contemporary art, Paris, photography, Porto

Helena Almeida, Artist Incarnate

1 Helena Almeida, A casa (la

Helena Almeida, A casa [The House], 1979, 40x29cm. Coll. Mario Sequeira

Helena Almeida’s exhibition, shown in Porto at the Serralves Foundation (October 17, 2015 – January 10, 2016) under the name “My work is my body, my body is my work”, is travelling to Paris: it will be presented at the Jeu de Paume, titled “Corpus” (February 9 – May 22, 2016). Finally, the body is addressed by the contemporary Portuguese art scene, which almost never does so, focusing instead on the concept, on humor, on history, and thus neglecting embodiment, and the (very few) artists who have made the body the focal point of their work (Helena Almeida, Jorge Molder also, and the occasional young artist, including Brazilians living in Portugal, like Lizi Menezes…). And this goes beyond contemporary art: I visited the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga with a friend a few days ago, which obviously features bodies in its collections of classical paintings and sculptures –but are those bodies naked? No way! In searching dutifully every nook and cranny of the Museum, I found one and only one female breast outrageously naked (save for a few Virgins breastfeeding, a few damned souls in hell, and a tiny allegory on ivory), by a Dutch painter. No Venuses, no Graces. Granted, this beautiful museum features, on the other hand, some Bosch, and more daring temporary exhibitions, but what a strange national puritanism in visual arts, not only concerning nudes but more simply the reluctance to give prominence to bodies (but this is not true for dance or film –if anyone can clue me in…).

2 Helena Almeida, G - S.T., 1968,

Helena Almeida, Untitled, 1968, 130x100cm [left]; Untitled, 1969, 130×97.5cm [right]. Coll. Serralves

But let’s come back to the great lady that is Helena Almeida. She is the only Portuguese artist who focuses exclusively on her body in her work; her photographs, which she often paints on, are as many different versions of her body, wearing a white dress, then a black one, in a ceaselessly renewed exploration of representation. What caught me off-guard, though, were her first works, paintings that put to question the very idea of the painting. It was the end of the 1960s, she was 35 at the time, she might have been aware of the burgeoning Supports/Surfaces movement when she was a scholarship student in Paris in 1964, she also said she marveled at Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases in Venice in 1966. So she then created those paintings, which are generally simply monochromes, which escape their stretcher, move away from the wall, slide sideways out of their frame, go up like curtains or down like a dress (pictured above, on the right). This addresses the idea of space, of escaping towards a third dimension, and of rejecting rules or, precisely, frames. The most striking painting is the one that is turned to face the wall (pictured above, on the left), its stretcher covered in thin semi-transparent painted gauze: Gisbrechts comes to mind, and thus we can conclude that the cycle of the materiality of painting, which Stoichita has analyzed, has reached its end.

3 Helena Almeida, S.T.1967. Photo

And then, in a vitrine, we happen on this small photograph from 1967: the shadow of the artist appears in an empty frame, her shadow becomes the motif. The reflection on the materiality of the painting, of the stretcher and frame, of the canvas, has evolved in a reflection on the prominence to give to the artist’s body in her production, which she will inhabit from this point on.

4 Helena Almeida, Toile habitée,

Helena Almeida, Inhabited Canvas, 1976, nine photographs, ch. 43x33cm

Thus, her body came into play. In her Inhabited Canvases (1976), her body goes through the space of the frame, therefore reducing it to a window. In her Inhabited Drawings (1975), a thread comes in and out of the drawing; the pencil stroke becomes a thread, a horsehair actually, and the illusion of a third dimension is thus created, simply. Her Inhabited Paintings (1975) are make-believe mirrors in which she covered with blue paint her (duplicated) face and made it disappear. This blue paint (is it related to the patented IKB?) is a trick, an obstacle, an obliteration of herself: it marks the spot, she says, and, in the photo pictured at the beginning of this article, it is her round open mouth which is filled with this blue color –silence or inspiration?

5 Helena Almeida, Ouve-me (écoute

Helena Almeida, Ouve-me [Listen To Me], 1979 ch. 63x43cm. Coll. Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon

Her body was first and foremost a motif, an object that she used; little by little, it became the very center of her work. Towards the end of the 1970s, she produced three important series of artworks: Ouve-me [Listen To Me] –which had already made a great impression on me during my first visit to Lisbon, along with her Inhabited Canvases–, Sente-me [Feel Me], and Vê-me [See Me] –an audio recording of the noise she makes while drawing, plus a text on a monitor. So, “listen”? How can we listen when she is silenced, as black thread sews shut her mouth or her eyes (even if it is only a drawing)? In Almeida’s first film, Ouve-me (1979), she had become nothing more than a shadow, a ghost behind the canvas, desperately trying to leave a trace. She appeared gagged and masked, her hands fumbling with doors. Is it a feminist artwork? She says it is not.

6 Helena Almeida, Seduzer (séduire

Helena Almeida, Seduzer [To Seduce], 2002, 199×129.5cm. Coll CAM Gulbenkian, Lisbon

Was it the end of a struggle? After 1980, she only presented her sole body, getting older, always dressed in black, sans accessories, without added messages; a body that moves, occupies its environment, contorts itself, performs a hundred times the same absurd and insignificant gestures. Many photographs of this period only featured her hands or feet, her face remaining hidden in most instances. In my eyes, Seduzer [To Seduce] is the most beautiful series: this woman, who is more than 70 years old nowadays (slightly older than me today, a fact that evidently moves me), balances herself on one foot, wearing high heels, arches her body, tip-toes around, stretches her limbs, etc. In addition to the photographs, a video testifies to this delicate and obstinate performance (including an amusing moment: suddenly, a piece of white fabric appears under the black dress, and she hides it hurriedly). In one of the photographs of this series, Almeida’s foot is covered in red paint, like a sole of fire. In her choreographed and always very precise performances, her body occupies and interacts with its environment (always her uncluttered studio, previously used by her father, the official sculptor of the Estado Novo). I am surprised that the comparison with Francesca Woodman’s use of her body in disaffected buildings has only been made rarely (compared to the more frequent comparison with Cindy Sherman): the mature woman in control of herself and the young woman falling prey to her demons share their relation to space, to walls, to the ground, to the angles of the space they inhabit.

7 Helena Almeida S.T., 1996, sept

Helena Almeida, Untitled, 1996, seven photographs, ch. 126x179cm. Coll. Reina Sofia Madrid

I did not like as much her photographs produced as a couple (she has been married to the sculptor Artur Rosa for more than sixty years, and he is the one who takes the pictures). They are very touching, for sure, but I think their visual impact is weaker, that the appearance of the married couple, in bringing to her œuvre a more concrete and more anecdotal dimension, somewhat dilutes the strength of the reflection, or in any case diverts it. The final corridor of the exhibition displays an untitled series of photographs from 1996, in which some paint on the floor represents her shadow. Along the seven images, the paint slowly increases in density, becoming more and more present, yet it remains headless: little by little the image takes shape, building itself (and, simultaneously, a mysterious thread disappears from the ground). Rather than the anthropometries of Yves Klein (again!), it echoes Floris Neusüss’s photogrammed shadows. Helena Almeida stands as an anti-Peter Schlemilh, as a woman rejoining her shadow and claiming her body, the only one being incarnated here.


Photos 2, 3 & 5 by Lunettes rouges

Read this article:
in the original French; alt.
in Spanish ; in Portuguese

Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: December 29, 2015.

Translation by Lucas Faugère


3 thoughts on “Helena Almeida, Artist Incarnate

  1. Pingback: Helena Almeida, artiste incarnée | lunettesrouges1

  2. Pingback: (Portuguese) Art Began in 1965!? | red glasses

  3. Thanks for helping us get acquainted with Helene Almeida the painter who gets to make her body on her work the central focus of her attention. As my friend loves arts that show forth the body, maybe telling her about Helena’s work will inspire her. I will likely give this piece of article to her and I’m sure she will buy one of Helena’s works as an example to show her students.


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