To celebrate the centenary of the birth of the photographer Francesc Català-Roca, we are showing some of the photographs he made of Antoni Tàpies over the years, together with an article by Laura Terré, photographic historian and curator of the events of the Català-Roca Year.
Antoni Tàpies, worker-hero in the photographs of Francesc Català-Roca
Like some of his contemporary photographers, Català-Roca documented the silent resistance of those who had opted to stay in Spain during the dictatorship. Along with Colita, Pilar Aymerich, Ramon Masats and Leopoldo Pomés, he chose to portray key cultural figures as a reportage of their silent struggle against repression and censorship. A struggle whose form of expression was unintelligible to those in power, but no less potent for that. Giving form to the personality of these heroes was the mission of the photographers who bore witness to their time.
The authors of the epic portraits of committed artists do not flaunt their subjects’ laurels by portraying them as satisfied and triumphant. Painters and sculptors, engravers and ceramists, like portentous heroes in the friezes of antiquity, are captured in full action. They exercise the strength of their muscles, use their hands and feet, like athletes in the stadium. These photographic records show that visual artists are full of vitality and their chosen form of creation is the hand-to-hand struggle against this divinity that is the work of art, in order to leave the aesthetic trace of a stroke, a shape, a groove, an imprint. So many of Català-Roca’s contemporary photographers created amazing images of the exploits of these transient demigods: David Douglas Duncan photographing Pablo Picasso; Cartier-Bresson Giacometti and Henri Matisse; Barbara Morgan Martha Graham, to name but a few of the best known; and Hans Namuth, famous for his photographs of Jackson Pollock, who also had the opportunity to photograph Antoni Tàpies in his Campins studio in 1961.
Català-Roca had the privilege of documenting the arduous work of creation in the studios of Joan Miró, on walks with Salvador Dalí, in the studios of Josep Llorens Artigas or Eduardo Chillida and, in this case, Antoni Tàpies. Looking at the photographs he took of them in action, we realise how important they are to understanding the work. While we see paintings in an instantaneous simultaneity, as something eternal, despite being built in stages, with a beginning and an end, photographs, on the other hand, when presented as a sequence, follow the internal movements of the image subjected to the causal time that they suggest to us, unconsciously, before and after.
Informalist painting exerts on us the fascination of a deserted beach full of footprints. By looking, we discover directions, interpret the gestures of the fugitives, the force of their stride, the lost traces. Antoni Tàpies’ works are these beaches, or walls scratched by carts, pierced by shrapnel or, simply, sheets on soft mattresses impressed by bodies, in which the author physically leaves, sometimes with the brutality of a blow, sometimes with the softness of a brushstroke, the trace of his aesthetic path. To look at the painting is to see the artist painting it. To guess how it began, his first decision when shattering the void. And also, his last gesture, the moment of abandonment, the instant of intimate satisfaction of having achieved this thing up until that non-existent moment, inexplicable to the intellect, which can only be expressed through the vision of the ‘thing’ itself.
The photographs that capture the painter in action are a complement to our imagination, making him appear to fly over the gestures imprinted on the work. The photographer will always be an intruder in the studio. But he can never be a voyeur stealing intimate images as in the fantasy of the painter spying on his muse that obsessed Picasso. The photographer’s presence in the painter’s studio is akin to a dance partner. Only the photographer who lets himself be swayed by the movements and does not disturb, who has the ability to disappear, can be a witness to this intimacy that we long to discover in the creative act.
Francesc Català-Roca was such a photographer, and was thus accepted by the artists who consequently became his friends. They didn’t mind his presence no matter how close he was. While he photographed, they could concentrate on their work in the pretence of solitude necessary for creation. The resulting effect is powerful, magical, like the flickering of a flashback on the pictorial image that helps us trace the author’s action on the painting. We see the painter becoming agitated and sweating, throwing the material against the support with force, abstracting himself in the contemplation of a small detail in the foreground or, on the contrary, feeling small in the middle of the studio surrounded by enormous works.
Català-Roca portrayed Tàpies in a special way, knowing how to find the artist’s character in his working method. In some photos he shows him as a craftsman, a carpenter with his broad fingers joining a piece. In another portrait he looks like a mattress-maker airing the wool. In another photograph, the material rests on the ground like baker’s dough about to be kneaded. The gestures are so serious, their description so precise, that in these studio portraits Català-Roca is not only documenting Tàpies while he works, but paying tribute to the ancestral trades that the artist applies to his work with the same effort, albeit with different results. A tribute also to the raw material of art in the hands of a working artist, who poses in front of his paintings with a stained apron as if he had just greased a machine in the studio.
There is a particularly magical photograph in which Tàpies is seen holding up a sieve through which sand is filtered. Català-Roca opts for a low-angle view and, cleverly, gets the light to permeate the volatile load. It is a portrait of an enraged Zeus holding the sun and directing his thunderbolts. So many elements in this image tell us about the painter! Català-Roca is aware of his function as a portraitist, but he never isolates the subject, never separates him from the background of the action that gives him life, depth and reality. At the same time, the reportage is never erased: it never ceases to be a portrait, we never lose sight of the painter’s features, those fixed, unchanging eyes, as in a collage cut-out. Eyes that are always severe, measuring, calculating, weighing forms with a certain metaphysical concentration.
Català-Roca was well aware of the liveliness of those eyes that, as a friend of the painter, stared at him during informal conversations, but it is clear that, when photographing him, he did not forget the hypnotism that those eyes exerted in his Surrealist self-portraits. We could say that he was waiting for that moment of alienation when the face becomes a mask. But while eyes in a painting are loaded with meaning, in photography they resist any symbolic temptation. What we see is what is actually there. Beyond that, as the photographer liked to tell us, the only thing that resonates is the echo of our questions and thoughts: what was he actually calculating? What was he creating? Where did his thoughts lie?
As well as making portraits of the painter, Català-Roca also recorded the finished works. For some, reproducing a painting may be ‘easy’. We assume that the only decisions that need to be made concern the settings of the camera. However, we know most works of art through the wise decisions a particular photographer has made to find the best angle, light or exposure to achieve the depth of field that will render all details in focus, etc. If photography was popularised by demonstrating its instantaneous capacity for creating people’s portraits, art was popularised by photography, thanks to its hitherto unprecedented ability to turn distant and inaccessible works into portable objects within the reach of all pockets, ever since the first great museum works were sold as postcards. However, the reproduction of a single painting only evokes its existence, it can never replace it.
But the photographer can also create a new, unique work, rooted in the creative fluency of the painter. While Tàpies worked in his studio, Català-Roca portrayed the works in progress resting against the walls. They are volumes that, next to each other, compose an autonomous piece when frozen forever in the photograph. From the point of view of the photographic result, we could consider these compositions a family portrait in which the constellation that links some characters to others is shown through similarities and differences. Since we know many of these paintings in their finished state as seen in museums or in art books, we can see how they developed in relation to the final outcome. In the same way that we see children growing up in family portraits, in the photos of Català-Roca we can see Tàpies’ paintings in progress, with his doubts exposed and his feelings in flagrante. These photographs offer many elements to understand a precise moment in the creative evolution of their author.
Català-Roca portrayed the society of his time with irony, but with reverence for the heroes of art and culture. The characters to be found in the portrait gallery will define him better than his aesthetics, than his framing, than his way of understanding light. He felt with them, he lived with them. Capturing the personality of these heroes, their human traits, was part of his mission as a witness to the times. And, just as the records of the ephemeral works of contemporary art are essential to know certain artistic currents, we can no longer ignore these intimate documents if we want to get to know the work of these artists in depth.
Curator of the Català-Roca Centenary Year
© 2022 Laura Terré for Fundació Antoni Tàpies.