Sunday, 20 September 2009
Manolo Valdés stands at a kind of crossroads, both in the history of recent Spanish art and the history of Modernism and Post Modernism. Equipo Crónica, the collaborative venture to which he devoted the earlier part of his career, until the death of his partner Rafael Solbes in 1981, symbolized the sudden revolt against the past that took place in Spain about a decade before the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975. Soibles and Valdés borrowed imagery from the past, notably from Golden Age Spanish painting, but did so in such a way that the spectator was always aware that these images were perceived with contemporary eyes and were filtered through a modern sensibility. The icons of Spanish culture were challenged by the artists’ awareness of graphic techniques rooted in the world of 20th century consumerism.
In the work of Equipo Crónica, the stress was on the image, not on the physical identity of the work - its texture, what it seemed to be made of, its corporeal being. In this sense it offered a contrast to the other tradition of Modernist development in Spain, typified by the work of Antoni Tapies. Tapiés had long been seen as the standard bearer of cultural opposition to Franco, until the arrival of the new generation of artists, perhaps more openly cynical than he was about repressive hypocrisy of the Franco regime.
Since he became a soloist, rather than a member of a duo, Valdés had made it his task to reconcile these two opposing points of view. He remains very interested in the power of the image, which he regards as being not only a thing in itself, a representation of something, but also as a cultural catalyst. At the same time, he is fascinated by the power of the painted surface to affect our emotions directly, almost without reference to what is depicted.
The images in this exhibition fall into categories that existed long before the rise of the Modern or the Post Modern – animals, nudes, flowers, portraits, still life. On some occasions we are conscious of the presence of another artist – Picasso, say, or Matisse, or even, in one work, that of a Renaissance portraitist of the 15th century. On other occasions, the references are not so easy to locate.
Valdés has a broad cultural perspective. If he looks at Renaissance portraits, he also looks at the trivia of contemporary consumer culture – there are three paintings that feature ice-cream cones. What all the paintings have in common is resonant color and sumptuous texture – the latter achieved through the use of all kinds of unorthodox techniques, collage additions chief among them.
When we stand in front of these paintings we feel we are witnessing an act of magical transformation – the original donnée is still there, but it has been translated into a different real, and different condition of being. This is something that, alas, is becoming increasingly rare in art – artists are losing the power to transform reality, which is a very differebt thing from simply reproducing appearances. Essentially, a good figurative artist invites us not simply to look at a reflection of reality, but to step through the mirror and enter a different realm.
This is the reason why artists such as Velazquez and Rembrandt have retained their power – when we look at a canvas by one of these two what we see at first glance is an apparent chaos of marks, which swiftly resolves itself into a commanding image. Valdés is clearly fascinated by this process of transformation. He is also aware of the fact that the development of modern abstraction, and of contemporary visual media in general, has accustomed audiences to more radical ways of perceiving and interpreting images. We are all of us now, to some extent at least, visually athletic. His paintings challenge us to meet him halfway – to join him in a visual adventure.
His use of paraphrase is particularly interesting when considered in this context. Historians of contemporary art often talk glibly about ‘appropriation’ – the term has become one of the mantras of Post Modernist criticism. Too often it means that the spectator is offered only a blurred carbon copy of an image that was once vital and interesting.
The process of borrowing is, however, age-old. Manet’s Dejeuner su l’herbe is based on a Marcantonio Raimondi engraving after a composition by Raphael. Caravaggio’s Bacchino Malato, now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, turns out to be closely modeled on an engraving by Dürer. The borrowing is the more daring, and also the more blasphemous, because the Bacchino both an image of a pagan god and a self-portrait of the youthful artist. Complicated cultural resonances of this sort are exactly what Valdés wants to evoke.
Valdés’s sculptures make use of similar procedures. The series of Heads is obviously related to the three giant Ladies of Barajas that Valdés made in 2003 for Barajas airport in Madrid. These elegant females have a distinguished ancestry. They can be related to Brancusi’s Mlle Pojany and also to Pablo Gargallo’s Kiki de Montparnasse and his masks of Greta Garbo. Modernist sculptors have often been finely attuned to the vagaries of fashion, as Valdés shows himself to be here. He understands the impulse felt by fashionable women of all epochs to aspire to the condition of idols – they way in which they use clothes and adornments to transcend the quotidian and the mundane. The fanciful hats and headdresses he gives these women also allude, in a more glancing way to the goddesses painted by Cranach, who wait the judgment of the mortal youth Paris wearing nothing but their feather hats.
The two full-length figures of Queen Mariana, inspired by Velazquez, carry the ideal of the idol still further. The clothing that Velazquez depicted in two dimensions, using a multitude of flickering strokes, becomes, when reproduced in three-dimensional form, an unyielding carapace. The queen is her dress – her features are obliterated. Yet we do, of course, immediately recognize who and what she is. These figures are powerful simply as forms, but they are also vehicles for cultural and historical commentary.
Like his paintings, Valdés’s sculptures occupy a key situation in the history of recent art. To put matters in simple – perhaps, indeed, over-simple – terms, there has been a continuine struggle between form and narrative. The early Modernists were essentially formalists, and the art of the past was re-interpreted by scholars such as Bernard Berenson to conform to this new ethos. Berenson, discussing a Renaissance Madonna, wanted to direct the spectator’s attention, not to the Christian myth, and the Virgin’s place within it, but to the actual rendering of tactile form. By gradual stages artists who think of themselves as avant-garde have drifted away from this position, returning to the social and political narratives that interested the Victorians. The physical means are often very different from those used by late 19th century artists, but the pre-occupations that lie at the core of the work are not.
Valdés, like all the Spanish artists of his generation, was the product of a political upheaval. At the same time, however, he has remained keenly aware of, and closely attuned to, the core values of Spanish culture. In his work these are filtered through a uniquely original Post Modernist sensibility.
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