On June 4 of this year, Chilean artist Claudio Bravo died at age seventy-four from complications of epilepsy at his home in Taroudant, Morocco. The following appreciation of the artist and his work, by New York University art historian Edward J. Sullivan, is adapted and updated from the essay “Claudio Bravo: Perceiving the Seen,” which appeared in the catalog that accompanied the exhibition “Claudio Bravo: Painter and Draftsman,” at the Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1987. Dr. Sullivan was guest curator of the exhibition.
The death of Claudio Bravo early this past summer was an extremely sad event in the realm of figurative art. Ironically, shortly after Bravo’s demise the art world lost another pioneering artist who remained true to a highly personal vision of figuration, Lucien Freud. Although the Chilean and the British painters were far apart regarding their approaches to the human form or their methods of creating a simulacrum of concrete reality, they were both steadfast in their devotion to the observation and representation of their surroundings.
Bravo had a highly distinguished and long career, beginning with his early years as a portraitist in Madrid. His art, however, is difficult to characterize. All of his work since the late 1960s, including the wrapped canvas paintings, the wrapped packages, and the “supermarket” pictures, as well as the studio views and still lifes, has often been treated as “Super Realist,” and has been included in exhibitions and in books and articles on the so-called New Realism. Edward Lucie-Smith, one of the critics who has stressed Bravo’s affinities with the international contingent of artists such as Richard Estes, John Salt and Audrey Flack in the United States, Fernando De Filippi in Italy, and Franz Gertsch in Germany, has described Super Realism as a distinctly American phenomenon that imparts a detached, neutral quality to the reality it defines. Irving Sandler has written of the New Realism of the 1960s (especially in New York) as “cool, clean, distanced from the self.”
If I had to choose an age into which I’d fit, it would have to be the seventeenth century. During that time artists copied nature in a conceptual way. They transformed the reality of their times as I try to transform the reality of ours.
Bravo’s work, however, displays few of these characteristics. There are, in fact, virtually no links between Bravo and the American New Realists of the 1960s and 1970s. He paints none of the mundane aspects of urban life that so fascinated the American Photo Realists, such as storefronts, cars or shelves of merchandise, and he never works from photographs. Although he spent long periods of time in New York, he was little affected by the latest developments in American painting. This is not to say that no American artists inspired him. In his wrapped-package pictures, for example, as well as in his paintings of folded paper, the work of Mark Rothko and of color-field painters like Jules Olitski and Ellsworth Kelly do play a certain role. Bravo conceived of himself as an “aesthetic” artist, one who chooses objects, places and people that are pleasing to look at and that express his ideals of beauty and universal harmony. His work is saved from gratuitous prettiness, however, by the intensity of the presences he creates.
The objects in Bravo’s art appeal to us as extraordinary studies of form and texture, whose significance goes beyond their outward appearance. This meaning is at times difficult to grasp. More often than not, there is a sense of the bizarre or the surreal in his paintings, pastels and pencil sketches. Indeed, Surrealism, or at least a surrealist-related mode of perception, lurks just beneath the surface of many of his images. Bravo’s interest in the surreal is accounted for, at least in part, by his Latin American heritage. Although Bravo believed “the only vestige of a Latin American identity is my Chilean passport,” he and other Latin American artists seem predisposed to a type of fantastical imagery (visual and literary). Surrealism has survived longer as a viable artistic option in those regions that stretch from Mexico southward than anywhere else. This is not to say that the fantasy elements in Bravo’s art have been borrowed from his fellow Latin artists, for indeed there is virtually nothing of a Latin American “feel” to his art, in either subject matter or color. I simply mean to suggest that in his work there is an affinity for the bizarre that may be linked to his native culture. In fact, the specific roots of his Surrealist-related iconography and imagery are exclusively European.
There is another reason for Bravo’s “differentness.” When asked if he felt himself to be a part of the modern tradition in art, he said, “Not really. I have my own boat, my own sails, my own wind.” This rather poetic answer could be mistaken for arrogance, but I believe that Bravo was simply stating, with characteristic Hispanic individualism, that he felt like an outsider. Indeed he almost always lived in places that are far from the center of the latest art movements. He observed and understood these movements but did not feel obliged to conform to any preconceived notion of modernism in its broadest or narrowest definition. His detached critical judgment allowed him to develop on his own terms, to create a world that is uniquely his.
Born in 1936 in Valparaiso, Chile, Bravo studied art as a teenager for only three years in the atelier of a local academic painter, Miguel Venegas. Interestingly enough, Venegas had also been the teacher of Sebastián Matta Echaurren who, as Matta, would become an important name in Surrealism. Since there were few museums in Chile at that time, almost the only exposure that Bravo had to art, outside his teacher’s studio, was by means of reproductions. Through these, he developed a taste for the Renaissance and Baroque art that he would later see in European museums, where he would feel totally at ease. From 1961 to 1972, he lived in Madrid. In the middle of a country dominated by the dictator Franco, Madrid was hardly in the forefront of the European avant-garde, although several significant galleries were operating there. The entire nation of Spain was still fairly isolated from the rest of Europe in terms of the current events in culture.
Bravo’s next move, in 1972, was to a place even further from the centers of the art world: Morocco. There—in his house and studio in Tangier, in his ancient house in the Medina of Marrakesh, and in his sprawling residence near the inland town of Taroudant—he lived and worked in relative solitude. There, not far from Spain geographically but in another world in other senses, his imagination was nurtured and his art and aesthetic vision flourished. The landscapes of the three Moroccan locales (all very different from one another), the people who worked for him, the objects that he collected and with which he surrounded himself (often among the finest examples of Moroccan ceramics and ritual vessels) were among the elements he painted and drew with visual accuracy and genuine affection.
Bravo’s work is full of art historical references. Inspired by Tàpies, Rothko and others in his “package” paintings, he also borrowed liberally from the artistic traditions of virtually all periods. In fact, it would be easy and even tempting to explain his paintings, especially his figure compositions of the later 1970s and 1980s, as variations on or transformations of artists like Leonardo, Caravaggio or Velázquez. This would be missing the point, however. Bravo did not engage in the type of “image appropriation” employed by contemporary painters from Sherrie Levine to Mike Bidlo.
Nor, for the most part, did he paint “variations” on old master works, in the manner of Picasso. Each time he borrows or transforms a figure or even a composition from another artist, he pays tribute to that master and reinforces his own position as heir to a specifically realist Renaissance- Baroque tradition. Bravo felt a particular affinity for the seventeenth century in general and for Spanish and Italian masters in particular (Velázquez and Titian were among his most admired artists): “If I had to choose an age into which I’d fit, it would have to be the seventeenth century.
During that time artists copied nature in a conceptual way. They transformed the reality of their times as I try to transform the reality of ours.” Bravo, retaining the western, classical modes of painting, applied the techniques of his Renaissance and Baroque heroes to the depiction of subject matter drawn from his quotidian existence. The splendid exposition organized in the spring of 2004 at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (“Claudio Bravo et Le Maroc”) of both his paintings of Moroccan subject matter and his own collection of ceramic work from the Maghreb demonstrated this to beautiful advantage.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, with his earliest “supermarket” and “wrapped package” paintings, Bravo began to respond to Pop Art. Artists like Andy Warhol, with his Campbell’s soup cans, or Roy Lichtenstein, with his paintings derived from comic strips, embodied the spirit of Pop, a form of art that ultimately derived from the Cubists’ use of the everyday “found” objects of a throwaway culture. Some of Bravo’s pictures share the Pop artists’ use of quotidian reality; Bravo, however, did not share the ideology of the Pop artists, who were at times commenting on the flashiness of “modern life,” with its vulgarity and futility. Neither was he, again unlike the Pop artists, reacting against the individualism and esotericism of Abstract Expressionism. Bravo, who was neither tendentious nor concerned with critical dialogue, found a way to express his vision of reality through the creation of thoroughly mundane images. Although Bravo may have been inspired by Pop Art, what he does with these materials is the opposite of what Pop masters do. He strips the shopping bags, food tins, or Coca-Cola bottles of their temporal meaning as utilitarian or cultural objects and studies them for the inherent interest or appeal of their shapes and forms—memorializing and universalizing, allowing them to become statements of perfection.
Bravo was an extraordinarily disciplined individual who worked constantly and wished to have few distractions. He was a prodigious creator of paintings and drawings and continued to have exhibitions internationally until shortly before his death. The last show he had at his long-time New York gallery, Marlborough, occurred in the fall of 2010 and it demonstrated that Bravo was at the peak of his considerable talents. As an older artist he had continued to produce meditations on form and color; among the many works in that Chelsea exhibition was a series of immense canvases depicting swaths of cloth. Drapery, covered objects and inanimate things such as boxes and packages of various forms had long interested him. In his last fabric series, he extended his fascination with quasi-abstract images to its ultimate conclusion. The paintings seen last year at Marlborough represented something of a crescendo to what had concerned him since the 1960s.
Among the highlights of Bravo’s career: he represented Chile in the 2007 Venice Biennale. Exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterey, Mexico (2007), Chateau Chenonceau (2005), Musée du Monde Arabe, Paris (2004). Two retrospectives: the Elvehjem Museum of Art (renamed the Chazen Museum of Art in 2005) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1987-88), which traveled to the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and the Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, N.C.; and at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile (1994). Bravo had his first show in New York in 1970 at the Staempfli Gallery. In 1981 he joined Marlborough Gallery where he had 17 exhibitions. His last show with Marlborough was at its Chelsea space in 2010.
All paintings © Claudio Bravo, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.
Above: Claudio Bravo. Photograph by Rafael Cidoncha, 2003.