The Monument to the Discoveries – Padrão das Descobertas – sits tall and imposing on the northern bank of Lisbon’s Tagus Estuary. Honouring the navigators that led Portugal’s discovery expeditions into the New World in the 15th century, the monument was carved by preeminent sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida.
Since the 60s, Almeida’s studio in Lisbon has been used by his daughter Helena for her own practice. Helena Almeida is considered to be one of the most important contemporary Portuguese artists. Her work explores the confines of the canvas – in a 1969 photographic work, the artist is literally wearing a canvas, and at her first show a couple of years previous, Almeida hung her canvases back to front. She places her body at the centre of, yet not as the subject of, much of her work, which playfully combines painting and drawing with photography and performance.
These themes are reflected in Almeida’s latest exhibition “My Work is my Body. My Body is your Work” is currently on display at Jeu de Paume in Paris (ends 22 May). In Lisbon, a handful of the artist’s black and white photographs can be seen at Museu Coleção Berardo where they make up part of the museum’s permanent collection. A recent retrospective exhibited here was entitled “Pés no Chão, Cabeça no Céu” (Feet on Earth, Head in the Sky), reflecting the dichotomy of everyday life and dreams in her work.
Although not a formal photographer, Almeida’s most recognisable work is a series of grainy monochrome photographs entitled ‘Study for Inner Improvement’. The flat images are splashed with electric lashes of bright blue paint – not unlike Yve Klein’s eponymous blue, who used the bodies of female models to paint in the vivid shade.
Almeida has twice represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale. In 2005, a photographic documentation of a performance in her studio asks her reoccurring question: how can the body create a work of art? Isabel Carlos responded to the installation as “one of the most radically consistent examples of Portuguese art from the second half of the twentieth century”.
When visiting the Leopoldo’s mighty monument and Helena’s works at Museu Coleção Berardo in Belém, be sure to pop into Pastéis de Belém for one of their famous custard tarts. Conclude a perfect afternoon at À Margem (a sleek glass-fronted bar in a shipping container a little further along from Leopoldo’s monument) for a glass of chilled Duoro rosé as the sun sets over the Tagus.