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Of lights and shadows

Rafael Armengol

January 2020 - March 2020

Rafael Armengol, the (intact) passion for painting


            Almost eighty years ago, Rafael Armengol was born in Benimodo, a small municipality in the Ribera Alta, where his parents ran a business. That child immediately stood out for his skill in drawing, delighting teachers and friends with his creations on the school blackboard. Sometimes such a gift is a condemnation, because it forces you to get off the usual path and forces you to reach almost chimerical and unapproachable challenges. José Ortega y Gasset warned that the mass-man is one who recognizes himself "like everyone else" and, nevertheless, that does not cause him anguish. Actually, most people live happily in that time, in his domestic daily life, without having to think too much, or make big decisions. On the other hand, every creator is subjected to that existential weight of exceeding himself and of being different: the painter wants his latest exhibition to be more acclaimed than the previous one, the writer that his latest book surpasses the previous one in sales and reviews. An artist by definition withdraws from the crowd and becomes anxious if he is "like everyone else."

The artist lives with that anxiety and with that uncertainty: the need to overcome, to say something new, to search deep within oneself for something not yet said, a new idea, an unexpected way, a feat that is acclaimed by his followers and especially by critics. But, after more than sixty years of effort, as in the case of Rafael Armengol, what else can be said? What else can the artist's gaze reveal to his followers? How can you surprise and delight them? How to reinvent yourself again?

And yet it is possible. And this new exhibition is a good example. I have to admit that when I saw the first painting in the series Of lights and shadows I was somewhat taken aback: there were Mao Zedong and Nero, face to face, with the Armengolian complement of cabbages, as a frieze. A few months ago Rafael Armengol had just exhibited a series on Tiépolo at the University of Valencia, which he had had the good fortune to curate and preface: one of his renowned revisitations to the classics, full of nuances. Ghirlandaio, Piero della Francesca, Giorgione, Mantegna, had previously passed through his gaze and his chromatic games, until he made them a classic of themselves.

Therefore, that painting was a counterpoint to all of the above, a creative escape, a desire to open a new avenue of expression. But what did he want to tell? In reality, the artist is guided by impulse and Armengol with that first painting made his usual groping. Mao and Nero as epitomes of immense men and, at the same time, catastrophic for their time, on whom so many human destinies depended. In that painting there was admiration, but also a sharp critique of that messianism, that overwhelming desire for power. In 1939, Thomas Mann published a text entitled brother Hitler, where he described the German dictator as a frustrated artist, whose artistic disappointment had directed her towards the rest of humanity with an unprecedented desire for destruction. If Hitler had succeeded as an artist, how many deaths, how much suffering, would the world have been saved!

To these figures of Mao and Nero, Armengol opposes that of Lou Andreas-Salomé, the great Russian-German writer, free-spirited and rebellious. In four large canvases, Armengol plays with the iconography of this writer, a friend of Nietzsche and a true icon of her time. The paintings are accompanied by reproductions of the Greek friezes of the Parthenon, in a counterpoint that refers to eternal works, to the durability of the pure and beautiful. A resource that he also uses in his subsequent paintings on Hypatia of Alexandria, the great mathematics persecuted by religious dogmatism and that Armengol presents as an example of wisdom and humanity. The intense gaze of mathematics, with those Byzantine icon eyes, dazzle for their depth and also for their drama, like someone who has discovered the essence of the laws that govern the world.

In this way, the Benimodo painter manages to trace an expository discourse, new to his work and of absolute originality. Perhaps it connects with his production of the seventies, with those masterful paintings dedicated to the slaughter of pigs, truffled with references and political denunciations. In those meetings of businessmen chaired by a sausage, Armengol already denounced a reality that has been the prevailing trend of Spanish politics in recent decades: that is, that of a political system eaten away by corruption and trafficking of influences, direct inheritance of the Franco regime.

Undoubtedly, it is a question of some initial initiatory steps, of some groping that will give in the coming years a more complex and multifaceted series, more established and scathing. But the capacity for renewal that these paintings imply is spectacular. The Shiraz Gallery can be very happy and proud to show these works for the first time. And Rafael Armengol of having developed, at almost eighty years old, a new series, exciting and powerful, where he masterfully combines his entire world: the magnificent mastery of drawing and color.

In 1996, the essayist George Steiner wrote a set of essays about his enthusiasm for reading, which he titled passion intact (No passion spent). At his advanced age, Steiner continued to read and reread with the same passion, with the same enthusiasm and enthusiasm as in his longed-for youth. Something very similar could be said of Rafael Armengol, about his intact passion for painting. A wish renewed every day. A work that is more profound and perfect every day.


Martí Domínguez

University of Valencia