Nadir Afonso (1920-2013) is one of the most outstanding figures of 20th century Portuguese painting. His life was guided by a prolific artistic production, to which he associated a theoretical aspect in search of the «absolute» in art. His work went through several stages until he reached abstractionism marked by the work of geometric shapes, in which he saw the only source of harmony, by the clarity of his mathematical laws, a principle to which his incursion into architecture is not alien.
Building a Path
Nadir Afonso was born on December 4, 1920, in Chaves.
Already as a child, he will have shown his artistic vein, even considering that he created his first work when, at the age of four, he drew a red circle on the living room wall of his house. It is said that the geometric shape was designed with such perfection that his parents could not scold him. At the age of fourteen, he was traveling around the city of Chaves accompanied by his easel and, in 1937, aged seventeen, he came second in the painting competition «What is the most beautiful stretch of the Portuguese landscape?».
It was, therefore, an enormous passion for painting that Nadir Afonso left Chaves in 1938 to join the Porto School of Fine Arts (EBAP). However, when enrolling, his plans were changed, when an official advised him to pursue architecture, as it was a more prestigious course.
It is, however, commonly said that he did not draw architecture, he painted architecture, so his work, to which he added color and spots of light, lacked rigor.
At the age of 20, he joined the artistic movement «Os Concidos da Morte», as opposed to the famous 19th-century group «Os Vencidos da Vida». This heterogeneous group, which sought to spread art away from Lisbon's centralism, dedicated itself to organizing exhibitions, in which Nadir Afonso he participated until 1946, when he began to explore the plasticity of geometric shapes and the games of optics that were so prominent in his work.
That same year he left for Paris, starting a series of trips that marked his path both in the area of architecture and painting, not only for the contact he had with some of the greatest figures of the Modern Movement, but also for the consolidation of much of his theoretical work.
Arriving in the French capital, he enrolled at the École de Beaux-Arts, finally studying what he had always dreamed of, Painting. However, Nadir Afonso he would leave this institution in 1948, having attended it for just over a year, as the cultural life of Paris proved to be much more interesting outside the school.
It was in the context of his worsening monetary situation that he began a period of collaboration in the studio of the renowned French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965). This experience allowed Nadir Afonso 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), having been frequent visitors to the latter's atelier.
Architecture is not an Art
After a period spent between Portugal and Paris, he returned permanently 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 dedicated his life for about thirty years.
In fact, from an early age he understood his difficult relationship with architecture, which becomes 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 at Cooperativa Árvore in 1966 – they had little impact, due to lack of publicity, going unnoticed by the public and critics.
Nadir Afonso he would see his recognition arrive when, in 1967, he was awarded the National Painting Prize. This was followed by the Honorable Mention of the Soquil Award, in 1968, and the Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, in 1969, when he participated for the second time in the Bienal de São Paulo.
Between 1968 and 1970, he received a scholarship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Paris, which dedicated his first retrospective exhibition at the Center Culturel Portugais in Paris, later presented in Lisbon.
The Painting Exercise
The route of Nadir Afonso 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 gesture of the brushstroke and the dilution of the wavy forms, characteristics that are evident, for example, in works such as Aldeia e Monte (1938) or Rua da Cadeia .
These works reveal a predilection for curved lines rather than pure geometric shapes. José-Augusto França would state that the formations of Nadir Afonso in architecture allowed him to formulate “an aesthetic awareness of space and time that led him to the realization of an abstract painting of dynamically organized geometrism” (FRANÇA, 2013: 14).
Nadir Afonso he 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 countless representations of cities, in which he reveals a search for morphometry, that is, for the exact measurement of geometric shapes. Indeed, cityscapes are one of the main topics addressed 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 a work had nothing to add or remove, Nadir Afonso I looked at the painting from various positions, upside down and through the mirror. The artist himself would state 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 so in another medium and in another time ”.