By Vica Smirnova
“Slow painting”: who is Antonio López Garcia?
One calls him a “slow” painter. The epithet is quite debatable, the one who paints a deserted street or a quince branch doesn’t paint the street or the branch but the time in which the landscape or the tree change their nature: the way they grow, come out, exhale fragrance and wither. However, the time that López is so peculiarly fixed on is not solely physical time. It is no coincidence that in his hyper realistic (according to received wisdom ) paintings, the viewer’s eye finds a kind of a barcode – traces of other painting manners, which perform a play of temporalities through indexes of styles (the patina of a renaissance still-life, the emphasized – like Manet’s – two-dimensionality of the canvas, the collage pattern); they fixate the time of the artist and of a painting.
In some sense this combination of “academism” and conceptual painting is caused by biography. He was born in 1936 in the town of Tomelloso. Very early he showed artistic abilities and was sent by his parents to San-Fernando, The Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid.
Like every totalitarian time, the époque of Franco was rather conservative in questions of art. Despite the absence of official interdictions (Miró and Dali were quite successful at this time) the paintings of Picasso, Ernst and Magritte here were studied only in library catalogues . However, López’s interest in his contemporaries hadn’t become a reason to join abstractionism, surrealism or the non-figurative art, which was so popular in the 1950s. And although it was convenient for the isolated culture of Spain to have its own anarchists, enfants terribles, who were presented at international biennales as proof of liberalism, López and his circle of friends (which later became a family circle) had preferred another way, which may seem quite academic. Thus, having graduated from San Fernando in 1955, he went to Italy where he plunged himself into the history of Renaissance and Antiquity, and then, having come back, he got interested in Velázquez.
His first personal exhibition already took place in 1955. López was starting to be bought by Americans (realism was completely in the spirit of overseas strategies). European critics weren’t interested in him though. Unlike Munos and Saura, who were exhibited at national pavilions in Venice, López is equally far from European modernism and from the radical figurativeness of Lichtenstein and Warhol.
Only in 1986 is López, (who is by this time is rather famous in Spain), is exhibited in New-York Marlboro and in Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2008. In his famous essay “Art: The Truth in the details” Robert Hughes will call him the most influential Spanish living Spanish artist, and his sculptures will decorate Atocha railway station and become a sort of a symbol of Madrid’s timely art.
“A Slow Director”
Something very similar can be said about Victor Erice, whose most famous film The Quince Tree Sun is dedicated to López Garcia.
Erice is also a slow director in a way. He has made only three full-length films. All the rest are shorts, essays, short stories in anthology films. Like López’s paintings, Erice’s films take time as their subject. These are walks along the past (stories about Francoist Spain, told in a strictly linear manner (The Spirit of the Beehive, South)). Or, on the contrary, there is a scrupulous fixation on the present (the history of creation of a painting by an artist (The Quince Tree Sun)). In his multiple interviews, which he gave and still gives, and whose amount strangely exceeds the amount of films, he tells about plans, which weren’t accomplished for various reasons, about projects, which acquired independence or have become a springboard for essays, diaries or just conversations. In some sense this manner of Erice, which ignores calendar time, and López’s story, unhurried in its abstractedness from latest routes of art, are unbelievably alike.
They both feel at ease with time and, surprisingly, they have won with their antique slowness. Or, rather (for the aim is not to win) they have arrived in a future where imagination and reality depicted in a painting are equaled in rights and where Duchamp’s idea and craft are united in one body.
López draws, following nature. He marks leaves in order to move the painting when the branches lower and ideally to leave the landscape unfinished. In this plot the most interesting thing is not that the artist-hyperrealist aims to move in parallel with the model, but that in the artist’s world view the most important thing is sensual experience or, more specifically, sublime empiric experience and not the truth of a still-life or a landscape. Thus, his gesture to stop painting and not to take care of completeness means neither superiority of nature, nor vulgar following after nature, but a failure to divide what we see and what really exists. It’s an acknowledgement of “subjectivity” or, if you like, volition of both (which emerge from time). That is why he allows himself to not finish the quince and to paint a portrait of the royal couple for decades, being also distracted by graphics and sculpture.
The “incompleteness” is a quality of form here. In some sense such style of painting reminds us about the Greeks, about Aristotle, who never read the same tractate in the same way (On the Soul, for example). Each time his lecture would change, each time something was added to it. As a matter of fact, this process of eternal incompleteness of a text was parallel with his conversations with pupils.
Actually, the word “incompleteness” suits neither Aristotle, who regarded a conversation as complete based on a structure of the conversation itself (which made it difficult to detect a “final version”), nor to López, to whom fragmentariness doesn’t mean a fiasco or a defeat against the visual world, it isn’t an effect of romantic privilege of a detail over the whole, it’s a recognition of equal sovereignty of author’s time, the time of imprinting and the one of an object.
In the same way, the curious thing about Erice’s film is not that the artist knows beforehand that at some point these fruits change, dry out, get moldy, rot, change their shape radically, not that a clot of brown slime is what is left of vital plumpness in the end.
A different thing is interesting here. Is something we see – this yellow plumpness of a quince, its attractively heavy ripeness – the same thing what this quince becomes in the end – an oozing clot of a brown flesh, an exposure of enjoyment, a scandalous feast of fruit worms?
Perhaps, here is the answer. To positively separate the artist’s time and the time of the model. The former remains an artist while he exists in the time of drawing (the real one or the mental one), deriving a possibility of painting from a fragile state of a dialog with nature (namely with this specific quince, planted and studied), – that is why it is so important to discuss at what age exactly Michelangelo quit painting (at 63 or at 64?) and if it is possible to continue a painting which you have left incomplete. The quince stops being a model and becomes only a fruit, which lies comfortably in a palm, gives out a fragrance and slightly crackles.
Note that in this ambition to catch the world in a state of temporariness (to achieve a specific lighting of quince leaves) there is nothing in common with the impressionists, who take – as it is known – “the history of an eye” as a starting point. In Claude Monet’s famous series the author’s eye remained innocent of its personal time, nothing changed in this eye itself. It’s no coincidence that impressionism with its positivist attitude towards the world in some sense continued the history of classicism.
With López it’s the contrary – the paysage obeys a time of the year (a position of the sun, short moments of early morning) and the author’s subjective time (his inner story of inspiration, some cerebral perception ability, conceived in this very refuse to continue painting).
The painting isn’t valuable itself anymore, it is more a text than a work – that is why in Erice’s film these “before” and “after” are intuitively important – preparations to drawing, sizing canvas, going home, conversations about student years in San-Fernando, which give an utopian possibility to approach time directly, to discover the limits of the painting (at the confluence of “bloom” and “extinction” ) and of the author (in a state of fascination and loss of interest, nearly in melancholy). With López, who tends to stop, to change roles and artistic lines of character, sketchiness is a quality of time. Here, white spaces themselves aren’t a cessation of painting, but they are a sort of “painting without paint” (similarly, Erice’s “Las Meninas” is film without a film footage, seen by the author’s inner sight).
A picture is painted throughout a lifetime. It exists on a crossroad between birth and death. And this suspense (or rather this suspension), which characterizes the author’s view on himself and on the picture (which experiences eternal death, being born different in the end, as well as the artist), babble that it’s almost never finished but at the same time it is never a sketch.
It seems that such a strategy doesn’t match with López’s method of painting/drawing. The eye of the one who paints follows optical exactness – a ruler marks horizontals and verticals. It fixates a place where López must stand – two nails, knocked into the ground, settle the artist in front of the model.
The latter is always in the middle – this is extremely important, for the tree is given a privilege to grow and to wither (to avoid all these – as López calls them – “aesthetic games with perspective”, to give up the habit of seeing a landscape as a whole, gathered into a frame, subdued to the sight of a demiurge-artist). It is a matter of interest that in the process of painting itself nothing would remind us of speed – where present time becomes the aim of painting, we see an academically unhurried movement of the hand, a sort of a ballet of coming and going, of approaching and moving away. The rhythm itself doesn’t leave any illusions of hastiness.
We can say that two different styles meet in López’s case, two opposite world views. The first one originates from the Renaissance with its immobile position of an artist, who aims at universal eternity of the moment (and here Vermeer turns out to share kinship with López ). Surprisingly, the other style is postmodern, pop-art, with its cult of banality and of the serial, its oblivion of hierarchies, its attention to a thing as it is). At this intersection between one and another, between an author who paints the unique and an author who categorically choses the same (the quotidian , the everyday, robbed of an aura of selectness), a demiurge-author and an author who tries to be at a place of an object , there grows painting, in which the model and the artist exchange signs of “subjectivity”.
It’s no coincidence that in López’s approaches to the model we see a will to describe all its states: the way the quince has darkened, how its skin has cracked, the way a leaf is incurved, touched by withering. He paints fighting a time of the year and the time of his inspiration. In this aspiration to catch up with the thing he only denotes time, paradoxically preventing plunging into it (an ability to dive from flatness to depth).
Thus, his woman who wipes a chandelier at night in Madrid (The Lamp) is an attempt to grasp the time of the picture, having placed the one who paints into it in an idealized way. Having united night and day, a lighted room and a dark street, the artist showed that “it got dark” and the brush has just reproduced this change, having obediently followed the time of the day.
We find the same spectacle of temporalities in “The Window” (a replica of famous interiors of the Hollandaise like de Hooch). Here, a window frame, from which a night landscape is looking (is it looking?) in, tells us about the night which “glances into” artist’s studio. The time of the artist and the time of the object are fluid, and a blot on the frame and a demonstrative change of perspective (a room, in which the artist works, becomes forefront, stretching towards the viewer, and what we see in the window becomes only a picture, whose flatness suggests that it is possibly imaginary ) babble about these incongruous times.
Such operations with a change of perspectives and with a combination of views (of two subjectivities, two centers, like in Manet’s works) are incident for earlier works. López combines a still-life with a paysage, he drags it closer or pushes further, joining opposite optics, he creates différA nce inside one and the same subject. As a matter of fact, such style shows that continuity itself becomes conceptual. The time is present, being shown through indexes. The time born by an ability of our conscience (and author’s) manner to grasp continuance with our “inner” sight.
We find something similar in Erice’s work. He assembles the author’s presence of circumstantial events – the wife, who is working nearby, friends, who come to recall the past, migrants from Poland, who are finishing renovating the workroom, a turned on radio (which tells about Iraq and the fall of the Berlin Wall), placing the story of uncontemporary painting into the actual time of digital technology and virtual war.
Erice knocks his symbolic “two nails” beside this reality. He shows how the calendar moves, recording the day of painting, – here is autumn, September the 5th, and here’s the end of November already. This gesture is the same as López’s in relation to the painting.
As with López, who follows nature, Erice creates a palimpsest of times, or, rather, of traces of their presence, insisting on conventionality of end and beginning. In the end the camera, which for a long time shared a place with the artist, is left in solitude. Different mediums will create a semblance of finality; of something that doesn’t finish or, on the contrary, finishes in every moment of painting and filming.
Several final scenes could be considered as a comment to artistic credo of the artist, although it could be also said that they tell us about Erice too.
In the final scene of the film López himself takes model’s place. His wife (Maria Moreno) is drawing him lying on a bed. In one hand he has a black and white photo with a view of the Parthenon, in the other there is a crystal ball, which refers to a famous episode from Citizen Kane. At some point López plays along (consciously or not) with her allusion, having pretended to be either asleep or dead. The ball falls out of his hand and the wife, having grasped the point of his joke, stops drawing and puts the ball into the pocket of her sleeping husband.
What is this fragment exactly about?
Does the fragment where López poses himself tell us that the ball in this story won’t become a guide to a detective story, won’t babble about the author’s truth? Or that the word “truth” in the dictionary is useless? And not due to relativism, but due to the dialectics of time, to which you are always late or, on the contrary, hastened to the point which will be searched to grasp your true genuine presence.
Erice’s final scene holds a more subtle explanation though.
López once said: cinema appeared when humanity became old enough.
Perhaps what was supposed to be the essence of cinema and the virtue of the century (time, movement, speed) at some point became irrelevant , put into question. Both López and Erice – each one by force of their own circumstances – conceived time as endlessly preceding, having put it into a kind of brackets.
Thus time started just to be (in our conscience, our work, continuously in both cases, prolonging itself in different spheres, in various activity, no materialized or not). López’s and Erice’s experience have revealed itself in this ability to conceive a refusal to paint, and not in a form of asceticism or a poetic advantage of the author (Erice is often called a “poet” as if apologizing for the fact that he has made so few works) and not even in a form of a caesura between work and rest, but in a radically different way.
With López the unpresented turned out to be strangely presented. And Tarkovsky’s utopian idea, who dreamt of filming without actors, without an operator and even without film footage has gained a nonmaterial materiality in a conscience which became an object.