Miquel Barceló's ghost stories Anaël Pigeat in conversation with the artist
Spanish artist Miquel Barceló is presenting his Grisailles at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Pantin, as well as taking part in “Les Choses”, an exhibition at the Louvre curated by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac. It was the perfect opportunity to ask him about his recent work and the painters he has known.
By Anaël Pigeat
Miquel Barceló settled at the tip of the island of Majorca in 1984 and it is there, after living in New York - where he was friends with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat - and from time to time in Paris, that he spends most of his time today. His home is a 13th century farmhouse with the sea to one side and to the other, a rocky summit hollowed out with caves to which he is a frequent visitor. Fruit trees and 100-year-old olive trees are dotted across his land, where cows (their eyes reminding him of the shape of Iberian statues), donkeys and wild goats roam free. We spoke with him about his series Grisailles that is informed by a constant dialogue with his previous works and the history of painting.
You have steeped yourself in age-old Majorcan culture in much the same way as Pablo Picasso took an interest in ancient Roman sculptures in Gósol (Spain). What interests you so?
Majorcan culture is the result of a series of contradictions, a Mediterranean culture that has been colonised several times and subjected to all sorts of corruptions. It represents my roots and provides a source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment that I can’t find anywhere else. This disturbs me enough to keep me alert. I grew up here. I know these mountains and I have seen with my own eyes the destruction that has taken place. It’s like a slap in the face. When I was very young, I was committed to defending environmental causes - today we can see the extent to which this struggle has failed.
Your series Grisailles contrasts strongly with the golden light of the island and the colour of the earth around your house. What do these greys represent?
Grisaille is a form of painting that speaks of my painting, which is entirely cerebral. I draw with charcoal; I paint and then paint again with a roller. I draw very slowly and paint very quickly. Several times in my life, I stopped using white, as if to rethink my work. It’s not a bad patch, in fact it’s something like the moment when a DJ changes records, or the changing of seasons. These particular whites in my recent works arrived after the intense and colourful paintings I painted during lockdown.
It’s a well-known fact that you were friends with Hervé Guibert and that he came to see you in Majorca when he was already very ill. It seems there are a lot of ghosts in your art, for example a leopard that’s on the canvas but absent from the title of the painting. These works have a ghostly aspect (but one which is not without humour) as if in echo to photography’s use of black and white.
Of course, but as you know photography, lithography, serigraphy and all those other 19th century inventions that end with the letter “y” have all become pictorial techniques. The same goes for my collages. As for this tiger and swordfish next to us, it is indeed quite funny. Obviously these animals aren’t really dead, even if the French name for a still life is a “nature morte” (dead nature). They are simply pretending and having a rest before returning to their occupations. These paintings aren’t tragic, they are like emblems and all the more powerful for being in black and white.
Is there also a connection between this colour grey and Paris where you have a studio in the Marais, a neighbourhood with a strong mineral feel and where some of these paintings were painted?
Paul Cézanne used to say that the best light in the world was the pale grey of Paris. Of course there’s a connection! This grey is the colour of pigeons! These paintings are definitely more grey than black.
You are taking part in an exhibition at the Louvre entitled “Les Choses”. Literature in general and perhaps Georges Perec in particular seem to be an important part of your inspirations.
I have read much more of Marcel Proust than Georges Perec, but I did read La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual) as soon as I was able to read French. I also really like Un cabinet d’amateur (A Gallery Portrait) and I’ve read Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties). The prose is very visual, rather like in the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Ever since Franz Kafka, there have been authors who are almost painters. But Perec is no more an influence than Julio Cortázar, the Dadaists, or Jean-Luc Godard, who was as important as Georges Braque for me. Picasso is even more important! And talking about things (les choses in French), I also loved Le Parti pris des choses (The Voice of Things) by Francis Ponge, which is also very visual.
These unresolved images that you paint by erasing the elements that preceded them on the canvas - rather like in the monumental clay fresco Le grand verre de terre you created at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2016 - are highly cinematic.
You can often see my images from behind, even in my books. That way, you can discover what it’s like in front. It’s the breath of life. I am reminded of a painting by Velasquez that features a remarkable pentimento - he moved a horse’s leg creating a very cinematic kind of movement. The way in which things appear and disappear in a painting is a very similar phenomenon. I also have a lot of fragments of films from photos taken of the TV screen. For a long time now, I have thought that the cinema is like another branch of painting – like Godard. I really like negatives that have been toned. I saw a lot of experimental films in Barcelona, such as Pink Flamingos and films by Jonas Mekas… films that are only colours.
The ambivalent aspects of your still lives evoke the idea of metamorphosis. Kafka (an author you appreciate) obviously comes to mind.
I have been painting still lives all my life long and I can connect all of them to metamorphosis and Kafka. Everything in my paintings becomes something else and then sometimes several things at once. It’s something I discover after - and sometimes never.
These paintings also have something in common with baroque altar paintings.
You are quite right! The baroque painters painted still lives like religious paintings. It is beautiful to observe the differences between Francisco de Zurbarán, Jean Siméon Chardin and Pieter Claesz, between Spain, France and the Netherlands - three countries and three different ways of seeing a lemon on a table. That is what’s beautiful in painting: it’s a ghost story that frightens you and makes you tremble. I’ve just come back from Valladolid and Segovia where I saw numerous vanitas in the museums. There was even a small shop called “Laugh and then tremble”. Still lives convey this feeling of stupefaction. I also visited a museum of religious sculpture in Valladolid where they had got some pieces out ready for Semana Santa (Holy Week). I saw a dead Christ, his wounds covered with blood made using red resin from the Canary Islands dragon tree. In such objects, the hair is often human hair, the nails are made from ox horn, the eyes and the tears are made of glass and the skin is painted with a transparent varnish that makes it look like the body was alive just a few minutes before. And yet, this is the opposite of hyperrealism and more a sort of still life.
In reality, these Grisailles are not all that grey. There’s an almost pop art side to them, but the dark side of pop art, like Andy Warhol’s electric chairs. You also mention Martial Raysse.
There are purples, oranges and greens – the colours of decomposition - not forgetting a verdigris-like grey-green. My colours - Burgundy purplish pinks, pale greens and others that are almost invisible - are anything but a desire for colour. And you could almost say that decomposition is my stock in trade! As for Martial Raysse, I really like his large uniform areas of transparent colour from the 1960s, it’s the darkest kind of Pop art, but I also like his more recent paintings. Raysse is probably my favourite French painter from this period.
Your Grisailles are a mix that includes the sea, the earth and objects. They are packed with magic in a manner that is reminiscent of Borges, like a large library of memory. Is that how you yourself see them?
Yes, they are alchemical in nature. Les Grisailles consist of an enumeration that is also slightly Borgesian. Drawing is a little like saying something and these paintings are indeed a celebration of memory. I remember a Russian philosopher who once said that painting is naming things correctly. Drawing is also remembering, because I work both intuitively and from memory. Octopuses dangle and candles go upwards… it’s a little game of chess.