OX-BLOOD RED ON THE ISLAND SEA ◄ Back

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I visited them for several consecutive summers. (My name is F. Not that it matters, but I write it down anyway, so that people will not think this an anonymous text.) S was the first to arrive, during the second fortnight of july. Then, around the middle of august, J M came. For a few days, they would share the house, the house and the woods, for during the 1980s and early 90s the woods had not yet been sacrificed; that quasi-jungle of brambles which tangled themselves around a grove of fig-trees, laurels, banksias and tumbled-down walls had not yet been destroyed and turned into a flat field for cow-pats. As for the cows, by the time S came there was no sign of hides, mild eyes, or the swish of tails shooing flies away: they were all taken away the day before, leaving only large dung patches. “You can’t imagine how long it takes for the cow-pats to dry up”, S told me more than once. “This is such a wasteland now. I can no longer get fennel seeds for my salads. At least the cows could have stayed; they are as lonely as the great passions, turn into a desert the purest of greens and through grazing establish their empire. You don’t go very far in the territory of passion. When you’re still a young girl you turn everything, even a cow’s eyes, into a passionate epilogue. You’ll see, when J M gets here: he is still able to turn some psychological interest, as vague as catching someone looking at someone else, into an occasion for erotic observations. For him, the presence of passion is never far away. But it is always the passion of others. He has never become passion’s pawn. You’ll see; and the ends of august and september are the right time for loving love’s duration – is not passion so? And besides, J M is able to do what Neptune did for a nymph – especially here, with the island sea completely enclosing the horizon –, turn her into a man. I’d rather have the cows than this stubble-field. What fun is there now in taking the lower path and then climbing up to the mastaba (S always called the belvedere that)? In past summers I always got up there with a drop of blood on my face (J M never said face, always countenance: such are the small differences between a painter and a poet), because of the damned brambles. And not a single blackberry. Even last year I was competing with the blackbirds over them; now there is nothing but this beaten plate of blue all around us.” “And is that not enough? What use had you for that field of fig-trees, brambles, fennel and old vines that no longer yielded grapes?” “I used to paint them as bands of colour that burst over the black blue of the sea, in those mornings when I got up early. As it is, I feel as if I’d given them away for a song. I am left with the metal of the sea and the black of the earth. A woman feels lost when she has given everything away. To give is to lose and to be robbed, too. It’s like losing one’s innocence, which has nothing to do with sex. To lose, to be robbed and to give away are negative elements for a man: the sooner he gives away and loses and is robbed the better, because that turns his weakness into a habit. That is the territory of his battle. His resistance. It is not so with us. Giving away, losing and being robbed are the essence of our nature. We need to preserve these capacities by not activating them. What use is the sea without a single blackberry or fennel seed?” But such grumbling was not permanent. S kept mostly silent when I visited her in the evening for a coffee or a walk, as we did during the best times, which were indeed the first years, when it was difficult to reach the belvedere or to walk along the fence, in paths that only after the first fortnight condescended to offer a ground for leisure and discovery, though always demanding that one carried a pair of pruning-shears. Sometimes I stayed for dinner. The same happened during august’s second fortnight. S had gone back to the continent. And J M was now the occupant of the house. I know that the two used to, late in the morning, go down to Caloura harbour for coffee. I never went with them. I know they did so every morning, or at least J M did, for he once told me: “I go down there every morning to drink coffee and some Lombadas water – it must be good for you, it’s like drinking sulphur – and to see how the pavement café looks like when S is not around. She has often painted the ultramarine blue of that large table.” But what I think of them or what drew me to one or the other is of little consequence. I always met them separately. The fact is that, during the week they both lived in the house, right after J M’s arrival and up to S’s departure, I never visited them at Caloura. I would say goodbye to S a few days prior to her leaving and visit J M only after his first week on the island. S would always call me from the airport to say goodbye; and he would write to me saying he was already at Caloura and expected my visit, but that it would be better for me if I did not take to the road before the 18th (he had the exact notion that for an islander the distance between Ribeira Grande and Caloura could indeed be a lot of distance), because of all the mid-august festivities and processions. What I want to show here, and I will, are some passages from letters one and the other sent me a few days after returning to the Continent. These short impressions are of a quite intimate nature, at least for me. But they are intimate without any trace of intimacy, and thus I could let my old aunt or even my parish priest read them. They always end with a date, like a diary. These dates I will not transcribe, for I will not respect any kind of temporality, just as I will show here only a few passages. They may sometimes correspond to consecutive days, but one taken from their first year here may just as well be followed by one from last summer. Each extract will be identified at the end with [S] or [J M]. My body is still undecided about giving itself to the island. My breathing weighs more on the mattress than the body itself. When I recover it, that is to say, when the right weight establishes itself harmoniously between body and breathing, then me and the island will be in accordance; and for that I know it is necessary that my body moves no more than a sleeping child’s. I get up and go to the terrace. I take a plastic chair to its end and plant my feet on the low wall. In front are the tops of the fig-trees, as high as my hand reaches. I look for something new in the sky; but the only thing that is always new in the night sky is the stars’ antiquity. I found it hard to establish a connection between the sky, as seen from the window, and me: with its weight, my breathing clouded the panes. Outside, on the terrace, my breath will not dim the night. J M tells me about the stormy and clear nights of the Caloura terrace. I had always found it hard to understand how a night can be stormy and clear at the same time. But now I know what he meant, the inexhaustible storm appears inside my head, mutually fusing and lacerating images; a tumult that harmonises with the clear black of the night. Outside my breathing the calm is great: the wind, those clouds moving quickly, I hear it, I see them inside me. I go back to the room. I passed through the crystal palace – that is what J M calls the glass-roofed corridor that unites the two wings of the house –, sat at the table and opened my sketch-book and box of watercolours. Again, I passed through the crystal palace, which is actually a glass gallery held together by a delicate wooden framework, to go to the kitchen and fill two small glasses of water; one for dissolving the colours, the other for rinsing the brushes. I went back to the table. I painted in black, in the various blacks I made, the night I saw from the terrace. Blacks, yellows, whites and grey. The black blue of the sea. But I was unable to accomplish the most difficult rendition: the stormy element in me. [S] I wonder why I devote myself so much to the Azores. I have had a taste for islands, ever since I saw the Berlengas and Baleal. Once, a friend wrote me a letter in which he told me: “you must visit the Azores”. A few days after receiving that letter I saw, at Lisbon’s Museum of Ancient Art, a painting by Crivelli. It was in the winter of 1980. The “Virgin, Child, Saints and Donor” had a very indirect connection with the Azores: it belonged to someone from São Miguel. I ignore that person’s name. In any case, as I was able to confirm, the islanders are an accumulation of castes, of strata that do not communicate between themselves or, if they do, their connections are imperceptible to a continental, who is always a foreigner, a small enemy who inscribes the use of verbs like ‘to lose’, ‘to win’, ‘to enjoy’, ‘to suffer’ – living and dying – to a different latitude. Of course, it would be easy for me to learn, from the museum, the name of the Crivelli’s owner. I never did so. And by chance, my key to the island (a native of it) was part of, or frequented, a non-coincident plane of those airtight compartments in which the islanders repose. I have met many azoreans, both in Coimbra and Lisbon. I became a friend of some of them, but they all carried within themselves a diffidence concerning their islands, as if they were something extremely private. That diffidence concealed a generator of proprieties, which appeared to constantly say ‘whatever god allows is in our island’. It was a clear duplicity of that person, a kind of primitive morbid state which neither I nor anyone else, except for other islanders, could fathom. Value, resources and even a kind of respite from suffering lay over there, in the atlantic distance. In the fiery arguments of the very young, they lacked a sense of finalisation. Consequently, none of my azorean acquaintances will receive credit for having brought me here to this house in Caloura, a stay that usually ends a tour across the other islands. Carlo Crivelli’s painting was the major inspiration for that, in a way, very azorean tendency of mine, which locates in the islands an everlasting meaning, for which I search whenever I can; and whenever I am unable to do so, I know how to look for it in the island that in the meantime came to exist inside of me. It was those figures (the virgin, child, saints and donor) that led me to my relationship with the island, that led me, from their pictorial materiality, first to the physical materiality called island and then to the capacity for feeling in abstract terms the reality called island. [J M] Under the plane trees, I sat reading. On the edge of the lake, I had placed a glass and a bucket of ice with a bottle of João Pires wine, which F had brought me yesterday, as the afternoon ended. I stopped reading to look at two goats that had leaped over the wall and were industriously devouring every green shoot they could find. My neighbour from the house in front, who is always snooping around, came to the gate to warn me. I told him I liked goats. He just stood there, gazing at the bottle in the bucket. He must have found my behaviour rather brazen, too. When I looked again at the gate, he was no longer there. I picked up my watercolours and laid on paper intense colours that brusquely softened as they curved into the next colour, as if fainting, as if their sense of colour became lost into the depth of the next colour. Yellows, reds, blues suddenly take on a delicate halo, a gliding that submerges itself into the voluptuousness of a black circle or a white wash; and also into a bruised brown. For brown and dry green, like the metallic virility of navy-blue, are summer colours. Colours that likewise liquefy themselves as the last days of july become early august. I want to put into these watercolours the vacillating quality of summer: its vulnerability and invulnerability. (J M is coming soon and he will spend all the time writing poems; if I were a poet I would write only during these months; but it is not so, poets write in any month, just as I paint at any time.) Vulnerable / invulnerable: wounded, yet intact. Summer is willing to accept its weak points, its masculinity. One moment later, it rejoices in having conquered its debility: a body that is at the same time delicate and unbreakable. A blackbird has flown down from the iron-tree into the empty lake. It looks for seeds among the dry leaves. [S] In a certain way we were like a page torn from an exercise book, a chair in which we sat in the sun, between good and evil, a state of destitution regarding the island god that comes to our minds. We were not far, during that late august of last year, when we found ourselves together here, in this house (we even adopted an abandoned she-dog, whom we called Terceira, and a striped female cat, who came to be known as Graciosa), from a disturbing oscillation between good and evil: on the one hand, the quite self-possessed orthodoxy of the island, which, during sunday afternoons, contemplated itself in its august processions; on the other, an order without respite, a confusion of terms that led to saturday night imbibing. We were covered in humid heat. Sometimes, we wiped a drop of sweat from our forehead with our hand; that was usual for the two of us as we climbed from the small harbour to the house; it was the end of the morning, the worst heat. But last year we never went out on sundays. We were acting out our annoyance with others, with our own situation and the world. The gate was left open and the low wall around the yard had been freshly whitewashed. The lime became blinding when the sun brought it the white foundation of light: summer’s strangled body. The white isolated us. We had remained. The others had gone to the beach. We were exchanging newspaper sections. The sun embraced the white wall and separated the black soil, out of which already sprang the deadly belladonna flower, from the air’s height. The plastic bag under a stone, together with the many, many newspaper pages gave the sure impression of absent-minded Saturday reading. (Continental newspapers reach the island the day after they come out.) Coming from far away, we felt something dangerous; it was approaching. The gate remained wide open, in the hinges of its apparent greatness. Then a car passed by in the narrow road, disturbing the dust. He, the one who was with me, got up, left the newspapers on the chair and, whistling softly, opened the tap that began filling up the lake. A year has passed over these sunday images. It was one of his last hours on the island. I remember the birds’ disjointed singing on the plane-trees’ branches. It must have been the island god (for some reason, I keep waiting for him to reveal himself) that gave him death. I say “it must have been”, for death always moves beyond its form and a god does not exactly want to kill: he is satisfied with wounding. [J M] I invited F to lunch at an esplanade in Vila Franca do Campo. Went back to the mother church to look one more time at the baptistery’s polygonal cup, a late gothic piece by the same masters who built the portal. I went down to the inlet; won’t be visiting the islet yet this summer. The circle-shaped rock of the isle is the flesh, the skin that envelops the small inner lagoon. A shell that opens itself to the sea. The rock is an envelope that fully deserves such qualifications as delicate, beautiful, black, desirable. To my eyes, it is the body of a warrior who has just been pierced by an enemy projectile – the sea. [S] I wander through the paths, which are suggested rather than defined, of the house’s terrain. Slowly, a voice reaches my ears; a first almost a murmur, then a clear call: “Return to your house.” “Leave me in peace”, I end up saying audibly, because the “return to your house” was persistent. “Please, return to your house. You don’t even see that you have yet painted nothing, except for one and the same shade of yellow, red, blue and black. It is nothing but a summer lovers’ dance.” “As long as I am here, this is my house. And I will stay until J M comes. Then the house becomes his, and I will leave. I enjoy what I am painting, and ask no more from colour, only that it stays red, black, white and sea-blue-black-green-white, just as learned from Monet.” “You couldn’t stand Monet because of his black. From Boudin and Courbet.” “From Renoir and Whistler.” “And Manet, Morisot, van de Velde, the younger, Fantin-Latour, Hiroshige… and say no more, or you’ll lose. Come on. Return to your house.” “I hate my house.” “Then cry. Cry once and for all.” “I have no tears in summer.” “Then eat. Eat that leavened cake you bought in Água de Pau.” “I fed it to the birds, from the kitchen window. It was mouldy.” Then I noticed that these replies did not come from me, but from another woman, as audible and invisible as the first voice. Besides, I had not bought any leavened cake or crumbled it between my fingers to feed the birds. And I would even like to ask that voice who Hiroshige was. But the voices were talking beside me, as I walked. They simply accompanied me. And the first voice talked again: “Leave this house and return to your real house.” “I cannot. I will not. A dead man got me pregnant. I must kill myself.” “Hang yourself, then. Nothing can save you.” I heard no more. A dog was following me. He growled. I sat on the stone bench, under the fig-tree, at the end of the path. The dog laid down at my feet. I noticed his head was wounded. I picked a fig and gave it to him. He ate, like it was a piece of meat. Then he leapt over the stone wall, in the place it had tumbled down. Stone on stone, most of it had fallen. I returned and entered through the gallery door. It was getting dark. I must slow down my imagination. [S] It is mid-september. This landscape, these days are starting to intimidate me. I must protect myself from their beauty. I have many fragments to gather. [J M] It was eight o’clock in the morning when I opened the door into the terrace. I faced the sea. The sun was high. I could not tell the light from most of the silence. Dogs in the distance. Not even a cloud. For a moment, I felt the ordered beat of my pulse. The sea was completely devoid of shadows. The hills stopped at the earth line. The sea had no surface, softly laid across the extent of its form. Everything could vanish – the sea, the light, the serenity, the howling of the dogs, appeased with a bowl of food. But no one could erase the silence. I was left with the feeling that the least fissure would drain the water north and south, east and west. I opened my sketch-book. On the sheet I laid, in pastel, a white circle. That white grew in thickness all morning, in order to emphasise a black blue, which I assailed with red, a deep ox-blood red. [S] Pátio, february 2005 João Miguel Fernandes Jorge [This text, written for Sofia Areal’s exhibition at Ponta Delgada’s Galeria Fonseca Machado, could not, according to the painter’s intent, take the form of a critical essay. It is, instead, a whimsical invention that hopefully will connect us both to São Miguel and the Caloura house where we spent several summers. The narrator at the beginning [F] is Maria de Fátima Borges, to whom we owe our stays at Caloura.]

João Miguel Fernandes Jorge

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FONSECA MACEDO - ARTE CONTEMPORÂNEA | 2017