Design

Abel Manta and the anti-fascist graphic irony

On April 25th we pay tribute to Abel Manta, master of graphic elements, who fought the oppressive regime of Salazar with his ironic art.

Words by
Jorge Silva
Published
in 22 of April of 2022

In the celebration of the 48th anniversary of the eternal 25th of April, we could not fail to pay tribute to João Abel Manta, a master in the use of graphic elements, who fought with his art against an oppressive regime in such an ironic and intelligent way. 

The imagery force of his illustrations was plastic and incisive. He attacked with a satirical tone like no other. He also played a major role in the formation of a post-revolutionary public, from whom he conjured up sad and tyrannical memories. 

His art has lost neither strength nor colour

The work endures through time and, almost half a century later it reaches us with the same urgent and liberating voice as it once did. The ridicule of the dictatorship became timeless and exposed the disaster of colonisation and political repression experienced until 1974, so it became the emblematic voice of a revolutionary Portugal.

The Estado Novo (fascist regime) propaganda

Until the 25th of April, Portugal went through a political period where censorship ruled and, freedom of speech was severely repressed. The people were constantly exposed to one-sided propaganda, leading them to believe that only the ideals of the Estado Novo could lead to the salvation of the country. 

The propaganda of the Estado Novo reinforced these ideals, with the proclamation of a new regime of discipline and authority that would protect the nation. 

The graphic communication used in the propaganda of the time was endowed with elements of popular roots and influenced by heroism, as can be seen by the examples below.

Estado Novo's Propaganda Posters

The posters were utilitarian and informative

The posters were utilitarian and informative and had a function of instruction and intervention in society.

Values such as the appreciation of religion, the nation and the family were constantly reinforced - always with an emphasis on President Salazar - in an attempt to unite the people. 

The posters were the State's main means of communication and a way of disseminating its ideals to the entire population. In order to avoid misunderstandings, the language used was as universal and clear as possible: textual information was reduced (most people were illiterate) and priority was given to images. 

These elements were often endowed with realism and rigidity and also contrasted in their message of order and disorder. Black and cold tones regularly supported the shapes of the figures, which were illuminated by creamy and warm tones such as orange and yellow, in a symbolic approach to the cornfields, appealing to prosperity.

It was also usual to find red tones in elements that were intended to draw attention. With regard to typography, serif fonts were regularly presented in uppercase and condensed, which gave an elegant tone to the message; on the other hand, the use of low contrast non-serif fonts in the stroke invoked rigidity and an imperative tone of voice.

Abel Manta and the political activism

It is in this context that we remember João Abel Manta, an artist, born in 1928, on the brink of the dictatorship of the Estado Novo, was early taught intellectual flexibility by his parents, who took him to travel to European capitals as a young man. 

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Attending the gatherings on politics and culture that took place in his house, often held surreptitiously, awakened his resistance to authority and his combative vision of oppressive political regimes. He was even arrested by the PIDE for belonging to a group considered clandestine. 

It was in art that João Abel Manta found his voice and although he studied and took architecture as a profession, it was in drawing that he found a way to intervene socially with his aesthetic talent marked by political activism.

Thus, in the 1950s he worked as an illustrator for the newspaper "O Século" and in the 1960s he continued to refine his graphic style for magazines such as "o Almanaque" or "Seara Nova".

Abel Manta and the freedom of expression of the oppressed people

It was after April 25th, 1974, for obvious reasons, that Abel Manta's voice was heard the most. During this time he became a staunch defender of the Carnation Revolution, its values, people's freedom and freedom of expression.

His cartooning, a humorous illustration of a critical nature that depicts a social or everyday event, was irreverent in a pre and post-dictatorship era and is easily identifiable with the thickly drawn outline.

In addition to cartoons, João Abel Manta produced paintings and other types of illustrations, but the choice of this type of illustration was based on the need to assimilate the immediate message of the intervention drawing and enabled a direct dialogue with the public. 

What best characterises these works is, in fact, their incisive and satirical tone at a time when censorship closed printing presses and prohibited new ideologies and their peers took refuge in simple, popular humour.  

The interventional works of Abel Manta

João Abel Maia's works were ironic and parodied the rigid and absurd reality of the time. He even opposed television in 1972, when he published an illustration alluding to the Portuguese Song Festival where the flag was used in an abusive and disrespectful way, in the eyes of the censors. This illustration led him to have to defend himself in court.

His mastery of the graphic arts was remarkable as can be seen by the posters alluding to the Armed Forces Movement and cartoons relating to the post-revolution, a period constantly threatened by reactionary forces. 

In this way, they contrasted strongly and unequivocally with the illustrations and posters commissioned by the Secretariat of National Propaganda, not only in colour - João Abel Manta used dark tones that appealed to the oppression and social policy of the New State; having opened up the colour in the post-revolution period - but also in the message, as previously explained.

Abel Manta (Images from left to right): Illustration "Fascists Barely Buried", Poster "MFA - Sentinel of the People", Illustration "Escafandro and Abel Manta's Imprisonment".

The post 25 April 1974 and democratisation in creativity

Creativity is no longer subject to the prior approval of a state identity or to complying with programmatic and political purposes. It is no longer centred in the imagination of an empire, but in the imagination of the artist, where it should always have been. 

In this period, both culture and art were handed over to the people and this gesture allowed the discovery of new forms of techniques and artistic expression.

The poster, once monopolised by the dictatorship, became the people's and the Salazarist message became incarnate with carnations and self-expression. It was also thanks to public propaganda that it ceased to be uniform. 

Opening the country to the outside world

The opening up of the country to the outside world led to a widening of freedom of expression and to a perception of the world's artistic production. For example, conceptual art was discovered, an innovation on the national scene. Murals appeared and iconography became present.  

The theatre flooded with people who had been denied the power to see plays rejected by censorship and music that came from abroad to the interior of the country. Cinema stopped portraying the Empire and the external image and focused on the private. 

It stopped portraying behavioural stereotypes, it embraced the interiors of houses and people. It embraced all the other arts and showed texts that were hitherto forbidden. 

The population also had access to literature that portrayed colonialism or the evolution of society from monarchy to democracy. 

How Abel Manta influenced Portuguese Design

We cannot conclude this article without mentioning how the Carnation Revolution affects us today. It was thanks to the intervention of the Armed Forces Movement that graphic culture in Portugal expanded so rapidly.

The conquest of freedom of expression was one of the key elements that most affected Portuguese society and the way in which the poster came to be used changed radically.

The exchange of ideas with the outside fertilised our visual culture and the poster ceased to be a political vehicle and became a vehicle of the people and their ideals, bringing them closer together.

João Abel Manta will always continue to inspire us not only as people but as designers with his incisive intervention and criticism through graphic elements as expressive as they are beautiful.

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This article was written by Jorge Silva, Digital Designer at MD3 STUDIO.

Jorge is a graphic designer and likes to explore his skills. He has a creative mind and the will to innovate makes him bring new and refreshing visions about the graphic and digital world.