With recent exhibitions of discrete bodies of work at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and its satellite in Paris, Lourdes Castro has begun to enjoy something of a renaissance. But, due in large part to this distinguished Portuguese artist’s reluctance to exhibit, up until now a full-scale retrospective of her work has never been organized. That she was coaxed into this enterprise at Fundação Serralves testifies to some seriously persuasive mojo on the part of João Fernandes, the curator of the show and director of the museum, and perhaps explains the otherwise perplexing double-billing with the late Manuel Zimbro, Castro’s collaborator and life partner. Aside from the fact that Zimbro was an integral part of the Teatro Ambulante de Sombras (Travelling Theatre of Shadows), props from which are shown here, the anomalous inclusion of his work – featuring strange, photo-realistic gouaches of clods of earth and oddly aerodynamic sculptures of seeds – in two small rooms at the back of the exhibition is hard to understand.
Titled ‘A luz da sombra’ (Light and Shadow), the show could have just as easily been called ‘A Penumbral Compendium’ or ‘A Myriad of Shades’, because that’s what it is: a vast catalogue of silhouettes – human and otherwise. Yet such sweepingly poetic characterizations (and any spectre of political oppression they might conjure up) are slightly misleading, because Castro’s work is highly personal. Not that the political can be separated from her biography: like many Portuguese artists of her generation who fled António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship, she moved to Paris in the late 1950s in order to work and to exhibit. There she started the handmade, silk-screened journal KWY with her then partner René Bertholo, which ran for 12 issues and was at the heart of an artistic community that included the likes of Christo and Jan Voss. Her own art work, the beginnings of which were marked by the ragtag accumulations of Nouveau Realism, eventually blossomed into a life-long preoccupation with shadows and human silhouettes. Initially depicting human profiles on canvas, she was drawn to Perspex in the early ’60s because, like a shadow, it had virtually no texture. Toward the end of the decade, she fully conceded to the theatrical impulse behind her subject matter and began staging shadow plays. In the ’70s and early ’80s, this work took her and Zimbro on the road around Europe, until they decided to install themselves on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where they could literally ‘tend their garden’, and Castro, barring a few exceptions, withdrew from actively exhibiting.
Elegantly installed in the Alvaro Siza-designed museum’s upper floor, the show begins with a smattering of early work, bric-a-brac assemblages of objects, a vitrine of KWY and artists’ books, and a complete presentation of Castro’s 1969 series ‘Sombras Deitadas’ (Lying Shadows), a collection of about a dozen bed sheets theatrically hung as if out to dry, featuring embroidered portraits of friends (as a rule, the artist only portrayed friends and family), sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs. Contrary to possible expectation, the work is neither sentimental nor exactly haunting, despite its intimate character; rather it feels archival, in an iconophilic way.
While other bodies of work are on display – such as her ‘Grand Herbier d’Ombres’ (Great Shadow Book of Herbs, 1972), a large collection of photograms of plants from Madeira – the show-stopper is in the main space. This is dedicated to a dazzling, salon-style hanging of the artist’s most celebrated body of work, ‘Sombras projectadas’ (Projected Shadows, 1965–9) and an extended vitrine of her ongoing ‘Album de Família’ (Family Album, 1958–ongoing). The ‘Sombras projectadas’ consist primarily of silhouettes of individuals meticulously carved out of fluorescent-coloured, loosely sandwiched plates of Perspex, which are hung from lines à l’ancienne, so as to hover before the wall in a play of shadows. In addition to posing, her figures also appear playing music or taking photos; the walls teem with a bright and airy activity. For all the intense melancholy liable to attend such an anonymous yet personal and inevitably elegiac subject matter, a panegyrical optimism hums throughout. The central vitrine houses a selection from the artist’s ‘Album de Família’ (Family Album), which features clippings from magazines, poems, texts and drawings in which shadows either appear or are evoked. My personal favourite is a L’Oréal magazine advertisement in which a woman shades her face from the sun with a white comb, its teeth projected over her closed eyes. That such an ideologically charged and conflicted site as a beauty advert could be read in such dusky terms speaks to an admirable metaphysical serenity; it’s a metaphor for Castro’s practice (and possibly even her life). Everything here seemed to confirm John Ashbery’s suspicion that ‘all things seem mention of themselves’, but not without gracefully relieving it of its Platonic anxiety.