José Manuel Ballester

Distrito Cu4tro

For José Manuel Ballester, the relationship between painting and photography has always been ambivalent yet intimate. Early in his career, the artist formulated two different and largely unrelated bodies of work. His paintings demonstrated a desire to connect to the great European pictorial tradition (that, thanks to the Prado Museum, is so accessible in Madrid), and they betrayed a certain romanticism that has remained with Ballester to this day. In addition to the paintings, however, he also undertook photographic projects, which concerned specific sites in Madrid, including the Royal Theater and a new skyscraper under construction.

Though the critical response to this combination of pictorial and photographic work was not positive, he continued working in both fields. Gradually his work with the brush and his work with the camera drew closer: His paintings, metaphysical landscapes that depicted large spaces wholly devoid of human figures, acquired a photographic realism. In the photographs, too, time seemed to stand still, and often the visual beauty of the depicted places and their surfaces seemed almost abstract; they manifested a pictorialism that was not always successful.

Ballester’s new photographic work has been furthered by the use of digital technology, which has allowed him to approach photography as a medium that is as easily manipulable as painting. Before, Ballester could have been accused of forcing the “real” photographic image to pretentious, aestheticist ends, but his recent works (despite having their origins in art rather than life) are more intense and stimulating: “Espacios ocultos” (Hidden Spaces), 2007–2008, is a series of images based on celebrated historical paintings but with the human figures and animals in the originals digitally removed. For example, Lugar para un descanso (Place to Rest), 2008, based on Patinir’s Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1518–20, and El bosque italiano I-II-III (Italian Woods I-II-III), 2008, based on Botticelli’s 1483 cycle illustrating Boccaccio’s tale of Nastagio degli Onesti, offer us the remains of actions performed by figures whose absences create a lovely strangeness. In certain works, doing away with the human figures serves to heighten the effect of the remaining pictorial elements and invites an amplified visual analysis of the canvas’s composition. This is the case with Puerto en Ostia (Port in Ostia), 2008, based on Claude Lorrain’s Port of Ostia with the Embarkation of St. Paula, 1639, where we clearly see the dialectic established by the French artist between the amorphously lit sea and the rigorously geometrical buildings. Similarly, when the figures are erased from Vermeer’s Allegory of Painting, 1666–68, to create Ballester’s Estudio del artista (Artist’s Studio), 2008, the emphasis shifts to the portrait on the canvas, which, in contrast to the original, seems to be vanishing rather than emerging.

Pablo Llorca

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.