Guillermo Solana. Smudge and memory. Las Formas del Silencio.
Libro monográfico “Las formas del Silencio. Antología crítica”” (años noventa). Madrid 2005
SMUDGE AND MEMORY: PAINTINGS OF JOSÉ MANUEL CIRIA
The smudge is not an original discovery of modern painting. In Renaissance treatises we already find the recognition of what in Tuscan was called “macchia”. But the legitimate possibility of the shapeless was then confined to the two extremes of the creative process: the beginning and the end, the before and the after of painting.
In between these two marginal moments the artistic voyage was framed: Leonardo da Vinci ascertained the macchia as a first invention; on the other hand, Tiziano would explore the final smudge, the sketched result (the Spanish writers also distinguished it, they called the first smudge “borrón” (blot) and the last ones “borrones” (blots).
The smudge as an inaugural invention
In a well-known passage of his Treaty of Painting Leonardo offers his view on the inaugural macchia. Among the notes of the practice of painting he offers a suggestion to stimulate the genius of various inventions: “If you see some walls filthy with smudges or made with different stones and you begin to invent scenes, there you can see the image of different landscapes, beautified by mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and hills of all kinds. And you would also see battles and hectic figures or strange faces, and clothes and infinite things that you could translate to its entire and penetrating form. It happens with these varied walls as with the sound of bells, that in their pealing you will discover the name or word you imagine”.
This componimento inculto, uncouth method of composition, (that it appears to be was recommended by the Chinese painter Sung-Ti back in the eleventh century) was adopted by Piero di Cosimo and later by the British landscape painter Alexander Cozens, and also by Goya and Victor Hugo (with his fantastic drawings from coffee stains) and up to Odilon Redon. All of them began translating to the paper or canvas Leonardo’s wall, blemishing the medium’s whiteness and letting the chance of matter provoke the artist’s imagination.
It has to be said that, for Leonardo, the smudge was nothing more than a starting point. This is the origin of his controversy with Botticelli who said that the study of the landscape was useless as “it was only necessary to throw a coloured soaked sponge on a wall, that would leave a smudge where a beautiful landscape would be seen”. “It is true -Leonardo answered- that the multiple compositions of things that are sought to be found in a smudge can be seen… but although these smudges can nourish your ingenuity, they do not show you how to finish off any detail”.
The Smudge as a completion
A second classical sense of the macchia can be distinguished. The essayists of the Renaissance frequently mention an anecdote taken from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, that refers to a painting of Protogenes. “There is in it -Pliny wrote- a dog made in a curious manner, because it is an equal result of both the painter and chance. The painter considered that it did not completely depict the panting animal’s foam, when all the other parts of the painting satisfied him, quite a remarkable accomplishment. But he was disgusted by its own perfection: he was unable to tone it down and on the other hand it seemed unreasonable and very distant from reality, and it was clear the foam was painted, not as if it came out of the dog’s mouth. With a tormented and uneasy soul as in that painting he wanted reality and not credibility, he often corrected it, changing the paintbrush without achieving any satisfactory result. At last, frenzied about his art as it was too noticeable he threw a sponge at the part of the painting that annoyed him. And that sponge put back the colours the painter had removed in such a way that it left it as he had wished it with such a determination, thus chance making in that painting the effect of nature.
Up to here this is the mentioned part of the anecdote. But Pliny continues, “Following his example, a similar success crowned Nealces in the painting of a horse’s foam; he similarly threw a sponge in the same manner when he was painting the man who restrained it”.
The anecdote, be it of one artist or another, horses or dogs, is found in other contemporary authors: in Valerius Maximus’ Memorabilia, Dion Crisostomus or in Plutarco’s De Fortuna. But none of them grasps the essential thing; imitating Protogenes, Nealces makes the random gesture a deliberate technique, the first calculated exploitation of a mishap.
Ars est celare artem
In its two phases, initial and final, the smudge brings the magic of a figure that does not seem to be created by a human hand but by chance.
Both meanings of the smudge are mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of artists. In the first place, the initial outline of the painting, rapidly made “in forma di una macchia”. The second meaning of macchia is mentioned about Tiziano. Vasari compares the juvenile paintings of the master, executed with an incredible care and excellence, to the later works, “condotte di colpi, tirate via di grosso e con macchie” that have to be looked at from afar. These last paintings, he says, many considered made “senza fatica”, but they were mistaken, as they were very laboured works, it was just the final smudges made “the paintings seem alive”, “hiding the weariness”.
A century later, Baldinucci the essayist wrote, “Tiziano used to make his things with great accuracy and love, but when he was about to finish, he gave them some blows, as if he mistreated them, so to say, and this he did to cover the weariness and make them seem more masterly”. Thus the final smudge is an art that disguises itself as nature and chance, an art of disguising art. In The Courtier, Castiglione recommended sprezzatura, in art and in life, that is the scorn that conceals the labour of making the work.
In his Art of Painting, the Spanish essayist Francisco Pacheco would apply the same idea to another Venetian disciple, El Greco. The Spaniard wrote, “Others work the outline, and when finished use smudges, as if this shows more dexterity and ease than others, and this being very difficult they cloak it with this skill, because, who would believe Dominico Greco brought many times his painting to his hands, to leave different and detached colours and strike those smudges to pretend bravery? This is what I call work to be poor.
The final smudge is a paradoxical finishing that seems to make the work be unfinished, an ending that leaves the work open.
Both classic ideas of the smudge have persisted in the painting of the twentieth century: the initial smudge of invention (promoted by the painter) and the final smudge of execution (that sparks off the spectator), what is found and what is made, nature and the art that cloaks art. These two ends are a dilemma for the contemporary artist.
The search for the initial smudge dominates the surrealists. Both Max Ernst and André Masson, for example, resort to Leonardo’s lesson for proposing methods to exploit chance in painting. In his famous essay Sur le frottage (1936), Ernst explained his discovery in 1925 of this technique that consists of running a soft pencil over a paper to obtain the textures of the underneath surfaces. On the other hand André Masson created in 1927 his first “sand images” with the purpose of covering “the distance between the spontaneity and lightning speed of the drawings and the idea that unavoidably meddles in the canvas”. The surrealists wanted to preserve the automatic purity of the initial smudge; they wanted to be faithful to what was found, to the first burst.
An opposite attitude to this would be taken by the abstract expressionists and especially De Kooning: to abide by not to the first smudge but to the last one. De Kooning used to undo and remake each picture many times, in an endless process that erased his own traces. In his works (at least until the eighties) the initial smudge is never visible; it is buried under many successive layers. The task now is not recovering the starting point, but in keeping the process open; the finishing touch is shown as a new beginning.
De Kooning’s working method, as Brian O’Doherty writes, “makes time a place in the canvas, and gives a memory to that place piling deposit over deposit. It is therefore a somewhat literal experience of the passing of time…” A destructive time, where each moment asserts its existence annihilating the previous moment (to be in turn annihilated by the following).
“Without hiding the forgotten”
In the scope of these questions we can locate the last works of José Manuel Ciria, who nowadays stands out as one of the most interesting Spanish painters of his generation. Ciria’s development in the nineties does not lack links with automatism; he is distantly related to surrealism and closer to the American abstract expressionism. But in relation to the two smudges dilemma, the initial and the final one, the strong and at the same time subtle work of Ciria does not cancel any of the two ends, instead it tends to overcome them, preserving the tension between the before and the after the picture.
When Ciria uses canvas as the support, they are often old sunshades, already stained by smudges, as the ones in Leonardo’s wall (though without the desire to incite figurative suggestions). On this basis other deliberate smudges are deposited, tracks of spilled or splashed paint by the artist. But not burying or concealing the previous marks. Unlike De Kooning, Ciria does not cover all the picture with paint, he is very conscious of the importance of preserving that naked and visible background as a reference. In that empty space the forms can expand and breathe. But at the same time, the respect of the background implies that the leeway to remake the painting is quite narrow: the artist only has two or three tests to solve the canvas, and if he fails he will have to discard it.
In some occasions Ciria has remarked his interest in time and memory, and his titles mention it: “Memory of the dream”, “Memory of the nymph”, “Memory of Obernai”, “The invisible memory”, “The spirit of memory” “Stopped time”, “Mnemosyne”. But, what structure would the memory that arises form his peculiar painting process have?
At the beginning of Civilization and Its discontents, Freud tackles the problem of persistence and forgetfulness: “Having overcome the mistaken idea that forgetfulness… implies the destruction or annihilation of the mnemonic rest, we are inclined to believe the opposite idea that in the psychic world nothing once formed can ever disappear. In some way all is preserved and in favourable circumstances it can reappear as, for example, in a deep enough regression”.
Freud theorises then a detailed similarity to the city of Rome, in its big and complex succession of aspects, from the first town site on Mount Palatino, the Roma quadrata, to what the current tourist sees. Let’s suppose, he says, that Rome were not a city but a psychic entity. In such a case, all the phases would still stand in each place: the imperial palaces and the Septimontium would still stand, the battlements of the Sant Angelo Castle crowned by statues (as they were before the Goth siege). Where today stands the Cafarelli palace we would also see the temple of Jupiter; in the current Coliseum site we would also see the Domus Aurea of Neron; in the Piazza della Rotonda we would not only find the Panteon as Hadrian left it, but also Agrippa’s original construction, and the earlier church of Maria sopra Minerva and even before the ancient temple on which it was built. The spectator could see all this at the same time, superposed and totally visible.
Couldn’t all the simultaneous coexistence of all the layers of the memory be made in painting? A painting that were a palimpsest, where the lower writings could be deciphered under the more recent ones. “Without hiding the forgotten” is the revealing title of one of Ciria’s paintings of 1995.
It has been said that each of Ciria’s paintings shows its own process. But this exhibition is not so natural or ingenuous as it could be supposed. Quite often the backgrounds that seem untouched, printed cloth for example, are actually reconstructed (pasted or sewn). In many cases, as we are going to see, the superposing layer does not match the order in which the picture was painted. “You must not rely much -Celia Montolío says- on the memory that goes across the works of José Manuel Ciria: maybe its a tricky memory”.
There are many Ciria’s canvases -especially between 1993/94- where the vertical and horizontal stripes live with smudges of a more accidental appearance. This contrast has been described as an opposition between the shapeless and the tectonic, the expressive and the rational. But the appearance of this paintings is misleading: the uneven smudges, that seem to be a result of chance and nature, are precisely what is under the artist’s responsibility. The horizontal and vertical stripes, however, that suggest the conscious design, are a casual result; they are the marks of a greasy friction that the canvas has from its earlier life, when it was only a simple sunshade (the sunshade as Ciria explains, contributes with its own memory with these marks). So what seems to be found is what the artist produced and vice versa.
But there is even more. Consider some of these pictures on plastic canvas: the Natural Encounters series, “After the rain”, “The invisible memory”, “Memory of the nymph”, “Full and empty or the idea of Matisse”, “Equilibrium”, “New forest” among others. In all of them the horizontal and vertical stripes appear superposed to the uneven smudges, as if the reticle was the last work. But it is really the other way round: the artist has preserved the reticle (the original smudge, the found one) covering it with cloaking tape and painting over it.
If these paintings expose a personal memory process, they do it in a reverse manner, deliberately mixing the time, the before and the after, using a kind of flashback to bring to the present the furthest past, always changing the successive order of things.
In Ciria’s smudges, placid or violent, uneven or smooth, warm colours prevail: yellows and ochres, reds, especially deep and dark reds, mixed with black. In front of the paintings of Ciria some spectators can´t help talking of blood. The artist seems surprised and disdains the suggestion, as if it were the last thing which he could think about: “Blood?” Yes, dry blood, darkened, congealed and above all layered, like in a microscopic preparation, to allow us scrutinise its innermost constitution.
This constitution is never dense and even, but heterogeneous and full of hollowness and thin membranes, like cellular tissue. Eugenio d’Ors precisely proposed, to complete the anatomy of the pictorial forms, a histology of painting: a micrologic analysis of its textures. For Rembrandt’s histology of painting, d’Ors proposed three terms: “rag”, “mince” and “emulsion”. Rag because it is like a fragment of worn cloth. Mince because it breaks up in small particles, in atoms like minced meat. And to end, emulsion, because it evokes a fluid that has in suspension drops of another fluid insoluble in it.
These terms could also be applied to the painting of Ciria. The contexture of rag is suggested by the “deconstructed” washings and rubs, that unravel the mass. The water drippings over the oil sometimes provoke a sensation of mincing. And the actions and reactions of water and oil, that are mutually repellent, provoke the emulsion effect. What is common in all these textures in the canvases of Ciria is the introduction of a kind of tingling, an intersticial movement, in the own substance of the paint. Does not this suggest an insidious infiltration of time in matter? Time not only bites the outlines of the forms; it wears, erodes, corrodes, devours from the inside all the extension of the smudge. Time opens its way among the cracks, and the whole painting acquires, in a strange contrast with its freshness, the appearance of ruins.
All this still refers to the represented time in painting. But along with it there is another more literal presence of time: the physical passing that effectively ends with things. The own human memory is subjected to the destiny of matter; although it thinks it possesses time, and embraces and suppresses it in its own, it will finally discover that it is time what possesses and destroys it.