Art and literature: the case of Charris


Bonet, Juan Manuel

The Song of the Cricket, 1993. Oil on canvas. 33 x 41 cm

The Song of the Cricket, 1993. Oil on canvas. 33 x 41 cm

The Song of the Cricket, 1993. Oil on canvas. 33 x 41 cm

Ángel Mateo Charris. One of the most literary painters I know, and at the same time one of the most painterly of painters. A seeming paradox, and yet no paradox. The same could be said of Giorgio de Chirico –the great beacon of all those in Spain who for years have professed themselves to be Neo-Metaphysical or, as in the present case “supercalifragimetaphysical”– and of his brother Alberto Savinio. And of‹ Edward Hopper, to whose landscapes Gonzalo Sicre and he made their pilgrimage, which among other things has brought us the luxury curatorship of Gail Levin for the exhibition documented by this catalogue. Of Pierre Roy, in Nantes. Or of Karel Teige in Prague. Of Meret Oppenheim in her Central European forest. And, of course, of someone who taught Charris the secret of the box: Joseph Cornell, who in Utopia Parkway succeeded in constructing a Europe far finer than the genuine article. And also, just between ourselves, of “magic realists” such as Alfonso Ponce de León, José María Ucelay or Urbano Lugrís. Coming closer to the present time, we could say the same of the Italian Salvo, another Neo-Metaphysical artist in his way. Of Luc Tuymans, a painter who explores the nature of his Belgianness and who, if he were Asturian, would not please a good many of his Spanish admirers. And, in the United States, of Ed Ruscha, Mark Tansey and above all Alex Katz, the Hopper of this fin de siècle, whom I had the pleasure of introducing to Charris on the threshold of the IVAM.

A painter capable of the utmost craftsmanship, and at the same time ‹capable of burying it all, disguising it all with normality. Perhaps where he best displayed this twin ability was in 1993, in the República de Cartagena exhibition, dedicated “to those who love the far blue yonder”, where, in a tone that lay somewhere between Hopper and crepuscular Symbolism, he painted what was closest to him: “normal”landscapes from his native country, such as that little jewel El canto del grillo (The Song of the Cricket, 1993).

“The more normal his images are, the more they disturb us” I wrote in ABC in 1992 in connection with his one-man show at El Caballo de Troya, Dis Berlin’s former gallery in Madrid.

Cartagena, the most metaphysical city in Spain. Not long ago, Juan Lagardera, who was one of the first to defend the cause of Charris’ work, reused this formula of mine (for which I will not charge him royalties) in a political column. Cartagena is fundamental for understanding Charris: see the exhibition just mentioned or the end of his mini-story “Falsacapa” in number 11 of his mini-magazine La Naval , issued in March 1999: “At the end of the invisible ring hanging from his ankle there was a huge, heavy ball, a vast sentence of guilt the size of the entire city of Cartagena.”

As an ideal metaphysical city Cartagena is full of barracks and powder magazines, wharfs and hangars and cranes, lighthouses and arsenals, factories and refineries, ancient banks, dilapidated hotels and the charmless railway buildings characteristic of a stazione termini, and shops that were in fashion decades ago, like those painted some years back by Pelayo Ortega in Gijón. Cartagena’s yacht club is not as prestigious as the one in San Sebastián, but it is superbly situated. Its main monument ­–Isaac Peral’s very own submarine, like some objet trouvé– has an air of Jules Verne about it and would not be out of place in Nantes, the native city of the author of Around the World in 80 Days. Not very far away are the disused mines of what was La edad de oro (1993). The two metaphysical sons of Cartagena par excellence are Ángel Mateo Charris and his great friend and rather than colleague accomplice Gonzalo Sicre. Also imbued with metaphysics are the images brought from there some time ago by another of the painters in Muelle de Levante, the Valencian artist Marcelo Fuentes, someone whose devotion to Morandi and Hopper is beyond all doubt. And let us not forget that another citizen of Cartagena is the main marchand of Valencian Neo-Metaphysical work, Ramón García Alcaraz, the driving force behind a gallery with a highly literary name, My Name’s Lolita Art.

Charris’s relationship with Cartagena, evident in the extraordinary República de Cartagena (Republic of Cartagena) series and in many individual paintings, is actually somewhat like the relationship of Jules Verne with Nantes, or of Lezama with Havana, or of so many stationary travellers with their own cities, so different from one another and yet always so much the same. It was no accident that in Brussels our painter’s attention focused on Delvaux’ss trams and streets and Magritte’s grey men “the images of two artists who extended the horizons of their province until they made them coincide with our dreams”.

Cartagena, the world. That is precisely what the painter said himself, in the catalogue for República de Cartagena, speaking through his alter ego Jorge Witt: “Here I discovered Hopper’s houses, Friedrich’s skies, De Chirico’s squares, Morandi’s still-lifes, Ruscha’s reds, Géricault’s seas.

A literary painter, the painter of Rareza del siglo (Rarity of the Century), of this “century of centuries” as a big wheel in a fairground, of the “century of machines and foreigners, airports and petrol stations” of El siglo de las sombras. In this connection, one of his fundamental pictures, in my view, is Un cierto ocaso A Certain Decline, 1996): the sea, the sky, the big wheel once again and other linear architectural elements half-eroded against the sky, and the smiling flag of Cartagena

A record of this century in Spain. Charris systematically promotes writers from the early Spanish avant-garde movements. His chief idols, in this connection, are Ramón Gómez de la Serna –inspired by whom he has written “aphorisms in oils” and Vicente Huidobro, two authors who ‹always showed that they were particularly porous to the plastic arts, something that in the case of the Madrid writer is very clear when we browse through his brilliant encyclopaedia of Ismos (1931), whereas in the case of the Chilean writer we must refer to the coloured visual poems that make up his unpublished book Salle 14 –shortly to be issued in a facsímile edition by the IVAM – and to his portraits by Picasso, Juan Gris, Arp, Torres-Garcí, Lajos Tihanyi, Santiago Ontañón and other artists. The wake of Ramón in the Spanish art of this fin de siècle, the wake of modernity compatible with a taste for the nineteenth century, with a jovial humour that can twist into blackness, cosmopolitanism compatible with traditionalism, love of objects and most especially at the prices of the fleamarket –a wake still visible in many nooks and crannies, something that unfortunately can be said of very few writers of those times in Spain

As for the fraternity of admirers of the author of Altazor, although considerably fewer in numbers they include a colleague and friend of Charris –thinking specifically of Dis Berlin, who, with a commission from Paloma Chamorro, managed to make a film from Hallali There is a marvellous “Manifiesto de manifiestos” written by Charris for the catalogue of his exhibition in Murcia in 1991, taking as its starting-point one of the Manifestes of 1925. Also marvellous, masterly and highly opportune is the formula concluding an old text by Huidobro in the ninth issue of La Naval, published in August 1998: “After so much thesis and antithesis, what is needed now is the great synthesis”.

Another recent testimony of his Hispanic avant-garde delvings: the inclusion in the same issue of his mini-magazine of various fragments from the novel Paula y Paulita, by Benjamín Jarnés. One of the finest prose writers of the generation of 1927 is thus added to a vast list, like all those that can be extracted from Charris’s multiform oeuvre, where he appears alongside Valle-Inclán, Joan Miró, the trio from the Residencia (Lorca, Dalí Buñuel) and their friend Maruja Mallo, Enrique Jardiel Poncela (“Life is so bitter that every day it stimulates the desire to eat”), Torres-García (to whom tribute has been paid on two occasions), César Vallejo, Óscar Domínguez, the photomontage artist Josep Renau (to whose grandeur and misery there is a reference in this very exhibition in El hombre de las tijeras en el país de los Renaus [The Man with the Scissors in the Land of the Renaus], 1998), Joan Brossa, the Cuban Singer Bola de Nieve, the excellent Cartagena novel by Ramón J. Sender, Mister Witt en el Cantón (1936), from which he took the pseudonym of “Jorge Witt“, that we mentioned earlier, and the 1934 poem “Costa en Cabo de Palos” de Antonio Oliver

Another “fan club” to which Charris belongs, and that I feel it is absolutely necessary to mention while we are reviewing his literary background, is that of Tintin. La línea clara (The Clear Line, 1999): a concept that originated in the context of the Belgian comic, brilliantly developed by Hergé himself and by Jacob. Luis Alberto de la Cuenca has successfully transferred it to the realm of poetry. Gonzalo Tena has shown that it is possible to apply it to painting, and in black: “the clear black line”.

Like them, a good number of our finest poets and narrators and our finest painters have drawn lasting lessons from a reading of the albums created by Hergé, someone who also late in life succeeded in assembling a collection of paintings and spent many years learning from Magic Realism and from his compatriot Magritte, not the Metaphysical artists too Hergé, going beyond the explicit tributes that exist in this oeuvre very substantial ones they are, thinking, for example, among recent works, of Lógica borrosa (Fuzzy Logic, 1995) and above all the definitive Chang chez Hopper (Chang chez Hopper, 1996) “I think that he is one of the masters who have taught Charris to be himself, behind the masks. To marvel at Un cielo de motel (Motel Sky, 1992), or Las viejas atracciones (The Old Amusements) in a Fellini-style circus –the origin of another even more masterly image: Atracciones Franco (Franco Entertainments, 1998 which as a bonus includes a tribute to the humour of Tono and Mihura; or at an interior in the European night, or even, with a mixture of irony and sincerity, at realities provided to him by artists who are at the opposite pole, such as Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Dan Graham or Sophie Calle.

Above all, to be a stationary traveller, longing for broad open spaces. To construct Charrilandia –“this mined territory” as I called it in 1991, shortly after becoming acquainted with it– one painting at a time. To dream "on seeing a map of the Caribbean drawn in pale colours, of tales of pirates. To become lost, too, in the whiteness of snow and ice something that in the case of the Belgian artist was translated into Tintin in Tibet, and, in Charris’s case, into Esperando a Malevich (Waiting for Malevich, 1994) and other pictures from an exquisite cycle, of which we still find echoes in the work of 1998 and 1999, for example in the minimal Minimal , or in Nochevieja. Fin de siglo (New Year’s Eve. End of the Century) and Susana y los hombres (Susana and the Men), in both of which the effectiveness of the white increases because they are painted on canvases two metres high and three metres wide

Charris as a writer himself. In his generation in Spain he is not the only painter who has developed this ability, and in this context we must mention the early literary vocation of Dis Berlin, evident in an unpublished collection of poems, and his early interest in Valery Larbaud, Paul Morand and Patrick Modiano, and a book such as Mitad del gozne by Xesús Vázquez, and Perejaume’s entire project, and the ability of Luis Mayo to ‹convey a note of truthfulness, in literary fiction, to paintings of Buenos Aires that are only the result of a journey around his room, and the doublé militancy of Ángel Guache, also present in Charris’s La Naval. But if we except this last case, which is of someone who on more than one occasion has seemed to be preparing to abandon the field of images definitively for that of words, it is hard to find anyone in the world of the plastic arts in Spain who is more capable of literature than Charris. Charris, as a writer, is to be found dispersed in his catalogues, including the one that the reader now has in his hands, in catalogues of other artists, fragments from various of which I have already quoted, in art magazines and of course in the pages of La Naval, where he may either see his native city as a huge, heavy ball or else, in the tenth issue, in September 1998, imagine a Cartagena dialogue between two “little old brewers” Mies and Terragni, about the work of Martín Lejarraga, an architect friend

Among the best of Charris’texts are his Europía, travel notes (there is a marvellous night picture with the same title, of 1998, that will now be seen in his exhibition in Valencia), resulting from an itinerary made that very year in the company of Gonzalo Sicre and Paqui Marín and published in the summer 1999 issue of Arte y Parte. In those notes I find many things that strike a familiar note. The presentation of Aix-en-Provence as a dull and therefore interesting city, and his ecstasy before the sacred outline of Sainte-Victoire. The sly reference to Larbaud and, even more important the reference to Satie: here Charris’s tremendous, monumental Parade (1999) will be seen for the first time, an altarpiece rightly considered by Gail Levin as a “closing statement” for the century, and we will also see his photomontages, Gnossiennes and Café Satie, also belonging to this year. The tribute, mentioned earlier, to Magritte and Delvaux, two universally provincial artists. The allusion to another of his compatriots, the great secret painter Léon Spilliaert, one of those obscure authors that are suddenly illuminated, recently the focus of Spilliaert en Cartagena. The greeting to “the shadow of Hergé smiling amid scented rain in the capital of the Belgians”.

In Paris, “the imposing figure of the Delaunay Tower”.

The presentation of neon lights –¿which reminds me of a plan of mine, Museum of Neon Lights in Warsaw, now increasingly hard to realice because by dint and virtue of progress the objects in it are disappearing before our very eyes. The folly of influences –“¿How can one have a hundred masters at the same time and not be crazy”– and the constant quest for intensity and purity. Travelling as contradiction: “You know I don’t like travelling, although I adore the idea of travelling.”

And those splendid first lines which already set the tone of this painter, with his voracious appetite for other people’s images and his fiendish intelligence, providing a textual body for his obsessions as a painter: “Motorways of Europe. Museums of the world. Blue rain. Eyes exhausted and hard disk overloaded, begging for more memory, intoxicated with history”.

Bringing to a close this circumambulation around Charris, these brief notes of admiration which ought to be, I am well aware, much longer since I have hardly spoken, for example, of Edward Hopper, although in my defence I will say that I have done so on another occasion; nor have I mentioned two of my favourite “minor” pictures, Flatiron Building (1994), with its tribute to Edward Steichen, and Puerto Trópico (Tropical Harbour, 1995), which would be a good pretext for the beginning of a novel.

I wish to end on an image by Charris himself, a literary image present in the heart of his own painting, the image of a whale weather-vane outlined in the dusk against El cielo en la Morería (The Sky in the Moorish Quarter, 1996); a sky that at first I mistakenly thought belonged to Madrid and took to be tortuously in the style of Rafael Cansinos Asséns, perhaps the most radical of our stationary travellers, who lived in a street of that name, the Calle de la Morería, beside the Viaduct so beloved by Jorge Luis Borges and, indeed, all Ultraist poets, but this sky is actually his own: seen between low clouds, and pure Cartagena.



Catalogue IVAM, Valencia 1999.