MODEST CUIXART. EMOTIONAL AND STRUCTURED SENSIBILITY
Arnau Puig. Philosopher and art critic
Modest Cuixart Tàpies was born in Barcelona in 1925. He was born into a family of doctors and chemists from the city, who, as one would expect, had all a broad culture. These objective family facts gave as a result that some of its members developed an exquisite artistic sensibility and, in some cases, as it happened with Modest Cuixart, an excellent predisposition toward the visual arts and even toward music. In addition, Modest had also a great ability for pantomime and felt like an actor. He had a highly dynamic personality and was always in expansion; however, he was also willing to look after, help and listen to those in need at all times.
A very simple anecdote, but one that illustrates Modest Cuixart’s subtle sensibility is that, at home, apart from being all music-lovers and connoisseurs, they had a player piano, and so they could listen to music pieces recorded on metallic rolls and perforated paper; I remember as well that they had sheets of music perforated paper, four-sided but successive, which unfolded and then folded up automatically when used by the player piano. It was just a matter of procedure, strictly technical; but the fact that one could also listen to music in such a peculiar way made the sensitive observer aware and alert, because there came a point, a moment, in which the forms and the emotions coincided. The forms of the mechanical squares on the manuscript perforated sheets of paper and their relation to the sound being heard bore witness to the relationship precise and well-controlled geometry and the sensibility, under the form of sound, that arose. Strict geometry and human emotion appeared perfectly interrelated, precise and coincident. Apart from all this, Modest Cuixart, just as other members of his family, could play on the piano some more timbral pieces by the French composers Poulenc or Honegger.
Over time, and reflecting upon it, in that very experience —which was already an anachronism of the 19th century— one would find the key and secret of the 20th century artistic sensibility that Modest Cuixart possessed in such a high degree. General mismatch and subsequent control; picking up the emotion from reality and afterwards creating perceptible forms with it.
All this to say that the artist Modest Cuixart crossed our cultural fields of Catalan, European and American creation of the second half of the 20th century as a an arrow of hope and fierce fight for the new languages and expressions of aesthetic and expressive sensibility.
It is true, though, that he did not do it alone, but very well-accompanied by other forceful creators, who were also his friends and contemporaries, mainly Catalan artists, but some foreign as well, especially —later on— French ones. His Catalan friends (Joan Brossa, Arnau Puig, Joan Ponç, Antoni Tàpies and Joan Josep Tharrats) gathered together, as soon as chance brought them into contact under the odd and prophetic name —also suggested by the innocent chance— of “Dau al Set”. The profound meaning of this verbal syntagma, which is also the name of an art magazine that has become renowned and historical in the world of contemporary creativity, is that of the “seventh side of the die”. Given that, by cultural definition, a die can only have six sides, to play —as the very same notion of die implies— at the “seventh side” is to make a play, a bet on that which cannot be defined, on the impossible. And that, the indefinable, was precisely what all his friends and colleagues in this sensitive and intellectual adventure set out to discover throughout their creative activity.
The first public exhibition of Modest Cuixart’s work took place at the I Saló d’Octubre (1st October Show), in 1948. This first show, the outcome of his immediately preceding tasks, has an abstract and symbolic lyricism, geometrical and gestural, which is almost similar —although independent— to the dark and open sensibility one can observe in Joan Miró’s works.
1949 will be a year of recognition for Modest Cuixart. First, he was asked to participate —together with Tàpies and Ponç— in the VII Salón de los Once (7th “Show of the Eleven”) that Eugeni d’Ors organised in Madrid through his Academia Breve de la Crítica de Arte. Arnau Puig, who did the critical presentation of the opening, wrote: “Cuixart’s inspiration to create his work does not come from the real world, but, speculating on the paths of pure sensibility that shape the objects and subjected to the imperative of aesthetics, he keeps presenting the fibres that will make up the future bodies. He draws from the emotional that which is pure feeling, not taking into account any acquired literary evaluation. He tries to extract from emotion just what will be able to take on a life of its own in an appropriate or strange environment, that which will manage to survive any imposition (…)”.
The other event will be his participation in the Primera Semana Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo, Escuela de Altamira (First International Contemporary Art Week, Altamira School) in September 1949, held in Santillana de Mar, on behalf and representation of the Dau al Set exhibition, which was organised in collaboration with the Cercle Maillol, in the Institut Français of Barcelona, activity of Cobalto 49, organized and directed by the art critic Rafael Santos Torroella. Thanks to all these shows, Cuixart will come into contact with the recognised elite of creative modernity. The third event of that fruitful 1949 will be to take part again in the II Salón de Octubre (2nd October Show) of Barcelona.
We have related in some detail these first activities Cuixart participated in because they are illustrative of the quality, intention and aesthetic orientation of all his future output: expressive sensibility, attention to reality, absorption and understanding of the objective world to show its spiritual and dramatic dimension, expressive of the meaning of human existence and of the role of art to show not its social objectivity but the subjectivity of the subjects of history, that is to say, the subjectivity of human beings.
The heated arguments and the sharp differences of opinion between the members of the Dau al Set group about the supremacy of the subjective or social referent over the work of art filled the folders and the scratched canvasses of those young visual artists. The proximity of Joan Miró and the allusions to Paul Klee made them discover the role of signs as a way of assimilating or triggering visual emotions and/or committed relationships with the environment. The Dada spirit, and the breakup it represented with the false society they lived in, the freedoms brought about by Cubism as a new concept of representation of the objective and social reality, and the Surrealist spirit that acknowledges that there are other realities besides those that simply derive from social relations, motivated each and every one of the members of the Dau al Set group to draw their own conclusions based on their personal disposition and criteria, which led them to take radical individual paths.
After some time of art of commitment, of an unquestionable connexion with the worlds of parallel mental structures, like the sympathetic magic, and of being well imbued with the areas of esoteric or realistic creativity in the way of Joan Miró or Paul Klee, as we have mentioned before, Cuixart undertakes his first trip to Paris in 1951. There he sees his own autonomous artistic output, until that moment unique and personal, contrasted with the body of work of the different creators of the city on the Seine. The result is absolutely positive and confirms that there is a certain degree of justification to avoid the immediate or banal figurative representation. On the one hand, there are Fautrier and Wols as representatives of the emotional and visceral expressionism, and, on the other, there is brutalism —art brut or “raw art”— invented by Dubuffet, a manifestation of the chaos and lack of connexion between mind and gesture in the search, however, of a nonspecific spiritual significance. And with the background of an absurd and devastating world war that has finally justified it all.
Between the years 1952 and 1954, Cuixart, helped and encouraged by his friend René Metras, who has some engraving ateliers in Lyon, devotes his artistic endeavours to a momentary understanding of creation as a socially useful activity that, in his particular case, would mean the making of art prints. He then travels around Europe until the art dealers and gallery owners Marcel Michaud, from Lyon, and René Drouin, from Paris, take charge of his artistic output and the artist feels unavoidably attracted to the most frenzied creativity rush of the moment. Which then, in the mid-50s, is matter painting —amalgam of the lack of cultural communication, of the deaf communication between the environment and the sensibility of every one of us (the singing and the screaming of walls and used objects) and the strict textural presence as the only way of valid communicative transmission—, textured presence of the intentions and feelings of the artist who takes on, in his showing himself, a clear critical stance towards his surrounding reality. Very often, this kind of “matter” abstract expressionism is crude, harsh and brutal; sometimes, however, it drifts towards the sweetness of body-language, which forgets about social reality, following or adopting variations more or less derived from the arts of the Far East, communicator of the stenches of acceptance and estrangement from the bitter realities of everyday life.
During those same years, the late 50s and early 60s, mainly from Lyon, but also from other fields related to culture and the fostering of expressive sensibility, Cuixart moves more and more towards informal art, because it is a visual attitude expressive and clarifying of and about the realities. The tangled messes of matter painting, the possibilities of collage, the adding of heterogeneous objects to the media of expression, objects charged with emotion and life experiences, of one’s own or of others, turns that manifestation of the conscious and the unconscious into the ideal medium. It will be precisely then that the French art critic Michel Tapiè will speak and theorize about what he called an art autre (informalism); and which, a bit later on, American artists will term abstract expressionism and will develop through their assemblages.
All of them give to their work the full expressive force that those years of economic growth, but also of social struggle —let’s not forget the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, of Sartre and Ionesco, the howls of Camus, of Arthur Miller, of Fernando Arrabal and the actions of the new German expressionists, as well as the speculative whirlwind entrance of the American art market in the international visual arts scenario, with manifestations and expressions as hard and contradictory as the pop art and the minimal—, are preparing in a new Europe and a new world that will change their face with the upcoming leading-edge digital technologies, which are, ultimately, a consequence of all of the foregoing.
And Modest Cuixart is there, present with his work, his collages, his objects, his sarcasm and irony, but most of all with his creative quality and his qualities as a man. First, with the informalist shreds; in the beginning, it’s true, in the Oriental style of the matter magmas that attract sensations; but, right after, retaining in the gesture just the committed expressive intention; an artistic expression that will be admired throughout the world and which starts to be recognised with awards and participation in international competitions.
In this school, which is the reality of the world, instead of the comfortable knowledge defended by the academic peace, in Paris the director and metteur en scène Jean Vilar had indicated that every action must have a repercussion. And Cuixart, moreover, had experienced it himself when living and working in Lyon, in the theatre of Villeurbanne, where it was proclaimed that awareness is crucial both in the arts and in life. An aesthetic action is also a political and social commitment; in this sense, Cuixart worked for the scene in plays by Brecht and Arrabal (Fando et Lis, was represented in Catalonia in the la mansion of Ramon de Batlle, located in the little northern town of Riudellots de la Selva). The theatre play and Cuixart’s staging, in both cases, proclaims that we must stop going round and round in circles (tourner en rond). It is the moment in which the collage of the dolls and the shoes caused a scandal; but it is also the moment when there appeared a crack marking the beginning of an inner life crisis, temporary, but nonetheless serious, that Cuixart will overcome by moving towards other expressive modes; a moment of incomprehension of others, also temporary, but strongly emotionally charged. From then on, his work will become something else. An ironic geometry will regulate the body-language, and the loud and mocking colours will submit to lyrical poetry. [For the case, Tàpies will throw himself into Zen Buddhism; Brossa will start creating his visual poems and his poetical objects, and Ponç will seek liberation from those monstrous ghosts that besieged him since the late 40s.]
Afterwards, around him, everything will change; art will be based on new grounds —and artworks created using other means and technologies— that will only confront him to strictly personal matters of conscience and to social reality issues.
Cuixart and his colleagues of Dau al Set prepared and fulfilled the mission entrusted to them.