Julião Sarmento, the Artist of Desire in Contemporary Art

Julião Sarmento, o Artista do Desejo na Arte Contemporânea

“I don't make art about art. That's not what interests me. It's something about me that is art. It's a physical practice, almost physical because I make objects that can be seen and in some cases touched. I make art that has to do with seduction practices.” Julião Sarmento, 1992 (interview conducted by Alexandre Melo).


The Fundamental Figure of Contemporary Art in Portugal

Julião Sarmento , one of the most recognized contemporary Portuguese artists, died on the morning of Tuesday, May 4th, leaving behind a notorious and emblematic work punctuated by the experimentation of all means and techniques. Over the last five decades, the multidisciplinary work of the Portuguese artist has addressed themes such as eroticism, sexuality, literature or cinema. At the same time, it questioned the concepts of desire, absence, time and language through different media (painting, drawing, sculpture, collages, installation, video, photography and performance). Born in Lisbon in 1948, Julião Manuel Tavares Sena Sarmento began his career in 1968, in the exhibition of the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes. In the following decade, it conquered the consecration of the Portuguese public; from 1990 onwards, he consolidated his international career, when doing so seemed like a chimera. Far from presenting an exhaustive constitution of his works, this article highlights the lines of investigation and creation that Julião Sarmento obsessively explored throughout his extensive career.

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The first decade of his long artistic career

Julião Sarmento's artistic discourse travels over the decades around certain elements such as the body, sensuality, the notion of time, literary quotations and original texts, the fragmentation of forms, eroticism and voyeurism, regardless of the means used. At the beginning of his career, in the 1970s, there is a set of pieces that were produced by means of expression resulting from the revolution in technical and conceptual languages at the time, which enunciated the principles of his future works. Thus, he begins by introducing various means such as verbal language in his works due to his interest in literature and the influence of conceptual art.

Variable piece - 5 actors , from 1976, offers the spectator two possible readings — visual and written — through three elements: photography, text and drawing, forming an almost primary game. Starting from the first photograph in a staging of the body, practically performative, Julião Sarmento asks an outsider to describe this photograph in a text. Then, another participant draws a representation, based on the reading of this text, and so on, until obtaining a bifurcation of meanings and an ambiguity in the communication systems. This piece about the deconstruction of representation was present in the relevant exhibition «Alternativa Zero».

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Variable piece - 5 actors by Julião Sarmento , 1976 - Serralves Collection

In this decade of intense production, he created in various media such as photography - Memory Piece (Two Friends) of 1976, Untitled (Bataille) of 1976 and Quatre Mouvements de la Peur of 1978 film, Legs of 1975 and Faces of 1976 or combining different techniques as in Secrets of the Animal World , a series of works that had a sense of animality, in which he mixed people with animals.

The White Painting Cycle

In the late 1970s, conceptual languages were exhausted; consequently, artists return to painting. Thus, in the following decade, Julião Sarmento created paintings with several panels, giving a unique unity to a set based on the fragmentation of elements in a juxtaposition. These works were exhibited in various cultural spaces such as Galeria Cómicos, in Lisbon, Galleria Marilena Bonono, in Bari, and Modulo, in Porto. However, with the move to the United States of America, this association of disparate universes starts to overlap in the same image. An example of this is the work «American Night», from 1989.

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American Night by Julião Sarmento , 1989 - Serralves Collection

Later, the cycle of White Paintings appears, canvases with absence of color defined by graphite lines, practically being drawings on canvas. The titles are not illustrative of his paintings, but complete the work itself, as if they were the last brushstroke. Unlike the previous decade, consisting of several panels, in Wasting My Time With You #928 , 1994, the artist creates a work with only two panels, using his two favorite colors at the time: on the right side, white; on the other, black. According to the artist, on the white canvas are represented two figures, a man who pulls his pants when he feels they are tight and an elbow close to an edge, both carrying an unpleasant situation. Aggression and unpredictable moments are recurrently present in his work with sharp elements like knives. On the left side, of lower proportions, a white fence cut in half by the black background is visible. The figures represented in this work are assiduous during the artist's career, in the different series, because there is a coherence and a “migration” of thoughts and ideas.

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Wasting My Time With You #928 by Julião Sarmento , 1994 - Berardo Collection Museum

In 1997, Julião Sarmento represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale, designing for the spaces of Palazzo Vendramin ai Carmini (Portuguese Pavilion) a set of paintings that extend the cycle of White Paintings, begun in 1990.

In addition to white paintings, Julião Sarmento created in other media during this decade. An example of this is the installation Cerco Dois , from 1993, which reflects the conditions of women based on a relationship between incarcerated bodies. This work materializes the irrationality in which women are represented, bringing a relationship of power and submission and an anthropology of animal behavior with an animalization of human beings.

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Siege Dois de Julião Sarmento , 1993

Consolidation of a career in the new century

In the first decade of the new century, the artist returned to mediums already explored in the 1970s, such as video, photography and installation, although without leaving painting. Anchored in a discourse around the body, the feminine, sensuality and the questioning of the concepts of desire, absence, time and language, he created works such as the installation Cura em Anozero Bienal de Arte Contemporânea de Coimbra, a series of photographs titled by American Landscape and multiple videos such as Parasite from 2003, Voyeur from 2007 and The End of the World from 2015.

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American Landscape 6 by Julião Sarmento , 2004

Between 1967 and 2005, the artist produced more than fifty videos, driven by his passion for cinema and by artists like Andy Warhol , who were a reference for his super 8mm films, where he creates an interaction with a great intensity of movements between the body. and the camera, in a game of seduction and desire. The artist detailed the process in an interview with Umbigo magazine:

“Basically, the chamber was almost an extension of my own body. It worked as my gaze on the body, as an interaction of my own gaze that was filtered by the camera. I was almost like the Japanese (a comparison) who go to visit the great historical monuments and never see them, unless they arrive in Japan. They always have an abstract view of things, because they already leave the bus with a machine in hand. ”

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Faces of Julião Sarmento 1976, Super 8 film, color, muted, 44' 22'' - Van Abbemuseum Collection, Eindhoven

With a career consolidated nationally and internationally, his collection of works of art can be found in numerous institutions, from the Tate Modern, in London, to the Guggenheim, in New York. In 2002 he represented Portugal at the Bienal de São Paulo and, in 2012, the Serralves Museum organized the artist's first retrospective exhibition, Noites Brancas . In 2020, he launched the book Café Bissau , in which he presented photographs of his own taken between 1964 and 2017.

During this long journey, Julião Sarmento became one of the central figures of contemporary art, following the artistic currents that dominated while maintaining his internal coherence. For eternity, the Portuguese artist left us his fundamental artistic heritage for the history of art in Portugal.


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