In Paris, until 25 February, the BnF is presenting a short but stunning retrospective featuring lithographs and engravings by Antoni Clavé, accompanied by the publication of a new catalogue raisonné on his engravings. Spotlight on this event.
Antoni Clavé once bathed in glory but over time, the tide has ebbed. In the 1950s up to the 1980s, his models, his kings and warriors, and his bullfights in earthy ochre and black tones gained a certain renown. Subjects that might seem a little dated today, like Bernard Buffet and his clowns some would argue. “Above all, he was a humble artist who steered clear of honours,” remarks Aude Hendgen, an art historian for the Archives de Clavé and head of the catalogue raisonné recently published by Skira. “In Barcelona, he always refused having a museum devoted to him despite several proposals.” A Clavé Galerie does exist, but in Japan: the first venue to be entirely dedicated to the artist, designed by Tadao Ando, and inaugurated in March 2011 in Yamanashi, near Tokyo – after the artist’s death, therefore, in 2005.
Today, the exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF), “Antoni Clavé, estampes”, mounted following the donation of 92 prints by Clavé’s grandchildren, displays fifty or so pieces executed between 1955 and 1995. The fruit of numerous techniques: lithography, etching, aquatinting, engraving, carborundum engraving, goffering, collage and lithography on Kraft paper. The exhibition’s aim, according to one of its curators Céline Chicha-Castex, is to establish a link between Clavé’s engraved and painted work, and to reveal a few of his references. But above all, it is to bring back into the spotlight an artist who has been a little neglected, left in the shadows of other great Catalans: Antoni Clavé, the bridge that one could nonetheless place between Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies.
Antoni Clavé was incidentally born in the generation separating those two particular artists. He arrived in France in 1939, driven from his natal Catalan land by fascists. In Spain, he earned his stripes as an apprentice painter in the building industry, before producing work for advertising and decorative purposes. “This early training would lead him to play on reality and trompe-l’œil throughout his life,” explains Aude Hendgen, pointing out Baroque motifs on a lithograph from the 1970s, as well as motifs on a wallpaper. In Paris, he entered the art world in a distinctive era. The post-war years were marked by increasing abstraction, placed under the quirky banner of the “Second Paris School”. An eclectic school encompassing a motley crew, ranging from Zao Wou-ki to Nicolas de Staël, from Pierre Soulages to Georges Mathieu. Antoni Clavé followed a more singular path: he did not choose – and would never choose – between abstraction and figuration.
Multiples spread and an artist grows
In particular, the post-war years were marked by the soar of multiples like lithographs and engravings… “These were pieces in fashion. Often collectors would start off by buying engravings or lithographs before going on to choose unique works,” explains Céline Chicha-Castex. “Antoni Clavé geared himself to this market, also driven by a strong desire to democratise art.” At the time, works by painters would be sold in shops, namely thanks to figures like Jacques Putmann who, in the 1970s, came up with the idea of selling moderately-priced lithographs in Prisunic supermarkets: the “Suites Prisunic” costing 100 francs. Shattering the bourgeois ideal of art and making art accessible was also the aim of Ivanhoe Trivulzio and the Festoman project. In 1964, the Italian dealer came to Paris hold an auto-da-fé in which thirteen paintings (by Roberto Matta, Wifredo Lam and Pierre Alechinsky, among others) were burned, before selling posters of them, which he described as “multiple originals”. “There were several studios in Paris, which at the time was the capital of printed art,” points out the curator from the Prints and Photography department of the BnF.
The exhibition’s earliest prints, executed between 1950 and 1960, weren’t yet freed up from painting. Antoni Clavé created engravings as a painter, multiplying references to painting masters Goya, Rembrandt, Greco and Dürer. “First he paid homage to them before distinguishing himself,” explains Aude Hendgen. His lithographs from the 1950s often represented well-known kings in blacks, browns, ochres, then became more abstract and darker in the 1960s. Certain themes dear to Clavé – hands or arrows – cropped up and subsequently become omnipresent.
Saint-Tropez and the carborundum
“He was so interested in engraving that he set up a studio dedicated to it when he moved to Saint-Tropez in 1965,” explains Céline Chicha-Castex. It became easier for him to experiment, and for a time, Antoni Clavé turned away from lithography and towards steel engraving. In 1968, he tried out carborundum engraving, a procedure invented by Henri Goetz, in which silicon carbide powder is adhered to the matrix. “Starting from 1968, he integrated carborundum to almost all his engraved work,” notes Aude Hendgen. “It really was a painter’s technique,” adds Céline Chicha-Castex. “Henri Goetz created it with Clavé in mind, and everything that he could do with it.”
In the1970s, all the ingredients composing his style were in place: images combining motifs and tinted areas, lines and matter. The earthy colours from the early years would give way to bright red, a darker black or bottle green, and goffering was everywhere. In these engravings, the hands represented also brought to mind those of the craftsman, for this is how Antoni Clavé approached his engravings, multiplying his gestures: assembly, collage, tearing, crumpling, rubbing, scratching… “Artists tended to produce engravings that were variations on their paintings,” remarks Céline Chicha-Castex. “Clavé had a taste for ‘cooking’, for experimenting. He really played with the medium.” How? By truly exploring the press, which is the specificity of the engraving technique. The magic of seeing an image appear after a few passages, adding relief to paper by goffering it with whatever he could get his hands on: biscuit moulds, gloves, bits of string… “Above all, a painter’s work is solitary whereas printing and engraving work is more collective,” suggests Céline Chicha-Castex. “He was interested in dialogue with craftsmen, the quest for a sought effect in colour and form.”
When it comes to engraving, the love of books is never far off, and on this note, the two curators haver chosen to show La Gloire des Rois by Saint-John Perse, produced in 1976, in which a masterful Antoni Clavé deploys magnificent textured tints in shades of grey and string goffering that gets caught up in the letters like branches. In short, the exhibition does not overlook side roads, and also shows matrices – signed, hence considered as artworks in their own right, paradoxically – as well as a film documenting the process. All this in an attempt to reveal a complex and somewhat enigmatic process. “This is essential. It helps to make things a little more concrete,” explains Aude Hendgen. But still, it’s impossible to grasp hold of everything in Antoni Clavé’s work. “There are still some studio secrets…” And perhaps this, precisely, is the strength of his engraved work. This impossibility to completely pin down the process bringing it into being, which lingers between the visitor and these mystery-veiled images. An unintelligibility that is a little bit magical.
New catalogue raisonné on engravings
The BnF exhibition is also an opportunity for Aude Hendgen to present the new catalogue raisonné on Antoni Clavé’s engravings, published by Skira. “A first big work was published in 1974, and a second in 1984, by Sala Gaspar. It was time to compile an inventory.” A task that entailed substantial archival research as it was necessary to include everything the artist had produced since 1985, and to fill in the gaps in the previous editions. “The problem with engraved work is that it is much more difficult to reach out to collectors.” Several years of research in libraries and various archives were necessary to produce the catalogue raisonné. “The work was facilitated by the existence of Clavé’s studio in Saint-Tropez. I ended up rediscovering a fair few works.” 520 works to be exact, including thirty never previously shown to the public. Others, having fallen away from attention in France, are brought back to the forefront. “A lot has been said in Spain about the lithographs executed during the Spanish War, for example, but these were never published in France.” A carefully put-together edition.
“Antoni Clavé. Estampes”. Until 25 February. BnF-François-Mitterrand site, quai François-Mauriac, Paris 75006. www.bnf.fr