Antoni Tàpies was recovering from a lung infection in a mountain sanatorium during his late teens when he began reading the fiction and philosophy that would shape his later oeuvre. The year was 1942.
From André Gide to Thomas Mann, whose protagonist Hans Castorp is likewise confined to a mountain sanatorium, it seems no coincidence that these writers described the Romantic figure of the young convalescent who, after a period of seclusion and solitude, returns to society with a clear sense of his own artistic purpose.
Although he wrote extensively, Tàpies would find his own vocation in visual art. In the sanatorium, he drew and painted, copying works by Picasso and Van Gogh. After returning to his home city of Barcelona in 1943, he began to study law on the insistence of his father, but soon dropped out. He would go on to become one of the most celebrated Catalan artists of the 20th century.
These 11 paintings were made between 1992 and 2009, and feature the “matter” aesthetic for which Tàpies is known. Mounted on large panels of wood and hung on the wall like canvases, traditional oil paint is eschewed in favour of rougher, more violently textured materials which are difficult to identify: a rich yellow cement that might be wet sand from afar, human hair that appears tangled and hardened with glue, brown industrial sludge that darkens around the edges to appear smoke-damaged.
The latter forms the background of Espai-visio (1996). Two angels hover near the bottom of the work, their heads and hands raised in prayer, their bright white impasto gowns comprised of what appears to be industrial paint. Mystical numbers ascend diagonally. The coarseness of the sludge is countered by the delicacy of the individual grains, which appear to crumble and fall, as though the work were a dirty stretch of beach made vertical.
Many of the works in this exhibition are meditative and beautiful. Materia i diaris (2009) evokes a stretch of desert in which torn newspaper obituary pages lie scattered. Extensio (1999) suggests the lap of a single wave, complimented, bizarrely, by a patch of hair. Prajna-Dhyana (1993) is less successful: it shows the nude lower half of a woman complete with real pubic hair, straddling an impressionistic toilet seat.
Tàpies died last year at the age of 88. These late works are a testament to the philosophical roots of his art.
The exhibition runs from 7 March – 13 April.
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