Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Alberto de Lacerda: A Poet Amongst Artists

Insolent Grace: The Transatlantic Life of Alberto de Lacerda, at Poets House

April 6 – June 18, 2011
10 River Terrace, between Murray and Barclay streets,
New York City, (212) 431-7920

Arpad Szenes, Portrait of Alberto de Lacerda, 1971.  Courtesy of Poets House, New York
Arpad Szenes, Portrait of Alberto de Lacerda, 1971. Courtesy of Poets House, New York

Poets may be the unacknowledged legislators of the world but they also serve as the equally unacknowledged binding agents, conduits and couriers, if not social cement, of a larger culture, especially that of the visual arts. Grace of light baggage, worldly and literal; fleetness of foot and phrase; obligatory diplomacy allied to a natural penchant for poverty and sprightly sense of survival: the poet often plays a crucial, though naturally unpaid, role in the art world.

The very epitome of this position might be the life and career of Alberto de Lacerda, a Portugese poet whose friends and supporters included the widest possible swathe of painters, sculptors, publishers, editors, fellow writers and thorough bohemians, stretched across as many continents as professions. Born in Portugese Mozambique in 1928, Lacerda spent the majority of his working life in London, whilst regularly shuttling between England and America where he taught at several universities, including Boston to and Columbia.

This roaming existence traversed several particularly fertile decades of creative change, from the relative austerity of 1950s London, to the narcotic wonderland of  ‘60s America. Lacerda profited richly from these shifting times, places and mores, happily exploiting his obviously abundant talent for friendship.

Indeed, what is fascinating about the exemplary exhibition – entirely drawn from his Estate – at Poets House is the sheer range of his connections spanning such seemingly disparate cultures and cities.

Laid out in a series of vitrines is a selection of utterly delicious ephemera tracing his society trajectory, from a luncheon seating plan in the hand of Dame Edith Sitwell, along with a telegram inviting him to eat with T.S. Eliot and William Walton, to snapshots of Lacerda with such friends as Ocatvio Paz, Martha Graham and Stephen Spender.  There are manuscripts and dedicated books given to him by the likes of Anne Sexton, Robert Duncan andMarianne Moore.

On arriving in London in 1951 Lacerda began to work for the BBC but was soon publishing his own work, not least in the Times Literary Supplement.  His first book, 77 Poems, was translated in conjunction with none less than Arthur Waley, the fabled sinologist and expert on Chinese verse.

Vieira da Silva, Alberto’s Library, 1982.  Courtesy of Poets House, New York
Vieira da Silva, Alberto’s Library, 1982. Courtesy of Poets House, New York

Amongst his other achievements, Lacerda drank with Dylan Thomas, introduced Fernando Pessoa to the English-speaking world, and traveled to the newly built Brasilia with its architect Oscar Niemeyer. Having, as it were, conquered postwar London, Lacerda moved in 1967 to Austin, to take up a position at the University of Texas. Here, to general surprise, not least his own, the entirely cosmopolitan sophisticate found himself equally happy, even if eventually moving back to his fabled abode at Primrose Mansions, Prince of Wales Drive where he died in 2007.

Through these peregrinations Lacerda maintained long associations with as many visual artists as writers, which thanks to these vagaries of time and place, resulted in his forming an eclectic and truly international collection, shown at its best throughout the generous length of Poets House. Part of this private collection was exhibited at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon in 1987, and its re-appearance here in Battery Park seems a fortuitous, if somewhat improbable, blessing.

Perhaps the most striking works are by two rightly celebrated Portugese women artists, Vieira da Silva and Paula Rego, both of whom are well represented here, with drawings and prints stretching from 1943 to 1997.

Likewise some of Lacerda’s more celebrated friends such as David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Patrick Caulfield and even Henry Miller here make their mark. But there are equally impressive works by Arpad Szenes, Pavel Tchelitchew, Victor Willing, David Jones and Alan Davie, artists all too rarely shown in New York, and now making a welcome appearance in the city entirely, ironically, thanks to their poet colleague.

A good many of these works are, naturally, images of the poet himself, including a charming parchment portrait by the late lamented Rory McEwen, but there are also portraits that Lacerda collected of other poets by other artists, among them François Villon’s Rimbaud and Manet’s Baudelaire.

And here we understand Lacerda as part of precisely such a lineage, an archetype almost, the poet who knows everyone and everything yet always lives in the shadow of the wealth that threatens his artist-friends, a sort of ‘Zelig’ of the zeitgeist. They always have archives, saving every scrap of their possible posterity, and for some reason always make collages themselves, that medium being somehow specific to every poet. Lacerda is represented by one such work from 1990. If ideal exemplars might be Mallarmé or Eluard, then Manhattan is oddly well stocked with such characters, from Charles Henri Ford to Rene Ricard and Max Blagg, collector-collagist-catalysts of the culture all.

This welcome presentation of Lacerda’s collection makes clear the sheer continuity of the poet’s place amongst artists, at least since the Romantic era, an indefinable yet vital creative presence whose continuation is devoutly to be wished.

Paula Rego, Four Studies for a Portrait of Alberto de Lacerda, 1986.  Courtesy of Poets House, New York
click to enlarge
Paula Rego, Dr Cat, 1982.  Courtesy of Poets House, New York
click to enlarge