Dámaso Ruano and the beauty of inner landscape
ENRIQUE CASTAÑOS ALÉS
The paintings of Dámaso Ruano, since his beginnings around 1959-1960 up to today, distinguish themselves for four fundamental features. Features that, in essence, survive in his works, though it might only be in the work he does in the solitude of his studio, as the preparatory work for the final painting. But it is also true that these features have changed positions among the plastic concerns of the author: that the ones that had a pre-eminent position at the beginning of the painter’s evolution now are secondary, though not insignificant. These features are texture, the use of collages, rips and the abstraction of landscape.
Since the beginning, but more especially since 1962, the work by Dámaso Ruano which was mainly North African landscapes still following a certain naturalism, has had a clear devotion for the materials of painting, for the density of pigments, for the physicity of the pictorial matter on the canvas. In this sense, Ruano follows the advice and the practice of Courbet, the great Realist French painter whose huge canvasses, especially Burial at Ornans are a very rich universe of the matter, full of different densities and textures that seem to announce the matter Informalism of Europe of the 1950s. Ruano’s small paintings, with the rural stone walls, with the humble houses of the Maghreb hamlets present earthy colours that fully identify these compositions with the rugged landscape of the North of Morocco which is so sober and so compact. These works of the first halve of the sixties are clearly linked to the informalist poetics and they could recall some works by certain members of the El Paso group, specially the ones of Rafael Canogar of the mid fifties. In general, the language of the Spanish Informalism has been very present in the beginning of Ruano’s career partly due to artists such as Francisco Farreras, Antonio Suárez, Salvador Victoria, Lucio Muñoz, Juana Francés, Luis Feito or Gerardo Rueda. I refer to the work of these authors between 1950 and 1959, which is the work that Ruano gets to know back then thanks to the exhibit of Spanish artists that Carlos Areán takes to Tetuan in 1962. He is remarkably stunned by the work of Modest Cuixart, Antoni Tàpies and Roma Vallès. Works such as Casas del Dersa and Muralla, both from 1962, and Pastoral from 1964 are clearly inspired by Lucio Muñoz; his burnt woods, specially the last one of the aforementioned paintings, which has a purplish grey tonality and a matter magma in its centre, very of the informalist Spanish taste of the previous decade.
That interest for the matter, just as Dámaso Ruano expressed it in his first production, progressively dissolved and at the end, substituted by the systematic use of collages, is what has given him the undisputable supremacy. To the extent that it is what characterises his works the best. It gives them an unmistakable hallmark. Ruano has been interested, firstly, by the history of collages, since that Picasso and Bracque, by 1912-1912 used it for the first time, until they derived into those combine paintings by Robert Rauschenberg in the fifties. In more than one private conversation have we talked about the admiration Dámaso feels for this first collage of the history of painting, the marvellous Naturaleza muerta con silla de rejilla by Picasso, 1912. I remember Dámaso’s words, when he speaks about the elegance and the characteristic self-assurance of Picasso when he applies that piece of oilcloth with a pattern that simulates the wickerwork of a chair and he sticks it to the cloth, integrating everything, painting over it, surrounding the oval-shape painting with a rope as a framework. The same elegance with which he places, many years after, in a charcoal portrait of Jacqueline a piece of wrapping paper as if it were the dress with neckline and he crowns it with a bow made of the same ribbon of the chocolate box she presumably has received. It is simply magnificent. This unique capacity of the inventor of Cubism is what astonishes Dámaso Ruano. But despite this admiration, the aesthetic filiation of collages in our painter lies first in Kurt Schitters and then in the use of pieces of painted wood by the representatives of Structurism. The predecessor of Schwitters, also influencing Ruano, is the Finnish Ivan Puni, who in 1915 signed Malevich’s Supremacist Manifesto and he does then a series of polymatter relieves including objects that can be considered as the precursor of de Dadaist collages. From all the exponents of Constructivist collages, that is, Rodchenko, Puni, Tatlin and Naum Gabo, the ones that “recognize themselves in the Cubist beginning of collages” (Simon Mrachán. “Las dos Caras de Jano: entre la estética del caos y la sublimación en el orden”. In the catalogue of the exhibit Dada and Constructivism, Madrid, Ministry of Culture, 1989, page 29), it is Puni the one that has had a stronger influence in Ruano. Curiously enough, it has been in the last years when Ruano has incorporated different objects that remind us of Puni’s works, when he glued a hammer or a saw, in his small paintings.
Not taking the dissolvent intent of Schwitters form 1919-1920, Ruano, yet, has paid attention to the collage-paintings done between 1923 and 1924 when his work offers a constructivist undeniable intention, probably coming from an ethical commitment and with the intention to reform society (see, Werner Schmalenbach. “Art and Politics”. In the catalogue of the exhibit Kurt Schwitters, Madrid, Fundación Juan March, 1982). This is what we can appreciate in those works where he glues and orders geometrically pieces of painted wood that have clearly inspired Dámaso Ruano. That arranging vocation of Schwitters, consequence of his rapprochement to De Stijl and to the Dutch Neoplasticism, has always been present in the painter from Tetuan. One of the Ruano’s most prolific periods in the use of collages is the one of the nineties, mainly by the mid of the decade, where he gives expression to a geometrical distribution that, none the less, does not elude a certain poetic mystery, a romantic evocation as one can clearly see in one of his most authentic paintings of that technique: Sahel,1994. The title of this painting refers to that semiarid strip of the African continent that goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, an Arab name that means “edge” as, as it is, it is the edge between the Sahara desert and the grassland. This edge can not be better represented than in Ruano’s painting, by some wood pieces that cross the whole of the composition, a dark, warm, wood, of a humanized feeling. The general composition keeps a golden proportion, with a lower grey area, dilated and empty, exercise of peace and reflection. Undoubtedly Rothko has always been present for Dámaso, but we can not forget Gustavo Torner and the already mentioned Gerardo Rueda and Lucio Muñoz. In this painting, more specifically, the reference is Torner, even in the colours. All the Sahel series is very beautiful, very well-made. Another more explicit piece is Construcción, 1995. He uses the wood as a door, an opening to play with symmetry and asymmetry.
Before, I mentioned Structurism; a trend of the neo-avant-garde of English origin that appeared in 1957, with the exhibit Dimensions, and according to Simón Marchán (Del arte objetual al arte de concepto. Madrid, Akal, 1986, pages. 86-89), is directly related to Neoplasticism through Vantongerloo and Van Doesburg. It renounces to painting as something obsolete and exhausted, and it vindicates relieves in all their shapes. Victor Pasmore, for example, one of its main representatives, says the following (the quote comes from the book by Marchán): “It is a fallacy to consider relief as a transition between painting and three-dimensional sculpture…, between a canvas painted and a sculptural cube there is nothing… Though painting and sculpture may relate and refer to the same problem, in their essence, they are different expressions of the problem – the same happens with relief -. Relief is a unique way, with its own individuality”. Structurism is important, also, because it reinforces the sprout of the neoconcrete languages of the end of the fifties, which indirectly create the environment where the Postpictorial Abstraction from the United States would appear. This movement is against the subjectivism of Abstract Expressionism. One of the most polished representatives of Structurism, Eli Bornstein, expresses these terms, rethinking the problem of plastic, visual and three-dimensional tactile space (the quote is also from the book by Marchán): “Structurism explores now the visual-tactile organisation of the real colour and the shape in the visual-tactile art. I do not mean that the perception of a structurist relief is achieved with the hands or by touching, but rather, relief is kinaesthetically tactile”. This is precisely one of the ways that will lead to Kinetism.
Some of Dámaso Ruano’s works seem, effectively, vindicate relief in its own individuality as Pasmore did. In general, these are small works, though it is also true that in all of them there is always a pictorial background that takes us away from the purity of Structurism. The geometrical distribution and organization of the compositions by Bornstein, so impersonal, so clean, with the predominance of pale blue, mauve and salmon-pink tonalities, can neither be seen in Ruano’s works. He follows a trend marking towards the informal, the matter, where the tactile aspect is significant.
In the last years, Ruano has composed small collage-paintings that relate him, however, to a romantic-symbolist poetics. In one of the most beautiful works, dating from 2004, a strip, straight in one of its sides and wavy on the other, painted with a pink colour full of nuances, divides the tiny composition in two areas, one at the top, where chromatic shapes full of nuances flutter, painted as if with watercolours. That, without any doubt, represents a deep admiration of the flowers by Odilon Redon. And the other area at the bottom, heavy, terrestrial, dense and dark. Another example of that same period is full of refinement: the way in which he places a small piece of wood, rough and irregular, between two geometric pieces of wood, setting thus a wise correspondence between the colour tonalities of the background and the colours of the materials.
One of the most constant features of the works by Dámaso Ruano have been the rips, the scratches made of paper and cardboard pieces that adhere to the cloth or to the table as I have said on some other occasion. Real wounds and fractures that allow us to speak of an anthropological dimension of his work: these incisions allude to the fragility and the fracture of the human being, to the weakness of his convictions. The period that reflects this resource the most is the one corresponding to the seventies and the first halve of the eighties. This technique starts to decline in the following years but he has never abandoned it, though. The origin of all of this could be Lucio Fontana, an artist that has influenced Ruano (he has never hidden it). In Fontana’s well known Manifesto blanco, presented in Buenos Aires in 1946, the artist claimed the role of space in works of art. He tried to promote an interrelation between the different artistic disciplines: “We understand the synthesis as the addition of physical elements: colour, sound, movement, time, space, that merge into a psycho-physical unity” (http://descontexto.blogspot.com/2006/11/el-manifiesto-blanco-de-lucio-fontana.html).
Later, when he launches in Milan the Spazialism developing two topics of the Manisfesto blanco, it is the moment when, as acknowledged by Argan, he breaks with the traditional conception of painting and sculpture, modelling big spheres and breaking them, or spreading colour on the canvas and splitting it with one or two quick and clean cuts, as if knife wounds they were (see Giulio Carlo Argan, El arte moderno, Valencia, Fernando Torres, 1984, pages. 725-726). If we compare the sculptures by Fontana until 1945 with the ones done during the following decade, the break is astonishing (for sculptures by Fontana previous to 1945, see, Juan Zocchi, Lucio Fontana, Buenos Aires, Poseidón, 1946).
That interrelation of arts is not visible in Ruano. But we can see how Ruano uses these slashes in the cloth, that reach their momentum of purity at the beginning of the seventies, being one of the most beautiful examples the painting dating from 1971, Espacio. Here, we are not dealing with that clean and sudden cut Fontana did, but there is an abrupt break of the continuity of the spatial plane. An open space at the left hand side allowing to discern a background of painted wood. The greyish tonal unity contributes to making of this work one of the most relevant ones of all Dámaso’s production. The stretching of the cloth in the upper part, as a symmetry axis is a source of tension that is brilliantly diluted in the immediately inferior slit
Lastly, we have the abstraction of landscape; a landscape that for Ruano is always an inner one. This allows us to recall the well known thesis by Robert Rosenblum, developed in his book La pintura moderna y la tradición del Romanticismo nórdico (Madrid, Alianza, 1993). In the preface, Rosenblum clearly says which are his intentions and the essence of his ambitious argument: there can be a different version of the history of modern art that could complement the official version, with its core in Paris, from David and Delacroix up to Matisse and Picasso. This other version, that does not intend to be anti-French, needles to say, wants to better explain the achievements and aspirations artists such as Friedrich, Van Gogh, Mondrian and Rothko have, seeing them from the perspective of the Nordic Romanticism.
Ruano is not, unlike Rothko, Jewish, neither does he intend to present religious themes in abstract terms, as it might have been the intention of Barntee Newman, who also was Jewish, and Rothkos’s intention, when he tries to make an art of mystic nature. But Ruano is formally influenced by Rothko: mainly, he does offer an intellectual approach of landscape in his paintings, and he connects it with some aspects of the Nordic Romanticism. More specifically when Friedrich refers to the fact that an artist should not only paint what he sees with the eye, but paint what the eye of the spirit sees, that, that lies inside. This approach, that could also take us to Kandinsky, is adopted by Dámaso Ruano and he makes of landscape a theme for his painting, fully stylized, nearly completely deprived from any natural reference. One of the best made examples of this conquest and spiritual aspiration is the painting titled Río Negrón, from 1967. It is still an heir of the formal resources proper to the Maghreb period, but that already starts to emancipate towards that abstract concept of the landscape.
Another of the capital works of this plastic route is Paisaje, an acrylic, square-shaped, painted in 1988, that when seen from the distance seems to be a collage. This is one of the compositions where Ruano has included, in the most beautiful way, the blue of the sky. The slender and slim vertical black band, rising as a Gothic arrow towards the sky is the perfect counterpoint to the mass built in the lower right part of the painting.
Since 1999-2000 this concept of inner landscape has developed in an intense, poetic way, without falling in the Mannerist temptation. All these last compositions are acrylics. Ruano previously prepares the cloth with an acrylic white; then he starts working on the piece, soaking the cloth with water with the help of a paintbrush. Just as Miró, he does not spend more than four or five hours working in the studio; most of his time he spends it looking, observing the work done. Dámaso does not normally use the easel, not even for the middle-sized and small formats, but he places the canvas horizontally on a table. Many times, he does use sketches in paper that will serve as a guideline for the final painting.
Tireless hunter of the possibilities of the pure shape, Dámaso’s landscapes, lit up with a light filtered through his secret inner world, reveal an iridescent spiritual reality, soft, diffused, where the dying existential dimension of the individual combines with the rising and the sign of hope.
Traducción de Diana Valero Vasseur
Publicado originalmente en el catálogo de la exposición individual de Dámaso Ruano celebrada en el Museo Municipal de Málaga
entre el 1 de febrero y el 13 de marzo de 2008.