zaterdag 25 juli 2009
(b Valparaíso, 8 Nov 1936). Chilean painter and draughtsman. He studied painting in Santiago in 1947–8 with the Chilean painter Miguel Venegas, then lived in Spain from 1961 to 1972 before moving to Tangiers. His entire artistic career has been conducted outside his native country.
Today’s Masters: The Precisionist
By: Vanessa Davidson
Claudio Bravo’s teachers are literally right out of an art history book: Piero della Francesca, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Velázquez and Zurbarán, among others. The renowned realist began his apprenticeship with these masters at the age of 11, copying reproductions of their works during a scant three years of academic training in his native Chile. A precocious youngster with exceptional ability, Bravo had his first exhibition at 18, became a professional portraitist at 21 and, at the age of 25, in 1961 left Santiago to explore new horizons in Europe.
It was in the museums of Madrid in the 1960s that Bravo finally met these Renaissance and Baroque mentors and completed his education. At the same time, he became better acquainted with modern masters like Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, de Chirico and Morandi, artists who at once celebrated and subverted the painting traditions he so admired. Drawing inspiration from these sources, he developed the distinctive synthesis of tradition and innovation that has become the hallmark of his work.
His art bridges worlds and eras, melding hyper-realism with abstraction. Whether painting mundane objects or exotic collectibles, society portraits or modernized mythological scenes, the artist works with a meticulousness, which reflects the life-long quest for what he calls "a classical type of precision." Working within the parameters of traditional painting genres (landscape, portraiture, still life and mythological, history or religious painting) Bravo confounds expectations by employing these conventional formats as scaffolding for modern and postmodern themes and imagery. This synthesis of classicism and contemporaneity is at the crux of Bravo’s art. As he recently remarked, "My work is a combination of realism, abstraction and classicism. What I try to do is go against the grain of the trends of art today." And so he has, painting in a realist style in the 1960s when abstraction and minimalism reigned, eschewing the urban emphasis of 1970s and ’80s photorealism for the visual culture and colors of Morocco, and inserting incongruous, exotic, erotic and everyday elements into compositions painted with Old Master precision.
Bravo’s imagination is as nimble as his brush, but it was his capacity for creating elegant, accurate likenesses that earned him portrait commissions upon his arrival in Spain in 1961. These in turn afforded him entrée into certain elite social, cultural and political circles that applauded his technique as well as his taste. (He requested that female sitters pose in Balenciaga garments, which he found "very Renaissance.") While still in Chile, he had developed a portrait-painting formula to save time for other passions, like poetry, dance with the national Compañía de Ballet de Chile and work with the Teatro de Ensayo of the Universidad de Chile. (Bravo was a professional dancer with the national Chilean dance troupe, but gave this up to paint full time.) Though adventurous sitters gave Bravo leave to incorporate surrealist elements into their portraits, most clients in conservative, Francoist Spain favored the formulaic, prompting him to seek other arenas for experimentation. Bravo found creative freedom and inspiration, along with international acclaim, in still life.
"In my experiments with still life it occurs to me that my art really does look very modern; it sometimes almost looks abstract," Bravo observes. This is an apt description of the "package paintings" he began in the early 1960s as a means of "investigating the abstract possibilities of forms while still creating recognizable objects." Inspired by paper-wrapped parcels left on a table ("I was fascinated by their forms and I painted them," he recalls), these trompe l’oeil packages are Bravo’s best-known works. (His 1972 "White Package" sold for more than $1.4 million in 2002.) The parcels’ contents are invariably veiled, but the paintings themselves showcase the intersection of close observation, erudition and invention at the heart of his creative process. Perched on a shallow ledge as in a Zurbarán bodegón, posed against enigmatic backdrops reminiscent of Magritte or encompassing the entire expanse of the canvas like a color-field or monochrome painting, these mysterious parcels are stylistic chameleons. Bravo refers to them as "abstract-realist paintings," citing Antoni Tàpies and Mark Rothko as inspirations for their compositions and colors. "What I really wanted to paint was the wrapping," he relates. "I wanted to give a sense of trompe l’oeil tactility." Exhibited in New York’s Staempfli Gallery in 1970, these works’ paradoxical fusion of realist technique and abstract sensibility wowed critics and collectors alike. (Today, he is represented by Marlborough gallery in New York.)
Though he never stopped painting traditional still life compositions, Bravo resumed his experiments in the late 1990s, blurring the lines between realism and abstraction with pictures of draped linens, skeins of wool and crumpled papers whose vibrant colors reflect the warmer palette he adopted after moving from Madrid to Tangier in 1972. Seeking "a total change" in his life and work, he found new vocabularies of form, texture, pattern and color in the landscape and especially the markets of North Africa. "Although my work is constantly developing, there’s little change in my style," he once acknowledged in an interview. "What I do change is the subject matter." In Morocco, he put the packages aside and embraced the formal challenges posed by everything from light bulbs, ostrich eggs and sacks of local spices to ancient and Renaissance sculpture from his own collection. No longer overloaded with portrait commissions, he reconsidered his approach to figure painting, inviting visiting friends and members of his domestic staff to join a rotating cast of characters in contemporary variations on masterworks by Velázquez, Zurbarán, Titian and others.Like canvases that represent wrapped canvases, the majority of Bravo’s works are self-referential: In a sense, his paintings are about painting itself. In each work he establishes dialogues with other artists, refers to and often reworks pictorial traditions and tests the technical limits of oil paint, pastel, charcoal and pencil. He always paints and draws from life, rarely doing preparatory sketches and never takes shortcuts. "I work between eight and 10 hours a day," he says. "And I’m a seven-day-a-week painter. I never rest."
While Bravo admits to obsessing over even the smallest details (in his view, "the more obsessed an artist is, the more he strives to make his art better") his works are not literal reflections of the outside world. "You’re not exactly copying reality; it’s something more, the painting is a concept," he explains. Pictures like "The Warden and his Son" (1979), a hybrid portrait, self-portrait and vanitas painting, encapsulate this approach. Bravo is present in this surreal scene as subject, object and artist: He is reflected in the mirror à la Velázquez, visible in the classical self-portrait on the wall as well as materially present in his signature. Yet in contrast with his postmodern approach, the date below the signature is inscribed in Roman numerals, as in all of his works. "I do it because my art is classical," he asserts. "It’s been that way since childhood. It’s something I can’t deny."
Neither the art nor the artist represented in such paintings exudes a marked Chilean identity, though Bravo’s work is invariably marketed at auction as "Latin American." Having lived in Europe for 11 years and in Morocco for more than three decades, Bravo considers his artwork a "cultural cocktail" and cares little for labels. "I am only South American because of my passport," Bravo says. "My art has nothing to do with my heritage. I am very connected to the European past—to ancient art, to Renaissance art. Even when I do a painting of a contemporary scene, as in my New York pictures, its roots are in Italian art of the 15th century."
Vanessa Davidson is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at New York University, where she is researching her dissertation on conceptual art and alternative communication networks in Brazil and Argentina during the 1970s.