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Interview with Carmelo Arden Quin
Írta: Zsuzsa Dárdai
Carmelo Arden Quin artist, poet, theoretician, founder of the international MADI movement, was born in Uruguay in 1913. He fought actively against fascism in Spain, became a member of the International Brigade of Montevideo and as a journalist participated in anti-fascist activity. He studied painting, philosophy, and literature in Argentina. He became the founder of several artistic and literary periodicals and groups in Buenos Aires as well as Paris: Sinesis (1938), El Universario (1941), Group Arturo (1943), MADI (1946), and Ailleurs (Paris, 1962).
Among the founding members of MADI we find Martin and Ignacio Blaszko, Rhod Rothfuss, Estaban Eitler, and Gyula Kosice. The group was introduced soon after its inauguration at the Altamira art school led by Lucio Fontana and Emilio Pettoruti in Buenos Aires.
Carmelo Arden Quin moved to Paris in October 1948 and established another MADI group there. His works went on display the same year at the Galerie Denise René, where he met Jakobsen, Poliakov, Brancusi, Bozzolini, and Picabia. He became acquainted with Michel Seuphor, Marcelle Cahn, Herbin, Arp, Del Marle, Nicolas de Staël, and Braque, among others. It was in 1950 that MADI, incorporating the newest geometric tendencies, created its own special space (Salle Espace) for the first time, at the Salon des Realités Nouvelles. At the end of 1952, the MADI group began to co-operate with Otero, Soto, Kosnick Klos, and Arden Quin learned to know Calder. At the Salon of 1953, MADI appeared in a separate room under the theme of “optics and vibration”, complete with mobile sculptures, side by side with Picabia, Arp, Vasarely, Le Corbusier, Ruben Nuńez, and Guevara. An infinite sequence of MADI exhibitions have taken place since, in Săo Paulo, Nizza, Nantes, Berlin, and, most importantly, Paris (Sorbonne, Club Paul Valéry, Galerie Denise René, Musée de Saint-Étienne, Galerie Char-ley Chevalier, Galerie Quincampoix, Retrospective á la FIAC, Galerie Claude Dorval, etc.).
After over fifty years, MADI artists reunite again and again at different places of the world. MADI exhibitions, conferences, festivals, and museums have been opened in Paris, Milan, New Mexico, Győr, Montevideo, and, most recently, Madrid. This proves once again that MADI is still a lively reality filled with light-hearted joy, playfulness, wit, and spirituality even today.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – You were born in Uruguay, at Rivera near the Brazilian border. How had your family got to this country?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – As most inhabitants of the American continent, my family has European origins, too. My grandparents were Basque on the one side, and Portuguese on the other.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – So, what does Uruguay mean to you?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – Not too much. It doesn’t matter where one’s born. I am not nationalistic in the least. Uruguay is a small, fairly democratic country with a mixed culture, which is quite usual in Latin America. I don’t often go there, in fact, I didn’t visit it for fifty years, though I love this country, as all countries on earth. The truth is, my country hasn’t touched me culturally. All my intellectual experience I have acquired in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the same time, the cultural tradition that characterizes me is more European, French in the first place, even though I’m of Hispanic origin. The independence of Latin and South American countries was established as a consequence of the movements following the French Revolution. Even Spanish culture, apart from the language, had come to Latin America via France. In the 1830s, for instance, during the struggle for independence, French rather than Spanish Romanticism invaded our continent. Victor Hugo and Lamartine influenced us most, we were swayed by the French language and culture, by the ideal of freedom and equality.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – Argentina was the scene of your studies, with Buenos Aires as the centre of the Latin American avant-garde in an age when Europe was suffocated by the madness of Nazism and Fascism. These historical and political circumstances impressed the young Carmelo Arden Quin. How?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – I started off with classical studies, of course, I was affected by Latin and Greek literature, art, and philosophy; Plato, Aristotle, later Socrates, his followers, and then the great Roman auctors, Ovid, Virgil, and particularly Horace. Later my life took a turn, I became unfaithful to antiquity and turned to Dada, Cubism, and Futurism, tendencies condemned by the classical view of art. Of course, I still read Balzac and all that need to be read, I spent a lot of time reading Stendhal, for instance; back in Argentina, I was planning to get a degree researching psychological novels, until one day I was visited by the cops of Perón, who, in search for anti-dictatorship literature, collected all my writings, and took away my entire library.
In the course of my studies in philosophy, I was strongly influenced by dialectic and historical materialism, to which I am still indebted. But, since I am individualistically disposed, I have never been a party member in my life, I am more sympathetic towards anarchism, though not thinking of the methods of Action Direct, of course. I have a profound faith in socialism, I believe this is the only direction humanity can move, even if our age hasn’t proved this. I truly hope Europe will become socialist in the next twenty, or maximum thirty years.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – How did art, that is, creative art, poetry, music, and philosophy, manage to survive the given historical and political pressures? Who were your companions in this process? What kind of communities were organised in Buenos Aires, and how?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – I think there is a collective as well as an individualist programme which works in all of us, so the movement and individual art must be pursued together. In my artistic and human development it was decisive that I met Joaquín Torres-García in 1935 at a conference on the European avant-garde. I joined him as a young painter, we talked a lot, and each conversation meant a step, a lesson in my artistic development. Because of the war we were cut off from all information, the only thing we could rely on was Torres-García’s European experience, it was through him that we got books and newspapers, even artistic thoughts. In one of those papers I saw Moholy-Nagy’s fantastic light machine, in another the Futurist manifesto, Tatlin with his tower, Péri’s shaped canvases in very bad reproduction, the hanging sculptures by Rodchenko’ This was true revelation to me. Previously, I had pursued Cubist studies, until I found a polygonal form cut out and fixed onto a rectangular sheet. I took it off its basis, and there I was with an irregular polygonal form on its own, taking its own place in space. This gave me the idea to create shaped Cubist images and objects. I was on the way towards pure geometry. I told my idea to Torres-García. He pulled out his famous fish from around, a fish composed of cut-out forms, its eye a hole. It was a real MADI fish, but that wasn’t what I had in mind.
MADI’a been formed by Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Russian Suprematism, and Constructivism, it is a continuation of their heritage. If you analyse those movements, you’ll see that each moved along a concept: Fauvism went back to the break with the first, direct view of nature; Cubism searched for the solid structure of sight and cut motifs into geometric forms, triangles, rectangles, and circles; the concept of speed, dynamism, and movement belonged to Futurism, we can say the first mobile was made by Futurists; Dada was provocation, negation, but also the absurd, the free verse that became the basis for the dream-automatism concept of Surrealism; the objectless world has come through the Suprematism of Malevitch, leading to the unfolding of Constructivism’but, of course, it all began with Impressionism: it was Impressionism that put an end to academic rule and opened art towards space, towards the air of freedom.
These are magnificent facts, but, studying art history, I’ve never met the problems of polygonality. As though our predecessors hadn’t known it or wouldn’t have liked to notice it, though the word as a mathematical/geometrical concept had been familiar to them and polygons even appeared as a compositional element on rectangular surfaces. Why, we can ask, did geometric, constructive artists always stick to the application of the right angle, squares, and rectangles, framing all? Why didn’t they choose the triangle, the pentangle, the heptangle? It was this change of dimension that was missing from art, that’s why the MADI form had to emerge: in order to free the surface of painting from the rectangular frame it had been imprisoned in for centuries.
MADI proclaims the idea of panta rhei, tries to grasp the movement that means life, so it uses simple colours and elements, polygonal planar structures, it pulls the frame into the image, it gives sculptures an empty space, it deconstructs their forms. It doesn’t stop at the classic rectangular basis, at static plasticity, at closed masses. It rules out the strict distinction between inside and outside, it refuses all limitation and delimitation. It was for the elaboration of the concept of polygonality that we started a periodical (Arturo, Summer 1944).
As any movement, MADI had initially been isolated, there were no galleries. We read our manifestos in the homes of Enrique Pichón Riviere, a psychoanalyst from Lautréamont, and the German photographer Grete Stern. We had a holiday every Saturday, we showed our works to one another, we read poems, we gave music and dance recitals. Later we arranged conferences, and in the lecture hall we hanged our pictures. This is how MADI gradually emerged.
Every artistic movement goes through the same development: a primitive, an analytical, and a synthetic stage. Take, say, Impressionism. Most Impressionists lived in miserable poverty, and yet they had the joy of life, since they discovered something basic: space, time, ether, spirit also in its psychological reality. Impressionism has its own way: the Monet painting poppies is not the same as the Monet painting cathedrals, nor as the Monet painting nymphs. The classical stage was followed by the innovators: Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin. Cézanne, religious in life, was revolutionary in art, drama entered the story with Van Gogh, who, however, didn’t abandon the Impressionist brush touch. It was Gauguin who moved on in that field, he is where the Fauves come from, and all abstract painting, I believe, the painting of big planes. So there is no “Impressionism”, there are impressionisms. You have to trace the line of continuity. MADI was born in Buenos Aires in 1946, there it went through its first, primitive stage, the second came in Paris in the fifties, and, in my opinion, it is in our days that MADI has reached its third stage, that of its unfolding and maturation. Today is the age of MADI.
Art goes the same way as any human mental activity. Obviously, physics will never return to Newton after Einstein, but still, Newton discovered truths. The same applies to chemistry, or philosphy, why should it be otherwise with art? Great Renaissance art could not exist without its own age and society. Someone had to sponsor Leonardo, Botticelli, or Raffaello. Since the Church had the money, painters and architects designed and painted churches. Tiepolo’s fleshy motifs demonstrate that they were created for rulers. In his drawings, however, simple people appear, craftsmen, carpenters, and the like, and yet these are masterpieces all the same. It’s a pity small works, born in the shadow of great, mythological paintings, are less known. Caracaggio’s whole life and artistic adventure illustrates this. He abandoned colours and entered the realm of black and white. In a hidden corner of a church in Rome there’s a Caravaggio painting about Saint Jerome, showing him opposite to a blacksmith and his two workers. Those two people are barefoot, perfectly representing the social, economic circumstances of the age. There’s no shiny cloak, fancy clothes, no illusions, merely reality. That’s why one couldn’t return to pompously rich and crowded compositions any more after Caravaggio. He’d executed them.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – So you believe art undergoes a development?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – Indeed, it is two small words life is organised around: why and how. Why are we born, why do we die, how does the universe work, how can we make sense of it, how can we approach all this, the essence of life? That’s an eternal mystery. Art is universal and eternal in the continuous now, because it seeks answers always and for ever. Its emergence, its nature depend on the technical, economical, and material circumstances of the age. Impressionism was born here around Paris, in the historical, social, and economic environment of the Ile de France. An artist today, making translucent things out of plexi-glass, obviously doesn’t come from an African tribe which probably doesn’t even know that material. This technical difference, though, doesn’t mean our art is superior to that of Africa. The appeal of African art is equally universal. It’s just that in Africa they make their works of art out of their own stuff, wood, earth, perhaps clay, and not plexi-glass; that’s how they create those marvellous masks, for instance. It’s merely the how’s that are different in our culture.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – Joaquín Torres-García (1874’1949) played a pioneering role in the unfolding of constructive geometric art. Tell me, please, about Torres-García and his art.
Carmelo Arden Quin: – Torres-García was one of the spiritual fathers of Cercle et carré in Paris in 1930. He was part of an important and interesting group alongside Mondrian, Arp, Herbin, Vantongerloo, and Kandinsky. In 1934, he returned to Montevideo and carried on establishing “constructive universalism”. in his painting, he was in constant conflict with himself: he pursued non-figurative, pure geometric art, whereas he was also a constructivist and used a good many symbols as well, which he put in a planar form. He used very simple materials like a piece of wood he found in the street and then, through painting it, he turned it into a superb magic object.
Torres-García was a lay saint of painting; a man who didn’t care about glory, or money; he lived in great poverty with his family all his life, he never became a “fashionable” artist. He was a mystical person, a passionate painter, who managed to attest to the fact that art alone is important in life, because it doesn’t lie, it doesn’t collide, it doesn’t accuse, it only reserves, presents, and serves beauty through its own means, colour and form.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – While Torres-García came back to Uruguay, a couple of years later you departed for Paris. Why?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – Because I was formed by the “French school”, Western art, Impressionism. All the Fauves and the Futurists came to Paris, Picasso and Braque lived here, Juan Gris, Léger’the great masters. Though Dada started off in Zurich, it had to go on a pilgrimage to Paris before it could give birth to Surrealism. So I asked myself what I ever had to do in Latin America, in a Fascist military dictatorship eliminating any cultural striving. I didn’t agree with Torres-García because he had come home. If he had stayed in Paris, in Europe, in any case, maybe his personal story as well as the story of his constructive school and perhaps even the history of MADI would have followed another route. I had always known I would live in Paris. I thought and I still believe Paris is the cultural capital of the world. I had never met a Mexican, Venezuelan, or Colombian artist in Latin America, I had to come here to meet them and talk to them in my mother tongue. In Paris I came to know Hungarian, Polish, North American, English, and Japanese artists, too, developing friendships. I feel Paris is still a “big city” today, as it has a tradition: the Ile de France. These are the historical and psychological reasons why I haven’t ever been disappointed by Paris. Paris is the place where I’ve found the world.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – You have created a world-wide artistic movement, you have had contacts with a great many celebrities, you are a famous artist yourself, and yet it seems you consciously avoid the Parisian artistic elite, you aren’t on very good terms with the press, not to mention art commerce and collectors.
Carmelo Arden Quin: – Geometric artists work in about 300 ateliers in Paris; it’s only no one knows about them. Herbin, Del Marle, Gorin were great and important French geometric artists, but they’ve been forgotten. So far, no French museum has undertaken to arrange a retrospective exhibition for them. Where as museums are full of the current great American artists. In view of this, do you reckon they would be interested in MADI and Arden Quin? But if they were ever to offer something like that, I would tell them first to hold a retrospective exhibition about Herbin, and about Gorin, and only after that for me. While we are invited to exhibitions the whole time in France and many other countries of the world, the French press, as opposed to the Italian or the Spanish, simply ignores the events of geometric art. Nonetheless I have consciously attempted not to let MADI turn into a fashion and get worn out. It should develop freely and spontaneously along the concept of geometry and polygonality.
MADI is a very free movement, anyone can join it or give it up whenever they feel like. The only criterion is the insistence on geometric forms and polygonality, knowing no obligation. And that provides a wide horizon for creative imagination, for plastic space is an infinite source for the mind ready for ever newer experiments.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – You are a philosopher, poet, author, painter, and sculptor. How do you switch between these forms of activity?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – When I notice I start repeating myself, I stop doing creative arts and switch to poetry or writing. I’d like to develop a MADI mode of writing.
Zsuzsa Dárdai: – Could you recite one of your MADI poems?
Carmelo Arden Quin: – That’s impossible. Let me give you an example why. Mallarmé wrote a book very important for poetry, its title is “Never will a dice roll eliminate coincidence”. I can state or negate this, what I can’t do is prove it. However, if I take a die and roll it, that will be a real dice roll. Now, if I do so in front of an audience, and then I show them Mallarmé’s book “Never will a dice roll eliminate coincidence”, it’s a MADI poem. It’s the use of reality and metaphor side by side. The aspect of MADI poetry is the same as that of MADI poetry, sculpture, or dance: to leave frames behind, and this applies to the formal frame of a book as well as the frames of language and translation. I show to the audience, say, a flower in a pot, and then a text: ‘The flower also thirsts truth.’ Here water is the metaphor, that is, the truth the flower requires in order to stay alive.
In MADI works, dialectic connections between content and form emerge as a rule. Let’s take an example from architecture. In Bretagne, a Swedish architect designed a house that turns towards the S un on its own axis all the time. In Hong-Kong, a restaurant functions on the same principle, but an aeroplane in motion can also be considered a MADI building, or even a ship floating in the sea. The moving ship, floating in the water, is a house at the same time, a MADI house, in many cases we live in it for three or four months: we sleep, eat, and die there. On an aeroplane, there are more people than in a village-three or four hundred people together in a moving object! When in the fifties I held a lecture at the architectural faculty of the Paris Beaux-Arts on what I consider MADI architecture, a huge debate followed because I happened to say we had to leave behind Le Corbusier’s cube for good. Half of the students would have stoned me on the spot, but the other half agreed with me.
Or take MADI sculpture, for instance, characterised by motion, articulation, versatility, and playfulness. Torres-García’s famous articulated toys reveal infinite possibility of variation, and my coplanals emerged as their organic continuation. A coplanal is co-operation with planes that, as opposed to planar surfaces limited by a frame, move freely in space. Playfulness is one of MADI’s artistic thoughts.
A MADI painting or object is a pleasure-object at the same time, actively communicating with the receivers, making them happy. So MADI is present in all branches of art, similarly to Futurism, Surrealism, and Constructivism.
In my 1948 MADI manifesto I mentioned electronic music following the footsteps of the noise music of Futurism. In 1946, we created a dance choreography in which every movement took place along the outlines of a triangle, a square and a circle, and the gestures identical with the plastic theme were independent of the music. Paradoxically, we attempted to smuggle geometric time into the planes of time.
There is still a lot of undiscovered treasure hidden in MADI, which I hope will be unearthed through the joint effort of all MADI artists over the world. And one shall never forget about geometry.
(MADI art periodical No4. Translated by Boldizsár Fejérvári)