Nadir Afonso, GOSE (December 4, 1920 – December 11, 2013) was a geometric abstractionist painter. Formally trained in architecture, which he practiced early in his career with Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, Nadir Afonso later studied painting in Paris and became one of the pioneers of Kinetic art, working alongside Victor Vasarely, Fernand Léger, Auguste Herbin, and André Bloc.
As a theorist of his own geometry-based aesthetics, published in several books, Nadir Afonso defended the idea that art is purely objective and ruled by laws that treat art not as an act of imagination but of observation, perception, and form manipulation.
Nadir Afonso achieved international recognition early in his career and many of his works are in museums. His most famous works are the Cities series, which depict places all around the world. He was known to have painted into his later years and died on December 11, 2013, at a hospital in Cascais. During his life he achieved great honors, representing his country at the finest level.
Nadir Afonso Rodrigues was born in the rural, remote town of Chaves, Portugal, on December 4, 1920. His parents were Palmira Rodrigues Afonso and the poet Artur Maria Afonso. His very unusual first name was suggested by a gypsy to his father on his way to the Civil Registry, where he was due to be registered as Orlando.
By the age of four, he made his first “painting” on a wall at home: a perfect red circle, which anticipated his life as under the signs of rhythm and geometric precision. His teen years were dedicated to painting, and he won his first national prize at age 17.
It was only natural that he was sent to the bigger city of Porto to enroll in the School of Fine Arts to pursue a degree in painting. However, at the registration desk, he took the advice of the clerk, who told him that his high school diploma allowed him to enroll in Architecture, which was then a more promising career. As he later admitted, he made a mistake by listening to that man.
Nadir Afonso took on the challenge and graduated in Architecture, though he flunked the third year because some of his professors could not accept his artistic style. Settled in Porto, he started to design houses and industrial buildings, while at the same time painting the city around him under his other surname, Rodrigues.
As a member of the artist collective Independents, he took part in all their art exhibitions until 1946 and became a favorite with the national critics. His oil A Ribeira was purchased by the Contemporary Art Museum of Lisbon in 1944, when he was only 24 years old.
Paris was a world center of the arts but the fierce competition between artists proved too much for Nadir Afonso. In 1965, conscious of his social inadaptation, he moved back to his hometown of Chaves and gradually took refuge in isolation and accentuated the orientation of his life towards the creation of art.
He terminated the architecture practice and pursued his aesthetics studies based on geometry, which he considered the essence of art. Once in a while, he left his hideout to return to Paris and meet with friends, author Roger Garaudy, painter Victor Vasarely, and critic Michel Gaüzes.
By indication of Garaudy, he traveled to Toulouse to meet aestheticist Pierre Bru, with whom he reviewed the syntactic form of his studies, before publishing Les Mécanismes de la Création Artistique (The Mechanisms of Artistic Creation), the book where he introduced his original theory of art as an exact science.
In 1974, he had a solo exhibition at the Selected Artists Galleries, in New York. U.S. critics acclaimed him as “one of the first proponents of geometric abstraction in Portugal [and] one of the new generation European artists.”
Living in reclusion, Nadir Afonso defined himself in 2006 as “Portuguese and a son of the inner country. I learned from tradition to be humble, to praise the masters, and to live these eighty-six years with the simplicity that my lowly status has always guaranteed me. To do a balance of my existence and of my work now is absurd.”
He spent the last three decades of his life painting, exhibiting, and writing with regular and growing comfort. He was twice married, with five children, born between 1948 and 1989.
Nadir Afonso exhibited regularly in Lisbon, Porto, Paris, New York, and all over the world. His work is in museums in Lisbon and Porto (Portugal), Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (Brazil), Budapest (Hungary), Paris (Pompidou Center), Wurzburg and Berlin (Germany), among others.
He formed a foundation bearing his name, to which he donated his personal artwork collection, and engaged Pritzker Prize-winner architect Álvaro Siza to design its headquarters in his hometown of Chaves.
Art is usually conceived as subjective, but for Nadir Afonso it was purely objective and ruled by laws. “Art is a show of exactitude”, “a game of laws in spaces but not of significations in objects”.
From these axioms, his own personal theory of geometry-based “rational aesthetics within an intuitive art” evolved, which he published in book form, alongside his philosophical thoughts on the Universe and its laws. These works are the key to understanding the artist and his art, and are summarized by himself in a few words:
“Searching for the absolute, for an art language in which shapes possess a mathematical rigorousness, where nothing needs to be added nor removed. The feeling of total exactitude.”
Because of his rationalism, Nadir Afonso confronted Kandinsky, the father of abstract art, and criticized him for subduing geometry to the human spirit instead of making it the essence of art.
This “geometry of art” is not however the “geometry of geometrists”, as it is not about symbols nor anything in particular; rather, it is the spatial law itself, with the four qualities of perfection, harmony, evocation, and originality.
His work is methodical, because “an artwork is not an act of ‘imagination’ (…) but of observation, perception, form manipulation.” “I start with shapes, still arbitrary. I put ten shapes on the frame; I look at it and suddenly a sort of spark ignites. Then the form appears.
Color is secondary, used to accentuate the intensity of the form.” Nadir Afonso did not renege on his early expressionist and surrealist works: “An individual initially does not see the true nature of things, he starts by representing the real, because he is convinced therein lies the essence of the artwork.
I thought that too. But, as I kept working, the underlying laws of art, which are the laws of geometry, slowly revealed themselves in front of my eyes. There was no effort on my part, it was just the daily work what led me to that result, guided by intuition.”
The illustrations in this article are a chronological representation of the evolution of Nadir Afonso’s style and thought towards the original geometric alphabet with which he created his artworks, as explained in his books and seen most prominently in his Cities series.