Portuguese tasks

[The following are answers to a questionnaire sent by the Portuguese illustrator and researcher Júlio Dolbeth in December 2012.]

Júlio Dolbeth: You were one of the curators of the 2004 Portuguese Biannual of Illustration, the last major exhibition dedicated exclusively to illustration in Portugal. How did the invitation come about?

Vicente Ferrer: Begoña and I went to Lisbon for tourism in 1998, at the same time José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The city suddenly filled up with ‘Parabéns Saramago’ banners, which apparently —as we were later informed— had replaced others which announced the Salão Lisboa de Ilustração e Banda Desenhada '98. Fortunately, there were some posters left in the subway and we were able attend the exhibition, where we ran into a Spanish friend, the scriptwriter and critic Felipe Hernández Cava, who was attending as a guest. Felipe introduced us to the organisers, and that is how we met João Paulo Cotrim and Jorge Silva. We wee also introduced to Eloar Guazzelli, the Brazilian illustrator whom we would later commission to create the artwork for The Stream.

The invitation to join the jury of the 2004 Biannual came, I suppose, from Rosa Barreto, who was then the director of the Bedeteca, although I also knew Alice Geirinhas and Cristina Sampaio, the other two curators of the exhibition. Since the year of the Nobel Prize, we had maintained regular contact with Portuguese illustrators, since a group of Valencian illustrators were forming APIV, the Association of Professional Illustrators of Valencia, and we believed it was a priority to establish contact with associations, collectives, and institutions that were working in the illustration field. Lisbon’s Bedeteca was undoubtedly an exemplary experience and had always been a reference model for me. On one occasion I was invited to discuss our union experience at the Bedeteca’s headquarters and, in turn, we invited Portuguese illustrators to participate in activities organised by the Valencian and Catalan associations.

JD: What do you think was the reason why the illustration Biannual ended in 2004? Did you continue with illustration activities in Portugal afterwards?

VF: I am not aware of the exact circumstances and I do not dare guess an answer. The question should probably be addressed to those in charge of the project.

Since 2004 I have kept in touch with a few Portuguese illustrators whose work I follow with interest. In 2004 and 2006, I included various illustrators who were present at the 2004 Biannual in the collective book My First 80,000 Words (the first edition of which dates to 2002). In the third and final edition of that book (Valencia, 2006), up to thirteen Portuguese illustrators are featured. In 2005, during the sixth Salão Lisboa, the exhibition ‘As minhas primeiras 80 mil palavras: dicionário ilustrado’ took place in Estufa Fria, organised by Lisbon City Hall / Lisbon Bedeteca; coinciding with this exhibition, I was invited to participate in the 25th Lisbon Book Fair, with a speech titled ‘Media Vaca: the illustrated book’. Later that year, I was invited as a member of the jury for Illustrarte 2005, 2nd International Biannual of Illustration for Children, together with Frédérique Bertrand, Carll Cneut, Kveta Pacovská and José de Guimarães. In 2008 I was invited to the 18th Children’s Literature Meeting ‘Palavras de trapos: as línguas que os livros falam’, coordinated by Rita Taborda Duarte, where I gave a lecture on my vision of childhood books.

JD: For the 2004 Biannual, did you think about a common theme or, on the contrary, something more diverse and eclectic?

VF: I do not remember if we spoke about a common theme. Considering the selection made, it is evident that there is no common theme. On the contrary, what was probably discussed was to include illustrators from different backgrounds, such as comics, children’s books, or press illustration. The selection, as it could not be any other way, had to do with the jury’s personal and particular evaluation. In that sense, I think my presence may have contributed to generate some debate, since it was not professional careers that were being judged  (which in most cases I did not know about) but specific works. 

JD: Do you think illustration in Spain and Portugal have common aspects? Could we talk about an Iberian school of illustration?

VF: Traditionally there has been quite a lot of contact between Spanish and Portuguese illustrators. This is still the case; although probably far less than we should, due to proximity, common interests, etc. I do not think we could speak of an Iberian school of illustration. We still do not know much about each other: Portuguese books are not easily found in Spain, and Spanish books are not easily found in Portugal either. Portuguese and Spanish people prefer to consume French, American or Japanese illustration.

JD: Do you think illustrators form a closed community, where they are authors and consumers, or is there an audience that consumes illustration?

VF: Evidently, there is an audience for illustration outside the profession. We are not talking about nuclear engineering or palaeography: images interest all types of people. Everyone, to say the truth, can have an opinion on illustrations, even if they do not have a formal training. However, what we have is the taste of the majority, which is always old-fashioned, conventional, and following trends; but, in the same way we learn to read and begin refining our readings of texts, we can learn to read images and turn that reading into a necessity, thereby become more and more demanding.

JD: How does being an illustrator and a publisher come about?

VF: When I began working as a publisher, I automatically stopped being an illustrator. The publisher’s role requires great effort and it is difficult to make it compatible with another activity. However, I have discovered that being a publisher is, deep down, another way of being an illustrator: instead of selecting images, my job is to select illustrators who select images.

JD: In order to define illustration, is the existence of publication essential? Are there other ways of viewing illustration without the purpose of publication?

VF: By definition, graphic illustration refers to images with a narrative character, which are reproduced by mechanical means. Nowadays, new technologies provide new ways of spreading images, but I am not sure if this truly implies a change in the relationship between creation and consumers.

On the other hand, illustration, although it contains an undeniable decorative and aesthetic component, cannot always detach itself from its narrative function. If we keep the images and ignore the text or the ideas that originated those images, we would lose part of their meaning. It is not unusual to see, in museums and galleries, exhibitions of drawings or collages that were created to accompany a certain text or slogan, and we can also find those same images as decor in a pizzeria. Clearly, what we take from these images would be very different if we considered them as autonomous creations. This is not illegitimate either: the life of images has always been mysterious. There are many examples. Ultimately, it is the same as judging someone by how they dress or walk or smell and not by what they think or say; but if we pay attention, we do this almost every day without realising it.

JD: Does your work come from a commission or from within yourself? If so, how do both worlds, that of commissioned and self-created work, coexist?

VF: As an illustrator I did few commissions. I felt like what I was being proposed did not interest me; it was a way of earning money, of course, but it also gave me great dissatisfaction. So I began to think about my own projects that I enjoyed doing and which would also receive the market’s approval. As a publisher I have followed the exact path: I do not publish what others already publish (and can sell better), but only projects in which my contribution, due to a bigger interest or knowledge invested, could be more decisive.

From the fifty books we have published through Media Vaca, only two came via a commission: Exemplary Crimes and Free and Equal. The former was a proposed by Segorbe’s Max Aub Foundation and the latter by the Centro de Acogida a Refugiados de Mislata (Mislata Refugee Reception Centre). In both cases there was a desire on our part to make those books; if the commission had not referred to books we were naturally willing to make, it is difficult we would have accepted.

JD: Is there any influence of popular culture in your work? Could you give me an example?

VF: Yes, of course. I have always been interested in popular culture. You can trace it in my work as an illustrator and as a publisher. For example, the book The World Turned Upside Down by Miguel Calatayud, who picks up the legacy of ‘aucas’, which were very popular in Valencia during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

JD: How could we recognise popular culture in your work?

VF: On one hand I am interested in traditional themes; on the other, in the specific use of graphic techniques. In many books we have employed images made using linoleum or wood engravings, and it is common to use two colours as stylised in classical print before the expansion of modern CMYK colour model machines. I can give the example of Mariana Chiesa’s images for the book No Time to Play. In this case —and I try to ensure that this is always the case— the use of the technique is not whimsical, but rather determined by the subject itself. The use of two colours is not casual either, nor does it have to do with reducing the production costs of the book-object: producing books using two colours is as expensive today as printing them in four, but I am interested in rescuing the work of artists who made books in the 1920s and 1930s, and who produced great works using limited means. Constriction and difficulty almost always becomes an ally of the creation process because it allows to free the imagination.

JD: If I say ‘Portugal’, what symbol comes to mind?

VF: A red devil. It is a polychromatic clay sculpture made by a North-Portuguese artist which was gifted to us by a friend of ours, the designer Jorge Silva. I cannot remember the name of the artist, only that she was a very old lady. Jorge was her main collector. The devil sits on a library shelf I have behind me. I see it all the time. It protects me.