José Bártolo, Ernesto de Sousa Poster Collection: Your Body is My Body, Lisbon, Museu Coleção Berardo
* The title is a quote from Ernesto de Sousa, the final phrase of “Performar”, in Opção, no. 101 (30 March 1978).
1. YOUR BODY IS MY BODY
“your body is my body — o teu corpo é o meu corpo” is a statement that places us at a crossroads. He is referring us to a 1972 work by Ernesto de Sousa comprising a series of photographs and a poster, a work that is part of a wider creative process, linking projects such as Luís Vaz 73, Olympia and Identificación con tu Cuerpo. He is also referring us to the field of reflection and experimentation, highlighting Ernesto de Sousa as an avant-garde aestheticist, an area that he was continually involved with between the early-to-mid 1960s and early-to-mid 1980s and which, through the economy of means, can be identified with the growing value attributed to the creative process underlying the object created, where the body — with its radical physical presence and inevitable disappearance — is (beyond medium, material, passion) the central theme. Finally, your body is my body — o teu corpo é o meu corpo is the title of the exhibition and collection that showcases part of the collection of posters compiled by Ernesto de Sousa, which are demonstrative of his interest in graphic design and, in essence, the relationship between the disciplines of design and avant-garde art. There are certainly a number of critical preoccupations that characterise Ernesto de Sousa’s position from the 1950s onwards, in terms of cultural production and, in particular, visual culture; common concerns, therefore, that increasingly characterise the new film society movement and elements of Portuguese design production and visual culture, examples of which include the covers for Editora Ulisseia, designed in collaboration with Sena da Silva and Sebastião Rodrigues, the photography exhibition and subsequent publication by Costa Martins and Victor Palla entitled Lisboa, Cidade Triste e Alegre (1959) and the magazine Almanaque (1959) edited by Figueiredo Magalhães, with art direction by Sebastião Rodrigues. In the Ernesto de Sousa Poster Collection, three overarching themes stand out, and these should not be studied in isolation, but in light of the relationships established between them. Some, less direct and obvious, reflect the principles of interpretation and connection established by the collector himself. An initial theme comprises posters designed and produced by Ernesto de Sousa, either under his direction, on his behalf, or to publicise his works and events. From this core theme, comprising mainly posters, the collaborative works can be shown, resulting in the posters by (or co-produced by) Carlos Gentil-Homem (Nós Não Estamos Algures), 1969; Leilão de obras de arte revertendo a favor da realização do filme Almada, um Nome de Guerra, 1969; Insultai o Perigo, 1971; Estamos no século XX na época que não morre, 1971; K4 o quadrado azul, 1971; A alegria é a coisa mais séria da vida, 1971; Almada, um Nome de Guerra, 1971; Alternativa Zero, 1977; The Living Theatre, 1977) and Fernando Calhau (Quando nasci as frases que hão-de salvar a humanidade…, 1969). A second core theme is that of the Portuguese posters produced in a cultural context or to political ends. They are, in the main, posters produced according to an understanding of the medium as an ephemeral communication aid, composed by artists and graphic designers, bringing together aesthetically and ideologically distinct works, from posters by artist E. Melo e Castro, where the influence of visual and concrete Brazilian poetry is evident, to posters commissioned by CODICE – the Armed Forces Central Mobilising Committee, for popular communication, those exploring an illustrative, easily comprehended discourse, such as in the posters of João Abel Manta and Armando Alves, or more elaborate and formally complex ones, such as the works by Vespeira, Artur Rosa, and Justino Alves with Moura-George. A third concept, spanning a broad period of time, brings together international posters, many of which were collected during Ernesto de Sousa’s travels, bringing together a range of posters, from those of the Atelier Populaire, to those relating to Jean-Claude Moineau, to the countless posters with connected with the deeds of Vostell and Fluxus. At the beginning of this piece, I wrote “your body is my body — o teu corpo é o meu corpo” is a statement that places us at a crossroads. Whichever direction the statement leads us, perhaps we will be led to the same conceptual territory, easily delimited but more difficult to clearly define. Ernesto de Sousa strived for such definition on numerous occasions. One of the more systematic attempts resulted in the fundamental text “For a definition of the concept of avant-garde”(1). It is, however, in a 1978 text entitled “Performar,” published in issue 101 of Opção magazine, that a definition of the domain shows, in explicit fashion, its complexity, the complexity of the lexicon that it seeks to enunciate, the semantic and pragmatic resistance associ- ated with avant-garde activities: “Performing Arts, Action Arts, Behavioural arts. Involvement and assemblage. Mixed-media. Simultaneism. Free theatre. Guerrilla theatre. ‘When attitudes are form’. Process art. Open art. ‘Everything is art’. Poor art. Life art. Happening. Events. Performance. The event as art. Playful art. Ritual art. Art–participation and action. Political art. Sociological art. Prop-Art. Flux concerts. City art. Street art. New dance and body art. Total art and Land Art. Ecological art”. These terms and their referents, these expressions, have their own areas of meaning, sometimes aligned, sometimes in opposition. It is a story of diversity. What they all have, however, is a common sense”(2). In this way, the critic “performs” his own grammar, revealing more in the form of meanings than in categories. They are language elements, linguistic exercises, discursive terms, which, by confronting us with the insufficiency of language to broach action, lead to an action on language, the search for a certain zero degree. Reinvention of language. Reinvention of love, Ernesto de Sousa will write. “Your body is my body” materializes nothing. It expresses a desire, linguistically. The statement creates a body — a verbal inscription — that, in turn, longs to be given form, to make sense, to sense.
Ernesto de Sousa will speak of the poster as a vehicle for intimacy. We will come to that; let us not forget, for now, the ex-position. Expositions are living phenomena, which are hopefully able to generate dialogue and critique, inspiring new interpretations on the objects exhibited, as well as on their process and creative context. The exhibition your body is my body — o teu corpo é o meu corpo. Ernesto de Sousa Poster Collection will certainly be aiming for this effect of revealing avant-garde ideas and forms in Portugal in the second half of the twentieth century, dialogue with the international avant-garde, the role of Ernesto de Sousa in this production and dissemination of objects-ideas-actions and, lastly, the importance — so seldom dealt with — of the poster, the regeneration of its form and function, and the importance of the relationship between the disciplines of design and contemporary art, in terms of the processes of redefining the form and function of art and design.
2. DESIGN IN PORTUGAL: 1960–1970
The huge collection of posters gathered by Ernesto de Sousa is more an archive than a collection. Ernesto de Sousa was not a collector, driven by the desire to collect as many items as possible from among his contemporaries and from previous generations. In the posters that Ernesto de Sousa collected, preserved, and in some cases exhibited (some of the posters presented here were exhibited in 1977 at the Alternativa Zero exhibition), there are a series of elective relationships linking authors, ideas, and events.
This unique collection of posters offers a special and, without doubt, extremely thought-provoking perspective on Portuguese design, particularly that of the 1960s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s. There are works by poster artists such as Armando Alves, Carlos Gentil-Homem, Robin Fior, and José Brandão, as well as art posters. There are posters created within the disciplinary perspective of design, with a functional (informative) use and a certain rigidity in the understanding of the medium (its format, for example) and posters that deconstruct this conventional usage, posters that serve the purpose of invitations, newspapers, wrapping paper for candied orange peels, and so on. The “vehicle for intimacy” that Ernesto identified(3), is evident in these unconfined uses of posters, as well as their design, production, and reception. It arises out of the interconnection between these phases of the communicational process, in a trend towards the elimination of boundaries between the author, producer, and spectator — the pursuit of joyous communication.
In the 1960s, there was a significant shift in the perception of design in Portugal. The graphic art exhibitions of the 1960s expressed this renaissance, associated with a new consciousness of the medium as being progressively emancipated from painting, and more politically opposed to Estado Novo policy. The Portuguese “new design” had already been proclaimed at the end of the 1950s, in the journal Almanaque, with artistic direction from Sebastião Rodrigues, and the self-published Lisboa, Cidade Triste e Alegre by Palla and Costa Martins. In the early 1960s, this declaration was realised in ideological collaboration and liaison with the cinema novo (new cinema) in works such as Dom Roberto (1962) by Ernesto de Sousa, Os Verdes Anos (1963) and Mudar de Vida (1966) by Paulo Rocha, Belarmino (1964) by Fernando Lopes, Domingo à Tarde (1965) by António de Macedo, and O Cerco (1969) by António da Cunha Telles. The poster for Dom Roberto was designed by Armando Alves, a straight-forward composition with cut-out letters over a still from the film. The one for Belarmino is more sophisticated and a good example of how the cinema novo offered a new forum for design, the poster having been designed by Sebastião Rodrigues and the opening sequence created by a young Alda Rosa.
The visibility of Portuguese new design, which grew steadily throughout the 1960s, engendered an identical growth in theoretical production. Those associated with this movement, such as Sena da Silva, Daciano da Costa, João Constantino, Lima de Freitas, Maria Helena Matos, Carlos Duarte, Calvet Magalhães, and Nuno Portas, were joined by art critics with unorthodox training, such as Rui Mário Gonçalves, Egídio Álvaro and, above all, Ernesto de Sousa, who enriched the theoretical debate around design and the social and political position of the designer.
In the brochure for the Exposição de Março / Artes Gráficas, presented in 1965 at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (SNBA), Sena da Silva described the difficulty experienced by the technical council, comprising Adriano Gusmão, Artur Bual, Fernando Conduto, João Abel Manta, Luís Dourdil, Manuel Taínha, Querubim Lapa, Sá Nogueira and Marcelino Vespeira, and himself, in staging the event, explaining that “it would have been helpful to focus on the acquisitions that an integrated action of numerous and concrete requests could have accumulated, in terms of facilitating our understanding of, and examining with greater clarity, the many relationships between the means and techniques of artistic expression and the varying degrees of communicability to large audiences,” concluding that “here it is, with no clear structure, incomplete, an extremely modest testament to the work currently being produced by some of Portugal’s graphic artists. Please look carefully. It is a shame — for example — that there are virtually no illustrators present. There are very few posters either... have patience.”
Indeed, among the editorial design, visual identity, and publicity works by António Domingues, Sebastião Rodrigues, Victor Palla, Manuel Rodrigues, Victor da Silva, among others, there are no posters at all.
The Portuguese artistic context demonstrates equal vigour, transmitting and being transmitted by design, with a succession of pivotal events, many of a deterritorialising, decentralising, and transdisciplinary nature: Encontro no Guincho, by Ernesto de Sousa and Noronha da Costa (1969), Nós não Estamos Algures, multimedia happening by Ernesto de Sousa and Jorge Peixinho (1969), the publication of Colóquio-Artes (1971), Do Vazio à Pro-Vocação (AICA, 1972), the opening of the Quadrum gallery (1973), directed by Dulce D’Agro, the work of the Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra, the first issue of the journal Artes Plásticas (1973) directed by Jaime Isidoro and Egídio Álvaro, Ciclo de Poesia Experimental e Concreta (German Institute, 1973).
With art and design publications and self-publications often having the same key players, from the middle of the 1960s an interesting series of provocative and avant-garde periodicals emerged, such as Poesia Experimental, Hidra, Operação, Contravento, Nova, & Etc, Arco-Íris, Quebra-Noz, Sema, Fenda, Aresta, Frenesi, Silex, Pravda, and Crisol. Although further from the design world, critical reflection publications such as Critério and Raiz e Utopia could also be added to this list. Some of these publications were real forums for experimentation among graphic designers, illustrators, and theorists. They are also examples of publications with a clearly defined theoretical agenda and, accordingly, affirmation vehicles for publishers and artists alike. By way of example, see the manifesto published in Arco-Íris (no. 1, pp. 8-9) entitled “Teses para a Inversão Dialéctica da Cultura”(4): “(...) To invert the dialectic of the dominant culture, to being about its end, to definitively finish with this excrescence of mercantilist spirit, is the task of all who desire revolution and the individual expression of proletarian revolution.” The first and second Portuguese Design Exhibition, held in 1971 and 1973 respectively, were a tour de force in the promotion of Portuguese design, widening its audience and its market, and contributing towards an invigoration of the internal debate on Portuguese design, in both a disciplinary and programmatic sense. (…)
In between the first and second exhibitions was the Expo AICA SNBA 1972, organised by the Portuguese section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and animated by young critics like Fernando Pernes, Rui Mário Gonçalves, Egídio Álvaro, Ernesto de Sousa, and Pedro Vieira de Almeida. In the exhibition catalogue — exquisitely designed by Carlos Gentil-Homem with a sophisticated cover printed at Colorprint — published in March 1973, there was a piece by Carlos Duarte called “O Lugar do Design”(5), a reference text on the decade’s theoretical production, addressing the topic of industrial design in the context of the AICA exhibition and, in clear confrontation with the regime, quoting the Cuban Roberto Segre: “design plays a key role in a revolutionary society.” Expo AICA SNBA 1972 was not only representative of the capabilities and tenacity of a new generation of critics, but also of an increasing rapprochement and integration between the fields of art and design, embodied by Ernesto de Sousa’s description: aesthetic operators.
In an article in Seara Nova magazine entitled “O mito na vanguarda artística,”(6) published shortly before he became director of IADE, Lima de Freitas referred to critics as “fabricators of myths” and denounced the indigence of artists, begging for a place on the market, and critics themselves. The opposing positions of two generations of critics and artists, a confrontation that was more radical in the art world but also extended to the areas of architecture and design, was evident in the choices for the exhibition — Lourdes de Castro, Helena Almeida, António Sena, João Vieira; a photography documentary on kitsch in Portuguese art by Salette Tavares alongside environmental design by Sena da Silva and Daciano Costa — and in the positions expressed in the brochure, in particular Ernesto de Sousa’s essay “Do Vazio à Pró-Vocação”. Expo AICA SNBA would be repeated along the same lines in January 1974, reinforcing the eclectic nature of the practices and discourse, the value of processes, and the transversality of project intentions, well expressed in Ernesto de Sousa’s piece, with ideas that were stiffened by a visit to Kassel’s Documenta 5 exhibition, “Projects-Ideas”.
The “Ongoing Revolutionary Process” that went on between 1974-1976 saw the most significant graphic production associated with low budget, rapid production, and the exploration of democratic supports. It also saw the use of the poster medium, which produced some of the most significant works of the period, including those by Marcelino Vespeira, Rogério Ribeiro, João Abel Manta, Artur Rosa, Justino Alves, Henrique Ruivo, and Robin Fior. A significant collection of these political posters are exhibited, divided into posters commissioned by the Armed Forces Central Mobilizing Committee — direct, “friendly”, with illustration, typography, and slogans aimed at an empathetic absorption of the messages, posters for political ends, positioned “to the leftist left,” and so-called “popular” posters, which also explore the potential of posters within communicational democratization process of the post 25 April 1974 era.
3. ATTITUDE, FORM, INTIMACY
In 1969, Harald Szeeman’s curatorial project for the Kunsthalle Bern helped, in its apparent strangeness, to synthesise some of the work that avant-garde designers were producing, and to enunciate a programme for future experiences that would develop over more than a decade: Live in your Head: when Attitudes Become Form: Works-Concepts-Processes-Situations-Information.
“They were attitudes — internal and personal, but also form — external and universal. They were works that could be viewed as finished pieces as well as processes — works-in-progress — not yet the finished article. They were designed to convey an air of calm, intellectual distance, but also to provide raw information, disorderly and in need of some organisation.”(7)
In May 1973, Ernesto de Sousa, busying himself with a section of Expo AICA SNBA 1974, sent a series of invitations to several aesthetic operators to collaborate on his “Projectos-Ideias:” “In asking you to participate with any project or idea that corresponds to the characteristics defined above (and it could be a simple idea scribbled on a scrap of paper), we ask you to include all the visual documentation you have; photographs, slides, films, plans, diagrams, etc.”(8)
The value attributed to the creative process and its archival documentation particularly interested Ernesto de Sousa, from the perspective, which was prevalent among the avant-garde of the 1960s and ‘70s, of understanding art criticism as a work of art, as well as from the viewpoint, also strongly connected to the avant-garde, of the generativity of the process, its disclosure, and the creative potential garnered by sharing it.
Ten years before “Projectos-Ideias”, the project developed within the scope of When Attitudes Become Form, on the occasion of a solo graphic design exhibition by Armando Alves (at the Porto School of Fine Arts, from 9-24 January 1964), Ernesto de Sousa wrote an extraordinary piece for the brochure, entitled “Graphic Arts, Vehicle of Intimacy.”
Armando Alves’s solo exhibition brought together a notable collection of design works of considerable graphic quality, among which stand out the international style advertisement for Cinzano Portugal, the Saul Bass inspired campaign for A Mutual do Norte, and the use of narrative illustration together with typographical sobriety on the cover of O Cavaleiro da Dinamarca by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen.
In his essay for this small exhibition brochure, Ernesto de Sousa revealed a series of preoccupations connected to the procedural nature of graphic arts, the thematisation of authorship and production, which leads one to reflect on graphic design as a discipline that mediates between aesthetics and politics, art and communication, authorial discourse and communicative sharing.
Published two years before Design e Comunicazione Visiva by Bruno Munari and four years before La Speranza Progettuale by Tomás Maldonado, in some respects this essay was a forerunner, perhaps more profound than Munari and less explicitly political than Maldonado, of those later reflections on design.
“(...) it should be noted,” the essay reads, “that the graphic arts do not belong, as rich as they are, to those arts in which the performer is not the author (such as music, for example). However mechanical and technical the process of reproduction (printing in general, photogravure, offset, silkscreen, etc.), the graphic artist must intervene, control, direct a whole range of techniques and operations, which always leave room for intervention and finishing touches.”
There is a poster designed for Ernesto de Sousa’s lecture at the Geneva School of Visual Arts in 1981 that, almost twenty years after the publication of “Graphic Arts, Vehicle of Intimacy,” demonstrates, in keeping with that essay, the potential of posters. Produced by hand, the poster I am referring to, Ernesto de Sousa. Culture et auto-gestion, works with calligraphy, design, and collage. The poster demonstrates a unique way of thinking of posters as a communicational medium and as an artistic aid within the more overarching preoccupation of constructing a critical discourse on cultural production and self-management.
It appears that in this poster, like in some of the work by Ernesto de Sousa and the artists he admired, there is a play on language, where the literal makes it difficult to fully grasp the intellectual or, rather, where the pronouncement of a programme may not immediately manifest the importance of poetics. This place of (dis)connection is the critical point in the relationship between love discourse (in the Barthesian sense) and political discourse, which we feel is fundamental to Ernesto de Sousa’s interest in posters, graphic design, and the appropriation of public and democratic support by avant-garde artists.
Ernesto de Sousa. Culture et auto-gestion is a poster that meets all the criteria for the use of a poster by a non-artist. From the widely used format (A3), to the means and techniques of composition, production and reproduction, this work allows the author total control over the production process (from design to graphic reproduction). An example of the progressive formal characterisation of the author as producer aesthetic, this work moves towards the language of bulletins, flyers, and posters (which have their purest form in the popular posters, though directed by architects and artists, for the cultural and political activities of SAAL, the Mobile Service for Local Support and yet the purpose of the work is manifestly different, a lecture by avant-garde art’s most distinguished Portuguese critic and curator at the academic venue of one of Switzerland’s most stimulating design and visual culture schools of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, where, among countless other events, the Hyperbole exhibition would take place: Serra, Lawler, Graham, Godard (1990).
Clearly closer to a simple poster, like that created by the Organização do Grupo Cultural do Liceu for Ernesto de Sousa’s lecture Aspects of Modern Cinema (1965), than to the meticulously crafted, formally composed ones, in terms of the definition of the grid, the choice of type, the definition of the colours, the graphic refinement in the printing process, like in Armando Alves’s poster for O Gebo e a Sombra (1966) or in the poster that is closest to conceptual art, Estamos no Século XX na Época que Não Morre (1971) by Car los Gentil-Homem and Ernesto de Sousa. In Ernesto de Sousa. Culture et auto-gestion, the image does not appear dissociated from its purpose, “it is a call to what we know of the object, it is the presence of the absent”.
The absent is always an “other”, a body, another body, a meaning that is constructed between beings (inter-relationships), between bodies. For Ernesto, “Graphic arts tend, therefore, to bring together within a single aesthetic object the experience and explanation of things and of ourselves” — whether in the political poster, associated with an action, such as the Atelier Populaire posters, or in posters construed as publishing ads, such as Os Pós-Objectuais Jugoslavos (1975). The graphic arts are a vehicle for mediation, connection, and intimacy. The poster as the start and restart of dialogue, a call for active reception, appropriation, exchange, and sharing. Surely with this giving of the body, your body will come to us in return: MY BODY IS YOUR BODY, YOUR BODY IS MY BODY.
- Published in República. (28 December 1972). “Performing arts. Action arts.
- “Performar”, in Opção, no. 101 (30 March 1978); republished in Ernesto de Sousa/Revolution My Body. Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1998, pp. 308-310.
- “Graphic Arts, Vehicle of Intimacy”, an essay from 1964 that is re-published in this book.
- “Theses on the dialectic inversion of culture.”
- “The place of design.”
- “The myth of avant-garde art.”
- Michael Archer, “Outside the Studio”, in Live in Your Head. Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-75. Lisbon: Museu do Chiado — Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, 2001, p. 24.
- Ernesto de Sousa/Revolution My Body. Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1998, p. 223.