The Rediscovery of Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso

Stephanie van den Hende
Apr 7, 2016 10:21AM

There is probably no more astonishing an example in the 20th century of a major artist who fell into obscurity than Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso. The American art historian Robert Loescher even classed him as “one of early modernism best-kept secrets.”

After leaving the Parisian avant-garde–of which he was one of most original figures–at the start of the First World War, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso virtually disappeared from the picture and only remained famous in his home country. Though he succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic at the age of thirty, he nevertheless had enough time to leave behind a body of work that is in touch with the aesthetic revolutions of the time, but at the same time is like nothing else. If we closely examine the chronology of his fellowship with Amedeo Modigliani or Constantin Brancusi, de Souza-Cardoso is very often the one who appears as the inventor of forms.

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso first showed at the Grand Palais in 1912 when he exhibited Avant la Corrida at the Salon d’Automne. This work went on to feature in the famous Armory Show exhibition in the United States in 1913. There it was sold immediately, as did nearly all of the other works sent by the artist, with the result that several of his masterpieces are now in the United States, most at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The life of de Souza-Cardoso was short and intense. Two major periods can be discerned throughout the course of the exhibition: the Paris period (1906-1914) and the period of his return to Manhufe, Portugal (1914-1918). However, throughout his artistic career of just over a decade, de Souza-Cardoso lived between these two worlds, traveling back and forth between them, eternally dissatisfied, always wanting to be elsewhere, with a perpetual geographical instability.

The son of a traditional, wealthy rural bourgeois family, de Souza-Cardoso left for Paris in a financially comfortable situation, far removed from the conditions of his compatriots–who, moreover, he only visited for a short period. He bid farewell to his mother, insisting that he had to fulfil his destiny. The city he discovered, the euphoric centre of all shifts and breakthroughs, attracted his attention to the artists who were breaking with the classic canons. De Souza-Cardoso also participated in this movement of rupture; he took his first steps in this cosmopolitan world by developing a creative dialogue with his working companions–Amadeo ModiglianiConstantin BrancusiAlexander ArchipenkoSonia and Robert DelaunayOtto Freundlich and Umberto Boccioni, among others–and made contact with art agents, publishers or exhibition curators such as Walter Pach, Wilhelm Niemeyer, Ludwig Neitzel, Herwald Walden, Adolpe Basler, Harriet Bryant. In 1908, when he moved into the Cité Falguière in Montparnasse, he became friends with several artists who, like him, were on the fringes of the programmatic movements, particularly Modigliani and Brancusi.

The small village of Mahufe in northern Portugal permeates the visual world of de Souza-Cardoso and can be seen throughout the multiple stages of his work, not just in landscapes and representations of nature. This place contained what the artist felt to be his: a natural landscape but also a mental one. He incorporated what could be seen as traditional themes into his entire creative process, including daily objects, words from folk songs and folkloric dolls, regional musical instruments, mountains, forests, imaginary castles and familiar interiors. These elements are represented through stylistic solutions in which CubismFuturismOrphism and Expressionism combine. De Souza-Cardoso examined fragments of both the rural and modern worlds in a single dynamic and, free of hierarchy, created a fusion of his home region and the vertigo of machines, mechanical mannequins, telegraph and telephone wires, light bulbs and advertising billboards, radio programs, water mills, perfumes, champagne, and more.

Curiously, his family history suggests that the artist composed his very first painting on two panels of a dining room cabinet; there, around 1897, the very young de Souza-Cardoso painted the lids of Huntley & Palmers biscuit tins. All these clues to the incorporation of the new world into his work show that de Souza-Cardoso had an acute awareness of what it meant to “be modern”, which can be seen not only through his subject matter concerned with the thrill of mechanization, but also in his methods and techniques, as well as his desire to make himself known by personally promoting his artistic identity. He implemented this strategy very early on, with the publication of an edition of his XX Dessins and 12 Reproductions

Throughout a thematic sequence, the exhibition brings together some 300 works: paintings, drawings, engravings and photographs, as well as one sculpture and two African masks. Among them are some works by contemporaries of de Souza-Cardoso to whom he was close, such as Brancusi, Modigliani and Robert and Sonia Delaunay. In the rotunda, a video triptych, specially commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to the artist Nuno Cera, recalls the places so dear to Amadeo (Manhufe in Portugal, Brittany and Paris). Over ten years, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso charted an entirely singular path, whose long-overdue rediscovery in France could not be more fascinating.

"Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso" is on view at the RMN Grand Palais in Paris from April 20th to July 18th, 2016. The exhibition is curated by Helena de Freitas, art historian, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Lisbon, and designed by Atelier Jodar Architecture.

Stephanie van den Hende