Discourse / Nonsense / Display (Notes and Appropriations on Ernesto de Sousa's Research into Naive Art)

Nuno Faria, Ernesto de Sousa e a Arte Popular – Em torno da exposição Barristas e Imaginários, Guimarães, CIAJG

Ernesto de Sousa (ES) wished and wanted to assimilate and share everything – to chew, eat, talk, transmit. It was this desire of totality, of the world, of others and things, that led to his unbridled and generous quest, in a radical and complete anthrophagy, because "time works terribly against us...". What concerned him was "the great lucid adventure of transformation of the world". He was seeking "a deep and intimate discovery of multiple 
manifestations (...) of folk art", the foundation of the propitiatory practices of future events, the root of action and love.

Ernesto de Sousa's work was fragmentary, by vocation and necessity, but even in this regard it was fundamentally contemporary. It's a work for people, for beginners in life, not very formal in comparison with standard academic research, but brutally fertile as a modus vivendi.


The question of time, past, present and future, continuously arises in his writings. His dynamic thinking destabilized temporal planes, destroying any chance of teleological conception of history and the linearity of historical time. Formulations such as the "the infinite duration of human life" or "there's no beginning without roots ", denouncing his discursive freedom – in terms of the production of concepts, on the one hand, and an openness to the world, on the other, marked by a predisposition for research which is more of a search, than confirmation of a priori ideas.

Ernesto de Sousa's interest in folk art is exemplary and explanatory this search for grand perspectives. Its scope – according to the author based on a formulation that could be a synthesis of his ubiquitous and polymorphic research work, "control of one's own destiny and extension of man to other men constitute the major adventure of humanity and its survival”.

He therefore focused his attention on existences and works – if we can describe them in that manner, without running the risk of excessively formalizing them – that are irreducibly singular, exceptional to norms and canons, unclassifiable but, paradoxically, legible in terms of production of difference and otherness within sustained continuity via transmission of deep culture, roots and the connection to nature and the environment.

Ernesto de Sousa understood the profound link between the natural world and man, which is established precisely from the moment in which there is separation between man (subject) and nature (object), the understanding of the objective existence of nature 9. The dialogue he weaves with Franklin clearly illustrates the encounter between the concepts and the 
strategies of folk art and cultured (or erudite) art.

There are two central works in Ernesto de Sousa's theoretical production about the question of folk art or naive art, as he preferred to describe it: his essay, Conhecimento da arte moderna e popular ("Knowledge of modern and folk art"), which he published in 1964, as an insert to number 83 of the Arquitectura magazine and his book "Para o estudo da Escultura Portuguesa"("Towards a study of Portuguese Sculpture"), which he published in 1965 (Porto, Ecma) and whose second edition was published by Livros Horizonte (1973). It is worthwhile dwelling on both texts, because it contains the essence of the Ernesto de Sousa's theory on this issue and the nature of artistic production and the aesthetic gaze, in the broadest sense of these terms.

These two works define Ernesto de Sousa's approach, theoretical principles and praxis. It is clear that both studies result from his own field research, directly experienced by the author. It should come as no surprise that his interest in folk art was apparent in his early career. In this regard, the anthropologist João Leal – who has undertaken important and insightful research into the semantics and reception of popular culture and its instrumentalization in several contexts, especially during the Estado Novo regime – cites a letter sent by Ernesto de Sousa to his friend and confidant Eduardo Calvet de Magalhães (published in the chronology compiled by Miguel Wandschneider in the exhibition catalogue for Revolution My Body). Leal stresses that "in the course of his artistically diverse career, Ernesto de Sousa developed a strong interest in the world of folk art, which seems to trace back to 1944; the year when his correspondence records an attraction marked by the universes of primitive art and folk objects. This interest was further consolidated during the 1960s in a more intentional manner". According to Leal· Ernesto de Sousa "inaugurated a new sensibility in the characterization and classification of folk art" that was "manifested first and foremost in of objects that now typify folk art. Instead of craft production domesticated by the ethnographic taste of the Estado Novo regime, he considered that folk art was primarily represented via artists statues of popular expression with unexpected forms and unconventional plastic solutions'".

Indeed, in "Conhecimento da arte moderna e popular" (Knowledge of modern and folk art), Ernesto de Sousa states that "true folk art is always creative, although often (but not always) assimilating cultured features and themes. He explores, and later systematizes in his subsequent texts, this dialectic between erudite art and folk art, while he traces, on the one hand, a continuity, a lineage, within Portuguese sculpture, either of popular expression or of religious character, and, on the other hand, a radical "gulf between the two expressions, alluding to a number of feature that characterize folk art and define it as rupture, interval, deviation from the norm, via a strategy that encompasses caricature, mockery and vilification, vengeance, in a cross between expressionism and realism, but, above all a concept that was evoked but unfortunately never developed in greater depth by Ernesto de Sousa: "It is the concept of 'nonsense', playing with the absurd, that is freely critical and liberating; it is an explosion of all logic – perhaps the logic of unjust and oppressive days and nights. Rosa Ramalha's work is filled with such 'nonsense': gentlemen riding their horses backwards, men 'by your leave, with a donkey's head'. Sometimes, the same work contains its share of realistic phantasmagoria, caricature and voluntary and hyperrealist ‘nonsense'!

In "Para o estudo da Escultura Portuguesa" (Towards a Study of Portuguese Sculpture), Ernesto de Sousa added: "So–called cultured art and this in general – is disintegrating, isolates the cultural product in a rational, canonical, and tendentially academic context. It is only globalizing in the limit. The masterpiece – which is always a first work – is also always, as one would say in mathematical language, a globalization of finite sets. Escaping from the academising tendency, it is therefore evolutionary and structural. On the contrary, that which we call "naive" art (the preferred designation instead of "folk" art) is inclusive and affective. Its cultural objects are essentially transitive and open to the surprise of reality. Its emotional and sentimental motivations are unacceptable under the terms of any discipline of Reason. "Naive" art is dependent on the specific situation (and let us not forget that 
situations may extend over time) ".

Ernesto de Sousa's research combines the utopia of the rediscovery of a kind of original primitive state of awareness – after aspiration shared by many of his contemporaries, including artists, architects and others – with perseverance of mapping this subject in the field.


Ernesto de Sousa's writing is performative and transformative. It is conceived with the whole body and directed towards other desirous bodies. It is precisely a writing of desire: generous, seductive, bright and open. It addresses those who come and want to learn. It addresses the objects of study as tangible, physical, concrete things, that exist. It does not proceed from a defensive or aloof position. It is exuberant and joyful, on the one hand, while severe and profound, on the other. It is an oral, spoken, guttural writing – a work in process. It remains very close to the object of study, which it adheres to by sympathy, while nonetheless remaining judgmental and interpretive.

However it stands out by its ability to detect and feel vibrations from the depths, attraction towards shadowy zones that have been forgotten by history, sensitive to invisible connections between things and people, to voices of ancestors that echo in the present.

It was in his text "Um escultor ingénuo" ("A naive sculptor"), based on the works of Franklin, that Ernesto de Sousa extended his reflection on the 
mysterious and unfathomable mysteries of artistic creation. His mastery of this topic, complemented by a plurality of bibliographic references, that at this time was still dominated by the Francophone universe (a situation that changed in the middle of the 1970s, in a marked but nonetheless surprising paradigm shift'"), complemented by his dazzling ability to generate structures of thought from secular archetypes, codified by a wide spectrum of disciplines, engenders a bright and enlightened work, capable of engendering meaning in more than one field of knowledge. In this regard, it is clear that it was from this point of disengagement, openness and porosity between different disciplines that Ernesto de Sousa was ready to embrace the adventure of avant-garde experimentalism, which he explored until his demise in the late 1980s.


This radical clarity, if we can call it that, at the discursive level, was already materialized, at the level of montage (which a few years later would be Ernesto de Sousa's preferred discourse), in the exhibition Barristas e Imaginários (Clay modelers and Icon-makers), which in our opinion is the cornerstone, the core, the ultimate hub of Ernesto de Sousa's thinking about Portuguese sculpture and folk art, which inspired his ineluctable adherence to contemporary artistic practice. Indeed, the language that he used in this exhibition – the devices that he developed, in precarious conditions – are notable and innovative at every level, in the manner in which they transport objects of folk art to the semantic field of contemporary art, even if Ernesto de Sousa wasn't fully aware of this process at that time.

Articulating photography and works of clay, stone and wood, images and objects, thus, on the basis of a set of ingeniously simple devices and evident material and symbolic force – made of brick, burlap or card – and supports such as crates, table tops or background plates, Ernesto de Sousa seems to refer to the essentiality of language that links the objects that he presents, on one hand, and for the displacement of meaning that he is carrying out, on the other.

We can recognize a very strong intuitive dimension in Ernesto de Sousa's work, which led him to reinvent the codes of reading a work of art through systematization of a method of approximation and comparison, which is close to Aby Warburg's Iconological approach, in particular the belief that the existence and persistence of images outweigh the rhetoric of writing as a potential force to reconnect the individual to the cosmos. As a result we find outlined within Ernesto de Sousa's thinking an iconology of the interval that seeks to approximate boundary phenomena, fringe events, formal and typological survivals that are distant in time and, sometimes, in space consider for example his interest over many years in African tribal art), that constituted a genuine constellation of symbols, pictures, objects and people.

Photography, which is perhaps the only medium that is truly transversal across Ernesto de Sousa's career, is thus assigned the task of documenting and imagining (in the sense of creating mental images), things in the world, in the form of corporalisation and de-substantialisation, body and ghost, air and earth (using Bachelard's terminology). As Margarida Medeiros has noted: "For Ernesto de Sousa, the image is a kind of spring, a necessary mnesic (memory retaining) trace used to support a discourse that is exterior to the image itself. (...) need to recall is this idea that a photographic image is on the way towards something else. For example, towards a story (sequence), that is visible in the manner in which it establishes a genuine montage, in the cinematographic sense, from a set of photographs with the patient, analytical and obsessive spirit of a researcher into forms, of an experimenter. This idea of montage is not only manifested in the linear ordering of sequences, but also in the manner in which it isolates a detail, approaching it, or once again revealing it in a more general plane, similar to the techniques used in films, such as zoom and dolly shots".

Ernesto de Sousa's research – we should perhaps use the term "search", since it has a broader meaning and an endless horizon – in which writing is a discourse, ultimately uses memory as its raw material, as a trait of trans-temporal union, the possibility of overcoming historical determinism and the notion of epoch, reactivation and refreshing of the powers of the archaic.

In this construction, photography is alternately and simultaneously a device and a discourse, a way of seeing and the possibility of allowing others to see, the scene and the figure, within and outside the field of view, life and death. This back-and-forth movement between framing and reframing, this game of tracking in and out, activates in the spectator a permanent and contingent sense of awareness of the world in its own right and of the individual in the world, a sense of possibility, or, to paraphrase Ernesto de Sousa, the desire to forge the childhood of a new beginning.