Clarice Lispector – the illusion of presence



Through portraits Clarice Lispector can observe and make her correspondents see the transformations that the passage of time imprints on bodies

In a letter written in Florence to the sisters Elisa and Tania (November 26, 1945), Clarice Lispector refers, in two moments, to the problem of the photographic portrait. In the first, she regrets that the photographs taken in the Pistoia cemetery and near the church of Santa Maria Novella were not satisfactory. Touched by the “ambience” of the cemetery,[1] “I forgot to make a better face for you. I left every time with my head down or very low, distracted…”. In the portrait taken near the Florentine church, the writer claims to have sought a different pose: “I smiled at you – and it turns out that the smile didn't light up my face… I could be laughing inside and it doesn't show on the outside”.

Dissatisfied with the results obtained, he later notes that he is in doubt “if I send the portraits to you – I don’t want you to be disappointed”. These observations show that Lispector is fully aware of the mechanism of the pose, of the “theater of the self” produced by the individual in front of the camera. In her interaction with the lens, the writer demonstrates that she is attentive to two specificities of photography highlighted by Roland Barthes – the fabrication of “another body” and the active transformation of the subject into an image –, which leads to analyzing the discomfort with portraits taken in Tuscany based on considerations developed by him in the camera lucida (1980)

In his last book, Roland Barthes expresses the desire for the photographic portrait to be able to capture “a fine moral texture, and not a mimicry”; Therefore, he decides to “'let float'” on his lips and in his eyes “a slight smile”, possibly “'indecipherable'”, in which it is possible to reveal the qualities of nature itself[2] and the “fun consciousness” of photographic ceremony. If such considerations apply, in an exemplary way, to the photographs taken in the cemetery, the dissatisfaction with the result obtained in Florence can be explained by the perception that the deep self does not coincide with the image, which the author defines as “still, immobile, obstinate ”.

If there were doubts about the perception of the link between portrait and pose, it would be enough to pay attention to the recommendation that Clarice Lispector made to Elisa in a correspondence written in Naples, on July 24, 1945: “My dear, send portraits of yourself. Send a big picture to a photographer.” The reference to the intermediation of a specialized professional, who knows how to dose the lighting, create a favorable environment for a good shot, suggest an appropriate pose, had already appeared in a previous letter (Rome, May 2, 1945), which reads: “I'm going to take a portrait here today or tomorrow, with a good photographer”. The reference to the portrait itself paves the way for a direct request: “My dear little daughter, why don’t you do the same? I would so, so much like to have your portrait. You say you took it out and it came out bad. But how many have I taken and they are no good. Until one day it pays off.”

Although it is possible to say that Clarice Lispector would agree with Roland Barthes regarding the profound nature of photography – being “a certificate of presence” –, it is clear that she would disagree with his reflections on the initiatives taken by the photographer to avoid the feeling of death that emanates from the portrait. photographic. If the critic sees himself as an embalmed object, despite the “sad initiatives” of animation rehearsed by the professional, the writer, on the contrary, trusts in his art and in his ability to give life to the subject who poses for the camera.

The concern with a portrait made by a “good photographer” coincides with the posing sessions in which she was participating in the studio of the painter Giorgio de Chirico, at the beginning of May 1945. As recalled in the interview given to Marina Colasanti, Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna and João Salgueiro on October 20, 1976, the suggestion to have a portrait painted by de Chirico came from a friend,[3] the painter was interested in his face and composed the painting in three sessions.

In the letter addressed to the sisters on May 9, the writer demonstrates her enthusiasm with the result: the painting is “small; It’s great, beautiful, magnificent, with expression and everything.” The portrait, for which she posed in a blue velvet Mayflower dress, “is just her head, neck and a little bit of shoulders. Everything diminished.” A few years later, Lispector changed his opinion, as demonstrated in the interview given to José Augusto Guerra: he found his expression “'a bit affected'” and defined de Chirico as a “decadent painter, [who] lost his artistic sense”.

It was not the first time she had posed for a pictorial portrait. In Naples, she had been a model for Zina Aita, as she wrote to Elisa on January 29, 1945: “Nothing can be said for now, patience is needed.” The portrait had already been mentioned in a letter to Lúcio Cardoso, in which Clarice Lispector states that the artist “certainly thought my face was 'characteristic', as I have been told so many times without telling me what was characteristic of what. Definitely something ugly.”[4]

The uncertainty regarding the result of Zina Aita's initiative and the reconsideration of the work signed by de Chirico seem to demonstrate that the author had more faith in photography as a record capable of revealing a personality than in painting, which could suffer interference from “a personal, obsessive interest” of the artist, focused more on discovering himself than on capturing the psychology of the subject being portrayed (John Berger).

This possibility of the pictorial portrait saying more about the artist than the model had been clearly perceived by her, as demonstrated by the letter to Cardoso, in which she discussed the idea of ​​her face having a characteristic touch, and the 1976 interview, in which emphasizes that the Italian artist wanted to see it first to decide whether to execute the work.

For Clarice Lispector there is a deep bond between the subject and its photographic representation. The constant requests for portraits, particularly of the recalcitrant Elisa, demonstrate that Mario Costa's reflection on Paul Valéry's relationship with the technical image could be applied to her. Photography and subject are mirror images, circulation from one to the other, sharing of the same “emotional lymph”, “reabsorption of the machine by the subject”, which is returned to him and reassimilated by him.

It is significant that the issue of the camera was addressed in a letter written in Naples, on November 21, 1944: the purchase of a Zeiss Ikon camera, “second hand, but very good”, is associated with the possibility of “sending portraits ” and serves as an excuse to request the sending of photographs of Elisa, which do not require “work” and provide “a lot of joy” to the late Clarice.

For someone who constantly expressed a feeling of loneliness and inadequacy, who saw herself as “a poor exile”, longing for Brazil and tormented by “a real thirst to be there with you”, correspondence with the sisters was a way to overcome the distance imposed by the diplomatic position held by her husband Maury Gurgel Valente, whom she had married in 1943. After a period of six months spent in Belém, the couple traveled to Italy, where Maury would occupy the position of vice-consul in Naples, between August 1944 and the first months of 1946.

It is in this context that the writer seeks to “become present” to the sisters and, at the same time, make them “present in her life” through the exchange of missives. This statement by Luciana Aparecida Silva can gain greater meaning if it is associated with the constant requests for portraits. For a lonely and maladjusted Clarice, any image could serve as consolation. This is what the letter written to Elisa on January 3, 1945 demonstrates: “You look great, great, even though the portrait isn't much and has darkened you all. Marcia is very alive and looks naughty and intelligent.”

If the meaning of photography resides, according to John Berger, in the “remembrance of the absent”, Lispector seems to go beyond this dimension by locating in the portraits of the sisters and niece Marcia a kind of real physical presence. A supporter of mimetic illusionism, the writer values ​​both the mechanical procedure that underlies the photographic process and its “natural” results, which allowed her to be in the presence of loved ones, despite a specific geographical distance.

The reference to the mechanical nature of the process is not limited to the letter of November 21, 1944. It had already appeared in a previous letter (November 13), addressed to the older sister: “Elisa, I seriously ask you to send me a portrait its recent. The work doesn’t cost anything, and it will give me enormous pleasure.” This presentification of the absent as a way of overcoming the physical barrier imposed by geographic distance is a true leitmotif in letters written from Italy.

A reluctant Elisa receives a reprimand on March 19, 1945: “I was upset because you didn't send me portraits of yourself. I know you don't 'love' taking portraits, but for me you should. If you see that Tania is very insistent that you be photographed, don't be angry with her, be angry with me because I asked her to insist.”

Six days later, the writer returns with some unusual considerations: “I haven't told you about you coming here because it seems absurd to me for now, since everything here is convulsed and difficult. […] I think I would be crazy with joy to welcome you to the pier or the airport… I prefer the pier. I would spend at least two days without letting you see anything, just looking and talking, I'm such a fool. But after all, a granddaughter is a granddaughter.[5] Speaking of granddaughter, I remember Marcia, remembering Marcia I remember her photographs, remembering her photographs I remember photographs in general and finally I arrive at the magic wand that is your photograph. Why didn't I receive your portrait? Why, oh why? (don't you be impressed by my air of Italian opera?). Seriously, I ask you to make the sacrifice of taking portraits and sending them to me. Old lady that I am, my consolation is exactly my granddaughters. And there's nothing like a grand portrait. Don't forget, please. And write to me, write, write. Say everything, share your news, write those beautiful little letters.”

Through portraits, Clarice Lispector can observe and make her correspondents see the transformations that the passage of time imprints on bodies. In the letter in which he mentions that he is posing for Zina Aita, he asks Elisa if the “portraits taken by the war correspondent” have arrived and refers to her physical appearance: “I am fatter, soon I will be a Roman matron, or rather, a Neapolitan one”.[6] On March 19, 1945, he notes that, from the photographs received, Marcia is “formidable and chubby” and Tania is “great”. The ability of photography to elide an absence is recalled in a letter to the two sisters, in which the writer requests the sending of a portrait of the father and another of the mother with a simple justification: “Sometimes I want to see it and I don't have it” (August 23 1945).

The need to be in constant contact with the images of the sisters and niece takes on dramatic contours in the letter written in Florence, on November 26, 1945: “Send portraits. There were a few days of despair for me because I couldn't find the envelope with all the portraits you sent me. It was my fault for taking them to Rome and carrying them in my bag... I still haven't found them today but I continue to look all over the house in Naples. Send me new ones, at least.”

It is not known whether the lost envelope was found, but the last two letters written from Italy and addressed, this time, to Tania, still contain references to portraits. In the first, dated December 3, 1945, Lispector is anxious about the arrival of her mother-in-law, who “brings letters for me and portraits…”. On January 2, 1946, she informs him that she will return to Naples within two days, “without having seen the things that will come to us, the thousands of things that come to me, nor the portraits. The luggage is in Milan, on its way here and we can't wait any longer. But when they come to Rome, they will go to Naples by the most trusted carrier. I hope you remembered to send me portraits of yourself and that will be my best gift.”

Carrying the portraits of her sisters and niece in an envelope placed in her purse is equivalent to creating a portable family album, focused on the near past and the present, which the late Clarice can turn to in moments of helplessness and loneliness. Far from her family, she tries to reconstruct, thanks to the contemplation of photographs, common memories, activate affective memory, recompose the initial nucleus (as demonstrated by the request for portraits of her parents), elaborate a narrative capable of placing in parentheses the feeling of exile that accompanies her in the Italian season.

This issue, which permeates all family correspondence, is frankly explained in the letter written to the Portuguese poet Natércia Freire, on August 27, 1945: “I here miss home and Brazil. This life of 'married to a diplomat' is the first destiny I have. That's not called traveling: traveling is going and coming back whenever you want, it's being able to walk. But traveling the way I will travel is bad: it means serving time in several places. Impressions, after a year in a place, end up killing first impressions. In the end the person becomes 'cultured'. But it's not my genre. Ignorance never hurt me. And quick impressions are more important to me than long ones.”[7]

The role of the family album[8], endowed with a ritual function that reinforces the awareness of the unity of the family group (Pierre Bourdieu), seems to have been condensed by the writer in the envelope always at hand. Did she have a daily ritual, which consisted of looking at the images and talking to them out loud, confiding in her and expressing thoughts that she didn't dare put down on paper? This question seems to be legitimate because, before his transfer to Italy, Lispector had a conventional relationship with photographic portraits.

Although he speaks of an “enormous urgency to see the family’s child, the Dutch girl” and urges Tania to take “a little portrait of her in costume”, in the letter dated February 16, 1944, such a request can be seen as a manifestation of longing for an aunt loving, who hasn't seen her niece for months. The construction of a common family memory seems to be at the basis of the following excerpt from the message written in Lisbon, in August: “I forgot, in the rush of travel, in the midst of letters and papers, the portrait of you, Tania, and by Marcia. Dear Elisa, please send me a portrait of her; and you, Tania, give me back your portrait. Soon, when I finally arrive in Naples, I will make a good deal with Maury and send it.”

Words seemed insufficient to fill the void created by the absence of Elisa, Tania and Marcia. His photographic images, seen as analogues of reality, awaken in Lispector the illusion of a tangible and concrete physical presence. Although she is aware of the mechanism of the pose and the fabrication of a body for the lens, she believes in the power of the “aqueiropoieta” image, that is, created without the intervention of the artist's hand, the result of the adhesion of the referent to the image thanks to light ( Philippe Dubois).

The authenticity that the writer detects in the photographic portraits is not without a fetishistic connotation, but it is this fetish that helps her to bear the longing and emptiness generated by geographical distance. The sense of presence provided by the portraits finds a solid basis in a statement from August 1944: “The whole world is slightly boring, it seems. I would like to be there with you or with Maury. What matters in life is being with the people you love. This is the greatest truth in the world. And if there is a particularly nice place, it is Brazil.”

It is an illusion, without a doubt, but it is fundamental to Clarice's survival in exile, attesting to the strength of the photographic image as confirmation of an existence and pointing to its inescapable relationship with memory and the construction of solid family bonds. .

* Annateresa Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Visual Arts at ECA-USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reality and fiction in Latin American photography (UFRGS Publisher). []


BARTHES, Roland. The camera lucida: note on photography; trans. Júlio Castañon Guimarães. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 2012 (

BERGER, John, About the properties of the photographic portrait. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2007 (

BOURDIEU, Pierre. “Cult of the unit and cultivated differences”. In: ______ (org.). Photography: an intermediate art. Mexico: Editorial Nueva Imagen, 1979 (

COLASANTI, Marina; SANT'ANNA, Affonso Romano de; SALGUEIRO, João. “Interview between friends”. four five one, São Paulo, year 7, n. 72, p. 26-32, Aug. 2023.

CORTIZ, Diogo. “Can Artificial Intelligence represent human emotions?”. Cult, São Paulo, year 26, n. 297, p. 17-19, Sept. 2023.

COAST, Mario. Photography without soggetto: per a theory of technological oggetto. Genova/Milano: Costa & Nolan, 1997 (

DUBOIS, Philippe. The photographic act and other essays; trans. Marina Appenzeller. Campinas: Papirus, 1993 (

GUERRA, José Augusto. “An hour with Clarice Lispector. Perhaps renewal will come from Europe.” The newspaper, Rio de Janeiro, , p. 3, 28 Aug. 1949 (suppl. Magazine).

LISPECTOR, Clarice. All letters. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2020 (

SILVA, Luciana Aparecida. The epistolography of the Lispector sisters: in Clarice’s literary intermediaries. 154 f. Dissertation (Master in Literary Studies). Uberlândia: Federal University of Uberlândia, 2016. See this link.


[1] Lispector was visiting the Brazilian Military Cemetery of Pistóia, founded in 1944, to receive the 462 bodies of members of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force and the 1st Fighter Aviation Group, fallen in action during the Second World War. In 1960, the remains were transferred to the National Monument to the Dead of the Second World War, located in Rio de Janeiro.

[2] According to Diogo Cortiz, studies in neuroscience and psychology have demonstrated that “inferring someone's mental states solely based on facial expression is a fragile approach. This happens due to the lack of a direct connection between muscle movements and emotions, which also varies from person to person and according to the culture in which they are inserted.”

[3] This is the diplomat Landulpho Borges da Fonseca.

[4] Not dated, the letter to Cardoso dates back to November 21, 1944. On that day, the writer comments in a letter to Elisa that she had met at a “slightly boring” tea party, celebrating November 15, “a lady who She grew up in Brazil and is a teacher. Her sister, who I don't know yet, is a painter and works in ceramics. They are Giovana and Zina Aita, this Brazilian. The teacher came here yesterday and I’m going to go to their house one day.”

[5] It is possible that the idea of ​​“granddaughter” is associated with the use of the terms “daughter” and “little daughters” to designate the sister(s), in some letters, such as those of March 18, 1944, 7 August 1944 and May 2, 1945, for example.

[6] In a previous letter, dated January 7, Lispector had commented on her own physical appearance: “It seems to me that I weigh 62 kilos, but it doesn't look that way and although I'm not thin, I don't give the impression of being fat. Also with this stupid lifestyle where I don't do anything. I will only lose weight if I start to despair about this stupid life, which I don't think will happen because I'm too immersed in it to be able to despair.”

[7] In the letter written in Florence, Lispector demonstrates an ambivalent feeling regarding contact with a profusion of artists and works from the past. On the one hand, he enjoys the sight of “things by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Benvenuto Cellini, Bruneleschi, Donatelo that I like more than Michelangelo”. I felt a feeling of relief when I found out that a certain gallery was still closed because of the war because that prevented me from seeing it”. This confession suggests that, perhaps, the writer had a beginning of “Stendhal syndrome”.

[8] As the book demonstrates Old portraits (sketches to be enlarged), Published in 2012 by Editora da Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, reluctant Elisa will play the role of guardian of family memory. Through photographs that portray the extended family (grandparents, uncles, cousins) and the nucleus that moved to Brazil, and oral reports, the eldest daughter of the Lispector couple recalls people, rituals, habits, traumas (emblemned in the pogroms) and migrations. In a context of family dispersion, the photographic album acquires the role of archive of a memory that must be passed on so as not to be lost.

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