The Madeiran Lourdes Castro draws but isn’t a drawer, paints but isn’t a painter, acts but isn’t an actress, embroiders but isn’t an embroiderer, arranges flowers but isn’t a florist, farms but isn’t a farmer. A portrait of an artist who lights up the shadows.
When René (Bertholo) and I arrived in Paris, we went to live in a garret on the Rue des Saints- Pères.I looked out and there was a phrase written in really big letters on the neighbouring house, just below the roof: Nail forever joy to the pediment of your home”. She says the words in French, slowly- “Cloue à jamais la joie au front de ta demeure”. She continues: “That’s all you’ve got to do. Even when the black clouds roll in, they are always followed by the sun”. Lourdes Castro is sitting in the Gulbenkian Foundation garden with a girl-like face confirming the maxim that “until you’re 30 you’ve got the face that god gave you, afterwards you’ve got the face that you deserve”. The story began in 1958, but just like her, is timeless.
If you needed a biography, you might write: Maris Lourdes Bettencourt de Castro was born on 9th December 1930 in Funchal, at 20 she enrolls on a Fine Arts course in Lisbon, in 1955 she has her first exhibitions and a year later presents three paintings on wood for her college exams (a personal interpretation of a nude model in green, yellow and purple) which were “excluded for not conforming to academic regulations”. The system rejects her, but simultaneously gives her freedom. From there you could talk about the intense artistic life that she led abroad and emphasize the importance of KWY (a magazine which claimed the letters which do not exist in the Portuguese alphabet) founded in Paris at the end of the 50s by Lourdes and friends (de Bertholo a Escada, de Jan Voss a Christo- all significant names in the history of art). You’d mention the assemblages-collages of objects painted in aluminium from the beginning of her career and, from 1962 onwards, her brightly-lit journey through clouds: first projections and outlines of people on fabric, then plexiglass painted and cut by hand, later clouds embroidered on sheets, always with close friends. There would be some reflections of Lourdes to cite: “It was with screen-printing that my first clouds came to light. I made collages out of objects and, wanting to make printed pieces, put the same objects over some pre-sensitized silk. In that way I was able to obtain real projected shadows. The surprise of the design, the simplicity of the form, of the outline of a cloud, of its invisible presence fascinated me so much that even today for me it’s new. For me, a cloud has more meaning than simply the object itself. It’s a way of contemplating the things and the people around me”. Moving forward in time, you could also relate the performances of the Theatre of Clouds which, alongside Manuel Zimbro in the 1970s, reinvented a kind of “picture that lasted an hour and then disappeared”, full of the everyday and art, mixed together like “the happening” was with ancient Chinese tradition. Even today, sitting in the Gulbenkian garden, Lourdes smokes like she’s in a scene, focused, slowly. “I try to do one thing at a time. That’s why I don’t smoke much” she says, laughing. Back to the biography, perhaps it would be fitting to quote the poetic words of Zimbro (her companion in art and life): “Lourdes Castro, lazy cosmopolitan and 20th century traveller, born on the island of Madeira at midday. Early on she read a small book, always current and important: Zen in the Art of Archery (mail ordered to the Sagittarian), more than likely contributing to her never dedicating herself completely to painting, nor anything or anywhere else” he writes in the catalogue for the exhibition Beyond the Shadow (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1992). Then add: “The Lourdes that draws isn’t a drawer, the one that paints isn’t a painter, the one that acts isn’t an actress, the one who embroiders isn’t an embroiderer, nor is the one who arranges flowers a florist” (Zimbro’s words in the catalogue of LC: Shadows Around a Centre, exhibition at the Serralves Museum in 2003). Afterwards, to finish off: “Lourdes always did, does and will do the “not do”, no matter how much work it gives her”.
To the end of the world
Lourdes Castro likes to memorise things, to learn them by heart. She knows that words can save. A while ago her arm was in a sling and she couldn’t write. A friend sent her a Shakesperean sonnet. “A sonnet about shadows that still wasn’t part of my “family album”. I learnt it by heart: ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see’”. The volumes of the series she mentions (Family Album) bring together people who, like her, occupy themselves with shadows. It includes Goethe, Pliny and Johannes Kepler, a motto on a sundial (“Time passes like the shadow”), phrases of José Cardoso Pires and poems by Almada Negreiros: “My shadow am I/It does not follow me/I am in my own shadow/And I will not go in myself”. And Rilke: “I love the dark hours of my being”. She’s not thinking of publishing them, unlike the innumerous artist’s books that she’s always created (even when she started, in a time which was averse to considering them original works of art) and with the same organization of the world which gives her work and life. “In her montages, in her attentiveness, Lourdes links everything, she brings together, she destroys borders. She looks behind her, collects the ruins. What’s left. She throws an attentive glance which recovers and which is accompanied by her thinking hands: her method is to think with her hands. As she says, she didn’t invent anything: it was all already there. Books and notebooks, the objects, the images, the texts, the colours, the scissors, the fabrics and paper…We carry on with what others handed us: it’s all something, the same thing” writes Paulo Pires do Vale, curator of the exhibition All the Books which, between the summer and the autumn, inhabited the temporary exhibitions gallery at the Gulbenkian Museum. Lourdes tells the story of a series of these books, the Avessos Encadeados (Reverse Threaded), plexiglass and cardboard covers embroidered with perlé thread: “One day in 1970 I was embroidering a sheet with the outline of the shadow of somebody lying down. I had a needle in my hand. I was thinking of sending a sending a catalogue of one of my exhibitions to my friend Helder Macedo, who had written a poem to my shadows, published in the same catalogue. And I wanted to write a dedication. I was holding a needle with coloured thread. I embroidered the dedication on paper. Turning over the piece of paper I was surprised by the reverse of the lettering: a strange design with only a few points matching what I had just finished writing on the other side. And what if I continued to embroider the other side of the other side? A book that would never end. I did several of them, with different words, every page a complete transformation of the preceding one, never again recognizable nor legible. Shadows?” Or eternity.
In 1983, after 25 years in Paris (and spells in Munich and Berlin) and an intense artistic life, Lourdes Castro returns to the island where she was born, building alongside Manuel Zimbro (1944-2003) a house and a garden which she sees as “a 12-thousand-metre painting, full of highs and lows”. In a black-and-white RTP television report, on the occasion of her first individual exhibition at Gallery 111 (in 1969), Lourdes says: “Being born on the island of Madeira gave me, I believe forever, a calm tranquility which is difficult for someone born in a big city. I don’t rush, I don’t rush for anything. And it’s definitely because I come from there”. In the Shadows (2010), a unique film that Catarina Mourão created with her over a period of many years, begins with Lourdes drawing with water and a hatchet the outline of the canvass that she’s been working on for almost three decades in Caniço at the top of the island. “Many years ago Manuel and I chose the canvass. It took us four years to find it. It welcomed us and we committed ourselves to protecting it, while possible. Instead of painting it, it has painted us! It’s our self-portrait” we hear her say on the big screen. She continues: “This is my painting. I didn’t start it alone, but in a pair. Now I carry on alone. I carry on painting it. It’s my picture. And it’ll never be ready. Only when the world ends”.
text Maria João Guardão photo Enric Vives-Rubio/Público
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