Journalist Manuel Del Arco Álvarez had interviewed dozens of artists, politicians, and writers in Barcelona for years. Del Arco presented his column as a window into present-day culture in Barcelona for the everyday readers and, as his longevity would demonstrate, he had an audience. He was also an amateur artist, sketching caricatures of his subjects next to the byline of his column, “Mano a Mano,” which appeared weekly in La Vanguardia Española. (His drawing for his interview with Tàpies made the painter resemble a mid-50s American rockstar).
Del Arco did the interview in Barcelona with the painter at the Primera Bienal Hispanoamericana de Arte (The First Hispanoamerican Biennial of Art) where Tàpies’s work was featured. The journalist admits to his readers that he has no idea what Tàpies’ work is about, as he examines the paintings. He chose to interview Tàpies, he says, because “he is one of the most representative of the non- figurative painters.” The interview opens as both the painter and the columnist stand in front of three of the artist’s works. The journalist is not a fan, as is apparent, of modern abstract art and his tone in this interview is sarcastic. Nevertheless, Tàpies gives no ground.
It was true that under Francoism, modern art had avenues for expression not given to given to other art, in particular literature. More than any other art form, the regime and its censors feared the written word. The Francoist regime itself had a love –hate relationship to modern art and Del Arco, in a way mirrors, that view. One the one hand, the regime attempted to use art at such exhibitions to demonstrate that Spain was a modern, pluralistic society, while at the same time it often denigrated the works exhibited. There is here a parallel between the interviewer’s probing of Tàpies to that of the German officers who would stop by to gawk and comment at the works of Picasso in Paris. In this case, Tàpies confronts Del Arco’s traditionalist and relatively patronizing tone at every turn. – BL
Manuel Del Arco. – What is that?
Antoni Tàpies – Three paintings.
M.D.A. – What is a painting according to you?
A.T. – A vehicle capable of transmitting to the viewer the type of emotion X that the author tries to represent.
M.D.A. – This painting…for some it is the skin of an elephant; for others it’s a rock.
What does it represent to you?
A.T. – Neither the skin of an elephant, nor a rock; it is simply a pictorial composition.
M.D.A. – A painting. ¿Is it all just surface with colors over it?
A.T. – In the sense of a work of art, no.
M.D.A. – Your painting. What is it?
A.T. – I concern myself with arriving at emotion directly without the need to typecast myself in some orthodoxy.
M.D.A. – The whole world regrets that. The paintings of the others excite you?
A.T. – If they are good, yes.
M.D.A. – And when are they good?
A.T. – When they satisfy the viewer’s spiritual needs at the moment.
M.D.A. – Togores would answer exactly the same and he is the polar opposite of you. (Josep de Togores [1893-1970] was a Catalan painter who had work with Cubism and Surrealism, but ended up painting portraits of Catalan society figures).
A.T. – Togores tries to solve spiritual needs that are already amply solved.
M.D.A. – What are the spiritual needs that you discover have been unsatisfied?
A.T. First of all, to make my contemporaries think about a new vision of reality. Reality isn’t simply what we have in front of our eyes. Through the contributions of science and philosophy, the concept of reality varies: today, more than ever, a series of conceptions have to be altered.
M.D.A. – Can you explain in your canvas reality?
A.T. – Explaining it as a description, no; I avail myself of some mechanisms, we can say a prop, for provoking the viewer to make a conscience examination of all the ideology that they have up to this moment, in order to confront new problems.
M.D.A. – Problems of confusion?
A.T. – On the one hand, yes; for me art has to perturb, to obligate the viewer to discussion.
M.D.A. – But do you make paintings or hieroglyphics?
A.T. – The hieroglyphic, if there is, isn’t in the painting, but in the spiritual baggage of the viewer. Through art, the viewer should decipher his hieroglyphics. Is that clear?
M.D.A. – No; in every case I understand that the viewer can interpret this new painting as he feels. Is that so?
A.T. No; the artist uses some mechanisms that force the spectator, doesn’t let him free, and obligates him to analyze things in a certain way.
M.D.A. – But only he will understand you, if you are being honest, who thinks exactly as you do.
A.T. – If he thinks the same as I do, he will have the pleasure of seeing the ideology he shares with me ratified; and if he doesn’t think as I do, he will find himself, naturally, perturbed and forced to reanalyze his conceptions.
M.D.A. – And if you remain alone, who is disturbed: you or the people that don’t understand you?
A.T. – I believe completely that the artist as solitary as he might be, never is incomprehensible: he exists always in a group that shares his ideology.
M.D.A. – The artist doesn’t have to convince others more?
A.T. – The artist in order to make himself understood, does not have to lower himself to others; they are the ones that have to rise to the artist.
M.D.A. – That isn’t pedantry?
A.T. – I don’t think so, because I’m not denying anyone the capacity of understanding me.
M.D.A. – Do you deny others the capacity of denying you?
A.T. – All of the world has a perfect right to affirm or deny me: precisely all controversy in art can become useful for guiding the public. But at the moment I put myself to work, like a scientist in a laboratory, I don’t care whether one affirms or denies me.
M.D.A. – Do you, and all those as yourself, take into account that we like figurative painting more, and do not like those that you all do?
A.T. – Well, then, we have achieved something.
M.A.D. – Sure, destroying.
A.T. – No, forming a new sensitivity.
M.A.D. – And where will it stop?
A.T. – I believe that the progressive artist, together with all progressive intellectuals like him, contributes to shaping a new consciousness.
M.A.D. – A consciousness of what?
A.T. – Of reality.
M.A.D. And you show this reality; it’s in your paintings?
A.T. – Reality is never in some painting, since the paintings of Altamira (trans. note: Tàpies is referring to the ancient paintings from Northern Spain that are some of the earliest human depictions in existence) art is only a sign, reality is in the mind of the viewer.
(At that moment a viewer passes in front of Tàpies’ paintings; he contemplates them and says “This is a chipped wall, with a patina of time.”)
M.D.A. – Did you hear that? –
A.T. That remark doesn’t seem bad; there’s a lot of drama in the fragment of a wall.
M.D.A. – Why didn’t they send you to the hall of the crime?
A.T. – I’m already there.
M.A.D. – Happy to be there?
A.T. – Facing being an art functionary, I prefer to be cursed.
M.D.A. – You have got it.