(Barcelona, Spain, 1923–02/06/2012, Barcelona, Spain)
Mixed media and canvas on plywood panel
98 5/8 x 108 3/8 in. (250.5 x 275.3 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Museum purchase, Meadows Museum Acquisition Fund, MM.88.01
Listen to Meadows Museum docent Janet Lumpkin discuss this work (2:49 minutes)
Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012)
Great Black Relief (Grand Noir), 1973
by Janet Lumpkin, Meadows Museum docent
Tàpies was born in Barcelona in 1923 and died there in 2012. A museum dedicated to his works opened in Barcelona and he is a major figure in Spanish art. The Meadows is fortunate to have such an important painting from a major Spanish artist.
Tàpies interviewed often so we know quite a lot about what he thought, though he—carefully—didn’t give specifics about his art’s meaning. He didn’t even call his art “paintings.” At most, he called them “wall reliefs.”
Even the title says little: Great Black Relief. “Great,” perhaps because it’s big—8 feet by 9 feet. “Black” because there’s no color in it. And “relief” [indicates] something is raised off the surface there in the middle.
So, perhaps understanding what was going on during Tàpies’s life in Spain will help us approach his art. As your eyes wander over this canvas, let me tell you about Spain at the time.
Tàpies was a young adolescent, about 13, when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. He was old enough to observe the violence and know what it meant. When [the war] ended three years later in 1939, Francisco Franco emerged as the winner. He became a dictator who came to rule totally.
This work was created in 1973, so Franco had been in power for 35 years. Franco had total control of all life in Spain. There was no “government,” as such; it was all Franco. The economy was destroyed and there was little financial stability. The educational system was so undermined that people were essentially uneducated. No personal freedom was allowed. Franco ruled. By the time Tàpies created this work, Franco was 81-years-old and still in total charge.
You’ve seen the tears in the canvas, so deep you can see the plywood panel underneath. You’ve noticed the wax drops at the bottom, and the chalk lines drawn directly on the canvas. Marble dust mixed with the pigment creates a glimmer to the surface. And there’s that bulge in the middle, the “relief” of the title.
Remember Tàpies was very careful to not give a descriptive title. And that’s what pulls us into this work: we just don’t know, but we wonder. And that’s another very important thing: art doesn’t have to be “pretty” to pull us in.
I love this piece, and I wouldn’t consider it beautiful, necessarily, but it is compelling.