Modernism seen now

RICHARD GERSTL (1883–1908), Self-Portrait in front of a Stove, 1907. Oil on canvas on board. Neue Galerie New York

Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940

Renée Price (ed.), Prestel/Neue Galerie, 2021, 656pp, $75/£55

ALEXANDER ADAMS is transported to a thrilling time of artistic experimentation

The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection. One by Olaf Peters discusses Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (1892), which became (posthumously) his most influential book. We should not see those opposed to degeneracy solely as representatives of traditionalism. Many critics of decadence were liberals, who took a progressive view of society. As a social Darwinist, Nordau saw degeneracy as an aspect of evolution, which would lead to the atrophying and extinction of those urban populations which succumbed to its lure, driven by circumstance and genetics towards behaviour that would not sustain reproduction of healthy individuals. He cited art as a symptom of the degeneration of culture and genetic stock.

Nordau imagined a dramatic result as the consequence of this evolutionary process for art. In his view, art would cease to exist, since those who support it would have to make room for an increasingly rational humanity for whom art would no longer be a relevant form of expression. For Nordau, art would become an atavism, and only women and children – the more intensely emotional members of the population – would still pursue it. He favoured science over art, which he judged to be an irrational symptom of psychological illness. It had to yield to the advancing process of rationalisation.[i]

Another essay by Peters discusses the splintering of arts organisations in Germany and Austria in the Jugendstil/Secession period, as artists sought to gain more control over the selection, exhibition, publication and sale of their art works. A proliferation of artists groups ran alongside the desire to distance the avant-garde from state- and royalty-sanctioned bodies, academies and established professional organisations. Opposing approaches to ornamentation within Modernism are exemplified by architect Adolf Loos (anti-ornamentation) and Gustav Klimt (pro-ornamentation). This shows that there were very different aesthetic criteria supported by members of the avant-garde, just as we find contrary strands within reactionary and traditionalist camps. The influence of collector Karl Ernst Osthaus is appraised (his collection of Expressionist art is housed at a dedicated museum in Hagen, Westphalia).

The various displays and fairs including applied art, decorative art and diorama/installations accelerated the acceptance of Modernism into daily life, as well as high culture. The influence of the Arts & Crafts movement paved the way for patrons and creators. Wiener Werkstätte was founded in 1903 and flourished as a company that produced high-quality, expensive furnishings, clothing and housewares until 1914. The advent of war severely impaired WW’s output. Limited by material and manpower shortages, and the unwillingness of the affluent to invest in luxuries during a period of upheaval, business slowed dramatically. It was revived in the inter-war period but never regained its pre-eminence, closing in 1932. WW is remembered now often in terms of the contribution of female creators and for the influence of female customers, who generally made decisions regarding the decoration of family homes. Interestingly, no less than Adolf Loos gave a lecture called “Das Wiener Weh: Die Wiener Werkstätte” (“The Viennese Woe: Wiener Werkstätte”) in 1927, condemning the decline of WW. The turn to super-luxury goods was attributed to the women who dominated the management and product design of WW in the post-1914 era.

JOSEPH URBAN (1872-1933). Mantelpiece clock for Paul Hopfner Restaurant, 1906. Private collection

The excellent collection of WW in the museum’s collection – surely the best collection outside Vienna – includes works by leading lights of the company. The extensiveness of the Vienna design scene is amply represented by a series of striking designs of silverware, glassware, furniture, clocks, jewellery and ceramics by Dagobert Peche, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, (Belgian) Henry van de Velde and others. The designs range from the refreshingly simple and starkly unornamented to the ostentatiously impractical. Hoffmann’s cutlery services go beyond function into objets d’art. Geometrical patterns, plain checks, straight lines and elongated or square proportions are constants. Lines that echo Art Nouveau are found mainly in early, pre-war pieces. There is a silver coffer given by Klimt to the young Alma Schindler (later Mahler), when he was courting the young beauty in 1902. Another gift from Klimt is a necklace given to Emilie Flöge the following year. Both were made by Moser. Vintage photographs of other pieces in the collection show the furniture in trade shows or the homes of the original owners.  

One photograph shows the star of the museum’s collection, Klimt’s gilded Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). The painting was displayed at an exhibition of art and crafts in Mannheim in 1907, and appears to show the painting before the artist made minor modifications to it. The painting is once again displayed flanked by stone statues of kneeling youths made by George Minne, as it was in that Mannheim display. (There is a useful essay on Minne and the Germanic sculptors as precursors to the individualism of Schiele and Kokoschka’s art.) The Neue Galerie has a fine collection of Klimt drawings from all periods of the artist’s output. The square landscapes of Klimt are revolutionary. Not only is the square format (developed by Klimt in the 1890s) anti-traditional, Klimt’s flatness and decorative treatment of foliage was a radical departure from convention. Park at Kammer Castle (1909) is a typical late landscape, disorienting through the presentation of dappled surfaces that only minimally model trees, grass and water; sky is reduced to a few patches at the edges of the picture.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862–1918), Park at Kammer Castle, 1909. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder
and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder

The rise of Expressionism is understandable as a reaction against the emphasis on style over substance present in the Secession. The preoccupation with distinctive visual branding – something that reached a high pitch with the opening of WW – and the targeting of the super-affluent by artists (who supposedly disdained the status-conscious administrators and participants of established salons and academies) became anathema to ambitious young artists. The prevarication of the Secession between serving the wealthy and wanting to change the lives of everyday people left little space for the emergence of the exceptional individual – the much-discussed Übermensch of Nietzsche – and the man of heroic will. What was the role of the genius under Secession? Neither designing clothing for rich heiresses nor chairs for factory refectories seemed the calling of the true artist. The development of Art Nouveau in Germany and Austria was just one manifestation with a relentless drive towards Modernist ways of living.

This development was flanked by the Lebensreform (life reform) movement, which along with the housing colony and garden city movement, the land reform movement, vegetarianism, the naturopathy movement, and the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) or nudist movement, was aimed less at the sphere of aesthetics than at everyday lifestyle. Taken together, they formulated a fundamental critique of the scarcely controllable consequences of the rapid industrialization of the German Empire in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.[ii]

In the face of the deracinating effect of modern urban life – identified by nascent social science and criminology – and the increasing artificiality and superficiality of Secession, young artists who formed the Expressionists sought authenticity and rawness. They were inspired by Edvard Munch, whose 1892 exhibition in Berlin was closed as an affront to the professionalism of the artists’ organisation that staged the exhibition. The artists association Brücke (“bridge”) was founded on 7 June 1905 in Dresden, comprising Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It later included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. The artists (some of them architecture students) were committed to make an art free of pretension and artifice. Their idols included Munch, Gauguin, Dostoevsky, Freud, Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind and Nietzsche. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that exponents of Expressionism later found points of commonality with National Socialism. The admiration was reciprocated by some senior Nazis. However, it was the supporters of traditionalism among the Nazis who won out, consigning Expressionism to the category of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) when it came to the selection of official art styles after 1933.  

Brücke was dissolved in Berlin in 1913. Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) functioned as a Munich-based avant-garde group from 1911 to 1914. The Great War shattered the utopian aspirations of these artists; in some cases, the artists were killed in combat. We find in the Neue Galerie collection the proto-abstraction of Franz Marc and the cross-over art of Vasily Kandinsky of the 1910-3, which blends symbolism and abstraction. Blaue Reiter is discussed in the light of theosophy and spiritualism, which would become a lesser-considered strand of art teaching in the Bauhaus, particularly under Johannes Itten. An essay assesses the responses of artists to the Great War. These varied greatly, ranging from absolute pacifism to militaristic chauvinism. The post-war art of George Grosz and Otto Dix blends fierce satire with a seeming appetite for degradation; the impact of their work comes from that combination, which betrays a crucial ambiguity. As more perceptive critics of the time noted, an artist could not lavish so much care and time on art that was wholly condemnatory.      

EGON SCHIELE (1890–1918), Stein on the Danube, Seen from the South (Large), 1913. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder. Photo: Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York

Austrian Expressionism – in its best in Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl, all of whom are represented by good examples – are marked by their engagement with the psychology of the subject rather than meditations on urban life or the condition of primitive man. There are few extant paintings by Gerstl, because Gerstl destroyed most of his paintings and drawings before committing suicide. The Neue Galerie owns four canvases by Gerstl, two of which (a self-portrait and a portrait of a seated man) are very fine pieces. We should mourn the loss of an artist, at the age of 25, capable of such work. The multiple nails in the coffin of German Expressionism were the advent of Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit and the scientific abstraction of the Bauhaus. Dada and photo-montage is represented in less depth than other movements in the collection.

It is instructive to compare WW designs with those of the Bauhaus, founded in Germany in 1919. Bauhaus extended the line of stark Modernism but without the influence of Art Nouveau, substituting the influence of strong unmodulated colour forms found in De Stijl abstract art. Bauhaus sacrificed functionality for style sometimes. The seats are often cruelly uncompromising for the human anatomy. Although the director Walter Gropius sought to fuse architecture, fine art and applied art – including clothing – in a manner that would be harmonious and pleasing, the Bauhaus never managed to balance its stated aims. The subsequent director, Hannes Meyer, deliberately steered the Bauhaus towards a more overtly socialist end, citing “the needs of the people rather than the requirements of luxury”. Meyer later moved to the USSR to teach, putting his socialist views into practice. 

There are chapters covering Expressionist cinema, photo-montage, Klee teaching at the Bauhaus, the decline of artistic freedom in Germany and persecution of artists under the Nazis. This last includes the story of Felix Nussbaum, which is becoming better known over recent decades. Nussbaum was an artist of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, who was imprisoned in France as an enemy alien in 1939. He later left the camp and went into hiding in Brussels, but he was ultimately captured by the occupying Germans and sent to a death camp. His wartime art portrays the artist in the French camp and gives an idea of what Jewish artists might have painted in the concentration camps, had they had access to materials.  

The collection is wonderful but incomplete. Without the work of some traditionalist, National Socialist and Communist artists, we get an uneven view of art of Germany and Austria from 1890 to 1940, even of Modernism. Art of National Socialism and (pre-war) Communism were reactions against Jugendstil and Weimar-era Modernism. The Neue Galerie is a private collection and therefore subject only to the taste of the owner, who determines what is part of his conception of this history, but the story of Germanic Modernism cannot be properly understood without the inclusion of art that has hitherto been dismissed, seemingly without due aesthetic and historical consideration.     

Preconceptions surface in the catalogue essays, mainly to do with the politics of today being applied to a period now a century past. The translation of völkisch as “racist-populist” is not accurate; it means “of the people or kinfolk”. Affinity for the company or culture of one’s own race does not necessarily imply sentiments of racial superiority, contrary to the translator’s assertion. Berating of individuals for sexism (as found in the essays by Janis Staggs) is unhelpful. The history of the operation and circumstances of WW and Bauhaus do have a sex dimension, but Staggs is not the author to apply a dispassionate eye. 

Modern Worlds is an excellent, serious and lavishly illustrated survey of Modernism in Germany and Austria, forming an ideal counterbalance to art histories that prioritise the French lineage of the Impressionism-Pointillism-Fauvism-Cubism line. This book is a fitting tribute to the vision and commitment of Ronald S. Lauder (and Serge Sabarsky) and provides a fascinating slice of cultural history.  

[i] Olaf Peters, “Degeneration and Empire”, p. 33

[ii] Olaf Peters, “Brücke”, p. 235

Fernando Pessoa – shadow of a ghost

Pessoa: An Experimental Life

Richard Zenith, Allen Lane, 2021, 1,088pp, £40

ALEXANDER ADAMS applauds a comprehensive study of a complicated writer

If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity.

Pessoa claimed to be descended of ‘a mixture of aristocrats and Jews’ although neither predominated nor were proximate to him. His family was largely agnostic (or non-practising) Catholics, more devoted to music than God, who earned a living serving the state. His maternal grandfather was a civil servant and his paternal grandfather was a senior general. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa (1850-1893), the poet’s father, was a civil servant. He was an opera fanatic and (anonymously) wrote music criticism for a newspaper. In 1887, he wed Maria Madalena Nogueira (1861-1925), the Azorean-born daughter of a civil servant. She was intelligent, well-educated and a keen reader.

Fernando António Noguiera Pessoa (1888-1935) was born on 13 June 1888, in Lisbon. He was delicate, introverted and passionate about literature. He was a voracious reader and writer at a young age. He was encouraged by his cultured family. In 1893, his father died of tuberculosis. The following year, Pessoa’s infant brother died of a fever. In 1895, the widow Pessoa married João Miguel Rosa, another civil servant, this one a diplomat.

Rosa was appointed Portuguese Consul in Durban, South Africa; his new wife and stepson followed in 1896. They would stay (increasing the family with three surviving children) until 1905. They lived through the Boer War and saw rural refugees camped in Durban’s public spaces and outskirts. Pessoa’s schooling and first year of university were in English. The young Pessoa won prizes for English. Winning the Queen Victoria Memorial Prize in 1903 for an original essay (beating 898 other entrants) was one of his proudest achievements, something he cherished until his death. Although Pessoa’s English was fluent, it was unidiomatic and airy, influenced by his reading of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and the bookish Pessoa spent more time reading Carlyle and Keats than bantering on the school playing fields. Pessoa would use his English to good effect in later life and wrote verse and prose in both English and Portuguese.   


‘I am astounded whenever I finish anything. Astounded and distressed.’

– Pessoa writing as Bernardo Soares

When he was an adolescent, Pessoa began his own newspaper for his family, filling it with fictional news, jokes and poems. The authors were numerous and all pseudonyms. Over his lifetime, Pessoa published under multiple names and wrote under others, over 100 in all. The degree to which he actually inhabited these ‘heteronyms’ is debatable. It seems to have freed him creatively and allowed him licence to intellectually position himself outside of his life experience. There is the question of whether or not these Borgesian alter egos were part of a meta-fiction, additional to the text. Pessoa stated that these were the real authors of his writings. Each had a distinct style and character. Pessoa published verse under pen names Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, as well as under his own name, plus others. Like Kafka, who is a useful point of comparison, Pessoa published a fair amount of creative writing and non-fiction prose during his lifetime, but left a sizeable unpublished legacy. In his lifetime, he was best known as a political and cultural commentator. Only in the last year of his life was his stature as a poet generally realised. His unpublished manuscripts were found in a wooden trunk after his death.

‘The trunk indeed existed, and some ten years after Pessoa’s death more than three hundred of the poems it contained found their way into a handsome edition of his poetry, with separate volumes for Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Since each of the three heteronyms boasted a large and exquisite body of work stylistically unlike the poetry of his fellow heteronyms or of Pessoa himself, one could say that Portugal’s four greatest poets from the twentieth century were Fernando Pessoa.’

Pessoa – and his alter egos – submitted poems, stories and criticism to publications in Portugal and Great Britain. Hungry for success and recognition – hence the decision to often write in English – Pessoa was afflicted with chronic doubt, lapses of confidence and changes of heart. In this biography and editions of Pessoa’s writing, the adjectives ‘unfinished’, ‘incomplete’ and ‘fragmentary’ are commonplace. One could conclude that Pessoa’s use of heteronymic personae is a double-edged sword. It permitted him freedom to develop diverse and distinct bodies of writing but it left him without a core body of writings. The decision to write short texts also allowed him the opportunity to drop projects unfinished without too much investment. Without the impetus to write a novel and publish it, Pessoa could afford to bounce between ideas. His only substantial book published in his lifetime was one year before his death and consisted of poems. Pessoa may have been temperamentally unsuited to write a novel but his propensity to write short, often and under different identities exacerbated his weaknesses of prevarication and detachment. His trunk was filled with unfinished plays, poems, stories, translations and letters.  

‘The human author of these books has no personality of his own. Whenever he feels a personality well up inside, he quickly realizes that this new being, though similar, is distinct from him – an intellectual son, perhaps, with inherited characteristics, but also with differences that make him someone else.’

It is possible that – with regard to the legion of heteronyms – readers will experience alternating intrigue and boredom. When Zenith devotes paragraphs to investigating the recurring signature of ‘Gaveston’ – remarking that this is the sole case of an alter ego appearing persistently over time in Pessoa’s jotting without being credited with a single text – how is one supposed to react? It is curious but is it a matter for curiosity for anyone other than a scholar who has spent countless hours poring over Pessoa’s manuscripts? It is a true fact and (presumably) a new fact, but does it mean anything and do we care? The principal heteronyms have bodies of work attached, some of it now published in English, but discussion of peripheral heteronyms (associated with mere jumbled fragments, inaccessible to all except researchers) is more distracting than illuminating.

Zenith diligently hunts down seeds of heteronyms in the writings of past authors, great and forgotten alike. Pessoa’s favourite authors included Thomas Carlyle, Poe, Keats, Milton, Ruskin, Wilde and Baudelaire. A less obvious influence was Max Nordau’s Entartung (Degeneration) (1892), a book identifying and condemning degeneracy. According to this account, it was Nordau’s passages on mania and mental degeneration that fascinated Pessoa most. His grandmother had suffered from severe and atypical dementia, diagnosed as intermittent. He was worried that he too might come to be afflicted. (One also thinks here of Lovecraft’s narrators fearing for their sanity. Lovecraft lost his father to madness, albeit tertiary syphilis, with which Lovecraft himself was not infected.) ‘Pessoa’s fascination, it turns out, was restricted to the relationship that the writer posited between exceptional intellectual or creative activity and psychological deviation from the norm.’

‘It surprises us that Pessoa could have been so enthralled by Nordau – a fluent, effectual writer who was well read but intellectually rigid, priggishly moralistic, and aesthetically reactionary.’

Not at all. Just as Zenith points out that Pessoa had to wait until the end of the twentieth century for a receptive audience for his meta-textually ludic fiction; so Zenith should not be surprised that Pessoa then and others now search for the link between (on one hand) decadence, social atomisation and destruction of tradition and (on the other) liberalism, progressivism and materialism. Pessoa himself was not a traditionalist, but he was eager to understand the causes of social and personal decline. Nordau, Otto Weininger, Herbert Spencer, (later) Oswald Spengler and others advanced ideas that vary in insight and plausibility, but any intelligent open mind would have found such material to be thought-provoking, even if ultimately it disfavoured those authors’ conclusions. Decadence is appealing to vanguardists and the elite but it has characteristics of both pathology and poison.  

Images from, with acknowledgements –


Pessoa used his inheritance to establish Ibis Press in 1909, which would be a commercial printer but also published advanced literature (including Pessoa’s books). It folded almost immediately, due to debt and tough competition. He burned through his inheritance accrued debt in under a year. This put him at odds with his family, then still in South Africa, especially when he requested they pay off his debts whilst at the same time refusing to get a job. The most he would do was provide translations of poems for a giant library of world classics in Portuguese.

In 1914 Pessoa wrote as Álvaro de Campos, Portugal’s first Futurist poet. With author-friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa would act as shadow editor for the avant-garde literary journal Opheu. The journal was published in 1915 and lasted only two issues. Influenced by the Futurist Manifestoes and the British Vorticist Blast, Orpheu caused a sensation. Its radical sensibilities, taboo subject matter (sex) and Cubist collages, ignited debate in Portuguese cultural circles. Who were these madmen? At least three of them were Pessoa. Sá-Carneiro fled to Paris, where he committed suicide after a period of debauchery.  

Pessoa described himself as elitist, nationalist, imperialist (Portugal at this time still had a substantial empire) and (nominally) a republican, although one disillusioned with the corruption of the republican government established in 1910. He antagonised republicans in a newspaper letter and he had to evade a gang that came to assault him. It was one of the few physical escapades of this normally timid man. He was unenthusiastic about the Great War and critical of Portugal’s entrance into direct hostilities against the Central Powers on the continent, reasoning that war in France against the Germans did not contribute to protecting and ruling colonies in Africa. Pessoa’s unformed aspiration was the foundation of an aristocratic republic of Portugal, led by great men. He himself had no political aspirations. Zenith never mentions Pessoa delivering a public speech or broadcast.

At this time, Pessoa became involved with esoterica, mysticism, magic and spirit reading, all complementing an established commitment to astrological predictions. He was in the habit of gauging planetary alignments when submitting manuscripts to London publishers. The publishers were uniformly unreceptive to his submissions and proposals, though his chapbooks of poems won praise for the author’s accomplishment. He dabbled in secret societies, but (as a lover of mystery stories) Pessoa seemed more stimulated by the intrigue than the reality.

In 1930, Pessoa was Aleister Crowley’s companion on a visit to Lisbon. Pessoa, a native of Lisbon, steeped in occult knowledge and fluent in Portuguese and English, was the ideal choice. Crowley’s reputation as an indefatigable fornicator, Satanist and drug fiend put Pessoa on edge before Crowley’s arrival by ship. Crowley wanted Pessoa to head the Portuguese chapter of his spiritualist society; Pessoa wanted Crowley to publish his writings in England. They both assumed the other was richer than he actually was, which entailed mutual disappointment. Crowley departed after staging a hoax suicide, which Pessoa partially corroborated. This is one of the most amusing passages in a biography that makes an intelligent and lively read.


‘I’m suffering from a headache and the universe.’

– Pessoa

In 1919, Pessoa started work at an import-export firm, using his knowledge of English and French. This was where (in 1920) he met the only woman he courted, Ophelia Queiroz.

Pessoa was averse to sexual intimacy. There is plenty of evidence in Pessoa’s writings of sexual attraction but also physical repulsion, perhaps linked to venereal disease. Love arises in the poems in an abstracted sense, derived from his reading. Zenith has good reason for assuming Pessoa died a virgin. Zenith also finds ample examples of misogyny in Pessoa’s writing and marginalia, provoked by fear (and disgust) regarding female libido. There are a number of sensitive and passionate homoerotic love poems ascribed to heteronyms, though Zenith (and others) do not believe this ever translated into carnal fulfilment.   

Ophelia was nineteen years old and employed to act as a secretary. Pessoa was thirty-two but youthfully unattached, respected by colleagues as a great poet yet one unaccountably unrewarded. She was strongly attracted to Pessoa. Pessoa kindled to the affection and they carried on a romance of trysts, walks and love letters. It was imbalanced, with Ophelia taking the lead and wanting commitment. Pessoa was too detached and cautious for the relationship to develop straightforwardly. Unusually for Pessoa, their letters survive and are quoted in this account. Ophelia is insistent and puzzled by Pessoa’s reticence. Pessoa is playful and affectionate but unwilling to translate that into an engagement. (Him writing as his heteronyms was an augury of a poor outcome.) The impasse led to estrangement, though they did resume writing over the period 1929-30. By temperament and choice, Pessoa was determined to remain unencumbered by the emotional or domestic burden of partnership. Ophelia married the year after the poet’s death.

Pessoa’s apparent support for homosexual men as men and as writers comes as no surprise considering the poems he wrote. Even if Pessoa was not himself homosexual, he displays empathy and must have gained some pleasure from imagining himself as a homosexual poet, modelled on Walt Whitman. He publicly defended two homosexual writers whose work was banned. This attitude aligns with the idea of an aristocratic elite heading a nation founded on excellence and spurning the distractions of materialistic progress. In Pessoa’s vague imaginings, it was priest-scholars rather than Spartan warriors. Women in politics was anathema to him.

In 1921, Pessoa planned to publish The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Portuguese. He did not do so. Instead, he wrote an essay about what he saw as the malign influence of Jews. ‘Without any perceptible animus toward Jews, writing as a calm analyst who happened to be informed by reactionary ideas, he noted that the three hundred members of the oligarchy allegedly plotting to overthrow the world order were not all Jews but were imbued by the spirit of what he called “sub-Judaism,” characterized by crass materialism and support of democracy and humanitarian causes.’ Later, he wrote about Jews in less charged terms, assigning to races ‘characteristics, however, [that] were neither genetic not altogether static; they depended on a complex web of historical, geographical, and sociological circumstances.’ Interesting lines of thought for an author who claimed Christianised Jews in his lineage to take.

Zenith criticises Pessoa for not being an egalitarian (while admitting that such an attitude was not incompatible with the poet’s outlook) and condemns Pessoa for wearing blackface as a prank (‘the inherent offensiveness of blackface’). What, a reader may wonder, is gained by wagging the measuring stick of American morality of 2021 at a Portuguese who grew up in Victorian-era colonial Africa? For the most part, such presumptions are not too intrusive.

Pessoa was both an artistic Modernist and a political reactionary; he was empathetic towards certain minority groups, indifferent towards others. He approved of the suppression of Communists and Socialists but was hostile towards Italian Fascism. (Perhaps he discerned within Fascism a core of Socialism.) Zenith thinks, ‘The “real Fernando Pessoa” was always someone else.’ I disagree. I see Pessoa as perfectly consistently himself in his apparent contradictions; he was honest enough to fully inhabit contradictory ideas. We have the concept of cognitive dissonance. However, there is no dissonance when there is no urge to harmonise contradictory ideas. Pessoa never believed he had to hold a consistent position. It seems he realised that a human being without contradictions is an impossibility.


‘An original, typically Portuguese literature cannot be Portuguese, because the typical Portuguese are never Portuguese’

– Pessoa 

In 1928, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) was appointed finance minister and he would remain the directing force in the technocratic Portuguese government until a brain aneurysm in 1968. He would see out the last two years of his life as only the nominal (rather than actual) head of government of Portugal. His dryness – a devout Catholic, private, personally reserved, not given to rhetorical excess – and his competence as a director of the state finances won him widespread support. Pessoa supported Salazar’s measures, which stabilised Portugal’s finances and curbed the hedonistic excesses of Lisbon’s nightlife.

Almost a decade after their split, Ophelia and Pessoa reconnected during 1929-30. They resumed their correspondence and meetings. Again, they fell into the old pattern of conflict. Ophelia wanted marriage and companionship; Pessoa wanted to write. She was worried about his heavy drinking. It would leave him severely ill in the summer of 1932. He evidently enjoyed the excitement and experience of being desired but perhaps he felt guilty for giving Ophelia (about whom he evidently strongly cared) false hope of matrimony. Maybe he suspected he was not a writer in love but a writer researching love.

His Mensagem (Message) (1934) collection of poems won a prize from the government for its contribution to patriotic renewal. Pessoa was ambivalent, appreciating the recognition and the cash, but wary of official honours. The following year, Pessoa opposed a bill to outlaw secret societies, specifically the Freemasons. Pessoa had an affinity for societies so he took the legislation personally and wrote in the press strongly opposing the law. It was a futile effort because the parliament would rubberstamp the legislation. In his last months, he turned definitively against the regime for restricting personal freedom, especially freedom of artistic expression. His anti-Salazar poems could not be printed, but they apparently were circulated in a limited form. Zenith discloses that in his last months, Pessoa was writing an essay against Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Also, he was weighing up the merits of equality and humanitarianism. Death – intestinal obstruction (or possibly pancreatitis) apparently caused by alcoholism – intervened. Pessoa died on 30 November 1935, in hospital.  


‘Everlasting remembrance, how briefly you endure!’

– Pessoa

Over the subsequent years, volumes of the erroneously titled Complete Works of Pessoa were published by colleagues, amounting to a fraction of the slew of 25,000 sheets. The verses can be a little abstract and diffuse but often deploy pleasing irony, cutting humour and mordant insights. The best poem by Pessoa I have read is one of the longer ones, 1928’s ‘Tobacconist’s’ (written under the heteronym Álvaro de Campos) – one of his most involved and most concrete poems, featuring the poet’s thoughts upon watching a tobacconist and his store from across the street. It combines melancholy, levity and grandiosity.

The only lengthy work of fiction that Pessoa brought close to completion was The Book of Disquiet, which is assigned to Bernardo Soares. It consists of over 500 entries written over 1913-35, and was only published in 1982. It comprised hundreds of pages in an envelope. (One is put in mind of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969). His famous ‘book in a box’ is composed of individual sheets and sheaves.) The ordering and transcription are debated and since the first publication there have been new editions, some dramatically different. One English edition has been edited and translated by Zenith. The entries range from single sentences to passages of many pages. They are meditative, alternately detached and intensely personal, forming what Pessoa called a ‘factless autobiography’. It has a detached quality, splenetic humour and despairing melancholy that presages existentialist literature and the internal monologues of Beckett.

In an age of Borgesian meta-narratives and Post-Modern playfulness – as well as a (sadly) reduced capacity to concentrate on more involved lengthy prose – The Book of Disquiet and Pessoa’s heteronymic transformations have found warm appreciation. There is no doubt he was a serious, world-class writer and richly deserves this handsome biography.

Zenith is adept at sketching the situation of Portugal during the Belle Époque, republican and Salazar periods. He knows his subject matter inside out and speaks the languages of his subject. On balance, Zenith’s assertion that Pessoa’s heteronymic alter egos (at least, the major ones) are genuinely felt expressions of different intellects with unique voices, and not gimmicks, carries weight and is eloquently argued, with evidence. Once one grants Zenith his ethical and political interjections, even the most negative of critics is left with mere cavils. The biography hits the rare sweet spot of being as comprehensive as one might wish for while not lingering too long on any point. The amount and depth of research is humbling. Pessoa: An Experimental Life is a grand achievement – thorough, thoughtful, insightful and generally sympathetic, it does what all the best literary biographies do: inspire us to seek out the writings of its subject.