(Interview, June 2007) by Stéphane Le Corguillé
Barcelona and 1957? What memories do you have of your childhood?
I suppose that, like all childhoods, they are years shrouded in mystery, something vague and indeterminate in which chronological order plays little part. If I had to put a label on it, I would define it as a series of fleeting timeless glimmers. In terms of colour, it would be a period full of yellow, grey and white.
Why those colours?
I think because yellow reminds me of the light that shone into the gallery at home during the winter. Grey is how I remember the buildings of that depressing district of Barcelona known as l`Eixample, especially those lining the route I walked to and fro along to get to my nursery school in the Gran Vía and home again. Fortunately, later the city was to go through a radical change. And white is, without doubt, the snow which fell unexpectedly one winter. I don’t remember which year it was.
And your family?
My father, a lawyer both by profession and vocation, was eccentric and at the sametime extremely strict. My mother was charming. She looked after everything. My grandparents were like all grandparents, which means that, generally speaking, you never get to know them that well. The exception was my maternal grandmother, who lived to the ripe old age of 95. She was extraordinarily active and dynamic. And then came two brothers and a sister, the latter a mere 18-years younger than me.
Did you inherit your artistic streak from anybody in particular?
As well as being an exceptionally cultured man, my father could successfully turn his hand to most things, but creativity was definitely not his strong point. There’s no doubt that I inherited this gene from my mother. She painted in oils and watercolour. I remember spending a few days in Port de la Selva sharing brushes with her. She asked me to teach her how to create backgrounds and textures. That must have been about three years before she died.
Does that mean you have lost both your parents?
Unfortunately, yes. My father died in 1996. My mother passed away in 2005, and her mother, my maternal grandmother, followed her a month and a half later. An especially sad period in my life.
Your first drawing?
I still have a small piece of card which I found in a trunk belonging to my grandmother. On it there are three suns, one blue, one yellow and one red, in the style of Miró, and I suppose I wanted to show myself together with my parents. I can’t have been more than four. But when I really began to think that drawing meant something special to me I must have been about eight. It was at school –where luckily drawing and painting was a compulsory subject, —where for once we were told we could paint what we liked, I painted a pair of lilac horses with zebra— like markings and orange manes. I’m afraid to say they didn’t go down too well, and that my parents and teachers became slightly worried. Perhaps they were a little strange, but I liked them. The possibility of painting imagination opened before me.
Do you remember your art teachers?
Yes, of course I do. They were called Cabanach, Casademont and Figueras. Every so often I have seen canvases painted by the first two. It is said that the third one was also a musician who played with the band Los Canarios. Do you remember them? They released a really good song: Get On Your Knees.
Something fundamental. The fact is I am a musician, but not professionally. Twenty years ago we formed a rock group, and we still have the healthy habit of rehearsing one day a week. Above all, we are a group of good friends.
What do you play?
They started by trying to teach me piano at nursery school, and later guitar, but I thinkthey considered me as hopeless… I suppose I was too young. What’s more, at around that time I had a serious ear problem, so much so that it threatened my hearing. Luckily a minor operation solved the problem. But as you see, hopeless or not, I’m still playing the guitar.
Which painters most influenced you?
When I was starting out I loved painters like Nonell, Vancells, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh and Sorolla, to name but a few. By the way, my father assured me that when she was a girl my grandmother posed for Sorolla, but I’ve never got around to seeing the painting in question. I must have been about sixteen when I started pain ting with oils and trying to imitate these masters. Then I left painting for a while to concentrate on photography.
How did that happen?
When I was eleven or twelve I was given a very simple black and white darkroom. Later my father helped me buy a Nikormat and after that I acquired, together with a good friend, a colour darkroom. As of then I dedicated myself to photography for a few years. But despite some good results I ended up returning to painting.
Why did you abandon photography?
I had won a number of prizes, some of them international, but there came a time when I found the technique and the composition all too mechanical. What’s more, it was around that time that I became aware that another photographer, Hamilton, was doing very similar things to me, and to make matters worse, his models were even better than mine… That’s why, without giving up on the camera entirely, I decided to complicate my life and go back to my brushes. One day I would love to be able to sort out all of those photos.
And your reencounter with painting?
I realised that my taste had changed quite a lot. Now it was Matisse, Modigliani, De Vlaminck, Derain, Kees van Dongen, Jawlensky, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff and, generally speaking, the Die Brücke people who really interested me. Expressionism was a revelation.
And Spanish painters?
To tell you the truth, with the exception of Picasso’s Blue Period, at that time there was nobody who really interested me that much. What’s more, and although it might sound far-fetched, I hated painters such as Tàpies. A few years ago I saw the error of my ways.
How did you arrive at what you’re doing at the moment?
It’s not easy to explain. Many years of slow development and thought. I would say I have spent more than thirty years searching for that concept that you carry around inside yourself but never quite manage to define. It’s a very special feeling. It requires pulling yourself up short, looking backwards and analysing the sequences of your life. Expressionism was a catalyst, but there again it wasn’t what I wanted to paint either.
And what do you want to paint?
Primitive symbolism, but not only using ethnic motifs, rather as a spontaneous and natural expression of the spirituality of the human being. Across all cultures mankind has pursued the same ends.
Why this passion for the ancient world?
As a very young child I was fascinated by Egypt. It is also true that I had a great history teacher: Don Alejandro (Alejandro Menéndez Pidal) managed to awake a great interest in me for all things ancient. He was extremely eccentric but a great teacher. Many years ago now, perhaps even before I was 18, I fell in love with pre- Columbian art. Ancient America absolutely engrossed me. Not only its art, but the entire mystery that shrouds its origins. I studied pre-Columbian art for more than twenty years; studies which culminated in a book which I haven’t published about its cultures and origins. I wrote it for the mere pleasure of satisfying my curiosity. It’s over four hundred pages long.
What is the central theme of the book?
It’s a detailed study of cultures and settlements such as Valdivia, Machalilla, the Olmec culture, the Mayans, Chavín de Huántar, Paracas and Nazca, Monsú, and many, many more, including the cultures of what is now the southern United States. I established the timelines and interrelated the artistic and other models or benchmarks in order to identify the most ancient strata. It was extremely hard work and required a great deal of dedication.
And what conclusion have you come to?
In brief, and based on chronology, I have come to the conclusion that lithic cultural manifestations expanded inversely to ceramic expressions, and that it was all too common to find benchmarks lacking any clear reference point, in other words they appeared spontaneously without any sign of previous development. In Europe we have a succession of extremely congruent facts, but this is not the case in America. Faced with this conundrum, I studied the prehistoric cultures of Japan, China and South East Asia, and this enabled me to identify a good number of Asiatic contributions to the American cultures. In itself, and generally speaking, this is not a new theory, but I think that this specific contribution of new elements is extremely interesting.
And African art?
Studying the pre-Columbian began to bring me into ever more contact with art and antique dealers. That is how I began to understand what collecting is all about: holding an ancient artefact in your hand and evaluating what it contains irredeemably links you with it. After that, it was simply the fact that most of the dealers in pre-Columbian art also had pieces of African art. And that was the beginning of the end. The masks, fetishes and figures possess a power found nowhere else. The schematic and apparently simple embody total meaning. It is art in its purest form, not conceived to be liked. It only exists to entrap souls. I made every effort to work out the symbolisms of the different ethnic groups and abstract them. And that’s where I am today.
Seduced by African magic?
Totally. That’s not to say that I have turned my back on pre-Columbian art, but the pieces from Africa provide me with greater power. I’m not talking about quality here, rather about intrinsic force. At first, just like what happened to me with Tàpies, I found African art totally uninteresting. Then suddenly I found myself completely enchanted by it. Nowadays, the most important collectors and dealers are in France, Great Britain, the United States, Germany and Belgium. In Spain, primitive art is still very thin on the ground.
What is it that this art has that makes so many painters use it as a reference point?
That’s a complicated question and one well worthy of a doctoral thesis. In short, and from an entirely personal point of view, the way I see it is that these African objects neither are nor exist in their own right, rather that they sum up the whole essence of being, and that is what bestows them with the power of transformation. This power of transforming reality is what, consciously or subconsciously, seduced painter such as Picasso, Modigliani, Gauguin, de Vlaminck, Braque, etcetera. I discovered African art without knowing the repercussions it had had on those artists. However, that’s where the similarity ends. It was their genius that opened the way to new forms and expressions. In my case, I never moved beyond their content and symbolism. Mine is a somewhat more enigmatic form of painting in the sense that it sets out to embody the archaeology of the spirit. It uses this context to speak of human nature.
How does primitive art obtain this power?
Simply by what it set out to achieve. The African artist, for example, would pray before the tree whose wood he would use to carve his work in order to ask its spirit to pardon him. The choice of tree was anything but random. He would then fast and purify himself. Only then would he concentrate on carving his piece which would, in turn, be subjected to a series of rituals and charged, if appropriate, with magic. Therefore, that wooden carving, irrespective of its quality, would transcend its reality and be transformed into a spirit. On the contrary, our western art strives to assimilate reality; sets out to make a piece of sculpture or a painting as formal as possible, in other words, a copy of the visual experience. On the other hand, African art places little importance in reality. What really mattered was that right from the outset a piece possessed the elements needed for the spirit lo live within it. That’s to say there is a transformation from the material to the spiritual.
It forms part of the power, but it is always subjective. A Songye, Teke or Vili fetish doesn’t kill those outside the tribe, but the member of the clan who firmly believes that it can kill him or her. It goes without saying that this does not include those fetishes whose surfaces contain poison…
Do you believe in reincarnation?
No, but there are certain past historical ages that I find familiar. There are places, such as the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán or a 12th century castle which give off a special energy. It’s as though you were recognising something. On the other hand, there are other places, more impressive it that’s possible, which do not transmit that feeling. Sometimes it makes you think…
Is your painting existentialist?
Perhaps it is. When I was younger, I was strongly influenced by Sartre and Camus. Probably, what my work has is the mark of a primitivism and, as such, the cosmogony that attempts to find an answer to human existence. Gods and ancestors are present in almost every symbolic representation as entities superior to mankind. Most ritual expressions yearn to make contact with and unite these two worlds in order to seek out protection and give meaning to suffering. Whatever the case, what there is of the existentialist within me manifests itself by presenting abstract elements based on reality and showing or creating them as gods in their own right, individual gods who set out to calm the natural anguish of existentialism.
Do you write?
Yes, but apart from that book about the pre-Columbian cultures and one novel, the rest —basically poetry— is for me and me only.
Do you have any links with schools of painting?
None, I believe. I have always maintained a distance from schools or trends and have discreetly fled from them. I have more than a slight fear of being influenced. I prefer, for better or for worse, to maintain a purity which is only modified by my own development. It is extremely difficult to remain apart, but at least I have tried not to go in one or other direction for the sake of a fashion or convenience. I have even preferred to discover techniques for myself, because I know full well that from the moment you are taught a technique you are already limiting part of your creativity. Neither have I, strange and stupid as it may appear, ever been keen to exhibit.
What would you not paint?
In principle I would paint anything and everything, but I always understate gesture and expression. I paint emotions. I wouldn’t paint a portrait or a real landscape. Despite the technique required to paint like Velázquez, I believe that ever since the appearance of photography there is no point in reproducing soulless reality.
Where would you place your work?
I find it difficult to talk about myself. It is far easier to define others. But I could say that the work I do is full of contrast. On the one hand it is intimate, emotional and it respects plastic sensitivity. But at the same time it wants to express the energetic force of the spirit. On the face of it, it is a simple expression that organises and structures an emotion that is both serene and disturbing at the same time.
What do you want to transmit?
I believe, in short, that it is a quest. You crudely show the loneliness of an existence, reiterated in different forms since the beginning of time, with the intention that it is reinterpreted by somebody else, and by way of this process you hope that the viewer finds the emotion he or she needs. To transform, exhibit and lend out your consciousness in order to surprise yourself and be moved. Not everybody has that ability to know how to be moved. And others had it once and have forgotten it.
You speak of mind. What is the meaning behind your work 3 Consciencies?
It is the search for balance. I based the idea on the existence of a superior consciousness —which you could also call creator or law of nature—, of a second consciousness, which we would call individual, and of a reality. The way I see it, this balance is achieved when these three elements align themselves, when everything coincides. But the truth of the matter, and at best, is that although we normally sense this superior consciousness, and even sometimes the existence of the individual consciousness, it is all too common that one of them, or both, collide with reality, thereby causing a conflict and, as a result, an imbalance.
Can you give me a practical example?
The first one that comes to me is that the superior consciousness tells us that we are mistreating our planet. In almost all cases the individual consciousness agrees, but reality does not. This leads to disorder. It is our world, and yet we treat it as though it belonged to somebody else; somebody else, furthermore, who is our enemy… This would link in with the work We Are Killing the World.
And those emotions?
They have something of the tantric about them. If, when you recognise an emotion, you control it and manage to make it last, you have a better chance that, when a key moment arrives, it is still all there inside you. But if you do not retain it, no matter how much you laugh or cry, you simply forget it. You’ll never get it back. It is a life form: long or short vibration… deep or high-pitched.
What is your creative process?
It varies a lot, but mainly it involves identifying and abstracting a symbol; creating an emotional vehicle. Then you begin looking for the tension you wish to bestow upon it. That provides you with the textures, the spaces, the rays or inscriptions. Its basic purpose is to transfer the work, to give it the value of memory or of past experience. The rest just comes. Evidently, on many occasions, those who are familiar with primitive art, with its magic and its symbols, will have a head start when it comes to reading between the lines and discovering the messages. You might well like or hate the aesthetics of a scrap of cardboard, but anybody who knows tribal art, and depending upon the context, might see in it the grooves of a kifwebe ritual mask. That is complicity.
Are there many secrets?
What it is is expression and emotion. Not everything is tribal or ethnic, but the way I see it is that these shapes help because they are closer to the noble savage...
No. I put a great deal of distance between myself and seeing primitive cultures as ideal worlds. What attracts me is that their beliefs respond to an instinctive and basic concern. I recognise that there is a romantic basis, but it is also rebellious. I find it difficult to accept that nowadays we can allow ourselves to close our eyes to those beliefs and symbols which, whether we like it or not, we all carry engraved in our genes.
However much you prepare a sketch, analyse the materials and the technique you are going to use, there comes the moment in which the painting reveals itself, manifests itself all on its own. That is the moment of the subconscious. It is an act of absolute freedom in which the only limit is reason.
Finally, to whom do you dedicate your work?
Without doubt to my daughter, to my brothers and sister, to those of my family who are no longer with us. And, obviously, to those friends who need not be named because they already know who they are.