Posthistory Painting

Albert Mercadé Exhibition Curator

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.

Rainer Maria Rilke,
From the first of the Duino Elegies 

Xavier Gonzàlez Arnau is one of the most important and incisive persons in the world of contemporary Catalan painting. He is so for having been a robust practitioner of the art in the midst of the hostile environment surrounding this art. Xavier Gonzàlez painted his first piece consciously as a painter at a time, in the year 2000, when painting was conspicuous by its absence in the official circuits of contemporary Catalan art. It was the time of the apotheosis of neoconceptualism, of the white cube, of the curator, of production, of the site-specific, installation, objet-trouvé, transversality, the archivist, appropriation, dematerialization, of deconstruction, etc. It was the time of the emergence of a new grammar and artistic genealogy catapulted from the new official institutions of art born from the museum frenzy of the 90s and the beginnings of the new century. In this context the figure of Xavier Gonzàlez has passed unnoticed in the official world of contemporary art. The person most aware of this is the painter himself, as he is conscious that the type of art he has believed in and defended for more that fifteen years is a long way away from any idea or concept connected to the dogma of art.

According to his beliefs about art, painting is a means that is constructed in exile, on the margins of history. It is not important to him that time is proving him right: just as our much admired Ramon Bosch Boada reminds us, from the start of the economic crisis institutions of contemporary art, due to lack of funding, have also collapsed, and with them a good part of the artistic dogma in force during the past decades. Today in Catalonia we are witnessing the emergence of a new non-institutionalized artistic moment, eclectic and transversal. The artists of this moment – painters or not – are defenders of the all-time principles of great art. We are of the opinion that their art brings together: painting as resistance, as transcendence, painting as the transmitter of spirit, and finally, painting as a vehicle for the expression of the metaphysical principles of our time (Zeitgeist).

At the same time Xavier González is a radical iconoclast. His work questions us because it can negotiate the formalist deadlock which painting was heading into in its last great triumphal decade, in the eighties. At that time there was a great wave of gestural and chromatic work in avant-garde art that condemned the discipline to a formalist orgy, and for its ornamental presence it became fodder for the markets and institutions. If economic speculation with painting was tolerated it was precisely because it had become a speculative practice, that is to say, incapable of shaking the consciousness of that time with work that was humanist yet shocking, beautiful yet terrible. 

We have, then, to set the work of Xavier Gonzàlez Arnau in a place of rebellion against this context. His work is not rallying around any new formal or ornamental flag. He is not interested in the finish of the form or the technical complexity of the work. Form and technique only interest him as mediating agencies. What is important for him is the spirit of the seed, not the form of the fruit of the tree; it is the wish to be, and the possibility that painting gives it of being (Dasein). The form in which the painter grasps this is provisional and dispensable. He is conscious that the image, like the word can never be a closed form, definitive, complete and understandable. His is not an art of taming wild beasts, but rather to scare them awake. Painting, then, is a transition to another metaphysical dimension, and it is with this that the painter needs and tries to establish an erotic connection. His art is like the tail of a meteorite, the broken-up debris that, in its fleeting life, tries to shake us out of our mundane placidity.

Xavier Gonzàlez conceives painting as metaphysics of the spirit. To paint is not to philosophize, but rather to be able to glide existentially passing through a transcendental state. His work is riddled with humanistic references, from a tradition that embraces the thinking of Nietzsche to the poetry of Rilke or to the philosophy of Walter Benjamin.The references mentioned have a common thread running through them: the impossibility of man to say, to confine thought and art within definitive forms and words. In Judaicthought, God cannot be represented, but can only be invoked, by those who reach – or go back to – cognitive states similar to those of the prophets, angels or children. For Nietzsche, beauty cannot be found in a formula but in a transcendent and ephemeral gesture in the immediate present, where man summons – and nullifies – the three temporal dimensions, to free himself, fusing himself with life. For Rilke, the artist is the being who is capable of converting the visible into the invisible, turning the classical formula of avant-garde formalism upside down (we have found the utopian form and, satisfied, ambitiously, we try to impose it everywhere).For Benjamin, the artist can only act as an angel of history, that is to say, circling over the ruins, going forward like a visionary, carried along by the north winds of history and preserving a sacred aura, like a believer holding a candle in a procession. Painting is in synthesis, then, for our painter, a visionary invocation that enables the assertion of an ambiguous, provisional and indescribable ruin in a transfigurative manner.

The thinkers mentioned are united by yet another thought in common with our painter: the absolute discrediting of the concept of human progress. Every human advance is no more than a step farther in the accentuation of human duality, that curious and egotistic attitude for which, according to the sacred scriptures, we were expelled from Paradise. Technology, the digit, the machine distances us from the unity of the spirit rather than bringing us nearer to it. Modernity affirms itself in an explosive tempo, in Utopic expansion. By contrast, our artist frees himself by impulsion, from a centripetal force. Xavier Gonzàlez aspires to transcend the man so as to grasp the lost unity located in an indefinite time and place. There is no time or place, no space, no precision, no speed, no profit, neither perversion nor entertainment. It is an angelical dimension, and the figure of the angel is the only one that the artist can be incarnated in to attain this desired transcendent, and above all, luminous dimension. For the painter the civilized reality is, despite all the artificial light in which it can be bathed, totally obscure. Light only exists in the non-terrestrial dimension which can only be accessed through painting. His painting, all great painting, is a hopeless elegy to this lost light.

And it is for all of the above that we consider that Xavier Gonzàlez is a painter who paints after the end of history. Francis Fukuyama called post-history the time that would follow the fall of the Berlin Wall: an aseptic political moment, acquiescent culturally, standardized and dominated by the triumph of capitalism, and without the dialectical tension of the great ideological currents of modernity which have moulded and written the pages of our history. We have witnessed something similar in the world of art: since the crisis of the avant-gardes at the end of the eighties, the avant-garde has disappeared and with it, as Artur Danto states in Después del Fin del Arte, painting has lost its sense and function of historical affirmation: what characterized it when it wanted to transform the world with a collective and utopic form, in the manner of political ideals. The work of Xavier Gonzàlez emerges, grows and reproduces in this context of the collapse of modern painting. Despite this, he has been successful, after a telling journey, in venturing to bring this obstinate art back to the centre of gravity of culture and humanism. And he has done this, precisely, taking as his point of departure that artistic moment in the 20th Century which announced the crisis of Western civilization and the modern form of the avant-garde: the thought of Benjamin, the poetry of Rilke, the incisions of Klee. These have marked the course for all of these fifteen years for Xavier Gonzàlez d’Egara: the path of art before art, before becoming a closed and utopic form allied with the ascendant and positive path of civilizing progress. Rather, his path is one (à rebours): the adventure through the negative road of art, rowing against the civilizing waves of history which still today try hard to engulf us.
Given this attitude to life and art we can also understand some of the biographical episodes of Xavier Gonzàlez. Firstly he is a self-taught painter. He didn’t start painting until the need to do so pushed him to it at the age of twenty. This attitude may surprise today’s contemporary artists –loaded down with degrees and masters, or the novice painter– who thinks that great art is virtuoso and academic, but not to the well-versed in the matter. Modern painting began with self-teaching as the banner (from Manet to Gauguin, from Rousseau to Morandi), that is to say, on the margins of the official art world. Secondly, he is a nomad painter who has no need to have a specific physical place to cultivate his art. He has lived in passing in Barcelona, Terrassa, Berlin, Cadaques, Croacia, Italy, New York and now, incidentally, in a farm house in La Pera in the Baix Empordà area. Wherever he goes he conceives and produces work, and on finishing it, he moves on. His exhibitions are in unusual spaces far from the official circuit, or rather his is an informal circuit connected, without design, to the uncountable elective affinities which he has come across in the course of his life. He is, in third place, a painter of great vitality. We are no referring to a creative vitality. It is an existential vitality, of the sort that feeds on the world without filters or human capriciousness. It connects with an entire inventory of extraordinary, marginal and improbable lives: failed poets, amateur thinkers, hobos, witches, hermits, blunt peasants, and also aristocracy, famous collectionists, powerful people starved of spirit ... a great court of visionary passers-by, deserters, as he is from the world forum. But these lives kindle a charge of marginalized truth, of striking innocence. His art is simply an attempt to reach just this: innocence, love, enlightenment and underground existence.

We have tried to describe what the poet Circlot called the pathetic nucleus, of Xavier Gonzàlez Arnau, from which springs the visceral imaginary that the painter has shaped in the fifteen years of painting which this exhibition is celebrating. Actually, following on from everything already said, it should not be necessary even to go over the periods and high points of his work as, as we have seen, for the artist the importance is not in the form grasped, but in the spirit that feeds it, or in the new dimension that art brings to it. However, this is our duty and commitment, at the same time as it is a necessity, to be able to understand intellectually the pictorial spread of the soul of our artist.

The opening piece of the exhibition could not be more coherent with our prelude: a work by Xavier when he was six years old. It is the only piece that Xavier Gonzàlez created until he threw himself into full-time dedication to art at the age of twenty. The painter gives a precise and reliable record: a marine scene at Cadaques, artlessly and expressively drawn as if it were a painting by Soutine. Seen in perspective, the work tells us many things about the Xavier that we know today. It is not a seascape, it is an angel, an Angelus Novus of Paul Klee. We have spoken of the importance of the angel for Gonzàlez Arnau. The boat that rocks on the right side of the canvas is crooked eye which looks out like the angel of history, condemned, to look forward. On the left, in contrast, the fishing boat that faces downwards, is mixed up with the left eye of the angel, and looks to the past, to the ruin that, in words of Benjamin, the forward march of history leaves in its wake. The angel smiles beatifically, because it has found the dwelling place of light. Our painter has kept no childhood connection with Cadaques, except the picture. However for him it was to be an enclave in his biography of transcendental importance. In this town he drew back after his first steps as a painter after some particular adversity. Also there, he was in contact with artists who were key figures for his later artistic growth, artists like Modest Cuixart or Antoni Pitxot. Both captured the essence of our painter’s first brush strokes, which he himself did not understand. Cuixart, with his vision of painting both humanistic and Dionysian, understood that Gonzàlez’s art went further than painting, which for him was “a device to reconcile, like the Greeks, the metaphysical, ethical, natural or aesthetic yearnings of contemporary man.” Antoni Pitxot, for his part, produced the first intellectual description of the first architectural, geometric and lunar landscapes that characterized the first period of our painter. He spoke of the “frozen worlds” represented through “sound masses that writhe in the curved music of space-time”, in proportions “that produce poetry over bare skies”, with a flavour which was “metallic in dry air” in “a furtive mystical perfection, which might be Pythagorean.”

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, Looking into the heart of light, the silence

T.S Eliot,
The Wasteland

There cannot be a better description than that of Antoni Pîtxot to describe the painting of the first period of Xavier González that was shown in two exhibitions in the Gothsland Gallery in Barcelona (in an implausible exhibition in a gallery of antiquities and ancient painting): Arquitectures del foc vençut and En els blaus de l’arpa. It was at that time that I came to know Xavier, while he was in a studio in Carrer Jonqueres in Barcelona, located in a humid crypt in a church. It was dark, isolated and without windows.I have a memory of having come across a clearly singular figure, who seemed located, like his paintings, in a dimension outside the space-time of the conventional world. At that first moment – as I wrote in some number of the magazine Bonart – he seemed to me a Nietzschean figure who was following the star of a dawn landscape started by his mentor in the Dau al Set, Modest Cuixart. It seemed to me that here in Barcelona, only Gonzàlez Arnau had known how to go through the door left open by Cuixart. He did so in the spirit of trying to address his contemporaries from a cosmic and transcendent dream state. Certainly, the first paintings of Xavier Gonzàlez are capable of touching the heartstrings because they try to reconcile, it would seem, two arts in extreme points, that is, music and architecture. It seemed that the reddish, Martian landscapes of this first period tried to meet a challenge to represent –starting from the art nearest to man, architecture– the beating of that art most distant from man, that is to say, the most spiritual music. A little later I learned that Xavier is synesthetic, and that for every sound he hears he associates a volumetric form, and that before devoting himself to painting, he was a musician for a number of years, and his references come as much from experimental music as from the celestial and no less architectural music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Actually, music has always never stopped being a primordial element in his entire artistic biography. In the manner of interludes he has had in-between periods dedicated to interpreting the dominant forms of experimental music in a formal manner: the interlude in 2007 (Ressonare fibris, Famunli Tuorum) and that of 2012 (The three seasons).

In the same Dionysian spirit, the landscapes in blue of Els Blaus de l’Arpa followed on from the reddish ones. If the first had a marked telluric character, the following are defined by dominantly aquatic components. As in many of his periods, the chromatic change was due to a shock in his life, the death of a person he was close to. He paid his homage in a portrait made with stone spheres over a blue tone (Terra antiga, 2005), a melancholic piece, just as the blue period of Picasso began with an existential crisis due to a tragic death. It’s interesting to notice how at this time he makes use of water to start to dissolve solid volumes (Les últimes parets, La Destra de Déu). I have always had the feeling that for Xavier Gonzàlez the architecture he depicted was circumstantial, that he used it to hold up some badly closed drawer in his biography. The dissolution of solids was a proof of this intuition. It there is some architecture which dominates in his work, it is that of ruins, as we see in one of his very early canvases (often the first works of a painter prophetically announce future artistic times): La Pau del territori (2002) in which a raven worthy of Edgar Allan Poe contemplates a collapsed aqueduct over a metaphysical plateau. Gonzàlez is representing a Wasteland, like that of Eliot, a land burnt and beaten by the uncontrollable advance of progress.
Other distinctive features appear in the blue period which will be the precursors of Xavier Gonzàlez of later periods. Man, in place of the raven, appears in the landscapes and architectures for the first time. Dispossessed, inconsolable man faced with his irrepressible duality, looking in an irregular perspective at the light of dawn or the twilight (El salto de l’Eucade, Unitat doblada). Light is the keystone of the work of Xavier Gonzàlez. It is his existential motor, this light of celestial unity which, in later periods, he will try to grasp at blindly. This light of hope one needs to try to sustain, even when walking over wastelands in a mundane, civilized desert, without nourishment. But before arriving at a more profound reflection on human duality, trying to capture metaphysical light, our painter will still have to go through another period which we will call, provisionally, a pantheistic one: a voyage of implosion and introspection going towards the roots of nature and its four cardinal vectors: water, wind, earth and fire. These will be the dominant themes of the period 2006-2008. At the beginning he proceeds in a general and exploratory manner: the works Muntanya and Mar, in which nature appears, in all its cruelty, without architectonic intermediaries. After this, he makes more radical approaches: he depicts flowers (Flors i estrelles), trees (Arbre cec), almond trees: all presented in the foreground and always as mediators towards more profound metaphysical latitudes, which open to the horizon of the canvas. It is no longer a burnt or prophetic land, it is a land with hope, where real nature germinates, nature that the artist has become reconciled with.

And after this, comes the turn of fire to represent the elemental virulence of wind. Without realizing it, the painter was opening the way to a new spontaneous technique which he had connected with profoundly and which he would use up to the present day: work scorched by a blow torch giving rise to ambiguous, rough forms. The landscape period, in which the painter wished to show mastery of drawing and brushwork, ends with this discovery. In preceding periods he had reached other levels of representative technique, but it was not this that his artistic spirit cried out for from the unplumbed depths of his being. As the poetry of Rilke dictated to him, a work of art sensed that it had to be a furtive transit from the visible (the physical world already dominated by technique) to the invisible (the new, ineffable world, full of ambiguous, unfathomable figures that now appeared before his eyes, as visions).

Fire connected, of course, with his yearning for light. The works Desert, Veritas or Santedat, mark the culminating point of this discovery of the deformed form.

In reclusion at Cadaques, the painter gives himself a tabula rasa, and over a year explores poignantly ambiguous forms. This is what the artist calls his white period and which was exhibited under the name of Luto Blanco in the Van Dyck Gallery in Gijón. Colour has disappeared. Only black and oxide from fire try to claim a substantial space within the hierarchy of monochrome white. It is, again, a transitory interlude, because soon his biographical destiny will force him to interrupt his search to face a profound and radical change: his move to Berlin. The painter will stay there for over two years, in extremely precarious conditions, resisting the glacial cold that settles over western Germany in winter. Pain and survival oblige him to find refuge in sacred texts, at first in an obsessive manner, and later more methodically and ritualistically. This biographical impasse is important as his work from this point on will be tinted with sacred references, in particular connected with Judaic religion, and from this he will once more take up many of the humanistic references that had interested him in late Modernist philosophy. We see the importance, for example, of the word before the word, in Bereshit, in which the painter recreates some of the opening words of Genesis: “And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” There is also the formation of consciousness, portraying the luminosity of the face of the first man before embracing the Tree of Science and after having appropriated it (Adam i el segon home).The painter also attempts to capture ambiguously the origin of labour, in the Tower of Babel, the biblical Flood, the thistle that Adam was condemned to feed on when he was expelled from Paradise... This is an introspective voyage towards the original sin of the species, to the existential duality of humankind. From that moment on, his work tries to interpret this first state of the tarnishing of humanity, in the germinal transition from the light of Genesis to the obscurity of civilized man.

That is, religion in its most primitive acceptation: religare: bind together the original unity lost in the obscurity of civilized times. This is a spirit that is only embodied in a pure and transcendent manner in the infant: the innocent spirit, pure, without guilt or ambition. With this metaphysical obsession in his mind, Xavier Gonzàlez will take a new plastic, mortal leap, which we were privileged to welcome and see in his exhibition in the Arranz Bravo Foundation in Hospitalet (L’alegria del salt, 2013). On top of themes and techniques already explored previously –evening horizons, the decline of science, religious revelations– Gonzalez Arnau adds iconographic motifs drawn as if by the hand of a child: the sun, a house, a garden. No one has ever had the courage to paint in the manner of children. Yes, some have invoked an infantile spirit (Klee or the Surrealists), but always purifying the technique, never with this virulent verticality. It is for these risky pictoric decisions that we say that Xavier es a pure iconoclast: at no time does he think of formal and stylistic seduction, but rather in the most truthful form so that he can communicate his metaphysical concern, no matter how painfully this is formally. What he shows us of the canvas is at the same time beautiful and terrible, in a new stage that will go forward in the years of his move to Croacia. In a farmhouse isolated in a forest near the Dalmatian coast, Gonzàlez d’Egara tries out the series Esbossos per alliberar el fill del seu temps. “A child of his time” was an expression originally conceived by Luther, recycled in the philosophy of Goethe and Benjamin. These are the lost people who follow the collective directives generated by the advance of history and progress, leaving, on their thoughtless way, wastelands of misery, vanity and cruelty. The infant, prince of blessedness, crystallizer of goodness, bearer of the original light, and of a gregarious spirit, has nothing to do with this wasteland.

The last of the artistic journeys of Xavier Gonzàlez is one of the most complete, coherent and striking that we can remember of his trajectory. We were able to be present directly at the Church of San Bernadino in Vercelli, near Tori, for the project A occhi aperti. The painter was obsessed with trying to capture a metaphysical notion: to hunt in darkness, during the night, for the fleeting forms that begin to appear in the forest just before the break of day: to transform once more, the invisible into the visible. The resulting attempt that he presented at Vercelli, and that he also made, cannot be put into words. We are only capable of approaching it, tentatively, through verse and poetry. The painter managed to capture these ambiguous forms and transform them in an elegiac decalogue dedicated to the erotic and the sensuality of spiritual love: the friction, the love, the sucking, concepts that can only be formally captured under the light of a candle, gathered together in the interior of a temple. It seems to us a project which crystallized all the artistic desires of our artist: conceived for divine communication, hundreds of kilometres from his home and trying to establish a new, profound, intimate and radical connection, in his incessant search for light and pictorial redemption.

Feeling the way in the dark, moments before the break of day. These elusive shadows which, inconsolable, take flight. Yes, we are the ones who escape, who in the transit, in the lost passage, decipher the light and dwell in it. Eros emerges only in this amorous ritual; in the forest, empty of paths lit by the footprints of men who have retreated. Without needles in the cave, you overthrow Eros and Thanatos. The kiss, the caress, the seduction; unbridled passion, suffering, sucking. The light spreads out in four dimensions, which emerge from the orifices of shame. You sift the candid white so that it projects into the night, and you invite the anonymous viewer, he who is not to blame, to give back to him the light that one day was taken from him. You only have to await the cry. The whistle of the being that has bitten the heart’s hook. Or the thunder from the heavens that sucks you again to nature, to whisper in your ear some mystery which has been silenced for centuries. Each time your books have fewer pages. The word, now, is conveyed to you by north winds across the mountains, and the gesture, by trees without flower. And what have you done with the word? Where did you free it?
While you ran close to the verb, removed the noun, dethroned the adjective, the stones rang out: Each stride forward is a stride backwards. Set the pace, leave the trail, throw the stone, sing to the cave, walk in the dark, do not stop walking.

From the El cau de l’espelma (the candle shelter)
At Vercelli, 28 May 2014

© 2020 XAVIER GONZÁLEZ ARNAU ︎ D'Ègara 1980