“I Won’t Dance” – Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro and the ‘History of Dance’ Paintings for the Conde de Valenças Palace
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Some months ago, Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro’s five paintings depicting the history of dance were auctioned by Veritas in Lisbon, without securing a buyer. The five paintings, plus two more in the hands of another private collector, and a ceiling still in situ (Lapa Palace Hotel – formerly Palácio do Conde de Valenças) constitute probably the largest decorative ensemble ever undertaken by the painter (rivaled only by his Beau Séjour ensemble, with a ceiling also in situ, but with the paintings dispersed and, with few exceptions, today lost).
I had the opportunity to write extensively about Columbano’s decorative painting in the 2010 exhibition catalogue dedicated to the painter and organized by the Museu do Chiado. This part of his pictorial production, although very extensive and spanning several decades of the painter’s life, remains relatively unknown to the general public, and little appreciated by specialists. Clashing with the established image of Columbano as a painter dedicated to the genres of portraiture and still-life in the seclusion of his atelier, his decorative works are bright, colorful, expansive, and sometimes penetrated by a playful irony.
The fact that these works were often executed in the context of commissions for palaces and private homes is also to blame for their marginalization: these are not works easily transported for the sake of exhibitions, and the previous lack of a comprehensive study had not allowed their similarities, themes and stylistic affinities to emerge. This is an oeuvre, within an oeuvre, difficult to reconcile with the painter’s ‘mainstream’ production.
Columbano was praised and criticized in equal measure for his decorative works by his contemporaries. It was the criticism that survived the test of time though, possibly because the voice uttering it carried a cultural authority rarely matched by its peers: that of Fialho de Almeida. Although Ribeiro Artur found the coloring of the Conde de Valenças series of an “enchanting sweetness…that delights the eye…[and] one of the most beautiful works that I have seen undertaken by one of our artists” (June 10, 1889), Fialho de Almeida offered the ambiguous praise that the painter, “by education, and by blood, a realist…could not invent, nor wanted to”, calling him – most memorably – “the chronicler of modern deformity”, while describing the same works (January 20, 1891). Fialho also, rather wistfully, commented that the “stubbornness” of the painter who refused to paint anything else but what was before his eyes, was a mark of greatness, albeit one that would forever divert him from popularity.
Fialho’s prediction sadly came true, and Columbano’s decorative paintings are today remarkably unpopular. The Conde de Valenças paintings are, in fact, inconvenient, in every sense of the word: their size, their relative dependence on the ensemble as a whole, the (unappealing by modern standards) subject matter. The paintings would be a better fit for a museum, than a private collector, although it is currently impossible to imagine which museum could afford to acquire them, and in which context they could be presented. The ‘failure’ of Columbano raises broader questions about the value of cultural heritage, and the prickliness of handling artworks that go counter to contemporary taste, especially when the latter is known to fluctuate wildly.
Make no mistake though: the paintings are exquisite. The canvases might hinge on the curious-looking personages represented in them, but at the same time they display an unparalleled lightness of color and touch, and an almost self-referential dense materiality: after a while, one forgets about the dancers, and can only see the paint.