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Berardo Collection Museum Presents Drawings and Paintings Made by Raul Perez
Raul Perez, A Princesa, 1969.

By Jean-François Chougnet

LISBON.- This exhibition brings together ninety works produced between the 1960s and 2008, and shows the perspective of a very peculiar visual and aesthetical universe. The painter Raúl Perez was born in 1944, in Lovelhe, a vil¬lage in the Minho region, in the north of Portugal. He exhibits solo since 1972. In 1973 he joined the Phases Group (Paris).

The Berardo Collection has from the outset sought to amass pieces coherently, permitting a broad approach to certain artistic movements of the twentieth century. Its acquisitions of surrealist art have gained it recognition, in this respect, as one of the most significant collections in Europe. So it is only natural that the Museu Colecção Berardo should explore aspects of the contemporary surrealist scene, presenting a major exhibition of work by Raúl Perez, a discreet but notable figure in the Portuguese art of the last thirty years. Raúl Perez himself shuns any affiliation, adamantly asserting his complete independence. The exhibition and this catalogue will of course not fail to raise a number of questions, likely to remain unanswered, concerning the destiny of these avant-gardes which have shaped the way we look at art.

It was André Breton’s conviction that objects possess a magic, and also that our looking at objects has the power to rekindle this magic. André Breton devoted a book, L’Art magique, to the continued existence of a magical dimension to art, writing that “The development of civilization and unceasing technical progress have not been able to eradicate completely from the human soul the hope of solving the riddle of the world and of harnessing its ruling forces for its own use.”

Published in 1957 in a limited edition (reserved for the Friends of the Club Français du Livre), L’Art Magique represents a sort of impasse – or the promise of a development that was never to materialize, as only fragments of it resurface in Surréalisme et la peinture (1965) – in Breton’s thought. The book itself was never released for general sale in its original version, and a standard edition only saw the light of day in 1991 . Beyond the work of the historian, and of the poet fed on images, a panorama takes shape as the author turns his attention to the representations which he has given pride of place, the phantoms or symbols that he has cultivated and which he lends without distinction to the past and to the present, well beyond mere Surrealism which, moreover, is only modestly represented. He counters “scientific knowledge which seeks to extend its domination overall all human inventions” with a “universal lyric awareness” which permits a direct understanding of all art. According to André Breton, art responds at any time and in any place to a universal instinct. As a supplement to this essay, he published the comments made by leading figures in response to his questionnaire. In general, the responses agreed on one point: that of the existence of a “magic art” cutting across the epochs and cultures of the world. However, the published responses included one which clearly differed from the others. This was that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who offered in a single sentence the dry response of the anthropologist: “You have chosen, sir, to place your definition of art at a level when meaning dissolves.”

The work of Raúl Perez is situated precisely “at a level where meaning dissolves”. Raúl Perez is dismissive of labels, movements, the “isms” of the twentieth century, convenient references beloved of commentators. In this respect, his work is troublesome, evasive. Late surrealism, magical art, metaphysical painting – all these are valid pointers, as shown by the artist’s career, starting with the group entitled “Phases”, and the artistic and literary company he has kept. Here, the name that springs to mind is Julien Gracq, whom Raúl Perez has interpreted several times over.

In the “note to readers” for his first novel, Au château d’Argol (1938), Julien Gracq wrote “And if this slight tale might pass for being but a demonic – and so fully authorized – version of the masterpiece, we could not hope that from this alone some light would spill over even for those still not wishing to see. […] Would that the potent wonders of the Mysteries of Udolpho, of the castle of Otranto, and of the House of Usher had been summoned up to transmit to its feeble syllables some small portion of the power of bewitchment retained by their chains, their phantoms and their coffins: the author will merely render his deliberately explicit tribute to the spell which they have untiringly cast on him.” This text could serve as an epigraph to Raúl Perez’ artistic output.

With Julien Gracq he would find himself in good company, in the important literary and artistic lineage which comes down from The Castle of Otranto, the novel published in 1764 by Horace Walpole and regarded as the first gothic novel, taking in The Mysteries of Udolpho, by the English writer, Ann Radcliffe, published in 1784, and the celebrated short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, by the American Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1839. We might further extend the list by evoking William Blake, and his Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). This lineage includes some unexpected detours, from poets to the heavily made-up hard rockers of today, from silent cinema to fantasy movies, with their massive budgets and special effects. It is this “bewitchment”, drawn from the tradition of dark romanticism, that gives Raúl Perez’s unclassifiable work its strange power.

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