Letters to Lourdes: From 4 to 5

Life as it is: Lourdes Castro in the Serralves Collection was scheduled to open on 20 March 2020, the first day of Spring. Understandably, considering her numerous works with flowers, the artist was delighted by this coincidence… 
A few days before the opening, just when the works were about to be installed, the Serralves Museum closed its doors. Despite the postponement of the show, it remained powerfully present in my days. Prevented from devising in the exhibition gallery the best possible dialogue between the works (and between them and us), I nevertheless pursued my dialogue with Lourdes (which had begun as the show started to be conceived) to clarify doubts pertaining to the titles of the works and to choose the image to be used for announcing and promoting the show. We spoke on the telephone ¬– the quickest means to communicate with someone who never wanted to use a computer and still favours the post as the best means to reach those who are far. After trying different hours, Lourdes confessed that four in the afternoon or a bit after would be the best time for her to talk. We always started talking at four, at first without any particular regularity, and then daily. Since then, we talk every day from four to five pm. When we started this ‘perpetual dialogue’ I could not have imagined that the Museum’s landline would be replaced by the mobile phone, nor that instead of sitting on my chair in the Museum’s office I would be lounging on my living room’s sofa, or even that I would have to let her know about the show’s postponement; I also could not have guessed that the daily exposure to her wisdom, lucidity, serenity and sense of humour would turn into an antidote to such uncertain, and potentially distressful times as these. Her reaction to the postponement of the exhibition perfectly sums up the qualities I just mentioned: ‘Well, it does seem that this year Spring will have to start later… Besides, the world might have just discovered the quarantine, but having not left the house in almost two years, I can tell you first-hand that the experience does not necessarily mean renouncing everything!’
During the many hours that we engaged in conversation, we talked of subjects as disparate as her time at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts (where we both studied, although about forty-five years apart), her life in Paris (at almost ninety, Lourdes Castro has a prodigious memory, which allows her to give a detailed account of her Parisian adventures, as well as to enumerate the multitude of people she met and in which circumstances – ‘after all, we weren’t in Paris to stay at home!’), art – hers and others’ –, how she always refused to manage a career that she never really aimed for (‘things happened to me without ever having sought them… but I always believed in myself!’), the relevance of having met certain people (‘no one chooses their place of birth, or their parents’) and certain books (as we shall see). 
As I just mentioned, the telephone calls with Lourdes Castro were an ‘antidote to anxiety’, but also an antidote to ‘fear’. Here is why: living by herself and in geographic isolation (a circumstance she deliberately sought and came to terms with), to all who ask her if she feels fear Lourdes answers: ‘Fear? I don’t know what fear is. To be able to feel it, I’d have to believe, which I don’t, that I am separated from things – only those who believe that things are separate perceive them as threatening. For that reason, I never feel alone… the trees in my garden pay me much company.’ 
This way of thinking, which explains the serenity of those who engage fully in whatever they do or say, might be linked to her interest in Eastern thought – among the subjects we talked about, I almost forgot the constant references to Japan (a culture that simultaneously attracts and repels Lourdes, with its exceedingly beautiful, simple and proper ceremonies that nevertheless can also be very rigid – ‘Japan is the Germany of the East!’), to the wonder and beauty of the haiku, to the books she read (in the original language) while studying at the German School of Funchal, particularly one that I find so relevant to her growth as a person and an artist that I re-read it while writing the text for the guide to her exhibition: Zen in The Art of Archery, written in 1948 by Eugen Herrigel, a German professor who taught philosophy in Japan between 1924 and 1929. As I mentioned, the artist read it in German at a very early stage in her life: ‘Sometimes there are lifesavers. When the West no longer offered the answers, many went East. And they returned; like Mr Herrigel, who lived there, studying and learning Japanese. That exchange provided answers to such things as religion: answers that suddenly rang true, providing relief and comfort’1.  One of the best synopsis of the book, which describes the attempt to understand Zen by looking into the art of archery, was written, interestingly enough, by José Manuel dos Santos, a friend of Lourdes Castro: ‘The relationship between body and mind, matter and spirit, being and becoming, ideal and real, visible and invisible, word and silence, identity and alterity, abstract and concrete, universal and particular, life and death – which we experience as separation, error, conflict, discord or hallucination – is shown here as alliance, accord, harmony, conjuration, fusion and hypostasis’2

While we are waiting for the show to open, I set myself the task of writing ‘Letters to Lourdes: From 4 to 5’, which will soon be available in print, and of which a small part is now disclosed in the hope they might transform this current period of pause into a moment to share her art and her life, and spark the curiosity of future viewers. The letters will be accompanied by texts about her art – more specifically about her works in the Serralves Collection and her artist books in the Serralves Foundation Collection of Artists’ Books and Editions. For now, in preparation for this journey, we can discover or rediscover an opera that Lourdes Castro listens to everyday: Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Ricardo Nicolau, 30 March 2020

1.See Óscar Faria, ‘Lourdes Castro: "A minha pintura é esta: o viver, o estar cá”’, Interview with Lourdes Castro, Público (Porto and Lisbon), Ípsilon suppl., 3 March 2010.
2. See José Manuel dos Santos, ‘O Tiro’, Expresso (Lisbon), 29 November 2007. [English version for this essay.]

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