Antoni Tapies and Rock Art

Rupestres (Rock Art) Exhibition of Prints and Engravings at Centre of Information of the Museum of Prehistory, St Eyzies de Tabac, Dordogne

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August 2011

The poster print and central image of this exhibition is Antoni Tapies’ Ma Negra lithograph : an image of a black hand print, oily and showing the definition of the creases in the skin, in the centre of a circle of tiny black specks. Another image at the top of the print shows where fingers have made an impression and dragged a stain downwards.  There is also a small mark, like a basic root character in oriental calligraphy, roughly drawn, as if in thick charcoal.

The palm of the hand faces outwards as if saying “stop” to the spectator, but at the same time, it transmits the impression left on the stone used for the lithograph, so puts the viewer in the position of the lithographic stone, of receiving the original imprint of the palm and fingers of a hand. It is a highly individual image too, a personal sign. As kids we would compare our handprint in sand to that of someone else, seeing how alike or different we were. The image of the hand powerfully asserts the individuality of the person who made the imprint, presumably the artist himself.

The black specks look blown, like the marks made by prehistoric artists at nearby Lascaux caves.

A finger stain appears at the top of the image – and there is something to be made of the choice of word “stain” here, as the dragged mark appears less thoughtful, more the kind of thing that is an accidental “mess” than the deliberate “print” in the centre of the framed picture. The stain is reminiscent of the marks made by the unstable personalities who daub walls with their own excrement as means of making their mark on a world that they perceive either ignores or misunderstands them.  

References to blowing, breathing and making marks with the hand, the use of which has separated man as a tool maker and user, make this an elemental image, a statement perhaps of what makes a living human, an entity capable of making a mark on the world.  The finger stain also references the act of wiping the fingers clean, perhaps an analogy for how the manufactured print removes the marks made by the human hand, or at a more abstract remove, how art “transforms” mess.

The black hand also references the cave paintings at Pechemerle as well as at Lascaux, where negative images of hands are found, made by blowing around the outsides of the hand with charcoal dust mixed with oil. The cave at Pechemerle, according to the very helpful young man at Les Eyzies, also contains the only known example of a thumbprint. These signs and symbols recall the signature of the alphabetically illiterate person in later days, but also something that could possibly be interpreted as the sign of the manually dexterous and visually literate, the graffito tag in modern days.

Printing is something we do as kids. Finger painting, handprinting, pressing our hands into the cement, or into damp sand. It almost comes naturally, perhaps an instinct that has come down to us from the times when our hands were freed by the use of only two limbs for walking, and still felt by the cave artists who created images of their hands on the limestone of the Vezere Valley thousands of years ago. Although the lithographic process is complex and multi layered, the artist Tapies has created a direct link between modern printmaking and the essence of the act of mark making.

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2 thoughts on “Antoni Tapies and Rock Art

  1. Christine, a very interesting interpretation of Tapies’ print. It is so full of symbolism of the basic human kind yet in that very nature it becomes elevated and full of intellectual reasoning.

  2. Pingback: Landscape with and without trees | Unquiet Thing

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