Joaquín Bérchez, “che a veduto assai” (english)

Miguel Falomir

When I visited Joaquín Bérchez years ago before he began exhibiting, he showed me some photographs he had recently taken of Granada’s famous cathedral. The images showed the facade from various points of view and at different times of the day, revealing various details and textures that mutated over the course of the day and the position of the photographer. The facade took on the appearance of an enormous canvas with the light tracing forms and recreating textures over the monochromatic stone, reminiscent of Alonso Cano paintings that used them to similar effect. In his famous depictions of the Rouen Cathedral, Monet demonstrated that the perception of an object such as an immobile and almost non-temporal cathedral is subjected to endless variations, derived from the changing atmospheric conditions, and, above all, the eye that views it. The photography of Joaquín Bérchez abounds in buildings at sunrise and sunset, flooded by light or skewed by shadow, under rain or harsh sunlight, expressing a form of seeing architecture and understanding the world though his stylistic tour de force.

Giorgio de Chirico in his Reflections on Old Painting (1921), lacked appreciation for Spanish painters, seeing them as the most superficial in Europe for not including architectural images in their compositions, “magical configurations of the eternal, cosmic mystery,” and unfavourably comparing them with Giotto, Poussin and Claude Lorrain. I have never looked at Spanish painting from that perspective, one which deserves a deeper appreciation, and I agree with Giorgio de Chirico about the scant presence of architecture in Spanish painting. I do not believe, however, that Bérchez tries to redeem Spanish art from that void, and would dare to say, contradicting other authors, that his architectural images are more historical than metaphysical entities. De Chirico’s inhospitable buildings, suitable only for mannequins, have little in common with those of Bérchez’s photographs.

I cannot stop thinking of Tapies when looking at one of my favourites, “La Pizarra”, revealing the layers of a Gothic wall recognizable by its walled ogee arch. The stone ashlars have been covered with plaster, over which crosses, arches and straight lines are drawn in different inks depicting recently planned works that were never carried out. This visual palimpsest exemplifies Bérchez close relation to an architecture pierced by history but linked to the present, contemporary in its environment but lacking transcendence. Although eloquent and sophisticatedly self-referential, it is architecture in that need of human presence and vice versa. The cyclist crossing a lateral arch of the Vigevano Cathedral, the pedestrians strolling in front of the stone mass of the Colegio de Minería in Mexico, even the father walking with his sons on a summer day in front of the Casa del Fascio de Como, a building steeped in ideologically connotations, all live with architecture as part of their daily landscape, inviting ethereal reflections on the human condition. Even with the presence of ruins, such as the fascinating shot of the Cathedral of Antigua in Guatemala, there is space for erudite awe or romantic rapture. There is also humour, a quality not always appreciated by art criticism, in many of Bérchez’s photographs, especially in those with a stronger narrative as in his lovely American stories, with their rapturous fusion of life and architecture.

Joaquín Bérchez’s photography shows how to see architecture as only an expert could (some of his publications are tellingly titled “photographic essays”). I believe, however, that Bérchez always has been conscious of the limitations of photography to capture architecture, or at least aspects of it. I remember seeing an Open University documentary on Brunelleschi, and commenting how the video camera movement going into San Lorenzo showed the spatial concept of the first Florentine Renaissance architecture infinitely more clearly than the commonly seen photographs in art history books. Photography, like painting, is two-dimensional and the two share formal and visual codes more than they do with architecture. The analogies are inevitable and Bérchez’s photographs contain echoes of the choreographic paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, representations of the Dutch urban Baroque, and historical avant-garde movements such as Russian Constructivism. Some particularly remind me of Escher for their capricious angles, unending stairs, and interest in geometry and the representation of three-dimensionality.

These artistic-cultural references are part of Bérchez’s visual baggage, but I would prefer another type of analogy. All photography encloses an allusion to reality, principally to architecture in Bérchez’s case, and the photographer, like the painter, needs to establish the terms of the relationship. The frame that bounds reality is one of the artists’ instruments used to appropriate it, and it is one of the principal, perhaps the most powerful, means of expression of Bérchez’s photography. He has taken magnificent images of entire buildings, but tends to prioritise a fragment, knowing that when the eye attempts to take in everything, the viewer sees nothing. The frame’s selective representation of architecture creates unusual images, focusing on aspects whose importance seemed reserved for the initiated, and reveals a way of looking with profound aesthetic consequences. Through the frame, Bérchez “deconstructs” the building into isolated elements and creates fascinating visual metaphors about the anthropomorphic origin of the architectonic orders – capitals that look like faces, shafts of sensual flesh, and balusters that evoke provocative feminine breasts. It especially enables him to focus on its geometry. The intersection of straight and curves lines, of angles and planes are the common substratum and structure of his compositions, independently encompassing the vastness of the Mexican Zócalo or circumscribing a seemingly insignificant detail of a minor building. Like the still lifes of Sanchez Cotan, Chardin, and Cezanne, geometry imparts the strength of compositional lines in Bérchez’s photographs, transforming a Lisbon square into an enormous still life where statues, buses, facades and roofs are laid out geometrically on successive planes. As in a still life, the light orders the composition and guides the eye of the viewers from one part to another, moving between a similar mass of forms.

As mentioned above, light plays an essential role in Bérchez’s photography – dense chiaroscuro shadows emphasising that which it does not hide and subtle atmospheric illuminations generating pictorial qualities. Light animates the surfaces on which it is projected, mitigating its rigidity and making the architecture that Berchez looks at acquire a dynamic quality, and, often, an unsuspected levity. Such sensations, usually associated with the Late Gothic or Baroque periods, can transmit the least ornate and conceptual neo-classical architecture, testifying to Bérchez’s genius. His “Ledoux colonial” is, for its apparent simplicity, one of his most accomplished image. An oblique view of the building, a figure in movement walking parallel to it, emphasising the composition’s vanishing point, and a counter light that draws sharp shadows on the facade, create the “miracle” of animating the most replete structure. A miracle created with aesthetic resources present in Western painting from the Renaissance – control of light and the diagonal disposition of the principal compositional elements in relation to the pictorial/photographic plane. Under favorable conditions, this dynamism is accelerated in oblique balusters of Baroque staircases, converting it into a kinetic frenzy with the curved line being the main element in “El caracol impúdico”, “La intimidad de la curva”, “Francisco Guerrero y Torres lo rubricó” and “Altivez oblicua” whose hypnotic spirals are reminiscent of one of the titles that Saul Bass designed for Vertigo in 1958.

Bérchez’s photographs invite the viewer to touch as well as look. They have an undeniable tactile quality of the illusory characteristics of celebrated paintings since Pliny, one of the greatest challenges for any artist working on a two-dimensional surface. More than an undeniable ability to single out the marble, stone, plaster, wood, bronze and alabaster, this sensation is caused by how light and colour recreate, clarify and even subvert the objects’ textures, inviting the viewers to pass their fingertips over the gristly parchment surface of a bundle of papers, and stroke the coarse columns of archaic temples in Segesta that seem to be covered in tweed. These effects are attained not just by light, but by colour as well, whose importance increases with every exhibition, perhaps because in an imaginary equation, the student of architecture gives ground to the artist. If black and white, with its marked contrasts of light, is the ideal vehicle to emphasise geometry, the brain of architecture, then colour appeals to the senses, adding ductility and vivacity. “ Aura clásica” is a magnificent example of the possibilities of colour in architectural photography. Not only does colour not mask the image’s geometric skeleton – with its intersection of planes boldly displaying compositional rigour – but is a powerful descriptive instrument to meticulously explore reality, unfolding tonal nuances that suggest atmospheric qualities and recreate numb surfaces attacked by humidity and time.

One last analogy with painting. We have vicariously accepted that an image is worth a thousand words, but how many times do we compulsively look at the painting’s plaque in a museum or a photo’s caption in a book, tacitly assuming that the image, although powerful, is rarely self-sufficient. Bérchez’s photographs are incomplete without their titles. They are never descriptive in the manner of the grandiloquent and interminable of historic nineteenth century paintings. On the contrary, they are an outgrowth of and detached to the image that they accompany. The images can be enjoyed without the captions, but with them Bérchez establishes complicity with the spectator, giving erudite suggestions for their contemplation and understanding (“Yo fui primero”), simultaneously revealing clues, often charged with irony, of his own intellectual and life history (“Rosebund salomónico”), or his affinities as a photographer (“Homenaje a Ralph Gibson”). On especially happy occasions, such as in “Crisálida gótica”, the poetic image fuses with the visual image forming an indissoluble whole.

Years ago, an art historian took the expression “che ha veduto assai” (“that he has seen so much”) from Sebastiano Serlio’s third book of architecture, in order to characterise Marcantonio Michiel, the most important Venetian connoisseur in the first half of the 16th century. These words come to my mind with every exhibition by Bérchez, probably because his photographs are testimonies to excellent technique and knowledge of history of art and architecture, but especially of life experience and intellectual curiosity. The sum of these elements distinguish Bérchez’s unique vision, as seen in his recent photographs of Manhattan, an urban and architectural environment very different from those that he wandered through until now, and a wonderful antidote against being categorised. In spite of the tremendous iconographic power of a city that tends to dilute the personality of the artists who woo it, his New York images can only be his, for their geometric rigour (“El paseante de Park Avenue”), his persistent fascination with the curved line (“El luneto peregrino”), his art historical references (“La foto dentro de la foto”), his visual imagination, capable of transforming the Hemsley building into an enormous piece of silver work (“La custodia de Park Avenue”), or his taste for unusual framing not free from irony (“El retablo del sastre”), all testimony to a knowing and personal vision that, far from being self-absorbed, retains a capacity to surprise and experiment.

[Miguel Falomir, “Joaquín Bérchez, “che a veduto assai”, Arquitectura, placer de la mirada, 2009]