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.

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