Portreto de la Animo: Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis

The exhibition Portreto de la Animo, on show until November 12 at Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis (Porto), is meant to encourage debate and reflection on mental health and is the outcome of a meeting between works from the museum’s collection and the Treger Saint Silvestre Collection, one of the world’s most prominent private collections of Art Brut. Portreto de la Animo, part of it, is centred on a specific artistic genre: portraits and self-portraits, establishing a bridge between art and health along a journey through 150 works by 99 artists. In storage at Centro de Arte Oliva (São João da Madeira) since 2014, with a collection of 1700 works gathered over 40 years by Richard Treger and António Saint Silvestre, the Treger Saint Silvestre Collection presents pieces by artists who act on the margins of conventional artistic circuits, freed from canons and formal influences. Conceived from the notion of Arte Bruta, first coined by Jean Dubuffet in 1946 to describe a counterculture movement produced by people with no artistic training, whose social and mental alterity took them out of the cultural mainstream, the works featured in the Treger Saint Silvestre Collection prompt a reflection on the concept of art, the pursuit of free and compulsive creative manifestations, as well as a broadening of our artistic horizons. By expressing a raw perspective stripped of any artifice, Arte Bruta – also known as informal art, raw art or outsider art – found significant expression among fringe dwellers who, operating on the fringes of the usual artistic circuits, found themselves in a state of seclusion – prisoners, hermits, exiles, patients in psychiatric hospitals – and who sought in the artistic experience a way to free and save themselves. They were authors who created clandestinely, confidentially, unclaimed pieces as artistic objects with no financial or self-promotion purposes. While the concept of Art Brut emerged as a counterpoint to so-called conventional art, the boundaries between what is considered Art Brut and established art are becoming increasingly blurred these days, raising questions in the field of Art History: Shouldn’t these hitherto outsider artists be brought into museums? Shouldn’t we reconsider the way we label artistic manifestations? Mindful of the major role played by the artists and collectors who sheltered these works under the cover of Arte Bruta, now is the time to bring them into museums, honouring their authors as the great artists they truly are[1].

The exhibition’s title, in Esperanto, portreto de la animo – which in English means portrait of the soul – illustrates the curatorial interest in not portraying reality, but rather a sense of freedom and intimacy, an idea emphasised by Lucien Freud’s quote which, when translated into several languages, graces the baseboard of the museum’s temporary exhibition room: My idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of people, not like them.

Throughout the exhibition, portraits and self-portraits are revealed as instruments for examining the inner realm and its multiple expressions, the intensity and disconcertion of which are heightened by the set design itself – conceived by the design duo Macedo Cannatà – in small black and white circles that, cleverly blended, grow and fade, generating a sense of speed, complexity and dynamism reminiscent of Op Art, bringing a feeling of discomfort to visitors that adds to the unsettling experience the exhibition elicits. The German artist Margarethe Held (1894-1981) opens the exhibition with Wassergeist, lebt im Moor, 1950, a portrait of a lonesome figure whose intense colours and instinctive language catch our attention. As if returning to the Egyptian form, the portrait, sketched in profile from the left, with a deep, almost front-facing eye, floats in space with the body of a bird and wing-like arms, without hands, creating a piece that looks for and reveals the innermost feelings of an artist with a spiritual side, influenced by the sensations of an invisible world. Next, we must mention the presence of drawings by Jaime Fernandes, the most well-known Arte Bruta Portuguese artist in the country and abroad, a psychiatric patient suffering from late-stage schizophrenia who, at the age of 66, suddenly produced this form of communication on various types of paper. The three drawings in graphite, marker and ink are indicative of an obsessive way of sketching, in which painstaking and repetitive gestures mould dense human figures who, with intense stares, half-open mouths and fallen or raised arms, entirely capture the small size of the paper. Issues of race, spirituality, sexuality and identity are addressed in the works of Derrick Alexis Coard (1981 – 2017), a member of the Healing Arts Initiative, important on the present-day American political scene as a way of striving for the honour and positive image of the African-American community in the US. Through portraits of black, bearded men whose eyes communicate a certain shyness and vulnerability, Coard extols a deep spirituality that we can find in the two works on display: The Manifestation and The Epiphany, both from 2014. Asserting themselves through their straightforward methods and mastery of the colour black, we see portraits of naked, muscular men, black homoerotic icons together with religious motifs: the first piece features a crucifix and the Star of David, the second a self-representation of the artist as an angel crowned by a blue and yellow halo, a frequent element when painting religious icons.

Another interesting part of the exhibition is the inclusion of works from the MNSR’s various collections, fitting in with the exhibition’s portrait and self-portrait theme. Artistic pieces and objects, evidence of material culture, which take on new readings, as in the field of jewellery, for example, Busto-relicário de São Pantaleão, 1509; in the field of sculpture, we should mention Máscara mortuária de Soares dos Reis, 1889, a real, three-dimensional plaster portrait by José Joaquim Teixeira Lopes, which is part of a fringe setting by perpetuating a moment of passage; and the portrait selection from the miniatures collection. Part of the MNSR’s collection, the portrait Mãe e filha, 1939 by Sarah Afonso (1899-1983), brings us closer to and establishes an interesting dialogue with the work of Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910-2007) by simplifying the shapes and synthesising the composition; the presence of seemingly levitating figures; the fluidity of the intersecting limbs and a purity and authenticity that harks back to children’s drawing and gives both a dreamlike quality.

Photography appears as an artistic expression within the universe of Arte Bruta in the portraits and performative self-portraits of Machcinski (1942-2022), who becomes fictionalised or appropriated characters, and Bascoulard (1913-1978), in which gender distinctions and issues are questioned.

Finally, one of the most striking pieces, both for its size and position, and for the universe and iconography represented. The Celebration, 2006, by Finnish artist Stiina Saaristo (1976) is an ironic and caricatured depiction of an uneasy moment – a party attended by no-one -, which she humorously mitigates by using children’s objects and scenery from the Disney world. This is a self-portrait of the artist, transfigured and grotesque in appearance, with garments and accessories from different eras, a work that exudes perversity, irony and a fantastic edge.

To conclude, we must stress the importance of this exhibition, whose aim is to represent the diversity of Art Brut and its multiple manifestations. As well as the classic artists already renowned in this artistic genre, it also introduces us to fresh talent in the world of outsider art.


[1] Morgado, Pedro – Existe uma Arte Bruta? In Portreto de la Animo, Art Brut etc. (catalogue). Co-published by: MNSR and Blue Book, July 2023, p.35.

Mafalda Teixeira, Master’s Degree in History of Art, Heritage and Visual Culture from the Faculty of Letters of the University of Porto. She has an internship and worked in the Temporary Exhibitions department of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. During the master’s degree, she did a curricular internship in production at the Municipal Gallery of Oporto. Currently, she is devoted to research in the History of Modern and Contemporary Art, and publishes scientific articles.

Signup for our newsletter!

I accept the Privacy Policy

Subscribe Umbigo

4 issues > €34

(free shipping to Portugal)