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Joaquín Bérchez and the poetry of obliqueness

Juan Antonio Ramírez

Let me start with a comment on a photograph chosen almost at random from the magnificent series of works dedicated to Manuel Tolsá. I am referring to the one titled “the unfolded corner”, taken in the Cabañas Hospice of Guadalajara (México), and which is, in appearance, one of the less obliging photographs of the artistic career of Joaquín Bérchez. I want to say that it might be disappointing for an enthusiastic on architecture to look at a photograph in which we see almost anything, but plain walls, slightly plastered, that meet without plastic chromatic opposition at an angle. There are not great lighting contrasts and you can hardly appreciate at what precise point there is a confluence of the walls, except from a thin vertical shadow that leads our sight up to down (and vice versa) communicating the lower socle with the upper cornice, slightly insinuated. Little more can be said except for the door that is in the lower right side, a small part of the pavement, and a “v”, a parapet, in the foreground, that is intentionally placed out of focus. Our precarious memory trays to find similarities, analogies, and finds visual indirect correspondences, like White square on white ground, or Architektonics, those plastered prisms which Malevich and his disciples played to dream with, by means of abstract utopist models. Without getting far from the same references, the photo we are talking about could also be linked to the drawings and paintings of the “dynamic suprematism”, done in the second half of the tens, filled, normally, with trapezoidal and prismatic shapes, in which the diagonal compositions were abundant. Related to this, is the real theme of this photograph: the vertical one that anchors the architecture to earth (and thus to us, spectators who have a material entity), which is shyly questioned by perspective points, formal evasions that invite us, out of our field of vision. But this does not happen in the four directions because the inferior V has a mirrored inverted counterpoint in the stone cornice on the upper part, in a way that the whole white central space is chained between an earthly and celestial parenthesis. There is only place for the hypothetical lateral shifting suggested by the diagonals that could lead us to the right or to the left, that is to say, to the directions permitted by our mortal body.

That is how, in a subtle way, Joaquin Bérchez transcends the mere depersonalized abstraction in order to introduce an existential shade. The architecture is there, as a strong data that almost resembles a cosmic phenomenon, but the point of view, a point of view specifically human, and the insinuation of our real movement in the space, lowers the metaphysic tension of the theme and introduces senses and complex significances. The stone and mortar seem to be ingredients of a passionate universe. ¿Could we not understand this work as a polyptich? In fact, the vertical of the door and the angle divide the rectangle in three parts, as if we were in front of a central piece and two lateral pieces, and as if everything stood over a lower pedestal (made by the socle, the pavement and the angled parapet) and covered by the upper cornice. Thus, we are in front of a work for meditation (laic or religious), as many other master works of the art history, a place to find ourselves in the permanent combat between the serenity of what remains and the unsteady perception of our transitional fragility.

But to say so it is insufficient. I do not think that there is anyone among the international photographers that knows better than Joaquín Bérchez the history of architecture, and such a data, that might have been anecdotic under other circumstances, is here most revealing. He knows well, for example, that a nude corner, with such stone frame, in such a setting, surprises the aware spectator that might well wait for some pilasters or another element proper of the classical tradition to which Tolsá belongs, without any doubt. Thus, the emptiness is not only an esthetic option of the photographer but something revealing of the complexity of the architectonic language whose discovery has the double value of been shown as academic proposition and critic comment. The corner unfolds (using the title) in a multiple direction: physic and perceptive, in the first place, but also erudite. I think that this is a very subtle and intelligent way for history of architecture as an academic discipline to achieve a more rigorous and deep status without abandoning the “creative” dimension, which is unfortunately, hidden in current learners. What Bérchez achieves is not that the architectures photographed by him seemed more beautiful but something much more interesting: to evidence the existence of plastic or iconologic values that had been unnoticed. The beauty of the shots is, somehow, a consequence of the qualities of the chosen themes, but there is no doubt that the look of the photographer (with his peculiar technical strategies) is the one that reveals (and the photographic term must be accepted with all its implications) things that were latent until then and must been discovered. Bérchez’s camera invents and finds: what is good for the historian is good for the creator, and vice versa.

Such an intellectual and aesthetic position (its poetics if we choose a term nowadays not very much applied) might be confronted with the more vivid photographic currents of the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century. There is no doubt that the extreme clarity of the architectonic images, with great sizes and delicate carefulness in the technical details, is found in the works of many actual photographers. Let us think in the fathers of the most fertile currents of architectural photographers from the last decades, Bern and Hilla Becher. They adopted the idea of not changing the method for the shots, in a way that the point of view, the framing and the conditions of developing do not give priority to one theme over another. All the images seem thus so as equivalent. The idea that they belong to a “type” prevails over the singularity of each case: let us think in the widely known series like water tanks, cooling chimneys, furnaces etc, that are always offered in the same size, in orthogonal displays, like pieces of a huge mosaic with equal tiles. We appreciate the repeating pulse of minimalism (more or less coincident with serialization so praised by pop art) that stimulates to accentuate the common aspects of figurative pieces obtained from an equal master copy. There is not much difference from the case of direct or indirect disciples of these masters. Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and many others, in several parts of the world, have manifested their preference for overall shots pleased to offer the architectonic greatness with a value that does not seem to be compatible with the delicate appreciation of details. Some of them offer, sometimes, diagonal views, but the purpose seems to be to show great deepness that underlines the implicit idea of dehumanization, the triumph of geometry and objects over life (it is widely known the preference of these artist for nude buildings) . One would say that this method tends to remove individuality (or to give triviality) to the theme chosen in order to praise the photographer as an inventor-creator. It is not by chance that all this has come in a moment that photography has reach, at last, the same critical and institutional appreciation and the commercial status that the traditional painting had already had.
Bérchez’s role in this context is so rather particular. He is not tied by a prefixed axiom: the theme talks to the photographer and imposes changes on the point of view, on the distance and on the election of the moment to get better lighting. The human presence is not despised and in fact we know that Bérchez places in occasions human models in some places: they seem casual visitors, but they are there to give a scale and to inhabit what was built (and what is photographed) to live it and enjoy it. Each photograph comes out from a careful study of the theme, a confluence of two strong interests: the one of making a beautiful, neat and full (work of art) and to show the aesthetic and cultural values of the theme chosen for each occasion. Both aspirations fight against one another without letting us the possibility to say which one wins. There are so very general views (like the great staircase of the Mineria School titled Euridice definitely descend to the world of the dead), closer shots (as Up with the curtain) and very abundant close-up shots as The game of the goddess, Tamed bronze, Up and down etc). The same variety can be seen in the lighting conditions or the height of the sight, because there are views taken down-up (cupolas and ceilings), (contrapicado ) and impossible frontal views (with correction of the perspective diverging lines that the height of the cylindrical or prismatic architectonic bodies impose).

If we say this in different words: each work has its own method. ¿How is it possible then, that we can detect in Joaquín Bérchez a clear and identifiable style?. We think that this explanation is based, once again, in a quality that no other photographer of architecture has, the deep knowledge of the things he sees, his historical sense and his plastic and cultural values. It might be because of this, that there is in Bérchez’s series a calculated play of the “zoom effect”: overall views, medium and close-up shots. So the whole building is shown without omitting revealing details. The ellipsis, that are many, spare us the irrelevant and the sight stops at a few images that allow us to reconstruct a magnificent ensemble, almost appalling. I would say that there is a method closely linked to the teaching paradigm (Bérchez, we must not forget is professor of art and architecture history). It is a pity that routine and boredom of many classes, in several academic contexts, maintain in an anemic state the way of reading and living architecture that has not been overtaken by other approximations nowadays fashionable (impressionist, touristic, commercial etc). If we are not wrong, Bérchez’s works would prove that this didactic habits can be dazzling, a solid method to organize his series, so rigorous like the great contemporary masters of architectonic photography, but more incisive and respectful of the complexities and values of the chosen theme.

The style can also be found in what we should call “the chosen ticts”, something that affects the architectonic models as a whole, but especially some details and dispositions. Not all the buildings merit his attention, because although any construction could be considered as a pretext for a nice view that could confirm his status as an artist, there is not always that connection of forces and tensions, the flash, between the chosen work and the photographer’s capacity to reveal it. Bérchez, without doubt, is fascinated by oblique architecture, a very specialized theme apparently, and he offers it to avid fanatics of the baroque tratadist Juan Caramuel. I confess my belonging to this silent group (in which I also recognized my master Antonio Bonet Correa) and I see a complicity wink in the inclined balusters that Bérchez discovers in this Tolsá series (like Up and down, the minted staircase, Conveyor belt etc) and in other works about valencian buildings, or in the finding of some polygonal Ionic capitals (like Oblique Dolls published in number 19 of the FMR magazine). It is impossible to appreciate this if you are not aware that Caramuel was copied in his most essential parts, in the beginning of the eighteenth century by the valencian tratadist Tomás Vicente Tosca and this produced a “caramuelist” interest visible in many buildings of the ancient Valencian Kingdom, that would later be developed by Tolsá in distant Mexico, as it is proved in Bérchez’s work. The photohistorical series and the essay about Tolsá, with which this project is completed, reveal that the learned-photographer is very conscious of the academic implications, specifically historical-artistic, of his own creative work.

But the ideas and images of Caramuel also fill these works in another, more subtle sense, stimulating the diagonal shots. We have already seen this in our appreciation of the Unfolded corner. But we do not must forget other graphic discoveries of Bérchez, in the wonderful detail of Doric birdcage or the triangles linked in the diagonal, in Praise of the triangle. It would not have been possible if it was not fed by the secret sap of the tratadists of the oblique. This, curiously, allows him to be placed in the last cultural fashion, because Bérchez can introduce himself as a photographer who knows well how to assimilate the postulates of deconstruction, a trend or language (architectonic and graphic) that is characterized by the abundant use of acute angles and daring corners. I would also like to point out a number of photographs in which the foreground and the background are closely linked as in a conversation or are in hard opposition, from which arouses this victorious sense of deepness, a wide space. This is important, because without it we would not exist: this is the place of life, ours, if we consider ourselves inhabitants-visitors of the represented architecture. Now, this contrast is also generated by the diagonal. It constructs it and represents it. The examples of this are very numerous: Sharped light, Tamed bronze etc. It is once again up to us to enter into scene and to act in the same way as in the classical theatre: laterally. The light, the radical contrast between lighted areas and silhouettes, between flashes and shadows, underlines the ephemeral nature of what we see. That is to say, his moving and perishable character.

And it is thus that Bérchez brings into play with great efficacy the cultural and existential dramas. We are moved by the contrast, melancholic and joyful, between the suggested persistence of common architecture, with its proclivity to orthogonality, and the human perishable nature alluded by the unsteady obliquity. These photographs, without telling, talk about ourselves, of our craving for beauty and for light that leads us, so overwhelming and so brief.

Translation by Mercedes Gómez-Ferrer / Felipe Hurtado Oldridge

[Juan Antonio Ramírez, “Joaquín Bérchez and the poetry of obliqueness”, Tolsá. Joaquín Bérchez–Fotografías, Consorcio de Museos de la Comunitat Valenciana, Generalitat Valenciana, Valencia, 2008]