Antonio Saura | Dore Ashton

“Prends l’éloquence et tords—lui son cou !…

Et tout Ie reste est littérature.”

Verlaine, Art Poétique

I’ve always been a wary writer fearful of producing Verlaine’s tout le reste.  I notice that Severo Sarduy apparently shares my fastidious concerns: He begins his essay on Antonio Saura with the single word, “Aporia.” (Much as Sartre began his tumultuous essay on Tintoretto with the single word “Rien.”) In the half-century of Saura’s working life as a painter, an unusual number of excellent writers, including himself, have commented on his oeuvre, leaving little of the literary canvas uncovered. I’d flinch at inserting myself in his story, but perhaps my approach as a memoirist or an innocent feuilletoniste is the only way.

In 1957, despite great misgivings, I visited Spain. I was not prepared for the overwhelming impression of bleakness during my first days in Barcelona. The place was dusty. There were bullet-pocked walls  (all  too  explicit  for  my  youthful  imagination).  On the Ramblas I saw mutilated men and pairs of the dreaded Guardia Civil everywhere.  The few artists and connoisseurs I met talked bitterly of censorship, isolation, and the impossibility of seeing  movies  that  had  not  been  gutted  of  meaning  by  the  censors. From Barcelona I went directly to Madrid where, if anything, things seemed even more depressing. A kind of grimness enfolded  every  aspect  of  life  there. What  little  art  by living artists there was on display was flaccid.  Then,  I  visited  Saura  whose  work  I  had seen  a month  before  in Paris.

At the time Saura had made the decision to return from Paris to Spain. A courageous decision if one considers that the previous  year  he  had  written  to  Juan Eduardo Cirlot that Spain was a sad and terrible place for anyone  under  thirty,  a  “monstrous situation.” But there he was, back to confront the worst, eager, in fact,  to instigate an insurrection among the artists of his generation. In his modest apartment we listened to Flamenco, drank good wine, talked and talked. I dit not neglect  to ask  him why  he had returned, and I remember that he spoke of  the  rocks  and earth,  which  I  believe have always inhabited his paintings. In Saura’s living room there were hundreds  of books and journals: he was an omnivorous reader, a gatherer of news from the world, au courant with everything, even the mores of my own city, New York. Of course he spoke of Michel Tapié and his somewhat arcane idea of f’orf autre. His passionate earnestness  was immensely appealing. When he spoke  of  Spain  he  was  eloquent,  and  although  he  has tried to correct the critics who see his work only against the background of resistance to Franco, I believe a lot of his energy derived from his implacable hatred  of  the  dismal situation in which his countrymen languished, and Spain’s  terrible  isolation.  (I remember that Buñuel when asked how he  would  compare  French  and  Spanish  culture  answered: “It’s very simple. We Spanish know everything about French culture.  The French, on the other hand know  nothing  about ours.”)


That night I looked at Saura’s recent work which already revealed the traits that I came to admire over the years. It is hard now to separate impressions. When we are away from a painting, after all, what we carry with us is only a schema. Saura had reduced his palette largely to blacks, whites and greys. His brushwork was loose, rapid, even feverish, and related to the work of many of the “informel” or abstract-expressionist practitioners. Yet, there was something already specific to him: the falling off into a void — what Picasso would have called the “black mirror.” From the beginning Saura expressed, consciously or not, an old Spanish preoccupation, Quevedo’s “the waters of the abyss.” I say Spanish, but I know that there is a voluminous literature of 19th-century France hovering on the brink of the abyss. Still, I insist on the Spanishness of Saura’s deepest visual utterances. His visual culture cannot be separated from Spain, not only because his first excitement about painting was bestirred in the Prado, but also because we have evidence that throughout his life’s work the motifs, tones, and obsessions of Spanish poets and painters are reiterated, meditated, reconfigured, even imitated, with a conviction that cannot be denied. No matter from what objective distance his ceuvre is seen,  the  peculiar  intonation  of  Spain  is  prominent  among  the  many  other sources.

If I consider his initial works, done as a boy in the international language of surrealism (but of course, the surrealism of his countryman Miro, quite distinct from the others) — all those constellations —, I would have to dutifully remark on the rich sources of sorcery in the French surrealist visual argot. That, too — the obvious relish with which the Spanish poets and visual artists from Bunuel, Dali and Lorca to Saura  and  Tapies  — plunged into the oneiric  surrealist  universe  construed  in  Paris,  must  be  acknowledged. Yet, in the rondelay of influences and communicating vases,  there  was, behind  them  all, that connoisseur of the diabolic and uncomfortable, Baudelaire. He found  the  truest  painterly vision of his own hell precisely  in  the  works  of the  Spanish  artists,  and  above all, Goya.

Parenthesis: My memory of my first visit with Saura is fortified by my first visit to the Prado where, like everyone else, I found  myself  transported  into the enormous enigma  of Goya, the Goya of  the  pinturas  negras.  Unforgettable, permanent,  drastic  experience that has had its sustained impact on my life.  Or  rather,  my  point  of  view  of existence. Years later I pondered Goya’s drawings in the Prado cabinet.  It  was  in  those  delicate washes of his ink drawings and watercolours that I understood how much Goya felt the  waters of the abyss; how much like a dark  mirror  his spatial  designation  was;  how those low promontories against blank skies were  more terrible  than  any  huge, craggy  mountains in the work of the romantic painters. And if my memory of that first visit with Saura is tinctured by the sulphurous memory of those black Goyas, with their foreboding yellowed skies and their totally unchartable spaces, Saura has long since  demonstrated  how appropriate  my  memory is.

Goya added, according to Baudelaire, “un esprit beaucoup plus moderne, ou du moins qui a été beaucoup plus cherché dans les temps modernes, l’amour de l’insaisissable, Ie sentiment des contrastes violents, des épouvantements de la nature et des physionomies humaines étrangement animalisées par les circonstances… toutes les débauches du réve, toutes les hyperboles de l’imagination…” Could this not stand as a description of Saura’s oeuvre?

Well, many decades have passed, and many of what Baudelaire called “circustamstances” have altered and shaped Saura’s work, but the articulation of the void remains one of his prime leitmotifs. Gradually, Saura’s caught up with his visions. From the heart of the matter he had so swiftly brushed on and congealed in those early works of the mid-1950s, he now extracted its most expressive qualities. The paint becomes articulate, formed. Against the increasingly luminous mirror-like grounds the ropes of paint knot and unknot themselves, weave themselves into distinguishable forms that almost always refer to human life, create textures and mass against the always retreating, always mysterious grounds. His texts are almost but not quite legible. I use the word “text” deliberately, for its connotations of both the act of weaving and the act of telling.

Saura has talked about “la pensée plastique” and I know what he means. But it is almost impossible not to make literature when one discuss plastic thought. I don’t want to. I only want to say that Saura is an intelligent painter. That is, a painter whose plastic intelligence has wrought a vision through the means a painter commands: canvas, brush, matter, and all the images he has ever paused to see (as his surprisingly candid published anthologies of images reveal: news photos, magazine illustrations, old master paintings, scientific drawings, and paintings by contemporaries- no iconographer will ever be able to distort his sources.)

Wheter Saura is painting variations on the human head or a nude, or a compound portrait, his intent is always to probe behind the surface. For that reason, his painting can be read stroke by stroke from the surface down to the ground, through carefully conjured interstices. There is no form in Saura that does not suggest its complex genesis, and its final dissolution into the void. One of this most acute critics (full of agrudeza,  that is), Francisco Calvo Serraller, has written, “Du corps au visage, Saura ne semble dévoiler qu’une seule puissante passion: éventrer la réalité, comme pour ouvrir en elle un canal. » calvo Serraller is right : Saura eviscerates the world, but in the spirit of the passionate archeologist and not Dr. Tulp.

No matter how elusive, Saura’s paintings always result in images. I mean, we see what he means. Which reminds me of a friend, the painter Philip Guston, who once sent me a note that consisted of a single quotation from Aragon “the vice named Surrealism is the immoderate and impassioned use of the stupefacient image.” Like Saura, Guston had liberally feasted on the verbal riches of surrealism, and he had also lived with Rembrandt and Goya. He had asked himself a thousand times what the human eye could, must be, in the great history of western culture. Those eyes, that the surrealist had so often invoked, appear in his paintings just as they do in Saura’s with so many meanings. Images.

In the bony armature of the eye, the structured socket for the roving being, painters have seen so much. I have always been in awe of Rembrandt who could, with a twist of brush, trust one eye in tragic shadow and ignite the other with the light of enduring spirit. All those eyes in Saura! Searching inwards and outwards; swiveling madly; turned into and away from the world. He loves San Juan de la Cruz and somewhere he cites San Juan’s most important message for him: “Pour alles où tu ne sais pas, tu dois passer par où tu ne sais pas. “

This brings me to the most important image in my own storehouse : Goya’s dog. His baleful eye has been with me since that fateful year, 1957. And if I myself had not been overwhelmed by the image, I would have had to notice its puissance in countless studio visits with my contemporary friends. There is not a single painter I know who has not at one time or another spoken of Goya’s dog, or pinned up a reproduction. Some, such as Robert Motherwell, offered several painted homages to the great and eternally perplexing image. Goya’s dog has been granted eternal like by its final inscrutability. Its that-which-we-will-never-know.

Saura begins with the obvious- that Goya’s dog in indeed Goya. He scrutinizes the indelible image and derives what he has always known : that the abyss is neither here nor there, but like Pascal’s sphere “ the centre of which is everywhere the circumference nowhere.” I admit that for me the most affecting paintings of Saura have been his portraits of Goya and his dog, one and the same, and their evidence of Saura’s furor to untangle the most mysterious image in all of art history. Above all I was struck with the paintings in his Goya series in which Saura reverses the spaces, and the dog, or Goya, is no longer in the depths of the abyss but above, peering into it, clinging to an edge that bespeaks the most immense spirituals perils. Quevedo’s defiant terrors. (I remember that Octavio Paz on the numerous occasions he has written about Quevedo almost always mentions Goya, perhaps not even realizing how they are linked in this memory.)

Saura’s own morphology of space takes command in these paintings, and I feel that he has, indeed, revealed something of the emotional pit into which Goya had flung so much enigmatic essence. In such paintings, one can only feel one’s way.

“Nobody and nothing are aware of the dog’s existence” writes Fred Licht. “Suspense, extended through an eternity of futile waiting seems to be the only function of life in the great void.” And, in the course of a splendid examination from every possible viewpoint, Licht arrives at what I think is the closest reading of Goya’s truth: “The Dog may very well be an undecipherable signal emitted by some mechanism that is either beyond or below the human intellect and intuition.”

If I think of all the ways Saura has sought to decipher the world; if I peer into his bony cages of heads; his mass of integuments of bodies; his jigsaw puzzle of human forms that the eye must trace from surface to ground (and here he may well be indebted to another Spaniard, Picasso); his increasingly terrifying emptinesses, I can see a noble will to confront the grand questions- something all too rare at the moment. I look at those strokes, sometimes short and precise, clacking into space, or sometimes curving in intricate but cruel arabesques, attenuating his echoing cry, and I recognize the youth that I once knew, serious, searching, passionate. I hesitate to repeat the hold and suspect truism that no matter how desperate the man, the artist is finally affirmative, yet it must be said. Perhaps one of the wonderful writers of our century, the Cuban José Lezama Lima, who sat in his armchair in Havana and saw and knew everything, can say better what I want to say : “Heidegger maintains that man is a being “para la muerte2; every poet, nevertheless, creates the resurrection , intones before death a victorious hurrah. And if someone thinks that I exaggerate, he will remain in the grip of disasters, demons and infernal circles.!

Dore Ashton

Published in Saura. Tragedy & Creation  Barcelona, 2018. Mayoral. p 28.