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"Creu i dos Peus (Cross and two Feet)", Antoni Tàpies, 2007

Antoni Tàpies shared a sensibility with artists affected by the Second World War and the dropping of the atomic bomb. He soon expressed an interest in rough matter - earth, dust, atoms and particles - which made him start using all kinds of materials foreign to academic artistic expression and experimenting with new techniques. The matter paintings make up a substantial part of his work.

Tàpies' work underwent a radical change between 1953 and 1956, which would be of great art historical importance. Not only did he abandon surreal iconography and illusionist space, he substantially altered the traditional conception of the pictorial surface. He replaced the traditional canvas by a material that had the appearance of a wall on which we could perceive scrawls, incisions, marks, traces, degradations, perforations, and so on. His work showed the typical features of a real wall etched by the passing of time, the impact of natural elements, heat and damp, wind and the sun and the transformation of the material itself. Sometimes the scrawls and incisions, the traces and marks were easy to read or recognize, but at other times they could be more abstract and often symbolic.

Tàpies' walls recalled as much the urban walls of the slums of Barcelona's Raval district as the rural walls of farmhouses, sun-seared stable doors, the wooden stakes marking out boundaries, etc. Beside de large "mural" compositions Tàpies started to use every day waste material. The use of new materials, of collage and assemblage, was to become quite generalized among certain new artists of that moment, like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow and many others.

Tàpies constructs the surface of his matter paintings by assembling rough geometric forms fashioned out of fragments of found materials, and in the process invigorates them with new life within his own formations. These portions are then embellished with bold strokes causing the eye to explore the surface of the work and adding an additional dimension of energy and presence.

For Tàpies the notion of matter must also be understood from the point of view of Mediaeval mysticism as magic, mimesis and alchemy. His works must have the power to transform our inner selves.

Moreover, Tàpies' work has always absorbed the political and social events of the time. In the late sixties and early seventies his political commitment in opposition to the dictatorship deepened and the works from that period have a marked character of denunciation and protest. Coinciding with the flowering of arte povera in Europe and post-minimalism in the United States, he started working more with objects, not showing them as they are but stamping them with his own seal and incorporating them into his language.

Impossible to place within a particular movement, Tàpies' art reflects an image of chaos tamed only with difficulty; he himself defines his works as "battlefields where wounds are multiplied to infinity."

Text written on the occasion of the exhibition Tàpies in the 1960s - Scars of the Real at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, Belgium (5 December 2013 - 26 January 2014)

Tàpies. A Catalan name derived from the word tàpia, meaning wall. Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies (Barcelona, 1923-2012) could not have been born with a name that suited him any better. Growing up during the Spanish Civil War under the Franco regime, Tàpies has always been surrounded by walls on which people inscribed their fears and doubts, their desires and frustrations. The walls of Tàpies' youth bore witness to the horrors of the inhuman turn Spain and the entire world was taking at that time. They were charged with emotions, marked by violence, grief and by the desperate longing for another world.

"I liked to imagine artistic activity being a task as intense as possible, in the service of knowledge, influencing our life, making us see the falsity of what surrounds us, and permitting us to accept authentic reality." (Antoni Tàpies)

After the Civil War, Tàpies felt the deep necessity to respond to the horrors that had changed his world-view and had made him question his own identity and that of the country he lived in. The only way of being able to freely express himself was to become an artist. Art does not need to obey any laws or follow any rules; an artist can get away with violating the traditional norms and values of society because he offers alternatives in a coded language that are rather felt than understood. An artist can hold a true mirror to the world in which it can see itself in its most primitive and original state. This world might not consciously be aware of what it is looking at, however at the same time it is already being transformed after a first glance.

Marked by the Catalan walls of his youth, Tàpies decided to start making paintings that acted as walls. Walls fascinated him not only because they allow ideas and emotions to be scratched into matter over and over again, but also because they deny access and block vision and are not - as the traditional painting is - a peaceful window to the world. A wall acts like a two-sided mirror in between two worlds. Whatever lies behind the wall can never be touched, but the wall itself, reflecting the crude reality of what is here, holds the promise of the existence of another side.

"Each canvas was a battlefield on which the wounds multiplied over and over again, to infinity. And then came the surprise. All that frenetic movement […] suddenly took a qualitative leap. The eye could no longer perceive the differences. Everything came together in a uniform mass. What had been burning ebullition transformed itself on its own into static silence." (Antoni Tàpies)

Tàpies' works are eruptions of the Real that are silenced in a condensed, material message. When he makes a painting, Tàpies engages in a respectful, yet sometimes violent dialogue with the pure nature of matter. He lets his unconscious take over and creates the work in a permanent, open exchange with the true qualities of the rough and humble materials he is working with, without imposing any lies on them. For Tàpies, making a painting means diving into matter and going on a journey into its deepest, darkest and most obscure recesses. The critical moment when he feels that the essence of matter converges with the essence of his own being, is experienced by the artist as a mystic touching of the Real and results in a creative act. His paintings thus bare the traces of the impact of an encounter with the Real, in all its beauty and cruelty.

The notion of the Real had dramatically changed after the wars. Among many artists there was a total distrust of Western thought, which is based on rationality and logic and forces us to categorize the world in dualities (spirit versus matter, creator versus creatures, soul versus body, idealism versus materialism). The Western definition of the Real is based on separation and on the unbridgeable gap between subject and object. Built upon concepts like nationalism and individualism, the wars had shown the dangerous results of Western logic which had made the world shatter into pieces.

Many post-war artists were looking for alternative ways of dealing with the Real. Also the new developments in quantum physics and psychology had opened up to a wider understanding of reality, that got closer to the Eastern notion of the Real, which is based on the idea of an all connecting Oneness. The Tao speaks of one original principle, an emptiness that lies at the heart of everything and everyone. The Eastern Real is the primordial unity of all. It is not one fixed point that can be grasped and distinguished from something else, but it is rather a flux, an ever-evolving process of becoming. The Real does not exist, it only becomes. It resides in a permanent striving for communion between different poles (yin-yang), and not in the duality between them. In the Real nothing is excluded or opposed. The paradox remains unresolved. The Eastern Real is unnamable and cannot be explained by intellectual knowledge. It can only be sensed, briefly.

Tàpies' paintings breathe this notion of this Eastern Real. His artistic language is the result of a continued meditative and creative process in which the artist's body and soul (microcosm) merge with the Universe (macrocosm). Tàpies presents the Real not only by abolishing the limits between matter and content as explained above, but also in the guise of archetypical symbols that often come from his everyday life (crosses, sticks, mathematical signs…), but nevertheless carry a meaning that goes beyond their common, daily use. He intuitively selects and combines tangible elements that are rooted in our collective memory, re-uses them in different constellations and thus invites the viewer to continually re-interrogate what is given.

The meaning in Tàpies' paintings is never univocal. It is volatile and requires a continual adjustment. It resides in a pre-verbal fluidity. Tàpies' codes are undecipherable by the intellect. Rather than explainable representations of the outside world, they have become multiple realities on their own, built up out of fragments of the Real. They are lyrical spaces in which a non-verbal process of signification takes place which appeals to memory and emotion. Their code can only be "cracked" by approaching them with the senses, by making oneself vulnerable, open and courageous enough to face the mirror that shows authentic reality.

Looking at Tàpies' paintings demands courage, for they confront you with the deepest, darkest, most primitive essences of human being, as well on an individual/physical as on a universal/meta-physical level. As he explained himself, his paintings are silenced battlefields. Like the Catalan walls, they are scratched upon, violated and torn apart in order to open up, incarnate and close the protective cocoon of our individual and collective subconscious. They reach us to our real, unconscious fears and desires. Not directly, but only sideways, in the guise of non-referential signs, marks and textures.

Tàpies' walls are not pierced through, but remain confronting mirrors, not showing but only holding the promise of another side. They don't show the wounds of the battle, but its scars. The shock of the wound would be unbearable. The scar, however, acts as a veiled hole, a healed wound. Tàpies' scars of the Real still show the traces of a violent breaking though the wall. They keep the memory of the wound alive, but also hold the comforting possibility and the hope of healing.

Object information

Mixed media on wood
89 x 116 cm
Collection of the artist
2013: Tàpies. Lo sguardo dell'artista, Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, Italy.

Signed and dated on the reverse

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