More Than It Says On The Tin
The first Spanish painter I knew was my own age, and from Valencia. I knew him well, because we were entangled.
Attuned to the garret-life that art attracts, Jorge seemed to live by hidden rules. He would slow-cook the cheapest cuts of meat, and prefer them to my steaks; he would substitute hair gel with freshly-squeezed lemons, which doubled as a zesty cologne; and in place of watching English-language television, he would improvise Met Ball outfits with spare sheets, bursting into the living room with open arms, ironically declaiming “Soy una gran mariposa!”.
In the early 90s, during a hot London summer when we lived together, we would take late-evening walks around West Ealing, merging exercise with Jorge’s speculative search for art materials. I recall him surfacing an old wooden cupboard door from the innards of a domestic skip, which he brought home and cleaned down, to become his very own urban canvas.
That discarded cupboard door resulted in a piece of art which has never left my memory.
There is a certain exuberance in Spanish art, the result of a culture’s radiant spirit long suppressed. Though kings and potentates dominated Iberia through the last millennium, the Spanish heart will not be hounded. Joy is the signal quality of its art, and below it lie the layers.
Spain hides everything under the sun.
It took me time to get beyond Dalí and Picasso, Spain’s evergreen artistic heartthrobs. But their grandfather was Goya. And it is the lad from Zaragoza, born in the middle of the 18th century, who fascinates me most. This artistic genius, who kept peasant lovers by the dozen, left nuns pregnant in nunneries while wooing men and women at the Spanish Court, understood that the most powerful role of art is social commentary. Let beauty be its veil.
I fell in love with Goya first through music. His blundering romantic life was the subject of a concept musical, by Maury Yeston, called Goya – A Life In Song (1989). The artist’s life tumbled into my ears, full of juicy sentiment and jaunty rhythm:
“The astounding romantic adventures of Goya
performed by a travelling troupe from Cadiz.
It’s a sobering tale and some parts may annoy ya,
But don’t go away. If you’re wondering if Goya’s amongst us, he is…”
Art permeates, rather than assaults, the consciousness.
In a winding manner, I came to appreciate the arc of Goya’s artistic life, and to choose from among his works. I chose ‘Los Caprichos’, a series of 80 engravings so-called to put the elites off the scent, which were published in 1799. Goya himself asserted that they were about the foibles and follies of any civilised society.
Any, indeed. Due to political pressure, ‘Los Caprichos’ was soon withdrawn.
Number 43, entitled ‘The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters’, is my favourite. It acts as a warning to those tempted to delegate their thinking to others. A man is draped, exhausted, over a table while about him outsized bats, cats and gargoyles swoop and threaten. The engraving is a devastating commentary on the power of ideology and superficiality to rule ordinary people’s lives. And all because slumber felt so easy.
The Seducer of Zaragoza came to my mind as I wandered through the Mercat Central in Valencia. I encountered a neat stack of Goya beans at one of its hundreds of food stalls. The brand’s slogan is a story of old-world naivety, which the artist would surely rail against. ¡If it’s Goya, it’s got to be good!
Being in Valencia, I also thought of Jorge.
My Spanish entanglement, during that summer of 1993, produced many captivating paintings. Each was brought to life on the wood and plaster-board we recovered from West London skips. Each was adapted, in form and expression, to the surface on which it was painted. There were many subjects. I recall men with bulls’ heads, abstract blues and lemons, and fire in the tomato fields around Buñol.
But it is the portrait of a beautiful gypsy lady that lingers most, the result of a day’s work on the exposed wood of a kitchen cupboard door.
Painted in rich reds, browns and blacks, she emits pride and sensuality which is accentuated by her naked torso. One of her breasts is rendered with the full glow of early womanhood. The second breast is absent. In its place is a black vortex, painted in spare, circular brushstrokes.
The result is a whisper to feminine mystery. What has happened? Is the absence figurative or descriptive? And why do these circles suggest more beauty still?
As September rolled in, we went our separate ways. The seclusion in a small flat during long days began, gradually, to dampen Jorge’s joy. In the end, he needed to leave more than I needed him to stay.
I kept several of his skip collection, which, bit by bit, I gave to friends beginning new homes, or needing to cover poor plasterwork.
But I did not part with the single-breasted woman.
I eventually brought her home to Ireland. By then we had turned to the new millennium, and I began to think her gaze from my wall was somehow pinning me in. And so, during the course of a dinner party when a friend was admiring of her charismatic beauty, we agreed that she take the painting of the single-breasted lady to her home and her wall.
‘I will not own it’, she said, of the discarded cupboard door. ‘I will just take care of it’.
And in this manner, I took distance from that which now brings me solace.