The silence of forms

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Rosa Olivares

We live amongst noise. An immense noise that, like dirt, invades every nook and cranny of life. The entire horizon is covered in fog and we are in the middle of an inhospitable and vulgar place. For a long time, we could find silence in art, in poetry, in music. But now it seems that there are no more oases, safe places where silence can be heard. But there are still islands, solitary places where, no matter how many people are there, silence and an almost voluptuous serenity are respected. Rafael Navarro’s photography is one of those places where fashions, prejudices and fear don’t matter. This exhibition seeks to some- how recover that calm and silence. To be a place where thought flitters quietly among the works, without haste or demands, looking, feeling, ex- periencing, not searching for anything other than that fleeting moment of calm and well-being.


This exhibition is not intended to be an antholo- gy, nor is it a retrospective. Too many works are missing for something like that. Perhaps it’s more a personal tribute to a quiet artist who has devel- oped his work as he has own life, with respect and responsibility. A rare artist, frankly, because it’s rare to find an artist with a massive body of work spanning more than 40 years remaining consistent, sincere and personal. We’ll talk later about beauty and other things. In this selection for Structures we’ve brought together works from his first series (Formas, 1975) to the latest one, though as I say, we have skipped many of his series and processes. It’s wise not to overwhelm the public, to always leave something for another time. Don’t overdo it or make too much noise. This exhibition is a selection of silent images, of forms in balance, of basic structures on which life is based. On the other hand, Rafael Navarro is a well-known and widely recognized artist among photographers and collectors, both in Spain and in Portugal, France, Italy, Switzerland and Latin America in general. An artist whose CV is rather overwhelming, because just as he is calm, me- thodical, in production, his constant activity is overwhelming. It was not necessary to go over the top; it’s better to search, in troubled times, for a glimmer of levity.


Rafael Navarro is part of the history of Spanish photography. He was there at the beginning of several of the founding projects of new Catalan and Madrid photography, since he’s always been close enough to take the necessary steps, while remaining distant enough to not be blinded by any dazzling lights. But his life story is easy to find in his many books and published catalogs. What’s not so simple are the reasons behind his creative nature. Navarro began as a photogra- pher without relying on any local tradition. In 1975, that moment which now seems to melt into oblivion for everyone who lived through it, in Spain the only photographic tradition was.documentary photography, in the press and in the street, between tragedy and curiosity. Doc- umentary photography full of famous names, in dramatic black and white, called upon to close one of the sorriest chapters in this country’s his- tory. But Navarro isn’t interested in this way of looking at the external world. For him, photogra- phy doesn’t necessarily have a social purpose, objectivity is not his thing, the precise moment only exists in our feelings, he will never seek any- thing in the external world. His fears are different, they originate within himself, not in the external world, in a particular social landscape, in a given country, at a specific time. Navarro began as a completely independent photographer, with no connection to the brief history of Spanish pho- tography to that point. He is self-taught, he be- gan as an amateur who sought something he couldn’t find elsewhere and started to enter a world that he’ll not only not leave but of which he is an essential part. His models are foreign, like most of his travel companions and his most faithful collectors and followers. His work began between Edward Weston’s search for forms and Eikoh Hosoe’s oriental aesthetics, and gradually became more personal and distant from his en- vironment, in an isolation that has characterized him all these years.Perhaps Rafael Navarro’s curiosity is closer to poetry than to documentary. To intimacy than to the outside world, to what is private and intimate than to show and exhibitionism. That’s why his nudes (a fundamental part of his work) have nev- er been obscene or indecent. Firstly, because Navarro stands always on the side of beauty, but also of discretion, of respect for what is private. He knows how to clearly distinguish between the body without clothes (defenseless, vulnerable) and the naked (proud and balanced), in Walter Benjamin’s terms. They are different things for any art lover, for any poetry reader, for all who use their eyes to see. Secondly, because his bodies never have a face, they aren’t the nude of any one person, they’re forms, skin, flesh, existence and, above all, movement. And sometimes they are also landscape and sensuality, delicacy and horizon. It is also essential to emphasize that for Navarro, the fragment matters more than the whole, the pure form is in the fragment, it’s the perfect verse that needs no rhyme, like a solitary and pure Japanese haiku.


Formats are another interesting aspect to study. From the outset, he’s worked in small formats, partly because he himself would reveal and produce them, then gradually moved to much larger formats, and with the new possibilities of technical advances in machinery and papers. He himself would say in an interview with the Italian journalist Silvia Mangialardi in 2003 that in his work he oscillates between “the whisper of the intimate format and the shout over an oversized body.” It goes from the sensuality of a few folds of the skin to building the body as the landscape of infinity, covering the entire horizon. Between the most delicate sensuality and the resounding imposition of forms.


I said above that Navarro’s work began in iso- lation from a social and political environment with which his work does not concern itself, but which is both his refuge and where he focuses his personal search. It does, however, affect him personally, which surely pushes him deeper into that isolation in his photography, in his study, in his investigation of shapes, depths and surfac- es. Everything is always biographical, even if it’s concealed in other stories, disguised with other appearances. It’s difficult to learn about Navar- ro’s life through his work, but it may be easier to imagine his moods through his series, the topics he is dealing with and discarding. And in this exhibition, we have an essential work, a se- ries that is already part of the history of Spanish photography, his Dípticos. From 1978 to 1985, Navarro made 69 diptychs, which we show here in full, along with part of other essential series in his career: from Formas (1975), the first of all his series, to Espacios (2012), A destiempo (2011) and Arquitectura (2019), the most recent ones that he exhibits, all three of which are now in color, after an apparently surprising, but at the same time foreseeable, decision. But there are also works such as Tientos (1995), Las formas del cuerpo (1996) or Ellas (2000/2002). Enough of a compendium to see that, though Navarro had to start on the first step without any influ- ence, any earlier Spanish master, as a handrail, his work and he himself have been a model for later generations. Though we’re well aware that in Spain nobody is willing to be anybody’s heir, or to take inspiration in close sources: they prefer faraway wellsprings that they may never have set eyes on. But the truth is that the presence and spirit of Rafael Navarro lingers in works by cur- rent artists, who, even if they deny him, reveal it through their creations and aesthetic positions.Rafael Navarro adds the intrinsic interest of his personal work to a role everyone already recog- nizes in photography’s transition in the 70s and 80s from documentary and realism, objectivism and social positioning, to pure photography, whose raison d’être is itself, its poetic nature, its internal structure, its formal investigation, and a subjectivist positioning. The use of repetition, of fragmentation to lead to photographic abstrac- tion marks a generational bridge that opens the limits of Spanish photography to other powerful aesthetic and experimental options, to an unex- pected formal freedom based on strict, rigorous work.


This exhibition only aspires, in looking at this frag- mented set of works, to allow us to see, even if briefly, into our inner world. Because everything tells us about ourselves, who we are, who we were, and who we could be. Because photogra- phy not only tells us about the outside world, it’s also a (sometimes perverse) mirror reflecting our fears and our desires.

Rafael Navarro. A Particular Story

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Rosa Olivares

We are currently writing the history of contemporary Spanish photography. But some are mistaking the history of photography in itself for the history that some photographers have photographed, that is, for the succession of images that can shape a certain social history told through opportune, arresting, sometimes beautiful images. No doubt this photography is, also, a part of the history of photography yet evidently it is not the history of photography itself, for this, like the history of art, is shaped by many other images, aesthetics, artistic names and intentions, and an undeniable spirit of renovation, and not obligatorily by depicting specific events external to the artists themselves.

There are other photographs, other stories that are being told. In fact, there may be truth in the idea that behind every picture there is a story that this picture somehow tells. But the story that is told or discerned is a private story, a particular story that only the artist knows and of which he gives us that only, a picture. A picture that most of the time results from a total abstraction, indecipherable in its own reality. If we all have the same obsessive subject in our heads (ourselves), with an artist this obsession becomes artwork. The artist makes all his imaginary renderings revolve around himself, his experience, his dreams, his desires and his small and insignificant life that becomes universal through beauty, opportunity and transgression. And Spanish photography has reached a sufficient level of sophistication, quality and creativity to become the subject of historic review. There already exists a framework of big and small private stories told with images that situates the social history as no more than a small chapter, and certainly not the most interesting one, of the history of contemporary Spanish photography.

In this history of Spanish photography that is yet to be told, a history that arises from that strange feeling of inferiority historians seem to apply methodologically to the Spanish twentieth century, Rafael Navarro has a chapter of his own. Since his first pictures shown, dating from 1975, coherence and consistency have been two of the elements partly defining his work. A body of work that has always revolved around two parallel mainstays: the representation of female nudes and the development of an abstraction based exclusively on repetition and the concealment of the figure for real, purely physical reasons. For it must be said at the outset, in Navarro’s work there is no deceit, no strategy of concealment, and no technical tricks other than the classic photographic recreations of image duplicity, mirroring and slowing down the motion. Rafael Navarro is what has come to be called a “pure photographer”, working without the aid of darkroom tricks, without the need to deploy digital imaging, without retouching. He is the last of the modern photographers, faithful to a medium that evolves toward places that are beginning to lose any relation to its origins, to the point that one no longer speaks of photographs but of images. Navarro is still a photographer who knows the craft and who does not need another to express what he sees, what he looks at. Likewise, he has used photography while completely distancing himself from all those definitions of photographic finality: there is nothing documentary about his work; there is nothing seeking to tie us to reality, or even to relate us to it. Navarro’s photography transforms what is photographed into something else, converting it into a container of absolutely different meanings. Everything photographed disappears from the real world as it becomes image, thus giving rise to something else. In this process of transformation lies the importance of choosing photography as creative medium, for photography shows the relation between things, the relation of the eye with those things. It does not show the things.

We are talking about a history that began officially in the year 1975, at the time that Navarro produced his first catalogued series, Formas, consisting of 12 images of different fragments of the body, of a female body. We are talking about a series made 32 years ago and that, briefly, silently –as all Rafael Navarro’s work– laid down the groundwork for a career that, aside from content, concept and form, has one unquestionable element: coherence. In this first series, clearly influenced by Weston and the pure, luminous and corporeal Japanese photography, especially some of the series by Eiko Hosoe, was to indicate a path, a grammar, which is still in use and in which purity of image is above and beyond any other consideration. Form, a word that does not afford the series its title coincidentally and that was to appear in another title from the series from 1996, (Las formas del cuerpo), is the crux of the matter. The female body (always female) is a material that is moulded with movement and light, and that becomes form, defined, drawn by light and darkness. Black-and-white, a characteristic aspect of Navarro’s work throughout his entire career, is the purest form of photography and it is also the falsest, the most artificial. In nature, there is nothing in black-and-white, just man’s cultural creation. Light, the blackness of an unfathomable darkness that surrounds those illuminated bodies, which are developed, hidden, exposed, before the artist’s camera to create some small, almost intimate works, to the measure of man’s possibilities.

That pure language was to be mixed with a certain impalpable, undefined anguish that passes through Navarro’s work, on tip-toes, and that lends it a dramatic touch in some of the series (especially in Agur and Dípticos), a narrative vein that suggests to us that the artist is inevitably opening windows onto his own feelings, onto his vital experiences. Through those openings appears the man who, by way of a medium, is expressing himself beyond beauty, beyond mystery. The forms are what the photographer employs to express himself, but what is being expressed cannot be hidden behind purist formalism or repetitive coldness. Here, a particular story is being told, a story that for so many years has not ceased to build itself into long chapters, short chapters, specific episodes, and has continually left fragments of its author, of its protagonist, between the pages of a book, in museum and gallery showrooms. In our own homes. Windows which it is not always easy to look through. Indeed, much is said about artists’ work, about their careers, but about the relationships that their creations establish with others, that is a private secret. Another particular story.

Each work, each series issues from a will for continuity and at the same time marks a turning point, a breakthrough, an innovation. Thus, based on repetition, on continuity, on reconsidering certain subjects in the exact point where they were left years before, Navarro steadily builds a body of work that intermittently folds over on itself, allowing different fragments to be detected, pieces that become keys departing from that abovementioned continuity and marking beginnings of different journeys, series, innovative creative lines that follow that same methodology of repeating, developing, abandoning, to be taken up again later on. This is why elements such as forms, movement, shadows, the tree, the stone, have appeared and disappeared over and over again throughout this entire time. Knowing Navarro’s work retrospectively, it is surprising how reliable it is, how every series brings forth a slight change. From time to time there is an attempt to do something radically different, and yet, inevitably, he always returns to the predetermined path as if a superior responsibility compelled him to unwind the skein more and more in order to finish weaving the whole web.

The subject of the nude body is the most recurrent in all his works. Since 1975, his work has developed in the apparently narrow landscape, the small world of the body. However, Navarro has produced more than three hundred works on this theme, all of them different. Another text in this catalogue addresses his nudes, so we will leave that line of discourse to Catherine Coleman. And though, nonetheless, it seems to me, a priori, that there is not much sense in an artist continuing to insist almost mono-thematically for 32 years on something that is already sufficiently developed and that might even seem a bit historicist, it is in one of the latest series, Ellas, where we rediscover, in another format and in a much more direct and much more modern way, the answer to those doubts. What Navarro does is construct a map of a non-existent universe. Little by little, he constructs fragments and all that cartography is not autonomous; it is continued, complemented and takes on meaning as a set rather than piece by piece. As it turns out, the fact that they are women was not so important. As in stories of serial killers, what was important here were not the subjects, the bodies, but the skin, that illuminated surface that emerges from the dark. And this is where we begin to see the nexus between the bodies and the abstraction, and we also begin to understand the purity of the majority of these images, which traverse the naked body without touching it, without resorting to non-essential –practically always eluded– sex. A lot of people may speak of the sensuality of many of Navarro’s images, but perhaps that primary sensuality is exclusively in Tientos, the sensuality of touch, of close contact, a sensuality that is independent of desire, that exists in the simple touch of fabric against a body, of the depth of nudity that only exists in solitude. These are luminous fragments where a small piece of flesh, fragments of body that at times may not be clearly recognizable, are covered, glimpsed through a white cloth that covers and precisely due to this aim to hide they are much more suggestive than what is seen. There lies the difference between sex and sensuality, between eroticism and pornography, simply in how we offer an image, the result in the beholder may not differ excessively.

But also in that hiding and showing lies the essence of the abstraction that Navarro practices, an abstraction that is built from shadows, some of which are inextinguishable, from repetitions, from fragments that are repeated, some hiding from others in that eagerness to show themselves. His work is based on a gaze deceived by reality itself. Because what we see is not always recognizable despite being clear, just as the truth can be seen in the lies and in the same way that the representations of things do not always have the same meanings as the things they represent. Darkness, shadow, some blurry contours behind a wet wall cause a loss of sharpness. What we see is a translucent but not transparent wet surface upon which a liquid that may be tears, that may be rain, is dripping and thereby preventing us from seeing clearly what is on the other side (Desde el otro lado). The question is whether the photo is speaking to us about what we do not see or simply that liquid and ungraspable wall. That personal abstraction, brimming with apparent realisms, luminous bodies and other illuminated bodies, has been developed silently over the years in order to become one of the main pillars of all his work. An abstraction that involves a lot of transformation, change, and that goes through kinetic stages, and others in which anthropomorphic morphology is mixed with botany, and rock is blended with flesh (another recurrent feature in Navarro’s work) and one that undergoes a period of strange splendour in the series titled Dípticos, a 69 piece set that in strict, organized collages mixes the divine and the human, landscape and architecture, signs and portraits, in an ambitious and personal attempt to create a complete story, again that aforementioned map. Dípticos may be Navarro’s most ambitious project and perhaps also the most cryptic as it unites so many things. It is no doubt a narrative work created during a crucial stage in the artist’s life, but above all it is an expressionist gesture within the work of a peaceful artist who, apparently, whispers rather than shouting. These diptychs are scenes to decipher from a film edited by a madman, or a surrealist, whose script we do not understand and whose images few have been able to see completely.

Above, we spoke of the series Tientos, the most straightforwardly sensual, and this same series is that which provides us with an excuse to touch on a new aspect in Navarro’s work, an aspect I will mention but briefly. The latent religiosity in a clearly pagan body of work. It is not a religiosity based on the belief in rites, churches or dogmas, but a religiosity in the way of approaching the images, of offering them –El Ciclo Oferente (The Offerer Cycle) is the title of one of Navarro’s works. The presentation of the bodies as isolated, autonomous objects floating in the void, illuminated bodies, and not just photographically, is very much a recovery of a singular purity. These bodies play, they leap, or they are still; they dance or rest, but always in a special way, and no I do not mean that there is any similarity with the pagan gods. What I mean is that it is these fragmented, anonymous bodies –it is not even essential that they are bodies; they could be something else, green peppers according to Weston– that seem to be the centre of a Baroque liturgy. When I say they are illuminated bodies, I am not only referring to the studio lighting, but to the fact that the photographer has given them inner light, an immaculate whiteness, whose union converts them into something other than bodies, and this is why the sensuality is relegated to a place that is secondary to the beauty, to the harmony, to the pure forms and to the moving time.

All these fragments of bodies, of shadows, all these indications, points of reference, desires, stories, scripts, adventures and projects shape a geographic realm, constructing a map of the artist’s life. A map in which we are all included, a map that, by striving to encompass everything, has been broadened and has grown until it has reached the size of reality. Becoming a personal, incomprehensible, sometimes beautiful, sometimes alien, sometimes familiar story. A story that only images can tell.