Sunday, 20 September 2009





The development of contemporary Spanish art is still surprisingly little charted and little understood. Partly this is the fault of the Spanish cultural authorities, who tended to promote a kind of painterly Expressionism, semi-abstract of figurative, that was related in some way or other to the work of Antoni Tàpies, undoubtedly one of the most importat Spanish artists of the mod-20th century and symbolic, in the minds of many people, though the content of his art was never political, of cultural resistance to Franco. This perception was aided by the fact that Tàpies was Catalan.


Art by Tapiés and younger artists related to him stylistically was welcome in international exhibitions, especially during the 1980s, when painting, as opposed to more recent methods of expression, such as installation, photography, video and conceptual art, seemed to experience a strong revival. The heavily worked surfaces favored by artists of this type seemed, to many critics, to have links with an age-old Spanish tradition of handicraft. By contrast, the slipperiness of Dali’s surfaces put him out of favor with the intellectual elite, though the one thing this most ambiguous of artists never lost was his commitment to technical skill – his own kind of technical skill. It did not help Dali’s reputation that he had thrown himself into the arms of the Franco regime.


What all this left out of account was several things. The first of this was the traditional Spanish taste for realism. The critics and curators might attempt to impose a new, politically correct artistic situation – the one exception to their distaste for realist art was the work of Antonio Lopez García, often included as a token representative of the realist impulse in Spanish survey exhibitions that included no other artist of that type. Spanish collectors, however, stubbornly continued to support quite a large group of realist painters. Indeed, one reason that these were less known internationally than they should have been was that their production, by the very nature of what they did, was relatively slow, and their patrons at home eagerly bought whatever was available. This situation was reinforced by the revival of the Spanish economy in the years after Franco’s death.


Another, less obvious factor was that this new Spanish realism was not a stylistic unity. Much of it, as one might expect, referred to the Spanish art of the so-called Golden Age, and in particular to Zurbaran and to leading Spanish was of the still life, such as Juan van der Hamen and Juan Sanchez Cotan.. There were, however, other points of reference available to Spanish painters, notably the Spanish art of the late Gothic and early Renaissance, by masters such as Bernat Martorell, Juan de Juanes and Bartolomé Bermejo.


A third factor, even less obvious but vital to remember in this context, was an instinctive Spanish commitment to Surrealism. Dali and Miró were, of course leading members of the core Surrealist group, and, as is well known, Picasso for while dabbled in Surrealism. What is less clearly recalled is that Tàpies, too, began his career in a quasi-Surrealist context, as a member of the Dau al Set group, which held its first major exhibition in December 1949, at the Institute Français in Barcelona.


It is important to keep all these things in mind when looking at the work of Dino Vals, who is surely one of the most important realist painters to have emerged in Spain in recent years. The most important work here, Psiscostasia, takes the form of an elaborate Gothic Crucifixion. However, the actual figure of the Crucified is overlaid by other images. In the center of the composition, for example, there is what seems to be a pair of nude female Siamese twins, joined at the shoulders, with a heron[1] behind them and the dead Goliath [who can also be Holofernes or John the Baptist , head severed from trunk, lying at their feet. One of the twins carries a child’s head in a small dish, but this head seems to be alive, and looks out of the painting with a mistrustful air. On either side are panels that contain full length nude figures, one male, one female. These in turn have further, much smaller panels attached to them. On the far left, where the male figure is placed, for instance, there is a panel that seems to show the miraculous fish from the story of Tobias and the Angel. A kind of predella displays a row of mourning female heads.


The smaller works that accompany this major composition seem to be in a certain sense preparations for it, or else derivations. However they are not in any sense sketchy. The meticulous finish is the same as what one sees in the larger painting. The paintings, like the altarpiece, feature male and female adolescents who function as both tempters and victims. The message is most straightforwardly presented in Malacia, where a young girl chews a lock of her own hair. This strand of hair divides her face and makes the upper part look as if she is wearing a mask. She becomes literally ‘two-faced’ - untrustworthy.


In Initiatio and Regressio we see a young girl who, in the second painting, becomes an adult woman, with adult instincts. The second painting has the head of a dog in the top left-hand corner – as well as being symbols of fidelity, dogs are traditionally associated with ideas of sexual potency and seduction. In Islam dogs are considered to have fifty-two different attributes, half of them holy but the other half vile.


Regressus shows a young man, a little older than Vals’s more usual personages, who is being examined – attacked? – by hands belonging to two different personages, both standing outside the margin of the composition. In a separate space, richly framed, is an erect penis, treated like a holy relic in a church, with, just visible, a pair of surgical forceps.


These paintings are permeated with feelings about sexuality that are thoroughly Freudian or even post-Freudian. They also, nevertheless, have close links with the Christian myth. The atmosphere they convey, not surprisingly in these circumstances, is one of profound unease. Though they are less thoroughly transformative than the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch [more popular in his own day with Spanish patrons than in his native Flanders] they offer the same message about a world that is not only sick, but which has also systematized its own sickness – turned it into something both accepted and established. Vals is, in terms of skill, at least as gifted as Dali. In terms of what he has to say about the world we live in, he is a much more profound and serious artist.


[1] Early Christians, believing that herons shed tears of blood under stress, made this bird an emblem of Christ's agony in the garden and the sweat of blood He endured there (Lk 22:44). Like many wading birds which eat snakes, frogs, and other symbols of the evil one, herons are images of the eternal struggle of good against evil and of Christ's battle against the Devil.


According to the Mosaic Law of the Israelites, herons were unclean birds. Their Hebrew name, anaphah, comes from a root which means to breath or huff as if in anger. These birds are known to be very ill-tempered. Thomas Aquinas used them as symbols of those whose "feet are swift to shed blood" (Summa Theologica; Rom 3:15; see also Prov 1:16; Is 59:7).


Quoted from Suzetta Tucker, on the ChristStory Bestiary site on the Internet.


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