How many people have cried at the Prado?
How many people, when finally placed in front of paintings they’ve seen for years in the pages of books and in their memory become so overwhelmed by the sensation of being physically with these artworks that they lose control of themselves?
I am one of those people.
I was a little girl in a big blue bow and black and white saddle shoes in a small schoolhouse in the Texas countryside when I discovered a deck of cards depicting famous paintings from Western art history. Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, Renoir’s lady at the piano, Rousseau’s desert sleeper- I examined these images one after the other, over and over. Each card contained another dimension where anything could happen. Were these places and things real, or were they imaginary inventions? Paintings were like a beautiful itch that I couldn’t quite scratch. Later on, I saw paintings from the cards projected in art history classrooms or, if I was lucky, hanging in museums. They were what I came to know as art’s masterpieces. Some of these very same paintings appear in the work of José Almeida Pereira.
They say that Caravaggio lived such a violent and vagrant life because he was guarding a secret camera obscura that helped him create his lush, uncanny paintings. Seen by resentful contemporaries as an unfair advantage, the tool is ultimately worthless without a sensitive hand to capture and execute it. José has this hand. His paintings are immediately astounding in their technical virtuosity: in a series of skilled washes, marks, and surfaces, he seems to retrace the first artists’ footsteps. There is a double trompe l’oeil happening: not only is José approximating the painter’s imagery, he is also reproducing the material qualities of oil with acrylic paint. The elasticity and prodigiousness of José’s hand show his obvious pleasure in untangling a masterpiece’s technical puzzles, but there is more. His move from looking at a classic painting to re-creating it asks questions not only about how it was made, but why.
What is a masterpiece? The paintings in Panorama, and indeed the cards I discovered as a girl, come from a relatively narrow radius of geography and time. The paintings’ bejeweled ladies, hunting dogs, prisoners of war, and scientific tools show a Western European world defined by class reconfigurations, changing rites, incessant war, and a search for new knowledge. José chooses art historical images that resonate for him with the present day, and he describes painting from the original works as an extra-temporary act, a process that suspends time. It’s fitting, then, that the installation is in the shape of a zoetrope, and shares its implied circular action. Set together side by side in a close ring, the paintings’ angled surfaces form a dynamic embrace. The viewer is surrounded by figurations and preoccupations that are strange but familiar. In a word, the paintings are beautiful.
When I find something very beautiful, I often get a strange feeling of déjà vu. The first painting I saw by José was a bright bouquet of flowers in a glass vase. It looked familiar, like a face I’d seen before but couldn’t quite place. I later learned that the painting was based on a piece by Manet, although I’m still not sure if I’ve ever actually seen the original. José’s bouquet sets my mind abuzz for another reason: subtle color distortions on the edges of the forms keep me from getting a handle on the painting’s outlines and edges. The image is not stationary, and neither is the word bouquet. It is an attractively arranged bunch of flowers presented as a gift or as part of a ceremony; Panorama gathers José’s paintings together as an offering and artistic rite. In rarer usage, a bouquet is a compliment; José’s dedicated study of painting is at the very least a compliment to its legacy. Finally, bouquet is used to describe the characteristic scent of wine or perfume, something intangible and fleeting. And this bouquet is what I think José is most interested in.
Stepping into the installation, the visitor is hit by the intoxicating smell of paint and turpentine, painting’s prima materia. Scent memory may be the hardest to recall or define, but when it reappears it’s stronger than sight. What makes an artwork compelling? It’s a feeling akin to a forgotten scent suddenly resurfacing: it’s disorienting, entrancing, and brings out something hidden. These paintings aren’t copies, nor are they reproductions- those things are too hollow and static for what José does. Perhaps they are studies- the word implies devotion to detail and an imbibing of material in order to do something else with it.
“I feel free in choosing whatever image I want,” José says, “to me nothing is untouchable.” This act of touching- to touch a masterpiece, to physically and mentally explore its reality through painting- is José’s concern. And part of a masterpiece’s reality is the gap between its physical presence- its technique and style- and its imaginary one- the memories and ideas we keep of it. The recollections and associations we carry with a painting put us in an extra-temporal plane when we see it.
But a painting does not have to be a masterpiece or even an original work to do this to us. The first painting I knew is a copy of a portion of Diego Velázquez’s Feast of Bacchus that’s been hanging at my grandmother’s small house outside of San Antonio, Texas since before I was born. My grandfather was a Mexican American World War II veteran working in Madrid, Spain in the 1950s when he met an artist in a bar and asked him to go to the Prado Museum and paint him the picture. He later commissioned the artist to paint two more Prado copies and to paint portraits of his children. Decades ago, my grandfather cared about painting. I never got to meet him, but he cared about painting, too. And so the small Velázquez copy hanging over my grandmother’s kitchen showed me that painting really existed, and showed me a painted surface for the first time, but it also absorbed my memories and attachments about art and family over the years. Paintings are not just physical objects; they are emotional entities- shape-shifting, charged, and sometimes heavy. And so I will cry at the Prado.
“My hope in the act of painting is that something will happen- to create a painting that touches you, that you cannot be indifferent to,” José says. Through his painting, José offers a bouquet to arrange our thoughts and experiences on. It is a beautiful and generous gift.