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CARMEN CALVO. TODO PROCEDE DE LA SINRAZÓN
Madrid, 2016: Sala Alcalá 31, Comunidad de Madrid, 01/XII/2016-29/I/2017
CARMEN CALVO: HUNTING SCENES
ALFONSO DE LA TORRE, EXHIBITION CURATOR
Carmen Calvo: vigour, asserted to the point of violence […]
Georges Duby (1988)1
The exhibition begins with two images. Carmen Calvo (Valencia, 1950) and I agreed that they should be ascribed to a genre long familiar in art history: hunting scenes—a cheerful, no-nonsense, bloodthirsty bourgeois term which tends to suggest a cosy hearth adorned with antlers, stuffed creatures, fireplaces and animal skins on the floor. It is a hangover from an earlier age (eliciting the Nietzschean smile recalled by Aby Warburg): contented wreaths of pipe smoke swirling and fading in the air, a relaxing refuge from the elements. In the first scene painted by Calvo, from 1969, one of the few early pictures still hanging on the walls of her studio, the hunter—with a small, angular head, almost like a mask fitted onto a large, shapeless body—holds the woman’s mutilated torso by the hair. He does so coolly and fearlessly, as if displaying a trophy. There is no pity. It has the air—and even the “painterly” style—of an advertisement for a fairground stall, as the artist remarked to me. “Roll up, roll up, have no fear, shoot the miniature woman” [cat. 1]. Carmen Calvo chose an odd way of establishing her place among so-called “young” painters. Venus Anadyomene stranded on the steppe, her severed breasts hanging down, gruesome violence in a luminous atmosphere, terror occurring quite matter-of-factly on a bright, clear day, with the air just bathed by the light clouds on the terrestrial horizon, and Golgotha in the background, merging with the hunter’s clothes. The colour of the woman’s skin is also earth-grey. She is an ash woman, a Hora with a retinue of dust.
The other scene, decades apart chronologically, could have been a continuation of the previous one. The present writer, (de)formed in this well-explored area of the writing of dreams, played a part in establishing a possible sequence of the histories of these two paintings by Calvo. After the hunt, the world is left suspended [cat. 2]. It is a clearing in the wood or the garden, a grove of trees in the grip of winter, with stains on the ground. A trail leads out of the scene. It is the “lac de sang hanté des mauvais anges, / ombragé par un bois […] / sous un ciel chagrin” of Baudelaire’s “Les Phares”. I am also reminded of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s hunters in the snow. The sequence might have been different. Perhaps it is the beginning, the start of the ritual. Other groves come to mind at this point: Maurice Denis and his green trees, or Hodler’s frenetic woodcutter. Yes, these two works by Calvo could have been included in the Mnemosyne Atlas of another hunter, a hunter of images, to whom I have already referred: Warburg.2
In the painting of the wood, moreover, the shadows of Calvo’s trees are actualised. Shadows have always been very important in this artist’s work; here, opening the second section, we will see a beautiful portrait of her among shadows done by Francesc Jarque in 1975. Not only does Calvo’s work, which always tends towards the three-dimensional, “naturally” generate shadows; she frequently paints them, fictionalising them in her pictures. I am thinking of her paintings with zinc items strung onto the canvas, where she paints the shadows of the objects, and sometimes various opaque areas, in trompe l’oeil, creating a fantasy of varied patterns of daylight shining through the objects, an illusion of the passage of time and of all times. It reminds me of the quiet digressions of Pessoa, a writer she admires.
I turn to Cirlot’s dictionary of symbols, trying, perhaps, to pin down a shadow. Yet another shadow. The poet/critic refers there, in discussing this term, to how the shadow is linked to the soul that bears it—it is its alter ego. But a shadow is also an idea.3 And in the shadow, more shadows, this time in the Surrealist Dictionary, fertile ground for other ways of thinking of art history. Ramon Llull is included in the Dictionary by the surrealists: “Shadow is the custom of being deprived of light.” And Alfred Jarry: “Shadow that is content to be black.”4 Duchamp, that anartist, as was already understood without citing him, is also another silent shadow, even in the history of art.
The female body described in the painting of the hunter (also capturing a visual action), with the “huntsman” holding up the spoils of his “Bellmerized” carcass, allows us to associate Calvo with the art of unease produced by women. I am thinking, of course, of Louise Bourgeois in Black Days or Ida Applebroog and her “Photogenetics”, and many others: Frida Kahlo, Ana Mendieta, Marta María Pérez Bravo, Remedios Varo and (why not?) Francesca Woodman, each with her own “preoccupation”.
These are disturbing images created by Carmen in the context of an age of icons concerned—very much so—with the status of the image and its representation. (One is not an artist unless one has suffered some great misfortune; I quoted this comment by Genet to Carmen.5 And she smiled.) Narrative ceremonial, hunting scene, fragmented hair and body, crossed eyes, vindication of art conceived by women, work always charged with painful echoes: all this, it ultimately seems to me, is not too far from Calvo’s creative development over the years, and it gives us an opportunity to mention encountering other examples of her works, such as No tengo motivo para sentirme mal [I Have No Reason to Feel Bad] (2008) [cat. XX], which illustrates the point for us. Of course, the sight of the fragmented body and its position in nature, a body abandoned in the midst of the world, also brings to mind Duchamp’s barely visible bodily remains in Étant Donnés [Given] (1946–1966). To this we can now add the interpretation of the painting by the artist herself, who reconciles the archaic technique with its contemporary location: “this work was produced in a period of personal change, at the age of nineteen, coinciding with what was beginning to happen in Spain at that time: women struggling to take their place in life and have a say. The picture is small and uses simple materials, there is a certain fairground stall quality about it, a flat kind of painting that reminds me of the Douanier Rousseau. Naive-looking.”6 “This is a long wound / A wound like a cry / of silences / Let it not fall asleep, I say! / Injustice is here / unburied / The sacrifice unhealed”,7 wrote Manolo Millares.
The flower of her anger grows wild.8 Calvo’s work continues in our time to be pervaded with uncomfortable questions, her paintings full of fragments, phanera and images of unease, glass eyes and wooden legs, tremulous voices of childhood, shabby clothes, hair and evocations of the body. And the boxer who illustrates this text, fleurs du mal—another torso fragmented by the concealments of collage—reminds us once more of the struggle for life. The hair tirelessly grows back on the round face of the earth in her magnum opus in this exhibition: Et pourlèche la face ronde [And Licks All Over the Round Face].
Back to the hunting scenes: it all happens in a place which, under the appearance of a landscape, is also a kind of ruin. In a process of demythification and mythification, the characters in the 1969 picture seem to be painted with an archaic air about them; the hunter is “Egyptianised”, “Picassified”,9 his face sideways on, the rifle erect on the diagonal axis of the scene, the binoculars forgotten. This disdainful figure does not seem to be what it is about. And she, of course, as well as being a doll that recalls Bellmer, cited earlier, obliges us to mention the Dalinian Gradiva, a semi-petrous, perhaps fossilised remnant, and also Salvador Dalí’s enigmatic painting Les roses sanglantes (1930).
Carmen cites Rousseau, but also the naive air of street paintings. Here, of course, the reference to the Douanier—Pour fêter bébé (1903) or L’enfant à la poupée (1905)—also leads us to something of the sober, refined clumsiness of Carrà. Another allusion that should be mentioned is Georges Bataille’s celebrated The Tears of Eros. It reminds me of the subversive pleasure Pierre Cabanne referred to in relation to Calvo.10 And another recollection comes to mind at this point, that of Le supplice (1906–1907), the early bust by Brancusi, related to certain works by Camille Claudel and Medardo Rosso. The lumps of flesh in Philip Guston’s rose-pink paintings are another reference. Such realistic archaism is later found in Calvo’s Grave pasión encantadora [Grave Enchanting Passion] (2014) [cat. XX]: the blouse of the character portrayed is fastened with a pair of handcuffs, protected by the thin fabric, like red velvet: mourning, a stiff countenance, sorrow, another torso on which to put the handcuffs, which also seem to function as a sign, like two notes or commas, a form of writing that composes the past.
The trees in the wood/park, in the second painting from 1986, become columns, immobile uprights in a mysterious place. The painting was put together by joining two canvases: the joints, as in Millares’s work, are like a suture, and are alleviated by a certain ingenuity in the composition: making a virtue of necessity, as the artist puts it. Space seems to be evoked with the uneasiness of children’s narratives; the snowy ground is covered with the shadows of the tree trunks, some of which look ghostly. It is a vast tragic landscape, to quote Georges Duby, who has written on Calvo in this period,11 emphasising the violence of her admirable temperament, as the medieval scholar added sententiously, right from her youth. When the artist refers to this painting, like much of her work, she speaks of “myself-outside-myself”. For we are undoubtedly in the presence of a descendant of Rimbaud contemplating herself at a distance, in the desolate, exciting realm of being other: “That landscape”, Carmen Calvo told me, “was inspired by the trees in the Tuileries Garden, during the time I was living in Paris: I was away from home and there was a different kind of light, which excited me, the light of that place in Northern Europe, which is not the light of the Mediterranean. This picture reflects the disquieting feeling of the cold shadows of the trees projected onto snow shown in a bluish white colour. Somehow this painting leads straight to mud, to fossilised material, towards forms created with pigments straight out of the tube of paint. In this large painting two canvases are joined together, as I didn’t have a whole one, creating a seam, as in Millares’s works, which emerges right in the area where the trees are thickest. It was making a virtue of necessity […]”.12
The painting is located in an extraterritorial realm, or perhaps an interregnum between heaven and earth, in a radical experience that places us in the presence of finitude itself. In an unknown land.
SELECTED ESSAYS ON CARMEN CALVO BY THE AUTHOR
— Carmen Calvo: una vida distinta de la propia (Crónica de una artista polífaga). Madrid: Ámbito-Cultural, 2011.
— Carmen Calvo. Doble o nada. Madrid: Galería Rayuela, 2011.
— Carmen Calvo. La artista impura. Cuenca: Fundación Antonio Pérez, 2013 (with comments on the works on exhibit).
— Carmen Calvo. La artista impura (II). Barcelona: Galería Alejandro Sales, 2013.
— Carmen Calvo: en el décimo día de cada mes. Madrid: Vuela Pluma, 2013 (presentation).
— Elogio de la inteligencia añadida, Carmen Calvo (ilustrando a Santiago Torralba). Cuenca-San Clemente: Fundación Antonio Pérez, 2014.
— Artista impura, polífaga, destructora y recomponedora de nuevas formas: Carmen Calvo. Madrid: El País Semanal (“Protagonistas del año 2013”), 29/XII/2013.
— Carmen Calvo: Crear es un engaño. Fuenlabrada-Madrid: CEART-Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente/La Fábrica, 2014 (with comments on the works on exhibit).
— Calvo: Revelaciones [versus decir lo indecible]. Lisbon: Artlounge, 2014.
— Carmen Calvo: canibalismo de las imágenes [en torno a la relación de Carmen Calvo con las imágenes fotográficas]. Bilbao: CFC Bilbao, 2014.
— carmencalvilia (poemario). Valencia: Imprenta CG, 2015.
— Carmen Calvo, pressentant avec violence. Paris: Galerie Thessa Herold, 2016.
1 DUBY, Georges. Los gabinetes de curiosidades. Palma de Mallorca: Sala Pelaires, VI/1988.
2 In panel 28-29, and the Night Hunt of Paolo Uccello (c. 1470); the various tapestry and hunting scenes of panel 34, hunting and entertainment; those occupying panel 38 and 40.
3 CIRLOT, Juan-Eduardo. A Dictionary of Symbols. London: Routledge, 1988, pp. 290–291: “As the Sun is the light of the spirit, so shadow is the negative ‘double’ of the body, or the image of its evil and base side. Among primitive peoples, the notion that the shadow is the álter ego or soul is firmly established; it is also reflected in the folklore and literature of some advanced cultures. As Frazer has noted, the primitive often regards his shadow, or his reflection in water or in a mirror, as his soul or as a vital part of himself. ‘Shadow’ is the term given by Jung to the primitive and instinctive side of the individual.”
4 BRETON, André, & ÉLUARD, Paul. Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme. Paris: Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1938.
5 GENET, Jean. El objeto invisible. Escritos sobre arte, literatura y teatro. In El funámbulo. Barcelona: Thassalia, 1997, p. 75.
6 Conversation and correspondence between the exhibition curator and the artist (20/V/2016).
7 DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. Manolo Millares. La atracción del horror. Cuenca: Genueve Ediciones, 2016.
8 BERNHARD, Thomas. In Hora Mortis: Under the Iron of the Moon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 3.
9 Here again I cite Rousseau and his legendary meeting with Picasso: “Ultimately you are doing in the Egyptian style what I am doing in the modern one.”
10 “Est-elle prêtresse du hasard, du désinvolte, de l’ironique dans ces inventaires aléatoires, essayant de construire des formes à partir de l’informe, ou de l’inachevé, des débris el des épaves, […] invention libre et improvisation dans la création […] dans son répertoire d’objets pauvres ou insolites, cette archéologie d’un imaginaire qu’elle métamorphose en images, […] le plaisir subversif se mêle à la dérision insolente, l’agressivité iconoclaste apporte, dans sa fièvre insolente, à I ‘inventive Espagnole, la preuve que le décalage des origines et des générations au lieu d’être un obstacle est un lien poétique.” CABANNE, Pierre. Destins croisés. Paris: Galerie Patrice Trigano, 2002.
11 “A sudden deployment, arising from a taste for broad gestures, of the desire to erect monumental forms, to represent vast tragic landscapes, this time deliberately […]. However, the play, the attention to detail, the scepticism of the earliest period have been replaced by the vigour, asserted to the point of violence, of an admirable temperament. A female temperament, by the way. But with that robust, immutable, fertile femininity that the moralists of the twelfth century offered as an example to men to jolt them out of their inertia.” DUBY, Georges. Los gabinetes de curiosidades, op. cit.
12 “[…] It was shown in the 33rd Montrouge Salon, in a period and a context in which there were many artists from our country living in Paris; I remember Broto, Campano, García Sevilla and Sicilia.” Conversation and correspondence between the exhibition curator and the artist (20/V/2016).
CARMEN CALVO IN AND AROUND THE PROMISING EIGHTIES:
AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE IMAGINARY
Margit Rowell chose Carmen Calvo’s work for the exhibition of new images1 to be held in 1980 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. As we shall see later, it was no easy choice, among other reasons for the restricted number of the selection to represent that time of upheaval. With her ex novo exhibition statement the curator seems to be harking back to an older exhibition: New Spanish Painting and Sculpture,2 held at MoMA in summer 1960, curated by Frank O’Hara, with the active cooperation of his fellow poet John Ashbery. In the adjectival use and lyrical drift of O’Hara’s essay published in the exhibition catalogue, one could grasp the extent to which his poetic sensibility enabled a truthful rapprochement to the complex art world of that time, something which the curator-cum-bard of New York’s temple of modern art would exercise throughout his short yet intense life.3 After its run in New York, New Spanish Painting and Sculpture toured the USA and Canada for another two years. That same year of 1960 also saw another major exhibition in the city, this time at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Before Picasso, After Miró4 was the brainchild of the museum’s director, James Johnson Sweeney, and the title of the show, in contradistinction to the one championed by the two afore-mentioned poets, had a more solid and almost sententious feel to it, adding Juan Gris to the list of precedents cited.
However, Rowell’s desire as the curator of the nuevas-imágenes-nueve5 exhibition was to examine how the young artists in 1980, with two women included on the roster, continued to suffer from secular ignorance and how scant was the knowledge of art from Spain outside the country itself.6 Rowell recalled O’Hara’s voice by returning to the (seemingly futile) endorsement obtained in international events during the fifties; this latest project put in place during the much-talked-about7 eighties showed up how, after the passing of two decades for art and indeed for the world, all the awards, accolades and renown at biennials and other international events had been little more than will-o-the–wisp.
“An Archaeology of Perception”, was the essay written by Margit Rowell for the catalogue published in that watershed year for Spanish art: 1980. As the title of the show read, these were New Images from Spain, apparently foreshadowing a new time in art, which would presumably be the consequence of the country’s political change. It ushered in the multi-coloured eighties and a new generation of artists who almost seemed to mirror the dispossessed of Black Spain, as we shall see.
Calvo’s eight paintings8 comprised a closed set which managed to form a lasting impression by accumulating little shapes, patiently constructed in clay,9 and then painted and mounted on the surface of the painting, sewn to it with thread, like an archaeologist assembling the fragments discovered in an excavation, or a pathologist reconstructing the remains found at a crime scene, or a haberdasher putting together samples of his wares, with a stern air of whimsical organisation, for which we might echo Joan Antonio Toledo’s lapidary phrase about “her false classification system,”10 in the sense of being dominated by an arbitrary arrangement that is richly poetic, and conclude that we have here “an obsessive world of classification, archiving and imaginary reconstruction.”11 This was not far off what Rowell argued in the catalogue for the show in New York: “Calvo is fascinated by archaeology as a system of classification. Although she may be influenced by its example, her own system of classification is arbitrary, spurious, dictated by her personal vision, articulated by her personal rhythms. Pre-existing modes or motifs of painting are her subject matter; she isolates and translates these subjects into concrete artifacts, compiling them into anthologies or repertories of plastic signs which project a new image and meaning. The result is a comment on the painter’s means and ends, developed in relation to the artist’s roots and experience. In its visible contradictions between painting and relief, past reference and present reality, freedom and rigorous classification—as well as the more fundamental contradictions -between fine art and popular craft, and between formal invention and social commitment— Calvo’s art is purposely ambiguous as to its ultimate aesthetic determination.”12
Often titled or subtitled “landscapes”, “anthologies” or “compilations”, other titles from that decade, almost serial in nature, give us some appreciation of her intentions. As we can see, they are imbued with the lyrical overtones which, not exempt from the ambiguity mentioned by Margit, cut across her whole body of work: Ofrendas [Offerings], Ordenación [Ordering], Promesas [Promises], Hojas [Leaves], Recuerdos [Memories] and Fósiles [Fossils]. This cumulative aspect of the images she creates, sometimes more normative or ordered, other times even suggesting a certain grid division of the space, could be compatible with other one-off works suggestive of a musical dimension, like notes dancing on the empty space of the canvas or support, or something settled in the painting, like a swelling tide, a certain sense of a corpus of all the pieces seemingly moving together in a strangely coordinated way, like a dancing swarm of insects, or the leaves of a tree swaying in the wind, or a flock of starlings, as in the case of her works from 197713 belonging to the collection of the above-mentioned Guggenheim Museum and which were shown in the exhibition curated by Rowell.
Stories within stories, a summa of micro-narratives in which the artist would become a weaving and writing artist who could be seen to emulate certain other creators of our time—and here I am thinking of Bourgeois—who had also wielded needle and thread (or similar elements reminiscent of sewing, or indeed of resewing) as a standard method in their studio practice. The very same needle and thread of patient labour, the needle and thread of the conscientious surgeon suturing wounds and recomposing wounded bodies. Weaving together disparate elements, history and body, writing in the time of forms with the magical power14 of sewing, Calvo proposed the construction of a new symbolic alphabet built with her hands, suspended in space, composing an art object of bits and pieces rescued from the ashes of time. On previous occasions I have written that, traditionally, recomposing through work was a practice to alleviate unease, often taking place in the solitude of secular female enclosuse,15 but reconstruction is not always a pleasurable act for the person who undertakes it, given that it poses unsettling questions, some pertaining to personal identity, a writing then in search of reconstruction and, from there, the discovery of the ungraspable air of a word that is merely sensed in the meeting with its other world. Art does not express the visible, rather it makes the ineffable visible, as Paul Kle put it.16 And so we have the construction of a new world built from a sewing of fragments, a world with a wounded appearance that speaks to the patience of resewing remnants, like a fragmented or extinct world, while the woman’s aforementioned traditional enclosure engages with the yearning space of reclusion inherent to the condition of the artist, of another time, another place and another identity —“j’ai soif”, wrote Palazuelo confined in his tower in Saint-Jacques17—until raising this otherness in space.
That opening year of the decade of the eighties was a fortunate time for our young artist, who in 1980 also received a scholarship for research into new expressive forms from Spain’s Ministry of Culture, during which she spent long periods in Madrid and gained a foothold in some of the leading galleries of those agitated times—with a special mention for Buades (1977) and Vandrés (the gallery run by Fernando Vijande in which she exhibited in 1979), and also Galería Gamarra y Garrigues (1987 and 1989), which allowed her to keep abreast of what was happening in Spain’s capital city during those changing times in the country’s transition to democracy following Franco’s dictatorship.
On her Vangoghian paintings of that time, like those on view in this exhibition: “Habitación de Van Gogh” (1975, Manuel Franco Collection, Valencia) or “Serie Paisajes” (1975, Viuda de Ángel Calvo Collection, Valencia), the artist explained that these fired clay works were to be the core focus of her practice between 1973 and 1983. They were done in series without titles, and the subject is taken from various works by Van Gogh, and others from drawings in his famous “Letters” to his brother Theo. The artist continues: “The hundreds of little pieces of fired clay or stoneware, produced by hand, speak of paint, the transmutation of this material into sculpture. The pieces are fragments of fossilised paint: that’s how I wanted to represent it. Each piece follows the lines of the drawing, fixed to a canvas background by sewing them on with twine, like an archaeological reconstruction.”18
“Vestiges revisités” [Remains Revisited],19 as she later titled one of her solo exhibitions in Paris, groupings of small elements which became little mineral sculptures, which, as has already been said, sometimes convey a taxonomic or melodic feeling, but also hang on the painting plane like a curtain, a cascade of shapes which seem to evoke an impression of mineralised Monetian water-lilies, as happens in another of the wonderful paintings in the exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.20 Other works from this period, also shown in the exhibition, were her landscapes in coloured chalk, capable of conjuring up a territory shifting between the teachings of Klee and Kandinsky, which played a vital part in the training of artists from the fifties onwards, especially in Spain. In the catalogue of the exhibition mentioned previously she wrote of her fascination with Egyptian art, at which she gazed avidly, in her twenties, in the Louvre in 1971, emphasising that: “My development is based on the idea of archeology, an idea that fascinates me: the concept of repetition and recovery of the object. I was interested in archeology and all that surrounded it — most of all, the processes of discovering, reconstructing and compiling archeological remains of Near Eastern cultures. These elements and materials would serve as a source of inspiration for my later works. I am aware that definitions are always dangerous, — they tend to reduce a concept to a few words, which may become unclear and simplistic. However, I believe that it is necessary to provide these clues to the spectator. Three aspects in painting interest me: form, color and object. I began with painting in oil and acrylic, and with the subject of landscape treated in an Impressionist manner. I am still interested in landscape; I use it to examine the facture of Impressionism, but do not paint in an Impressionist style. I am still concerned with traditional premises: the primacy of the idea of painting and the objects of the painter. I believe that my work has some European antecedents, but I have concerned myself with the sources of our native tradition: clay and all the materials that are in some way culturally related to the Valencian region.”21 It was something that Rowell underscored, adding the strong cultural component of her creations: “Thus Calvo’s ingenuous landscapes are motivated by a certain social consciousness. Her process (of forming, firing, breaking, coloring and sewing or gluing clay pieces on the canvas) and her unconventional materials (clay, but also chalk, pottery shards, glass and others) are similar to those of the craftsman. Despite the importance of the manual labor associated with these works, however, her formal references are artistic and cultural (…) Calvo’s overt reference to French Impressionism (…) is ironic and critical. She translates the quick, short strokes of Impressionist brushwork into handmade and hand-colored ‘strokes’ in clay. After atomizing the elements of relief, color, play of light (all Impressionist concerns), the artist aligns them like archeological specimens on a canvas, thus destroying the mystique of individualism and temperament related to Impressionist painting.”22
Almost like a reaction of art to its social environment, the curator seemed to appreciate that one of the drives of those unsettled eighties in Spain was, paradoxically, “a call to order”.23 In this regard, Calvo’s practice was an extremely singular case within the overall development of art in Spain and I believe now that she was more indebted to an international legacy, as one can readily deduce, with few moorings to what was taking place around her in Spain. This would, without doubt, afford a heightened attractiveness that was well perceived by visitors to the museum in New York. At this juncture, it is germane to return to the ideas expressed by O’Hara and Rowell, who, separated by two decades, continued to underscore the hackneyed idea of the isolation of Spanish art: “isolated from the official sequence of avant-garde movements for several decades.”24. Therefore, the usual litany of the internationalisation of Spanish art would be more a case of a futile exercise, without any ulterior direct repercussion on its subsequent evolution. Here we are, as Millares put it, hanging over the abyss.25 Ultimately, as Rowell argued, this was the sad context, given that “artists have only participated sporadically and accidentally in the international mainstream (…) foreign art books and periodicals are still largely unavailable today. Exhibitions of artists from abroad are rare. Works by foreign artists are not collected by the few museums of modern art in Spain. And the fragmented information that does exist is disparate and meaningless in a country whose twentieth-century history is parallel to but separate from that of the rest of Europe. As a result, the Spanish artist’s creative life is peripheral to the international mainstream.”26 This isolation was, in the case of Carmen Calvo, heightened because of her origin as Rowell was to underline, though, of course, it also seemed like useful leverage to strengthen bonds with the avant-gardes: “The city of Valencia is somewhat isolated —geographically, economically and culturally— from the main circuits of artistic activity, both in Spain and abroad. As noted earlier, the dominant tendencies in this area from the late fifties to the late seventies were geometric abstraction and critical realism (…) belong to the generation which felt the impact of Valencia’s Estampa Popular and Equipo Cronica. Although their work does not appear on the surface to express social consciousness, perhaps it more clearly approximates than any other young Spanish idiom the goal of the former avant-garde: an art which, through its opposition to the established academies, aspires to change existing social values and inequities.”27
Rowell made her highly personal selection in which the names of some of the artists eluded certain orthodox considerations, especially if we were to bear in mind, as we now know, that the choice of those nine artists took place after visiting almost one hundred studios. The curator’s recollections of that adventure revealed her desire to help the USA to discover what was happening in art in Spain, from a scarcely expected viewpoint: that of a modern Spain emerging on the horizon, a Spain in which Informalismo had finally cooled down (think for instance of the presence of the constructions of Aguilar, Navarro and Pérez Villalta).28 As a result, a large part of the significance of the choice of artists had to do with the solitariness, the sense of isolation, solitude and heightened difference that Carmen Calvo still preserves today, a distinction absorbed in the fertile solitude that has accompanied so many artists and creators in general throughout the history of art.
In 1988 Georges Duby29 recalled his visit to her studio in Casa de Velázquez in Madrid. Later, in his essay “Carmen Calvo: una arqueología de lo imaginario” (1995), which serves as the subtitle for the text at hand, he spoke about the artist’s studio but this time in Saint-Denis, in Paris, which the medievalist critic had visited years earlier, and where, he said, there was an agglomeration of “some familiar objects and some strange ones”. It seems remarkable that such a young artist should have decided to invite Duby, an eminent scholar, a medievalist of such distinction —he was an eclectic, meticulous, accessible scholar, with a poetic bent— to see her paintings in that period.
Developing on from those early landscapes made in clay, were the compilations from those years, in many occasions meta-paintings often constructed three-dimensionally as autonomous objects in space: brushes, palettes or eyes, as in the works: Caja de pinturas (1977); Serie Paletas. Recopilación (1988); Pinceles (1992) or Ojos (1995). In this way the artist engaged with modernism without evading a certain return to classical order. She explained as much when talking about the work Naturaleza muerta, on view here in this exhibition [cat. XX]: “an archaeological order, with specific forms in this case, evokes a still life. It is done with a banana made in stoneware using a mould which is then broken and the pieces numbered fictitiously. It is then fixed to the canvas and painted with a kind of black sealant, what I call ‘rubber’, with the small and large pieces held in place with twine, which is also used by archaeologists. It could be called the ‘reconstruction’ series, because it always returns to the place of origin. This work marks the beginning of the so-called ‘black pictures’ or ‘rubber paintings’, a reading and a celebration of Spanish Golden Age painting: Sánchez Cotán, Zurbarán, and later Goya’s Black Paintings”. Carrying it out in four parts had to do with the difficulty in creating large-format works in a small studio, which ended up leading to a particular ability to conceive, to the idea of projecting, large works: “all these exercises in scaling, always owing to a lack of space, taught me to see in a particular way and imagine things in unspecified dimensions.”30 Without thinking twice, I would say that this work is connected, as the artist herself admits, with Calvo’s direct involvement in the black paintings, the one she refers to as “rubber” given the primary use of that material as the support for the works, with their calculated objecthood, in transition from a certain accumulative exorcism of objects to more pared-down works, sometimes with just one or two objects, of which a key body of six works is on display here at Alcalá 31. El gran teatro del mundo [The Great Theatre of the World] (1998) [cat. XX] and Todos los rostros del pasado [All the Faces of the Past] (2000) [cat. XX] seem to explain themselves in their very title.
To this day, there persists in her work a feature that can be traced back to the eighties: the frequency of repetition, the accumulative use of the fragment as the basic unit of composition of many of her works. In any case, one will also get a better grasp of the immediate step, from the archaeology of the imaginary towards the presence of imposing works, in the absolutely critical Silencio [cat. XX], belonging to the MNCARS collection. An imposing artistic intervention rather than a mere combination of elements, with a desolate air of clarity emerging among the apparent disarray of accumulated objects, a journey by the artist from South to North, a landscape after the battle made in plaster, a material Calvo sees as “fragile and beautiful”,31 which contributes to the mingled presence of light and shadow among the objects, gravestones and knives. Together with the set of gravestones, there is a mirror and a lock of hair hanging like a “pendant” which the artist entitles Te prometo el infierno [I Promise You Hell] [cat. XX]. As she explains: “This whole installation is suffused with Silence. There is nothing to disturb it; death passed by and the bitter yet calm memory of absence remained.” On the presence of knives, a common element in her work, mounted in an apparently irregular order, like a cloud of daggers, Calvo links it to the classical still life: “Knives have their connotations in the language of seventeenth-century still lifes. These ones could be poised for combat, as their position suggests, but the absence of colour seems to tell us that the evil has passed. The shapes at the bottom, niches or gravestones, speak to us of characters yet to come or those that have left us.” She also points out that it is a celebration of the peaceful landscape of graveyards, and she especially recalls a visit to Montjuïc cemetery with pupils from the Escola Massana, where she taught a course, linking this work to others that followed, such as the one also exhibited at the CEART on Père Lachaise, and these are connected in turn with graveyards photographed by Calvo in Mexico City, Caracas and Buenos Aires. As she calmly observes, she sees them “as an outdoor painting session.”
Silencio ought to be seen in conjunction with other works by the artist in which she refers to tombstones, a theme we will alight on again in the chapter addressing her cannibalistic relationship with photography. It is one of life’s miracles, but living, as we know, is an abyss, and at this point that tenebrist reference, the aforementioned ability to extract beauty from anxiety, prompts us to recall that Calvo’s creations produce disquiet, and therefore pose questions, interrogation being a high and noble calling of art. These are Baroque exercises in unease always dominated by a blatant horror vacui, a celebration of the Baroque distilled in the ceremonial gathering of objects generally endowed with powerful symbolic content, and therefore an allusion to an imminent void. It probes the limits, reminding us that the art of our time can be an exemplary model of audaciousness: “bold is beautiful” seems to be Calvo’s credo. Fear in this artist verges on the sacral, lingering deep buried in her unconscious. By creating and gathering objects and using them as elements to compose her pictures, in a titanic effort to fill our existence with things, Calvo seems to ward off the darkness, yet at the same time, such an extremely accumulative approach also speaks to the powerful presence of the nothingness that always hovers over us.
This is also true of the cycle of works made using shelves, as in Estantería (1990, Fundació Suñol) on display here [cat. XX], one of the first she created. Calvo said about it that “all the objects surrounding an artist are gathered together and stored on the shelves: brushes, cans, palettes, pigments, bottles, a whole world of visual art. The shelves are made of iron and were bought at an architectural salvage warehouse. They contain a series of pieces in gypsum, plaster, iron and aluminium, all in different shapes, taken from crude cardboard moulds”. From her point of view, “the idea is also to investigate form and texture, and especially the fact that there is no repetition. Each piece is different and made by hand.”32
Accumulative shelves, with their vague suggestion of Morandi, seem to remind us once again of this artist’s passion for organising disparate elements and taking a new look at timeworn appearances that seem to call for a certain kind of gaze, an other-language, recalling the Surrealist idiom in this respect. This brings to mind the words of Peppiatt when speaking about Giacometti’s studio: “In time the studio becomes a vital refuge for artists, an irreplaceable space with which they establish a strong and intricate bond through the link with the work they have begun, abandoned or finished over the years. This is generally true for most artists.”33 Much the same could be said of these accumulations, of the surreal studio given that many of the “pieces” composed by these groups were made using casts by the artist herself: blocks, cylinders, various figures, transforming them into a familiar place yet overcome, almost overwhelmed, by strange meanings and mysteries.
1 Several of the works by Carmen Calvo on show here at the beginning of the exhibition were seen in the two historic exhibitions held in New York on which this text is focused: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New Images from Spain, 21 March-11 May 1980 [and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 5 October-30 November 1980] and (with the same title) at Hastings Gallery/Spanish Institute, 19 March-3 May 1980. This mention enables a better understanding of the text.
2 Museum of Modern Art, New Spanish Painting and Sculpture, curated by Frank O’Hara, New York, 20 July-25 September 1960. Touring to The Corcoran Gallery, Washington, 31 October-28 November 1960; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 3-31 January 1961; Washington University, Steinburg Hall, St. Louis, Missouri, 16 February-16 March 1961; Joe & Emily Lowe Art Gallery, Coral Gables, Florida 1-29 April 1961; Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, Texas, 15 May-12 June 1961; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 19 July-27 August 1961; Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, 18 September-16 October 1961; Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, 1-29 November 1961; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, 15 December 1961-12 January 1962. Artists: Rafael Canogar, Eduardo Chillida, Martín Chirino, Modest Cuixart, Francisco Farreras, Luis Feito, Manolo Millares, Lucio Muñoz, Jorge Oteiza, Manuel Rivera, Antonio Saura, Pablo Serrano, Antonio Suárez, Antoni Tàpies, Joan Josep Tharrats and Manuel Viola. The Acknowledgments made express mention of the work of Ashbery, known through various archives of Spanish artists: “Mr. John Ashbery of Paris supplied many helpful suggestions that facilitated our work abroad”.
3 Baltimore, 1926-Long Island, 1966.
4 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Before Picasso; After Miró, New York, 21 June-20 October 1960. Including works by Isidro Nonell, Eduardo Alcoy, Rafael Canogar, Modest Cuixart, Francisco Farreras, Luis Feito, Juana Francés, Lucio Muñoz, Manolo Millares, Joan Hernández Pijuán, Carlos Planell, Manuel Rivera, Antonio Saura, Antonio Suárez, Antoni Tàpìes, Vicente Vela, Juan Vila Casas, Manuel Viola and Fernando Zóbel. Sweeney dedicated a significant part of his brief introductory text to an analysis of the work of Nonell. The presence of his work was also much more prominent than the others, perhaps the influence of the weight of Eugenio D’Ors.
5 A word play with nueva (new) and nueve (nine), referencing the nine artists included at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New Images from Spain, New York, 21 March-11 May 1980, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 5 October-30 November 1980. Artists: Sergi Aguilar, Carmen Calvo, Teresa Gancedo, Muntadas/Serrán Pagán, Miquel Navarro, Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Jorge Teixidor, Darío Villalba and Zush. The show also toured to Hastings Gallery/Spanish Institute, New York, 19 March-3 May 1980 with the addition in this last-mentioned gallery of work by the artist Alexanco.
6 ROWELL, Margit. New Images from Spain. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, p. 10.
7 Also addressed by another US curator, Barbara Rose, in the same exhibition, 1979.
8 Several of the eight works by Calvo exhibited in New York, numbered in the catalogue nos. 12-19, are also on show in this current exhibition. Namely: Recopilación (1975, Pilar Citoler New Collection, cat. no. 12); Recopilación (1977, Svante Borjesson and Lorena Casas Collection, cat. no. 14) and Recopilación de formas (1977, Fundació Suñol, cat. no. 16).
9 Many of the interpretations at the time viewed the artist, with classifying apathy, as a continuer of the legacy of the local manufacturing traditions in ceramics, though obviously enough, even while grounded in this tradition, her lineage as an artist took other paths that could be ascribed to a singular understanding of painting and its encounter with three-dimensional space.
10 TOLEDO, Joan Antonio. “Presentación”. In Carmen Calvo. Pinturas. Madrid: Galería Vandrés, 1979. (Foreword to the catalogue for the exhibition, Madrid, 27 April-27 May 1979), n.p. [p. 1].
11 Ibid. [p. 2].
12 ROWELL, Margit. New Images from Spain, op. cit., p. 34.
13 Number 13 in the exhibition: Anthology (Landscape)-(Recopilacion-Paisaje), 1977, white clay on canvas on board, 150 x 190 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Collection.
14 Louise Bourgeois, “I have always had a fascination with the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness.” GROSENICK, Uta. Women Artists in the 20th and 21st Century. Cologne: Taschen, 2005, p. 63.
15 I am referring to Michel Foucault’s ideas on the so-called “female enclosures”, one of whose secular forms would be the home.
16 KLEE, Paul. “Schöpferische Konfession”. In Tribüne des Kunst und Zeit. Berlin: Kasimir Edschmid-Erich Reiss Verlage, vol. XIII, 1920.
17 Cited in: DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. “Pablo Palazuelo. Poesía crepuscular” in Pablo Palazuelo, 13 rue Saint-Jacques (1948-1968), Madrid-Alzuza: Fundación Juan March-Fundación Museo Jorge Oteiza, 2010-2011.
18 Conversation between Carmen Calvo and the author on the work: Serie Paisajes (Reconstrucción) (1980), from the MNCARS Collection.
19 Galerie Thessa Herold, Vestiges revisités, Paris, Fall-Winter, 1998-1999.
20 Number seventeen in the catalogue.
21 CALVO, Carmen. New Images from Spain, op. cit., p. 48. The full text: “As Tapies so rightly says, we, in general, keep silent, because from the outset we resign ourselves to the impossibility of explaining our work in a few words; one would still have to discover many of the things we have incubated throughout months and years. Or as Henri Matisse said, the best explanation of his style a painter can offer will be found in his canvases themselves. By this I mean to say that it is difficult to explain one’s work. The task of experimentation the painter sets himself, the constant battle with his materials, the manipulation of the abandoned materials he attempts to recover — all this forms part of my creative process. I paint with the ordinary objects of the painter (or those close to my cultural milieu): pencils, sandpaper, colored chalk, canvases, tubes of oil paint, rags… Or clay, which is linked with my past work in ceramics; white or red clay with which I produce forms and order and number them. My development is based on the idea of archeology, an idea that fascinates me: the concept of repetition and recovery of the object. In 1971 I traveled to Paris and stayed there for two months to study the work of Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. I became acquainted with the Egyptian art in the Louvre. I was interested in archeology and all that surrounded it — most of all, the processes of discovering, reconstructing and compiling archeological remains of Near Eastern cultures. These elements and materials would serve as a source of inspiration for my later works. I am aware that definitions are always dangerous, — they tend to reduce a concept to a few words, which may become unclear and simplistic. However, I believe that it is necessary to provide these clues to the spectator. Three aspects in painting interest me: form, color and object. I began with painting in oil and acrylic, and with the subject of landscape treated in an Impressionist manner. I am still interested in landscape; I use it to examine the facture of Impressionism, but do not paint in an Impressionist style. I am still concerned with traditional premises: the primacy of the idea of painting and the objects of the painter. I believe that my work has some European antecedents, but I have concerned myself with the sources of our native tradition: clay and all the materials that are in some way culturally related to the Valencian region”.
22 ROWELL, Margit. Ibid. p. 33.
23 Ibid. p. 15.
24 Ibid. p. 19.
25 MILLARES, Manolo & GRECO, Alberto. Diálogo. Millares. Tres artefactos al 25 (1963-64). Greco, Cuadros. Hidalgo/Marchetti. Madrid: Edurne Estudio de Arte, 1965: “In any case we have only spoken hanging over the abyss. Here the waste of time is screaming on its knees and we…”.
26 ROWELL, Margit. New Images from Spain, op. cit., p. 19.
27 Ibid. p. 33.
28 The exhibition, as Rowell recently clarified, was contextualised within a larger number of shows on art from outside the USA. The catalogue spoke of previous projects: “Analogous aims were pursued very recently through the presentation of British Art Now: An American Perspective and in years past in selections such as Amsterdam-Paris-Dusseldorf (1972) and Younger European Painters (1953)”. Ibid. p. 8.
29 Paris, 1919 – Aix-en-Provence, 1996. The first text by Duby was for the exhibition at Sala Pelaires, Carmen Calvo, Palma de Mallorca, VI/1988. The mentioned text from 1995 is from the catalogue of the exhibition at Galerie Thessa Herold, Carmen Calvo. De l’esprit à la matière, une archéologie de l’imaginaire. Paris, Spring 1995, pp. 7-8.
30 All the views expressed in this paragraph come from a conversation with the author, 22/X/2013.
32 This and previous statements are taken from a conversation with the author. These forms, reminiscent of Morandi, also bring to mind Oteiza’s laboratory of chalk which Calvo had seen and which caused “a great impact, especially those small pieces, placed on shelves, which are like plans for projects that the sculptor never got to make.”
33 PEPPIATT, Michael. En el taller de Giacometti. Barcelona: Elba, 2011, p. 9.
CARMEN CALVO: EPIPHANY OF OBJECTS
Living means leaving traces, wrote Benjamin, and Calvo shows evidence of a kind of a mobilisation of vision that eschews pure visibility, orthodox or canonical perception, advancing an advocative rapprochement to memory. By setting up a visual “Human Comedy”, in which certain distinctive elements are included, she locates her pictures not so much in what is known to us as the world of the visible, but rather in a celebration of the periphery of the gaze. This explains how she manages so remarkably not only to get to the essence of reality, to the heart of that obvious yet unfathomable truth, but also to suggest a reconstruction of the private history of the body, which, let us not forget, is our only point of contact with our surroundings and our only means of interpreting them. The body relates to reality in an irremediably supple plastic way through an unceasing interaction with external objects: memories, everyday actions and forgotten feelings, for example — lost chronicles of the inner world and its encounter with reality. The artist opts for the extremity of feeling involved in selecting what lives on in the memory, through an undogmatic vision, a tenuous gaze, a sort of suspended and constantly evolving perception, and an almost fleeting view which, in some of her images, is manipulated to the point of paroxysm. It is a deliberately deformative perception, a distortion of the gaze, an anti-iconographical iconography expressing a non-hierarchical celebration of the objects that surround or have traditionally surrounded the body. Because the elements she adds to her works frequently belong to a peculiar world, according to that now classic law established by the Surrealists, whereby an apparently innocent, banal or ordinary element is placed amid everyday reality, in a matter-of-fact way, and that action is immediately converted into a new reality, now disrupted. It involves adding an object which, in essence, is often a precarious or fragmentary element that invokes the anxiety of darkness rather than light. It is a reminder of the twilight world travelled by the subconscious in dreams, the haziness of childhood: J’ai perdu ma vie [I’ve lost my life], goes the title of one of the works on exhibit, dating from 2000 [cat. 63]; the darkness revealed by looking into the past—Todos los rostros del pasado [All the faces of the past], says another— the beautiful melancholy of the missing father remembering Las tardes azules del verano [Blue summer afternoons]: in short, an allusion to the impulses and also the failures of life.
Ultimately, the purpose underpinning Carmen Calvo’s artistic endeavour throughout her long career has been to try to say the unsayable; to express a revelation. An analysis between the self, the other and time, its restlessness, and the anxiety of capital questions. This term, the “capital” of capitia, is spot on for the endeavour in hand: the mention of the face, made vulnerable by exposure, with which we speak of a language that would seem to precede the futile temptation of words, their permanent voyage through space, and also the images which, at the end of the day, Calvo addresses. To recognise the other is to accept a displacement, a fundamental estrangement. Or, in other words, the existence of a hunger1 as the primary impulse in her creation and which, for this artist, is manifested in various, always voracious forms and, in any case, by means of a nervous gaze that does not avoid facing up to images of the past as a method of accepting their singular form of confronting the contemporary, which is to say, the presence of time in general, under various forms.
Pudo ser repentino el brillo de sus ojos [The sparkle in his eyes could have been sudden] (2004), goes the title of another work of malinconia and celebration of the new light of old images: the fatal solitude of the widow—the completely subdued erased face as this artist has suggested on another earlier occasion—and the vulnerability of the child or the spark of what was once-there but still vibrates even when no longer burning. In short, a frequent and unsettling addiction to indexical objects applied to images that, in a questioning allusion to their origin, hover over a painterly space saturated with evocations that bring us closer to the epiphany of the face as face, in its stark plainness. Which should not be confused with simplicity, because Calvo’s approach is always intense, with the intensity of a world ruled by the idea taken to its extreme or, in other words, also a bearer of a great magnitude of meanings. It is no surprise that the titles of some her works contain the word “Face”, an affliction of tautological titling: faces sometimes hidden by daubs of wax, remains, or a mass of soft air now hardened, which is not a mask per se but perhaps a sign turned into a (non)form in which time still echoes, the certainty of a known destiny, the recognition that, in the end, the mouldable, what was once soft, what was added plus the face itself, are no more than a futile illusory perception chained to duration. Because the face, and nothing else, is the true origin of the world, the “I” that contemplates the search for knowledge inquiring into the encounter with another which is also I. Indeed, the permanence of visual structure in Calvo is expressed by a certain degree of collapse. It is unquestionably Otro método [Another method] (2013), we could add at this juncture, subscribing to one of the artist’s titles, who invents a device that she methodically implements and develops, often concealing or removing this precision machinery behind a certain titular “music”. After all, we should recall that one of the etymological origins of “mask” is mascus, “ghost”, without overlooking the Arab masharah: to ridicule, or laugh at.
Carmen Calvo does not waver when it comes to running risks, to playing on the edge of the abyss with her creative apparatus, rising above the painterly space, that commonplace where secular history of art has been played out, only to then arrive at a sundering apart of painting, an endeavour to reveal the visible, which is something this artist takes on, almost symbolically, because hallucinations are countless as she would name a series of works which are on exhibit here in this show [cat. 71]. Ernst Bloch announced as much in the 1930s: the legacy of our time, as also endorsed by Brecht and indeed the aforementioned Benjamin, is the perception of the disjointedness of the world, and it is in this apparent disorder where images make their stand. Disorientation is no so much to conjure up chaos as the transmutation of the painterly space into a perception of affinities, or her instinct for perfection in the artist’s own words.
“The strongest surrealist image is one that presents the highest degree of arbitrariness, one that takes the longest to translate into practical language”, wrote Breton.2 As we are well aware, Surrealism held up a critical attitude towards the hierarchies of the contemporary world. And, to this extent, Calvo’s practice does not differ greatly from the apparent arbitrariness of the surrealist apotheosis, which is to say, in presenting itself to the world with an appearance of disorder, her practice lacks any trace of chaos and the apparent disjointedness is, on the other hand, transformed into an-other-order ruled by the power of the mind, the joyful defence of the “primacy of the idea”, which this artist has always proclaimed ever since her earlier works,3 while at once also defending images and their secret, almost intimate relationships: Todo es un acto revolucionario [Everything is a revolutionary act] (2012) the artist claimed in the title of another of her works, openly declaring herself as a standard-bearer of a singular consciousness of time: Levinas said that “the fact than man can postpone death is the essence of time in this ontology. Time is thus a work of subjectivity inasmuch as it is able to open up an interval between birth and death in which freedom and consciousness can grow. Consciousness is precisely the capacity to invert natural and continuous time to go backwards: it is essentially memory.”4
The coherence of fragments, the union of the separated, the liberation from a ridiculous formal justification, secum Breton5, is that “archaeology of the imaginary”6 that will reach its truth in a new order proposed by the artist; it is the visual discipline that can be achieved by incoherence, and why not. It is her singular memory, proudly built, that sings the praises of the disjointed as opposed to the tendency in the history of art to pacifically order by transcribing a consecutive, linear, congenial and explainable discourse. But, as Warburg said, the time of images is phantasmal and impure—which would explain why we have called this artist “impure” on various occasions7—and it is the time of survivals that Calvo seems to embody.
Opening up our gaze to the unexpected, to the disconcertingness of the fragment, Carmen Calvo exposes how images never die, and the allusion to their persistence is not so much a reference to a “resurrection” as to a life-turning-madly, just as impenitent time itself, keeps turning the sphere, perhaps symbolised in the globe of the world, her latest work to be presented: Et pourlèche la face ronde [And Licks All Over the Round Face] (2013-2016) [cat. 61]. That said, we ought to recall that the images that existed back then do not die either, that with this artist they seem to boast an extraordinary ability to resurrect when you least expect them, bringing to mind how artists have often recomposed a creative world from the ashes of the past, our living unconscious memory, what some call our reminiscences. In turn citing Hugnet, Carmen Calvo said that hair is deposited in the buried ossuaries of history,8 and as the artist says, Et pourlèche la face ronde speaks to “school, childhood, painting, film, and dreams. Imagination is always present, observing this old object. In the movie The Great Dictator Charles Chaplin parodied Adolf Hitler and played with a globe of the world as he dreamt of ruling the world.” Although hair deserves a chapter all to itself in this publication, the artist said about it that “in his work The Origin of the World Gustave Courbet showed us the presence of a woman without modesty (the painting certainly does have it). Woman as presence and her sign is hair. Paintings like Botticelli’s Venus and the romantic paintings signal this liking for sensually showing woman’s hair. It was also a sign of punishment if it was cut. This was carried out again woman from the republican side during the Spanish Civil War. My globe of the world has a big mane of hair as an identity to affirm that women have to be seen and to be heard: demanding their presence in the world.”9
Beings enclosed within their own forsakenness, in this strange uninhabited sweetness, seem to provide the artist with the fiction of consolation, appearance and lie in what is once again raised in space: a kind of resurrection of forms and bodies, including nameless ones. Traces turned into mental objects, I am often brought to mind of her works that include candles or flames, perhaps as a mark of fire, the undying flame that burns over the reality of the photographic space, one of the most forthright elements among those I have filed away in Calvo’s indexical language, frottage of immateriality ignited by the consumption of the wick of the candle that appears to test or reveal an erstwhile time. The quicksilver of the flame, a mercurial trace, a sign of a time exposed almost by contact, an exposure of that other space that always advances, paradoxically seeming to refer to another visible space.
Our artist is a frequent builder of traces that are not blotches, nor faces precisely covered with no more than the quirky whim of the artist but are in fact strokes that, furthermore, are both vestige and epiphany, a ceremonial new presence, a birth or, in other words, a double proposal of being, in unbroken ground, so new that it is to be found between nothingness and death. A heuristic of new presences, a humility of prints, a creative process of forms au delà de la peinture, a challenge of painting, true automatic writing in tribute to fathers Ernst and Aragon, a defiant challenge with which Calvo seems to lean towards a reading of the world that starts out from proximity rather than from objectivity. The dying embers of a time that once was and is, the artist appears to bring light, never better said, in an instant that was, through an immobile action that seems to lie in waiting, paused between life and that nothingness which is the end. A scalding burn, which is already fossilised, of a light, the stamp of the time of photography turned into the embers of images of the past. The traces of fire seem to be waiting for answers, the stigma that, by means of a quasi-tactile operation, allows Calvo to develop an element that is both visual as well as temporal, in this way conjuring up a reflection on the search for the real in sightlessness.10 “Fire”, “Flame”, “Fossil”, “Freud” and “Frottage” follows the flow of the final “Fs” in the Surrealist Dictionary.11
A worker with her hands, a creator working with ideas, a defender of freedom as one of the supreme needs of our time—a time of conformity, and folly, of images—this artist is able to build traces on her long and delicate vagrancy between images that, like in the language of religious symbols—of ex-votos she also frequently recreates,12 think for instance of Una conversación (1996) [cat. 52] or Dónde estás (2000) [cat. 56] or indeed the photo illustrating the previous text [p. XXX]—operate by providing a print and a sign bound to its meaning. It is the construction of what has not been bedecked for the world, of unworldly filth and impurity, a kind of joyful debunking of what is considered beautiful.
All of Calvo’s work reveals this voracity we talked about at the beginning, a hunger for visibility, which embraces what is considered real and allusions of the dream of what has vanished, a demand for revelation in the visible, something that also seems to be voiced, in a vanishing luminic-photographic discourse, by the group of works on exhibit here from the IVAM Collection, made from 2005-2006, which afford a negative of images, evocative of an old image of the artist, Leda (1970), which will be examined later: De la prisión terrestre a lo bello del día; Debajo de las ramas, su labio estalla en risas; Has hecho de mí todo lo que querías; Nous nous aimions à cette époque”; ¡Sobre sus falanges sabrosas! or Los signos de la madrugada (2006) [cat. 64-69].
In due course, the efficacy of an image requires knowledge not only of the literality of a story, which may be dark and also echo in something we already know: namely, that much of the history of art is a construct that, by means of that device, presents us with a dearth of reality of the visible world. A prior acquaintance with El gran teatro del mundo (1998) [cat. 40], the contentious title of another older work by Calvo, demands at this juncture an underscoring of the density of the poetic evocativeness of her work.
Permanence and identity, two opposing concepts, each one to its own, at the end of all time. Highlighting faces, often with objects or amorphous masses, Calvo seems to build a supremely enigmatic new order, a life that is other—Semejanza de la vida [Resemblance of Life] reads another of her works from 2013—as if the artist’s ties with reality had been wilfully broken, disfigured, declaring sententiously with Freud a “disfigurement by displacement”, when referring to a novel by Jensen. Mysterious lofty elevation of an enigmatic pseudo-dimension not exempt from brazen astonishment and a patent and disturbing allusion to memory and to culture, a proud and merciless analysis that is only possible to reach for someone who is blessed with the exception of art: As De Chirico wrote “Everything has two aspects: the current aspect, which we see nearly always and which ordinary men see, and the ghostly and metaphysical aspect, which only rare individuals may see in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction.”13 And, quoting De Chirico, we are also brought to mind of his reflection on familiar reality and the alterations of memory that would break the ties of causality, redirecting us immediately towards the terror at the heart of the real that is consubstantial to us: “Who knows”, says the artist, “what surprise, what terror, and maybe even what sweetness and consolation I would feel upon watching such a scene?”14
As has been underlined on previous occasions, Carmen Calvo’s practice is knowingly placed beyond any consolation, because in her work there is a distance, a faraway silent murmur in the background of her creations that does not stop them from hitting hard. There is no peace, there is no rest, and never any commiseration. Shaking up the painterly space, whimsically and without pause, compulsively and randomly, in the here and in the yonder, from the front and the back, in all direction, impartial in the fury of the images, furious even in rapprochements to pleasure, because the “malaise” Calvo is suffering from, the rebellion of her being as an artist, her quenchless thirst, is not an allusion to a loss than can be amended, nor to a longed-for desire. Desde aquel día enloquecimos (2000) [cat. 62], one of the works on exhibit here, is a kind of transcendental and mocking nonconformity, referencing a permanent play in search of retinal slicing, a promiscuousness of vision, a fever in the permanent ecstasy of images. A search for a murmur that wanders through the world, quasi-paroxysmal saturation of the contents of her pictures, fictions donning the skin of reality. Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be.
Calvo declares herself openly as a proud standard-bearer of Baudelaire’s flowers of evil, of noise and of the word, visual anarchy and reason; her practice is a battering-ram against the visible world she does not understand and, in consequence, her inspiration is as classic as the tragic background because it is the torment set aside for her person, conceded as a mysterious privilege. Under the guise of a custodian of the anxiety that takes hold at night, and also of the ravings that rise to the surface during the sleepless dawning of first light, her energy, her immense energy, fights incessantly against what seems, from the very beginning, to be bound to failure, directing it to a singular region of anxieties, a creative pride that does not exclude profound consciousness.
Calvo appears to outline this aforementioned battering-ram with another kind of reality, which perchance she wishes to destroy, yet which, at the end of the day, she will finally embrace with almost tragic tenderness. A tireless destroyer of the emptiness that throbs at the heart of the word “beautiful”, symmetry of a poem of pain, Calvo catches fire in her creations, unable to draw back the sad veil, a low ashen sky, which nonetheless does not prevent her from loving the world, this world, her world, my world, and you the reader’s world. A world with a stark, empty air yet of unwonted beauty.
1 LEVINAS, Emmanuel. Totalidad e infinito. Ensayo sobre la exterioridad. Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1977, p. 27.
2 BRETON, André & ÉLUARD, Paul. Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme. Paris: Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1938.
3 Carmen Calvo writing on her practice and the fundamental primacy of the idea: “The primacy of the idea of painting and the objects of the painter”. In New Images from Spain, op. cit., p. 48.
4 LEVINAS, Emmanuel. Totalidad e infinito. Ensayo sobre la exterioridad, op. cit., p. 27.
5 BRETON, André & ÉLUARD, Paul. Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme, op. cit.
6 Georges Duby in the catalogue for the exhibition at Galerie Thessa Herold, Carmen Calvo. De l’esprit à la matière, une archéologie de l’imaginaire, op. cit, pp. 7-8.
7 DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. Carmen Calvo. La artista impura. Cuenca: Fundación Antonio Pérez, 2013: “(…) impure artist, an adjective which is dear to her and which expresses a number of aspects of her work: the hybrid nature of her practice, her capacity for making use of the most disparate media of expression, her wide-ranging instinct for object-based art, the frequency with which she moves from drawing and collage to photography, and back again, reviving the technique discovered by the Cubists. Not forgetting her varied use of materials: minerals, paper, clothes, ceramics, dolls, objects and a range of waste products. And also sounds. (…) She is proud to be declared an impure artist, but with the excellence of impurity, to which she adds a recalcitrant polyphagism of forms, techniques, objects, art history and visual memory. This enables us to understand her better, if we remember what she almost cries out loud: let us create a new world, and then immediately call it into question, just like that. The idea of “impurity” also expresses something more intense and intriguing, namely a constant exploration of the very notion of sin, which is so deeply rooted in our world, our Hispanic culture”. Ibid. p. 11.
8 The quote from Georges Hugnet is as follows: “Hair of great sacrifices, hair that floats on the submerged ossuaries of history”, BRETON, André & ÉLUARD, Paul. Dictionnaire abregé du surréalisme, op. cit., p. 25. On this last-mentioned work, the artist wrote to the author (8/VII/2016): “An artist’s final works are full of emotion and unease. The ‘doubt’ in the work is always important. The idea comes about through chance. A ball broke and from there I started to work on the idea for this piece. Objects are always a source of inspiration, suggestion. And that’s how this whole project started. Carrying it out is slow and is tied in with lots of other tasks. They always make a return in my work”.
9 Taken again from the author’s conversation with the artist, in Ibid.
10 A poetics of traces that sometimes reminds us of another ceremonial artist of marks, Ana Mendieta, or Derrida’s praise of ashes.
11 BRETON, André & ÉLUARD, Paul. Dictionnaire abregé du surréalisme, op. cit., p. 43
12 “Votive offerings are promises in wax, apparent representations of true solidified desires, in Breton’s phrase, sculptures of unease which do not avoid a solemn restraint; ultimately, a votive form must have the form of a vow, a promise, turning a form into an expression of desire, and therefore of a wish, capable of constituting, in its form, a wish, an entreaty, an aspiration to be healed. The moulded wax presents that which is causing someone to suffer and which that person, or someone else, wishes to be transformed into healing. As Aby Warburg pointed out, a votive offering, an object constructed from an idea and not a mere element lodged in space, is a starting point of the autonomous sculptural portrait, the individualisation of the subject through forms which have proved capable of persisting in time and resisting the evolution of representation. The fact that wax is a plastic material, malleable flesh, a metamorphic element, makes it a substance that would seem to be naturally designed for making images. Accordingly, votive offerings and wax have been linked since antiquity, apparently because of that necessary quality, since its transformability seems to suggest the transfiguration of the element represented, and this gives rise to the desire for healing, which is perhaps the “dream” evoked in this work by the Mexican headboard, a votive form alluding to time, and therefore idea rather than substance. In this connection we should recall other very recent works by this artist (…)in which she seems to be referring, particularly in the first, to the very substance from which votive offerings are made, wax, by placing two lighted matches in its eyes. Through phantasmagorical wax, votive offerings ultimately present a kind of carnality of the object, which bears on the nature of its being, that véritable désir, the substance of desire, the form of time”. DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. Crear es el gran engaño. Fuenlabrada-Madrid: CEART-La Fábrica, 2014, pp. 118-120.
13 DE CHIRICO, Giorgio. “Sull’Arte metafísica”, Valori Plastici, no. 3, IV-V/1919, pp. 15-19.
14 Ibid., p. 16.
THIS MYTH OF HAIR
“Nobody but my hair” (Saint-Pol-Roux). “My wife whose hair is a brush fire” (A. B.). Have you noticed the hair cascading down like the hands of a pendulum clock?” (B. P.). “Hair of great sacrifices, hair that floats on the submerged ossuaries of history” (G. H.) “Her hair is like her legs” (S. D.). “She is standing on my eyelids — and her hair is in my hair” (P. E.).
“Uccello, my friend, my chimera, you lived with this myth of hair… With your head lying on this table where all humanity is capsized, what do you see other than the vast shadow of a hair” (A. A.).
André Breton & Paul Éluard, Dictionnaire abregé du surréalisme, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 19381
Cézanne painted the strangled woman, she and her oppressed hair exhausted on the floor.
The vultus and its hair. A disgusting hair floating in the soup or, horrifyingly, anywhere else in the vicinity of food. A hair found in the wrong place. On the bed, revealing another story, of betrayal by another love. Hair growing on a corpse. Hair standing on end in terror. Hair lost with the passage of time, leaving its trace on the sleepy pillow. The magnificent head of hair of the soldier and the shaven hair of the humiliated prisoner. Samson pining for his hair. Hair lost during an illness. The enigma of identity. Mona Lisa with a moustache by Duchamp, of urinal fame. “My dear Bun, I love you very much, and tend you a kitt from little Charlie with the horn of hair. I’d like to give you a kitt, but I tan’t, betause I’m at Marke. What a long letter I’ve written. I’m twite tired” Lewis Carrol wrote to his nanny.”2 Sexo en la cara (1997) [cat. 48] is the title of one of the works on exhibit that, at this juncture, oblige us to bring up Courbet: Calvo talks about this story in the previous comment on the work of objects and her Pourléche la face ronde (2013-2016) [cat. 61]. The ignominy of the captive’s cropped hair. Hair recalled by Dali. Beuys’s felt hat, made from compressed hair. A relic of a saint’s hair enclosed in a phial. Meret Oppenheim’s hairy coffee cup and spoon, Objet (1936)3. An appendage, an identity when we are no longer keeping what we used to be, for ever and ever, inside it.
This piece produced by Carmen Calvo is, on the one hand, a sometimes veiled chronicle of art history, which could be classified as belonging to a frequent artistic genre: the analysis of bodily products, fluids, skin, things that are traditionally considered “disgusting”. Such as the hair of old dolls or a forgotten tress cut off with love as a keepsake of a departed lover. And the recollection of wax dummies, many of them with wigs of human hair, which were “old” and dusty when Dalí selected them in 1939 for an intervention in New York, as they had been rotting for years in the corner of an antique shop; obviously they were “terrible to behold”, as Descharnes writes in his biography of Dalí.5
The artist uses hair so frequently and incorrigibly as material for her works, to the point that it deserves a section of its own in this exhibition.6 Hair, so closely linked to relics, recalling the way it grows when life is no longer present, the appendage that the character in Maupassant’s story is astonished to find7: a coil of hair, “soft and gleaming like the tail of a comet”, hidden in the collector’s commode, causing him a pleasurable horror to which he feels incorrigibly compelled to return. Hair that disturbs the tranquillity of one’s gaze wherever it lies abandoned once it is detached from the body: in food, in a photo album, in a hotel room, on the table or lodged between us. Long hair, thick tresses, symbolising strength. Hair ravaged by illness or time, hair standing on end in fear or hair suppressed in the name of beauty. Venus Anadyomene, painted by Botticelli, Titian and so many others, as well as by Calvo herself, or Snow White’s jet-black hair, an object of envy, which earns her the poisoned comb of the envious queen. A lock of hair cut from someone who is leaving, or dying, or from a novice entering a convent. “The vast shadow of a hair”, as Artaud wrote in the Surrealists’ dictionary8. Hair.
¿Ya ha puesto Vd. la médula de la espalda en el pelo de su amada? [Did You Put the Spinal Cord in Your Beloved’s Hair?] (1995) [cat. 47], on exhibit, seems to evoke impropriety, an allusion to unpleasantness, something disgusting contaminating this world of ours, which is so predisposed towards sanitised representations. An intrusion of the familiar, the private, into the language of art, which seems to undermine the confidence of its vision, accustomed to being opposed to other forms of representation. Bob Dylan lying in bed early one morning, wondering whether an old lover’s hair is still red.9 The suns of light sleep are blue like your hair an hour before dawn (secum Paul Celan). Eisenstein’s love of women with long hair in his films, the woman’s flowing locks spread over the bridge in October (1928). Masks, relics and hair, three elements of a painting that fosters the illusion of physical presence: a semblance of identity, inspired by Calvo, as a form of mimesis that magically shines through in her work. The golden panel of the background, in Negro corsé velludo (2002) [cat. 49] or in the window display conceived in 2007 for the Joan Prats gallery in Barcelona, is, as Brines put it, a reference to “liturgical, sunlike gold”10, lending an air of sacred imagery, like an altarpiece of remains. In Calvo’s words: “these humble objects are swathed in splendour and richness, giving them a certain nostalgia. Throughout the history of art you find this precious material called ‘gold leaf’ covering great architectural interiors, objects and sculptures […] although it could also be about death, a fetish or a relic.”11
Recalling hair in Carmen Calvo’s work reminds one of Máscaras crueles [Cruel Masks], an exhibition by this artist at the Cervantes Institute in Bordeaux,12 located in the house where Francisco de Goya lived. It included an intervention with hair, titled Mi ser innoble ante la vida se finge [My contemptible being feigns to the world], inspired, once again, by Pessoa, and by the reflection in the mirrors covering one of the walls of the stately building: “I thought that the reflection in the mirrors covering the wall would be a good opportunity to put an object there, in this case female human hair, since it is a long plait made up of several others. It reflects a long rope or chain that serves as a means of escape for the imaginary prisoner. Who is no doubt locked up in her tower.”13 Speaking about this show, the artist clarified some of her creative intentions: “I used the title of one of the magnificent drawings as a reference for the series of portraits I presented. Goya’s paintings are his dreams. The space offered me an opportunity to introduce my works and link them to characters who, in my imagination, once occupied the house. The character, the characters. Light, chiaroscuro, shadow. The painting had to be full of shadow. Signs, objects draw dreams. To write a moment in time. To recover an image, hold it still, paralyse it. To acquire, salvage, transform a lost identity. (In short, to create another being.) A portrait is an open door to the stage of life.”14 To transform loss, we would add, into identity.
Precious hair. Although Calvo sometimes uses hair as a structural element, one more material in her painter’s palette, there are other works, such as those in which the natural appearance of a lock of hair is preserved: the tresses cut off on the death of the beloved. Long hair was a symbol of love, as Calixto explains to Sempronio, who has to interrupt his lascivious description, such is the agitation that emanates from this fetish perched on top of Melibea’s skull. But in this artist’s work the wig also alludes to the mask, that subterfuge to evade the passage of time; in other cases, hair in its natural state, with a slight curve, having apparently been placed like that, gently, almost as if it had just fallen there, takes on the connotation of a blatant appendage, a bodily remnant, waste product or residue. Hair cannot forget spinning, the spinning of fate, the hair Greek women cut and offered up to the Moirai or Parcae to avoid ultimate fate. Hair separated from the skull is an allusion to relics, the end of life, mourning and love departed, vanitas: in short, an allusion to a memento mori.
Carmen Calvo’s aim is often to evoke an image of humanity that is of the ancestral past but also of the present, represented in certain symbolic elements, through compositions in which she finds a moment for melancholy recollection of the traditional image. It is well known that the objects Calvo presents in her works are entities commonly regarded as useless, generally drawn from everyday life and clearly showing the ravages of time, so that their presence on a tarnished golden panel or a photographic support is a permanent reference to the end of time. To put it plainly, death. Forces that draw us together and tear us apart, the sequence in which the objects are arranged, which often looks arbitrary, the way they are fastened to the surface of the picture, in many cases, or their shadows are painted, in others, seem to suggest a form of writing that repeatedly endows them with a kind of weightless weightiness, a sense of arresting or evading their evanescence. It is a futile attempt, as the artist knows before starting.
Hair has been a regular element in Calvo’s creative work since the mid-nineties15: Y quién hay que mire (2005) and Que se evadan flores extrañas (2006). And hair, or the appearance of hairy skin, has continued to form part of her work; in this connection one recalls her 2009 cycle: Sería más feliz o menos [I Would Be More Happy or Less], Entresueño [Half Asleep], Solo una vez he sido [Only Once Have I Been], Mero perfil a veces [A Mere Profile at Times], Y como el pensamiento [And Like Thought] and La vida se abre [Life Opens]. And also in La casa misteriosa [The Mystery House] (1996), Interv(alo) [Interv(al)] (1998), [cat. 53]; La divina envidia [Divine Envy] (1998) and Père Lachaise). And we find it again, everywhere, in Calvo’s work; the list is very long, almost endless: El sexo en la cara [Sex in the Face] (1997), L’étoile pleura rose… [The Star Will Weep Pink] (1998), En las vagas sombras de luz [In the Vague Shadows of Light] (1999), C’est le malheur [It Is Misfortune] (2001), La existencia en colores [Existence in Colours] (2003), Las palabras sociales de moral [The Social Words of Morality] (2003) or Chansons de la plus haute tour [Songs of the Highest Tower] (2006). I could go on.
1 BRETON, André & ÉLUARD, Paul. Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme. Paris: Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1938.
2 CARROLL, Lewis (1837). “To his nurse”, in The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll, edited by Morgan N. Cohen. London: MacMillan Press, 1989, p. 4.
3 MoMA Collection, New York.
4 DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. “El maniquí surrealista en la luz contemporánea”, in En torno a lo transparente. Madrid: Ámbito Cultural-El Corte Inglés, 2008.
5 DESCHARNES, Robert & NÉRET, Gilles. Dalí, la obra pictórica. Cologne: Taschen, 2007, p. 319.
6 Besides those already mentioned, on exhibit to which we could add Conte (2007), an account of the works in which Calvo has used hair would be very lengthy. Worthy of special mention is her intervention at the Hôtel des Arts in Toulon, in which she spread a series of wigs down its staircase (“a carpet of hair”, in the artist’s own words). It was titled La maison imaginaire [The Imaginary House] (22/IX–18/XI-2007). I have chosen the following set of works with hair for their distinctive qualities: Inceste ou passion de famille [Incest or family passion] (1996), Lo he sentido todo [I have felt everything] (1997), El sexo en la cara [Sex in the face] (1997), El carácter fugitivo del amor es también el de la muerte [The fleeting nature of love is also that of death] (1998), La divina envidia [Divine envy] (1998), Estética del artificio [Aesthetics of artifice] (1998), Interv(alo) [Interv(al)] (1998), L’étoile pleura rose… [The star will weep pink] (1998), Ángel (1999), Enrique (1999). Or the one cited in the text Venus anadyomene (1998). Or in books such as El inmenso hormigueo de todos [The tremendous tingling everyone feels] (1998), La muerte del príncipe [The death of the prince] (1998) and Recuerdos [Memories] (1999).
7 I refer to the story by this author entitled La Chevelure [A Tress of Hair].
8 BRETON, André & ÉLUARD, Paul. Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme, op. cit., p. 77. See DE LA TORRE, Alfonso. Carmen Calvo: Doble o nada. Madrid: Galería Rayuela, 2011.
9 Dylan, Bob. “Tangled Up in Blue”, Blood on the Tracks, 1975.
10 BRINES, Francisco. Una mirada salvada y salvadora. Valencia: IVAM, 1999, p. 92.
11 Conversation between Carmen Calvo and the author, 1/II/2013.
12 Exhibition held from 26 April to 30 June 2012.
13 Conversation between Carmen Calvo and the author, 28/I/2013.
15 One of the first was Inceste ou passion de famille [Incest or Family Passion] (1996), cited above, and its precursor ¿Ya ha puesto Vd. la médula de la espalda en el pelo de su amada? [Did You Put the Spinal Cord in Your Beloved’s Hair?] (1995).
CAnNIBALISM of IMAGES
“(…) l’avènement de la vérité dans les illusions de l’image”.
“If it burns, it is real” Rainer Maria Rilke said about the poetic image.2
The day draws to a close, dusk falls, and the faint glimmer of the sun reaches its nadir. Light and its shadows loiter through industrial-looking buildings in Saint-Denis Nord, almost blinding them with its dazzle, as one can see in an old Polaroid (1983) taken by the artist with a SX-703 camera during a fertile stint painting in La Courtille (Saint-Denis) on the outskirts of Paris. “We turn our back on the sunset / Everything is dawn-coloured”4 wrote Paul Eluard, the poet from Saint-Denis.
A landscape with something of Hopper about it, it is the still image of a past time embodied in a composition of planes and geometries. Carmen Calvo has inherited the legacy of the “disquieting strangeness” perceived by De Chirico,5 the defender of the world’s spectral appearance, that can be seen only by the very few, as we said a few pages ago: “Everything has two aspects: the ordinary aspect (…) and the other, and the ghostly and metaphysical aspect, which only rare individuals may see in moments of clairvoyance.”6 From that feeling of otherness, one of the heartbeats of Carmen Calvo’s work, her groupings of objects are presented as disturbing worlds which seem to suggest the intoxication of creating to forget, a dizzying journey through a celebration of the silence of things, from faded objects that do not exactly remain mute. Calvo has sometimes quoted this passage from Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet: “In the faint shadows cast by the last light7 before evening gives way to night, I like to roam unthinkingly through what the city is changing into, and I walk as if nothing had a cure. I carry with me a vague sadness that’s pleasant to my imagination, less so to my senses. […] I emigrate and rest, as if aboard a ship that’s already on the high sea. […] What do I have to do with life?”
Before, it was the sculpture of a plaster cast of Leda, that maiden seduced by Zeus, that caught her eye, photographed in foreshortening and chiaroscuro by the artist for tedious school assignments, which might perhaps also be connected with the hunting scene opening this text, or with other recent works with negatives, such as No haber sido madame de harén (2003). Other images would draw Carmen Calvo’s photographic attention: hidden corners in cities (cake shops, window displays, cafés, markets and other nooks and crannies), fragments of space with a desolate air or cemeteries in the decade of the eighties: Montjuïc, Père Lachaise, Mexico and La Recoleta. And from there to the gardens of the Ryoan-Ji Temple in Japan which she photographed in Kyoto in 1997, with a still and expectant audience, like stones facing stones. Sometimes combining two images in a kind of photographic collage, like the collages of another painter, Hockney, allows her to expand the field of vision.
My beginning is in my end, said the poet of the wasteland.8 A faded Polaroid captures a silent grave in Père Lachaise—barely a few stones framed by a rectangular element—a Japanese garden, and accumulations of cemeteries are not so far removed from the still lifes composed of painting utensils at the studio of the artist Gomis, which also attracted the artist’s attention and served as a source of inspiration.
It is undeniable. All these images—mysterious messages verifying the fading-away of time, according to Georges Duby9, a friend in France at that time—have a certain air of a disjointed family, but these non-photographs, “ceci n’est pas une photographie”,10 are the true source of her works: the stacks of tombstones, as if lying in wait in Montjuïc, were to provide the inspiration for the stark, aggrieving sculptural work Silencio (1995), on view in this exhibition [cat. 35A and 35B]. Père Lachaise will always be remembered by the artist with deep emotion and malinconia, and the Polaroid of the grave with the stones, a real photograph, would thus become, almost untouched, her Lápida from 1988-1989 [cat. 25], and is also transformed into a table in De la laguna de la pasión (1998). Likewise, I am also reminded of some of her works on slates when I see the terrifying transparency of the funeral niche in La Recoleta in Buenos Aires. A funeral mound with its white cloth.
“It is a time that turns dusk into your escort,” writes Paul Celan, the poet of the black milk of daybreak, and here I am thinking of the table laden with Gomis’s painting utensils, or the dust-covered bottles in the Rafael Molina tailor shop in Valencia, a watershed discovery in her practice as an artist, which can be associated with her shelf-pieces also on display here, such as Estantería (1990) [cat. 34] or L’évanouissement (1996) [cat. 36].
Worn-out boots, Calvo’s still-life image recalling the boots and shoes painted so often by her much-admired Van Gogh (1885-1888)11—the restless Dutch artist who incandesced, and sometimes recreated in the works of the artist from Valencia12—a metaphor of everyday struggles. It also brings to mind Picasso the photographer—the I-appropriate-myself Picasso—the voyeur who observes himself portraying scenes from his studio in Boulevard Raspail, circa 1930, the artist creating and re-creating by choosing to photograph certain fragments of the daily task of creation. Images of images, Calvo returns yet again, in the chosen frame, to a fragment of a studio isolated from representation, whatever its limits may be. Sometimes referring to works in progress, or views and bits of the studio that catch her attention, they are, in any case, moments that decontextualize what is represented and the reiteration of a time already gone in her studio.
Back in the nineties Carmen Calvo came across a photo of a chapel full of ex-voto offerings that seemed to evoke diverse documentary mosaics, an ephemeral work in progress that Calvo has in her studio, consisting of pictures she collects and places whimsically on different parts of the walls. A form of diary-keeping and worldly nourishment: various photos (family, friends or her own works), exhibition invites, children’s drawings, posters and letters, mementos, notes, postcards, newspaper clippings and photos. It all comprises a vast non-hierarchical cannibal mosaic from which the artist incessantly feeds. Images by Macchiaioli, Ana Mendieta, Pierre Molinier, Lichtenstein, Fernando Barreira, Mateo Manaure, Gotthard Schuh, Bourgeois, Buñuel, Blanchard, Picasso, Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, Modigliani, Béla Lugosi, Basilico, Helen Levitt, Giacometti and Carmen Calvo. Singular and baroque, almost disproportionate, a stage set of mirrors, a reminder of the chaotic layout of images on the walls, mosaics of pain, from Francis Bacon’s studio.13
“Art is the surest form of isolating oneself from the world and also from penetrating it”, said Goethe.14 A private visual atlas that has been gradually assembled and also reminds us of the surviving image, symbolised in some atlases of our time, including the aforementioned Mnemosyne-Atlas by Aby Warburg or Documents (1929-1931) by Georges Bataille, an invocation or evocation in images, an iconographic litany of the hypotheses that would later populate her work. A machine for thinking images, a metafactory, an anthropology of the image that will form a veritable allegorical montage that seem to be presided over by a certain “pathos”, a kind of declassified classification, a generalised collage as an archive of the unconscious that appears to lean towards the discovery, a search for some-other relationships or secret affinities. It is, after all, the symptom of a splitting riven by the uprooting that announces the risk inherent in heterogeneous beauty, the existence of various memories in her work, what has been embellished by history and what is hidden beneath it, what is not subject to the established order.
Photographic papers that seem to retrace already trodden paths, and also an evocation of how the presence of the memory of those who once were, like actresses or actors in a drama ungraspable to anyone who wishes to probe their silence, alludes to the possibility of transgressing the reality of the world. Nevertheless her images are also a hymn to the shelterless in a displaced land, in Elliot’s wasteland. A reflection on the identity and appearance of who we are, yet also proposing that the primary focus of the probing is identity, over and above the imaginary.
The use of photographs allows Calvo to construct a new and mysterious reality that seems to explore, at will, among the folds of trodden reality, a proposal of images to which she adds paint, objects and sundry remains, that somehow seem to avoid vanishing as is their customary wont, submerged as they are in the inexorable machinery of time, and inviting us to construct some knowledge of our surrounding environs. Offering captured certainties, at once affording reasons as to why one and not another fragment, she reminds us of Barthes’s “I live, therefore I am”. By constructing this new thinking pathos, Carmen Calvo looks at the world through images, by means of the photographic support, which is also like looking at the world in its broadest sense, to wit: offering the palliative of a proposal to understand it, to redeem a space hitherto non-existent and forgotten. Calvo claims that her work is capable of revealing a reality built as if it were a black hole, an ethos of the visible born of subjective contemplation, through the interminable activity of the self. Carmen Calvo thus addresses the conventional images of her time, which she separates and recycles with a kind of explanation: “Noli me tangere.” A cannibal artist as the title infers, in the sense of a devourer of images, who also uses film as another source of inspiration to satisfy her visual gluttony, as she so succinctly explained in her speech “La realidad de lo imaginario” (2014).15 Calvo is also a self-declared admirer of the unsettling photos and photomontages of Dora Maar, the woman of the bloody glove, the artist who portrayed herself with her double, another creator fascinated by shadows, dolls and dummies. Like her, Calvo believes in signs and in signifieds, and not in a mere construction of forms in space. Effluvia of evaporated memories,16 this is clearly a fenced-in territory, as Kafka would say to Brod.17
1 BERGEZ, Daniel. “Sur la création artistique (2007)”, in Yves Bonnefoy. L’Inachevable. Entretiens sur la poésie (1990-2010). Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 2010, p. 56.
2 RILKE, Rainer Maria. “Vois… (1915)”, (trad. M. Petit), Oeuvres poétiques et théâtrales. Paris: G. Stieg-Gallimard, 1997, p. 1.746. (“Wenn es aufbrennt ist es echt”).
3 SX-70 Land Camera with flash and 116 mm lens which Carmen used from 1980 onwards. Many artists, including Warhol, also used this camera.
4 In the poem “El ave Fénix” (1951).
5 DE CHIRICO, Giorgio. “Sull’Arte metafísica”, Valori Plastici, no. 3, IV-V/1919, pp. 15-19.
6 Ibid. p. 16.
7 En las vagas sombras de luz (1999), the title of a work by Carmen Calvo. Fundación Antonio Pérez, Cuenca.
8 ELIOT, Tomas Stearn. “East Coker”, V, in Four Quartets-The Complete Poems and Plays. 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952 (reprint), p. 129.
9 This text by Georges Duby was already cited in the catalogue for the exhibition at Galerie Thessa Herold, Carmen Calvo. De l’esprit à la matière, une archéologie de l’imaginaire, Paris, 1995, pp. 7-8.
10 Carmen Calvo was included in the exhibition Modernstarts at Teatro Principal in Cordoba (17 January – 29 March 2009).
11 Painted on various occasions, apart from the version reproduced, of which we would underline: A Pair of Shoes, 1886. Oil on canvas, 37.5 x 45 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). F 255.
12 As well as the two works from 1975, on exhibit: Naturaleza muerta de las botas, 1994. Mixed media, collage and slate, 108 x 122 cm. Private collection, Valencia.
13 MAUBERT, Frank. El olor a sangre humana no se me quita de los ojos: Conversaciones con Francis Bacon. Madrid: Acantilado, 1992.
14 GOETHE, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Maximes et réflexions (trans. G. Bianquis). Paris: Gallimard, 1943, p. 67.
15 Her acceptance speech on admission to the San Carlos Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Valencia, 9/12/2014. Or the visual collage “Retazos”, a film conceived by Carmen Calvo for the exhibition Hombre Patata/Carmen Calvo, University of Valencia, 25 June-13 September 2009, Jardín Botánico, Valencia.
16 DUBY, Georges. Carmen Calvo. De l’esprit à la matière, une archéologie de l’imaginaire, op. cit.
17 KAFKA, Franz. Cartas a Max Brod (1904-1924), op. cit., p. 44. Dated 11/IV/1909.