After featuring Germany’s A. R. Penck, the Fondation Maeght is hosting, until 19 November, a retrospective on Spain’s Eduardo Arroyo, full of political and historical insights. Presenting the elegantly titled “Dans le respect des traditions” (Respecting Traditions).
At the age of eighty years, Eduardo Arroyo has lost none of his wit and elegance. He continues to scatter lively, incisive words while waving his hands about in the air. While the artist, today, gets out of breath more quickly and speaks more softly, he has conserved his powerful creative energy. This year, the gallery Alvaro Alcazar presented, at Art Paris Art Fair, a solo show with the Spaniard’s latest paintings (medium formats), while the retrospective currently on at the Fondation Maeght offers many recent creations – this time, in the large formats favoured by the painter. Above all, this former member of La Ruche – who describes his memories of Giacometti with enthusiasm – retains something of the demiurgical power specific to image-makers. His paintings, like his words, preserve a distinct bizarreness and refrain from being mere communication tools; dense in narrative quality, they shy of baring all at first sight or at first hearing. Eduardo Arroyo is a painter who doubles up as a writer.
A painter of stories
In the work of Eduardo Arroyo, stories are never far from the surface, whether they are anecdotes, or else draw from History or art. During his years of exile while Franco was in power, it was above all History that interested him. Eduardo Arroyo left Spain for Paris in 1958. At first he turned towards political journalism before settling on painting, using images rather than words to strike other people’s consciences. It was thus that the young self-taught figurative painter started showing work at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture in the 1960s, in a context that had been won over by abstraction. His work was infused with politics, even if he wrote, in 1976, that “everyone wants me to be a political painter. I’ve never known what a political painting is made up of.” Eduardo Arroyo laid down his obsessions on the canvas, including his struggle against Franco, as seen by the painting at the entrance of the exhibition – and one of its most touching works: the Portrait of Constantina Pérez Martínez (1970), a figure in the worker’s revolt, tortured and shaved by the Franco militia. Constructed by the declension of simple, contrasting shapes – large patches of white for Constantina’s face, of black for the background, as well as triangles in the colours of Spain for her earrings –, the work surpasses the woman’s tragic tale to evoke the violence of revolutionary combat and the dignity of female rebels like her.
When the Spanish dictatorship fell in 1975, Arroyo’s obsessions changed, and his references to art history and literature multiplied. Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray or James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, gained leading roles in the artist’s personal mythology. In his latest works, shown at the Fondation, art history almost becomes a protagonist in his paintings: Ferdinand Hodler, Vincent Van Gogh and the whole history of landscape representation are all scanned… From the start to the end of his career, the political urgency of Arroyo, who took part in the student revolution meetings at the Sorbonne in 1968, gave way to another form of engagement, possibly described as finding his place in the history of painting.
A creator of images
The strength of Eduardo Arroyo’s paintings resides in tension. While figurative, they are, at the same time, ambivalent due to their abundance in references, objects and symbols, presented alongside one another. Here, we’re not confronted by the beauty of surrealist collage, as described by Lautréamont in Les Chants de Maldoror as “the happy meeting on a dissection table between a sewing machine and an umbrella”. The meetings that make up Arroyo’s work owe nothing to chance.
His paintings are usually made up of large areas of tinting, in which wavy handling causes the surface to vibrate, even if the rippling fades with distance. Finally, Eduardo Arroyo’s work is not based on a profoundly pictorial principle. He is a creator of images who takes advantage of the illusionist freedom offered by painting. A freedom that artists have rediscovered with the arrival of Photoshop and Illustrator – tools that Arroyo looks upon with a wary eye. “If I had to work today, I wouldn’t be a painter but a librarian,” he explains with a little smile. Among painters, he incidentally defines his condition as that of “the last of the Mohicans”.
For Eduardo Arroyo, every new painting represents a new departure, as it is a new image. As a result, there are some that work better than others. The retrospective at the Fondation Maeght demonstrates this unevenness. Certain works have remained lodged in their time – while preserving their value as witnesses – but others transcend their contexts to have collective, or even universal reach, such as the Portrait of Constantina Pérez Martínez. Arroyo’s sculptural works are also less impressive; among these, the sculptures or rubber paintings produced when he was in Berlin in 1976, after creating the backdrops for the Bacchantes at the Schaubühne. During this period, he resided in the German capital following an invitation from the DAAD, a tertiary education association, and “worked with Berlin’s material”.
The José Maria Blanco White works, produced at the end of the 1970s, which replicate the spy’s white tux in a number of contexts – at the Tate, the British Museum or Cock Lane –, was a big series in the “Arroyo system”. They drew from detective novels and spy stories, and multiplied references to surveillance as well as mute traces of past combats. The paintings are weighed down by an oppressive atmosphere peopled by eyes, heavy velvet curtains, and odd details like broken windows.
The Fondation is also showing a superb collection of drawings in which the poignant top-hatted Ramoneurs face the artist’s version of the Ghent Altarpiece. The latter features the same number of panels (open and closed) as the work by the Van Eyck brothers inspiring it, in the same arrangement, but in an original composition: instead of The Lamb of God, we behold flies. Insects that occupy a recurring role in Eduardo Arroyo’s work, being both the symbol of Spain – “the country of flies” in his own words – and of man. The processions of martyrs and philosophers are replaced by famous dictators, those of saints, by those of authors. The altarpiece demonstrates Arroyo’s tendency to employ painting or drawing to serve a complex construction. Superimpositions, citations from art history and literature, political references, transpositions and appropriations aplenty…
Hanging that looks to the past
Arroyo’s approach to the image also crops up in the exhibition’s décor. The Fondation Maeght does not hang the works according to the reigning contemporary-art principles. Current standards would argue that too many works share too little space at this show. The paintings can’t “breathe”, in the words of Brian O’Doherty, father of the “white cube” concept.
Yet this aspect issues a reminder about the exhibition’s time-tested tropes; it casts us back to a time when the painting was considered as “an open window onto history”, according to Alberti’s tradition. Eduardo Arroyo’s works can be said to derive from this vision of painting. Each of them encapsulates a closed system, surrounded by its frame. And the Spanish artist also borrows from detective-story codes, both in his themes and in the reading of paintings: clues are planted and the global meaning of the work is constructed by a subjective interpretation of the dispersed elements, found within the painting’s limits. Every work therefore demands active contemplation. While a little dense, this hanging renews the idea of a promenade. A promenade through history…
“Eduardo Arroyo, dans le respect des traditions”. Until 19 November. Fondation Maeght, 623 chemin des Gardettes, 06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence. www.fondation-maeght.com