This is more than an exhibition. It is my tribute to Antônio Batista de Souza, aka Poteiro, a Portuguese man who came to Brazil with his family at an early age.
In the beginning, Poteiro used clay to make utility pieces and small-format decorative objects. He even owned two ceramic industries but eventually went bankrupt. He started painting encouraged by the painter Siron Franco and became a great colorist.
I met Poteiro briefly in the late 1980s, when I was a partner at Galeria Paulo Vasconcellos. This was a very rich moment of my artistic discovery especially in popular art, when most of the great artists known today still lived.
I only saw his last exhibition at the late São Paulo Gallery owned by Regina Boni, an icon of the arts in the brilliant 80´s. I went with my mother, who bought a painting whose theme was a soccer game. She kept the painting at her house until she passed away in 2019. It then became mine in the estate division with my brothers. I always had a strong emotional connection with it. Now you can enjoy it at this show.
The paintings exhibited here are from the period prior to the 90s. The pots from various eras also have their stories. They belonged to the Minas Gerais collector Celma Albuquerque, who had extensive contact with Poteiro.
Here it is! Our first online exhibition which can also be seen live. In the time of this pandemic, it will undoubtedly become historic.
See you soon.
Poteiro - A tribute
Opening June 30th 2020
Galeria Estação | Rua Ferreira de Araújo, 625 | Pinheiros | São Paulo | SP | Brasil
“Each one sees God the way he wants”: The short-temperednessof Antônio Poteiro
Ana Cândida de Avelar
Antônio Poteiro (Antônio Batista de Souza, Aldeia de Santa Cristina da Pousa, Braga, Portugal 1925-Goiânia, Goiás, 2010) won a privileged place in the critical development of Brazilian art. He stood out through the eyes of several famous critics who dedicated themselves to contemporary art: Frederico Morais, Leonor Amarante, Roberto Pontual and Walmir Ayala to name a few. All offered reviews of Poteiro’s work making observations of its complexity. Among these Morais’ assessments stand out by characterizing him as a “genius” of the Brazilian scene when he repeatedly wrote about the artist’s work and character.
I met Antônio Poteiro in January 1976. He was partially bald with an expressive forehead, long, disheveled hair and a big white beard. He looked like a hermit or a prophet. I saw his works for the first time at the beginning of a rainy night in the lamplight. The circumstances of the encounter and the artist’s own strange character reinforced in me the initial impression that his work is connected through clay to the bowels of night and time. It comes from deep regions of his being, from immemorial times that the artist himself does not know. […] It is easy to see that Antônio Poteiro is neither a primitive nor a naive artist. Poteiro knows things, sees what is happening, takes sides and does not passively accept everything he reads. The Bible for example, he questions the myth of the purity of the “primitives”, is debauched, bastard, makes blagues, goes on without any repression, increasingly creative and daring.1
However, Morais himself would observe: “In fact, the artist reacted to the adjective saying – ‘what I am is genioso, nothing more than that’.” [TN: Poteiro makes a pun with the portuguese words gênio (genius) and genioso (short-tempered).]
Poteiro’s artistic nickname derives from family tradition. His father used to make pots. French sociologist Pierre Bordieu stresses the importance of the family in creating the habit of living with art, beyond the school. “Cultural nobility also has its lineages”, he writes about French society and its relationship with art spaces in the 1960s. His research showed that with any level of formal education there were marked variations in cultural practices and artistic preferences according to the cultural level of the family and not with the social group of the individual in question.2
Poteiro remembers his life pointing out how, although he had discovered an interest in clay sculpture, at various times he was forced to produce pots as a means of survival just like his father. Still, he saw himself as a “dreamer”. “You dream so many things, you live your life so much above others ... [who] speak like this: so and so is crazy! You are not crazy, you have fantasy.”3
This sense of the “dream” that Poteiro talks about can be understood not only from the affirmation of this inadequacy to social rules – he points to his clothes, indicating the informality with which he dresses – but it also applies to the way his process operates artistically. Generally speaking, his subjects are diversified, but he draws attention to a personal relationship in the reading of biblical and historical themes, which are crossed by a syncretic mysticism. In addition, there is still an evident interest in social changes with quotes from cultures originating in the Brazilian territory and comments on festivals and rituals, nature and work, rural and urban environments. Poteiro even made a series of works dedicated to Brasília where he was selling pots during his formative years, when the city offered a recent clientele of candango workers.
If we look at the selection now presented by Galeria Estação, the anthropomorphic figures, serial animals, leaf-faces or horn-faces present in the clay sculpture are notable. Quotations to Baroque imagery are frequently observed, such as when using human figures associated with plant elements turned into ornaments or when covering the entire surface without allowing any gap of empty space. Function and form can be confused in these sculptures.
The paintings show the plurality of content and the uniqueness of Poteiro’s readings. The beach town with its hills occupied by simple houses has its edge dominated by skyscrapers. The cable car and hang gliders – which are nothing but giant kites – fill the sky while a statue with open arms looks out over the city (you already know what I’m getting at). On another screen, the soccer game in the crowded stadium is portrayed at a decisive moment. The same characters with long black hair and without gender distinction (as is often the case in Poteiro) join hands as angels – instead of the “Galician” version of the most popular European representations – participate in this kind of celebration which is repeated in similar movements in the starry sky.
Cavalhada is also a recurring theme of the artist in his version of the Midwest where he lived most of his life. He explores possibilities of serialization composing an all over image that refers to a textile print (also present in some works with animals) or knights in pairs that evoke medieval emblems once again citing the historicity of these manifestations.
Work is still an evident theme. The extraction of wood for firewood and/or cane for different purposes seems to be mentioned by the artist, who presents a narrative of the stages of this process. Manual labor, production in a traditional way and that based on animal strength appear together with automated transport signaling this simultaneity of times characteristic of the Brazilian reality. As mentioned earlier, the theme of original cultures and their ways of life, once again, is presented in contact with other riverside communities.
Finally, still-lifes echo post-impressionist paintings while at the same time the flowers overflow the pictorial space creating an intense and vigorous chromatic effect. This is indeed an undisputed quality of Poteiro’s works.
In order to understand Morais’ critical strategy when approaching Poteiro’s work mentioned at the beginning, it is necessary to summarize its origins. The artist’s biography is a literary genre that was widely disseminated by the famous Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects or simply Lives, by the painter, architect and writer Giorgio Vasari. He is responsible for shedding light on certain artists by catching them in a sea of similar productions. He presents narratives of exceptionality that mix stories about the characters, often of anecdotal content, with personality profiles and comments on the works. These narratives provided the basis for forming the so-called canon of the “masters” of Western art.
The notion of artist-genius, on the other hand, gains more evident contours mainly through the writings of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant and his influence by Romanticism. Roughly speaking, for Kant, the genius had the talent to produce original aesthetic ideas. He thus attributes to imaginative individuals the escape from pre-established rules. In this sense, the valorization of subjectivity in artistic production is well known, feeding in modern art the conception of itself as a transgressor of tradition.
Variations of this characterization also delineate the artist as a social misfit, who stands out in the crowd for his unique understanding of the world and its consequent marginal performance. This reading received wide dissemination with Expressionism, which valued art even more as a result of the manifestation of this subjectivity as opposed to a society of bourgeois values. In this sense, the artist is also conceived as a visionary able to imagine other possible realities in the face of an adverse social situation.
Even today many artists, including Poteiro, identify with aspects of this characterization since it constitutes a narrative established and disseminated by the canon. While guaranteeing a specific place for the artist throughout history, there is a side effect of these exceptional portraits. Although it highlights the unique qualities of the artist, this narrative strategy also removes him from his environment, away from the references that participated in the development of his personality and work and obscures the understanding of the system from which he comes.
The philosopher Anne Cauquelin, discussing contemporary art, highlights how the public perceives that this system of art exists, that it is not only economic and that it is necessary to know it in order to apprehend the “content of the works”.4 As the sociologist Natalie Heinich recalls, contemporary art is “a generic category that is an artistic genre endowed with specific properties – properties that are not only aesthetic but also material, institutional, organizational, etc.”.5
Heinich explains what it is like to “become an artist” within this reality of contemporary art: “they are indispensable to evolve in the world of contemporary art: in particular, the importance of mediations; the reversal of recognition circles between the private and public sectors; the role of discourse; the focus on the artist’s person; or, still, the rejuvenation of the age of access to recognition”.6 In Poteiro’s biography, it appears that he would have received from Siron Franco the necessary mediation to enter the game of contemporary art.
The artistic knowledge of so-called popular artists is organized in alternative ways in relation to formal study. In this sense, the self-taught person is not necessarily one who develops artistic production alone but one who builds a path that mixes references, creating objects that can both have a functionality, in the sense of design, and be “artistic”, in the modern sense of autonomy of art.
This trajectory of artist and work without the need for a normative outline coincides with an absolutely contemporary understanding of this profession. Many artists, men and women, are able to study at maturity, migrating from other areas.
What differentiates the “contemporary” from “popular” artists is mainly the system in which they are inserted, each with its social and political codes – their “grammar” in Heinich’s words.7 Among these systems there is, as always, an evident exchange. However at least since the late 1970s, exhibitions of contemporary art have made these negotiations between systems explicit, highlighting even the diversity that makes up contemporary art in a global art scene. (The interaction between Poteiro and Franco occurs precisely in Goiânia at that time.)
In this sense, the place of materials and techniques seen as traditional is also questioned, aiming to renew their more conservative interpretation, which placed them as “minors”. This is the case with clay sculpture and embroidery, for example, which when reviewed indicated how the hierarchy of genres and media became obsolete.
The popular arts system has its own criteria and vocabulary. Today it is independent. Its bases are solid. Its networks are broad and global. Lélia Coelho Frota indicated how this situation took place locally calling attention to the protagonism of the artists:
Popular artists themselves were not at all passive agents of their gradual recognition process. For they also experienced changes in relation to their cultural environment making their own formal synthesis like any other artist. A synthesis of the transformations that they saw happening before their eyes and that also motivated them [...]. These new works present the construction of a style comparable to that of artists of educated norm and are now aimed at the clientele of greater purchasing power in art galleries and museums.8
The terms that name this type of artistic production – naive, popular, etc. – have been questioned since the last century. However, part of the criticism that dealt with the so-called popular art remained very close to a certain idea of ??“genius” in an attempt to explain the point outside the curve that is a figure like Antônio Poteiro. His complex life and professional trajectory, the critical relationship he maintained with both historical and current themes, the constancy of his commitment to artistic production surprised his contemporaries by destabilizing the commonplace and vision attributed to a so-called popular artist. Poteiro’s play with the term “genioso”, synonymous with tough, stubborn or brawn, but also courageous and daring, reveals his conception of the artist as one who insists on being himself even in the face of adversity.
Free to make art
Poteiro critical of the world [...] the greatness of Poteiro’s art consists in his interpretation of life. The universe proposed by him is composed of a special fauna that articulates in an apparently chaotic way but that rebalances itself and helps to give meaning to its simple but symbolically complex existence. In his work, nothing appears by chance. Everything is strategically planned. [...] Author of a rich realism, at the same time lyrical, he places himself among the Brazilian artists who culturally built his time.9
Leonor Amarante highlights how Poteiro’s personal experience is a perspective attentive to circumstances and a conscious work process that are mixed in his work. Thus, it characterizes his work as a contemporary artists would conceive it today: “artists freed from the weight of history were free to make art in the way they wished for any purpose they wished or even without any purpose”.10
Today, it is no longer necessary to resort to the strategy of creating a narrative of exceptionality to guarantee a place for artists on the fringes of the contemporary art system. They have an artistic medium not much used to produce works of art and whose vocabulary established by them is not much understood. If we observe Poteiro’s work taking into account his path and his interaction with different artistic systems, his capability as a commentator on the heterogeneous culture in which he is immersed is evident. As in the case of others and other artists from different systems, Poteiro points to a multiform, remarkable, qualitatively contemporary, Brazilian, artistic field of work.
1 MORAIS, Frederico. Without reference, 1981. Instituto A. Poteiro. Available at: . Accessed on: 13 jun. 2020.
2 GRENFELL, Michael; HARDY, Cheryl. Art rules: Pierre Bourdieu and the visual arts. Oxford, UK; New York, USA: Berg, 2007, p. 70.
3 “O Mundo da Arte - Antonio Poteiro”. SESC TV. Available at: . Accessed on: 9 jun. 2020.
4 CAUQUELLIN, Anne. Arte contemporânea: uma introdução. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2005, p. 14.
5 HEINICH, Natalie. “Como tornar-se um artista contemporâneo”, in: SIMIONI, Ana Paula Cavalcanti. Criações compartilhadas: artes, literatura e ciências sociais. Rio de Janeiro: Mauad X; Faperj, 2014, s.p.
8 FROTA, Lélia Coelho apud OLIVEIRA, Emerson Dionisio Gomes de. "The popular in the museum: selection, circulation and its images". In: Anais do Simpo´sio Nacional de Histo´ria, 27, 2013. Natal: ANPUH, 2013. Available at: . Accessed on: 10 jun. 2020.
9 AMARANTE, Leonor apud RAMOS, Benedito Savio Cardoso. The sacred and the profane in Antonio Poteiro. Dissertation (Master in History). Goiânia: Pontifical Catholic University of Goiás, 2009, p. 69.
10 DANTO, Arthur. Após o fim da arte: a arte contemporânea e os limites da história. São Paulo: Odysseus, 2006, p. 18.