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Memory and aesthetic pleasure in Joaquín Bérchez’s photographs

Antonio Bonet Correa

Since photography began in the 19th century it was considered that the images taken with the camera obscura served to portray everything in existence in a reliable way, and at the same time that a complete inventory of the universe could be established with them. It was also thought that, as well as recording all things visible, the motif could be fixed instantly, rescuing its memory from the fleetingness of time. Thus, to the objectivity of the image the documentary value of the transitory was added, of all that which is subject to the deterioration of time, to inclemencies and natural disasters, to the ravages and the destruction of mankind. Nineteenth century photographs always have a yellowish halo, a blurred aureole that could be due to the ageing of the paper and the chemicals, to the static attitude of the personages posing or to the slowness in photographing the landscape or architectural monument that interested the photographer.

The signs of age in the bodies of the old or in the walls of a building are similar and they all give the image an unmistakable funereal air. Both the living people and the bodies of the dead portrayed like archaeological antiquities that were the subjects of photographs in the middle 19th century, attract us today as relics of a past that is moving because of the poetic and melancholy nostalgia they convey. Monuments have been a favourite theme of photographers since photography began. The raison d’etre of this inclination is principally the curiosity that unique works have always aroused, as they clearly show human beings’ ability to create an original and extraordinary construction through work and intelligence. Not in vain was the list of “The Seven Wonders of the World” established since Antiquity and in modern times tourists travel to see the Pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon, the Escorial, Machu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, or the New York skyscrapers. Great architectural and engineering works have always attracted cultivated and ignorant people equally. The most excellent buildings in different countries and civilizations have always attracted the attention of photographers from the beginning. Albums and collections of monuments, with panoramas, city views, squares, streets and details of buildings, meant intellectual enrichment in relation to knowledge of the world, and served to replace earlier infolios and collections of prints. Mass production of post cards from the 19th century until the present time is clear proof of the iconic importance of monuments in the contemporary world at a popular level. Art History as a university and a research discipline is a modern invention dating from the end of the 18th century that acquired academic status in the early 19th century, almost at the same time as photography began. This assertion is mentioned here because when judging Joaquín Bérchez’s photographs it cannot be obviated that the author is one of the most eminent current Spanish university art historians.

With a deep knowledge of Renaissance and baroque architecture in Spain and Latin America, Bérchez has made an in depth analysis not only of the buildings but also of the theoretical sources of the art of construction and its conceptual meaning. What in principle is highly meritorious and praiseworthy could, on the contrary, discredit his photographic work, since an excess of scholarly knowledge may surpass an artist’s inventive spirit and undermine the freedom necessary for aesthetic creation. In Joaquín Bérchez’s case this is not so, although without any prior notion of his profession and his great knowledge as a historian we would lack the key to his extraordinary and unusual photographic production. It is well known that art history books started to carry photographic illustrations in the second half of the 19th century. Previously line-drawings were the basis for prints that reproduced the image of the buildings examined in the text. When Cichorius reproduced in a volume in 1896 the relief work of Trajan’s Column, taken close up by means of scaffolding, the reading of the works advanced considerably. Printing developments, especially in Germany and the Anglo-Saxon countries, brought about changes in the work of historians, who were able to reduce and better explain their descriptions and accounts with the help of images. This type of history of architecture publication did not become customary in Spain until much later. Since for obvious aesthetic, political and economic reasons photographers had abandoned the avant-garde formats and shots used before the civil war to photograph the rationalist buildings featured in contemporary architecture journals and monographs, for many years Spanish publishers used only old front and group clichés of the buildings and rarely photographs of significant details.

It was not until the 1970s-1980s that some books were printed that radically changed this type of architectural publication. Among the volumes that marked a new way of understanding artistic bibliography were the works by Joaquín Bérchez on Valencian architecture, of which he was the author of the text and most of the illustrations. There is no doubt that the path that led Bérchez from the documentary photography characteristic of a conscientious professor and architectural history researcher to free artistic photography independent of a merely illustrative function, was his keen aesthetic sensitivity, which in his youth led him to choose art as a university discipline. In the course of his work gathering graphic material for his classes and publications, he discovered the infinite possibilities that were unfolding before him. A tireles traveller and avid for aesthetic emotions, he realised that, apart from the didactic function of the images, his work could delve into the autonomous world of artistic creation.

He also realised that, precisely because of his vast knowledge of the sources and places where the themes and motifs that attracted him were located, he was in a privileged and uncommon position to explore a territory apart from his profession as a teacher. His courage and daring were determinant to follow a path that was previously almost untrodden. An issue widely discussed in the second half of the 20th century was the possibility of abstraction in photography, contradicting the idea of realism and veracity upheld by 19th century art critics. After the adventure of the photography vanguards in the interwar period and the developments that followed, from the nineteen-fifties onward such assumptions about objectivity and subjectivity in photography are no longer posed. Bérchez, insofar as a man of his time of creative freedom, can be classified as a “metaphysician”, who from visual sequences of the real order extracts a mental content that seeks analogies with the structures of the intellective world. Therefore it is not surprising that Alfonso Rodríguez G. de Ceballos speaks of his “far-seeing mind and eye” and that Jaime Siles, in his discerning text entitled “La Luz imaginada”, points out Bérchez’s predilection for architectural elements taken fragmentarily: column shafts, capitals, entablatures, consoles, cornices, acroteria and pinnacles, and always in examples made by eccentric and extravagant architects. Bérchez’s taste for winding staircases, spirals, oblique architecture and the geometry of rhomboid and asymmetrical forms, shows, together with their irresistible and surrealistic attraction, his interest in the anomalous. Copulating protuberances and columns, and other anthropomorphised corporeal and plant elements. This is combined with his learned knowledge of the ancient treatises of a certain type of architectural invention and his keen talent propitious to the perception of “body-buildings”, to use the novel judgement by Juan Antonio Ramírez on a certain anthropomorphisation in the art of construction.

In Joaquín Bérchez’s magnificent photographs his deep-rooted Mediterranean culture always emerges, evident principally in his sensual corporeal sense of architecture and its epidermis, in such a way that his images always afford great pleasure, both of the senses and the mind. Light is essential in Bérchez’s photographs. Without mastery of light it would be impossible for him to portray the patch inlaid in a marble column or to make us feel the spatious transparency of a square or the calm and silent interior of a temple. Bérchez always plays with the stone material and brick under the low or direct light at different times of day or with different light intensity depending on the season of the year. In his photographs the volumetric illusion is dynamised by the present time and the background and archaeological sediment of the past. Before his photographs the historical memory and the physical status of the fabric as it was when the photograph was taken can be seen. Like the first photographers in the 19th century, who left us the monuments before their restoration, with the ravages of time on their stones and bricks, Bérchez’s views of architecture are real documents of the materiality and the soul of the buildings. It is then and in this sense that we realise that only an art historian or someone who has profound knowledge of the life and death of a monument can take such photographs.

To conclude this brief introduction to Joaquín Bérchez’s photographic works it should be noted that in the present production, as well as fragmentarian views of architectural elements from monuments of the past there are also present-day views of cities and urban spaces and buildings. There are also works where his gaze focuses on a trivial or commonplace object like a fork, a person’s shadow on a wall or the outline of a building reflected in a pool after the rain. In these photographs the banal takes on a new dimension. His taste for formally compressed and synthesised reality becomes evident. A view that summarises his aesthetics may perhaps be that of an enormous slope cut into a mountain where a viaduct ends and enters a tunnel. The image of the oblique line of the bridge and the dark arch of the gallery drilled into the imposing wall of horizontal geological strata makes us think of the titanic effort of those who carried out this engineering work. This image which is both real and dreamlike causes amazement in spectators and travellers alike, with a mixture of admiration for the art of building and the emotion of the sublime.

[Antonio Bonet Correa, “Memory and aesthetic pleasure in Joaquín Bérchez’s photographs”, Proposiciones arquitectónicas, Consorcio de Museos de la Comunitat Valenciana, Generalitat Valenciana, Valencia, 2006]