Encounter with Saura
By Yvon Taillandier
Sometimes when I see a beautiful woman, says Saura, my head hurts, I am overcome, I almost lose consciousness!
It is always like this: the beauty of women affects me like a thunderbolt, almost. I like them a little too much.
This is undoubtedly why the subjects of most of my paintings are women.
When I was ill- from the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen I was in bed, up to my neck in plaster- I used to dream of holding a woman in my arms, living with her, having her close to me. I dreamed of how much I would love her and the great paintings I would make.
To possess all the women in the world is impossible, I know. But paintings is a way of accomplishing the impossible. For after all, what is an empty canvas? A bed, a nude.
So much so that to represent a nude body on a nude canvas seems redundant: undressing what is already undressed.
When I throw a blob of paint on my canvas, I am committing a rape. I take pleasure in it. And all at once I am carried away, possessed…
A whole biological mathematics is elaborated and imposed. The initial blob creates a plane. A background appears. The first blob calls forth a second, the second a third.
It is a fatal chain: freedom is at an end! One is no longer responsible, one becomes a kind of monster.
As with love, at times.
There is no doubt: to paint is sometimes to perform an act of love.
But it is also to protest.
My portrait of Brigitte Bardot is at once love and protest.
Love and the desire to destroy are not compatible. One can desire the ruin of what one loves.
I am a man who loves the beauty of women; yet those I paint are not beautiful.
But after all, the prehistoric Venuses are monstrous; monstrous and marvellous.
To love, to protest, to destroy: this is painting.
But painting also means to affirm and to possess.
To make an act of affirmation. This act is very important, I am convinced of this. At least I am now, for, to tell the truth, I came to this idea only gradually. It is the result of a whole evolution.
When I began to paint, around 1949 or 1947, I was ill. In the state I was at the time I felt the necessity to create my own world, a sort of artificial paradise. I read Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, and Lautréamont, admittedly a curious mixture. I also read a great many books on biology.
I no longer remember the year, but I do remember that it was on the feast of Epiphany that my mother gave me Ismos by Ramon Gomez de la Serna. As I leafed through this book, half-essay, half poem on the modern schools of painting and literature- and virtually the only Spanish book on these subject at the time- I tried to place myself, and I has the impression that I was a surrealist. This tendency in me was to result in paintings representing a mysterious, poetic world with a space without horizon, without houses, whose emptiness was peopled only with monstrous organic forms. I came to invent these by closing my eyes and throwing a blob of colour onto the paper, a blob whose form I clarified later. My technique at that time was slow and precise; but this slowness and precision bothered me.
When sometime after the end of my illness I settled in Paris to remain there several years and began attending meetings of the surrealistic group, I realized that up to then I had done nothing that truly satisfied my desire to paint.
I experienced a desire for greater freedom of execution. On the other hand my desire to reflect- not in a religious sense, I had abandoned religion at a very early age- but in a Freudian sense
What Saint John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul” diminished. The need for mystery no longer imposed itself on me with so much force.
I came to adopt a quick and flowing manner of painting.
I also did all sorts of technical research. Among a number of other procedures, I practiced scraping with big rubber knives.
The results dazzled me: much more satisfying than what I had done up to them. At this time I also discovered the heady sensation of producing in a few minutes effects it takes centuries to realize. I felt I was creating mirrors in which were reflected all phenomena, all great movements, all natural rhythms. Also, this corresponded to a profoundly unified conception of the world in which sky, earth, water, everything was intermingled.
However, in the end I tired of this. Though the results I obtained amazed me, the facility with which I obtained them bored me. I had the impression I was becoming too passive and too much the plaything of chance. Finally, the automatism that governs this type of creation seemed monotonous.
At this time I began to feel that my painting was not sufficiently an act of possession.
At the same time I began to be concerned about Spain. By now I had already left the surrealist group along with my best friend in the group, Simon Hantaï.
Surrealism had disappointed me for that matter. For me when I was still in Spain it had represented revolt. Before leaving Madrid I had organized an exhibition entitled “Fantastic Art”: a gouache by Miro, a small Calder, some surrealist souvenirs relating to Bunuel and his family, and a lot of other things.
I remember the scandal it created: people laughed, were indignant. In the gallery objects that had been treacherously arranged made it impossible to walk. Real dolls splashed with red paint and hanging from paintings looked as though they were bleeding.
I had composed the preface, an automatic text describing the exhibition, and a manifesto which was not subjected to censorship, the reaction to which was all predictable. In it I maintained, in effect, that all that is subversive is marvellous, that the only art I believed in was an art of shock and protest, with no reservations or limits. I talked about ecstasy, eroticism. In short, I adopted all the surrealist assumptions which had been fairly well assimilated. But the director of the gallery, who was friend with Lorca and the republicans, did not dare let us go any further.
This disgusted me, so I said goodbye to Madrid. And when I came into contact with the surrealists in Paris I found something stagnant.
Besides, I am not susceptible to that taste for the morbid which certain surrealists have.
What interests me in surrealism is the mystery and the affirmation of freedom. Especially in love.
Painting must express love and justice.
Today these are the two most important things for a sensitive man.
In many ways paintings is close to love; but what contribution can the painter make toward the advent of justice?
Painting is related to sexuality, perhaps more than any other form of expression. It is possible that by creating something, the painter participates in the vital current of the universe; but what about justice? How can a collaboration of the painter with constructive political and scientific forces occur without his betraying his personality and the art of his time?
Our vision is limited, and we suffer a great deal because of this.
I am passionately in love with the spectacles of life today, those which truly express our time.
Lights, advertising, cars, urban landscapes seen from an airplane- these are part of it, of course, but we are already used to them; they no longer surprise us as much as the true modern architecture.
This is where I really feel our age. For example, New York with its buildings of aluminium and glass, so bare and unadorned, is of an extraordinary beauty. And that rational organization of space around air terminals, airports, certain urban achievements which respect nature and in which I am convinced the artist will have a greater and greater role- the General Motors complex, the Mies Van der Rohe apartment house, certain museums- all this is remarkable.
One feels that in works of this kind a new order and beauty which is at one with technique, the needs of today, and an image of the future are affirmed.
I even admire that redundancy of structure and that species of monotony and asepticism which prevails in these buildings. Particularly in modern interiors, I am struck by the fact that a painting appears as a radioactive being.
But once again, of all that is offered to my sight that moves me most is feminine beauty.
When I returned to Madrid in 1955 I was to have an exhibition in January 1956 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This was the period of the student demonstrations. One student died and others, friends of mine, were imprisoned. I felt that I could not go on working as before. I had to decongest my painting, to free it form chaos and confusion. And to achieve this result the method that suggested itself to me was to begin with a form, or rather a structure, inspired by the female body.
It was not the first time I had worked in this direction; in the past, however, it had been in an experimental manner, whereas in Madrid as I was preparing my exhibition, I no longer felt I was experimenting. Also I employed the simplest and most direct means of traditional painting: black and white. It was at this time that colour disappeared almost entirely from my pictures. It was also at this time that I discovered the pleasure and the tragedy of painting. Each painting became an adventure, a risk, an image which evolved in a new way. But the great difference from What I had been doing before was that painting now appeared to me as an affirmation, a taking possession, and no longer as an abandonment to chance or a flight into manufactured paradise.
Painters should help to transform life; but most of them, it seems, are content to decorate it. The painter’s responsibility to society is fundamental to me. We are no longer romantics. We feel ourselves to be responsible for our age. But the sad thing is to feel oneself incapable of truly working toward the construction of a new world.
Reality has become so complex: the smallest thing is so complex! One cannot imagine exploring more than infinitesimal part of it. And it is almost inconceivable to attempt an image that would go so far as to involve a third dimension. Everything contributes to the increased complexity of everything else: science, the economy, the social point of view. One becomes dizzy. And the painter, aware of his inability to embrace wholes of this sort, sees himself obliged to return to the great timeless subjects. In the end, what is most important for man is his presence in the universe. But one can no longer conceive a head as in the days of fauvism. One cannot ignore the experiments done since then. Thus one is forced to consider the painting under an ambivalent aspect, at once abstract and figurative. The ideal situation would be if one could look at it as a painting of today, executed according to a modern concept, and if it could also convey a message, like an old painting, but a message for modern man.
What contradictions and dilemmas! I want to do something constructive, but I see no possibility of it. I want to contribute to justice- I believe in justice- but I cannot imagine the painting as anything but a bed or at best a battlefield: I have already used this analogy, but in the last analysis it comes to the same thing. I do have a will but when I work, I am no longer myself: I become a monster. And it is when I am this monster that my thinking functions best and fastest and the painting takes on most unity and something inexplicable. Sometimes I intervene- not the monster, but the person I am ordinarily. This interventions occurs at the end, but the best paintings are those in which I intervene least and which finally, to crown these contradictions, seem to be the result of a state of grace or, as they say in Spanish, an angel.
And as for my tastes! I like the most conflicting things: I like painters whose message is very dramatic: Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Picasso. I remember a marvellous Miro, with a single figure in it, in pastel. I like pictures in which the subject is solitary, and I prefer those in which the likeness stops a little above the knees. From the head to the knees, approximately. But this taste for drama and solitude does not prevent me from liking pictures which represent a fixed world with a crystalline atmosphere. I think of that primitive, Conrad Witz, or of Chirico. But I also like the exact opposite: Turner or the romantic visceral world of El Greco. In Toledo, at the hospital of Tavera, there is an El Greco: utterly wild, with an impasto done with great brushstrokes, full of violence, and not an empty space in the canvas.
This absence of empty space, this expansible space, interests me very much. The picture could continue beyond the frame. Mondrian, Pollock: here too one finds an expansible space. And in analytic cubism as well. I wonder if there is not an analogy between the evolution of painting in this direction and the theory of certain cosmologist who believe that the world, after having been very small, explodes, then becomes very small again to explode once more. The maximum of expansion or explosion seems to have been attained by Pollock. Now I think we are about to perform the reverse movement, the return to the centre.
Speaking of reverse movement and evolution, my own evolution in the matter of pictorial acquaintance has been reverse of many people’s. I began with the moderns: Miro, Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso: again, thanks to Ramon Gomez de la Serna’s book Ismos, which my mother gave me on Epiphany of I no longer know what year. Before that, as a child, I do not remember that my parents ever took me to the Prado, unless as a baby… but I do not think so. The earliest childhood memory I retain- as a matter of fact I had lost it until you spoke of Miro and his memory of the Pyrenenan shepherds- the sparks they made to light their pipes reminded me of the red fish in a pond in a village where my grandfather lived. All of my other childhood memories are later. They date from Spanish war. I remember a little girl I held in my arms in a cellar during a bombardment. During another bombardment, I see myself at the window, looking into the street. A man is walking down the road. He is hit by machine gun fire, but he keeps on walking, which is extraordinary, because blood is flowing from his neck and he has no head.
Picture: Català-Roca. Antonio Saura al seu taller, Cuenca 1975. © Fons Fotogràfic F. Català-Roca – Arxiu Històric del Col·legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya.
Published in Saura. Tragedy & creation. Barcelona, 2018. Mayoral. p 19.