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>> Chillida Tapies
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The Water Stain

Shortly after the exhibition of works by Eduardo Chillida and Antoni Tapies opened in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, the world-famous Basque artist Eduardo Chillida passed away. Katrin Bettina Mülleron the ethics of work, the austerity of renunciation, and the uninterrupted relevance of the two Spaniards, who count among the most important representatives of post-war modernism.

Antoni Tapies has changed the way we see, opening our eyes to the traces time leaves behind and to the transience of ordinary, everyday things. A wall that posters have been torn off of; the wood of an old door whose peeling paint testifies to the many attempts at renewal and embellishment: one suddenly sees how layers of time have superimposed themselves, and at the same time how impossible it is to hold onto the present. Agnes Varda's film "Gleaners and I" (more here, here, and here), which she shot in France in 2000, is about this change in seeing. The director sought encounters with people who make their living from things other people throw away. She points to a water stain on the ceiling in her own apartment: "Still, the ceiling looks like an abstract painting. You could hang it in a museum just the way it is," she said in an interview with the german newspaper taz, and added: "Actually, what this Spanish artist Tapies does isn't all that much different."


 exhibition views
 © Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

In the era of ecological crises during the second half of the twentieth century, using the discarded, the rubbish of civilization in art with the intention of inquiring into the origin of natural resources and their finiteness has become a method that has experienced a renewed urgency again and again. Working with material that already carries its own history within it has sharpened an understanding for the larger context of art's conditions of production. This kind of questioning of material, however, hadn't yet taken place at the time when, in Spain, Antoni Tapies, in Italy Arte Povera (more on this here), and in Germany Joseph Beuys departed from an understanding of material in painting and sculpture that had been valid since the end of the Second World War. Their work with impoverished materials was a conscious transgression against an idea of art being on the side of social representation and wealth. They sought to reanimate the spiritual foundations of art that had been lost for centuries, since the end of sacral art. By using the simplest things, they were also looking for a directness in dealing with the world that wanted to comprehend the physically made once more, from the very beginning.

It is not easy today to find the political stance in a work such as that of Tapies, which is today remarkable above all by virtue of its austerity, reduction, and the repetition of signs and ciphers referring to religiosity and mysticism. Antoni Tapies, who has his own museum in Barcelona, is connected to this city through a passionate history. He experienced the Civil War as a youth, and, for years, felt the pressure of General Franco's dictatorial regime. In the Catalonian's material images, paintings, and drawings, broad shapes spread outwards, sometimes roughened up with sand or baked with marble dust like a clay wall: they form an echo of the quiet, the silence, and the isolation in a social climate marked by coded forms of dialogue difficult to approach. In Violet Brown (1962) from the Deutsche Bank Collection

 Antoni Tapies, "Brown on Black", 1959
 © VG Bild Kunst, Bonn

and Brown on Black (1959), which has arrived from the Guggenheim Museum in New York and are being shown in the exhibition space of the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, lines are etched into the surface like scars in a mixture of oil, paint, and sand. They resemble sections of a simple garment. At the same time, the canvas, the pictorial surface is treated in its property as wall and spacial boundary and as a gate into another, spiritual dimension.

Tapies sets a small number of signs into these areas: sometimes quick, frenetic scribbles, spontaneous, subjective eruptions; sometimes forms that have coagulated into symbols. Sometimes, however, the lines cut through to the ground like a painful incision or even tear the gloomy field of color open, down to the white of the paper, which shines through like a wound. With Tapies, the work of art itself takes on the status of a stigmatized body connected to the suffering of others through mysterious forces.

 Antoni Tapies, "untitled",1961
 © VG Bild Kunst, Bonn

In a large drawing Dessin Frottage (1987), the ground seems as though it had been read out of the book of nature, rubbed off cliffs or a rough wall, or perhaps simply sand lined by waves. One can almost feel the depressed and raised areas with one's fingertips. The regular texture is interrupted in one place, where lines suddenly break through and densify into a cross.

The barren and the pure, a worker's ethos and the pathos of renunciation are what connect the works of the two old Spaniards Antoni Tapies and Eduardo Chillida, which are being shown together in the exhibition space of the Deutsche Guggenheim. Both have become classics of post-war modernism represented in many museums around the world (more on Tapies here, more on Chillida here). Chillida has his own museum, as well, near San Sebastian, the city of his birth.

More than anything else, however, his sculptures have not only left their mark on numerous public spaces, but he has inscribed a multitude of possible avenues into the perception of space, expanding its real use by a number of options.

One of his most recent sculptures, a gift from the Munich patrons Irene and Peter Becker to the Federal Republic of Germany, was placed in front of the Bundeskanzleramt or chancellor's office in Berlin. Its installment created an uproar, not only because the chancellor Gerhard Schröder honored it in his speech as an "artistic commentary that almost ideally symbolizes the emergence of a unified Germany moving towards a new and open Europe," but even more because it disappeared into the recesses of the inner plaza. Georg Nothelfer, the Berlin gallery dealer and a friend of Chillida's, successfully organized a protest action and was able to amass enough signatures and mobilize museum people, members of parliament, and the press to push for the sculpture's relocation. "The problem was that the protocol of the chancellor's office had established the location as the spot where state guests arrive," the gallery dealer criticized. "The sculpture had no life of its own there." Now it stands in the front, near the fence, still inaccessible, but more visible. A positive identification with a sculpture in public space as reflected by these protests is seldom indeed.

It can once again be seen how the sculpture Berlin consists of two angular trunks grasping towards each other with their iron hooks and fingers. There is a story to its creation: while Chillida was exhibiting in Martin-Gropiu-Bau in 1991, he experienced the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. This experience provided the impetus for letting the two steel elements express these tensions in an interplay of approach and distance. By virtue of their location, they are now imbedded in a context that adds a historical symbolism to these relations of forces: two formerly divided countries striving to rejoin.

Yet the sculptor's strength lies far more in the general articulation of energies and their expression in space than in a concrete political message, even when he repeatedly lends his works this kind of historical/political meaning through his choice of title and the context of their placement. In 1980, he designed the Plaza of Basque Freedom for the city Vitoria-Gasteiz, which with its deep, labyrinthine incisions of ditches and embankments is reminiscent of escape routes and hiding places. In Guernica, he made The House of Our Father in 1988, a monumental and ornamentally perforated form referring to the bombing of the city in 1937. More frequently, however, his sculptures enter into a connection with the elements, such as the Wind Combs in San Sebastian, which communicate with the surf, the sea foam, and the cliffs, or Praise of the Horizon on the coast of Gijon.

 Eduardo Chillida, "Mural 103", 1984
 © VG Bild Kunst, Bonn

Chillida has been referring to the Basque Provinces and to the special traits of his culture ever since returning to Spain from his studies in Paris. From Within (Desde dentro) (1953), the earliest of Chillida's works in the Berlin exhibition, hangs from the ceiling of the space on Unter den Linden: iron bands bent into curves encircling an inner space, sharply cast points directed downwards like swords, and angled elements together comprise a form whose shadow on the floor seems fragile, oriental, and light, whereas the form itself emphasizes its great weight and the pull of gravity. In using iron, he picked up on an old Basque tradition famous for its blacksmith's craft. Fire and iron are regarded as symbols of the Basque way of being. This glowing energy, the lambent and the dangerous on the one hand and, on the other, the taming intervention, a redirection of forces, and their conquering in the tool: these are the tensions Chillida incorporated into his early iron sculptures.

The sculpture with the Basque title Iru Burni (Three Iron) from the year 1966 has been lent by the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

 Eduardo Chillida, "Iru Burni/ Three Irons", 1966
 © VG Bild Kunst, Bonn

Today, its treatment of space can almost be read as a precursor to deconstruction in architecture: a complex form of square steel that is bent and stepped, that winds in and around itself, twisting up and down and doubling back in a knot. The many views through the work offer a variety of interior spaces to the eye. Inside and out, open and closed penetrate one another.

More than anything else, it becomes clear in the woodcuts to what extent Chillida has always worked with the relationship between interior and exterior space. His etchings often remind one of the floor plans of medieval cities, cathedrals, and fortress walls. They describe both the boundary between and an interlocking among spaces that are defined in different ways: the private and public realms, personal and political history. The white of the paper ground hits hard in the black of the woodcuts; light and shadow, coolness and heat are sharply divided by curves and edges. The contrasts, however, always reflect how urban spaces become occupied and brought to life, an experience the sculptor made again and again in his designing of large plazas. (Here some of Chillida's etchings and woodcuts in the Gallery Nothelfer.)

This manner of dealing with spacial orders that have not been clearly laid out on the drawing board but have rather undergone a process of historic growth, adapting to the topography and incising themselves ever more deeply into the mass of the city through various forms of use, has always been implicit in his works, both in those made of iron and stone as well as in those on paper. They become instruments for reading natural and urban spaces that deviate from an accustomed interpretation. In this manner, just as his sculptures enter into a charged relationship to their environment, which will never remain the same again, their greatest presence lies in the fact that they remain open for an encounter with change.

Katrin Bettina Müller works as a freelance author in Berlin. Her main areas of concentration are fine arts and theater.

Translation: Andrea Scrima