Interview with Manuel Cargaleiro
by Salomé Zelic
* Text written for the catalogue of the exhibition “The Youngest Among Us All: Zao Wou-Ki on Joan Miró” (20 May -23 July 2021, Mayoral, Paris).
Salomé Zelic (SZ): You belong to the generation of immigrant artists who arrived in Paris in the 1950s. What could you tell us about the atmosphere of the time? Were there a lot of interactions with the slightly older generation and the artists who arrived before the Second World War?
Manuel Cargaleiro (MC): I have lived in Paris for sixty-five years now. I arrived after the war and, when the artists who were our references were all there, alive. There was a very friendly atmosphere between the young painters and the older generation composed of artists such as Alfred Manessier, Max Ernst and Hans Arp, for example. It was lucky that there were not so many of us around at the time. It wouldn’t be the same today. There was only one painter whom I came across several times but whom I never dared to approach: that was Picasso. For me he was a genius, a bit like Mozart, someone you would not want to bother.
SZ: You were represented by Pierre Loeb’s gallery, just like Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró before you. Can you tell us about your connection with the different members of the Loeb family and how you met them?
MC: I met Pierre Loeb through his twin brother, Edouard Loeb. The first evening that I arrived in Paris, I was invited for dinner with Pierre Loeb’s family. And I have spent most of my artistic career with them ever since, until three or four years ago when Albert, Pierre’s son, closed his gallery in Rue des Beaux Arts. I have remained very close to the family.
Edouard Loeb worked a lot with Hans Arp, Max Ernst and Nathalie Gontcharova. He wrote me letters when I was still living in Portugal saying “you can come, I’ll take care of you”. When I arrived in 1957, he was living at 19 Rue des Grands Augustins, Picasso was living at number 7. I was staying in a hotel, on the 5th floor, without a lift, and a communal shower. One day Edouard invited me to his building to show me a beautiful little studio on the 3rd floor, it was full of light. The next morning, the studio was registered under my name. Edouard was like that.
SZ: Did you know Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró? Did you witness their friendship?
MC: I met Zao Wou-Ki with Edouard Loeb, at an exhibition opening at Galerie Pierre, not long after I arrived in Paris. Over the years, we became very good friends. Our relationship was close —we had lunch together at least once a month! I would go to his studio, watch him at work. Zao Wou-Ki’s figuration had a somewhat abstract feel when he arrived in France. He is the only Chinese painter of the École de Paris of the 1950s, the only one who succeeded in transposing Chinese culture into lyrical abstraction. It’s a strength he’s always had. He was such an original and unique character. It was only later on that the importance of his work was recognized in the art history of the 1950s.
I spent a lot of time in Zao Wou-Ki’s studio. It was a unique space, a small sanctuary. Zao Wou-Ki for me was all about spontaneity, gesture. I find that his oeuvre has a really poetic force. He really researched Eastern culture in depth. He often worked in my ceramic studio, where he made a very large ceramic panel. The way he worked was interesting; when you look at the panel, you comprehend the notion of space. There are empty areas, which are not, in fact, empty. They are completely filled with transparencies. In Zao Wou-Ki’s works, the whites are always elaborately worked.
Joan Miró was one of the “monstres sacrés” of the era. Even before I arrived in France, his influence had reached me, as well as an entire generation in the fine arts schools of Lisbon and wider artistic circles. Miró was an important figure for us; he stood for something. Zao Wou-Ki wasn’t known in Portugal at that time of course, although he became very well-known later, with the support of Galerie de France and others who took care of his oeuvre. He became one of the greatest painters of the 20th-century.
I knew they were friends. I spoke about it with Albert Loeb who had kept a fairly large collection of letters that Miró addressed to his father Pierre, who was close to him. Miró communicated a lot this way, often sending little pencil drawings and adding notes to his correspondance. I was able to see these letters, but I did not have a personal relationship with Miró, I got to know him mainly through books. For me, he was the great genius of surrealism; that’s how he started. It’s so interesting to look at the surreal, almost abstract work of Miró’s early days.
I think that the common point between Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki is that they are two poetic forces. I heard a writer say “let the heart rule”, and well – that’s it. Their imagination is their strength. Miró, when he was in Paris, was staying in a hotel. He was very present in the Parisian artistic world, but he was not there permanently. Zao was living here, among the other artists.
SZ: How do you interpret Zao Wou-Ki’s dedication to Miró, “the youngest among us all”? Did you also consider the Catalan painter to be part of your generation? What, in your own experience, was his most important legacy?
MC: I find this dedication truly wonderful. It corresponds to what all of us, the young artists of the time, thought of Joan Miró. We regarded him from “below”. And he was constantly evolving, his research never stopped. I read an interesting story. Someone asks a Chinese painter —“Why do you keep doing the same thing over and over again with those little marks on paper? Because I am very old and I would like to beathe life into a mark.”— Miró possessed a particularly Spanish strength; he held his obsessions so fiercely that he could not help but convey them. He was doing something wonderful with red and black. We saw what he was doing and we asked ourselves “how is that possible?” One cannot be indifferent to painting like that. Miró was the stars.
SZ: For you personally, is it important to stay “relevant” or “current” as an artist? How is it possible?
MC: I am sure that the artistic research that is being carried out today is relevant to his generation. It has always been this way. But there are things one cannot understand. For example, Miró was always relevant and in harmony with his time. He was different from everyone else and yet, when you look at it today, it’s Spain, it’s love, the era, violence, passion, all intertwined. An artist who comes to Paris today with something different will succeed because he brings something that did not exist before. Exactly as Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki did.
As for me, my ambition was not to become a great painter, I just wanted to be myself. I have never been vain; I love the painting of all artists, and I have respect for them. And if I don’t like something, I forget it! That’s why I have a collection, a modest collection filled with old artefacts. The museum of the Castelo Branco Foundation in Portugal has more than 10,000 pieces including ceramics of all periods. I travelled a lot, but I always took refuge in Paris. I had a lot of friends here, I knew everyone, but I tried to live discretely. When I arrived in Paris, as I got off the plane I said to myself, “I am home” And indeed, I have lived here for sixty-five years now. I feel good surrounded by all my memories, memories of friends who are no longer with us, but I am here to bear witness to it.
SZ: Would you like to add something about the relationship between you and Zao Wou-Ki?
MC: It seems important to me to underline the friendship of Françoise Marquet. I met Zao Wou-Ki not long after I arrived in Paris, and I never saw him so happy, so at peace, as he was when he was with her. The force with which she defends his work is remarkable.