If you're like me, still lifes are rather too dead to be interesting.
But Catalan artist, Miquel Barceló, has reinvented the genre.
Barceló's unique creative voice brings the still life into the modern era, transforming it from just so many pieces of fruit and small dead animals arranged on a table into something truly his own, without losing the thread tying him to Spanish masters of the genre like Francisco de Zurbarán, Francisco de Burgos Mantilla and Luis Meléndez.
Contemporary Spanish Art - a Too Well-Kept Secret
Despite having decorated the ceiling in the UN building in Geneva, and being Spain's most highly collected modern painter, most people have never heard of Miquel Barceló, let alone seen his work.
Not surprising as Spain has a terrible track record when it comes to exporting its contemporary culture despite its wealth of unique talent. A web search for contemporary Spanish artists might not even bring up Barceló and information about modern Spanish art is really hard to find, even in Spanish let alone English.
Miquel Barceló at London's Whitechapel Gallery
I first saw Barceló's work in 1994 at the Whitechapel Gallery - just at the bottom of the street where I used to live in East London. It was a weekday and so virtually empty of people - the perfect gallery experience!
”...it was a question of making a picture that nobody else in the world could make except me.”
I went with a Catalan potter friend and it was love at first sight - with Barceló's work that is, not with my friend - particularly with his enormous white African paintings which did things with texture and tonal variations I'd never seen before.
Many artists add texture to their paintings but Miquel Barceló does it in a way that makes me want to dive in and immerse myself in the canvas. You need to see the art in the 'flesh' to understand.
I did something at that exhibition I almost never do: I bought an expensive exhibition catalogue - a Barceló monograph which I still have. That's what love is like; I had to take Barceló home with me that day.
Barceló at the CAC, Málaga
In 2008, I got to relive my first Barceló experience to its full with a visit to his one man show at the Contemporary Art Centre (Centro de Arte Contemporaneo) in Málaga.
I was as mesmerized by his work as the first day I saw it and, happily, I was able to repeat the virtually-empty-gallery experience.
I also got see more of his white paintings and a lot of other lovely stuff besides - particularly sculptures and sketchbooks. What artist doesn't like the opportunity to peer into the private world of another artist's sketchbook?
Understanding the Context of Barceló's Still Lifes
Passionate as I am about Barceló's work, his still lifes have never featured amongst my favourites, but then I stumbled across Barceló: The Nature of Time - a final year essay by Lisa J. Raines (link no longer available) - which helped me see the work with fresh eyes. The Nature of Time also led me to discover a lot I didn’t know about the history of still life painting.
'Bodegones' - Spanish Baroque Still Life Painting
Spanish still lifes are commonly referred to as 'bodegones' and date from the Baroque period.
Unlike typical Italian or Dutch still lifes from that period - which depict luxurious tableware, succulent fruits, and exotic meats seemingly suspended in time - Spanish bodegones were austere with plain back-grounds often of geometric wooden blocks which created a surrealist air. Depicting worn objects and food that had begun to rot, bodgones were used as allegories for the passage of time and death.
According to the writer Spanish essayist and philosopher María Zambrano, in her essay Spanish Materialism, in contrast to other European traditions, the objects in bodegones take on a radically different importance - assuming a narrative of their own and becoming man's partner in his experience of the universe.
Zambrano traces this to a unique aspect of Spain's history: the centuries of Moorish occupation during which many aspects of the two cultures mixed.
Barceló's Obsession with Still Lifes
The bodegón has attracted Barceló throughout his career. According to poet and well-known art critic Enrique Juncosa, Barceló has,
”...an obsession for the traditional genre of still life, with its metaphorical and allegorical possibilities.”
This metaphorical potential provides him with a fertile space in which to explore some of his signature themes: the passage of time, metamorphosis, the decomposition of organic material, and death.
Barceló adds a unique taste to his bodegones by infusing them with his acute sensitivity to nature - originating in his wild childhood spent swimming and fishing in the Mediterranean and exploring caves in the countryside around the Majorcan village where he grew up.
A Living Still Life
From a very young age, Barceló was interested in metamorphosis and decomposition. In 1976, at just 19, he prepared - along with Josep Alberti - his first exhibition in el Museu de Mallorca, Cadaverina 15 (Little Dead Body).
In this period, Barceló was primarily a conceptual artist, and attempted to produce what he called a 'living picture'. Cadaverina 15 consisted of a series of boxes filled with leaves, fruit, animal parts and other organic material. The boxes' glass tops allowed the spectator to see the contents decay over the course of fifteen days.
People often remark on the shocking physicality of Barceló's work when confronting it for the first time. He himself says,
”...I need to have what I am painting beside me, ON the painting, smelling it, handling it. And then eating it. Using melon rinds as spatulas when I'm painting melons, and so mixing their juice with the paint...”
Tables - Still Life Paintings Brought to Life
Barceló went on to further explore these themes in the 1990's in a series of 'tables' (taulas). The surfaces of these pictures are saturated with vegetables, fruit and animals and play ironically with the name of the genre 'still life' in view of the nature of the objects that populate them and the lively way they are rendered.
Sopa amb plat vermell (Soup with red plate) 1992 is full of writhing living beings - fish, heads of birds, a goat, perhaps even human figures - the rendering of which call to mind Chagall while the black kid recalls Zurbarán.
In Taula digestiva (1991) Barceló depicts a table full of material to be consumed. The material is in various stages of consumption.
The White Paintings
Perhaps the best way to understand any artist, is to begin with what mosts attracts us in their work. It is my love for Barceló's white paintings (late 1980s - early 1990s) which helped me find my way into his bodegones.
According to Lisa Raines, the white paintings permit numerous readings: One of these is that - like the bodegones - they are about the passage of time.
"In Africa...I learnt that an artist is a person who has a relationship with the dead - in other words with the ancestors. In painting, everything is contemporary; there is a permanent dialogue with the elders, they are always in our present...Call them ghosts if you prefer."
Déjeuner sur l'herbe II (1988) is the perfect example of this: a barren, desert landscape is populated by fruits and small stones casting long shadows.
"The light is what affects you most. The light is so intense that it wipes out the colours. And the shadows...the shadows are almost stronger than objects."
Many of Barceló's other pieces of African work also feature fruit and invoke the typical themes of the still life genre.
The onions in paintings like Semences du paysage (1990) also evoke bodegones with the themes of death and the passage of time. Onions appear throughout Barceló's work, (notably in the 1986 series of prints, 3 bodegones, printed by Pasnic Atelier, Paris.) and can be read as a symbol for organic material in its most primitive form. Even some of his paintings about glaciers feature ice ridges emerging from the roots of onions.
Essence of Spain in Barcelo's Still Lifes
Although Spanish culture varies hugely from region to region, one aspect that is universal is its earthy quality - evident in the simple, unpretentious traditional food which was an anathema to my 'sophisticated' palate when I first arrived here from the UK.
Barceló employs an exaggerated sense of this earthiness. It helps him make still lifes that are truly his own, and to bring the Bodegón genre into the modern era without losing any of its essential qualities.
"You are in the art, and from there you evolve."
What genre does your work belong to?
How can you make it a unique expression of yourself whilst retaining its intrinsic nature?