Antonio Saura

Galeria Maeght

Both the paintings and the personality of Antonio Saura have been described as paradigms of the Spanish character, even though his work is neither autobiographical nor specifically nationalistic. Saura defined his universe of black and white images as early as the ’50s, when he was part of the Spanish equivalent of the informel movement. Many critics in the mid ’60s, when Saura was already being shown internationally, saw his work as a sort of bridge between tradition and innovation. His brother Carlos, the well-known film director, once remarked that Saura had refuted the idea that “painting is dead” so widely accepted at the time; Carlos used the term “sacrileges” of the paintings to evoke the radical transformations they worked on the pictorial image, and especially on the concept of the portrait. Saura’s attempts to rejuvenate painting, to make it a living thing, are based in a kind of negation. These are anti-images, nonportraits, their subjects impossible to identify.

At the time of his retrospective at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1979, Saura made a return to painting after a decade mostly dedicated to prints, declaring that in formal terms he wanted to establish a link between past and future. His icons and subject matter remained largely the same, but he also introduced several important changes, as the works in this show indicate. His earlier techniques of direct gesture and calligraphy have given way to more ordered strokes, and his pallette of black, white, and gray has broadened to include more organic colors. Moreover, the disruption of the image is no longer the primary impulse of his work; instead the search for structure has taken the lead.

Yet the idea of structure was already present in Saura’s method. In fact, the centering of the portrait in the canvas was itself a structure, creating what Saura calls an “encounter” between “an image already desired” and “the signs that make it possible.” The dichotomy between the demands of representation and those of accumulative expression pushes Saura to a deformation of the image, but a deformation to which traditional criteria of beauty do not apply. Such criteria are simply circumvented. Irony has an important place in Saura’s explorations of the myths of art and the artist; he paints portraits and scenes such as crucifixions because they are symbols of art history, representation, and the artist’s narcissistic projection. The obsessive convulsions of Saura’s forms are destructive of objectivity and viewer identification, leaving no possibility of sublimation with the art object. Subjects often recur in more than one work, and visual repetitions are common, but this is not part of a progressive destruction of the image; rather, Saura’s intention is the opposite—the individuation of each and every pictorial form. Instead of fighting tradition, he seeks to emphasize its true values.

Since Saura’s focus is no longer the dialectic contradiction between the structure of the image and the disruptiveness of graphic expressiveness, he has lost the possibility of a balance, a point of equilibrium or synthesis. His approach is inherently unstable, and a painting is complete not when the equilibrium point is reached but when he makes a decision to stop. This route is a hard one, but by taking risks Saura perhaps will avoid the greatest danger—stylization.

Gloria Moure