This one-of-a-kind exhibition from painter and sculptor Luis Ventós is a collection of works on a single theme, based on a painting that is also one-of-a-kind. It was painted by a Dutch artist in the 17th century, whose turbulent personality has fallen somewhere between oblivion and the legend it later became. His name was Johannes Simonsz van der Beeck (Amsterdam, 1588-1644), though he is better known by his Latin alias Torrentius. The information available regarding his life and work is scarce, although details have been uncovered of his eccentricities and actions, which transgressed the customs and even laws of a time when his country, and Christianity in general, were extremely dogmatic and strict. His attitude towards the Church was, in the eyes of this institution, heretical and often provocative. It is not clear how much truth there is behind his supposed heterodoxy and role as a member, and maybe leader, of the Dutch Rosicrucians.
It is also difficult to know whether this could have merely been due to his transgressive, imprudent character, and we must remember that some of his actions made people think he was having fits of insanity. But the truth is that these accusations earned him several years of prison time in his country, interrupted by a period when he was welcomed and supported by King Charles I of England. A man, it seems, of great intelligence and culture, Johannes Simonsz van der Beeck took part in numerous theological discussions. His interesting, and surprising, personality, along with the contradictory information we have regarding his life and work, has aroused curiosity and made him extremely intriguing.
Research into his artistic production has dug up precious little, with incomplete information regarding specific paintings. It is known, however, that some were part of important collections, including that of the aforementioned Charles I, and in public exhibitions or sales. A particularly interesting contribution comes from Zbigniew Herbert in his study of the only painting known today, entitled Still Life with a Bridle, in his eponymous book (1993). Herbert explains, “Only one painting remains. One and only one, hanging on to the edge of the void”.
This series of works by Luis Ventós features eleven paintings, eleven collages and many gouaches. Hanging on the walls, the selected works surround a dis-play case in the centre of the room with a real-life representation of the Dutch painter’s still life: on the left, a pewter flagon with a lid and spout in silvery grey; in the centre, a glass with a green stem; and on the right, a pot-bellied earthenware jug with a shiny finish. Above these three elements hangs the iron bridle of a horse. Two white ceramic pipes, blackened inside, along with the glass, hold down a piece of paper with musical notes and a few lines of text. This last element, which I would dare say was very significant in Torrentius’ intentions, is quite enigmatic. Alongside the objects pertaining to every-day life, this one clearly refers to culture, associated with the great interest in music at that time in Holland.
The exhibition is a surprising and unique tribute from an artist of today to a mysterious work by a Dutch painter from the 17th century. With his pieces, Luis Ventós draws an arc uniting two moments in European painting. The author of a valuable body of pictorial and sculptural work, he is very clear that, throughout history, art has abstracted reality, although, in the end, reality is always its starting point. Here his task has significant examples in the past: based on evoking the work of a previous artist. The results intuit a long, intense work, which we must assess both individually and as a whole.
Zbigniew Herbert notes the importance of black as the background: “Black, dark as a cliff and also flat as a mirror, tangible and about to be lost in the perspectives of the infinite,” considerations that confirm this writer’s gift as a poet. In my opinion, whether or not Torrentius was a member of an esoteric society, this painting indicates he had a sacred view of art. Still lifes were often what can be classified as vanitas. As an artistic term, applied to a still life, it means it has symbolic value, given the perishable nature of elements like fruit, vegetables or plants. Or that the objects allude to the fragility and briefness of life. In this case it might be, among other things, the liquids that may be in the three containers and the nature of the bridle, no longer in use. Despite his irregular life at odds with the Church and the establishment, this painting is proof of asceticism. There is nothing here to enjoy, take pleasure from; it is ascetic, contained and strict. A radical strictness that could make us think of the fine line between sanity and insanity that any creator must walk.
The symbolic nature comes, above all, from the meaning of death as the other side of life. In this regard, in a time when religion governed social life, it was a strong warning to aspirations of wealth and happiness that were considered temporary. It was a time in which the threat of the plague and the devastating death it brought was part of life in the community. The liquids that may be in the containers, water and wine, are also symbolic. Water is the source of life and a means of purification. Wine is associated with blood, although in ancient Greece was a potion for immortality. Thus, the first Christians took on the importance of this liquid from ancient Mediterranean cultures. Likewise, it can be a symbol associated with knowledge and wisdom. But we cannot forget that, on our quest for the symbolism in any piece or any element it contains, we can easily go too far; into the bottomless pit of symbolism, hard to express in words, and human attraction to mystery. Furthermore, there are many symbolic meanings that were lost long ago or remained only in secret societies.
The attraction to this painting by the Dutch artist is due, more than to its uniqueness, to the mystery that envelops the painter, the mystery it opens up for us. In the paintings, collages and gouaches that Luis Ventós has created inspired by this artist, we find the mystery that the piece itself opens up before us, in which the black background is key. The variation he has used is a certain schematic nature, probably the result of an abstraction that brings the topic into our era. It is important to keep in mind the order in which the three techniques were used: gouache, collage and oil. The gouaches were a first approach to the topic, and this technique, which encourages spontaneity, gives them a fresh look and value all their own. This spontaneity yields almost involuntary, but notable, variations on the Dutch model, though they do not distort the relationship with that painting. The use of figurative elements in the background is very clear, and the shapes, coming out of the darkness, bring the black with them, shadowing everything. While the black background in Torrentius’ painting darkened the whole piece, here the blackness darkens the figures slightly, far from the intensity of the Dutch painting. The colours are muted, softened, blended into the whole, and new aspects are introduced. Although the shapes are basically the same, there are formal variations. The outlines are quite similar, but the surface of the jugs has specks, flecks of light, tones that differ in each of the gouaches. Here begins the process in which the Spanish artist, with the Dutchman’s painting in front of him, affirms his creations, making them personal and revealing their sense of belonging to a different time. Without turning his back on the degree of independence that, at this point, any true creator has. Art is produced at a specific time to be elevated to a level where time and space are no longer relevant.
The eleven collages feature the same figures but some of the characteristics have changed radically. The schematic nature is even greater, I would venture to say radical, and the focus turns from curved to straight lines, although the jug, where the curve is most noticeable, is still there. In general, the path the artist began with the gouaches, which finds its terminus in the oil paintings, undergoes a progressive abstraction, maintaining, however, the trace of the natural figures. This abstraction reaches even the sheet that originally contained musical notes, which in some cases is merely a grid. It unifies, blending the figures into a more rotund unity that delves into a certain idealisation. They are no longer objects from daily life, as they are in the Torrentius painting, or even to the extent they still were in the gouaches. We are on a plane that is far from reality.
In terms of colour, it is important to note the change in colour of the background: no longer black, it is now sienna, brown, grey, or half black and half purple. In general, the colours become more intense. Nothing remains of the unification that the black brought by greying the colours, and sometimes spreads to the inside of the figures. The pot-bellied jug, the glass and the pewter flagon have bands of colour that establish the edges of their silhouettes, in a darker tone than the inside or a slight change in intensity. The fusion of colours and tones, if it happens, is due to the predominance of one of them or the balance created by a predominant colour that seems to absorb everything else. In one way or another, what we see in comparison to the gouaches is a greater geometrisation and chromatic intensity.
We’ve reached the final stage of the process. The abstraction continues. A new fusion of colours was to be expected in a final version, a conciliation of shape, to balance the geometry with the play of curved and straight lines. Meaning, reaching a new harmony, a higher point, that was not a desire to stop or a refusal to continue but an awareness of having reached the point, unforeseen, in which one experiences, by surprise, the sensation of having arrived. This is when we see the unity of all the factors in play. The black of the background once again dominates, although it may be blue, purple, ochre, brown, generally dark tones, with the difference, in one of the oil paintings, that the dark background is flecked with red squares.
We’re facing a new reality, which still makes reference to the starting point: we still have the two jugs, glass, bridle and ruled paper. There are curved and straight lines, both more flexible. An order has been achieved that has come on its own as if the intense work had been done following an impulse that, as is part of art itself, had no known aim. Because otherwise it would have had the same surprise for the creator himself, who is also created, because he discovers himself. Michelangelo said that a sculpture is already in the original block of stone and must only be revealed by removing what is not necessary. But I don’t think he meant he already knew which figure would appear. Artists set off on a journey without knowing where it will take them because if they try to chart a course, mystery vanishes.
Mystery lives on. The symbolic meaning remains the same. Luis Ventós recognised it when he discovered the painting by Torrentius, through the mysteriousness it conveys, and this is what led him to pick up this thread that had become a loose end in time. The human being is an enigma to itself, something the Dutch painter probably wanted to express with this painting. The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure.” And this can be applied to any true art. Mystery opens a door we are not allowed to enter. There is probably Nothing on the other side and we would only have to look back and see Everything again. This is where art is made. Meaning true art, like Torrentius and like Luis Ventós.