The material that we are / The body that we exist
1. Tàpies latest paintings illustrate —in such an intense and at the same time in such a fluid way— a vibration that echoes back to its origin, an even deeper feeling, and a sense of emotion that is emphasized in relation with the constant poetic art implicit —right from the beginning of his work— in his conception of material. These creative masses Ona i xifres (2006), M i lletres vermelles (2008), Materia trossejada (2008), Materia ocre amb grafismes blancs (2008)… have the sense of being an original source of reality, or a primordial substance from which everything can be made or can be done. These are masses capable of visualizing animated, life-giving material, the subject of the ancient truth-seekers of China and India, the Hebrew Kabbalists and the Pre-Socratic philosophers of Miletus who tried to capture the notion of that single indifferent mass or wave in movement from which it was supposed that the great principles or original elements of the universe —the consistence of earth, the fluency of the waters, the breath of air, the brightness of fire—, and from which all the bodies in their diversity were formed and made up.
Following in the trail of the oriental cosmologies and philosophers of Miletus, Tàpies reasserts that this undefined mass of fundamental material (that the Greeks conceived and represented as a “mass of barley bread”) is not only made up of its quantity or its sensitive or variable weight, but rather and in a special way, by the space that it occupies. This fact enlarges considerably the mystery of its condition, making it ride between the effectiveness of physics and its metaphysical or spiritual reflection, which at the same time enriches the structural and physical potential of the prime material.
By always returning —that is, again and then yet over again— to the sources of his material, Tàpies art evolves in an irresistible way, avoiding on the one hand, the tyranny of form, and overcoming, on the other hand, the old debate between material and spirit. Indeed, in these paintings, the material —that is, the quantity of the mass and its receptivity to be named in the most diverse of ways, its movement, or vitality and the real space that it occupies— builds up the image, at the same time that the painter “makes” and manages that in that image the spiritual content of the work, of each piece of work, becomes objectified, through the particular relation that the artist establishes between the reality of the material and the intuitive, affective and inventive powers of his own personality.
Tàpies has three dialogues which illuminate this conduct, expressed through the pages of his Memòria personal. Fragment per una autobiografia (Castilian version, Barcelona 1983). In the first the painter narrates how much he is concerned with the traditional Manichean options of objectivism-subjectivism, material-spirit, realism-idealism, soul-body… and how “I began to be each time more convinced of what the surrealists had tried to point out. That both the artist and the poet can in fact be extremely well appointed to show in a symbolic manner the compensation of extremes, in order to reach the ideal and transmit to the spectator how to “feel” the total reality, the final reality, which I later found out was called perfect emptiness.”
In the second dialogue, Tàpies relates the diverse sources which he has turned to, since reaching his first stage of maturity, assuring through Bertrand Russel that material is in fact less material and the spirit less spiritual that what is generally supposed. This motivated Tàpies to ask himself whether or not “it was more important to understand the urgency or to rediscover and to accept many opposed concepts? What was certain was that the classic world and all of the occidental Catholic tradition was definitely immersed in a crisis and that it was necessary to create a new way of seeing things”. But…, from what point of view? It was at that point that he found in Fromm that in opposition to Aristotle’s logic, there also existed what could be called a paradoxical logic; in this way, it was possible for things to contradict themselves, and nevertheless, at the same time to be the same. And Tàpies reaffirmed this by asserting that “a correct global vision does not try to exclude the struggle of the conflicts at issue but rather it must try to justify and explain it, and depending on the situation, even favour it. With regards to my work, it became then urgent to begin over again; not from scratch, although it was necessary to go back to my roots and to inevitably reconsider many issues that I had vaguely become aware of in my early days through surrealism”, such as techniques that exploit imaginative, unconscious, anarchic, accidental impulses or those based on fate or error…
And in the third dialogue, Tàpies points to Freud’s works and those of Jung as being especially valuable sources that have shaped his own understanding of the creative work of art: “The unconscious, according to Jung, had become, due to the contempt with which it was considered because of the interpretations of some of Freud’s ideas, a warehouse of moral trash. And this is both limiting and unfair. It is not in line with known facts. Our current vision of the unconscious shows that it is a natural phenomenon and that, like Nature itself, it is, at any rate neutral. It contains all the aspects of human nature, light and shade, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, depth and stupidity and, as a result not only are we forced to acknowledge it as a whole, but moreover it is from the inside, by opening its depth, that perhaps the most sincere impulses of our soul, the most authentic images of the world emerge”.
By combining the contents of these dialogues inside the poetics of Tàpies neither the material mass nor the space that this occupies are conceived nor do they function exclusively as a vital expressive plastic element belonging to the physical reality —that of the world and the painting. Instead they also include conceptual, intuitive and affective profiles, as well as signs of spiritual character, that inevitably leave in the work of art the human imprint — no longer only the creative one— of the painter himself, as well as the appreciation of his unconscious and irrational impulses. To bring the truth to light and to share it by means of aesthetic delight, dialectical dialogues and personal projections —those of the artist and the viewers of the work— is the purpose of this practice, which does not accept excuses to mask the reality or to cover it up under what is “marvellous”. For this reason, in this painting the principle is “to be what there is”; that is “to be whatever fills the space”: the material and its significant forms of “what is real” as one and only one of its kind, in so far as a basic component of any of the systems put forward by Stéphane Lupasco’s modern doctrine, that allow us to speak of a material that is really physical, an organic and psychic material.
2. In his irrepressible bearing at the beginning of reality, to the material condition of what is real, Tàpies is not in the least bit interested in the representation (the silhouette, volumes, the figure) of the human body in his work, but rather in the relevant appearance of “the corporeal” (everything that makes up the somatic, the carnal materiality) inside his work. This occurs in many of the paintings on view in this exhibition, the pictorial material itself replaces the corporal signs and designs and the actual corpus of the dense pictorial mass —Llit i cama (2007), Terra amb quatre ulls (2008)— serves as the image of the bodies or the figurative organic fragments. In this sense, it is more of an appearance or revelation of the body through the material itself.
This pictorial experience gives off an intense perfume that fills the air, full of a strange ambiguity, very particular in the sense that it connects on the one hand with the neoplatonic mysticism that considers the body as “the last link that occurs in the chain of emanation”, and on the other hand with the physical conception of Descartes when he assures that “by body I understand all that can be terminated by a certain figure; that can be comprised in a certain place, and so fill a certain space as there from to exclude every other body; that can be perceived either by touch, sight, hearing, taste, or smell”. This does not however exclude Leibniz’s complementary metaphysics when he affirms to still agree that each body is extended “However, we must not confuse the notions of place, space or pure extension with the notion of substance, which as well as extension, includes resistance, that is, action and passiveness”. That is art, reclaiming beyond what is material and spatial, its own part of substance!
All in all, that effective conceptual fragrance comes from tradition itself, and radically changes the register, sense and intensity –it can even be rather shocking-, when we find out that the notion of “body in general terms” is concentrated in these paintings in the unmistakable appearance of “the human corpus” in a concrete way. In this particular case, it appears as an apparition and a fragmented human body: the heads in Porta blanca (2008), the feet in Gratatge vermell (2008), the eyes, arms and hands in Ulls i jeroglifics (2008), and again the eyes in Terra amb quatre ulls (2008)… These painting seem to recall, in a way, the “crisis” and the later “loss of sense of direction” vividly observed by Pere Salabert in his essay on the process through the story of art–an essay with an ironic title Pintura anémica, cuerpo suculento (Anemic painting, succulent body) Barcelona, 2003. He writes: “Crisis due to the exhaustion of the classical idea of beauty linked to that of eternity derives from an activity that, taken back to the most prosaic of realities, rejects the principles of “good form” and lets its attention drift between what is formless, grotesque and monstrous. And whilst eternity —that of art, that of life in its aspirations— comes into conflict, art itself shows its own pleasure for what is fragile or obsolete.” And he cites, in the next line, Victor Hugo who states in the prologue to Cromwell (1927) that “the modern muse will see things in a higher and broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. The artist will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations —but without confounding them— darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime”.
In Tàpies, once again, the combined presence of love and death is produced: Thànatos, death, also imposes his ineluctable call in the bare evidence of the skeleton and the coffin —Os (2008)—. Eros, love, takes off from a simple ritual of everyday affairs —El te de las 7 (2008)—, to the inescapable and declared power of our carnal vocation —Jersei negre (2008)—.
In relation with this liturgy of everyday affection an important part is played by Tàpies’s own love which he expresses for things, objects and for his own fragments: Cadira vermella (2007), Llistó (2007), the wet cups from the aforementioned tea, the bed and the jumper mentioned before… They are extraordinary close realities, which the artist fills with warmth and sense, projecting in them the spheres of his own personal identity. They are objects that revive the cinders of Ortega’s reflection that “This, which is reality, is made up of me and of things. Things are not me and I am not things: we are mutually transcendent”.
What it is all about, ultimately, is to continue developing creatively, until the very end. The enthusiastic existentialist instinct of communication of what is real and the communion of the bodies are proposals that have in fact always inspired Antoni Tàpies’s art work. In relation with that instinct, each of us comes to know that “I exist my body”, firstly “for me” (in the sense that each man exists his body); secondly “for the other” (that can utilize and know it); and thanks to —or as a consequence of— all of that —as Sartre postulated— “the other is revealed to me as the subject for whom I am an object”.
Image: Llit y cama. 2006, mixta / madera, 220 x 270 cm.
Galeria Soledad Lorenzo
C/ Orfila, 5 28010 Madrid