Eduardo Arroyo

This important retrospective of the work of Eduardo Arroyo was more than simply an artistic event ; it also had political significance, giving us an overview of the current cultural orientation in France and making “official” a genre of painting that manifests social and historical commitment while taking a figurative course.

The Nouvelle Figuration (New Image)—also called Figuration Critique (Critical Image) or Figuration Narrative (Narrative Image)—first appeared during the ’60s. Among its artists, Arroyo is an exemplary figure. Born in Madrid in 1937, he moved to Paris in 1958 and made it his home. He aligned himself with Europe against America, finding a favorable reception in the heart of the French intelligentsia as he wrote, “In New York and London people think that something is happening, but it’s exactly there that nothing is happening.” With friends, he undertook a campaign against abstract art and everything that bears the mark of art for art’s sake (the enemy across the Atlantic): “Today studio art, esthetic games, or speculation on [pure] vision no longer hold.” It is in this spirit that, along with Recalcati and Gilles Aillaud, he created a series of paintings entitled La fin tragique de Marcel Duchamp (The Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp). Iconoclastic in content (but certainly not in facture), these works denounce the author of The Large Glass for having led art in a wrong direction, if not to an impasse.

A major part of Arroyo’s production rests on his disrespect for the history of painting. He is a master of pastiche: his works in this mode include a copy of The Night Watch, a stylistic detour in which he respects the physiognomy of Rembrandt’s painting to the slightest detail, and Velasquez mon père (Velasquez My Father), 1964. La femme du mineur, Perez-Martin (The Wife of Perez-Martin, the Miner), 1967, parodies Joan Miró’s Le portrait d’une danseuse espagnole (Portrait of a Spanish Dancer). At the beginning of the ’70s, Arroyo abandoned this type of exercise to take on a criticism of the artistic milieu, envisioning a series of works that would ridicule avant-garde painters. These are designated in the paintings by the polychrome, “pointillist” paint strokes that cover their faces, as in Gilles Aillaud regarde la réalité par un trou à côté d’un collègue indifférent (Gilles Aillaud Looks at Reality Through a Hole Next to his Indifferent Colleague), Peintres contents d’eux-mêmes (Self-satisfied Painters), and Habillé descendant l’escalier (Clothed [Person] Descending the Staircase), this latter being again a satire on Duchamp, a perversion of his celebrated nude.

Fortunately Arroyo’s painting cannot be reduced to an anticonformist academism. For one, he has always avoided being a “militant” artist: even in his most explicitly political works (such as Mort à Grenade [Death in Granada], 1970); moreover, the plastic reality of his work is denser, richer, and more complex than his aggressive discourses on it might imply. The series “Heureux qui comme Ulysses . . . : (Happy Those Who, Like Ulysses . . . , 1977), invokes the Joycean universe only to mingle it intermittently with elements of film noir. A series from 1978, centered around the (invisible) figure of José Maria Blanco White, is a visual narrative whose plot is hinted at in clues; the overall effect is dream like (numerous Surrealist themes are taken up and “adapted” here). In Toute la ville en parle (Talk of the Town, 1982), Arroyo creates a mysterious, mocking, unsettling world by grouping together images from advertisements. Surrealist articulations, and a certain way of treating the everyday which stems from English Pop art.

Having exhorted against it so much, Arroyo has a definite place in the vital and contradictory history of Modern art. But this place comes to him as a right because he is, after all, the only artist of the Nouvelle Figuration to fashion a painting that is novelistic but does not renounce its pictorial imperatives.

Gérard-Georges Lemaire

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.