Influenced by three continents
By Elisabete Lucas
in The Paintings of Aristides Meneses
Born in 1958 in Lourenço Marques, nowadays called Maputo, in Mozambique, located in the east coast of Africa, Aristides Meneses descended from a family that in the last hundred years has lived in three continents. His grandparents, who where from Goa, in Asia, left India to that country, which at that time was a Portuguese colony, and settled there. Both his parents where born in Africa, in Lourenço Marques, the father and in Inhanbane, the mother. They lived there until they had to move to Portugal where they now live. Due to that confluence, Aristides Meneses has been influenced by three cultures, from the Asian, due to his ascendants, to the European, through language, history and political environment, including the African, because he lived there until he was sixteen. In a discreet and subtle way, all his work reflects that multiplicity of influences and, although the European culture is dominant, one can find more or less explicit references to the others in a large number of his works.
He started to paint in Mozambique, doing so as any child who liked to draw and paint images on paper, real or imaginary, working with colour pencils, watercolors, pastel and other techniques. But unlike other children, painting interested him dearly, and started to grow in importance. Without doubt those years in Africa had an enormous influence on him.
The large open spaces, the time that seemed to allow almost anything, the beach until darkness, long roads lined with trees, the conversations and parties in the open space are just a few examples of fond memories reflected in his paintings, even if they are the end result of a subconscious process. The openness of the mind appears associated to an open attitude, fearless of showing to a point that surprises some of the most critical minds, because the painter allows to expose himself on canvas in a very intense way, as in “Self portrait at one hundred years” (1983), arguably one of his most interesting paintings. Literally painted in front of a mirror, it was the result both of an image inversion exercise and of an introspective analysis, which brought to the canvas a strong and moving portrait. And, as in many of his works, it seems to draw the observer to the inside, as if it was their own portrait, dispossessed and alone, but with much inner strength. And so, instead of being a frightening painting, because it must be frightening to imagine oneself with a hundred years old, it is in fact soothing. At the end it is no more that a phase characterized by one knowledge.
Of the work completed in Africa, with an orientation to the realistic and naturalistic, only one small painting survived, “Oasis”, executed with pastel on paper by 1971. The caravels of the Portuguese Discoveries, the sea and the African landscapes, all were themes of his work during his youth, with which he entered some painting exhibitions. During the last years he lived in Mozambique he started to use indian ink painted and blown on paper. Those works are all lost now, due to the migration to another continent, in adverse conditions for the family.
In 1975 Aristides Meneses came to live in Lisbon, because of the new political situation both in Portugal and Mozambique. Until the end of the 80s, he kept working with indian ink. Some of these works, although lost, have been reproduced in a student newspaper to which he was a regular contributor.
In 1977 he went to the University of Aveiro. It was there that, as a student of Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering, painting assumed a much more important role in his life. At that time he started to make some experiences with oil on canvas, with “Blameless child looking at the tomb of the dead world”, dated 1979. This painting already shows some of the main characteristics of all his following work: ambiguity, angst, divine, knowledge, the flow of contradictory and simultaneous emotions, the world between life and death.
Aristides Meneses brings to the canvas his inner toughts and inquietudes, but he does that in an open way, always leaving some space for the observers to be reflected in the paintings with their own emotions, preoccupations and analysis, building personalized stories from images that, being almost immutable, start a new life and get a different form each time one looks at them.
It was also in 1979 that, along with other fellow students, he created the Arte Universidade group, and with it he started exhibiting his work. His paintings created an immediate diversity of emotions and interpretations, effects that remain up to today with each new work, probably due to the apparent simplicity of most of them which, however, reveal a strong complexity and emotional impact at each new glance. More than twenty years later, during his individual exhibition “Future Mirrors” in 2005, in Lisbon, he explained the influence the emotional structure and mind state of the observer have in the appreciation of his paintings, saying that each time he exposes a painting, the observer himself is exposed to it, in an interaction generated by emotions.
Very fond of mathematics and physics, subjects in which he became one of the best students of his class, he applied, in part subconsciously, some of the more chatering concepts of physics discoveries at that time, especially focusing on Einstein´s Relativity Theory, Heisenberg´s Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger´s Equation, not so much by its physics explanations properties but by the associations he did with the human mind and emotions, as shown in his work “Personality multiplication provoked by the appearance of a red fish”, painted in 1984. The painting, based on a building in an engraving by M. C. Escher, invites the observer to look from every point of view without forcing any predefined logic or analysis. And, as in many other cases, the sensations it unveils are so diverse as diverse are the observers or the times they choose to look. Because if the paintings, as objects, are static, as artistic expressions they are not. On the contrary, they are as dynamic as the emotions each observer experiences. The image is there, but very quickly each observer conquers domain over the story and transforms it as he wants.
Having iniciated a more profound relationship with painting at the university, he started a path of technical learning which led him to experimental painting lessons at Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes in Lisbon, during 1984 and 1985. Although he says he never looked at a blank canvas, because he starts working on a painting with brushes and paint only when he already has the full image in his mind, the development of his technical skill was very important to the continuous improvement of his work. Aristides Meneses insists that chance has an enormous role in his work, citing Heisenberg´s Uncertainty Principle as the explanation for it. He says that the quantum effects that influence the image produced in the subconscious, result itself of the transformation of the total sum of influences the artist has felt, in the cosmic sense that links man to the universe and everything else, are what enables the same image to gain a life and a will of its own while being created. In this sense, at the moment the original mental image starts disintegrating in anti-photons, the personages of the paintings are able to suggest looks and smiles, places suggest colours and environment determine the order, carrying the work through unforeseen paths. And the painter, keeping his freedom, allows himself to be carried away by his work, even if it seems he keeps control of it all the time, really choosing what happens on the canvas.
Fascinated by paintings, he visits innumerous museums and art galleries in Portugal and abroad, feeding the necessity of evolution and knowledge, which characterize him and are a way of life more than an answer to the challenges of painting. One probable cause of his renewed interest in oil painting techniques was his trip through the south of Europe in 1978, especially Italy, where he was face to face with sculptures, paintings and buildings of the renascence and some antique art. He says the cosmos influence his works as well as every other artist.
Due to his figurative and apparently realistic themes, although dreamlike motives and images, the painter is often confronted by his observers with the need to understand and to find a logic explanation. But, to Aristides Meneses it is more important for his work to be felt than seen, because all of it revolves around human emotions, complex, simultaneous and usually stronger than man himself.
Stressing that his work is a result of subconscious images, in a transformation and distillation process of everything with which he interacts, the painter admits that they reveal themselves to the conscious in an unexpected and volatile way. For the most part, he does not know the source of his images. But sometimes the source is well identified, like the leaf of a fig tree, transported by a gentle breeze in the morning to the floor of his porch, at the end of the summer 2003, while the heat from the sun dried and changed it. And that was the origin of “Dinosaur mutation in the morning sun”. Even before the painting was finished, a few hours later, the leaf was almost extinct, but the dinosaur survived, he says.
Often nature is the driving inspiration force behind the materialization of his images, as can be attested by his numerous works with beaches, trees, rocks or deserts, which he transforms into personages for his paintings, and which gain new lives from each glance by the observers. One characteristic example is a painting made the same summer, in 2003, whose title came from his six years old son, who exclaimed: “It is father and mother angry at the beach”. The child did not see inanimate objects, he saw living beings. And it is that emotional effect, multiplicative and diversified, that best characterize the painted work of Aristides Meneses.