Notes from the Land of the Dead

Colm Tóibín

  • A Personal Memoir: Fragments for an Autobiography by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer
    Indiana, 429 pp, £26.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 253 35489 1
  • Complete Writings Volume II: Collected Essays by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer
    Indiana, 744 pp, £26.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 253 35503 4

Antoni Tàpies’s monument to Picasso was commissioned by Barcelona City Council. It sits on the edge of Parc de la Ciutadella on the busy, dusty downtown street named for Picasso. It has a more mysterious and shadowy presence than any other piece of modern public sculpture in Barcelona, such as Chillida’s stark, severe piece of cast-iron in Plaça del Rei, or Lichtenstein’s colourful, brash, cartoon-like sculpture close to the waterfront, or Subirachs’s literal-minded and awkward-looking monument to President Macià in Plaça de Catalunya, or Botero’s silly cat on Rambla del Raval, or some of the other more playful adornments on the beach in Barceloneta, Frank Gehry’s fish among them.

Antoni Tàpies, ‘Monument Homage to Picasso’ (1983)
Antoni Tàpies, ‘Monument Homage to Picasso’ (1983)

In an essay published in 1983, Tàpies made clear that he was not ‘much of a sculptor’, and this may have helped him to make the work in all its strangeness; he also wrote that he detested ‘the traditional material of sculpture, such as bronze and marble’. The monument is in a glass box, four metres by four, in a pool of water. Inside the box it seems that an explosion has taken place in a modest domestic interior. Tàpies looked for furniture (‘pieces that represented … comfort and conformity’) from the time when Picasso was starting to paint, ‘and I had them pierced by iron beams as symbols of anti-comfort.’ Old sheets are thrown around, with words written on them that aren’t easy to decipher; in fact, they quote Picasso: ‘A painting is not meant to decorate a room, it is an attack and defence weapon against the enemy.’

Part of the problem of looking at Tàpies’s work arises from his own earnest attempt to analyse what he was doing. He may, as he thought about it, have intended the iron beams rammed through the wardrobe to be symbolic, but the effect they have is more dynamic and arresting. Rather than symbols, the beams suggest something more raw and urgent and unresolved. The fact that the glass box is often cracked, and that the water sometimes doesn’t flow around it as it is meant to do, adds to the unreadability and ambiguity of the work; nor do dead leaves in the water and the odd daub of pigeon-shit on the glass do any harm.

Tàpies’s remark ‘when I go into the studio, I forget about almost everything’ may be a better indication of how to deal with his work. It may assist us too in reading the crazy and elaborate maze of wire he placed on the roof of the Tàpies Foundation building on Carrer d’Aragó. That he seeks to transform his material ‘into a magical object that has healing powers when you come into contact with it or hang it above your body’ gives some sense of his ambition. His work made with the most day-to-day and simple objects sometimes has a mystical, quasi-religious aura and he himself adopted the role of a sort of disinherited magician, an uneasy shaman as much as he is an artist.

Those two public images – the monument to Picasso done in 1983 and the work on the roof of his foundation done seven years later – suggest Tàpies’s own inner life and the power he found in the materials he worked with, and they also suggest a deeper privacy. His work suggests a release of energy from a source where it has been repressed and held prisoner. Although he had friends and associates in the Barcelona of the 1940s and 1950s, he created a system of painting and anti-painting for himself in these years without much help or influence. His images were brutal, but also transcendental and esoteric; they matched his own temperament and experience, but they were also made in response to the bad art produced by others in a dark time in Catalonia.

Antoni Tàpies, ‘Cloud and Chair’ (1990).
Antoni Tàpies, ‘Cloud and Chair’ (1990).

Antoni Tàpies was born into a cultured Catalan family in Barcelona in 1923. His great-grandfather had been deputy mayor of the city in 1888, the year of the Universal Exposition, which heralded a new prosperity and modernity and gave focus to Catalan economic and cultural energy, allowing the new rich to vie with each other to hire modern architects, including Gaudí, to re-create the city. Tàpies’s grandfather was one of the founders of the Lliga Regionalista, the political party that represented Catalan interests. Being both nationalist and conservative, it became powerful in the early years of the 20th century, when the loss of Cuba, in which Catalans had considerable investments, meant that political leaders in Barcelona, including conservative ones, began to consider full separation from Spain.

The Tàpies family were related to many of the leading bourgeois and Catalan-speaking families. ‘For many years I imagined our family carried great weight in the life of the city,’ Tàpies wrote, ‘that we were a kind of solid and important institution, and that we were a necessary mechanism in the development and progress of Barcelona. My grandfather’s aura, and the circle of notables my father also knew, gave me a sense of security.’ In this he was different, for example, from the most significant painter of the earlier generation, Joan Miró, whose family had been artisans with roots in the countryside, or from Salvador Dalí, whose family did not live in the city, but close to the French border, or from Picasso, whose family came to Barcelona from the south of Spain. Belonging to high Catalan culture, without any doubts about his heritage, has been an essential element in Tàpies’s personality and his art and indeed his public persona, even if he did set out to destroy what he had inherited.

Part of the Catalan legacy in Barcelona was a fear of downtown and a belief that the further a family moved from the port and the old city, the more respectable and indeed healthier it became. Thus for Tàpies’s mother, living in Carrer de la Canuda off the Ramblas was ‘the first disappointment of her marriage’. When Tàpies was two, the family moved to an apartment on the Gran Via and, since his mother ‘kept pestering’ his father, they moved three times more, higher into the new city and the hills each time, until in 1934 they arrived at the further reaches of Carrer de Balmes, where Tàpies lived until 1954, the year he got married.

In his work Tàpies would become obsessed with old furniture, with the poetics of tables and chairs and doors that had no more use but evoked a great deal of emotion for him. He developed a system for making monuments from domestic things; they became for him what stars were for Miró or clocks for Dalí or women for Picasso. In A Personal Memoir, published in Catalan in 1977, he writes about a set of chairs which belonged to the family:

Those chairs, upholstered in different ways, are still in my mother’s house for all her dislike of old furniture. They played an important role. They were the stage for the somersaults and fights of my brother and me, and so they took on a strange life. Later they became the preferred seat for studying and reading, for hours and days on end. I know every inch of those chairs and their smell, like that of a dirty organism, their noises and the squeaks of their old springs are ingrained in my memory.

Later, he writes about the bedroom he created as he began to work as an artist: ‘That room gradually turned into a battlefield. Entering it and submerging myself into my inner world was all one thing … True life seemed to reside there, with its stars and its mountains, its valleys and its forests. A world more real than the outside world.’

Public life in Barcelona between 1929 – when Mies van der Rohe created his German pavilion in the city – and the end of the Spanish Civil War had a profound impact on Tàpies. As Catalan politics became more polarised, the revulsion against Spain grew more pronounced.

My parents considered the world of bullfights, flamenco (they called it ‘maid’s singing’), and all the manifestations and all the festivals of folklore and religion that the other peoples of the Peninsula were tethered to, as low, vulgar, ridiculous and even savage. They inculcated those notions in us, and contrasted them to European culture.

His parents began to acquire books and magazines in Catalan, and listened to Catalan-language radio. One of the magazines dedicated its Christmas issue in 1934, edited by the architect Josep-Lluís Sert and the gallerist Joan Prats, both close friends of Miró’s, to 20th-century art. This gave Tàpies his first idea of the work being done by Miró and Arp, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Ernst and Duchamp. But Barcelona, despite its openness to Europe and despite its wealth, despite the innovations in architecture and the dabbling in radical politics, remained an oddly conservative city. In visual art, for example, as Miró found in the years before he went to Paris in 1919, it looked backwards: the galleries were filled with 19th-century landscapes and society portraits.

The only way to work was to dream, and then dream of escaping. This was an essential ingredient of Miró’s originality. With the exception of Francis Picabia, who lived in the city for some time during the First World War, Miró had no peer group or set of interesting teachers. He worked out his advanced visual system alone, knowing that were anyone to see it, they would mock it. Thirty years later, Tàpies found himself in a similar position. In the years before he went to Paris in 1950, any clue he got about what was happening in art in the outside world was a precious commodity, to be mulled over, often to be misunderstood. But these clues were rare. Just as Miró had felt imprisoned in Barcelona by the First World War, Tàpies felt locked in the city in the aftermath of the Civil War.

It might have helped that, like Miró, Tàpies had no easy or obvious talent as a draughtsman. ‘At school,’ he writes, ‘I was clumsy when rendering in pencil and was jealous of the gracefulness I saw in some of my friends.’ Nothing he did came naturally to him. He would have to invent a system since there was none to inherit. It might have helped too that there was no Prado or Louvre in Barcelona, leaving both Miró and Tàpies to the stark influence of the Catalan Romanesque religious wall paintings on display in the city, rather than the work of Goya, Velásquez or Zurbarán.

The Civil War had a strange and ambiguous effect on the Catalan middle class. On the one hand, everything they had worked for was destroyed. All the advances made in publishing and education and civil life came to nothing. On the other hand, no property was confiscated at the end of the war: families who had remained undisturbed by the First World War were not economically troubled by the Civil War either, or indeed by the Second World War. They remain to this day one of the great untouched middle classes. Capital, property, art collections and a sense of privilege have been handed down from generation to generation. Tàpies was to benefit from this continuity, but his imagination was also deeply affected by what he witnessed of the war itself and the repressive atmosphere of its long aftermath. The account he gives in his memoirs of the war’s complex legacy is one of the most valuable and accurate, perhaps because he is oddly unconscious of the wider implications as he narrates what he sees as a personal and spiritual journey.

When the Civil War broke out in July 1936, Tàpies, with his mother and his siblings, was on holiday in Puigcerdà (‘a gathering spot for high society’, he writes), close to the French border in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Because the anarchists had taken much of Catalonia, it wasn’t the fascists who were feared – they were still far away – but those who now ran things close to home, whose efforts to create a working-class utopia Orwell described in Homage to Catalonia. They had it in for the Catalan middle classes as much as they did for the fascists and the Catholic Church. ‘My mother told us,’ Tàpies writes, ‘that all those who had jewels or money were fleeing to France.’ Some model citizens of Puigcerdà, such as the town pharmacist, were shot. The church was burned and cars were requisitioned. ‘Intimate friends of the family’, they heard, had been assassinated in Barcelona.

When his father arrived in Puigcerdà, he announced that he would have to give up work as a lawyer in order to avoid political trials and that the family was therefore broke. ‘As a first measure he told us to dress as plainly as possible in order not to call attention … After my father’s explanations I knew for the first time the meaning of insomnia, and spent the whole night without closing my eyes, a memory and a trauma that always reappears whenever I suffer the slightest disturbance.’

The family travelled back to Barcelona on a train with members of the International Brigades. In the city, Tàpies discovered that his grandfather, who was both a Catalan nationalist and a conservative, was wanted by the anarchists. The old man first hid with Tàpies’s family, but by the time the militias came looking for him he had moved; he remained in hiding, and went home as the war was coming to an end, only to have his house, in the Gothic Quarter, bombed from the air by the Germans. The bookshop he owned was destroyed in a bombing raid.

When Tàpies noticed that his father seemed to have influence with the official Catalan government for whom he worked during the war, he asked him why ‘we were not better off financially, like his friends, who had automobiles and didn’t want for food or anything else’. His ever-cautious father ‘answered that he would rather not commit himself excessively with politicians in power in case the Republic lost the war’. As the bombing of Barcelona continued, Tàpies remembered, ‘my father and me huddling in a corner of his office … as bombs fell … I can still hear with horror the piercing cries and see the smoke.’

With Franco’s troops moving towards Barcelona, Tàpies’s father went into hiding, afraid that the Catalan government ‘would require him to go into exile with them or join the resistance’. As the war ended, Tàpies remembers seeing ‘some neighbours climbing onto a balcony … to rip off the Republican, Catalan and communist flags hanging there. They bundled them up in the middle of the street to burn them.’ His mother sewed some Spanish flags on her children’s lapels before they went out on the street. ‘I was overtaken by a strange sensation of loneliness and abandonment,’ Tàpies writes. ‘I felt my family no longer amounted to anything, that no one cared about us, that we did not matter in our country’s society when as a child I had thought that we mattered so much.’

The family had to have Franco’s soldiers billeted in their house. A senior officer noticed that his father turned off the radio when the fascist hymn ‘Cara al Sol’ came on, and told him he had to listen to the hymn in future. ‘When that man left,’ Tàpies writes, ‘my father gave a little speech to his gathered children. He told us that from now on we had to be vigilant in action and words and avoid even the slightest mistake, such as the one he had committed, as we might have to pay dearly for them. He also said that we had to begin a new life in our country and that we ought to adapt as well as possible.’

As things stabilised a strange, stuffy normality came over Barcelona. Tàpies’s mother and his aunts were happy because they could, once again, go to Mass. With the anarchists and communists out of the way, the family could join the Royal Tennis Club of Barcelona and the children could have riding lessons. As early as the summer of 1940, the Civil War barely over, they were able to go back to Puigcerdà with ‘the usual Barcelona high society set who once again filled the hotels or had a house … from before the war’. In the city, they were able to go to concerts and opera and the theatre, even to bullfights. Tàpies’s father expressed the view, he writes, that ‘our country, so ancestrally anarchic and so laden with defects inherent to our race and climate, was unable to function by way of outmoded democratic principles and that “we Spaniards” needed discipline and to be ruled by an iron fist.’

When he was 18, Tàpies was diagnosed with TB. He was kept in bed for a year and made to convalesce for another year. One of his doctors had been a friend of Picasso’s. In his imagination he became Hans Castorp. ‘Like him … I saw myself as distant, and determined not to fraternise with anyone … This attitude lasted six or seven months.’

Once home, he began to make self-portraits in pencil, which left him ‘wholly dissatisfied’. He continued to be supported by his father until he was 27. No one wanted him to become an artist, and there was no contemporary art or artist he admired whose work he saw in the city’s galleries. The reading he had done during his time as an invalid had made more difference than any painting he saw; many books in Spanish translation, including the letters of Van Gogh and Cézanne, were then being published in Argentina and clandestinely shipped to Spain. But it was hard to get hold of books about modern art. ‘I exulted with enthusiasm,’ he writes, ‘whenever I managed to get a book about Picasso published before the war, or an album with Matisse drawings smuggled from France, or even an old monograph on Renoir.’ When the French consulate organised a show of French art in the city, he got to see work by Rouault and Matisse for the first time.

His isolation meant that, at a time when the work of Picasso and Miró was ‘taboo and viewed with suspicion’, Tàpies began to work out a personal imagery without any help, or even a gallery to visit. In the years 1946 and 1947, in a studio paid for by his father, he ‘produced a series of collages on dirty paper, cardboard with crosses, glued filaments, scrapings, and impastos of discarded matter, burnt wood etc’. He began to think ‘abstract art too technical and rationalistic … I was inclined to follow some of my early intuitions “towards magic” where the real blended with the unreal … as I tried to lend my canvases the aura of primitive or esoteric objects … What I produced was meant primarily as spitting in the face of the orthodox.’

His closest companion in those years was not a visual artist but the experimental Catalan poet Joan Brossa. It was through Brossa that he got in touch with Miró’s friend Joan Prats, whose apartment in the city was full of Miró’s work. This was the first time Tàpies saw work by Miró in the original, but Prats also took Tàpies and a number of other young painters to see Miró in his studio in the old city. Miró, as usual, didn’t have much to say. He ‘appeared difficult and elusive’, Tàpies said, but he showed him a great deal of new and unfinished work. Since Spain remained a closed country, with strict censorship, Miró was one of the very few who remained from the earlier generation and he lived in a strange mixture of isolation and pure freedom. He didn’t speak in public or show his work anywhere in Spain; but the privacy that was forced on him suited him. He liked living in a world of his own invention. Eventually, he retreated further and went to live in Palma de Mallorca. Once Franco died, however, he took part in Catalan life again.

Prats also took Tàpies to the house of a private collector, where he first saw work by Paul Klee. Slowly, courtesy of Prats, he got to know about contemporary art, but this seemed to increase his sense of isolation as well as his desperation to find a way out for himself. ‘Had we lived under normal circumstances,’ he writes, ‘I might have been able to assimilate those influences sooner and with more positive results.’ But he wouldn’t have become as introspective and as angry, as oddly ambitious and as original. His style grew out of silence and a lack of serious stimulation. In the repression of the time, he made a virtue of being a loner. Even when, with Brossa and others, he founded a magazine, it didn’t last long. ‘I felt little affinity with the others, and even held antagonistic viewpoints on certain matters. Brossa was the only one I kept in touch with through the years.’

The work Tàpies made in the late 1940s was influenced by a reading of Jung, as it was by what he knew of surrealism. While the work with found objects and collage had a purity, a sense of vision and a strength, when he tried to represent Jungian paradigms figuratively, with hints of surrealist bravado, the results seem fey and almost embarrassing. Slowly, it seems, he came to understand his own talent as he abandoned the latter style and concentrated more fiercely on the former. Although he rejected almost everything his father represented, and despite his interest in Marxism, existentialism and Eastern mysticism, Tàpies remained throughout his life as ardent a Catalan nationalist as his father and grandfather had been. In his memoirs he is capable of writing seriously about the connection between his work and ‘the buried blood of my people’. His account of the difference between buildings in Barcelona and Madrid could be out of a handbook of Catalan clichés: ‘In Madrid there is an excess of grandiloquence and in many cases a bragging and nouveau-riche spirit. In Catalonia buildings are more democratic and made to a human scale. I found the same trait in the character of the people. The common people [in Madrid] gave me the sensation of being poor and accustomed to servility.’


Slowly, as it sought international support, the Franco regime in Spain began to make sly changes, and they included supporting young painters, even experimental ones. ‘The regime was keen on demonstrating to other countries,’ Tàpies writes, ‘that Spain was not a fascist regime, that modern art was not persecuted here … Modern art was highly useful because it was considered an innocuous element for cultural exchanges with other countries … it was supposedly proof of Spanish liberalism.’

So it became easy for a young painter to leave the country without having to go into permanent exile. By the time Tàpies arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1950, courtesy of a scholarship from the Institut Français, he had already created himself as a painter. He had assimilated what he needed from surrealism, and begun to refine an iconography which increasingly made use of domestic materials and re-created them in a stark and suggestive monumentality. All he needed now were dealers and galleries. But he was also ready to be overwhelmed by the availability of books and the presence of so many other painters, including Picasso, to whom his doctor had given him a letter of introduction. Picasso, who ‘spoke a relatively correct Catalan, blending in phrases in French and Castilian’, took him on a tour of his studio, bringing out work by Cézanne, Matisse and Braque, which he owned, before showing the young painter his own work.

Back in Barcelona, Tàpies tried to work out further ways of moving beyond anything that had come before him. ‘One had to jump into the void,’ he writes. ‘I also understood that the possibilities of forms and colours are infinite when one abandons what is understood as geometricism and enters the unfathomable world of the organic … of what one could term the amorphous, ambiguous, of the pure expressionism of gesture.’ He began to think more about texture and material than tone or shape or colour. He was, however, locked in an inhospitable country. When he had a show in Madrid in 1953, not a single work sold. Worse than that, a Catalan who was close to the Franco regime, ‘pitying perhaps my difficulties, tried to help and one day, to my surprise and shock, revealed to me that he was pressuring the government to see if they would commission a painting of mine for the Valle de los Caídos, then under construction.’ The Valle de los Caídos is a Catholic basilica and monument outside Madrid created by Franco, partly using the labour of political prisoners, to commemorate the Civil War. The commission never materialised. Some years later, someone took a photograph of Franco looking at a Tàpies painting and laughing. According to a witness, the dictator was told, ‘This is the hall of the revolutionaries,’ and supposedly replied: ‘If this is the way they carry out the revolution …’

Despite his efforts to re-think the very idea of surface in painting, Tàpies developed a skill, of which he was deeply suspicious, as a painter of portraits and self-portraits. His self-portraits have a particular stark drama. He made his last portrait, an engraving, in 1953; its subject was the Catalan poet Carles Riba, who at the time was sixty, thirty years older than Tàpies. Tàpies first worked with a lead pencil and then did a burin engraving as Riba began to talk. His account of what Riba said is fascinating, first for the light it throws on Tàpies’s own innocence, his conservatism and provincialism, and then on Riba himself, who was ostensibly a deeply respectable Catalan figure. The poet began to speak about

the love of mature men for adolescents. Riba was making an effort to prove such love understandable because of the classical worship of beauty. To reinforce his argument, to my amazement, he shared some personal details and explained that he himself, leaning out of the window of a Naples hotel by the sea one afternoon, saw some young men of great beauty bathing and playing completely naked and they, he said, made him ‘lose his head’ for a moment. But then he added that he lost his desire when he imagined what two men could do in bed.

It’s possible that Riba added the last sentence when he saw poor Tàpies’s amazement. The encounter shows the difference between someone born in 1893 in Catalonia and someone born thirty years later. Riba could travel; he inhabited a country that was not only sporadically democratic, but open in many other ways, including sexual ones. Tàpies had known only repression. He was to spend his life within a very small circle in Barcelona; the house where he settled with his wife and family was close to where he was brought up; the landscape around his house and studio outside the city had always been familiar. He was not to know the disruptions Picasso and Miró, and indeed Dalí, experienced.

The word ‘tàpies’ means ‘walls’ in Catalan. Slowly, in the years after his marriage in 1957, Tàpies began to make works which looked like ancient walls, with many elements missing and other elements added:

Little by little I conceived the idea of forming my surfaces by mixing corpuscles of all types: sand, coloured powders, plaster and marble dust, hair thread, pieces of cloth, paper etc. I even once used the residue of my daily shave. With those materials I thought I could give the impression of a cosmic heap made out of millions of elements. Then I discovered, one day in particular, that the quantitative stew of elements underwent a qualitative change and transformed itself not only into a unity of surface, but became in my eyes like a series of mud walls, of ‘tàpies’ … What was dirty and broken seemed to me often more worthy than all the bourgeois aseptic and hygienic achievements.

He insisted that the choice of materials which might have seemed aleatory or gratuitous arose ‘from perfectly defined inner imperatives’. He began to use the initials A and T, for his own name and that of his wife Teresa, in various forms on his canvases, as he also used the sign of a cross. In his memoirs he lists the material and the images he used from 1940 to 1964. The list takes up three pages of A Personal Memoir and it’s obvious how much Tàpies enjoyed writing it all down, as though in defiance of some pressing authority. For 1963, for example: ‘Busted couch, table with covers, love seat, other wine glasses, more chairs, new hand mirror, stair landing, kitchen table, white bed, games, digits, folded paper, part of unfolded cardboard box, one single fingerprint in a material background, bed pillow, maroon velvet with pleats, matter and ropes, large space with I, nose and eye glasses, 8, paint with hair, hook, barb.’

Although he began to be labelled ‘a member of the movement that was acquiring the name of Informalism’, he was uneasy about the idea of ‘blind matter’ in the work of the others. ‘I felt the need, at the very least, to impose a certain seal or imprint of the human in my work, even in cases where the austerity of the image was maximised.’ He had created his systems in isolation and he remained separate from any movement. Even in the mid-1950s he was being introduced for the first time to artists such as Dubuffet, Burri and Appel, with whose work most painters in the rest of the Western world were already familiar. Although music became very important for him, Tàpies did not hear works by Mahler until the second half of the 1950s and was not introduced to the composers of the Second Viennese School until 1953. It seemed that in coming to him so late, they were absorbed by him all the more intensely.

As he began to travel more, he met Fontana in Milan and Duchamp in Barcelona, courtesy of Joan Prats, and then later in New York. Since this was the time when abstract expressionism was beginning to be all the rage, Tàpies was pleased to hear Duchamp ‘speak in harsh tones about how unoriginal some of the new tendencies were … I found it refreshing to hear Duchamp deplore so openly the fatuity and lack of preparation of many’ of the newly-praised artists.


In the 1960s in Catalonia there were only two channels for opposition to the Franco regime. One was the Communist Party and the other the Catholic Church. Many who were neither communist nor Catholic used these organisations as a front, or as a way of meeting others of a like mind. As a dissident living in Barcelona, Tàpies was involved with both, and saw the Communist Party’s activities as covering a very broad spectrum; the Party even defended specifically Catalan interests. He and his wife became involved in clandestine political activity. ‘I know,’ he wrote,

that some cynics will say that what happened is that the politicians were expert at projecting a public image and that they ‘used’ the artists. This has never been my view. And if some would have tried to use me, I would have found it not only perfectly fine but an honour and a favour to me. To tell the whole truth, it was thanks to these political contacts that the pessimistic frustrations that had tormented me so much in my work as a painter in this country vanished.

The event that made the difference took place in March 1966, almost a decade before Franco died. It was the occupation by students, with support from the Church, of a Capuchin monastery on the outskirts of Barcelona as a protest against the regime. This was the first public protest of its kind. The students were joined by a number of writers and artists, including Tàpies, and the building was surrounded by police, who wanted to arrest the students and confiscate their identity cards. There was a stand-off. Later it was revealed that Franco had convened a special meeting of his cabinet to discuss how to respond. Demonstrations in the city to support those locked inside the monastery were attacked by the police. Inside the monastery, the phones were cut off and the supply of water and food interrupted. Finally, the building, although sacrosanct, was stormed. The students were allowed to leave, but some of the intellectuals, including Tàpies, were arrested and held in tiny underground prison cells for three days and interrogated. The episode was reported all over the world; in Barcelona it is still spoken about today.

In 1970, Tàpies persuaded Miró to join him and others in a march to the monastery of Montserrat to protest against the Burgos trials at which Basque nationalists had been sentenced to death. In Tàpies’s work in these years there were direct references to individuals involved in the struggle against the regime. ‘There was a time when the Franco regime was at its height,’ he said, ‘when I believed that certain clearer political messages could contribute to a general revulsion for the regime.’ By the late 1970s this time had come to an end. As democracy arrived, politics freed Tàpies from having to paint about politics.

While Tàpies spent the years of the dictatorship in grim, solitary opposition, working on his paintings and sculptures, some of his friends and associates, often those whose grandfathers had held power in pre-Civil War Catalonia, were silently, watchfully, preparing to form the new Catalan ruling class, becoming political leaders themselves, or leading architects, or ambassadors for the new Spain.

As an autonomous regional government was set up in Catalonia, the idea of full independence from Spain began to flicker and slowly grow. It is now, two years after Tàpies’s death, close to boiling point. To get there two ingredients were required. The first was provided by the Madrid government, which set about increasing investment in other parts of Spain to the detriment of Catalonia. A modern fast train system radiates from Madrid, for example, or within Andalusia, but not in the area around Barcelona, which, being more industrialised, has greater need of it. On top of which, the Catalans pay more into central Spanish funds than they receive in investments and benefits. With unemployment high and sharp cuts in public spending, there is a general view in Catalonia that Madrid has not shown much flair or even competence; and there is a general opinion too that Catalans would be better off economically in an independent state. While a decade ago the movement for full independence seemed fitful and often shrill, it has now moved into the very centre of Catalan political life, where it is likely to remain.

The second ingredient in the creation of the independence movement is cultural. One aspect of this is the use of the Catalan language, often to the full exclusion of Spanish, in public as well as in private life. Another is the idea that Catalonia, as a nation, has a different identity from neighbouring Spain. At its most clichéd this can include the idea, which Tàpies’s parents proposed in the 1930s, that Catalonia is more modern, more European, more cultured and civilised than the rest of Spain. But the arguments around national identity can be subtle as well as clichéd, and this is how Tàpies emerged as a central figure in the re-creation of Catalonia. He is a core symbolic presence in the nation’s dream-life, which impinges more and more on real life, in the same way as the architects Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch began to matter politically a hundred years ago. The latter two, who designed many of the famous buildings in the new city, became politicians representing the Catalan cause as well as creators of a modern and adventurous spirit in architecture that was seen as emphatically Catalan.

This idea of Tàpies as a national painter is strange, as his work is filled with private gestures, signs that evoke something occult rather than an easy-to-read national spirit. His work is dominated by a wild and uncompromising personal vision and use of materials which seems aimed at the refined nervous system of the very few rather than the large body politic. Although he made a number of public interventions, he was a reserved, mainly silent figure; and mostly alone in his studio.

Gaudí, too, was a reserved figure, but the buildings he made, in all their wildness and strangeness, slowly became icons of a modern Catalan identity. Gaudí’s power was all the stronger for Tàpies and his generation because their parents viewed Gaudí’s work as ‘the most execrable example of bad taste and fearsome ludicrousness’, as Tàpies put it. Gaudí’s work came to be admired instead by the surrealists, and then by outsiders such as Corbusier. As Tàpies himself connected to admired figures who had lived in the city before the Civil War, such as Miró and his friend Prats, he came to share their appreciation of Gaudí and began to see him and his contemporaries as precursors of his own art. By the early 1980s fascination with Gaudí’s work became almost universal and official in Catalonia. Like many others, however, Tàpies opposed the work being done to La Sagrada Família, agreeing that the incomplete building which Gaudí himself had overseen ‘should have been enclosed with glass walls’ and left alone.


One of Tàpies’s most interesting public statements came in a newspaper article in 1983 in response to the mounting of exhibitions of Dalí’s work. Having alluded to the honours which Dalí had received from Franco, Tàpies went on:

Culture is not only a delicate flower, but also a dangerous one. To … pour, from the summit of the state – in a way our new democracy has done for no one else – a flood of awards, titles of nobility, princely appearances, presidential endorsements, outlandish praise, taxpayer’s money … on Dalí of all people will unleash rancour and dismay among our intellectuals, writers and artists, which our governing politicians will find it hard to soothe.

He emphasised how little he admired Dalí’s work, and even less his politics. He expressed his view that ‘the least brushstroke of a painting is a reflection of the human qualities of the painter.’

By then Tàpies was in a strong position. Since the autonomous Catalan government had control over culture, they could make the most of their new powers. There was already a Picasso Museum in the city which included most of the work Picasso had done before he went to Paris. There was also a building on Montjuïc, the hill which overlooks the city, dedicated to housing Miró’s work, a building designed by his friend Josep Lluís Sert. In both cases, the artist had donated a large number of paintings. In the mid-1970s, Tàpies had considered following in their footsteps and ‘with this in mind, we began keeping more works. In the first few years of my career we used to keep only three or four a year, but later the number increased,’ he said in 1991. ‘For the last fifteen years we have been keeping as many as ten.’

The mayor of Barcelona offered him a house next door to the Picasso Museum in the old city, but ‘it was just an ordinary family house with small rooms, not at all the sort of building I had in mind for the Foundation.’ There were no further sites available on Montjuïc. Instead, the Tàpies Foundation was housed in a late 19th-century building right in the centre of the modern city, designed by Domènech i Montaner, one of Gaudí’s contemporaries.

These three buildings in Barcelona dedicated to the work of artists seem at times more powerful, to have more political resonance, than any government building in the city. Since Catalonia is in the process of dreaming itself into independence from Spain, image, symbol and shadow have as much force as economic indicators or political blueprints. The idea that three significant artists – Picasso, Miró and Tàpies – lived in Barcelona, took a stand for democracy at certain key moments and left a legacy of which Catalans can be proud helps to establish the city as a capital, rather than a second city. The fact that none of these artists compromised as they grew older, but instead became wilder in their work, which mirrors the legacy of the architects of the previous century, has entered into the raw Catalan dream.

Last summer, as the Tàpies Foundation and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya put on show a massive collection of works which Tàpies had kept for his personal collection, the conversation in Catalonia was about the mechanics of wresting full independence from Spain. People who not long ago had mild views on the question, or were in two minds, seemed to have hardened their position. The slogan ‘Ara o mai’ – ‘Now or Never’ – was being used without irony.

If anyone had sought to make the connection between the Tàpies shows and the polarisation of Catalan opinion, it would have made no obvious sense. The work was part of an undercurrent; but the undercurrent now has more influence than anything above ground. In order to make sense of what was going on politically, and almost spiritually, in Catalonia, I went back again and again to look at what Tàpies had made over nearly seventy years. The work is filled with inwardness, his surfaces are dark, indented, heavy with menace, suggesting what will be left over when we are done with the world, or when the world is done with us: straw, mud, wood, rags, threads, wrapping-paper, cardboard and, of course, paint. The paintings hover between a sense that they came into being naturally, just like the texture of an old wall, or an old door, and a feeling that a very deliberate and dark presence presided over their making. There was no giving in to beauty; it was all restraint, and filled with traces and disturbances rather than gestures or statements. These were notes from the land of the dead, marks and signs of a struggle from somewhere beyond us, wavering between purity and ambiguity, between minimal means and monumental ambition.

Somehow or other this work, in all its dream-like privacy and its rigorous ways of withholding, has now seeped into the spirit of Catalonia, and become a central impulse in what is a political yearning. It is clear that without this work, or the work made by Miró, or the suggestion that Picasso became a painter under a Catalan sky, the movement towards independence in Catalonia would be missing an essential ingredient. Just as any nationalism depends on balancing what is strange and irrational with what is worldly and tangible, so what Tàpies dreamed into being is mixed now, perhaps even balanced, with mere political aims. The shadows he conjured with are in league with the clear light of day. In the next decade, it is likely to remain a powerful mixture.