Iconic Portuguese sculptor – ‘father’ of Lagos’ Dom Sebastião (spaceman) – dies, aged 83

João Cutileiro – perhaps Portugal’s best-known contemporary sculptor – has died in hospital aged 83.

Cutileiro, born in the Alentejo, lived a number of years in Lagos where his Dom Sebastião sculpture in the main square off the Avenida has been a landmark for almost 50 years.

When first installed, people were stunned by it. Was this really the legendary Dom Sebastião – the young king who died in the historic defeat by the Moors at Alcácer Quibir  – or a spaceman with a much-too-heavy helmet?

But João Cutileiro by then was an international name, having studied under some of Portugal’s own 20th century legends within the art world, before going on to live, work and study in Italy and London, where he attended the Slade School of Art with contemporaries like Paula Rego.

Cutileiro worked in various materials but preferred marble, which he transformed with the help of electrical machinery. It is due to the dust these implements caused that his lungs became ‘sick’. He developed pulmonary emphysema, which was ultimately the cause of his death.

As tributes pouring in today explain, Cutileiro’s work was considered ‘iconic’ because of its total break with tradition: the Dom Sebastião sculpture of 1973 was a case in point – nothing could be more different from ‘heroic, athletic’ sculptures created by those who came before him. Cutileiro was the start of a new generation.

The Algarve has a number of his works beyond Lagos: there is the fisherman in Alvor, erected in 2000 but received with every bit as much controversy as Dom Sebastião in 1973 – and ‘Marques de Pombal’, in Vila Real de Santo António, another extraorindary minimalist work composed of 10 blocks of marble: no face, no arms. At the inauguration in 2009, Cutileiro told local reporters there was ‘no point creating a face, as every portrait of Pombal is different’. 

Moving to Évora in the 80s, Cutileiro became a point of reference to younger sculptors like José Pedro Croft and Sérgio Taborda. He had his studio, created international sculpture symposia and ultimately donated much of his work to the State through the ministry of Culture, the municipality of Évora and the city’s university.

He died in the early hours of this morning in Lisbon’s Pulo Valente hospital from complications which his family have said were provoked by pulmonary emphysema.

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