Cover image for Consensus and Debate in Salazar's Portugal: Visual and Literary Negotiations of the National Text, 1933–1948 By Ellen W. Sapega

Consensus and Debate in Salazar's Portugal

Visual and Literary Negotiations of the National Text, 1933–1948

Ellen W. Sapega


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03410-2

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184 pages
6" × 9"
31 b&w illustrations

Penn State Romance Studies

Consensus and Debate in Salazar's Portugal

Visual and Literary Negotiations of the National Text, 1933–1948

Ellen W. Sapega

“I find Professor Sapega’s book informative and persuasive. It begins to fill a long-standing void of research on cultural production in Salazar’s Portugal by presenting some of the discourses on nationalist-imperialist identity disseminated by the regime and analyzing a diverse sample of the artistic and literary responses that they compelled.”


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Ellen Sapega’s study documents artistic responses to images of the Portuguese nation promoted by Portugal’s Office of State Propaganda under António de Oliveira Salazar. Combining archival research with current theories informing the areas of memory studies, visual culture, women’s autobiography, and postcolonial studies, the author follows the trajectory of three well-known cultural figures working in Portugal and its colonies during the 1930s and 1940s.

The book begins with an analysis of official Salazarist culture as manifested in two state-sponsored commemorative events: the 1938 contest to discover the “Most Portuguese Village in Portugal” and the 1940 Exposition of the Portuguese-Speaking World. While these events fulfilled their role as state propaganda, presenting a patriotic and unambiguous view of Portugal’s past and present, other cultural projects of the day pointed to contradictions inherent in the nation’s social fabric. In their responses to the challenging conditions faced by writers and artists during this period and the government’s relentless promotion of an increasingly conservative and traditionalist image of Portugal, José de Almada Negreiros, Irene Lisboa, and Baltasar Lopes subtly proposed revisions and alternatives to official views of Portuguese experience.

These authors questioned and rewrote the metaphors of collective Portuguese and Lusophone identity employed by the ideologues of Salazar’s Estado Novo regime to ensure and administer the consent of the national populace. It is evident, today, that their efforts resulted in the creation of vital, enduring texts and cultural artifacts.

“I find Professor Sapega’s book informative and persuasive. It begins to fill a long-standing void of research on cultural production in Salazar’s Portugal by presenting some of the discourses on nationalist-imperialist identity disseminated by the regime and analyzing a diverse sample of the artistic and literary responses that they compelled.”

Ellen W. Sapega is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Like many authoritarian regimes that arose in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, the Portuguese Estado Novo (New State) can trace its origins to tensions between the opposing forces of modernity and tradition. António de Oliveira Salazar, who would govern Portugal from 1928 to 1968, came to power in the aftermath of an army coup of 1926 that put an end to the sixteen-year-old experiment of the First Republic. This coup, later dubbed the Revolution of May 28, was generally welcomed by Portugal’s citizens, many of whom had wearied of the social instability and socialist and anarchist agitation that characterized the Republic’s final years. As the First Republic’s political platform was based on a comprehensive program inspired by the ideals of agrarian reform, increased taxation of the wealthy, nationalization, social welfare, and improvement in the living standards of the lower classes, its leaders succeeded in alienating such key sectors of the nation’s population as the Catholic Church and the financial, industrial, and agrarian elites. Military intervention was thus deemed necessary to restore order and stability to the nation.

Salazar, a well-known professor of economics at the University of Coimbra who enjoyed close ties to a conservative Catholic political party, participated briefly in the first, short-lived military government, presided over by navy commander Mendes Cabeçadas. After only a few days in office, however, Cabeçadas was ousted by another coup and returned to Lisbon only in the spring of 1928, when he accepted the position of finance minister in a new military government formed by Coronel Vicente de Freitas. By demanding ultimate authority over all the private budgets of the nation’s ministries and the right of veto on every increase in expenditure, Salazar was quickly able to assert his presence in the government. Soon he was being hailed as the “savior” of the nation, and by 1929, following a series of cabinet reshufflings that affirmed the extreme right-wing tendencies of a government nominally presided over by General Óscar Carmona, the new finance minister began to address the nation on nonfinancial matters. Finally, in 1932, Salazar was entrusted with forming a government of his own, and in the following year he succeeded in passing a new constitution that institutionalized the conservative policies of the “New State.”

Even before the ratification of the constitution of 1933, Salazar was referring to the military coup of 1926 as a revolution, a clear break with the recent past. Later, by making use of a calendar system in which dates would be rendered in relation to 1926 (deemed “Year I of the Revolution”), he established the grounds for a new, future-oriented historical chronology that symbolically identified the regime’s foundational moment as the starting point of a new order. Putting aside for the moment the ideological implications of this move for the construction of a discourse of self-representation, Salazar’s use of the term “revolution” must be understood here as referring, at best, to a political revolution that had little or no effect on the socioeconomic relations of production (Neocleous 1977, 55). On the contrary, Salazar attempted to counter the social dislocations typical of modern capitalism through the creation and maintenance of a strong state apparatus and by instituting a program of economic development based on a corporate model that privileged the interests of the banking and industrial communities, the Catholic Church, and the military, and that was divorced from such liberal ideals as free speech, individual liberties, the right to form trade unions and political parties, and the education of the masses.

The importance accorded to corporatism in the 1933 constitution has led to many heated debates among historians and political scientists as to whether the term “fascist” may correctly be applied to the Estado Novo. While the present study does not directly address the ways in which the political structures of the Estado Novo resembled or differed from those of other European fascist regimes, I take as my starting point the historical consensus that Salazar, in the first decades of his regime, built institutions and embraced social policies that were “fascistic,” if not strictly fascist. The creation of a single party (the União Nacional [National Union]), civilian paramilitary forces and youth groups (the Legião Portuguesa [Portuguese Legion] and the Mocidade Portuguesa [Portuguese Youth]), and the establishment of a political police force (the PVDE, later known as the PIDE/DGS) all point to the existence of political and ideological affinities between Salazarism and fascism. In their emphasis on patriotism and nationalism, Estado Novo cultural practices also closely resembled the practices of other fascistic or authoritarian regimes that appeared throughout Europe during the interwar period.

The present study examines specific images and metaphors of collective Portuguese and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) identity that the Salazar government used to ensure the consent of the national populace by following the trajectory of three well-known cultural figures working in Portugal and its colonies during the 1930s and ‘40s. José de Almada Negreiros, Irene Lisboa, and Baltasar Lopes each found unique and successful ways of responding to the challenging conditions faced by writers and artists during the first decades of the Estado Novo. While all of these figures continued their artistic or literary careers well beyond the period in question, and while one (Almada) was also a recognized public figure during the years of the Republic, I focus on the specific visual and literary works that they produced between 1938 and 1948. In my view these works are worthy of special attention because they register many of the social contradictions and ambiguities of the first decades of the Estado Novo. Neither openly allied with the regime’s opponents nor contractually bound by the state to produce favorable propaganda, Almada, Lisboa, and Lopes were politically and artistically independent artists whose work during this era seems to search for a way of articulating a middle course between open resistance and ready consent to the new regime. The works I analyze actively debated the discourses of Portuguese collective identity that Salazarist officials were redefining and deploying in the public sphere, and thus they highlight a specific moment in Portuguese literary and social history when it still seemed possible to enter into a dialogue with the Estado Novo about the nation’s collective imagination.

During the period in question, an ideologically specific image of the Portuguese nation as a rural paradise that history had prepared for imperial greatness emerged through concrete government interventions in the artistic, literary, and educational spheres. Faced with the government’s relentless promotion of this increasingly traditionalist image of Portugal, and subject to constant threats of censorship or worse, the three figures under study here tacitly answered back by offering alternatives to the official view of collective Portuguese experience. As Almada Negreiros, Irene Lisboa, and Baltasar Lopes hailed from markedly different sectors of Portugal’s intelligentsia, their works touch on a wide range of topics concerning Portuguese collective experience. By centering my study on the questions they posed and the solutions they sought, I aim to provide a broad overview of the changes imposed on Portuguese society through the policies of the new government and the practices it tacitly supported. In analyzing works that engage important issues, whether implicitly or explicitly, such as the accommodation and neutralization of the internationalist modernist aesthetic; the curtailment of women’s rights and the promotion of conservative family values and policies; and the changing role of Portugal’s colonies in the national imagination, I offer a nuanced picture of both the official and the vernacular discourses of collective Portuguese identity that were cultivated during the first half of the twentieth century.

It is my hope that this study will be of interest and value both to scholars of Portuguese literature and culture and to readers wishing to gain a general introduction to the questions, tensions, and debates that characterized the field of cultural production in Salazar’s Estado Novo. To this end I have attempted to incorporate the most comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography possible regarding the works analyzed. Recent years have seen a great number of studies on the social, political, and cultural policies of Salazar’s Estado Novo. Whenever appropriate, I have cited the findings of Portuguese researchers in the areas of history, sociology, and anthropology, as well as in the disciplines of art history and literary studies. I have often relied as well on the results of my own archival research. Prior to the revolution of April 1974, which marked the end of the Estado Novo in Portugal, researchers not only were denied access to many government archives, they were also strongly dissuaded from pursuing the avenues of critical inquiry that form the foundation for inquiry in the areas of visual culture and memory, gender, and postcolonial studies. The present investigation makes use of these methodologies in order to offer new insights into the dynamics of Almada’s, Lisboa’s, and Lopes’s literary and artistic production. As such, it also seeks to contribute more generally to the development of cultural studies in the area of Portuguese studies.

Beginning in Chapter 1 with a discussion of official Salazarist culture, I demonstrate the effectiveness of two well-publicized events in presenting a patriotic and unequivocal view of Portugal’s past and present. In the contest to discover “the most Portuguese village in Portugal” and the Exposition of the Portuguese World, the regime’s instrumentalization of media, art, culture, and intellectual inquiry conveyed a decidedly one-sided perspective. If the first event promoted an idealized view of rural life as a metaphor for the “imagined community” of the nation as a whole, the 1940 Exposition of the Portuguese World staged the Portuguese nation as historically destined for imperial greatness. It should be noted, however, that both activities also relegated most of the citizens of the metrópole, and almost all of those residing in the colonies, to the secondary role of mere observer. For this reason these events’ contribution to a debate regarding the forms to be used and the stories to be told in the performance of public memory succeeded only partially in masking or erasing the contradictions and ambiguities in the nation’s social fabric at the time.

Chapter 2 continues the analysis of state intervention in the public sphere by discussing recurring tensions between modernity and tradition in the areas of architecture and public art. This chapter explains how a respected modernist architect (Porfírio Pardal Monteiro), faced with an increasingly traditionalist bent in state-commissioned public works projects, enlisted the support of a young, controversial artist (José de Almada Negreiros) to decorate his buildings’ interiors. While the collaboration of these two men resulted in some of the finest public art (both sacred and secular) produced during the period, the radical form and potentially disruptive subject matter of their work generated an enormous amount of debate and criticism. Having been allowed room to negotiate between official and vernacular views of Portuguese national culture, Pardal Monteiro and Almada Negreiros were consequently forced to justify, and at times even to modify, certain elements of their internationalist approach to design. Increasingly they found themselves contending with intransigent government officials who pressured them to follow the dictates of a conservative aesthetic and bow to official views regarding appropriate representations of the Portuguese national subject. In more than one instance, in fact, the images that Almada envisioned for the Church of Our Lady of Fátima (1938), the Lisbon maritime stations (Gares Marítimas), and the Rocha do Conde de Óbidos and Alcântara (1945 and 1948) were censored or even threatened with destruction. One may thus conclude that while the ostensible purpose of these designs was not outright resistance to the prevailing ideology, they succeeded in capturing what social reality felt like by making multiple references to vernacular culture.

The final two chapters move from the visual artistic terrain to the literary. Like Almada Negreiros, both Irene Lisboa and Baltasar Lopes used their writing to comment obliquely on the exclusion of important sectors of the population from the state’s image of the Portuguese nation. Refusing to embrace the precepts of the era’s dominant literary movements and attempting to steer a course between the humanist perspective of writers associated with late modernism in Portugal and the often rigid, Marxist-inspired doctrines of the neorealist movement, these authors reflect an awareness of their insurmountable marginality in relation to the Estado Novo’s cultural project.

Chapter 3 examines two works by Irene Lisboa as veiled critiques of the government’s educational and family policies. A teacher forced into early retirement by the increasingly conservative Ministry of Education, Lisboa turned to writing in the 1930s. Cultivating such nonfiction genres as the diary, autobiography, and short newspaper sketch, she subtly worked to undo two fundamental precepts of Estado Novo ideology. Lisboa’s semifictional autobiography, Começa uma vida (1940), and her volume of character sketches and chronicles of urban life, entitled Esta cidade! (1942), present nuanced and captivating portraits of life in Lisbon and its environs during two distinct time periods. The later collection deals directly with experiences that are contemporary to the period in question, while the earlier text revisits the author’s childhood at the turn of the century, during the final years of the Portuguese monarchy. In both books Lisboa portrays the daily lives of the urban working classes so as to expose the emptiness of the state’s ruralist myth. Moreover, she relentlessly calls attention to the persistence of social patterns based on a long-standing patriarchal social order that determined many of the Estado Novo’s authoritarian impulses. In calling attention to myriad cases of social dysfunction, Irene Lisboa effectively inverts another of Salazar’s favorite metaphors: that of the nation as a traditional, organic, happy family.

Finally, Chapter 4 extends the discussion to the question of Portugal’s colonial policies and practices. In this chapter I analyze Lopes’s novel Chiquinho (written in the mid- to late 1930s and published in 1947) in the context of the first series of the Cape Verdean literary review Claridade (1936–37). Claridade issued the first organized call for political and cultural autonomy by any of Portugal’s “overseas provinces” in Africa. In my study of Lopes’s role as a founding member of the review, I look at the ways in which he set about creating and describing a Cape Verdean Creole identity based on language, music, and other forms of cultural expression in order to insert, metaphorically, Cape Verdean culture into the “Portuguese” text. When Claridade began publication in 1936, the work of Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre inspired Lopes and other young Cape Verdean writers. Freyre’s cultural approach to miscegenation easily lent itself to a project of countering long-held nationalist and racist views regarding the European’s “mission” to bring civilization to Africa. Freyre’s theories, however, unwittingly led Lopes and his fellow claridosos into an unexpected trap: by implicating them in new discourses of Portuguese exceptionalism, these theories introduced contradiction and cultural ambivalence into the Cape Verdeans’ foundational fictions.

Several years after the fall of the Portuguese Estado Novo in 1974, the well-known and highly respected literary critic Eduardo Lourenço argued in a study entitled “Psicanálise mítica do destino português” (Mythic Psychoanalysis of Portuguese Destiny) that Salazar’s cultural program attempted to adapt the Portuguese nation to his own natural sense of modesty. Lourenço notes the significant success of this attempt, observing that Salazarism

breve redundou na fabricação sistemática e cara de uma lusitanidade exemplar, cobrindo o presente e o passado escolhido em função da sua mitologia arcaica e reaccionária que aos poucos substituiu a imagem mais ou menos adaptada ao País real dos começos do Estado Novo por uma ficção ideológica, sociológica e cultural mais irrealista ainda que a proposta pela ideologia re publicana, por ser ficção oficial. (30–31)

[quickly reproduced itself through the systematic and prized manufacture of an exemplary sense of Lusitanian identity that encompassed the present and select mythological and reactionary elements of the past, eventually substituting the Estado Novo’s more or less adequate initial image of the real nation with an ideological, sociological, and cultural fiction that, as an official fiction, was even more unrealistic than the image that had been proposed by republican ideology.]

The present study aims to describe some of the specific processes employed in the construction of this official fiction, tracing the contours of the exemplary Lusitanian identity that appeared during the first decades of the Estado Novo, while also charting several contemporaneous responses to its emergence.

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