The intellectual, the artist, however varied the things he does is basically always writing the same book and developing the same almost unique ideals.
This quote is particularly pertinent to the work of Antoni Tàpies because of his repeated reference to pilgrimage and the course of time. What, then, is the book that he is writing? This study aims to look at how his various approaches (painting, ceramics, installation) and how his subject matter have driven and shaped his own ‘almost unique ideals.’ By infusing anorganic matter with life and lending it an evocative force Antoni Tàpies has created a highly original and important body of work. His is a creative process based on a seemingly inexhaustible evolution of form, building up complex layers using a number of materials that often recall hermetically sealed sections of wall. Other works rescue apparently worthless objects from oblivion. For many intellectuals and artists the goal is ‘knowledge without impediments,’ or an instinct for truth; what, then, is Tàpies’ goal?
This thesis will aim to put into an Art Historical context the motivation behind Tàpies’ oeuvre. What is it that has set him on his own highly individual and anomalous course?
I have found, thus, my source of inspiration by living Cataluña intensely; in Montseny, in the green grey of the scrub oaks, in the blue grey of its mists, in the ochre of its fields… in the grey walls that hide the melancholy gardens… I have found it in Barcelona’s gothic district, whose grey and blackish stones full of scars carry written on them the entire history of a country…
Catalonia offers the cultural backdrop to the work of Tàpies. It is the place where he grew up, the basis for his subject matter and he is fiercely proud of his Catalonian heritage and an advocate for independence. He came of age in a milieu that was humbled and silenced by Franco’s dictatorship whose persecution and suppression allowed only the production of work filled by the hollow pathos of officially sanctioned art. The avant-garde positions that had emerged from modernismo and flourished in Barcelona to international acclaim, the work of Picasso and Miró in particular, were denounced and placed on the index. Fascism prohibited everything that did not conform to their notion of common sense and decency.
His family, in particular his father, were keen to prevent him from pursuing a career in art and he was encouraged to study law instead. He showed great resolve and belief to pursue his artistic vocation in a climate of stifling conservatism. Accordingly, his attempts as a boy in art are untutored and conventional in character; they rely on a kind of classical linearity taken from his favourite artists at the time – Holbein the Younger, Pisanello, and Ingres (all master draftsmen). He realised soon that this was not enough and he began to reject traditional art, realising that it was the only way to find the freedom of expression that he envisaged. Self-portraits drawn in convalescence from illness in 1944 illustrate the aforementioned traditionalism; they are self-examinations that in aesthetic terms are still quite generalized and impersonal despite the potentially strong personal subject matter (Self-Portrait, 1944). A more idiosyncratic style and expressive standpoint appear in Self-Portrait (1945), which shows a greater freedom of use of the medium, and bases itself more confidently on the imagination. There are also from this period early steps to abandon traditional, academic canons and adopt the heavy impasto style that he would become synonymous with. He wrote around the time that ‘I applied the paint in extremely heavy impasto, to show my disdain for academic painting.’ In Painting-Relief (1947) the contours of the figure are emphasized to the point of relief, and it is the thickness and direction of the marks that delineates the figure due to the almost monochromatic palette. Some of the compositions in this series even evince symbolic content that Andreas Franzke felt recalled Edward Munch. Two paintings that also anticipate his later works are Collage of Rice and String (1947) and Newsprint Cross (1946-47). Both show his discovery, after Dubuffet, of the inherent potential of found, everyday materials (taken away from their usual significance) for himself. These two works illustrate a shift in his interests for other reasons too; a transition from heightening the presence of the subject by means of material qualities (Collage with Rice and String) to using a more absolute employment of materials (Newsprint Cross), largely removed from representation. The latter work uses the motif of a cross, one that would recur again and again throughout his oeuvre, and initially it was considered as a blasphemous assault, triggering fierce protest from the church. In truth the cross represents a formal element of this programmatic work, its significance heightened by the contrast of material between newsprint and the painted background. It also acts as a point of interest compared with the irregularly shaped elements using collaged paper.
The breakthrough to works of a wall-like nature, which can be seen as a reaction to art informel and also with textures that appear to translate Surrealist automatism into hard, tangible terms, came in 1954. They attempt to show, in a hermetic and metaphorical manner, how human contact, the passage of time and the stain of fascism have altered an everyday and a voiceless subject; the wall. They are full of enigmatic scars, alongside marks or symbols painted over them and the shapes left by sections that have ‘crumbled away.’ Ocher (1954) is one of the earliest works redolent of a section of wall. It marks a transition from subtle, painterly evocations of an uncertain space to the stressing of material qualities; the example here is the rising element at the centre of the composition. Large Gray Painting, No. III (1955) has a literally physical weight, given by the hard, gritty substance applied to the surface; this gives it the feel of a sealed, impenetrable wall (a barrier impossible to permeate, both encapsulating and preventing intrusion). The surface has been injured, scarred by the artist, as if as a reminder of the artist’s working process, of his presence in the creation and also suggests an attempt breakthrough the wall in an escape attempt. The arched shape in the lower quarter of the painting provides the illusion of damage to the wall and the illusion of mortar, having accidentally squeezed out from between joints, forces the eye to read this negative shape as an element in its own right. Also apparent in this work, and others such as Gray with Black Marks, No. XXXIII (1955), is his refusal to work with primary colours for the reason that he considers that the colours he has found and uses express best the nuances he is looking for. He states in the earlier quote his fascination with the old, rusticated (by nature) walls of the Gothic Quarter as abstract documents showing every scar and stain of history. These works illustrate his obsession with Catalonian heritage and are not factual historical documents; they are his reaction to historical events.
2. The Influence of Writing.
Tàpies’ mother came from a long descent of book dealers and publishers and this encouraged and imbedded an interest in literature, philosophy, and political ideas. This involvement in the literary world paralleled his early orientation in the field of modern painting. He allied himself particularly to the authors of classical antiquity and with medieval writers, such as Ramon Llull, as well as his encounters with the wisdom of the Far East. He developed a dialectical view of art and its practice through the study of philosophy and, above all, of Hegel’s aesthetics. He realised that the aesthetic was not an absolute value, but that in truth it could only manifest itself and be justified by its antithesis, the ‘nonaesthetic’. This encouraged Tàpies to seek an art that ‘would transcend the paradigms of traditional aesthetics.’ He was also helped by an increasing familiarity with contemporary art (echoed in some of his early work), and he was particularly helped by Reginald Wilenski’s book Modern French Painters, acquainting himself with Henri Rousseau, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, and most importantly, with Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
It was, however, the surrealists that made the greatest impact on the young artist. The writings of André Breton opened his eyes to Freud, and he found strong affinities to his own concerns in the visual art of the Surrealists, confirming his resolve. He has written of the validity of the expressive method of the first surrealist group, saying that their work was based on ‘the total liberation of the individual spirit, psychic automatism, and the independence of the artist.’ He was fascinated by their experiments and their studies into dreams, extreme mental states, and hallucination. He also came across texts by Breton, Paul Eluard, and Benjamin Péret outside his discoveries in the visual arts. In his quest for a vision that transcended the superficial qualities of visible phenomena and saw fantastic imagery as a path to the essential Tàpies felt very drawn toward Surrealism. The Eyes of Foliage (1949) and Imaginary Garden (1949) have elements of detailed articulation, and the interlinkage of symbolic elements and signs, that call to mind Miró; a fantastic dream world that combines starry space and terrestrial realities. Other works such as The Enchanted Fire of Farefa (1949) attempt to equip an indefinite space with props that bring the factor of volume into play, whilst also echoing compositions by Max Ernst.
3. Rescue Worker
The ‘actions’ staged by Joseph Beuys (particularly pertinent to Tàpies because he treats painting as a dialogue between the artist and his surface, thus suggesting some kind of action taking place, rather than just illustration or description) had the effect of a catalyst on international art developments, so too did his use of innovative materials (felt in particular). Parallel to Beuys were the provocative experiments of Piero Manzoni in Italy, from which had sprung the arte povera movement, reinvigorating humble, seemingly trivial materials that were not expected within the realms of high art. Jannis Kounellis, for example, used coal or raw wool in his early work with the aim of creating installations that gave these materials an atmosphere of significance. Tàpies had been developing similar approaches at around the same time, the difference being that he was integrating materials into his paintings.
Metal Shutter and a Violin (1956) shows him combining two very different objects with highly differing connotations; the shutter suggests a small, local delicatessen – an everyday port of call: the violin suggests pomp and grandeur that has been forgotten or discontinued allowing it to slip into a damaged uselessness. He has taken two objects out of their useful significance (the shutter has no shop front to protect; the violin has only two strings) and projected them into the realms of art, leaving as the only trace of his part in the making a black cross in the bottom-left-hand corner. By the 1970’s he had begun more and more to take old, disused or abandoned objects in order to integrate them into his paintings (cardboard especially in the 1960’s, Cardboard Box Unfolded (1960)) or create three dimensional assemblages using elements of sculpture, installation and painting for the works. The idea of ‘rescuing’ an object and somehow redeeming it by making it into art is apparent in his Office Desk and Straw (1970). The idea of working in an office obviously repelled him a great deal as a young man, he abandoned the law degree that his father had enrolled him on very quickly, and he seems, perhaps, to have indignantly made the desk useless with his use of straw. As a writing desk it has been made useless by the straw covering, the same is true of the desk as a storage facility – the two draws that have been opened are full of straw, suggesting the same fate for the closed ones. His disinterest in the world of business and offices means that we can take this to be a personal achievement for Tàpies; he has taken the desk out of the world he dislikes and placed it into his own sphere: art.
4. The Book
So far I have examined the influences on his work and the connections it draws but what is the ‘book’ that he is writing in pursuing ‘the same almost unique ideals?’ What are the overriding and binding features of his work in its various manifestations? His continued use of the wall metaphor raises various ideas of encapsulation and exclusion; unsurprising in the fascist climate that he grew up in. He seems always, throughout his life, to be making an abstract statement (though through representation), which incorporates political issues, existential views on time, and the interaction of humans with their world and the stain they leave upon it. This last point is especially salient as it recalls they way in which the artist works; he interacts with the surface of his tableau, leaving a permanent stain of his contact and presence in the making, however fleeting that may be in some circumstances. An early work employing the wall metaphor, Gray Painting No. LXVI (1956), gives the sense of a wall that has been aged and repaired again and again, but the damage done to the wall each time has come about by a very slow accumulative effect. A later painting, Black on Gray (1985), shows a much more brief contact between a human and his surroundings (the walls of his city) with black paint attacking the surface in both accidental, expressive ways and more formal, intentional ways (the cruciform).
The other unavoidable aspect of his work is the repeated representation of various objects that seem banal and purely utilitarian. The foot and the shoe are both represented in a number of ways (painting, ceramic, installation) and we are shown the great importance of two things that are easily taken for granted, allied to this are connotations of pilgrimage that they imply – backed up by his repeated use of the cross, and also by how much pilgrimage is ingrained in Spanish culture and heritage. High-Heel (1988) is a ceramic piece that comes in the form of old, worn stone irreverently graphitised with spray paint. By making it in this very base medium he takes away the usual social and fashion connotations of this type of shoe, instead making it something that rejects the foot; he keeps the visual and material qualities of a wall, but gives it the form of a shoe, thus blowing away the signification of both shoe and wall and by abstracting from both combines these two disparate forms into a mutual whole. Another current that has run through his work is the depiction of homely, comforting objects (baths, windows, doors, armchairs and beds) within his paintings and sculptures. Brown Door (1959) shows, almost purely by relief, the form of a door; this work shows us the key importance in such seemingly banal objects to our security and comfort. It shows the quiet and unrecognised importance of such objects in our life, as well transmitting an idea of the doors silent part in human existence. The spectator participates with great immediacy in the events that take place on the picture’s surface, giving the impression of the door actually reverberating with, and recording, the drama of human life.
Tàpies’ is a truly individual and complex oeuvre whose course has been shaped both by a wide range of influences and by a very singular and determined vision. He is a master of his techniques, and of giving his work a tremendous evocative force, and the final great strength to his work is how it is, in his own words, ‘supplemented by the residues, the dregs of everyday life.’