«The strength of common sense, thought, beauty, balance and harmony is why I feel part of and share the same humanity with the past. I have not finished the journey and there is still a long way to go for humans to create stable bonds between us and with nature»
JOAN BENNÀSSAR, THE ARTIST WHO BREAKS THE MOLDE
By Felip Munar i Munar
Joan Bennàssar (Pollença, 1950) has crossed lush and luxuriant paths; but he has also walked along the most recondite, enigmatic and hidden paths of the human soul. And this walk has led us to the word made song by the people of the land, impregnated with eroticism and games, and images drawn from nature reflected in the bodies of the people of the land; it has impregnated us with the sacred and biblical liquid, Mediterranean essence, the colour of the smell of blood that runs through the veins and permeates the deepest crevices of the human being; has searched for the heartbeat of the Sea as the cultural and identity axis of our civilisation where ships and knowledge sail; has sown our landscape and our paths with human reasons until entering the sacred forest and the spiritual shelter of this land kissed and scratched by the Mediterranean Sea, and with the right to lose fear in a world in constant disorder and alienating.
Joan Bennàssar, rebellious and non-conformist, agitator and tenacious, has created an unusual universe, with unlikely and surprising views. The artist possesses this magnitude when, touched by the hand and genius of the gods, he stands on the watchtower of places unsuspected by reason and good sense, but nevertheless with the firmness of the artist who wants to understand the present where he lives, and therefore resorts time and again to the hope of being able to redeem people through the ingenious and literary gaze of art and creation.
In this interview, Joan Bennàssar lays himself bare, as if he had just been expelled, orphaned and alone, from a paradise he did not seek, but which the gods have placed in front of him, with the wounds of every battle he has fought embedded in the horizon for him to keep in mind. We find a man who is terribly human, who transforms himself into technique, skill, expertise and aptitude before the work he creates with his hands and soul. No cracks can be perceived in this process, although, surely, the artist continues to dream and suffer the questions that only the work of art is capable of making more bearable and resistible. It is the word of the artist, made brush and sculpture, of Joan Bennàssar.
Q.- Joan, what is art for you?
A.- Art is a way of living, of being a man, because art always brings something new, an attitude to face life and a positioning to face the future.
Sometimes, in order to know what I want, and also to give meaning to what I do, I need to isolate myself. I don't know if I'm selfish with my time or if it's that at work I have more demands, every day I need to surprise myself and reinvent myself more.
However, it is also true that I have more resources, it is easier for me to concentrate and when I look and observe I see many more things. I suppose this comes from experience, but different worlds open up to me and every morning, more humble but more confident, I feel the need to go into the studio. I use the evenings to put in order the ideas that seduced me the day before.
Q.- Who inspires you and what are your points of reference?
A.- Everything that has to do with humans and nature inspires me. My references are the History of Art, from Altamira to the present day, without forgetting the Classics. We are part of the ancient civilisations that populated the Mediterranean, of Greece and Rome and of their ideals of beauty Greece and Rome and their ideals of beauty, perfection and measure.
I am passionate about El Greco, Titian, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse... and, of course, Picasso. He paints as he feels and breathes", and the attitude to painting is the same as it is to life. He had the courage to bring us closer to the most distant and exotic references and he did it as if they had always been among us with all the contradictions, but with an unprecedented artistic courage; he believes in the profession he has and defends it, and he exercises it with strength and conviction.
Q.- Are you aware that you are creating a unique, different and extraordinary artistic path?
A.- I've been lucky enough to be able to do what I've liked in life, and I've done it since I was very young. I have dreamed, but I have not lived from dreams, but from work: when the Muses appear, they must find you working.
I have ethical convictions and I am very critical of the superficialities of the art world, too often turned into an uncultural space, and also of the modern academic vision, in which the image must be read and not painted. There is an artistic desert at the institutional level, I believe that those responsible come from the world of sociology and history, as well as having an Americanised cultural-commercial vision of the last century. Painting cannot be disassociated from the pleasure of looking. Culture should never be disconnected from passion: without passion one cannot create.
Even so, I think that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Twin Towers, the pandemic and now Ukraine, we have lived through a decadence from which we have not yet left behind. We artists are moved by intuitions and presentiments in search of new paths; it is clear to me that I am, in part, a product of what I have lived through in my life: my village, my departure, my return, the Mediterranean... I am convinced that art can always give much more: it makes the world a little more comprehensible, a little kinder than it is. I seek to offer a positive vision of life, even if it seems a contradiction today.
Q.- What is your "Mediterranean" like and what does it represent?
A.- I was born by the sea where family, friends, the sun and the blue sky are the most important part of my life. I feel that I am part of an ancient culture moulded from diversity and different confluences. The roots are solid enough, Classical culture has illuminated the culture of the West; it is the embryo of democracy, justice, freedom, philosophy, theatre... We share the same humanity and we establish, through art, links with common sense, harmony and beauty.
I am a person anchored in the Mediterranean and its values, and I make my own the expression and the thought that says: "Classic is everything that cannot be improved".
I find my thematic horizon in the proclamations in which man is man's friend, and in the watchtowers, where the horizons carry the winds of tomorrow and the future.
Q.- Do you believe that art has the power to regenerate the collective spirit and belonging to a place?
A.- I believe in the power of understanding and knowledge; we must broaden and deepen the collective spirit and learn to preserve the links that bind us to the land, but we cannot put the brakes on people who think differently and even less on those who seek new answers to the questions of the present. Deep down, we do not know what the future holds for us, we did not intend to relive the misery of human thought that today, and in a warlike manner, strikes us.
We humans are animals capable of dominating the environment, we are imaginative and fabulous, but without ambition there is no future, no excellence. Even so, from time to time, and history tells us that all too often, we bring out the most negative and unconstructive parts of the animal within us.
I make the mistakes of someone who gets up every morning and has to earn a living; the real world is very complex. I like the Mallorcan way of saying: "I do the parts and you choose"; or: "You choose and I do the parts". I would say that I am a person satisfied with life and dissatisfied with how life is going.
«I am a transmitter of moral criteria and I seek in each new image to expand my limits and show myself as I am knowing that I can be different tomorrow if my learning changes me or I lose my dream. The works are enlarged by the amount of love and past that you can intuit in them. I don't know if my works are an answer to the question, but I know that they are the result of this feeling»
You know what your vocation weighs on you. And if you betray her, it is you whom you disfigure; but you know that your truth will be done slowly because it is the birth of a tree and not a formula.
The circumstances under which I decided to direct my life to learning to draw things and ideas, to beauty and to art, were in my case, between fortuitous and predictable. I was born in Pollença, a town that has been dignifying culture for years. My drawing teacher, Mateo Llobera, made my parents see that I had a hand with drawing. Simeón Cerdà, son of the painter Lorenzo Cerdà, had faith in me after looking at some of my drawings and gave me copies of his father's paintings, my first watercolours, and he opened the doors to the School of Arts and Crafts in Palma for me, where I had a sculpture teacher, Jaume Mir. After finishing my studies in Palma, I entered the Faculty of Art in Barcelona and at the age of 18 I made my first exhibition at the Club Pollença, which allowed me a certain amount of economic freedom. Finding my vocation at such a very young age helped me not to waste time and effort.
I was also a child who learned to play and swim in a Mediterranean town. In a sea where the waves drag stories of a past full of culture, art and philosophy. Stories of peoples who trade and warriors who dare, are, feared and mixed. A sea full of gods with human weaknesses and peoples with borders as volatile as sea storms.
My youth was beaches full of young people from other countries, with other music and beautiful nymphs relaxing in the sun. As I mixed desires with yearnings for new worlds, my muses and I watched these bodies, their strange redness, and their freedom: and I dreamed of love in other languages, their sensuality enriched my work and disturbed my summer nights. Then came other cities and studies, work, family, friends, loves ... And without ever leaving - because one is future and past - I returned. A necessary return for the love of my mother after the death of my father.
The present was well known, but the people were different: a world more diverse, more complex and very visible. Being comprehensible, Pollença projects an infinite horizon. Something to do with the longings of the ancient painters and their efforts to capture the beauty of its coast, the light and the blues of the sky, with the words of poets who sought to name infinity, as this is a prolific people in poetry, art and social commitment, to sow, light, ennoble and dignify human relations.
Communicating and being understandable in the near truth, in the forms and the ethical content, I believe, are classic values of a past that returns. Trying not to limit my curiosity and trying to understand a present that looks askance at the stories of a past as metaphors of a changing world, made me leave my thematic routines and focused my creative efforts on this sea between land and woman's name: Mediterranean, its islands and peoples, its goddesses and heroes. Its laws, philosophy and art were the subject of my paintings, sculptures, exhibitions and books and it is the trilogy that names sex, society and culture as I have felt it.
They are books that combine research with images, ignoring their communicative power with long print runs. I complemented them with exhibitions in Can Llobera in Pollensa, the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art "Es Baluart" in Palma and La Defensora Theatre in Soller at the same time that I began my sculptures exhibitions on the breakwaters of the coasts of Cala Rajada, Can Picafort and Soller.
The first book, Mallorca Erótica is a compendium of glosses, old spicy songs from the Mallorcan countryside and party songs about courtship, love and desire for bodies that are sought. I lost the fear of being descriptive and it made it easier for me to rearrange formal concepts related to figuration. Without wishing to be comprehensible, I was understandable.
The second, The wine that I drink tastes like the sea is a social history of the islands through the economic impact of the cultivation of the vine and wine production. They are landscapes of earth and green leaf, of Bacchus and his troop of maenads and satyrs. Stories of humans diluting the barriers that match the gods with their devils. It is a book born of mutual dependence: art is the origin of knowledge; wine, the stimulus and source of inspiration.
The Rhythm of Oars Breaking into the Sea is about identity and culture, it is the journey to the sources, to the ports from which ships and knowledge sail. It is to upholding common values, detracting from the little things and praising the mixture as a factor of respect for the human being.
Each step creates new questions and in the study, with my work, is where I look for questions: Human Reasons is my new project and the answer to the most dangerous crisis that, I believe, human beings face: forgetting the humanities. It tries to remember how the soul unloads its passions on false values when man loses his dignity; reopens truths based on reason, science and law; loses the fear of this messy world and prevents people with common sense from being slaves to those who lack it.
Calvari: The steps of Fatigue and Grandeur of the Heart are the doubts, sufferings, difficulties and efforts to ascend to cleaner horizons. It is a hymn to generosity, responsibility and knowledge, friendship and acceptance. It truth and it is vigilance. It is dreaming and offering forgiveness and justice. It is skirting the border and broadening the human horizon. "You have to make the world yourself, you have to create steps that lift you up, that take you out of the well. You have to invent life because it ends up being true.” (Ana María Matute).
Church of the Convent of Sant Domingo: The forum of Public Businesses & Laws is the defence of the space where the individual and society create codes and agreements to relate and adapt to each other. It is the search for wholeness and community, tolerance, freedom and defence of belonging to a single civilisation. It is fear of the irrelevance of the human being and his less ideal behaviours. “Truth is corrupted as much by lies as by silence” (Cicero).
The Tower of the Garden of the Muses is the magical space that provokes the poetic atmosphere, the walled garden where inspiring goddesses of the arts pamper the poet possessed by his truth, eternal in a woman's body and ephemeral by nature. It is the workshop where I scribble alchemical traces of desires, longings that desecrate my most sacred spaces. “I want death to find me planting my cabbages…neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening” (Montaigne).
We live in a fragile balance of opposing forces: we confront memory, fear and chance with the desire and delight of living. Today the avant-garde, which taught us to look at and name objects and man in a new way, are academies of used transcendence. Away from the common good, they achieve a loss of interest and push the message away by diminishing its authority.
In a creative world, the most fascinating works are born in the cracks. These strange and turbulent times, this epidemic that threatens us and warns us of how fragile the future is, accentuate the multiple ties that unite us humans to a common goal.
As an artist, neither fear nor deception should guide my thinking. I am a transmitter of moral criteria and I seek in each new image to expand my limits and show myself as I am knowing that I can be different tomorrow if my learning changes me or I lose my dream. The works are enlarged by the amount of love and past that you can intuit in them. I don't know if my works are an answer to the question, but I know that they are the result of this feeling.
I am part of a people that lives under the sun by the sea, surrounded by love, family and friends, which is my repose and refuge. I am aware about how marvellous is the human mixture, and it is beautiful because human egos, unable to envision new horizons, make us much smaller, because character is built without fear of the unknown, of who one may be. Because principles must be kept for what is worthwhile.
Forcing me to do something is not easy
nor is forcing me to adapt to a neighbour.
Anacreon 570 aC
In art everything arrives at once or doesn't arrive at all. There is no lights without shadows.
Albert Camús, 1959
Ten years ago, with some uncertainty and great enthusiasm, I created Benpla Produccions, an entity with which I could carry out the projects I wanted to do without interfering with my work. I can feel the opportunity and inspiration as a result of the work and love I feel for my craft. I'm a painter and, as an artist, I like to live this labour as one of those lost people who have faith in painting and still continue to paint. I can also feel how, in the most inspired moments, my hands foresee my thoughts. In spite of everything, I would say that my minor successes are partly due to the observation and recognition of myself in the world. Witnessing it and adopting measures that make my achievements possible at every moment.
I believe Benpla is one of them. It was put together when the pictorial works of art were questioned, and my artist friends derived part of their work towards territories where painting was merely a complement. What I aimed for and needed was to anchor and reinforce the consistency of my work. For a long time I sensed that the visual panorama was definitely opening to the new media due to its possibility of manipulation and execution, and for its immediacy and ease of comprehension. The image is very communicative and emotionally effective, besides having the power to go beyond frontiers that other languages impose. The image, in many ways, is stronger than words.
Nowadays, I prefer to talk more about my work as a painter and sculptor than what it means to be an artist, because I think its prestige is well devalued, and even more so its social function. For me, words like new, meditation, artist or avant-garde seem to be a caricature, devalued and mundane, of the meaning they once had. Today it is unoriginal to be original. Beauty alone brings truth.
The artist's work, from the origins of language, is a world of experiences and enchantment that deals, throughout history, with the relationship of man with the forces of nature, the deities, and the monsters that encompass their time. There isn't an immutable essence of the artist's work, as W. Benjamin states, but a historical essence that depends on the social transformations and technical discoveries. And communication, which is an inherent need for expressing oneself, is essential to shape a habitable world for all of us. Recycling and offering a new vision of human experience is what I want to find in my work, where the story has to be effective so that its understanding is simpler. Culture is basically knowledge, harmony and proportion, and has an aesthetic that is taken for granted.
Mallorca eròtica was published in the summer of 2007. It was the first editorial production of Benpla and was intended to reach a general audience. It was a time of more happiness and trust than it is today. Its origins can be found in Gabriel Janer Manila's compilation of erotic poems, and it also includes a superb text written by my friend Felip Munar and the literal translations of Antoni M. Planas.
My intention was to record the sexuality of the city and the country people, as well as to note how important is the matriarchy in this land. The truth, as Maria de la Pau Janer says, is that “love is a celebration”. Moreover, the battle of bodies seeking other bodies is beautiful and it is what makes more sense and gives more satisfaction to humans. Sex, the hymn of love and its truth, ratified for me the beautiful ideals of the ancient Greeks, where measure is the rule and which is seen in the four sentences that can be read on the wall of the temple of Delphi: the most precise is the most beautiful; respect limits; hate insolence; and not too much of anything, which ratify the social values of our actions, which besides being clear do not bother me in being comprehensible or even understandable. To look, to see, as Paul Eduard wrote, “is to unite the world with man and man with himself”.
The wine I drink tastes of the sea is a compendium of the islands' social history with the world of wine as the main axis. It was published in 2012, in times of emotional, political and economic crisis. There's no need to talk about it here, we have all experienced it. As time goes by, culture is the sector that is having more difficulties to reach previous levels. We edited and gave away 60,000 copies written in Catalan, and also made a 5,000 copies edition in English, German and Spanish. It was written by Antoni M. Planas, with whom I'll always be in debt for his friendship, his understanding, his desire to research and learn, and for his many hours of reading and corrections, reminding him frequently that he was working on a book of an artist's images in a visually appealing book, that had to be beautiful and in which he had to suppress his knowledge because I didn't want to make it a book just for scholars.
Despite all these aggravating circumstances, we managed to get the Wine Culture Foundation involved and to open their doors to us. They offered an annual cover page in the magazine Terruños and an article where the wine of Mallorca was the star. The people responsible for the Foundation made the book their favourite gift for all their lecturers, some of whom are from the exclusive club of the Institute of Masters of Wine. I look with pride at the use some bars and restaurants of the island have made of the images, and of the prizes I've been awarded with: el Brot de Pi de Santa Maria and el Manto Negro d'Argent from the Binissalem guarantee of origin. I appreciate the awards.
I understand that the shape cannot be dissociated from its purpose. I believe that without variety there is no beauty and that imperfection is one of the identifiable parts of human greatness. Working from the texts of the books was like opening a window at the studio to get some fresh air, becoming another person, a magician in his cavern, a craftsman in Egypt, a monk in the abbey, an artist of the Renaissance, a bohemian in Paris… to paint rainy skies and silvery lands of vines. To portray such a human and drunken god that is Bacchus and to fall in love with the sensuality and enjoyable offerings of the Maenads, allow me to give another meaning to the myths, the history and the landscapes of my work.
It has been a thrilling adventure in which I have proved to myself that the engine that makes the world grow young again and evolve is passion. That old age should only be reflected in the body. That there's a need to compare in order to refresh knowledge. That you have to be flexible but never compromise what it means to be an artist, and to be conscious of that I am an artist without the certainty of being one.
The Rhythm of Oars Breaking into the Sea is the book you now have in your hands and the one that closes the cycle dedicated to the Mediterranean. It's a book about the history and culture of the people that encompass this sea. It is written by Antoni M. Planas, who I thank for his dedication as always and for being my right hand man. As what normally happens with good works of art. In this one many things have been left unsaid, but it has opened the doors to new projects, although they will be in another format.
You have to know how to close cycles and the three books made so far make up my Mediterranean. This one, which you are holding now, is a reduced and comprehensive version. My acknowledgment and thanks to all the people who have made this book possible. First of all, I would like to thank Grupo Serra and their newspapers Última Hora, Majorca Daily Bulletin and Mallorca Magazin for their collaboration and distribution. Then, I would also like to acknowledge First Mallorca, Terraza Balear, Rialto Living, Son Grec, Can Picafort and Sóller Town Hall. Without their help this book would not have been possible. They've made this volume a more appealing and complete reality. I will always be grateful to you.
The making of this trilogy has allowed many friends and collaborators to enter in my world in the past years. They have enriched my world and have helped me fulfill this great project, which requires a great team. In addition to the ones I‘ve mentioned previously, I must also express my gratitude to Josep Fortuny who, with his magic, from the very first book, has managed to make the texts and images fit beautifully and made them understandable. To my son Joan, who has elaborated the chronology, the videos, and has taken photographs of the paintings and sculptures in Can Picafort. To Pere Cortada, who took beautiful photographs in Cala Rajada,and Gabriel Fiol, who brought his musical creativity to the videos and to my family, my refuge, fortress and main support. Without their patience and understanding this book would not exist.
Art is a game of fascination. Life is the seed. To feel is the first thing, then to understand and, finally, to communicate. I feel I am part of the Mediterranean on blue days, sun, sea, games and laughter that remind me of my childhood. Nowadays, communication is a constant crossroad of people, time and space and the fact of belonging to a civilisation that is the sum of multiple different identities opened to the world is an advantage; especially in a land like ours where beauty is not aware of dogmas or blame. Camus wrote, “Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history was not everything.”
Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history was not everything.” We are talking about a culture that is a consequence of commerce, affection, loyalties, wars, destruction and people of mixed race. A culture that, as any Ulysses, has the will to understand heroic actions and the truth of both the gods and nature. Where man is the centre of everything and life is understood as a long journey, rich in knowledge. A culture whose aim is to remove the labyrinths that humans build with religions, languages and borders.
I do not see myself captivated by the chants of Medusa, but for an art created on beauty, earthly love and the need for communication. I am part of a people that lives under the sun by the sea, surrounded by love, family and friends, which is my repose and refuge. I am aware that if I want to reach certain goals the path will be circular and labyrinthian. That it is not good to have many naps, nor believe that ours is the best and will be given recognition. That it is necessary to cross frontiers, to speak other languages and to understand the nature of foreigners. To be ourselves, worried by uncertainties of the future. And that the human mix is marvellous because it is more beautiful, because human egos, unable to envision new horizons, make us much smaller. Because character is built without fear of the unknown nor who one may be. Because we need to build bridges not walls. Because principles must be kept for what is worthwhile, since for small things there is enough with God or mercy.
«Things usually find their place in time. That's why entering the studio is like lighting a candle on the path of humankind's evolution. The whys and wherefores are the breath that makes the creation of art meaningful, and the fact is that I want it to be a gaze in which it is possible to glimpse hope. Even so, what I want is to show myself as I am, and what I wish for is to capture a small part of the totality of what the adventure of living signifies»
Success and personal satisfaction are not your level of intelligence or your ability to perform the task in hand accurately. Rather, they depend for the most on your total devotion to the undertaking and closing your eyes to difficulties. “In Praise of Imperfection”, Rita Levi-Montalcini.
He has the wisdom of someone who has returned, having witnessed many things. The heir of ancient gods, of the eternal, classical Mediterranean, he savours with pleasure everything that is new… Never tired, never bored, he is an insatiable sponge, absorbing everything that surprises him. He has seen, he has experienced and he has learned a lot, yet he retains his desire to carry on doing so. Like a child. Like when he was a young boy in Pollença, enchanted at the sight of the Last Supper by Llorenç Cerdà in the village church, or those brunettes by Julio Romero de Torres who illustrated the corporate calendars issued by Explosivos Riotinto, or the silhouette of the horse rider on the Nitrato de Chile fertiliser posters. Joan was an avid seeker after images when there were few about, despite the fact that he had been born in privileged village and into a family that was also special, the only child of a couple who aspired to give him everything, without questioning his callings or his choices in life. His parents were able to grasp his gift, to find the best guides to further his skill, and to turn him into a boy who had no doubts over the path he was going to choose. That was quite a luxury then and remains so today in these uncertain times.
I was lucky in that I didn't waste a lot of time. Various chance circumstances meant that by the age of twelve I already knew what I wanted and that I was good at it. Young people who are blessed with a tremendous natural gift waste less time when it comes to finding their paths in life. They gradually hone their skills. They are clearer about the direction they want their life to go in and they know what gives it meaning. Life is still a strange journey with lots of traps and junctures, but when you know what you want and desire, losing your way is of no consequence because you still have your strength, conviction and passion, the freshness of youth that I wish were eternal.
-Was there some kind of artistic sensibility in your home? Did you have a predecessor in the family?
There were never any artists, but my mother was a tremendous dressmaker. I am the son of Margalida Tatolí, a person with a good eye for the look of things and a very fast worker. Skilful and clever. Full of character. Whatever I saw, I simply described it to her and she'd make it perfectly, trousers or meals, even understanding me…
I never met Joan's mother. I've never even seen a photograph of her. But when he talks to me about her, I see him. Full of vim and vigour, magnetic, quick. Margalida Tatolí placed before her son's astonished eyes the essence of the Mediterranean. He says that when she was working, from seven in the morning till late at night, streetwalkers would approach the house to confess, to chat or to seek advice. And as you know, when adults are chatting, children become invisible. All those things Joan must have learnt! Mothers, wives, daughters… I can see around that sewing machine the figures that years later would fill his paintings and serve as the subjects for his sculptures. Thanks to her, the artist lived his early years as the only son in a house full of women. The years have passed and he still retains his admiration and love for that woman who was as good at sewing sailor's trousers for him in the same style as Gene Kelly's as she was at keeping accounts with such skill that nobody realised that she could neither read nor write (a woman and the oldest of six siblings, she did not go to school). When he was an adult, Joan taught her to print her signature, a story he recalls with tenderness.
Joan is Margalida Tatolí, but he is also his father. An affectionate man, the perfect father and husband. An essential presence, always there, waiting in the wings, when needed. He and his wife were united by love, a love for each other and for their son. A fondness that made them modern, accept everything that came about due to their young son Joan, all the consequences of being a free man; hippy, communist, married to a woman from abroad, the father of two children by the age of 22, divorced, remarried, more offspring… A love that did not question, in harmony despite the changes and upheavals. «I'm proud that things have gone well for me in life because they have been able to witness end enjoy it, and that, for a son, is wonderful». A long journey with a happy end.
-Do you think your family background has influenced the way you are?
Without a doubt. It has given me lots of ways of doing and feeling. I'm not one of those who feels rootless. I can't play the part of the tortured artist because that would be false. I have no intention of talking about human destruction while observing it from my sofa at home. I know what my origins are. I know I belong to a structured family, a structured society. I can't speak from a position of anguish, despair or bewilderment. I know where I come from, who my parents are, who my children are and what my past is. Moreover, I belong to an island, with everything that that implies about knowing the boundaries and being surrounded by a changeable sea. I was born in a village where the finest painters have been painting the landscape for years. And that leaves its mark. If I were to espouse the despair and frustration I see in what a lot of people today regard as art, I wouldn't be me. As well as being dishonest, my referents would have changed.
Joan is right. Pollença is special. There's something about it that reminds me of Sitges. Perhaps its famous light? The light of Santiago Rusiñol? Joan was born in a village fascinated with the bohemian lifestyle, with the painters who spent time together there, drawn by its beauty (Rusiñol himself, Mir, Anglada-Camarasa and others). Their art was well liked in the village, where they were regarded as gentlemen. There is no doubt in his mind that he is indebted to the fascinating landscape, the hedonistic feeling for life that has shaped his aesthetic vision and the way he conceives of art.
Art is a way of living and feeling. It's a vice. It has that sense of authenticity that you seek in life and that sometimes you get from a work because it makes the mysterious magic of the world palpable. It is feeling your work linked to a lot of people who have tried to make human existence something else, who have captured great moments in the history of humankind. However, it is also today a word that has been used so often it has lost some of its meaning. A person can undoubtedly perform an artistic act in many different ways. Art can be everything. Time and life evolve, and decoding and forming part of the remains of our forebears is a way of ennobling ourselves. There are still things to be done in painting: today we have many more options and many ways to communicate with each other and the world.
Communicating. Creating. Images. «Everything is an image», Joan tells me. And so it is. The world is image. The new technologies have made images universal. They are quick, changing, instantaneous; they have no language barriers; they are almost within everyone's reach. Nowadays, images are the most important element of communication.
The advent of film, photography, television and the internet… everything that uses the eye to reach us is more communicative than anything else today. The world is seen through a camera lens. The ease of distributing photographs, the fact that they are seen by large numbers of people and the technical advances made – today everyone can take photos – have turned them an essential information tool, the most important there is as testimony. The photograph is an active visual witness; it is garnering part of the market because it can be read. News is inconceivable today without the photographic gaze. What I'm not so sure about is the value of the unique work when they have a weapon to multiply themselves. Plus, it's a tool of global knowledge, it connects us with other civilisations and countries. Much of the role formerly played by painting is now fulfilled by pictures.
«The wine I drink tastes of the sea is madness and alchemy mixed with a few drops of wine and the conviction that art, poetry and culture are fighting a battle that mankind cannot allow itself to lose. It is a book born out of mutual dependence: art is the origin of knowledge; wine is the stimulus and source of inspiration»
It will heat my bony brow
Like the heat of a red solstice
And all judgment shall I lose under its burden
And no longer be my daily self
But rather a better and different madman
The wine I drink tastes of the sea is a book about wine and the world surrounding it, about the impact of vine growing on our islands, about wine production and its cultural dimension and economic impact. Although the book takes the Balearic Islands as its reference point, this is a study of the history of wine throughout the Mediterranean. The book is the second volume in a trilogy dealing with the behaviour, way of being and feeling of the Balearic people and their Mediterranean character. The first volume was Mallorca eròtica, a compilation of ancient “glosas” or traditional poems, which were sung in praise of our ancestors' sexuality, a homage to eroticism constructed out of half-words and insinuations, an attempt to convert the act of love into a synonym for “la fiesta”.
The wine I drink tastes of the sea is in part the fruit of coming across new ,by chance in 2009, about excavations that had been carried out on the megalithic “talayotic” settlement of ses Païsses d'Artà in 2005. These were directed by the archaeologist Javier Aramburu, who discovered, engraved on amphorae, the names of the two oldest known Balearic citizens: Aris and Bodmilgart. These two Phoenicians were inhabitants of the Pine Islands or “Pitiusas” in the 4th century BC, and were canny wine traders. They did not think twice about copying the amphorae of the most popular drinks from other lands such as Greece or Rome in order to boost their profits. At the same time the book is a product of the conviction and insistence of a vintner friend that vine growing and wine production had been a mainstay of economic income in our islands over many centuries, a situation which we are seeing reborn today. Here we should take into account that in 1881, in Mallorca, 50 million litres of wine were exported out of a total production of 75 million, produced from vineyards that occupied around 30,000 hectares. In addition, in 1909, the Archduke Luis Salvador remarked on the quality of Balearic wine and spoke of it as being a tourist attraction; something the Roman Procurator Pliny “the Old” had done much earlier in his book Natural History when he considered the wine made in the islands to be the best in the whole Empire.
Wine is a product, which as well as running parallel to the history of Mankind, crosses it at many points, and like no other factor, defies description. It has been sung by all the great poets and is capable of both making one forget pains and problems as well as creating misery and woe. A red metaphor for Christ's blood, it can lift you up into paradise, letting you taste happiness, or drag you down into hell and madness. Its duality is marked by many factors. Along with wheat and olives, it has been one of the staples in our diet, but man has had to learn how to grow vines and produce wine in order to bring out its most remarkable flavours and values. It has facilitated trade and commerce, but as a consequence has led to contact between civilizations; it has had healing qualities and has been used as a foodstuff, which over time, either improves or turns to vinegar, depending on how it is treated, just like people do.
The book you have in your hands is the result of two convictions. One, the conviction that the waves of storms and calms that wash up on our coasts and which create our frontiers and make us islanders, have cultivated, within us, a nature and a destiny where projects, accidental events, contradictions and luck do not imply any plan or philosophy of life in common other than that of the daily struggle to survive. An individualism able to feel and see today but unable to articulate the new horizons of tomorrow. On the other hand, in the artistic field, I am sure that the utopian integration of art into the most sensitive aspects of human existence has to be linked to knowledge and education; and even more so now that they are beginning to speak about the disappearance of the idea of the new, of the spirit of rupture or of art for art's sake. I have the rooted belief that art and culture are inseparable from their public and their social function. And that today it is necessary to find new ways of accessing art. I am convinced that the recuperation of art's historical significance and the reestablishment of cultural identity are the doors through which art may be renewed.
The drama of a future with no prospects, the renunciation of both beauty and the significance of what is human and social, art empty of its symbolic dimension and knowledge, just the expression of a life-style, reduces and impoverishes the artistic experience and leads to banality. While I began illustrating books as one more string to my professional bow, now with this edition of The wine I drink tastes of the sea and, beforehand with Erotic Majorca, I think I am beginning to give it a meaning. This volume is the result of a work of creative reflexion, original and completely free, that has overcome hurdles with great effort, determination and much enthusiasm. The wine I drink tastes of the sea is not only one of my books, and not uniquely mine. It is also a work born out of the rigour and knowledge of Antoni M. Planas, who is more than just a friend and collaborator. Without his perseverance and dedication to find the right style and tone this book would have been impossible. These are magnificent texts. I only hope my works are worthy of them. These are images made without fear of the unknown and with a trust in the truth of our surroundings, because conquests are reversible and nature is immense. They have been created with the arms that I have at my disposal as an artist: eyes, hands and heart; and the conviction that while our memory is our heritage, without a future there is no hope.
As you will see, the diversity of the world of wine has been an enriching topic for me. Man has constructed around wine a cult to its rites, myths and Gods. The Greek Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans, was a God who represented lofty chaotic voluptuousness and uncontrolled infringement of all rules. The grotesque Satyrs and the disturbingly beautiful Maenads, always ready for wild passion, are the counterparts of the reason that has become the source of inspiration today for painters, musicians and poets. I have lit candles in the temple so that magic and poetic intuition should cross paths with the will of a creative imagination, in images in which work, colour and love have fused with desire and madness. At the same time, innovation and creativity, which in most cases are the daughters of solitude, silence and freedom, come together in the search for new expressive paths, where what is said and how it is said is important, where I put myself at the service of the topic and its audience.
There is no doubt that these sketches and paintings are made with the desire to renew our pride in what we are, what we have been and what we can be. Our islands are very particular islands, islands which besides, in recent years have experienced an enormous development due to tourism which has led to a loss of territory, cultural change and the influx of money. These are transformations which we have to review and redirect, and it is today, when we, both economically and politically, feel the weight of a world that is sinking, have to renew forces and look to a decisive commitment on the part of civil society. We all have the duty and the responsibility to mould the world that surrounds us, to dream of new horizons and a future with dignity for our grandchildren. We are children of that great sea between lands, the cradle of noble and rich civilizations that have mixed, fused and crossed with so many others, some even very distant. A sea that today fills our beaches, where sun, sand and salt dance on the bodies of these modern Argonauts with their dreams of Sirens, Neptune and Nymphs. Dreams of landscapes full of vines, where the Satyrs and Maenads offer up a hospitality, tolerance and diversity that has converted our culture into a frontier culture, a melting pot of all the peoples who have settled here, from the Phoenicians to the Greeks and Romans as well as the Jews and Arabs and all of us who, today make this land a common land of both struggles and rest.
The book you have in your hands is the result of the efforts, friendship and trust of many people whom I will be eternally grateful to and whom I regard it an honour to have worked alongside. Especially in these difficult days when there seems to be no hope in the future. Because hope and determination is what we have invested in this book and this is what we want to transmit to the reader. Our experience so far has been rewarding, stimulating and passionate. In addition, it has been made possible because of the support we have received from First Mallorca, Bulthaup Nicolau, Son Mir, the Institute of Balearic Studies and the Local Ministry of Education, Tourism and Universities. This support has been an expression of their love for our people and their desire to water and sow our land so that it may flourish, in short a love song to the future.
The task of publishing the book has required a great effort and has been expensive, even more so considering the Catalan edition of 63,000 copies that has been distributed free to all the households on the island by the newspapers Diari de Balears and Ultima Hora. I would like to thank Grupo Serra for their desire and willingness to make this the largest publication even brought out in our language.
The wine I drink tastes of the sea is madness and alchemy mixed with a few drops of wine and the conviction that art, poetry and culture are fighting a battle that mankind cannot allow itself to lose. It is a book born out of mutual dependence: art is the origin of knowledge; wine is the stimulus and source of inspiration.
«My intention as a painter is to be an intermediary between desire and reality» «I have done that what I felt» «I am younger now than when I was 22 years old, also freer» «I have found my freedom from study, work and knowledge
The afternoon is vigorously warm, sticky and heavy. Pollença is seen svelte over a hill, where houses spread soberly over its lap, discreet, without shrillness. At the top of the town, el Calvari, watches over the horizon, guarding the town as a broody hen looking after her chicks. The steps, straight, has a spectacular elegance. An obscure procession of slender cypresses finishes off the way up, in need of a good prune. They form an oscillating line under the buffeting wind. In front of the village there is Maria's Puig, a rounded mount with a magic aspect, a unique breast where the spirituality that has always covered Pollença. Behind, as the background of this scene, the Tramontane mountain range, wild, steep, with a slim silhouette that reminds us of the teeth from a saw. The mountains, always far away even in their proximity, are goddesses, immutable, never defeated. The whole image has a special charm, a beauty that makes Pollença a place with an intellectual, intelligent and of notable air.
When I get there, the town stretches from the “2 p.m. time”, those mysterious hours of summer when Majorcan villages become ghostly, with nobody in the streets, and people have naps in the fresh air escaping from the blistering middays of August. Those hours that seemed eternal to me when I was a kid, in Llubí, as they didn't allow us to go out in the street or play, not even to talk. I still remember those silent moments and, as if it was today, my grandmother's, Maria, voice with her «callau, que es temps de dues» (shut up, it is 2 p.m. time) that she repeated constantly. Childhood the authentic lost homeland returns to one's memory when one is less aware of it.
But I was saying that I had arrived in Pollença. Joan Bennàssar was waiting for me there to finish the long conversation that has transformed itself into this book. He is an artist in the big and old sense of the term, a man that considers art a vital and spiritual need, an art that has taught him how to live, with which he maintains a constant dialogue from within. The painter lives on the outskirts of town. His studio and house are in the middle of a pretty, dense, savage, and of an obscure green, holm-oak wood. Holm-oaks are trees that make me feel like not many others, because they are colours, sounds, sensations, desires, hope or sadness. Before getting to the painter's house I stop the car and contemplate those trees full of life, with a thick and firm trunk, that have with the passing of time sculpted on their bark, the history of years. Suddenly, one of them gets filled with birds, a small group of goldfinches, cheerful and noisy. They play for seconds between the branches and fly away as quickly as they got there. They haven't seen me. There are few miracles left, and those birds cheeping between the foliage is one of them, of an infinite beauty.
In 1995, Bennàssar decided to settle back in Pollença. It was his return to his origins, the end of the path where it had begun, but now the baggage of experience, emotions and work was inside him. And the town was neither the same. I got back to Pollença, simply, because here I feel well. I depart from an absolutely selfish attitude: I am very involved with society, all what is related with social matters attracts me strongly, but I need my time, my work. And with the passing of time I am becoming more annoyed if another invades this space that is so mine. I am a big-city man; cities worked so well on me during my education, while I was young, and in this moment I travel frequently and trust in having all the information needed, but I am gaining a lot of time. Living more of the town, daily life, it brings me what is time. And the human warmth gets me in other ways. I have isolated myself a lot, I make my world work a lot, and I am in contact with others once in a while, in concrete encounters, that sometimes enrich me and others deceive me.
Even though there is a will of keeping apart, that doesn't mean that he lives like a hermit, closed in his shelter. He is interested in painting, and by doing it, by working, he needs to be apart of the whole set-up that the Art World implies. And that brought him to his house in Pollença, in the middle of a valley, at Marias feet. Rich earth, to back smells of wild plants, isolated but at the same time inside a cosmopolitan world. Bennàssar spent many years in a great social and politic implication, but now he finds the stability inside his studio. The key word is balance: I have learned how to maintain balance. On one hand you must be very contact in day-to-day life, but on the other you can't let it be in control.
The studio is in an independent building situated at the rear of the house, surrounded by orange, lemon and almond trees, and sculptures. It is a spacious rectangular warehouse of white colour, with a high roof. Pictures are scattered everywhere, leaning on walls. They have all kinds of sizes, but there are three huge ones that specially highlight on either side of the hall. The characters represented in them, gigantic, and monumental, bring an unreal air to the space. They seem full of life, as if in any moment they could step out of the picture and take part in the conversation. In the centre of the room there is a little attic, functional, wide, with spacious windows that open up toward the easterly wind, with a view to the plants that surround the studio. Up there, the artist works drawing on paper, the smallest works. A comfortable place, friendly, intimate.
Bennàssar receives me in shorts. He is jovial and dynamic, extroverted and generous, wildly optimistic. He looks at me straight in the eye, with tender and deep eyes, like the characters he draws. The artist expresses an exultant enthusiasm while he is showing the canvases of his studio. Showing his works to the others is one of his favourite things, he looks really happy. He moves fast inside the studio, with a firm, agile and vigorous step, from one side to the other. He moves the paintings with expertise and talks at the same time; takes one out, hides another, moves a number of them to get to a canvas hidden behind all of them, or picks up another one from the floor… and during that he talks, walks from one side to the other again, with short steps, and talks again. He asks questions that I don't have time to answer, because he answers them or because he throws up another. It is obvious that Joan enjoys having someone in his studio. His speech is fast, sometimes hurried because of the will of saying too many things at the same time. And it happens that he has a great communicative power, a great ability to seduce, a lot of personality. He shows me first some sculptures, then some paintings, in a moment, some monotypes, and after more sculptures, drawings, and more canvases… It is hard for me to follow him, but it is obvious that he is proud of his artworks, of what he does for a living. He is fortunate; he has achieved what the majority of mortals look for, living from what they love; and living well.
A walk through the studio, with Joan Bennàssar as guide, is more than enough to figure out his talent. There is a bit of everything, which demonstrates his versatility. But, watch out! Nowadays this term can have a kind of derogatory sense in the art-world. Not here. In this case I use the word versatility in the purest sense, erasing any possible derogatory shade. When I say that he is a versatile artist I mean that he is complete, that he is an artist in the Renaissance sense, a man full of the permanent inquisitiveness for experimentation, for trying new things, a creator that counts on his innate talent, that he has acquired a technique that not many contemporaries have. All that, mixed up with a surprising capacity for work that has taken him to be an expert in every aspect of plastic art, to affront with the same ability painting and sculpting, to be a master in the art of graphic works, to be able to, with two lines, with two brush-strokes, build up awesome drawings, or to alternate easily abstraction and figuration.
The conversation stops. A few quiet seconds. I feel fine in that studio surrounded by canvases, in Joan's company. I look through one of the large windows and see a group of small clouds, white and shiny, that travel over the milky and clear blue of the afternoon sky. They are the only everlasting beauty, clouds, precisely because of their constant mutability. In that moment I realized how much I loved to watch them. When I was a kid I spent hours contemplating the sky. They said that I was dazed, that I was kind of dumb, but I just thought that they were making a mistake, because I was happy accompanied by those clouds, I listened to them, established an intimate relation, a spiritual one. From them I learned lots of things. Even now, mature, I can spend a lot of time following their path, that magic drift through the sky, going anywhere, a bit like how I passed through life. When he retakes the conversation, the clouds are still there, framed by the large window. They are art too.
Let's get back to the studio artworks. Sculptures are surprising, primitive and material, modeled with a huge and well-thought experience. We have talked about them before. There are etchings too, a lot of them. Even when graphic works have always occupied the second or third place in the artistic-world, in Bennàssar's case it is not a supporting task at all. He has opened this technique to new dimensions and has known how to exploit to perfection the richness of resources from the difficult techniques of these arts, from etching to lithography, passing across dry points, monotypes or xylography. The result is a magma of ideas, reflections, experiments… A new breath in the hard world of graphic art.
Nevertheless, drawings are what impressed me the most of these works. In the past few years he has drawn again with illusion. Many things have happened since those first drawings exhibited in the Tous bookstore, but the spirit remains unchanged around those sheets of papers. They have surprised me; and not because I know nothing about the strokes in his drawings, as his paintings are full of them, he is the clear father of all what he has done, the foundation over which he builds. No. Instead, they have surprised me with the magic they give off. Simple, painted over ordinary sheets of paper with pencil and water colours. While I write these phrases in my studio –small, claustrophobic, the white wall in front of me as the only panoramic view where the view gets lost too many times, from where I know the smallest lump, the most insignificant chafing- I revive the memory of the moment in which he showed them to me. His enthusiasm was immense, honest and neat, as from a child. He has spent the past months deep in drawing. He has a sensual model, with a graceful body and lively movements. The results have been magnificent. I observe those drawings with a great delight, with emotion. They get to the depths of my being. The serenity of the composition impresses me, the easy stroke. Bennàssar has been able to approach the human body mystery, its secret geometry, the whole emotion of its attitude, its charming movements. He needs no more than a line or a brushstroke to express himself. With this synthesis and abstraction he captures the subtlety of the woman's body internal emotions, the essence, the core of what he portrays.
It is hot inside the studio. There isn't even a breath of air. Now I walk around the space with curiosity. I look in corners, paying attention to little details. The huge quantity of paintings, sculptures and etchings that the building contains surprises me. Bennàssar is a hardworking painter, constant, at odds with laziness, always active. And this is the fruit, an enormous collection of beautiful and extraordinary works. Even when in general terms the studio seems to be tidy, when one looks attentively one discovers chaos in every corner. The table is hidden by heaps of books, catalogues of old exhibitions, invitations, posters, boxes, sculptures and junk without any apparent use.
He leaves now by the back door to a small concrete courtyard looking for some air. My look gets lost between the almond-trees, of centenary trunks, full of almonds that by now, late in August, are ready for reaping, with a dried up shell that has just opened. I am thirsty and get back to the memories of my childhood, when in the country, in times of almonds harvesting, under the summer sun, men took a swallow of liquor if they were thirsty, and, the, a great gulp of fresh water. Nowadays hardly anyone gathers almonds, and almond-trees die of old age in the Majorcan fields, as the Majorca from my childhood dies, as my childhood dies in my memories.
We have sat down right in the middle of the studio, in two different chairs spotted by paint, rickety. There our dialogue is prolonged. Now we talk about painting, what is most recognized of the artist. The actual works, full of life, belong to an artist who situates himself far away from the conceptual art or the art conceived as a spectacle. He goes for sincere dialogue, clear and open with the spectator. And his art does this. Bennàssar gets, with his artwork, to an immense public, and not everyone can say so. The reason? Maybe we could find it in the fact that he is a painter who puts himself before the canvas with complete frankness, with a spirit opened to the four winds. Joan lets his soul reflect in each of his paintings. And that soul lives there without anguish or pain, nor confronted with the world; instead it belongs to a lively, cheerful, optimistic, and hungry for life. It is enough with one of his works to sum up his posture, to concrete all his inquisitiveness, his seliels, his problems. Definitively, he is an artist who bares himself in every work, who puts all he is, all he lives for, all he feels; and that, precisely that, makes the spectator throw himself headfirst into them, with his heart, and feels how the painting filters through each of his pores.
All these thoughts make me define Bennàssar, today, as the portrayer of beauty. Reality is excessively complicated for him to put it on a canvas, so, instead of pretending to offer this reality, he tries to show the beauty that it hides as the endless topic of the human existence. He doesn't want to reproduce or transcribe reality; he works to recreate it inventing a new existence. The artist doesn't imitate the world, he wants to develop a new one uncovering the large number of aspects that it has and which we are frequently unable to perceive. His paintings are useful in order to confront what exists with what could exist, offering a better world. Here is the reason of his success. He doesn't even try to explain anything with his painting. He distances himself from the narration and, often, it looks like his pictures are lacking action. But that is a misunderstanding. The narrative action is supplied by an intense philosophical strength that offers us a profound look, always exhaustive, of bare humanity.
The telephone interrupts our conversation, our reflections said out loud. Strident and high-pitched tones startle us. Talking with Joan is a pleasure. He has an intelligent speech, cultured and with clear ideas. He converses with emphasis and cordiality, gesticulating widely. Sometimes he has an austere expression, others a youthful one, then it is mischievous or innocent, and then he is beaming all over his face. While he talks on the telephone, I am left alone in the studio and look at some of the paintings that are still there. The composition is simple, the drawing barely a few lines… but there is something mysterious in them, maybe superhuman, that takes me far away, making me travel to the sea shore; smell the penetrating odour of saltpeter; the sound of the waves, stubborn, coming and going; the crush of the water dripping between the rounded and dark stones, crossed by bleached veins. A small male sparrow, dressed up with all the tones of brown, pecks under the lintel of the courtyard. Flies away terrified when Bennàssar gets back. We keep on talking.
The conversation turns to actual art. Joan Bennàssar is an artist who lives in a certain confrontation with today's art. Me too. The XXth century has had the virtue of teaching us how to look in a different way, how to look for the beauty in everyday objects or, even, how to look for the artistic in those things that have nothing to do with beauty. The consequence is that, already inside the XXIst century, that new look has brought us to extremes where it is easy to confuse the limits of what is art and what is not. Today lots of artworks express nothing because they are wanton, because they don't penetrate inside the mystery of art, nor in its learning. It is so much like that that we have come to a point where a thing is considered art according to who has signed it and where it hangs. Madness. Potentiated, also, by a bunch of shamans and priests that live precisely from feeding that confusion, from softening the limits of what art is. Bennàssar, with clear judgment, has escaped from all that and in the past years his works return with hunger, illusion, to the painting itself, to the essence. Voluntarily he has escaped from fashions to become a free painter and, for that, in the creator of a work that, as the one from classics, can't die. Classics with which he quenched his thirst, whom he has admired, to go on building, nonetheless, personal, and completely contemporaneous work.
Bennàssar has also abandoned abstraction, which he cultivated passionately for many years. Abstract art has said almost all what it could say and, making a few exceptions, has lost his principal objective, being a reason for reflecting, making one think, awaking from certain inertia, conformism, and getting rid of an unique aesthetical concept of art. Abstraction, then, can't just be for delight people, but also in disquieting, and that is precisely the value that abstraction has lost today.
Now I have been the one who talked without stopping, in a little monologue. The conversation ends. Let's leave it as it is, it is kind of late. When I leave of the house the sun falls down behind the mountain range, the sky is golden and shiny. For some mysterious reason, my mind works better when my legs are moving. I walk with no direction, or destiny, as those clouds I contemplated a few minutes ago. And I think. Two women are getting fresh air on the pavement. They talk and crochet, as if they couldn't make one thing without the other. Hand movements are short, quick, with the agility of a genet; the white thread, always tense, rotates the ball. My grandmother returns to my thoughts with those boring afternoons sitting in the fresh air, with the neighbours in the street gossiping without a break. Remembering those small moments helps me to be happy. Like art.
This one has been our last conversation. We have finished. A bit of sadness, of vacuum, overwhelms me. I want to finish with a phrase I read some time ago, but I am not sure about who wrote it: “art won't make you happy, maybe it will help you to be, but mostly it will help you understand why you aren't”. Joan Bennàssar's paintings also do that.
«A slow and balanced look is needed, one that is close to feelings. And this is the look that I propose to you. I have wanted nothing more than to turn the human body into a reference of creativity and knowledge. And to show sex free of sick thoughts, shame and other taboos»
I'm not used to order my feelings literarily, and even less to theorize about art, but they ask me for certain impressions, a positioning, and what I have felt artistically and sentimentally while I was putting images into this treatise on love, desire and sex that is the popular songbook Majorcan.
The history of humanity has always been closely linked to sexuality. Sex has been part of men's lives since they were given the gift of thinking beyond their bodies. Eroticism has collected the value, the will and the power of a whole world that can hardly be impregnated with reason. Today, in a time of doubtful values, in which the way of looking has been contaminated, the world of images and sex have not been inmune to it. I, who have mixed art and life, and have made painting my means of expression –it is the field in which I feel most capable of communicating thoughts and desires–, try to make of it an adventure of curiosities and chance.
The reader, the viewer, will be able to judge these images better than me, because he has the distance that I have not had, but that I have not sought either, for two very clear reasons. The first has to do with the fact of being part of a generation of Mallorcans who found freedom and sex in the bodies of young people from other countries who, letting themselves be caressed by the waters and the sun of our beaches –gropingly–, showed to us the stars of the night. The other, because I feel –and every day more– that the pictorial work is intimately close to lovemaking practices: giving, receiving, looking, discovering… Possessive some times and humble at others, always alive and new. Love, from its most spiritual aspect or from its most carnal and erotic one, is a fundamental issue on the research for truth and beauty that we try to de in human life.
Jean Leymarie recounts that one day, preparing a conference on art and sexuality, he went to see Pablo Picasso and asked him: "What do I have to say?" Picasso did not hesitate and replied: "Art and sex are the same." Matisse also speaks of love as the origin of all creation.
The human body, an essential reference in the history of art, its beauty and eroticism, an object capable of arousing passions, is the subject of this hundred or so drawings that serve to add images to this popular collection of poems, which is nothing more than a singing to life.
Sexual desire, given the great influence it has on the behavior of the group, was used by the social and religious classes of Mallorca to make them a taboo, a sin, a misery. But a town that makes songs out of taboos and laughs out of passion is a special town. And this is precisely the meaning that I see in these erotic songs from the Mallorcan countryside that the writer Gabriel Janer Manila collected, more than 30 years ago. A parallel morality, a hidden thought that manifested itself through the small cracks left by those in power.
Matriarchal, of mister and misses, less misogynistic than what is sung, this book –and these drawings– serve to bring the society that is portrayed in it –ancient, essence of the rural Mallorca, the deep roots that have allowed the splendor of the strain that the Majorca of today is– closer to the actual feeling, making it more than just a song of the past.
If we accept the black hole that the postwar period was, sexuality in the Mediterranean is selfless and cheerful, starting at “sequer dance” they finished in the hayloft. Without religious or ideological prejudices, these glosses are songs of desire from the man towards the woman, or from the woman towards the man, it doesn't matter. Different approaches to understand sexuality in this case would have seemed gratuitous to me.
Eroticism has always been present in my work. The most loving and erotic aspect of my painting has to do with the effort of two bodies that seek to complement each other. I hope that in these drawings you will find passion. Art is a compendium of real life, and to live is to desire. Letting myself be guided by desire and madness, getting away from mental speculations and artistic investigations that can separate me from art lovers and the general public, is another of the aspects with which I have faced this work. The objective has been no other than to bring those poems closer to a wider public and to transcend the receptacles of galleries and curators.
These are times in which you have to position yourself. A slow and balanced look is needed, one that is close to feelings. And this is the look that I propose to you. I have wanted nothing more than to turn the human body into a reference of creativity and knowledge. And to show sex free of sick thoughts, shame and other taboos
This is the result, I present it to all of you with the conviction that there are no rules apart from individuals and that exactitude is never true.
«I haven't wanted anything else than to convert the human body in a reference of creativity and knowledge» «Through a body I narrate those stories that I need to tell»
Friedrich Nietzsche assured that the future had to be thought of from the body, as it had to be the main thread for knowledge, making it the criterion for everything moral and real. The body, in this Nietzschean sense, is an enigma and a territory that still has to be discovered, it has a mute speech visualized only through his representations. One of these representations, one of the most important ones, is the one that art made.
The representation of the human body is a constant in the Universal Art History. Yet in primitive times we can find illustrations, schematic and simple figures first, more elaborated later, of men and women that symbolize different values such as fertility, hunting, love, war, or to understand all that which wasn't explicable with reason… With the passing of years, the representation of the human figure in art has changed. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, Miguel Ángel, Tiziano, Rubens, Durero, Van Eyck, Botticelli, el Greco, Manet, Renoir, and the Spanish artists Goya, Sorolla, Velázquez, Murillo… They all made evolve the gender of portrait in the art world. Until the XXth century, when the human figure stops being exclusively a portrait or a symbol of beauty, to become a mode of expressing emotions. It is enough with revising Picasso, Magritte, Dalí or Modigliani's works to confirm that the human body isn't as valuable for it's beauty as for the emotions it expresses.
Bennàssar hasn't abstained from representing the human figure in his canvases. Since the beginning, he has painted men and women and has dedicated a great part of his work to paints portraits, sometimes from people of his surrounding and on many occasions imaginary, from his subconscious; characters that could be real, but that are formed by fragments, memories and images, that passed through the sieve of his mind, and are converted in new figures, men and women that conform to a world populated by beauty, feelings, history, passion and love.
The artist, through the years, has painted himself, his wife, his children, even his friends and the people that have been close to him at some moment. His interest in this kind of art work isn't casual. The paintings in this category demand the approach of the observer through the object and, as we have said on many occasions in this book, Bennàssar is an artist that paints all that in which he is involved, and he is only capable to paint what he has nearest, what is part of his own personal world.
In the representation of the human figure he uses, as models, the people that are contemporary to him, that exhibit their selves shameless in front of the spectator. He paints real bodies, authentic nudes, instead of academic studies. The body that he presents, owned by an anonymous person that has nothing to do with ancient divinities, expresses modernity in a definitive mode. In the case of nudes, Bennàssar doesn't idealize the fact of wearing no clothes and exhibits bodies that have no complexes. Also, he doesn't link beauty to formalism, and presents new canons, of his own, and that allow all kind of aesthetics and great freedom of creativity and expression.
In his portraits it is necessary to make a difference between those that have men as the protagonist, and those that have women. In my paintings the figure of man represents myself. They are self-portraits. Works that talk about me, about what I have near, about that which surrounds me. It is an attempt to go straight to the deepest part of my soul for knowing myself better, for understanding myself. They are pictures that, on many occasions, represent situations of my life, moods, reflections and very personal decisions. I have never tried to recreate my physiognomy, my aspect, because my intention is not to make physical portraits, instead I want to portrait the soul, says the artist. Bennàssar believes firmly in the possibilities that man has, and tries to get back to research of beauty and all those opportunities that life offers us.
Many of the masculine characters that populate his canvases are enclosed in themselves. They are reflexive beings. Ones that think about the future, others are halfway on the vital path, who Bennàssar represents as excursionists resting, recovering strength, to retake the path of life. There are also daydreaming characters, reflecting over their role in the world. And some, in their loneliness, establish a solid communication through their looks, through their gestures. Almost all, even so, are persons travelling, in transit, between one moment and another of their vital trajectory. The painting Raining at sea, from 1995-97, is one of the best examples of this internal self-portraits with which the artist wants to show us the things he carries in his most intimate interior, in the most remote and hidden side.
Actually Joan Bennàssar has abandoned this topic. He explains the reason to us: Nowadays I have other necessities in relation with this acknowledgment of myself. With the years I have assumed my ego, which is more complex, and I don't need to question who am I, where am I going… Now my problems are more directed toward understanding what surrounds me, more than toward my own. I remember that many years ago Guillem Frontera wrote in the text of a catalogue that there were many Joan Bennàssars. But not now, I know certainly now that there is, only one.
The case of women is very different. Bennàssar has portrayed the female body as a way of expressing beauty, desire. He paints women as loving goddesses, incarnations of beauty, everyday Venuses. He uses classical images, that represent divinities, goddesses, and their conventionalized representation form, and takes them to a completely personal land, where he converts them in representations of the maximum beauty. He demonstrates his knowledge of classical art and in which mode tradition can be actualized. The results are figures that show their admiration through the beauty of the feminine sex and the intimate desire of them.
But it is not just beauty for beauty; there is also a story behind. When, in about 1994, I start to incorporate women in my paintings, I represent figures that have a lot to do with the madonnas of the Italian Renaissance. Those women are similar to my mother, to her memory, to her protection… strong women that support the family, a typical situation of the Majorcan society, very matriarchal, where women are the ones that define the family course. They are women with a great Mediterranean component. The feminine figure understood as a mother is very present in his first stage. Mother's body is the paradigm for any body, is the body of creation and of everything that comes from it. The knowledge that a mother's body is prolonged and applied to all the bodies that Joan paints. From there comes this feminine vision so Mediterranean, so tied up with the Roman and Greek sculptures. We are talking about the classical taken to the most absolute modernity again.
But the artist's explanation continues. Later, with the passing of time, the representation of women starts to derivate in my pictures toward women that illustrate beauty, the total beauty. They turn into beautiful animals. Women are converted, from then, in harmony, desire, and, at the top of it, the symbol of absolute beauty. I can also find this beauty in other places, but the beauty of a breast, a look, a shoulder, a hip, or long hair is what I won't find in a landscape.
It is obvious that, as the classical Greeks and Romans, Bennàssar considers the body the maximum creation of nature and the maximum expression of beauty; that is why he always represents the women body naked, perfect, beauty.
«With my paintings I have wanted to show sex free from bad thoughts, shame and other taboos» «Sex is the most human drug that exists» «I am painting what I desire, and in this game I want to posses and be possessed»
From when art is art, inside the abysm of very remote times, the human body and his representation has always been an objective for the creative eye of men. Really early in Art History we can find the first erotic representations, more or less explicit in relation to the cultures where they were developed. However, behind them exist a desire to reflect wishes, sexual postures, romantic relationships, human sensuality, etc. Man sees himself in sexuality, and its artistic representation becomes a reflex of the human eye in nature's mirror. What distinguishes, then, sexuality from eroticism isn't its complexity, but the distance. Man is reflected in sexuality, he bathes in it, melts and separates. But sexuality doesn't look to the erotic game, it lights it up without seeing it. Eroticism, as art, is imagination, invention, and a completely mental subject; that is why art and eroticism are usually joined since the first artistic representations.
There are specific erotic representations in almost every artist's work. The pictures that refer to this topic, almost always reduced to the intimate format of the drawing, have been, nevertheless, a private property protected zealously by the artists themselves. They didn't want them to take part in art's market, as they were considered minor works that could do nothing more than harm their prestige. However, in the XXth century this tendency is transformed and eroticism becomes just another theme, used by great painters, popularized.
The erotic subject has always been present in Bennàssar's artworks too. Since his youth, he uses the female body's sensuality as an expressive element. Let's just recall Maternity, of 1978, a nude with a prominent sensual and erotic strength. And it happens that, in his painting, there has always been an important place reserved for desire, because for him it is one of the basic elements of people's life. However, the treatment that the artist takes over eroticism has always started from an affectionate point of view, tender, bodies in love with each other that caress and melt one into the other. This tendency has been incremented with the years. Long ago eroticism was more expressive, direct, visceral… the passing of time converted it in more schematic, more imaginative and more mature.
If in other pictures protagonists were lonely and abstracted characters, in the case of the erotic paintings there is a clear dialogue between them. I don't know how to relate the characters in my pictures. It is curious, but I just know how to do that with the erotic theme. I suppose that this is because there can't be sex without a relationship. In sex there must be two players, and each has to leave him self behind and begin to form part of the other; the aim is to make two bodies transform into only one. And, obviously, to get there, a relationship between the characters is necessary. Lots of these canvases talk about the union and the coexistence with someone else while intimate moments are lived, when the most secret connivance happens, when two human beings are one in front of the other, naked, without any other weapon than their bodies, skin and sensitivity.
The erotic topic is marvellous to me. It brings great plastic possibilities and, also, an infinity of scenes because of the high number of postures and ways to make love. From the compositional point of view the fact that two bodies look for each other to create a circular, magical scene, with a great pictorial strength. In fact, when two people are looking for the other you create a space that in its self is reconverted. And all this provides you with from a great creative wealth. Also, eroticism has as an advantage that the more you give as a painter the more you receive. There is no need to hold back anything, everything is allowed and this puts in a great creative freedom that is not achieved with other themes.
Bennàssar has resorted to the erotic theme in several pictures. And this action has always served him to advance on his creative path, as it is the field in which he has experimented the most, gone forward, and risked the most, even when he has usually obtained great benefits from it that potentiated the rest of his works. Also, in eroticism the artist is always more aggressive with the technique used to paint than with the theme. Eroticism, sensuality, is a pictorial subject about which I don't have any kind of prejudice, that doesn't happen to me with other themes. When I am painting a face, for example, I am always aware of the look of the character, it has to say what I want, and express the feelings it must express. In eroticism, it isn't like this. I feel myself flowing freely, because there tiny details aren't what make the painting work, but the whole, the vibration, the relationship between the characters… Plastically it is like a still life, you set up those things you want, you need.
In 2007 Joan Bennàssar and the writer Gabriel Janer Manila cooperated in the edition of a book with traditional Majorcan erotic songs titled Erotic Mallorca (Mallorca erótica). Janer Manila was in charge of selecting the texts, while the artist was responsible for the illustration through a great number of erotic drawings made on paper. The idea of editing this volume comes from the book that the writer published in 1972, a consequence of the research for traditional erotic Majorcan songs that he made between 1962 and 1977. The publication was titled Sex and culture in Mallorca: the songbook (Sexe I cultura a Mallorca: el cançoner) and its function was the recovery of that kind of poems. The new text comes from the selection of the most hilarious and curious ones from that first volume. Bennàssar did a specific work to accompany those texts with images, doing more than half a hundred drawings.
As everything in this artist's life, nothing is ever inconsequential, and this book brought back the erotic theme in the artistic creation of the painter, after having been kept a bit forgotten during the last years. That is why a whole series of canvases, united by the nexus of being a song to the couple, appeared. We are talking about paintings in which, love, happiness, passion and feelings, have a lot of presence through, as the artist itself says, two bodies that unify in harmony. In relation to this artworks, Francesc Verdú wrote: «They show precisely this permanent quest, this obsession of the artist, to capture the feelings we yearn for while they are still flying, to vindicate beauty and love as the only watchtowers that can give us shelter in front of the emptiness that everyday is growing harder».
The erotic paintings of Joan Bennàssar are a song to life and love. It is worth it to live for loving someone, loving that person with all its consequences.
«The avant-garde has already lost even the subversive value against everything what is established» «The most characteristic of actual art is that it has a more personal component as time passes»
Bennàssar is 45 years. He has reached physical and pictorial maturity. He is settled in life: has a family, his career is consolidated, and his children are making their own way. All this is reflected in a group of canvases that the artist will paint during these years and from which we have chosen Walkers between blue and pink as the representative painting, even when at this point it could be any other, as he has acquired a towering level as a painter. However, in this artwork, in which he recuperates those old shoes that had already appeared in 1977, he marks, as Pilar Ribal says in one of her texts about the painter, «a new inflexion point in his artistic work, decided and fully balanced between classicism and contemporaneity».
Bennàssar now decides for the comeback to figurative aspects without complexes. That doesn't mean a return to the art that was done before, but gathering together the modern tradition to go a step further. My intention was to recover the avant-garde spirit, the magic sense that the painter's work had in its origins, the art that is born from the necessity of adjusting previous views. All this happens because of the vindication of drawing. In this sense, it is needed to mention a review by Francesc Miralles that appeared in La Vanguardia newspaper owing to one of his exhibitions, in which it is claimed: «It is told to us that we are in an epoch of artistic crisis, an avant-garde and creative crisis, and even that we are in art's death. Nevertheless, a bunch of artists, Barceló and Bennàssar among them, are returning to the sources of our century, to origins of lots of –isms, to deepen in them and, with that deepening, to find paths that, instead of new, are of synthesis, and that is what is interesting».
To an artist, art is useless if there is no ambition to conquer new sensibility spaces and to invent new ways to see the world; and Bennàssar believes that the common spirit has been lost, breaking the link between the artist and his public. So he revolted against know-it-all unions, art critics, overseers and other interpreting loudmouths, that made pictures understandable in posteriori, almost without necessity of the painting itself. The need for mediation has been overestimated. The Art History of the last half of the XXth century is made from texts, and it wouldn't be a bad thing to redo it. So for the same reason the artist becomes a critic of the avant-garde, a concept that he considers out dated: those guys are painting for politicians and bankers. They are as palatine as the paintings that the historical avant-garde critics could be.
The canvas we want to talk about, of monumental dimensions, is a reflection on youth. Bennàssar stops from being autobiographic, to focus on his children who by that time had grown, and had a whole life in front of them, having acquired enough baggage to go forward. They are young people, excursionists, who are on life's road, but who now have experience; hence the idea of the backpacks. They are in a moment of pause, resting during the long way, and from this idea the reflexive attitude arises, they think about the future, on the reality they are living, and on what they have ahead on them, unknown, mysterious and always passionate. They are on life's road, where there are also slips, stumbles, landslides, and moments of weakness, but we must always keep on going forward. Life is a long road where there are hard times but it is a road worth taking.
There are two metaphorical elements in the painting. On one side, pairs of children's shoes that are Joan's daughter's and reminds him of her first steps in her way. In the other, the background is built with thick wooden planks placed forming a relief, with the finality of giving the sensation of stairs; this reminds of us Pollença's Calvary steps, but also the ascension in life. Moreover, this artwork is painted in two tones, blue and pink, as a form of expressing life's own duality: good/bad, happy/sad, healthy/ill, life/death…
The characters are situated in a group, but there is no kind of communication between them. Nevertheless, there is a dialogue, an internal dialogue, introspective, showing that life, life's road, is an individual experience, that doesn't mean that it is an individualistic experience, but that each of us has to face alone. It is great to be surrounded by people, but when there is a problem, we have to get over it alone, we only have ourselves.
Another canvas of these characteristics is 12.15 AM, an impossible title in order to refer to the incoherence that life shows many times. Here Bennàssar incorporates new elements: characters with sunglasses, numbers, and other new elements, referring to modernity; they would fit in a metropolis, more related to life nowadays, characterized with some factory worker features, which are like labourers. These paintings protagonists are also Argonauts, but real ones, closer to any of those we could find in any city streets. They are all looking for something too, but their objective is confused; it could be right or wrong, but what is really important is the necessity of taking the risk for living, and never surrendering. The country has changed its mentality. One has the sensation that we are in a modern state that has evolved well. And lots of the problems that the youngsters of our generation had seem to have disappeared. However, the future isn't clear, other problems have appeared, other reasons for worrying… All this is reflected in these young people that have to face the future they have before them.
In this time Josep Melià wrote: «Since 1992 the artist has recovered the figure. His palette has became softer, it has even stopped from vibrating tormented, transmitting a certain serenity and a sweetened tone that make forms and colours fall in love. The charming landscape of Pollença is present in these paintings in which, curiously, landscapes, as an inspirational motif, are always absent, and only intuited in the compositional serenity, in the defused tone that impregnates his painting mode. This is a period in which human figures or close things acquire prominence and life. In these moments they have a bigger formal autonomy, they don't precise a whole view with other pieces to reveal the inner wealth that give them strength and content. The artist demonstrates in every moment the language and his expressive possibilities. He appears self-confident, strong and with an exceptional communicative ability».
«I have always considered more beautiful that which I am thinking while I am painting than what I really paint» «In contrast to painting, in sculpture there is nothing fictitious, everything is quite real. Sculpture has some tactile components that bring me superior aspects from reality than the canvas ones» «Nowadays aesthetic values are excessively confused with the market ones»
Talking about Bennàssar from an artistic point of view means talking about painting. That is obvious, but we can never forget his sculptor side. In fact, during his studies he had specialized in sculpture. There he met Jaume Mir, his first influence, his first master, who taught him the modeling technique, and instilled him in the passion for sculpting and creating forms and figures from nothing, to, as a demiurge, to confer life to inert matters. But, after a short time, he showed interest for the expression in painting and left it aside. Sculpture has, however, been present in his whole artistic trajectory, with ups and downs, with periods of more production and less; but always there. He has created sculptures with bronze, wood, and concrete… he has been interested in sculptures built from the juxtaposition of objects he had found, and has created trees, human or animal figures.
Bennàssar has always walked between two worlds. Partly with the colour and figurative vision of painting. But he has also felt the need for looking for a third dimension; a need that has taken him to transgress painting, breaking the canvas limits, playing with relief, and incorporating tridimensional elements to the canvas in an attempt to mix those two languages, till the point of confusing us; to know if we are in front of a picture or a sculpture!
I have made sculptures since I started, since I was a youngster. In my first exhibition at the Maeght gallery I presented a large number of sculptural pieces. But I have always been more dedicated to painting and it is evident that I am better known as a painter than as a sculptor, even when I feel a sculptor too. And the reasons for having painted more aren't other ones than, on the one hand, having always felt the need for painting, expressing myself with paint; and on the other, the fact that sculptures are very physical, laborious and difficult to store things, and painting has always been easier for me. However, it is clear that sculpture is another way to express myself, and explain the stories that spin through my head. I come from a very primitive culture and in sculpture I can spill the most primitive part of myself, more of feelings and less rational. But yes, I do believe that sculpture is even more real. I can perceive sculpture's forms and volumes much better than colors, gestures and compositions in paintings; that are, in other ways, much more fictional and complex than sculptures. Having said that, I have always painted more, but at the same time I have felt the need to make sculptures while I was painting, and that is why it has always existed in my route through the art-world.
If Bennàssar's paintings, with the passing of years, have passed through movements, styles and techniques, his sculptures have been more anchored inside a figurative field, making an exception with his middle eighties phase, in which he developed a quite more abstract sculpting, a more ecological work with a kind of propagandistic speech which was fruit of the moment he lived, and didn't last for long. The proliferation of trees that, over wooden trunks or paint pots, open, poor, raquitic and wilting bunches of foliage made from empty paint tubes, broken bottles, or rusted iron sheets, where only a few dying green spots appeared. Those are the trees from our civilization, where the misunderstood progression contaminates, restrains and suffocates nature. My sculpting can be defined as figurative. I have represented animals, guitars, pans, but above all my sculpting is full of human figures: men and women.
A strong character, a remarked personality, characterizes the female figure in Bennàssar's sculptural trajectory. Women that make us remember the Italian madonna, halfway between a classical goddess and primitive art. A figure that the artist represents in many occasions seated, and that comes from the traditional Majorcan society, matriarchal, where the woman carries on her shoulders the weight of the family. Men, instead, are represented as guards of the tribe. A lonely, pensive man lost in a world to which he needs to find sense. In this aspect they have a lot in common with the majority of male characters that we can contemplate in his pictures.
If there is one thing that differentiates Bennàssar's pictorial and sculptural creation, that should be the free mode in which he works this one. Sculpture is fruit of an emotional state, of a feeling, of a passion. It starts from a tangible reality, not from fiction, and that gives him great expressive and creative freedom. And it happens that in many cases, like Joan Miró, the sculptures made by Bennàssar start from objects found, daily junk recovered from the streets, useless or broken. He picks up these objects and, passing them through the magic of the artistic creation, changes their sense and transforms them into other things -a human figure, a guitar, an animal, …- that has nothing to do with their origin. However, that creative freedom begins to dilute in 1981, when Bennàssar's sculptures establish a closer relation with his paintings, even when several times that happens under a subconscious procedure. From that moment his sculptures become more primitive, material, blended with a long and well meditated experience.
Lately, he has retaken up sculpture, he feels a sculptor again, and enjoys this new pleasure of creating his sculpted imaginary world, giving form and life to the amorphous matter, as an almighty god; but not only life, also soul. His most recent pieces establish a passionate dialogue with his pictorial works because they are directly related, they are complementary, and a unique and complete work rises from that relation, also complex. Joan has achieved something miraculous with sculpture, as he has taken the characters that wander around his pictorial scenario to the third dimension; he has brought them closer to life, to the contact with people. Sculptures are artworks that search the reflection of the human body tensions from their internal space, full of creative energy, of the stark emotions that emerge in modeling methods: clay, concrete and stone. With his sculptures, of a wonderful visual and even tactile efficiency, Bennàssar transgresses the limits to become an artist powerful in original ideas, not in topics.
«The XXth century has freed painting from the dictatorship of the form and has opened up a huge field where everything is possible and everything depends of the moment» «It is necessary to recover the art that tells us about the mysteries of tomorrow, made from work, sacrifice and love»
Many years have passed since Bennàssar started living in Barcelona, far away from his town and origins. And gently he feels his class gets lost and how the need of going back to where everything started bubbles inside him. He had been away too many years: from his roots, from the homeland where he was born, from his people, his landscapes, and the memories that filled his childhood. It is then when he begins with the pictures that reproduce larders, that he will call Victuals (Queviures). Those are artworks in which he gets back to his hometown, integrating images from his childhood, and his lost but recovered world, but still far away. They are paintings that take me to the memory of my mother, a simple woman, a seamstress and country girl from the village, with the customs and habits of my land. But simultaneously they are a reflection about men, about their need for food and survival. Effectively, figures, human beings, are still absent, but pictures show that they are near. It is not visible, but human presence is close, as the paintings present pantries, where reserves for surviving are stored, where we can find packaged food cans, where the preserves are hidden, and Majorcan sausages hang. They are the food that the family saves for their nourishment, and this is a highly human fact.
This desire for providing vital needs is present in dinner services and utensils that, by their formats, remind us of the originals, made from clay; larders and shelves, where pans full of food are placed, to ensure that his world is away from dangers. The series Victuals (Queviures) is especially revealing in this sense. It is not just a will to want, but the preoccupation and wish for safeguarding these values. It comes to a moment when all you are worried about is your familiar surroundings, that you would defend in anyway because you know now what you want. This series, and the one made with nests that I worked on concurrently, are a manner of expressing this idea.
The artist's work becomes more refined here, with softer accents and louder and more audacious vibrations. His actual works, complex and elaborated, take us to the moment in which, more than heading toward internal whirlwinds, a characteristic is maintained over the last years. He is focused on showing the intensity of his feelings: how his being is, thinking and intuiting. Bennàssar returns to paint plain pictures, more realistic and with a bigger interest for aesthetics. The alimentary objects are mixed with ceramics, dishes or vases, elements with a daily use to which the artist confers a primitive sense even archeological. I was working with Martí Royo, who made many of these objects with ceramics, and he awakened a vivid interest inside me. Furthermore, archeology and the study of the primitive men have always attracted me, that epoch before conquering reality and perfection. The objects I reproduce in these works are archaic, very Mediterranean. I sincerely believe that it is the first time that I am Mediterranean a hundred per cent, and it couldn't be any other way, because I feel indebted to the island and a way of being.
Joan has talked to us about Martí Royo, and it was he precisely who dedicated these words to the painter: «Discharged from intellectual and plastic topics, with a Spartan discipline and a masterful work, he builds and demolishes indescribable worlds. Joan Bennàssar's art, as all great things, is not easy to assimilate at first sight and invites us to reflect seriously while we are brought inside the labyrinth he has prepared for us, in which there is no place left for doubts, insecurity and mediocrity. One is obliged to enter with an open spirit, without fears, to see ourselves reflected in a sharp way and fit in as a lesson we will never forget».
It is also a time marked by the rupture with the Maeght gallery, with which he had been working for the last years. But that allows his themes to evolve. As an example, a whole series arise of striped paintings, that are nothing more than the shadows of the beams of the new studio that he has just built and that cross the floors and the walls of the space. Once again, the things that surround the artist are incorporated in his works and allow him to create a whole series of works in this style. It is a resource that will appear first in his still life, but later in a group of pictures that recover the human figure. It is a series that appears almost by chance. After being profound in the larders theme, I feel kind of stuck and don't know how to solve it. I painted in an excessively mechanical form and needed to look for an accident. Precisely, those beams were the accident that allowed me to begin the striped men series that will mark a whole new stage.
That is how, in a short time, Bennàssar completes a whole series of paintings, many of them with the musicians topic that had waited several years inside the studio because the artist couldn't resolve them; he wasn't feeling satisfied with them. Pictures initiated in 1991 won't be finished until four or five years later; the fact is, as we have said on many occasions, that we are in front of a perfectionist and demanding artist, that never gives a painting for finished until he is thoroughly convinced of the result. Those are pictures in which primitive ceramic is mixed with human figures, which will gradually disappear until man is transformed again as the authentic protagonist of his canvases.
Joan Bennàssar constructs worlds with a great easiness, small worlds that conform his World, immense and unique. Marcel Proust wrote in Time regained (Le temps retrouvé): «It is only through art that we can step out of ourselves, know what others see in this universe that is not the same as the other one, […] Thanks to art, instead of living a simple world, ours, we see it multiply, and we have as many worlds at our disposition as original artists there are». This quote can be applied perfectly to our artist.
«The artist's function is to create magic moments» «All what has been assembled around art is eating the artistic fact. And I am fighting against it»
Joan Bennàssar is an artist who dominates all techniques of expression, all genders. This has allowed him to a curiosity as immense as his work. Restless, maverick, perfectionist, with great spirit, he is never satisfied enough with what he does, he experiments in every step he takes, looking for opening new routes in every picture, under a constant evolution. But on occasions, this evolution is based in lost elements that are left behind on the road, resources used long ago, recovered and adapted to his actual circumstances. It is the case of the series titled Troughs (Abeuradors), in which Bennàssar, as in years before, tries to stop the plain surface of the canvas, breaking up with the two dimensions in research of the third: volume, relief, perspective. I have said as years before, but that is not perfectly true; there is a substantial difference now. In this period he incorporates experience, his years of work, all the knowledge he has been acquiring. We can't forget that Bennàssar is a painter that superposes what he learns, never rejecting anything, and always makes his works add up. Those were times in which, mentally, artists such as Lucio Fontana, who had recovered his relevance in the artistic world, are present. Fontana is a pioneer painter from the Art Movement that was worried about space, he postulated the rupture with classical paintings from the easel with the intention of exceeding the limits assigned to artworks, supporting the need of integrating every physical element -colour, sound, movement and space- in the ideal and material unity.
Bennàssar has left his studio in the old Modern Cinema and works now in a space situated over a carpenter's factory, which facilitated him the possibility of making sculptures. It is an epoch in which he works in this field a lot. Creative studies in Pollença in which I had a certain tendency to get confused and go against the work I had done during the rest of the year, with the intention of seeing what came out from all that. Those were moments of a great creative freedom, with a lot of experimentation, from which various series came out, which I worked on in Barcelona.
Troughs are the characteristic element of this cycle; the painter makes them with plates of formuront. Those recipients gather the Moon's rays, planets, water and clouds. The trough is ever present in the rural parts of Mallorca. They are water recipients with lots of utilities: quenching cattle's thirst, for cleaning, as a fountain, as a recipient… In Pollença, where I lived, we had the Four Corners Trough (L'Abeurador dels Quatre Cantons) and, as on many other occasions, my nearest surroundings influenced my works. Besides, troughs represent two worlds for me: the one from today and the one from yesterday, two worlds that have started to collide in Mallorca since the 60's and the arrival of massive tourism. Human figures disappear again, but are still present in a metaphoric sense, as troughs invoke thirst for water, the source of life. It was also a moment in which I didn't see the human figure in the painting, it did not work for me; I can't explain why, but it just didn't work, I thought that it was over. Maybe because I didn't want to make the pictures rest on a narrative, or novelistic will. Shortly after, the troughs will become small glasses, from where thirsty men can drink, lost in the immensity of the canvas.
The artworks from these years use lots of objects, some found, and some looked for. Bennàssar pursues the mutation of his meanings to give them other more spiritual and complex ideas. As a result we can find pieces that are neither sculptures, nor paintings, strongly rooted to Majorca. The journalist Josep Melià expresses it: «Joan Bennàssar shows us that a practically ruralized world, stuck on a small spot of the planet, has the atomic structure of sensations and of the most universal and delocalized truths. And he comes to say, once again, that just the be who you are is cosmopolitan, and that only the maternal language is understandable above continents, frontiers, different cultural sensitivities, and traditional or esthetical deformations. By this way, Bennàssar, who had already demonstrated that he was the pioneer of his Majorcan generation, and steps firmly in the gallery of those painters destined to acquire a worldwide significance».
Bennàssar presented, with a great success, the Troughs series in the Ángel Romero gallery of Madrid in December 1989. The bulk of the exhibition consisted of a play on colour of green, blue and red water, with the trough that gathered their spill, their flow, that was and wasn't real at the same time by the suggestive power of the work. He played with the perception of a single or double dimension using reliefs, that with is circular, that locks up, that potentiates itself exhibiting his beauty, Pythagorean in some way, quite more human.
As with human figures, realism disappears too. He becomes more conceptual and uses elements in a magic and disquieting sense. Though we can't say he is an abstract painter although, we are perhaps in front of one of the artist's most abstract stages. Bennàssar escapes from reality, but with elements from that reality. We can't forget that we are before a creator that has never known how to work without real objects. We should talk about an attempt to concrete the most intimate. In this sense, he has never defended that one painting is a totality in itself. It has to have content but, obviously, form is used also to strengthen it. As to technique, in these artworks he incorporates for the first time iron dust, water and oil. The objective is to create images that want to reflect the passage of time, the mark it leaves on objects.
We are, once again, before the evidence that Joan Bennàssar is an artist who has wanted to move on with the rhythms of time.
«My painting is getting more classical and this is my way of being avant-gardist» «My contribution is not in describing what happens outside, but what we are, and I am Mediterranean»
Bennàssar lives in Barcelona but stays in Pollença in summer. The way he lives in both places is completely different, and it allows him to mutate. Barcelona helped him to become free. There everything is more complex, harder and everyone has to impose. In Mallorca, instead, you are always your father's son and you know your surroundings. Barcelona is the battlefield, and Mallorca is the studio, the place to return to, and where he feels, recognizes and finds himself. In Mallorca, in Pollença, where painting is part of the environment, even the air composition, he can recharge batteries, reflect and start new tendencies. On the other hand, Barcelona is an open door to the world, a stock of stimulations that make him grow.
Joan's life goes by between those two towns, but it is in Pollença, in Cala Sant Vicenç, with the family, near the grim Tramontane coasts of Mallorca, where he experiments; rocky boulders broken through by the obstinate strength of the waves, dry naked crags, brave seas, a violent, deep and poetic view from where Bennàssar figures out the new ideas he will develop later, in the large capital. It is this landscape, of sublime beauty, immeasurable, from where, near 1987, a whole series of paintings, compiled under the name of Night baths, will emanate. We stayed in Cala Sant Vicenç during the summer, and at night we went swimming with children and friends. We also had a small boat… We spent a lot of time at the beach use, lived a completely Mediterranean summer. Those days were full of happiness, I remember them really enthusiastically even nowadays. I felt so glad that I decided to capture those moments on canvas. From those nights of the sea and laughter, this whole group of pictures arose. The work continued in Barcelona with memories of those bodies at the beach, the drops of water gliding over the skin, and the taste of salt in the mouth; the remembrance of the harmonic union between man and nature in the loneliness of the city.
The encounter with favorable surroundings coincides also with moments in which he introduces himself in the classical world: in the world of myths and Greek and Roman heroes. That interest was awakened inside the artist by the hand of the English writer Robert Graves who spent much of his life in Mallorca. Bathing and interests for classics made Bennàssar represent in his artworks mythical beings, that go in search of the golden fleece knowing that the quest has to be made inside oneself, that the prize is finding them selves, acknowledging that the trip itself is more important than the arrival. As Kavafis wrote in his poem Ithaca:
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Pray that the road is long. That the summer mornings are many, when, with such pleasure, with such joy you will enter ports seen for the first time;
Always keep Ithaca in your mind. To arrive there is your ultimate goal. But do not hurry the voyage at all. It is better to let it last for many years; and to anchor at the island when you are old, rich with all you have gained on the way, not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you a beautiful voyage.
We are talking about a series of paintings that maintain a sort of modern classicism. So, they use all kinds of plastic resources, taken from both classical traditions and vanguards. The artist left behind his much more aggressive art to become interested in composition and colours: blues, blacks, reds… Now he creates freely, without fear, without anguish, untrammeled. Those summers in Cala Sant Vicenç we lived perfectly, surrounded by sea. It felt like getting back to primitive life and, as a painter, I felt it a bit. I had spent some years in lots of trips, years in which I was linked to artistic movements. But, since 1987, I broke away from that whole world, that I found frivolous, and decided to get back to what is most classical, an art that we could consider much more primitive.
Night baths were what allowed him to talk widely about people again. Men, with their biggest fears and hopes, return to his canvases. They are figures that stand out from the water full of life, violent, mysterious and tragic of an enveloping sea, Mediterranean; figures that form groups of people accompanied and lonely at the same time, worried, concerned, static, with no dialogue between them. His characters, with classical profiles, are, as Bennàssar says, Argonauts focused on themselves.
This kind of representation of human beings will be one of the elements that the artist will incorporate in his posterior works until today. In that period, however, figures are almost always masculine. It won't be until years later that he will introduce women, girls, and young ladies. He uses masculine figures because pictures are a way of self-portraying, not as much physically as spiritually. As he done for so long, now he shows himself over the characters he paints. And that is why the protagonists of his paintings are men, preferably young, in the prime of life, full of strength, and naked. The artist, nonetheless, doesn't represent nakedness chasing physical beauty; he does it trying to show spiritual nakedness, intellectual, presenting himself naked, without artifices, in front of the world.
We are in a decisive moment in Bennàssar's artistic trajectory. It is hard to point out the exact date, but we aren't erring much if we date in those years the precise moment in which the artist took the definitive path, an original, his own, personal way, that has taken him to the top of the Spanish artistic outlook.
«As time goes by I have a higher necessity to build, to look for convictions in painting» «I am a Mediterranean painter, not very rational, and I experiment with my own feelings» «If I am wrong I rectify»
Bennàssar, near his forties, has turned into an artist in possession of a differential characteristic: the firmness that is product of the maturity that someone reaches when he realizes what he wants to achieve and how to get there. Work, work and work, without diverting, and learning and learning, but, above all, to find the trust in our own strengths. All that, evidently, built over the foundations of a solid, careful and perfect, technical education. In these paintings we can find a curious oscillation between the widest spontaneity and the strictest compositional rigor. Although the most significant is the concrete form in which this spontaneity is manifested in the reciprocal independence of his artwork elements: lines, figures, textures and colours play their respective role as following different programmes, to end up interrelating in a global result.
Bennàssar keeps on talking about what has the near, about his immediate surroundings and the sensations that landscapes provoke in him, about his friends, the sea… But painting brings him to many different places, and now Cristina Escape, his wife, will be the protagonist of a series of paintaings called Living with Cristina. These canvases have a black background where a white feminine silhouette, Cristina's one, dominates. A figure in early pregnancy, with a terse belly, bulky because of the son they are expecting, but vigorous, which transforms those pictures in a symbol of maternity as a shelter, as the real homeland of men, a homeland without frontiers, nameless, filled with happiness. He combines it with stairs, abstract forms that symbolize what is coming, the future, and an outline of himself with the child about to be born. The illusion of the future father is clear in these canvases. They are pictures that grow from feelings, but I only know how to think in paint and, finally, they are only paintings.
Those pieces were painted in Pollença during summer, a time of holidays, but to the artist it meant months of productivity because of leaving behind and escaping from stifling Barcelona, and returning to the nest, the contact with his people, his town, his roots, and the place of his genesis. I love to paint sweating. There is a certain pleasure in it in summer. Bodies along the beach, the sea, sweating... It really incites me to draw. Every year I planned, since February, the fact of having two or three months without selling, travelling, or having to move. In Pollença I questioned myself about problems of painting, because I had time to solve them, I was able to affront my work correctly, and investigate without hurrying. So, in Pollença Bennàssar enjoys painting, and appropriates one of Picasso's maxims «It's prettier what one thinks while he is painting, than the painting itself».
He paints in a studio placed in the old Modern cinema, near the church and the square. A spacious and diaphanous local, in a decadent mood, where he could confront big canvases, one of the artist's preferences, and contemplate them from the amphitheater with perspective. The cinema conserved the screen, mute, white. A huge canvas that contemplated with jealousy how other canvases got the painter's magic. Paint tubes all around the floor, paintings leaning on the walls, some sculptures made from paellas and other objects that acquired anthropomorphic forms. Workshop mysteries. Apart from that, spaces never affected me, because I don't include in my pictures what surrounds me directly, I have always kept away from landscapes and views of beauty, instead I prefer what envelopes me in the form of traumas.
It is in these pictures where drawing predominates. The painting gets simplified, but its philosophical message thickens notably, looking for the metaphor of life, and through one's living to get to universality. His wife's spirit is present, too, in every picture painted in that moment, as the series is dedicated to her. Painting has always reflected the relationship I have with my partner and the people I love. But it is not enough to tell the story; I have to find a good solution to explain it artistically. They are pictures that spring forth from my own interior and the need to make them, from a necessity of acknowledging myself, and the people that live near me. If some years before I painted to express my uneasiness, my dissatisfaction with the world I was meant to live in, now I am on the opposite side, I express my welfare, my serenity, because I had reached a great stability in my life: I was happy with my spouse, my children, enjoyed my work, and had enough money to do what I wanted…
Indeed, that is how it was. Josep Melià wrote in that period «I see, in this epoch of Joan Bennàssar, a sensation of happiness, of strength, of ability to figure out the joy of living, that involves the metric of a national sense full of optic musicality».
In the summer of 1988, Joan Bennàssar started also an erotic series based on the book of poems The rose at the lips (La rosa als llavis) of Joan Salvat-Papasseit. The canvas dimensions are reduced to little oval shapes. They were wooden seats of the chair, appropriate to the intimate and sensual atmosphere he wanted to express. With a spontaneous stroke, apparently careless, but really full of wisdom, he draws beds and couples making love. The images are constructed with the union of fragments captured from different angles of vision.
«What maintains my balance is getting back to work every morning» «I find stability inside my studio» «To paint is a way of facing the superficiality we are living nowadays»
Bennàssar's artworks advance at high speed, even though they move from the beginning in perfectly established coordinates under the sign of continuity. That is how the relations between a painting and the next one, an exhibition and the next one, reveal the signs of a coherent evolution, halfway from intuition and reflection. He has always painted from admiration of painting itself, and it was inevitable that in this evolution towards the studio, the tools he paints with, got inside his imaginary space. In this epoch he will populate his canvases with the elements he has by hand, inside the studio, they will star in his artworks. The artist keeps on with the dialogue between the painter and his paintings, but now he does it at a more earthly level, centered in the studio. The objects that will appear in his paintings become obsessions, trestles, stairs, excuses to make structural variations involving materials and colours. In these times Bennàssar establishes a conversation with himself and with his works shut away in the loneliness of his study.
Anyway, he doesn't leave behind the figures that appear in some canvases but always as the secondary element of the narration. In many occasions human figure is represented by extremities: an arm, or a leg, cut from the body but without drama, without blood, without a violent component; that bring us back to the plaster of the workshop. Extremities are represented here, basically, elements of his studio. Guitars and chairs are there -a representation of what he thinks and feels- and, overall, stairs, a magical object for Bennàssar as it is an element that brings you to other places, to another dimension frequently far away from the real world. It is in this stage when I try to introduce something magical in the painting. I want to represent in someway the magic that brings someone to paint.
The sky from my stair (El cielo desde mi escalera) is born from listening to Led Zeppelin's song Stairway to Heaven. It is a famous and influential track from this British group, considered by many as one of the culminant points in rock history. The picture composition is simple: the bottom of which seems a wrecked and destroyed space; planetary games at the top; and a red line that represents the horizon. It is a plastic game that doesn't want to fall into abstraction. It has kind of surrealism, as it wants to trap the spirit of things. And an esoteric sense, because that theme aroused the artist's curiosity in 1986. The stair is the fundamental element of the picture, an object that in this case represents the artist himself, as it was the stair he used in his studio for working. This painting is related with the history of a teddy bear he found on the street. A history that the painter himself relates us: One day, getting out of the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona, I found a teddy bear thrown away in a container. I imagined its story instantaneously. ¿Why was it there? ¿Was it a gift to a sick girl who was hospitalized? And, if that was true, ¿why didn't she take it home? ¿She didn't like it? ¿Or had she died? There the idea of the torn apart world at the bottom arose. I also added the teddy bear, as I did with lots of the objects that I found. But that painting never convinced me, and stood in the studio for two years, forgotten. In 1988 I decided to take it out, look at it in an optimistic mood, and trust in celestial bodies and bonanza. And I finished the artwork representing those celestial bodies.
Despite all, as we said, the artist's workshop will be a space with prominence in much of those years artworks. Bennàssar expresses himself through his sentiments: what he feels and what he experience. Through l'atelier is a paradigm of that. In it he represents his study by symbols, with the stair he uses to work with the female figure of a young woman that is Cristina Escape, the Catalan artist he married in 1987. There is also a city seen from above in the background. In this painting there are cubist and constructivist elements. I am a classical painter who has always been attracted by structures, and “Through l'atelier” is great proof of it. Joan Bennàssar wants to show the love he feels toward his wife. And with the levitation he also wants to illustrate the feeling of power that touched him while Cristina Escape was expecting his son Joan.
L'atelier is a good example of this epoch too. We are before a painting that is the fruit of a period in which the art-world was changing really fast, and the representative painting began to become boring. At that point Bennàssar escapes from representation and tries to give an extra factor to his paintings by making them timeless. Then many pictures became old-fashioned quickly, and I had the will to survive, of leaving a legacy able to overcome the passing of the years. I tried to make my work overstep the time limit. I suppose that was because I had already done lots of the things artists created.
Looking for the permanence of his artworks is how Bennàssar was initiated in the painting of, not only real objects, but the narration of a story with elements. In every picture in which the studio stars, the space is transformed in a magical place, where the artist represents himself as a shaman, as a conjurer. A world that he desired to create earlier, in The conjurer's night.
He sets off from an idea taken from a sculpture of Lucio Fontana, composed by a hanging bucket. Pipelines and stairs epitomize the thoughts that rise and fall with creation. Likewise, Bennàssar attempts to transgress the canvas limits (adding a third dimension), probably attracted by the need of getting back to sculpt.
These three pictures are representative of a period in which he becomes confident about what he is doing. He stops being an expressionist painter, to become more cerebral, more poetic.
«My paintings are a kind of diary, not as much of life experiences as of wishes» « My mission as an artist is not to create new images, but to rediscover feelings, and find ways and forms that express the interests I have as a man»
A painter can't get bored, that is why he has to keep changing and experimenting new things. Bennàssar has applied this core idea to his whole career. The consequence can't be any other than the constant experimentation and the continual changes in techniques, materials, styles and themes. Still life will occupy his canvases now under an unstoppable experimentation. Even when it isn't the first time he sets his eyes on them, it is in this period when he deepens impetuously in them. It is the first time that human figures disappear from his canvases, and that is relevant, as he doesn't want to talk about feelings, but about painting itself. Pictures get full of objects, materials acquire an innovative use, and the artist creates his own work tools that will help to express himself easily. Pictures start to make sense on their own. At nights I collected things from the streets, all kinds of junk –chairs, wood, bottles…- and I incorporated them to the paintings with the intention of suggesting new interpretations of reality. “Still life with bottles” came out from that creative process; there I fitted the first bottle of Vega Sicilia that I had drunk. It is a stage in which I am interested again in investigation. I wanted to go through the canvas, give a third dimension to the painting, make it reality.
Joan Bennàssar wants to show us that art isn't a problem between beauty and ugliness, that modern art has the greatness of having freed us from the aesthetic vision and taught us that anything can be beautiful, from an ashtray to a trowel. This way of conceiving art opens a whole world of pictorial possibilities to the painter that are evident in these canvases. Freedom; internal freedom, without bounds, assuming a notable component of risk, in a very direct, clear and concrete language that spoke about generalized worries in a world that couldn't break away from vassalages and threats, with dogmas and barriers.
Behind a lot of the paintings there is always a referent, a spark that turns on the creative fire of Joan Bennàssar. In the case of Still life with bottles the starting point is the picture The card players of Paul Cézanne (Aix-in-Provence 1839-1906), an artwork in which the artist makes the representation depend only on the painting, volumes and colour itself. A piece that opens a way through the pure painting, submitted neither to the theme nor the representative technics. That is precisely what Joan Bennàssar looks for in his picture, in which people have disappeared, even when the human presence, proximate, outside of the frame, is evident. In this stage I try to do more pictorial paintings, where the figure isn't fundamental. As it happens with Cezanne, the importance is neither in representation, nor in the psychological, but rather in the pictorial treatment: in the composition, in colour stains, in the used elements…
Even when it is not represented, the human presence is everywhere in these artworks. The set table or the opened fridge filled with food of Still life, indicate that man is there, will sit on the table, has opened the fridge to grab something to eat. The person isn't in the painting, but he is there, really close, present in essence. The circumstance that makes all Bennàssar's still life different from the others is that their unanimated and inert objects take the life from human proximity.
Bennàssar wants to reconcile his still life with the big formats and a voluntarily complex pictorial space that fights against the impoverishment of a misunderstood summit from some of the paintings of that epoch.
Bennàssar's still lifes aren't limited to a plastic game, instead they look for something else. I tried to make a modern still life, and that's why I looked for new ways of expressing something with those objects. My fridge is there, and food is situated exactly as it was; the colours are aggressive, they collide… With those paintings I wanted to add something to the pictorial language, and I think that I achieved it. He lives a moment of intense work, he is in his fullness and feels able to accomplish any challenge. Still life is one of those big challenges achieved with much simplicity, with a very simple frontal perspective, and a colourful palette.
Still lifes are also the outcome of a new vital period that is reflected in his work. In those moments I didn't want to express more desperation in my paintings. There is only one life and I firmly believe that we must take it. I want to be an optimistic painter who brings song to life. Despite that, I am never fully free. The fridge, for example, can't stop from belonging to a man who is alone. It is, however, a stage with a great freedom of creativity, an unconditional freedom, in which I paint the whole day, I live for painting. It was a moment to breathe too. And from there the still life theme: they are good for reflecting, for overcoming times in which one hasn't any ideas, in which there is not a clear view. And they always bring new things, ideas to keep going on.
That is how it was. The reflection brought new ideas, new themes. Bennàssar will start to work in whole painting series that have the painter and his studio as their protagonists.
«The painter is made from paint, but fundamentally from what he is as a person» «I live in a world in which I am in debt and where others owe me. And I pay off that commitment with the weapon I know, and in the space where I develop, better»
These two pictures are from 1984, a year in which, as we have said, two important events happened. His first individual exhibition of sculptures and paintings in the Maeght Gallery of Barcelona was one of them. That demonstration meant the end of a stage and the beginning of a new one. It made me realize that I had finally got where I always wanted to be. It was a special gallery where your works were extoled, where you were treated as an artist. Despite the exhibitions he celebrated regularly in Mallorca, his presence in the latest convocations of Arco, the collective exhibitions in which he took part in and in diverse individual showings in Barcelona and Cataluña, we can affirm that because of the magnitude of the exposed works, the importance of the gallery and the acceptance of critique, that this exhibition was his consecration in the art world.
Aimé Maeght founded the Maeght Gallery in the French city of Cannes in 1937. And in 1948, after an exhibition of Joan Miró, they incorporated the most important names of contemporary art to the gallery. It is the case of Braque, Chagall, Calder, Giacometti, Léger, Chillida, Tàpies, Riopelle, Adami, etc. In Barcelona, the gallery opened its doors in 1974 thanks to the friendship of Maeght to artists such as Miró, Tàpies, Chillida, Palazuelo, and lots of others. Located in the Cervelló Palace, a gothic building of the XV century, the centre of Barcelona has always followed its own way, choosing the most representative artists of the city, who in its majority later became emblematic figures of XX century art.
During those years the Maeght was the best gallery in Europe. A place where paintings were dignified, considered as artworks, and a necessary space for the culture and the life of the town. They got me interested in Arco, and chose a group of young painters as Broto, Grau or García Sevilla, on whom they bet highly. I was very satisfied then. In some way I had always wanted to become a Maeght painter. Thanks to that art gallery I started to perceive the art market in a non-pejorative form, as something that simply existed. It happened to be the most beautiful exhibition I had ever done, and the one I was more desirous about making. I can't remember a bigger illusion than that one in my whole life… They also edited a catalogue of my paintings that was better than I could have ever dreamt about. From there on I was a painter who would be listened to if I had something to say.
That exhibition received excellent reviews by the specialized media. Rosa Queralt wrote in El País newspaper: «Joan Bennàssar presents an ensemble of artworks that are the result of two years of febrile activity, in which, while he has accented his compromise with the actual moment, he has implemented the principal of diversification, creating a versatile, changeable and uneasy nature. Bennàssar is very Picassian in that sense -in giving the impression of being a compendium of diverse artists at once- using diverse techniques and materials, and a quantity of styles, taking on those references that fascinated him or with which he feels identified». In that same article, after praising the great technic quality of the works, she highlights: «Nor is it a virtuosity that hides several creative impotencies, he has a peculiar talent or sensitivity towards plastic, and is translated in a special intuition at the moment of using any material, chosen consciously or by chance, and with an ease and poise not only at the hour of applying colors, but also at the hour of covering, camouflaging, dirtying and making visible or invisible, when its time to escape from nice painting».
And quoting Maria Lluïsa Borràs in La Vanguardia: «What is captivating about his painting is that, in spite of everything, this color, this drawing barely hinted, are strangely charged of an extraordinary emotive strength; able of reaching the deepest zones of sensuality and perception». And she ends by saying: «Bennàssar exhibits his most recent works: diverse format paintings, from giant pieces to small still lives. And also sculptures that are an imperative need of expressing oneself in space. Those are images of a great evocative strength. It is a very interesting exhibition. Don't miss it».
That exhibition was a success, and catapulted Bennàssar towards the top. The two pictures that star in this chapter come from that exhibition. Untitled is born from the impression that a canvas of Antoni Tàpies, caused on him, it was a mop changed into a paintbrush. As was usual, he took that theme to his own idea, and on that occasion he chose a broom. In some way we are also in front of a self-portrait, as it is the reproduction of the painter and his studio. There are two topics in the picture, magic and poetry. In this artwork I conceive the artist as a shaman, a person that makes people's desires come true. To me a painter is a worker, but he is also a transmitter of ideas and illusions.
Untitled is a great example of the passion that Bennàssar felt for painting in that period, a moment of huge creativity in which everything he wanted to do came out. He put everything into the canvas, he was aggressive in working, beating the canvas to avoid its flatness. We can't forget that the eighties were a radiant decade in the Spanish painting world, in which explaining stories becomes important again. The viewer had to be able to read what the artist wanted to say.
Meanwhile, On the road is inspired by the book of the same title of the North American writer Jack Keruak (1922-1969), The “Beat” Generation's Bible. It is an artwork that lays the foundation of his whole posterior journey. With The night (La nit, 1984), it is the paradigm of a radical change. He starts to construct his own language, even when he is not conscious of opening a new path. Bennàssar, in love, starts to believe in men again, and it can be appreciated in the paintings. In this painting there are more things that I will posteriorly make mines that in the others, and for that I consider it the start line for posterior works. But I didn't make that consciously, instead it was happening, I suppose that because it had to happen. It is not until years go by that you realize all those changes.
«Painting is a very human and direct way of talking about one's self» «I still believe in the artist as a mediator. Art is a mirror in which you are reflected and where you can recognize yourself»
The eighties have been one of the most prolific, rich and polemic years for art. In Spain, The Arco Fair was born, huge exhibitions of contemporary painters began, galleries dedicated to actual art grew, specialized magazines appeared and newspapers started giving more information about art. In Majorca, the international success of Miquel Barceló brought a revelation that opened many doors to island painters. It is in this framework in which a whole new generation of painters, of expressionist mood, created a new esthetic of figuration with the idea of winning over the academy and to express themselves with total freedom. What is impressive of them isn't «the good paintings» they did, or «the fact of doing it well»; what is really captivating is their audacity, their ease, their freshness; definitively, the freedom with which they handled colour and line, that ended up imposing a style. Inside that group of artists Bennàssar occupies an important place. In 1984, at thirty-three years of age, two events occur that will forge his future life. On the one hand, he had his first exhibition in the Maeght Gallery of Barcelona. On the other, he met Cristina Escape, also a painter, who would become his second wife. Winds were favourable to him. He exhibits in one of the world's most important galleries, he is in love… and paints enthusiastically.
The painting that we are referring to is related to those two developments. The fascination of fire was one of the central pieces of the exhibition in the Maeght Gallery and, moreover, it is dedicated to his wife Cristina. At the beginning, Bennàssar portrayed himself in several canvases. Those were self-portraits that explained his personal experiences, his surroundings, his problems, they were used for asking the world those questions for which he couldn't find answers. As years go by, the painter disappears from the paintings and everything that surrounds his perspective no longer is of importance, in order to reflect about the pictorial fact itself. But this painting is an exception, as there are always exceptions. Here the artist and his world, his love and the sentimental pair, appear again.
It is a picture inspired by Jean Jacques Annaud's film Quest for fire (1982) that explains the origin and evolution of the first intelligent primates, and how the diverse forms of adaptation to a continuously hostile environment generated the progress of behaviour, brain, mind, manual abilities… and the domain of fire, fundamental to survival. Joan Bennàssar wanted to recover the importance of fire in human evolution and made it the protagonist of the canvas. The flame elevates as a pagan and anonymous god, while the painter and his wife Cristina Escape contemplate it. A blaze from where paint spurts as from a fountain. The picture confronts the fire with a couple formed by Cristina and myself. I needed a goddess. As she was younger, I put her behind me. The structure is inspired partly by Picasso's “Painter and model”, but in a different lecture. We are in a closed room, fascinated by fire, where only a blue window is seen in the background. It is a painting on which I worked for months… I've always thought that a canvas needs lots of working hours and ten brilliant minutes. And finally that is how it was; it evolved really quickly, in the easiest form possible, with a few elements. Too often the merit of a picture is in having known what to erase.
This explanation from the painter proves that every time he is less interested in the final result of the picture. What really worries him now is how the painting is done, which route the painter followed; and by route I mean the fight and dialogue between what he wanted to say and the means at his disposal for saying it.
The fascination of fire clearly represents a period in which Bennàssar recovers the traditional themes of painting: figurative or portrait, and still life. He treats them with savageness, but if we examine them close up it is apparent that it is closer to a patient, wise and refined technic that tries to summerize the history of painting. Almost nothing.
In conclusion, I will quote him summing up those years work. Painting has taught me how to live. I feel that my work, even when it is spread out in a world where violence reigns, comes to represent an obstinate hope, a hope that we should never lose.
«It is hard for me to stay in one place, because thereby you find some truths, but you forget lots of others» «To doubt belongs to the artist» «In front of doubt the answer is to work»
Bennàssar's artwork grows, matures and inflates as a balloon that goes upwards. He keeps on painting without rest, and receives some recognition and praise. This trip through Arco, the Contemporary Art Fair in Madrid, of 1983 brought light and shade. It ended up successfully, selling a great amount of paintings and making contacts for the future; he realized there that he liked what he did, that he was on the right track. But that visit to the capital of the country also helped him to discover all that art is. It took of his blindfold and made him see clearly how things worked: that it was an industry dominated by commercial aspect, where the creative spirit had been forgotten and you were a nobody if your paintings were not sold, where the importance wasn't on the painting but in money. My paintings worked out, but I saw everything that encircled art. What we call the art-world, and it wasn't as I imagined it at all. I had a more romantic view, where the creative aspect was what mattered the most, where everyone loved and believed in painting. But it wasn't like that. I came across commercial interests, men who only worried about money and others who would do anything to sell, to earn themselves a name… The conclusion of that trip to Madrid was a stomach perforation. Just an anecdote, but that demonstrated that he wasn't ready yet to deal with all that. And he was fully conscious about it. The first reaction was displeasure to himself. He wanted to be a painter, he was a painter, and this involved knowing how to move in that world. He had to learn.
What he took away from there was the understanding of being completely alone in painting; that he shouldn't listen to anyone and had to follow his own path. He learned that the Arts University wasn't more than a place where painters could earn their living, but where nothing was taught; that an academy, even if its name was bombastic, had little to teach; that working everyday was the only mode to learn; that to acquire the necessary knowledge he had to watch, read and observe the big masters; that he had to paint as if he wasn't selling anything, or as if he was selling it all… In this sense he decided that working was the only necessary thing, and auto-imposed a Spartan disciplined life where there was only time for work. He got hooked on it for more than twelve hours a day. Bennàssar paints without any conditioning looking to find a personal style. It was one of the more productive moments in my career. If in that moment I did nothing more it was because I didn't know how, or because I wasn't able to do so, he explains with the pride of those who gave it all for their profession.
Work hours in the studio are, for artists, like training for athletes. In an interview conceded to Guillem Frontera in the Baleares newspaper of October in 1984, he compared those two facets: An athlete can lead a normal life, but he has to be always aware of his profession, set records and win medals. Every act, every quotidian gesture of the artist, even if it is not directly related with his creation, has to be kept in mind, as a backcloth. And, above all, one has to always be in top form. The artist has to be prepared to compete everyday with himself, and with what he did yesterday. He has to be open to everything in order to live different things and let them affect him. And he also has to be prepared to know how to express them.
In those years Bennàssar is highly influenced by the masters, whom he reads, rereads and interprets in his own way, setting up a personal conception and taking them ingeniously to his way. In fact, as he used to say, in that period I had lots of fathers, and I was proud of it, because those who don't have fathers are sons of bitches. Forceful but crystalline. Picasso, Bacon, Schnabel, Baselitz and Braque. And Goya, and Velázquez, and Rembrandt, and Giacometti… All of them influenced him. He learned something from each taking his references from everywhere.
Precisely from the observation of another big master, Henri Matisse, emerged the painting to which this chapter is dedicated. The idea appeared after an analysis of the composition The dance (1910, The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg). Bennàssar takes that structure and, like Matisse did, uses strong colors as the element of expression and construction of the narrative rhythm. Blue, in allusion to the Mediterranean Sea; orange, as a metaphor of the crepuscular sky of Pollença's Bahia when the mighty sun gets behind the steep cliffs of Majorca's Tramontana; and above all, the greyish green characters contrasts by colour and games of intensity. It is a clear example of what is said before. The artist takes input from his masters and endorses them with such an ability that they go completely unnoticed.
Fishermen supposed a great incursion in the work-world. Together with another composition of four cyclists, it is a capital piece, not just because it opens new themes and its careful realization, but also because it guarantees his firm agreement with modernity, and that is another of his traits.
In this picture we can highlight even another defining element: the Mediterranean feel, a characteristic that little by little will irrevocably bind to Bennàssar's artistic creations. Mediterraneanness, a word that nowadays, because of an excess of use, has lost validity; but in his case it has to be applied to the full tonal of its meaning. When we say that his works are Mediterranean, what we mean is that both the artist and his paintings are sons of this ancient solar sea. Joan is from Majorca, that is true; but he lives in communion with this vast homeland that goes from the hard and rough mountains of Morocco, up to Turkey; a multitude of cultures, a crossing of roads, the cradle of the rich and noble Constantinople. Latinos called this sea Medi-Terranem, what signifies, sea between lands. And Majorca is a land, a country, between waters. When Joan Bennàssar is painting, he can't move himself from that reality. It is for nothing more than this that, when we affirm that his works are Mediterranean, we refer to the fact of being born from all this part of the world, inheriting this culture, taking for granted that this artist's paintings are a consequence of an art with thousands of years of history in it's background.
Given all this it is evident that we are in front of a decisive period for the artist, because it is in those years when his works adopt some features that will make them unique and unrepeatable, personal, and fruit of a mature artist. After lots of trials, lots of dead ends, and lots of coming and going, Bennàssar finds his way, the style that he will never leave behind and that will take him up to today.
«Risk is inherent to the artist's condition. An artist without risk is a lesser artist» «My big enemy is what I sometimes lack, inertia. To doubt is necessary»
The artist returns to Barcelona. He settles in a studio in the Gràcia neighbourhood, where he paints like a man possessed with the objective of removing all that that keeps him bound, locked up inside himself. With the change of scenary Bennàssar is released, and paints, and paints, and paints, …paints everything he has inside, emptying himself, in the search for his own identity, using the pictorial fact as the element with which to free himself from chains. He has the need to begin again, reinvent himself, break from the whole past, and not only from a human point of view, but also pictorial.
As a consequence of that rupture he starts to paint pictures related to music. A world that with the passing years, is going to be one of his big themes, in lots of canvases, alive until today. The musical theme was born casually. My studio, small, narrow, disordered, that I had to share with my friend Benages, was beneath a contemporary ballet school. Everyday I met dancers on the stairs, with their thin and graceful bodies; I listened to the music that accompanied their movements, repeated stubbornly; I perceived perfectly their firm steps on my ceiling… And as the environment has always influenced me it was evident that, someday, musical themes had to commence; this painting is one of the first exponents and also one of the most representative from that period. For the first time I was painting a story that didn't concern me in my day-to-day life; well, maybe it did. What I want to say is that it doesn't show any of my worries; instead, it represents me through other things. It gathers a concept that I understood clearly: painting interests me as a means of expression, as a means to transgress reality departing from art and vice versa.
Music and musicians will star in the paintings that he presented in 1983 in the Contemporary Art Fair (Arco) of Madrid, where he was assisted by the Traça Gallery of Barcelona. It was the first time he attended fair that had been inaugurated a year before, and he did it with an individual style. In an interview with the Last Hour (Última Hora) newspaper he reflected about the changes painting had undergone in those years: It is evident that way and themes have changed. My painting has always reflected a spiritual externalization, circumscribed by the atmosphere, my emotions and my experiences. If these factors change, my work shows it.
In those years Bennàssar acquires his first studio in Barcelona. The buying of that property was possible thanks to the acquisition of artworks by a business group formed by Antoni Mora, Joan Oliver “Maneu” and Pep Verd. That sale gave him enough money to pay for the new premises, situated also in Gràcia, in Mozart Street, quite near to the other. The studio was big, wide and luminous, he felt confortable there. The truth is that, thanks to Moranta, Maneu and Verd, I felt for the first time protected by something similar to a benefactor. I was lucky because in Mallorca new kinds of businessmen and directors of art were emerging. Their help became really important to me. First they bought all the works I had in my studio. If I am not wrong they paid 1.800.000 pesetas (10.800 €) which in those days was a small fortune. But they didn't stop there. A short time later we agreed that they were going to give me 300.000 pesetas (1.800 €) every month in order to buy the paintings after an exhibition. That was a definitive push for me. I sure for a fixed income for three years, which gave me a great tranquility and absolute creative freedom.
For the first time in his whole life Bennàssar hasn't got to worry about earning his living. He can dedicate himself to painting, to being a painter, that big dream he had since he was a boy when he played in shorts around Pollença. And also for the first time in a long period, life is pleasant, fun and nice. This are vital circumstances with which to face everything about painting and to create a style. And he didn't throw away that chance.
In The pianist an evolution is clearly visible. His works become playful, optimistic, renewed. The artist sets himself free and the paintings take an expressionist tone where figure is no more than the line of a drawing, and colours start to ignite, get air, strengthly. The painter does not pretend to face his own problems, in its place he prefers to confront compositional matters. His approaches are essentially plastic. It is more interesting to investigate, reflect and talk about the painting itself. Bennàssar realizes that this vital reality, which until then was of great importance to the paintings, has no interest for others, and leaves behind a stage of introspective meditation. The reality had to be created by him with paint, because the only thing he knew how to do was to paint.
Painting, then, acquires more risks, he bravely mixes cold and warm colours, the colour becomes vibrant. Brushstrokes are looser. Light gains importance, and a halo of colour appears around the pianist. He has over come technique he has, become a mature painter. Perhaps this painting is the first step towards the future Joan Bennàssar.
«A canvas is a magical object that creates diverse emotions and feelings» «Not to surrender, that's my fight» «I need to know what I feel, understand»
In 1980 Bennàssar is twenty-nine years old, has a wife, and two children. Thirty years in which he had lived quickly, maybe too quickly. He feels he stopped being young excessively early. Youth escaped him as easily as sand thought fingers. And an internal fight begins. After avant-garde experimentation, compromised painting, and denunciation… emptiness. Personal and social reality escapes other time schemes and everything is reconsidered, even creation. He has the necessity of doing something new, of starting out again. Obviously that is reflected in his paintings. Bennàssar portrays phantoms of the exile that supposes of being outside of oneself. It is the time to take a leap. An artist who had always walked forward, now takes time to reflect and takes a step backwards. He wants to start again, learn everything that escaped him because of living too fast. He dreams about soaking up the whole pictorial knowledge that until then he had only intuited, and acquired through the observation or the experimentation. He wants to stop and taste. During several years the learning is intense, deep, enthusiastic; and the decisive moment arrives when the painter dominates the technic so much that he forgets it. He can express now, with total calm, what he feels. He is ready to take a new path. He is a painter again, prepared to face new challenges, the future, with an open mind to everything. The exile finished in the reunion with himself, reborn as a painter.
We have already pointed out that in the research toward himself, to clarify his place in the world he was meant to live in, Joan Bennàssar made several self-portraits; they reflect autobiographically the uncertainty of the moment. He paints himself, his relatives, and everyone who surrounds him. There, everything takes a symbolic tone, a transcendental one. In this line we can situate The sixth finger, the canvas that we are dicussing. It is another of the large amount of self-portraits that I made during those years; well, maybe not just one more, as it could be the most important, I appear in with my son and daughter. But it is not just about me; it is all that my life was about, lots of things that I cared about. It was a way to see what I really was, with things that were close to me.
That is how it is. Bennàssar is shown on the left upper margin and, in difference with the other self-portraits he has painted in his life, he is perfectly identifiable and exactly represented here. He is drawn with the mouth covered by tape, a reflection of living tied, and of the lack of security he had lived during the last years, when everything seemed too heavy. The painter is hidden behind a wall, in which there are geometrical elements painted and diverse kinds of cane traps hung, as he tries to point out life traps, and the invisible chains set up in adolescence, and the fact of having to be very brave to liberate oneself from them. There is also a song of hope represented in two birds that express the optimism and the wonder of living, and evidently in the children –two of Joan's children, Maggie and Pau, and a friend-. My children are really important in this picture. They remind us of the social responsibility we have, as the world we are building today is the one they will live tomorrow.
Bennàssar is living in Majorca, drawing and teaching. Politics are left behind definitively; he is not a political man, he is a painter, and political actions don't work for him. So now he can dedicate himself to breathe and live what he really feels: painting. I had the clear idea of being a painter, I am a painter, and I only want to be a painter, I wish nothing else. That is why once I finished giving classes I never had the temptation of going back there. We all come from our past, and I had had too many things in my mind to develop my career. That was when I realized I only wanted to be a painter.
But the sensation of crisis, of not being where he should be, continued being inside him. He was already a painter, he had become so, but he was a painter without hope. Now he had reached what he wished, he had no intention of giving up, but he knew that his way had to lead somewhere. In 1981 he took one of those risky decisions that marked his future again. I decided to separate from my wife and go back to Barcelona. I left everything in Majorca, everything I had: my family, house, children, my parents,… taking only 50.000 pesetas (300 €). It was a life or death decision. I knew it involved a big risk, but I had the need of starting again. The Joan Bennàssar that existed wasn't the one I wanted. I had taken my life to a point I didn't desire, that wasn't good for me. I wasn't happy, I couldn't be happy, and this had to end… If it didn't break on its own I had to break it, and that is how it happened. I wanted to recover my youth, to put my life at the point in which I believed it had to be. It was the right time, I had enough pictorial baggage to think that I could do what I wanted. Life needs risk also.
In 1981, a year after creating that canvas, his vital anguish is reflected in an exhibition that took place in the Bearn Hall of Palma under the title of «Unfinished series of love and death» («Serie inacabada de amor y muerte»), in which you can see how Joan Bennàssar painted his life, with its part of reality, dreams, disappointments, tears… and humanity. With that exhibition I threw of the shackles of yesterday… A kind of suicide sensation dominated me… When I saw death hanging on the walls of Bearn gallery I realized that there were only two routes: die or to keep on living… And I chose the second one.
Bennàssar had a dispute with living and he used painting as the cathartic instrument for expressing a personal history plagued with pain, fears and impotence. Where others held a gun, in the absurd and useless act of Russian roulette, he applied painting. In spite of everything, he continued painting as achieving a ritual of freedom, intuiting that this route was the one to salvation.
«Art is the way to convert in sensitivity all that it is not» «My wish is to seize desire» «To paint is like to make love»
Bennàssar had stopped painting. He spent two years living in Mallorca while he was carrying out the compulsory military service. Fully dedicated to politics, he worked in whatever, in order to earn enough money to sustain his family. Nevertheless, the social man in whom he had become, step by step, got back to the individual. Bennàssar was turning into a complex man, and he leaves behind the radicalism shown in politics during the last years and starts to question himself about facts that were faith dogmas until then. It is a hard moment in which our protagonist doesn't know precisely where to go, even when he realizes the importance of making a decision. Under a tranquil and affable appearance, he had a decisive way and brave nature hidden that led him to make that decision: break up with the whole he had done until then, and get back to being painter. That is how he explained it in an interview of September of 1977: «If there was a time in which I acted as a politician, I believe now that my destiny is in painting. I have never been a politician, and it is about each in his place, give the best of oneself. Anyway, I won't disown anything I have done, that is why my art emanates a clear political message.
In the same way he left painting behind once, he was now leaving political acts to establish himself in art. He was disenchanted with the party, and didn't believe in it anymore. I had taken a resolution, and it wasn't easy at all, but there was no other solution. I felt bad, like an unfulfilled artist, frustrated about that and about how my life had developed until that stage. I understood that my only chance to escape was to get back to painting. So I chose between painting and politics, and painting won. Getting out of the party wasn't easy; in those years, in that organization, giving up meant becoming a betrayer; my friends considered me so, and I guess that I felt quite the same.
The main thing is that Joan Bennàssar thinks with a pencil in his hands, and he needed that pencil to develop himself as a human being. Painting was a bourgeois art, but also his method of expression. First, he recovered the drawing, almost furtively, hidden at night while his whole family was sleeping, as when he was ten years old, and it awoke a passion in him. Later, he left that dark refuge and did it with all its consequences. He began with small, vindicating paintings, very influenced by the political life he had been living and the social man he had been. Some time later, topics were extended and he started to plough a new territory on canvas.
In 1976 -when Franco was already dead- motivated by party friends like Antoni Serra or Francisca Bosch, he exhibited his artworks in the basement of the Tous library, situated on the Union street of Palma, that was run by the bearded and strident writer. At that time, he was working as a teacher, but thinking about earning his living as an artist.
That exhibition had a good conclusion, and it brought some money to take the family forward; but, above all, led him to acknowledge that painting needed dedication and exclusivity. Having won the first prize, in both painting and drawing modalities, of the XXXV Edition of the Autumn Palma Saloon, awarded in the October of 1976, Bennàssar makes another highly risky decision that will mark his vital trajectory definitively: give up everything else to dedicate himself exclusively to painting.
It is interesting to recover some of the reviews that the exhibition got. In the programme Majorca at wind (Mallorca al vent) from Popular Radio (Radio Popular) it was said: «You have to be very young and a good illustrator to capture, with such a synthesis of elements and dissemination of a strong dose of audacity, the circumstances that stifle today's man. Strength and sensibility, lyricism and complaint, softness and protest, and feeling, through the pencil and a delicate colouring, the chronicler of today's socio-historical events». On the other hand Planas Sanmartí wrote, the 3rd of April of 1976, in Majorca's Diary (Diario de Mallorca): «Brave and harmonic canvases, full of intention and beauty; paintings that everyone must see and feel, that will make you think, and are esthetical and functional in the best sense».
A year later, in 1977, he was granted amnesty and could go back to Barcelona to finish his studies at the University of Art. After living there for a year, he created the painting that we are speaking of. From when he leaves politics and vindictive activities, his painting changes its tones progressively. Bennàssar doesn't find his true place, and this period is full of self-portraits where the crisis is tangible. In this period he travels a lot, most of the time to England, his wife's homeland. There he discovers Francis Bacon, and gets impressed by those pictures that always reflect human fragility. He will think deeply and passionately on those portraits of anxious men that have a powerful impact on his consciousness.
“Maternity” is a self-portrait too, even when I am not appearing physically. It is the image of a woman with a child, that represents family, a family that retains and propels you at one time, an island that puts the brake on you. I was an unsatisfied person who became conscious of having lost my youth, something hard to accept. In that picture there is also an important dose of sensuality, and a use of colors, between warm and cold, that is specially cared for in every brushstroke. I have always thought that this maternity is greatly inspired in Amadeo Modigliani's works, specifically because of the color treatment and the sensuality it breaths. The painting tries to be a reflection about family, about children's future, and about paternal duties…
«My desire is to put all my feelings into my work, to make them known throughout the world» «My relationship with a canvas is a primitive question» «A painter can't be boring, that is why he has to be changing and experimenting new things constantly»
Bennàssar continues with his sculpture studies in Barcelona. We are in the beginning of the 70's and the city overflows with life, art, political militancy and opposition to a dictatorial regime that is out-of-date, which has begun its end after subduing a whole country under its yoke that lasted four decades. Those are years in which social and politic consciousness become alive inside the artist. Bennàssar soaks up the universitary and cultural atmosphere in which he lives; and in 1971 he joins radical organizations in opposition to Francoism, and the Spanish Workers Party (Partido de los Trabajadores de España, PTE), a Marxist-Leninist of Mao-Tse Tung thought organization, where he has a radical opposition to Francoism, the big enemy. Those were crazy years. Nothing could scare me, and I started in a group with a subversive appearance, half-terrorist, that made you feel brave. I was feeling solidarity with the others and, in someway, useful. We distributed leaflets, stole cars and duplicators, made clandestine magazines, organized manifestations that sometimes became violent, faced policemen... He still remembers those years emotively, with shiny eyes.
Bennàssar is travelling, involved in politics and breathing new air, while he keeps on with his studies, when a breath of fresh air is offered to him in the art-world: he saw pictures of an Antoni Tàpies exhibition, a marginal artist then, in the Destiny (Destino) magazine. There was a photograph of a Tàpies work made with farmer's rope. That piece surprised me; it shook the structures of what I understood as art. Suddenly everything I had learned about the representation of the figurative in historical vanguards sank, and I saw that other possibilities existed, that the world could be explained not only by its representation, but by its expression from the within.
That had a huge, violent and forceful impact that made Bennàssar work on abstract paintings for the first time, using materials as cement, soil or sand, adding patches and ropes to the canvases, and playing with colour spots and textures. He was young and wanted to experiment. Everything was right; everything was valid. Anxious for information, he learned from photos, books and magazines, as direct knowledge was really hard to get. It is in this context, in this new world discovered by the artist, where the work that heads this chapter is born. He is a self-made painter taking a road that in those years wasn't more that a trail. “The skin” is a painting that parts from reality, with a tarpaulin that simulates rabbit skin, some ropes and asphalt; but it escapes rapidly from the reality where it comes from to transform itself into a metaphor, into a different way of seeing that same reality. It wants to make the transformation into beauty and sensitivity of things that belong to the everyday use and have no splendour, and had even less in that moment. But it is also my desperate shout in front of the life that I was meant to live, something very typical from youths. I was inside a world that I didn't consider favorable. That shout was already present in previous paintings, with the difference that some years, in which I was a sponge, had passed; I had absorbed everything, seen lots of things, travelled and taken social consciousness. All this is reflected in that piece.
Paintings with a similar style are the ones that make up his first individual exhibition in Club Pollença during 1971. He had passed the summer working back in town. Those were months in which he felt very artistic, and he created artworks where the influence of Tàpies was really present. Those paintings are full of vindications, exactly what is expected from a youngster who wants to make a mark in the world. The exhibition was the most modern and different that had ever taken place in Mallorca, and it had great results. Pollença is a town of receptive, open minded and cultured inhabitants. They perceived something fresh in those works and bought them. The artist kept on going with that money once back in Barcelona. We have to take in consideration that at his twenty-two years Bennàssar was married, and painting wasn't enough to maintain his family and a little flat in Poble Sec. So, in the afternoons, he worked delivering telegrams all around the Condal City riding a Vespa.
It is curious to remember a chronicle published on the 26th of August of 1971 in relation to this first exhibition in Pollença. Between other phrases, we can read: «Even with his docile character, not exempted of softness, he is an impulsive youth in his works. He is an artist of suggestive and brave paintstrokes». And a little further, it is also said: «If we had to choose between the styles and tendencies of his works, we would go for the abstract painting. It is there where it seems to us that the young artist shows his real feelings, where he flies in a fantasy into research and creation in order to find “that which” he desires to proclaim».
Back in Barcelona, painting had lost importance in relation to politics for him. Before the Easter of 1973, the University brings him a disciplinary case, and he is expelled. So little by little he moves away from paintbrushes and canvases. When one is young he wants instantaneous benefits, and painting wasn't bringing them. I was a Marxist working in an art that I considered bourgeois, because Marxist art didn't interest me at all. So I thought that I was painting for bourgeoisies, and I didn't like it a bit. This was a reason for radicalizing my paintings, making them every time more disgusting, with the objective of not being able to sell them. Finally, I let it go, it wasn't worth it. I felt that painting I was betraying my whole social class, proletarians, and that was an excessively hard thought for me in those years. Also, the Arts University students weren't there to make revolution, and I preferred a Molotov cocktail than a paintbrush.
The disciplinary case prevents him from acceding to university militias, and he is forced to the military service. He returns to Palma de Mallorca, and for two years forgets completely about painting. He combines the compulsory military service, his work as a carpenter, and the organization of the PTE there. Politics now occupy all his time. Nevertheless, he gradually begins to miss painting. Once he forgets about politics, he will start to paint again; but that is a story for another episode.
«Painting and my life have become the same thing» «In painting there are only wisdom and feelings, those are the two factors that differentiate one painter from another» «I need to believe that painting has the power to change things»
It never came into Joan Bennàssar's head to be anything different than a painter. Without that axiom, the next story would be impossible, or, at least, no one could have written it the same. When he was a child he had notable qualities, and his school drawing teacher, the painter Mateu Llobera, and especially his parents, made him exert himself to awake those pictorial innate aptitudes, and put him on the art track. Did any other path exist? We will never know, although Joan doesn't think so. Drawing after drawing, first copying calendars and prints, later reproducing landscapes from his natal Pollença, he got to the Art School of Palma, where a teacher, the sculptor Jaume Mir, had a huge influence on him, leading him towards sculpture and modelling. When I got in the School I already knew that I wanted to be an artist. Starting to study there reaffirmed my beliefs; one lived artistic feelings there despite the epochal limitations, a greyish period where the dense patina of Francoism covered it all. But, for me, the world was immensely huge and where I felt more confortable was in the art world.
Even though it is not the first painting of Joan Bennàssar, it is the first work of an artistic trajectory; the first stone, hesitant and maybe even insecure, of the pictorial cathedral that the artist has built over the years. We can say so because it is clear that Bennàssar looks for something else there, even without knowing what. He doesn't knew where he is going, but he is sure about where he doesn't want to stay. In spite of coming from a town that embraced artists such as Anglada Camarassa, Santiago Russiñol or Dionís Bennàssar, a youngster like him wasn't quite attracted by that whole cultural atmosphere. They were all landscape artists and didn't interest me as a painter. I wanted to do something else, break away from the whole tradition of the Pollensin School that undoubtedly was my heritage. The music and tourism that were coming to Pollença helped me to do so: you went out at nights, talked English, met people that both ate and thought differently… and that was much more relevant, to that youngster with ambitions to go further, than all those paintings that could be seen in town.
When Bennàssar paints this picture he is already in Barcelona. In 1969 he had joined the Superior Art School of Saint George to study sculpture, influenced by his close relationship with Jaume Mir. During breakfast with Ramón Canet and with Gelabert, we decided to move to study in Barcelona. Palma became small for us. We were young, ambitious and wanted to grow. We were decided to take the world by storm if it was necessary.
That decision was a cataclysm in the ordinary course of his life. Those were times for hippies, joints, political vindications and free love… I went to classes, painted and worked to earn a living, but what interested me the most was what happened in the streets: subways, cinemas, the new arts I was discovering, la Nova Cançó (a Catalan musical movement)… I was enthusiastic about everything.
As a fruit of that impact, of the deep impression that so much novelty provoked on him, this picture was born. The theme came out from an image he was seeing in his everyday life: it was a dark and dirty passage in Barcelona's subway where people walked through, in silence, toward an unknown destination. And that impressed him so much that it became the genesis of the painting “The world in red”; his intention was to portray a different reality from the one he was living. It is an artwork from an eighteen-year-old man who has a lot to say and wants to say it all at once, who is avid of seeking and finding. I placed those figures, with a central kind of Christ highlighted, which held the terrestrial globe. It is a perception of men, and of gratitude to my parents, to the family. It had nothing to do with all that I had done until then. I was looking for my own language, a different path, but I never finished the canvas, and I don't regret it. Only the top is finished, as I used a kind of Titanlux paint that dripped a lot and it had to be worked from the bottom to the top. It had a kind of magic, a special mystery. It is curious, but in its moment I didn't value the work, but with the passing of time I realized its value.
With that picture Joan Bennàssar started a serious and respected artistic career. “The world in red” was the beginning, the first frame of this illustrated history by the art world.