everything from Impressionism to abstraction as the influences that had shaped his work. Futurism was certainly one of those influences, yet it isn’t quite correct to classify Amadeo as a Futurist. There is nothing of Futurist bombast in his painting. He may have mouthed the slogans of Futurism-“We declare the splendor of a new beauty-the beauty of velocity,” etc.-but his paintings have a mother wit and emotional detachment that are alien to the Futurist appetite for violence.
Cubism was, in any case, the aesthetic foundation upon which all of Amadeo’s best paintings and drawings were created. The pictorial dynamism that marks his work from The Cavaliers (circa 1913) and Real Dynamic Arabesque (circa 1916) to the wonderful Entrance (circa 1917) may have certain affinities with the paintings of Gino Severini, an Italian Futurist who was then working in Paris, but Severini was himself deeply indebted to Cubism. And Amadeo’s dynamism owed a lot, too, to the color-oriented Orphic Cubism of the Delaunays, while the finest of Amadeo’s figurative paintings-the wonderfully witty and beautifully structured Portrait of a Physician (circa 1917)-is closer in spirit to the art of Fernand Léger.
It hardly matters, however, whether we call Amadeo a Cubist or a Futurist. In the few years that saw him at the peak of his powers, 1913-17, he was responding to the most advanced art of the Western world with a keen artistic intelligence. At ease in accommodating the imperatives of both abstraction and modernist representation, he was clearly inspired by the energy and complexity of the cosmopolitan culture-the culture of modernity-which he encountered in Paris for the first time, and which totally changed the course of his short life.
To “participate in the great modern life” was indeed his most ardent ambition, and that was the ambition he brought to his art. In a prophetic moment in that 1916 newspaper interview, he even had the wit to identify “blue denim” as a symbol of the new “fast life” of the modern age-quite a remarkable prediction for 1916. But his own fast-moving life was cut short when he succumbed to the great influenza epidemic of 1918.
Much might have been expected from an artist of his gifts and accomplishments. Yet we cannot be sure of that, either. In the very last painting which Amadeo is known to have produced- The Sacred Heart of Jesus (1918)-there was a sharp decline into religious kitsch. He had returned to Portugal, and was already ailing with a skin disease even before his death from influenza on October 25, 1918, just two weeks before the armistice which might have allowed him to return to Paris.
While it would be absurd to claim a place for Amadeo in the top rank of the School of Paris, he nonetheless earned an honored place in the history of its achievements. It is one of the merits of the current exhibition and its richly documented catalogue to remind us of his own contribution to those achievements-a contribution that nicely confirms the judgment made of his work by Walter Pach and Arthur Jerome Eddy some 87 years ago.
At the Edge: A Portuguese Futurist-Amadeo de Souza Cardoso remains on view at the AXA Gallery, 787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, through Sept. 16. The gallery is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.