Nadir Afonso (1920-2013) is one of the most striking figures in 20th century Portuguese painting. His life was marked by a prolific artistic production, to which he associated a theoretical strand in search of the «absolute» in art. His work went through several phases until reaching abstractionism marked by the work of geometric shapes, in which he saw the only source of harmony, the clarity of its mathematical laws, a principle to which his incursion into architecture is not unconnected.
The construction of a route
Nadir Afonso was born on December 4, 1920, in Chaves.
Already as a child, he will have evidenced his artistic vein, even considering that he made his first work when, at the age of four, he drew a red circle on the wall of his living room. It is said that the geometric shape was drawn to such perfection that his parents could not rebuke him. At the age of fourteen, he walked around the city of Chaves accompanied by his easel and, in 1937, at the age of seventeen, he took second place in the painting competition «What is the most beautiful part of the Portuguese landscape?».
It was, therefore, an enormous passion for painting that Nadir Afonso left, in 1938, in Chaves, to join the Porto School of Fine Arts (EBAP). However, at the time of enrollment, his plans were changed, when an official advised him to follow architecture, as it was a more prestigious course.
It is, however, commonly referred that he did not draw architecture, he painted architecture, so his works, to which he gave color and patches of light, lacked rigor.
At the age of 20, he joined the artistic movement “Os Concidos da Morte”, in opposition to the famous nineteenth-century group “Os Vencidos da Vida”. This heterogeneous group, which sought to spread art by escaping from Lisbon's centralism, dedicated itself to organizing exhibitions, in which Nadir Afonso participated until 1946, when he began to explore the plasticity of geometric shapes and the optical games that were so striking in his work. constructions.
In that same year, he left for Paris, starting a series of trips that marked his path both in the area of architecture and in painting, not only because of the contact he made with some of the greatest figures of the Modern Movement, but also because of the consolidation of much of his theoretical work.
Arrived in the French capital, he enrolled at the École de Beaux-Arts, finally studying what he had always dreamed of, Painting. However, Nadir Afonso left this institution in 1948, having attended it for just over a year, as the cultural life of Paris is much more interesting outside of school.
It was in the context of the worsening of their monetary situation that a period of collaboration in the studio of the renowned French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) began. This experience allowed Nadir Afonso to come into contact with some of the most prominent names in the art system, such as Picasso (1881-1973), Max Ernst (1891-1976) or Fernand Léger (1881-1955). last.
Architecture is not an Art
After a period spent between Portugal and Paris, he definitely returned in 1860, opening his own architecture studio in his hometown. In 1965, after drawing up the plan for the urbanization of Chaves, he decided to abandon the profession to which he had dedicated his life for around thirty years.
In fact, he understood early on his difficult relationship with architecture, which is particularly visible in the title of his thesis, presented in 1948 at the Porto School of Fine Arts: “Architecture is not an art”.
However, the first exhibitions he held after his return – in 1961 at the National Information Secretariat in Lisbon; at EBAP in 1963; and in Cooperativa Árvore in 1966 – they had little impact, due to lack of publicity, going unnoticed by the public and critics.
Nadir Afonso would see his recognition come when, in 1967, he was awarded the National Painting Prize. This was followed by the Honorable Mention of the Soquil Prize, in 1968, and the Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso Prize, in 1969, when he participated for the second time in the Bienal de São Paulo.
Between 1968 and 1970 he was also a grantee of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Paris, which dedicated to him the first retrospective exhibition at the Center Culturel Portugais in Paris, later presented in Lisbon.
The Painting Exercise
Nadir Afonso's path in painting reveals a surprisingly extensive production, in a constant and almost obsessive capacity to create.
In his first works, in which he recorded the landscapes of Chaves, it is possible to observe the gestures of the brushstroke and the dilution of the wavering forms, characteristics that are evident, by way of example, in works such as Aldeia e Monte (1938) or Rua da Cadeia .
These works reveal a predilection for the curved line and not yet for pure geometric forms. José-Augusto França would claim that Nadir Afonso's training in architecture allowed him to formulate “an aesthetic awareness of space and time that led him to carry out an abstract painting of dynamically organized geometry” (FRANÇA, 2013: 14).
Nadir Afonso would thus become, along with Fernando Lanhas (1923-2012), one of the main representatives of geometric abstractionism in Portugal.
In his work, the harmonious combination of shapes appears, for example, in the numerous representations of cities, in which he reveals a search for morphometry, that is, for the exact measurement of geometric shapes. Indeed, cityscapes are revealed to be one of the main topics covered by Nadir Afonso, to which the numerous trips he made contributed greatly. However, the words of the artist himself should be highlighted, when he mentions that there are paintings with the names of cities where he has never been.
It is said that, to make sure that in a work there was nothing to put or take away, Nadir Afonso observed the painting in various positions, inverted and through the mirror. The artist himself stated in many of his interviews a constant need to retouch old paintings, considering them always unfinished, since, in his words, "Perfection is evolutionary. What is perfect today is no longer perfect in another medium and in another time ”.