Regarded as Spain’s greatest living artist, Catalan painter Antoni Tapies (born 1923) is the subject of a comprehensive retrospective currently showing at the Hara Museum of Art in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.

He is known chiefly for his abstract canvases, and the self-taught Tapies has fused influences from a wide variety of sources — from Picasso, naturally but also from Art Brut and Surrealism — with his personal experiences of growing up in a Barcelona torn by the Spanish Civil War.

Tapies is renowned for a style sometimes referred to as “matter painting” — due to its use of soil mixed with oil paint to create rough, textured canvases whose scraped surfaces stress the pure physicality of things. It makes you think of Spanish walls, and appropriately, Tapies’ name means “wall” in Catalan.

He later used bits of newspaper, as well as wood and other matter in his assemblages, which presaged the Arte Povera movement of the ’70s in Italy. He remains an active and innovative artist to this day.

The Hara Museum has assembled 30 major Tapies paintings and sculptures that provide a fine overview of the artist’s oeuvre from the 1940s to the present. Beginning with earthy, wall-like canvases, the exhibition moves on to early figurative works and collages. In the largest works, the subtle compositional elements are scraped or scooped in to, or out of, the thick, heavy paint on the canvases — “White Relief” (1959) is more than 3 meters wide, and looks like an old worn, stuccoed wall.

The show traces Tapies’ experimentation with typography and a symbolist language; his graffiti-like paintings from the 1970s; the assemblages built up on windows and burlap and the introduction of minimalist geometric forms.

We can see Tapies’ hand in the work, feel the joy in a creativity that embraces the physical and breathes a deeply resounding harmony throughout.

This extraordinary show was curated by Manuel Borja-Villel, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona and former director of the Antoni Tapies Foundation.

Because Tapies’ work does not translate well in reproductions, this is a most effective introduction to the artist. The Hara, built just a decade after Tapies was born, is the ideal place for this show — the floors, zigzagged old wood that time has stained black, are the perfect complement to these big, rough and powerful paintings.

Tapies, who is now 82 years old, was unable to make the long trip to Japan for the opening. But he did agree to an exclusive interview for The Japan Times from his home in Barcelona.

Could you comment on the origins of your interest in diverse materials and textures that has marked your painting style for more than half a century?

From my beginnings in the 1940s, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, I felt a great aversion toward the forms of expression of the academic art of that time. For me, to use dirty paper or rags or cardboard was the equivalent to an insult against the art establishment.

It may not be widely known that you originally studied to become a lawyer. Can you outline for us the circumstances surrounding your decision to move into the entirely different world of painting?

From when I was very small, I very much liked drawing. An illness kept me mostly bedridden for two years, and I would draw. But my father was a lawyer and he pressurized me to study law, so I did, for four years at the University of Barcelona. Soon afterward, with help from a French Government arts grant, I was able to leave Spain, and I began dedicating myself to art again.

There is the idea that man creates society, and there is the idea that society creates man. With reference to your Catalan roots, the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime, in what way did your environment influence you as an artist and how do you react to that?

I have always thought that the conditions in which we live influence our life and our character. I thought my disease was a sort of punishment, but then I realized that I was not the only one who was stricken, but rather society in general was suffering, because we were all repressed by the Franco regime. I maintained my Catalan roots and hopes. These circumstances led me to form the idea that artists, writers and intellectuals, through our work, can help to change many situations. My obsession throughout my life has been to find forms that can influence the consciousness of the people who see my work, and so contribute to social change.

How do you prepare to paint and from where do you draw inspiration?

I have to force myself to achieve the appropriate mental concentration, because if I do not work intensely, the inspiration never arrives.

There are recent pieces in your Hara Museum show, as well as works from more than half a century ago. How has your approach to making art changed over your many years?

The ability to continue working through half a century depends on responding to a constant evolution and also adapting to new visions of reality. It is also necessary to extend and develop the formal aspects of painting.

Do you have a favorite artist, or an artist who has influenced you?

My favorite artists can be found in many parts of the world, in Egyptian Art, in African Art, in Pre-Columbian Art, in the art of India and perhaps very intensely in some Chinese and Japanese painters. In my youth I considered my teachers to be Picasso, Miro and Paul Klee. I also felt a solidarity with the American Abstract Expressionists.

Is there a special message you would like to convey to the many people in Japan who are interested in your work?

It is enormously satisfying to have this friendly relationship. Japan has some great poets, calligraphers, painters and sculptors whom I have known. I hope to continue this relationship with the new generation.

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