From Francisco de Goya’s darkly satirical cartoons of the atrocities committed during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain and Anselm Kiefer’s epic allusions to Germany’s troubled, recent past, artists through the ages have exposed the horrors of war and psychological scars born from collective trauma.
Currently on view at Belgium’s Axel Vervoordt gallery, Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies’ 1960s mixed media paintings reflect the artist’s experiences from living through the Spanish Civil War. An established artist during his lifetime, Tàpies drew inspiration from the surrounding urban landscape of graffitied and vandalized walls, approaching them as records of shared histories that were engraved with people's fears, desires, and discontents from social and political unrest. “The dramatic sufferings of adults and all the cruel fantasies of those of my own age, who seemed abandoned to their own impulses in the midst of so many catastrophes, appeared to inscribe themselves on the walls around me,” he once said.
Building up heavy, textured surfaces with course materials such as soil, rags, marble dust, strings, and waste paper, in a somber palette of earthy tones, Tàpies produced compositions so dense that they resemble walls and doors. He then scratched and gouged into them, creating ambiguous markings that suggest an ancient language or code populated with mathematical signs, crosses, sticks, and symbols of Catalan identity, in opposition to dictator Francisco Franco. The artist’s cryptic vocabulary spoke to his desire for painting to offer a more primal form of communication—“painting is a return to origins,” he has said—as well as portraying these shared walls as repositories for a community’s collective subconscious, offering sites for both grieving and healing.