Antonio Saura “hand to hand” with painting | Luca Massimo Barbero

Antonio Saura “hand to hand” with painting

Luca Massimo Barbero


The last century, particularly the middle of the first half, has been tainted by a dark shadow, fraught with severe tension giving rise to dictatorial and anti-democratic scenarios, affecting not only Europe. Those dramatic and crucial years leading up to the Second World War reveal the roots of post-war developments. It was in Paris, one of the key cultural focal points on the European artistic map, where a mix of young people formed the backbone of resistance at the avant-garde of this new moment in history. Aside from perhaps the great post-Cubist experience, one of the main nuclei of research concerns the relationship between figure and matter, perhaps something that even today has not been fully researched from a contemporary perspective or from a perspective based on the fifties and even the previous decade. This research can be summarized in a European context by three key pivotal and exemplary figures: Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier and Lucio Fontana, as well as by the sculpture on the explorations of Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti, whose “fidelity to the human image,” in the words of Enrico Crispolti[1], is reflected in the figures painted by Antonio Saura.

The informel, or rather the art autre (art of another kind) according to the definition by Michel Tapié, is a direct response, along with the ripe dawn of American abstract expressionism, in the alterity of a painting, which portrays an existential dimension together with the stratification of its own visual culture. This weighs up in a (here, necessary) bird’s eye analysis, the diversity and other origin of a certain type of European painting. In general terms, we could say that the heart of European painting always revolves around the concept of matter, heavily influenced by an existential nature, and on a framework of social and political tension born from the low background hum of Second World War turmoil. This turmoil dominated throughout the fifties, almost intentionally causing a profound, human echo to act as a redemption to ensure people did not forget. The decade was characterized by the idea of a resistance to a more or less earned freedom, and above all by a concept of painting -one which we aim to briefly focus on here- which examines the human condition through the rethinking or reinvention of the human figure.

Antonio Saura, who throughout his artistic journey has continued to question himself on the figure as an expression of the human condition, forms a part of this broad, original and varied line of research. The young artist was in Paris between 1953 and 1955, a time when the matrix of surrealism was still very much alive, particularly the aspect regarding its relationship with images, but even more so in automatism. It was in the gestural style of automatism that he found a thinking place, above all else. This was the time he joined the Phases group by Jaguer, which focused on research replete with surreal motives in an informal sphere.

His first solo exhibition in 1957, organized in Paris by Galerie Stadler, marked his entry into the international scenario. Tapié, who wrote the presentation script, opened the doors to this new phase of imagery and this idea of pictorial form that emerges in a kind of “hand to hand” combat, with no concern for composition, colour or balance, as the artist himself explains in a poetic script from 1958:

A picture is above all, a white surface that “needs to be filled with something.” The canvas is an unlimited battlefield. The painter faces it and ultimately performs a tragic and sensual hand to hand combat through gestures, transforming a lifeless and passive material into a passionate whirlwind, into cosmogonic energy, for it to remain forever irradiant. […] It is the material convulsed under a will to action that interests me; the dynamic biology that from a paroxysmal work, arises from an ecstasy; the “maelstrom”, the whirlwind or centripetal force of a passionate creation in which each painting is a living organism that develops according to its own determinism; from the first expression of the gesture infuriated in a new plastic structure, into a revolutionary, expansive, space, with unlimited desire[2].

His painting is submitted to a confrontation: a battle that transforms inert material into a movement originated from “figurative desire”.

His colour choice, nearly always dominated during this period by black and white or shades of grey, is linked to that distinctive silence full of gestures and thrusts, characteristic of paintings of great Spanish tradition. The clearest reference to the relationship with history and politics, but also to the investigation of the human and figural dimension, can only be Goya, just as many have pointed out before. The more drastic, radical and controversial sense of the painting by the Spanish master, is in Goya’s relationship with the representation of the body and eminently with the idea of the portrait that beyond effigy, focuses heavily on expression. This transmigrates into an idea of dramatic and free painting that Saura is developing so that “it may be the expression of a total reality.” All of the typical characteristics used by Goya in his powerful portraits, from choked sounds, or barking painting are absorbed into Saura’s Spanish roots: Goya, the portrait painter, the last Goya, the deafness of a painting, or a scream that cannot get out.

As is evident in his works from 1958-1959 presented at the exhibition, Saura was searching for a new possibility of representation through a material that bears the stigma and the imprint of humanity. It is one we continue to call human and existential condition that began to emerge precisely in the later works that were to close his first creative phase as the decade drew to an end.

As main activist behind Madrid group El Paso (1957-1960), together with Canogar, Feito and Millares, Saura felt compelled towards a form of painting that would also portray a form of active resistance. The horrific continuity of the Franco dictatorship drove young Spanish painting towards resistance: “this is not about aesthetics; it bears witness to the truth of a moral drama; it is the direct result of the mayhem that is profoundly shaking the country. It is therefore not a political painting; it is something more: it is the very expression of the creative forces that have been repressed for too long inside people.[3]

In 1958, the artist exhibited at the Spanish Pavilion of the Venice Biennial as part of a group formed up of Canogar, Millares, Suárez, Tàpies and Vela, defined by Commissioner Luis Gonzalez Robles and entitled “dramatic abstraction”. The following year, he was the only Spanish artist present at the Vitality in Art exhibit, promoted by the International Centre of Art and Costume in Venice, which displayed an interesting synthesis of international avant-garde painting and sculpture. Saura was therefore no longer alone “up against” the avant-gardes, but formed an integral part of the mature avant-gardes of the late 50s, together with some of the key players of American art, from De Kooning to Pollock, as well as Europeans such as Burri, Jorn, Dubuffet, and Widow.

In a relatively short period, the artist catapulted Spanish painting to very high places, where both political tension and modern relevance were recognized. Saura’s contemporaneity lies in contemplating the great dramas of humanity and above all about what man is. His painting embodies a new human reality, that is, the loss of man as a centre, and the transition to a condition of a lacerated target, but also, ultimately, to a cry of hope for the continuation of humanity. This was the theme behind his crucifixions produced from 1958-1959, which rather than any religious meaning, portrayed the man on the cross as an image and symbol of the tragedy of time and history.  The theme of the female figure was well-represented on this occasion, and depicted -in a different way- that same “compelling need to scream,” and “to express oneself whatever it takes, to make every last energy possibility in the universe our own,” writes Saura, “whether through the love for a female body, nature, from nothing or from everything, from an unlimited craving for love, knowledge, and energy.[4]” Saura leads and projects the great quality and ethics behind contemporary Spanish painting through the idea of never losing the referent, the image, the body of the painting and the body of man.

This exhibition is particularly favourable in helping us understand the articulation in Saura’s language, and the richness of his painting, as well as tracing the artist’s need to produce, and study images. This need for imagery, in a kind of great imaginative montage under the very title Montage, gives rise to a series of synthetic figural studies, made up of more stimuli, more research. The universe, so dense and rich in paintings, responds in these compositions with its bare bones. Saura’s painting stands right at the base on the nerve of the imagery that is legible because it runs through matter, either re-emerging or sinking into it. The identification between thought and imagery captured in the dialectic between weight and essence of the pictorial material in paintings, also emerges in the montages and collage on paper in the form of drawing and graphics.

We come to the end of this short journey by quoting a painting that is not exhibited, but which is yet another significant example of the contemporary nature of this artist. Goya’s work from 1983, El perro de Goya II once again portrays a bleak tone yet full of human light from the Quinta del Sordo: the relationship between figure and abstraction, between the ground and the living being, between rising up and drowning, is well aware of the inevitable, dramatic and joyful balance between man and his existence.

[1]Enrico Crispolti, in Saura, Edizioni Galleria Odyssia, Rome 1959.

[2]Cuatro pintores españoles, El Paso, Madrid, March 1958.

[3]Lasse Söderberg, in “Cahiers du Musée de poche”, n. 2, June 1959, p. 64.

[4]Cuatro pintores españoles, cit.

Published in Saura: Tragedy & Creation. Barcelona, 2018. Mayoral. p 10.