Marble’s Memory (to Joaquín Bérchez)

Vicente Lleó Cañal

In his fascinating book Marble Past, Monumental Present (Leiden, 2009) Michael Greenhalgh sharply defined the Mediterranean sea, the very cradle of our civilization, as “a lake surrounded by marble”, not only in reference to the numerous quarries of that material that exist in the area, but also to the traces it has left over the centuries in the form of buildings, sculptures or even pavements, in the territories. As the author himself asserts, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this stone – in all its varieties – in our culture, without being able to differentiate between the Northern coastal territories or those in the South, West or East. Among the most diverse peoples, for both Islam and Christianity and over the course of centuries, marble has continued to wield a strange lingering seduction that remains to this day.

What is it that draws us to marble? On the one hand its durability which, along with bronze, made this the most desired material for the Greeks in both sculpture and architecture; on the other hand, it’s compact grain, which allows the engraver maximum accuracy in statuary or architectural moulding. As well as this, there are other more aesthetic virtues of marble which have also influenced its prestige since ancient times: its rich variety of colour and veining, its capacity to allow polishing and, in particular, its ability to reflect natural light (remember that the word marble comes from the Greek marmâiro, meaning shine). All this gave a single consideration to this stone, which Michelangelo called ‘the noblest of all’. But the virtues underlined so far encompass a more immediate and liberal dimension: its powerful sensuality. Joaquín Bérchez demonstrated this vividly with his photographs of Solomonic columns with an exalted eroticism that bring us to mind the myth of Pygmalion, who after falling in love with the female statue he had carved, asked the gods to bring her to life and was granted his wish; in the same way, in his photos of Solomonic columns, the turns of the stem evoke the slow stretch of female limbs with a light that seems to stream down soft, smooth skin.

But now, Joaquín Bérchez has gone a step further and has passed from photographing marble forms to photographing the raw material itself in quarries of dizzying heights or roughly hewn in slabs of irregular edges. It is well known that Michelangelo felt genuine passion for marble and that he himself would go to the quarries of Carrara to personally choose the blocks whose vein (or lack of it) he felt more attracted to. Bérchez shows the same emotion, passing in the same way from the natura naturata to natura naturans, this is to say, from the concreteness of the form to the endless possibilities of the matter in its raw state.

If, as we have already mentioned, Greenhalgh defined the Mediterranean as a lake surrounded by marble, we could define Portugal as a marble mountain covered with a light blanket of vegetation; in Portugal, in fact, marble shines both in the most important palaces and in the most modest houses, in the form of steps or doors, elaborated architectural elements or forming simple flooring mosaics; marbles of Estremoz or the beautiful marble brèche of Arrábida, or Borba or Tavira marbles. And if this be the case, in no other site is the nature of the Portuguese landscape more evident than in the beautiful town of Vila Viçosa, which has been defined as the “Capital of the Marble “. The pedreiras of Vila Viçosa seem to have been a revelation to Joaquin Bérchez, who makes us participants of it through his photographs. In front of them, in front of these pictures, we do not know if we find ourselves in front of an expressionist scenery or the Dante infernal circles; We don’t understand the magnitude of the space until we realize that what appears as to be a piece of dust or a blade of grass are, in fact men or machines; these pictures show desolate landscapes of an abstract geometry which, dazzle us with their beauty, yet as in the landscapes of Friedrich, make us aware of our own lightness. Joaquín Bérchez is, in essence, an art historian, but unlike most of his colleagues, possesses, as well as erudition, a fine sensitivity and a trained eye for the pleasure of the forms, a pleasure that the camera allows him to communicate to others, teaching us to see with new eyes magical, hidden realities under the mask of everyday life.

During the last few decades there has been a lively debate, in international forums, about the nature and limits of architectural photography, traditionally raised as a useful tool for research or as a simple transmitter element of information. Currently, this reductionist vision is openly discussed; Photos are no longer considered merely objective references; On the contrary, nowadays, the “Author’s Photography” provides us with the subjective vision of the artist, that forces us to look with new eyes and therefore enriches our perception of the setting. With his camera, Joaquín Bérchez has educated our sensitivity and has enriched our lives.

Translation by Silvia Escamilla Amarillo

[Vicente Lleó Cañal, “Marble’s Memory (to Joaquín Bérchez)”, Pedreiras, carne de dioses, Valencia, 2012]