Joan Ponç was a Catalan surrealist painter who seems to have lived – to a greater extent than most – almost entirely in and through his imagination. It is probably not an easy way to live, and it does cause certain logistical problems, not least for the protagonists and those who choose or are forced (in the case of children) to live by their side. Ponç is not well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, and I had been looking forward to visiting this major retrospective of his work at La Pedrera in Barcelona. Follow this link for a video tour of the exhibition itself.
I spent a couple of hours wandering around the rooms, marvelling at some of the images, the startling use of rich colours and the bizarre and terrifying creatures that find their way into his narratives. I had reservations, however, about figures that reminded me of the kind of hippy art that used to adorn the night clubs of my youth, and was left cold by the quantity of flying phalluses, which I haven’t reproduced here. I guess, in a way, such imagery was of the era, and although he would probably have denied he was a surrealist painter, in the strict sense (is there even a ‘strict’ sense?) he was – as his friend and fellow member of the artists’ group dau al set Arnau Puig observes – a surrealist through and through ‘as a person’.
The remaining members of dau al set (seven-faced dice, in Catalan) were the poet Joan Brossa and the artists Antoni Tàpies, Modest Cuixart and Joan-Josep Tharrats. As far as I know, Puig is the only one still living. The group was supported by the poet J.V. Foix and Joan Miró, and constituted a bravely defiant statement of intent in the darkest years of Franco’s dictatorship. As the exhibition leaflet tells us in rather wobbly language: ‘This [his output during the late 1940s and 50s] was a period of oracles and spells, magicality and demonism, heightened by nocturnality and the blend of highbrow literary sources of Surrealism and popular culture. Ponç often represented himself as a harlequin and his paintings became magical and surreal, night landscapes filled with strange creatures: fauns, top hats, harlequins, fantastical ruins, geometrical shapes and imaginary zoomorphic forms in denuded and metaphysical landscapes.’
Ponç’s work leans to a large extent on the precedent of surrealism, but it is significant that in his diaries he speaks with admiration of painters such as El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, and most importantly, Cézanne. At times his painting seem almost devoid of the kind of technical skill exemplified by those painters, and one has to wonder at what level he internalised their lessons. I am not really in a position to say. Perhaps the fact that he always painted at night, by the light of a single stark lightbulb, is a clue. However, having bought a very attractive edition of his writings, I was struck his obsessiveness, by the dedication to his art that is in many ways remarkable, especially considering the severe ill-health he endured towards the end of his life. He also refused to exhibit for long periods, and was hostile to the idea of the art world as a market-place.
Ponç, almost inevitably, fell out with the other members of dau al set, and in 1953, armed with a letter of recommendation from Miró, set off for Brazil, where he stayed for ten years. He radically revisioned his own art, became fascinated by science, especially physics, an interest that he pursued further on returning to Europe, settling first at Bruc, near to Barcelona, and then in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in an area he began to regard as his spiritual home (he referred to the Pyrenees as ‘the ground zero of the universe’). After living for a while in Cadaquès, then Collioure, and then Ceret, he eventually moved to La Roca de Pelancà, after spotting a house on hilltop that had been struck by lightning, and deciding make it his home (after the judicious placing of lightning conductors).
Reading Ponç’s diaries and notebooks I was reminded at times of Leonora Carrington’s writing, not only by some of the themes that obsessed them both but also by the shared capacity to dwell, as I stated at the outset, so thoroughly in their own imaginations. On Leonora, incidentally, I would refer the reader to Bill Herbert’s excellent blog.
Two anecdotes stood out for me in his short autobiography, which I read on the train home, and have reproduced here (Ponç’s journal entries are written in Castilian Spanish, although the book’s introduction and footnotes and commentary are in Catalan). The first concerned a visit to an antiquarian shop while Ponç was living in São Paulo, Brazil. He spends some time admiring a display of strange-looking angels, ‘some of them hanging by strings, their faces seeming to express a terrible fury’ and a wooden marionette with fully articulated limbs. As he turns to leave the shop, the owner calls out to him:
– Are you Joan Ponç?
– Yes, I answered.
– Don’t you remember me?
– Two years ago – he went on, – I bought one of your paintings. There was a black goat in it, against a dark red background.
I remembered the work in question.
– I want to talk to you about this work – he said, and continued. I was broke, I didn’t have any money to buy more pieces, and I decided to bring to the shop some of the works I had at home, among them your painting, which upset me, as I had given it to my mother. The day that I brought it here, someone was waiting for me at the shop. He bought all my merchandise and told me, as he went on his way: “the thing that interests me most is that goat, but you must never sell it.” From that moment onwards, my business began to prosper. A short time afterwards – the antiquarian continued – a friend who was on the verge of bankruptcy, and to whom I had told my story, came to see me, and begged me to lend him your painting. He hung it in his office and his business began to change for the better at once.
In spite of finding the story supremely interesting, I couldn’t stop myself laughing, never mind the sincere gaze of the narrator.
– It’s important that you believe what I’m telling you, and I’m going to give you proof. These things I’ve told you have spread around, and people come here often to ask me for the painting. Fearful of losing it, I’ve taken various photographs. Look.
He opened a box, inside of which were a good number of photos.
– Another proof. Choose from my shop the object that you most like.
Without wanting to, I let my gaze fall on the wooden marionette.
– Is that what you want? Then take it. It’s yours.
I didn’t want to accept it, but he told me that if I didn’t accept the gift, he would take it out on the street and leave it there for any passer-by to pick up.
– Please take it with you, it would bring me relief.
I know that some people will laugh, as I did, at this. Others will attempt to reduce it to something comprehensible. It doesn’t matter, we are all free to interpret things in accordance with our own manner of thinking. For my part, I can affirm – in the face of accusations of ingenuousness or dishonesty – that I have narrated these things exactly as they occurred and that anyone who had lived through the chain of events that over years have accompanied my life, would react in the same way. I remember a marvellous phrase from Saint John of the Cross: “The true way for man lies in believing less in what can be seen, but does not exist, and more in that which cannot be seen, and does.”
The other story in Ponç’s autobiography is altogether more trivial, but none the less entertaining. It concerns the artist’s time in Cadaquès, where Salvador Dalí was a neighbour. Ponç writes that he frequently dropped by on Dalí in his studio, that while he admired the older artist’s prodigious mental ability and profound sense of humour, the visits often terminated in a fierce argument. ‘One of these’, he writes ‘acquires huge proportions after he [Dalí] attacks van Gogh in an extremely violent fashion. He tells me that I am defending him because I am a madman like him [van Gogh], to which I respond that at least we have the papers to certify that we spent time in the lunatic asylum, and that we are, in any case, professional madmen. “You, Dalí”, I tell him “will never be more than an amateur madman.”
I left his house, determined never to return. The following day, we were both at the beach. I pretended not to see him, but to my great surprise, he called out to me, and began a conversation as if nothing at all had happened. It was an important lesson.’