The Language of Metamorphosis

Alejandro Ratia


Door of being, wake me and enlighten me,
Let me see the face of this day,
Let me see the face of this night,
All communicates, all transforms

Octavio Paz1


Duality and interaction meet at the very core of Photography. The contrast between the positive and the negative is obvious. And it is obvious that only the alternation of light and shade allows us to read the photographs, to decipher the relationship between images and things, and among things. This is revealed because things can be made out in photographs in so much as they do not appear on their own. At least a figure or the background should be distinguished, the contrast between what is moving and what remains still, between what is alive and what is not. What is it that makes cloth different from skin? But Photography also shows things as belonging to categories, as being part of a series even though we might see them as identical. Photography levels everything up insomuch as it distinguishes everything. To distinguish something is to consider its being apart from other things, an ontological question. Among photographers the case of Rafael Navarro is, at least, an unusual one. He sticks to his essence so firmly that he seems to question the very nature of the photographic. His way of being heterodox is in fact obscurely orthodox. The classical essays about the ‘medium’ (Barthes, Sontag, etc.) tend to speak about the relationship between Photography and Time, but they are referring to either historic time or autobiographical time. We often yield to temptation and think of a photograph as the photograph of someone, although this someone may not be there any more. Barthes’s scorn for Stieglitz2, whose work The Terminal is the only one he appreciates –out of sheer fetishism–, is really significant. However, artists that committed themselves to timelessness, like Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Álvarez Bravo or Weston are among Rafael Navarro’s favourite in the same way as Matisse or Motherwell were claimed by some of their contemporary painters. In times of criticism and renewal the journey back to the origins, to the very root of the discipline, is a rather wise decision. These roots are, after all, a conceptual tool.

Rafael Navarro does not stand apart from his time, nor does he stop revealing himself, somehow, but his personal temptation, which defines him, is his avoidance of anecdote, his will to reach abstraction. In his case, Time is still a major issue, but not a particular time but ‘Time dimension’ itself. This author’s paradox consists of intending to use a medium which is supposed to be a mere provider of images in order to present what is a premise in the platonic Parmenides: "you will not let the search get lost among visible things, but above all you will focus on those which can only be grasped by reason and which can be called Ideas" 3. Visible things are considered to be a risk or a distraction from truth. Ferrater Mora’s Philosophy Dictionary tells us that an ‘image’ is usually understood to be ‘the copy a subject has of an external object’ 4. In Rafael Navarro, Photography becomes a provider of the tools of a language or a poetics, images which work like metaphors rather than copies. So the concept of ‘polyphony’ or ‘constellation of images’ will become a key instrument in this artist’s discourse.

This discourse begins in the 1970s. Joan Fontcuberta, Pere Formiguera, Luis Pérez Mínguez or Miguel Oriola are some of the photographers related to Nueva Lente (‘New Lens’) magazine, which first came out in 1971. Very soon Rafael Navarro was to join them5. During Franco’s late rule there are other artistic initiatives which take the same adjective: ‘new’. In 1967, Juan Antonio Aguirre defines a ‘Nueva Generación’ (‘New Generation’) where he himself and Manuel Barbadillo, Elena Asins, Julio Plaza or Luis Gordillo come together in an exhibition. Let us not forget that in 1970 Castellet’s mythical anthology Nueve novísimos poetas españoles (Nine brand new Spanish poets) is published. All these movements and proposals have things in common, such as the break with dynamics already dated –even the way of opposing Franco’s rule– an evident cosmopolitanism or a remarkable heterogeinity. Among the painters of this ‘New Generation’ varied figurations became mixed with the most rigorous Neo-concrete art. There was also a certain amount of heterogeinity among the photographers of Nueva Lente. Neodadaism, conceptualism, photomontage, etc. A theoretical element did not take long to be incorporated, contemporary with the spread of structuralism and lacanism, which promoted selfcriticism in artistic ‘disciplines’. In 1977 Trama magazine comes out in Barcelona. Around it there is a group (Broto, Tena, Rubio, Grau) who proposes a kind of painting which thinks about itself at the same time as it is being made. What seems to matter is not the shapes and figures that the act of painting produces but the ways in which a painting is made. Talking about the ‘production’ of a triptych by Gonzalo Tena, José Manuel Broto says that this work, these three pieces of paper, could be ‘some waste unsteadily placed halfway between the building/destruction of a kind of general relationship with space’6.

These unsteady places Broto was talking about gave paradoxical shelter to painting, but also to poetry, sculpture or photography. The series Involution, created by Rafael Navarro in 1976 is relevant in this sense. Contemporary painters made materials themselves the protagonists of their works, both canvas and stretchers, setting them all free. Similarly, the photographer takes the plain material nature of the film and its punched sides, always avoided, to make it visible. The woman’s body adjusts to the film as if this were a jail. Nakedness is a motif which seems to have been chosen to follow the previous series (Formas, Evasiones) and as a minimum and atemporal method. It is a dialogue between the referent and the medium. Ángel Mª Fuentes reminded us that that ‘series is a powerful creative reflection where the physical limits of the film become a key part of the artistic discourse brought to light on the 400 ASA of the Kodak™ TRI-X®; adding that for a whole generation who followed the photographic beat through the pages of Nueva Lente, that work set sound differences’. The act of creation was not linked to the moment of capturing the image, but to the moment of creating it. We could almost say that it was all about giving birth, bringing to the light. The title of one of Cartier-Bresson’s snapshots will contain a place name and a date. Valencia, 1933, for instance. Rafael Navarro never labels his works with the date when they are shot, but with the date when they are edited7. This point is not incidental since it proves that editing is what really matters, and so a certain distance is set between the photo and its referents (the reality which is used as a starting point), the photo being detached from them (because it is a different thing) and at the same time close to them (because it merges with them).

The series Involución is a metaphor in itself, it bends over itself in order to think the discipline over. It is a spinning movement towards a spiral similar to a spring, which contains the energy of future construction developments. Two construction directions are already dormant here. In number 7 there are two film stills sharing the same print. On one of them a woman is moving towards the left, on the other one she’s moving towards the right. On number 9, the body is split by the division between both stills, the breast on the one above, the pubis on the one bellow. Involución #7 seems to be the prelude to multiple ‘dynamic polyphonies’, to a succession of series of images where we will find a narrative of the element and the process. Involución #9, with its vertical layout of two piled up images, would be the precursor, or number 0, of the ‘Diptychs’, a series which established its author8.

The first ‘Diptych’ was made in 1977. In all this series (until 1985) there are two images overlapped and contact printed9. Therefore, what I have just mentioned about double nature becomes misleading since production (if production is what we are interested in) is a unique and simultaneous act. But a snapshot also demands complicity, continuity in time and space, or a deliberate delay, these being strategies which connect Rafael Navarro with other artists of his time, who were more or less linked to conceptual trends and practiced an overelaborated asceticism of techniques. The story of his first diptych is about a tree, one of those solitary trees which highlights the aridity of the Aragonese countryside. Rafael Navarro found it on the  approach to Fuendetodos. They are two snapshots of the same landscape from the same point. A pan shot of the dry landscape with patches of fields and uncultivated land, some rolling hills, a pale sky, white on the photograph. The tree is the focus of attention. The upper image follows the rules of a correct exposition and offers a clear meaning. In the lower image, where the exposition is reduced, everything becomes dark. The contrast has to do (as the artist admits) with a particular mood and with Alberti’s10 lines:

When someone beloved leaves
The countryside turns dark
And you walk blind, searching´

This mood (the sympathetic relationship with the landscape, popularized by Amiel) becomes a technical choice. It is the author who could now be said to be locked inside the photograph. ‘How to express what cannot or should not be expressed?’ Rafael Navarro asked me while remembering this experience. The solution, based on the technical process, produces an effect which is not only cathartic, but also communicative.

In another of his late diptychs (#14) again we see a double tree. First in winter, a bare tree; then it is covered in leaves. The same place again, with six months between the shots. Life time becomes an instrument, as was exposition time before. But the variables that come into play in the combination of the diptychs multiply themselves. Variations of the themes, of the matching patterns. There is usually something which changes and something which remains. As in the second diptych, where we see the same stairs, the same angle, and two human figures disappearing from sight on their way up. Michèle Chomette11 will say that here “there is not the smallest artifice or trick, because it is all about direct transferencies from a reality which has been patiently watched and which has born fruit after carefully arranged encounters’. And ‘the use of the 13 x 15 format confirms the author’s determination to avoid chance, to take his time to achieve the definite work, not simply for a shot involving posing or certain mise en scene’.  Michèle Chomette herself makes a list of Rafael Navarro’s ‘conceptual’ procedures: equivalence, complementation or prolongation, inversion, transference or ambivalence, mutation or metamorphosis, partition. Later we will see that all these go back to the genesis of polyphonies, when from 1986 the pure binary pattern breaks and overflows. Something remains, though, a poetic will cooled down by technique and reflection. As Joan Fontcuberta said: ‘Behind that thread of reflection, even behind the most evident symbols which have a leading role in Rafael Navarro’s productions, what we should be more vividly interested in is the poetic content that is generated.’12

Diptychs are associated with duality but duality is in the very beginning of a succession. In his essay De los números, published in 1976, Agustín García Calvo remembered that “some things always come in threes’, that ‘the process of reduction from the successive to the timeless, like  a+a=2, runs parallel to a different kind of reduction: a+a+a=3a…”13. An inner necessity for ‘polyphonies’ was implicit in Rafael Navarro’s work from the beginning. As I said before, in a single photograph varied ways of interaction are already hiding, but Rafael Navarro prefers to make groups. First he made series, which would be a constant throughout his career. Then he creates his diptychs. Later on the concept of ‘polyphonies’. His series will always have a meaning in themselves. This is a mode shared by images, and sometimes there is an implicit story (as in Parejas , for instance). But in contrast with the works which form these series, the photographs in his ‘polyphonies’, or constellations of images, are clearly the foundation of another thing. These elements integrate as sculptures and painting do in baroque architecture. This moment of creation is secondary and mature, a moment of synthesis or construction in contrast with the analytical work which is kept alive in each image. Because Rafael Navarro is a thoughtful photographer. And in such personal developments we will find the intrahistory of his discipline, far from stylistic arbitrariness or a mere aggiornamento.

One of Daguerre’s first works, from 1839, shows a collection of shells and fossils. They are lined up on three superimposed shelves. Lifeless as they are, they do not object to being manipulated. This docility allows time to provide the image with a tactile quality. Unlike the textures created by painters in their still lifes, with all the array of effects that the Dutch baroque painters mastered, in this daguerreotype there is no pretence, just a translation, an equivalence. The mathematical term would be isomorphism. Barthes speaks about the tautological feature of a photograph. Disguised as immediacy, this tautological condition hides the same logic which created real numbers14.  In any case, time is the agent of that transference between the skin of the objects and a new skin on the daguerreotype. This technique produces the prodigious effect as when you look at an hourglass whose upper part never empties while sand keeps falling. The delay which gives photos verisimilitude is double sided, one being sensual, the other ascetic. The ascetic aspect is provided by this statement of allegiance to things. Then, the repeated image of a static object naturally becomes a structural element, a piece with which to build a system.

I said at the beginning that photography levels everything up insomuch as it distinguishes everything. As it distinguishes every single thing, it allows us to see what things have in common. In the daguerreotype of the shelves, the objects are set like a mosaic before the shot, but soon we will see how the photographs of individual objects tend to organize themselves into systems, into mosaics which very often have a scientific or taxonomic purpose. Hence anthropometrical studies. In the early 20th century, the methodical Karl Blossfeldt organized his botanical illustrations like this. Rebekah Modrak and Bill Anthes call this presentation strategy “typological grid”15. Blossfeldt did not seek an aesthetic effect, but something useful, a practical and systematic method. The deliberate use of these strategies by the artist will come later. The paradigmatic inventories of images of the Bechers or Sol LeWitt’s descriptions are good examples.

All these structures, made up of individual photographs, were based on images of lifeless objects. Curiously enough, another early model of a mixed exhibition of photographs, like sequences or mosaics, comes from the analysis of movement. I am referring to Muybridge’s popular books, the first of which was Animal Locomotion (1887). Eadweard Muybridge was born in 1830, almost at the same time as Photography. He and his contemporary Étienne Jules Marey developed techniques to analyse movement through photography. Like Blossfeldt, Muybridge was an involuntary avant-gardist. Initially the purpose of his sequences was scientific. A Californian millionaire wanted to test out his hypothesis that at some point all four feet of a horse were off the ground at the same time while galloping. Muybridge’s photographs confirmed this. The camera was able to see something that the human eye could not possibly see. The study of the movement of a horse was extended to other animals and to human beings. For instance, one of his sequences analyses a couple dancing. These images, put on a circular device called phenakistoscope and set into spinning motion, recreated the movement they had captured, still by still, becoming the prehistory of musical films.

In Rafael Navarro’s ‘Polyphonies’ these two categories mix: the inventory of the static and the analysis of what flies away. Although they may look the opposite, in both of them time turns out to be a strange ally of the photographer. Somehow the first stage of the movement happens to demand a second one, which is still, to be understood. To help Muybridge do his job, white sheets had to be spread behind the galloping horses. Both Daguerre’s and Muybridge’s strategies are used in some of Rafael Navarro’s works. Also, in a very striking way, the contrast between what is still and what flies away is evident and ends up being one of the basic dualities in this artist devoted to duality. Tríptico del Sol y Triptico de la Luna, (1998) are the best example of the inventory of the static, of stillness illustrated by stones. There, that delightful and ascetic translation from mineral skin to photographic skin materializes. The tactile qualities of photographic skin are intensified by the exquisiteness of the process. Poema fantasmagórico (1990), where the naked woman goes up and down the stairs16, or Fugaz, one of his most recent works, where we can repeatedly see a naked woman cycling against a background of tiles, refer back to Muybridge, so much so that they could be considered a homage. The previously mentioned conflict between what is still and what is moving, as a hybridisation of both categories, will be repeated in some of the best and most complex of the ‘polyphonies’, from El desafío to Divertimento a tres.

I will go back to the first of the strategies I analysed, the one which identified with Daguerre and with an isomorphism between what is still and what is photographic. In Rafael Navarro first this strategy becomes radical and later it explodes. It becomes radical in a double way: by choosing as photographic referents flat surfaces of little or no texture, sometimes difficult to identify, and on the other hand deciding to repeat them as a mosaic. This would be an extreme example of photographic tautology, which substitutes the real surface for its counterpart; from the beginning both referent and image are repeated elements destined to have a constructive function, which they take in turns. This is the case of Silencio where the same image, a streaked wooden surface split into two perfectly symmetrical parts, is repeated in pairs up to twenty-four times. Rafael Navarro produces two versions of Silencio: one in 1987, where each photo is individually placed in a grid divided by white spaces, and the other one the following year, when the copies are bigger and amalgamate on a continuous surface. Somehow the effect resembles a linoleum floor where the repetition of a natural pattern, artificially reproduced, produces a hypnotic effect. It also resembles the result of a Rorschach test17, a mad and labyrinthine effect. Digital procedures, which Rafael Navarro used later on, allow the obsessive repetition prevailing in works like Libertad perdida, where cloning and symmetric replicas of an architectonic element come into play. As in quite a few of his works (Anclada, Falsa libertad, some dyptichs) these geometrical grids seem to refer to social or psychological constructions. In Rafael Navarro formal games are clearly intentional, as is repetition.

The pattern of a typology mosaic (the ‘typological grid’) has been used by Rafael Navarro in some of his recent colour works. But it is subjected to a thorough revision. In Rito all the images show primitive masks exhibited in an ethnographic museum, except the one in the middle, which is a musical instrument. This work seems to be the typical excuse for an inventory, a display of the static objects of a collection belonging to the same category. But the images have been altered. The referents could not move but the photographer did move them, instilling a ghostly quality in all of them except in the central instrument, which remains still as a reference to time, time understood as rhythm. Chronos seems to be the only immortal being. In these static patterns, movement appears as an unexpected guest. In No identificados, a diptych formed by two mosaic compositions, we find another pattern of inventory or description remarkably altered. What is classified is human types, passers-by of varied appearance and build, but their figures are blurred and ghostly once again. This is an example of Rafael Navarro’s interest in indirect images, photos of shadows or reflections18. And this time, on the surface where the figures are reflected there is a film of water which distorts them as it ripples. And the pattern of photographic inventory breaks again and becomes baroque in Rafael Navarro’s hands.

El androbosque (1986) is the first of Rafael Navarro’s polyphonic images. He had just finished his cycle of Dípticos. It is striking that his ‘polyphonies’ start with the same motif as that cycle: a tree. In Androbosque something new is achieved: the creation of an image of images. The clean photos of some dry boughs, arranged and duplicated in bilateral symmetry, build the shape of a body. This powerfully graphic figure reminds me of Borges and his essay about the mystic eagle which appears in front of Dante and which is formed by a myriad of kings19. ‘Literally, what could render the idea of a being made up of other beings, of a bird (so to speak) made of birds’20. Then Borges goes on to tell the myth of the Simurgh, a bird of birds, but he also mentions ‘that strange king made up of men which covers the pediment of Leviathan’. He refers to the first edition of Hobbes’s book from 1651, where a colossus, whose body has been made up of dozens of bodies, emerges. El androbosque is those allegoric monsters’s sibling. In contrast with the geometrical stiff elements of an artificial, mechanical or architectonic nature, vegetal elements, like those boughs which form this work, seem to convey an older wisdom, and this tree-man thus formed appears in front of us (resembling a priest). Three decades later, Rafael Navarro used similar images to draw Vórtice, which is one of his most successful ‘polyphonies’. Static elements are used here to recall movement. The natural or (the telluric) shows a double side in both pieces: the wise side and the sinister side. Related to this is the work called Los cuatro cielos (1995). The images, difficult to decipher, are in fact waves breaking against a boat keel. They are arranged on a block of four, producing a misleading impression, playing with confusion. Here black and white becomes a conceptual device, not just an aesthetic one, because it allows us to take a water image for an airy image. Rafael Navarro uses them as a writing tool. This device of the sign-image is usual in Rafael Navarro. They are not identical, repeated images any longer but similar images, similar to one another like the letters of an alphabet, which are different but siblings after all. Rizos is the first piece where human skin, the major motif of Rafael Navarro’s photographs, shows its colours. On the skin, the hair wisps resemble a kind of undecipherable handwriting. Thus, through a succession of inscriptions, chance generates a language impossible to be decoded.

Some of the plastic ‘objects’ created by Rafael Navarro look like sculptures rather than paintings. Viento sur (1991) or Caminantes (1994). Both works are related to those humanized architectonic orders where body parts replace columns or corbels21. Here we could speak about photographic orders. And this leads us to an allegorical context. Fundamentally, these works are shaped like symmetric sequences of columns, columns made up of piled up photographs, repetitive images like construction elements (literally keystones). Viento sur is a gothic piece. At the base of each of its five columns, of an undulating material, a face takes the place of a corbel. Caminantes was conceived as a tribute to the Camino de Santiago22. The columns or stone markers which form it alternatively show a rising sequence of bare feet and a sequence of speckled black flagstones, each of which is in fact a fragment of starry sky. With such simple elements Rafael Navarro builds a piece which is a poem and a monument at the same time. Whereas the feet speak about pilgrims, the flagstones speak about the stars and the Milky Way which leads to Santiago.

The series El Despertar (1989) is one of the most voluptuous of Rafael Navarro’s productions, and at the same time, one of the most mystic. Its poetic counterpart would be Valente’s collection of poems Mandorla. As usual, the image of a naked woman is partial, as is what we see of a sculpture. Paradoxically, in some of the photos it seems it is the body, the knee, which penetrates the inert matter. But fired clay is only apparently inert. It seems to be waiting for a signal to wake up. According to Antonio Ansón, this work shows to what extent Rafael Navarro’s work is linked to the ground: ‘symbiosis, not just visual, but gestural and physical, between two living materials of the same symbolic origin: clay23. The photographer produces several ‘polyphonic’ pieces related to this series. In Duos I y II he plays with the same image without forcing it to any inversion but to the simple effect of repetition and turning. The clay object lies on the woman, right under her navel. The photograph accurately registers the weight of the object on the body, and we can almost say that we feel the difference between their temperature. The image looks like yin and yang. The male principle (the clay object) clearly conquers the woman’s skin. The matching skin-clay pair is made to turn around completing a mill sail of four copies of the same photo. Moreover, two of these wheels are chained like gears, creating a horizontal movement, from left to right. Dúo II is set vertically, the figures close over themselves and the outcome is more spectacular, but still our eyes are being led from bottom to top. This simple game of separating or joining shapes as in a mill sail (like the one which distinguished the two versions of Silencio) is the protagonist of the unusual horizontal sequence called Los siete signos. The white space in the middle of each sign, around which the photographs spin, and which expands or contracts, becomes a paradoxical protagonist. The objectification which the referent, the female body, seems to suffer is just apparent. Conversion into a sign is a kind of sacralization.

Fragmentation and repetition make things and bodies meaningful pieces of a poetic puzzle, linguistic elements. The simple translation of the inert into a photographic image, aided by time, is a ‘movement’ (in platonic terms) which retains part of its sense and in its translation creates another one, an added value. In a classic essay24, Philip Wheelwright pointed out that the very term ‘metaphor’ contains the idea of movement. The beginning of the metaphor of ‘metamorphosis’ is a possible key to the understanding of the mechanism of metaphors. ‘The process of transformation involved –he writes– can be described as a semantic movement, and its idea is embedded in the very word ‘metaphor’, since the movement (phora) that the term involves is of a semantic nature: the double imaginative act of going over what is obvious and of combination which is the basic characteristic of the metaphorical process’. Immediately afterwards, Wheelwright gives a comparison between two kinds of metaphors: Epiphora and Diaphora. ‘The first one goes beyond and extends the meaning through comparison, the second one refers to the recreation of new senses through juxtaposition and synthesis’. It is not surprising to see how these two principles work in Rafael Navarro’s Dípticos and ‘polyphonies’. In some diptychs, which we would call epiphoric, one thing and another are related either in a positive or in a negative way, and they are shown as possible terms of comparison. The tree and the body, for instance. The diaphoric is associated with abstraction, with sheer juxtaposition of the diverse, without even considering contradiction. When diverse things gather, they become somehow equivalent and objectified because they adopt an aesthetic and relational value. Radical diaphora would come from the mere juxtaposition of identical things: of a word which we would place right after itself, or a repeated expression, or an object, or a form, which is something that happens in some of the ‘polyphonies’. However, and unlike what could have characterized the typical minimalist, Rafael Navarro is an artist of synthesis and his works combine both epiphoric and diaphoric aspects. Even in his most obscure works, he is a creator of senses and not a strictly tautological artist.

A poet Wheelwright refers to is Wallace Stevens, who is also a theorist of Poetry in The Necessary Angel. Here Poetry (and Art) is identified with Metaphor, and Metaphor with Metamorphosis25. He tells us about ‘the symbolic language of metamorphosis'25. Wallace Stevens starts with some images present at the end of Ecclesiastes (12, 6): the silver thread, the gold cup, the pitcher by the spring, the pulley of the well. These images are not the language of reality, says the poet, but the symbolic language of metamorphosis. When talking about Rafael Navarro, the fact that the terms used when talking about Poetry do a better job than the terms used when talking about Photography, leads us to its specificity. When Antonio Ansón26 said that in the 1970s Rafael Navarro represented a counterproposal to photographic orthodoxy, I think he referred to something similar. That is also why Rosa Olivares27 spoke about the author’s personal abstraction, crowded with ‘apparent’ realisms, luminous bodies, and other illuminated bodies’. Realisms which are not real, tools of a symbolic language. And within this device of abstraction and poetic re-elaboration, the use of polyphonies, of the oncoming image or the metaphor is something indispensable. Several of his polyphonies are the sheer expression of a transformation.

In Ella (1987), an early ‘polyphony’, movement is pretended. It goes from a body covered by a veil to a body apparently naked on wood, at an intermediate phase, and to a naked body, in the last stage. This is a sequence and a collage of photos which complement and substitute each other, little by little. This may be the most perfect model of metamorphosis in Rafael Navarro’s entire work. This alternation of dressed and naked figures also appears in that labyrinth which makes up El portón de los miedos (1989) and here there is the unforgettable sequence from Árbol de la libertad (1997) arranged to form a triangular composition, with its way up and its way down. Here, a dressed female protagonist goes towards the tree (which actually is some bushy ruins) and emerges from it naked. The slow solemn upward and downward movement looks like a rite where the priestess gains access to the altar and comes back purified. In these cases Rafael Navarro revives the concept of nakedness as a symbol of purity or perfection. Here we can remember a line by Octavio Paz: ‘like my thought, you are naked’28. A woman nude is a mental question. And it also reminds me of the paradigmatic poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez where pure poetry appears like a woman who undresses until she reaches the perfection of nakedness29. This motif is typical of the Renaissance. Titian’s painting, Sacred Love and Profane Love, is a well-known example. Erwin Panofsky says that ‘nakedness becomes an attribute of positive values- not only of truth but also, looking at Ripa’s book, of other concepts as high as female Beauty, Genius (Ingegno), Friendship, Love, Clarity or Brightness (Chiarezza) and eternal Happiness in contrast to ephemeral Happiness30. However, in the Middle Ages a naked woman could have negative connotations, becoming the symbol of evil and temptation. For Rafael Navarro, the second meaning can be added to the first one or rather, if we leave aside comparisons between the positive and the negative, the nude can take either Apollonian –light-readings or Dyonisian –dark-readings. The latter ones are dominant in some series which could be called ‘choreographic’, like La danza de la vida y de la muerte (2003). Translated into photographic language, we see the comparison between stillness and movement, even frenzy, in several cases. And we already see it from the start, from the contrast in Formas y Evasiones, his first two series dating from 1975, which can be considered Apollonian –the first one– and Dyonisian –the second one; one static, the other dynamic. But the same game is played within the same work. From El desafío (1990) until very recent works like Divertimento a tres. A variant is the game between a woman and her shadow. The nine sketches of the extraordinary ‘polyptich’ Tabla de las sombras is its best example.

At this point we had better go back to the preliminary dichotomy, Daguerre versus Muybridge, and to Muybridge’s fertile example. Quite a few of the polyphonies come from a choreographic action, from a model (or a dancer) or from several of them interacting, like that couple whose dancing was broken down by Muybridge. On other occasions, Rafael Navarro uses vegetal elements on which our look remains still, being an external element which causes the movement. So, a palm tree swinging in the wind. Figure-background duality, and especially the relationship between the female figure and a door, or the space within the opening, is used on several occasions. The threshold motif reminds us of a photographer venerated by Rafael Navarro, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, with whom he shares surrealist inclinations. This background door or threshold remains still, but what we appreciate thanks to this is not a physical movement but a state of mind. In El portón de los miedos, mentioned above, the woman appears and disappears, sometimes dressed, sometimes naked, and the images are not arranged as a sequence, but as a labyrinth, an image of the existential labyrinth, where decisions are difficult to change. We also see how Rafael Navarro is able to turn over the problem of the moving object in front of a static background. In Panteón, one of his last colour digital works, Rafael Navarro shows images of clouds through the famous hole of the Pantheon’s dome in Rome. The terms of still background and moving object are disrupted31.

Duality prevails, balancing the opposites. Light and darkness live together in the camera’s objectively subjective eye. The philosopher Andrés Ortiz-Osés proposes that we accept this duality without falling into dualism, proposing an old ‘dualectic’ rather than Hegel’s dialectics. ‘In the original dialectic –he says– the opposites –good and evil, positive and negative, God and the devil– will appear in a mutual co-implicity32’. Adopting this duality is what allows the various mechanisms to set off and activate the ‘polyphonies’: narration, metaphor, allegory, repetition. Ellipsis, too. And their games of variations and permutations. Rafael Navarro arrived at a point zero in the second version of Silencio, when in fact the multiple images not only spring from originally being just one thing, and from something which cannot be portrayed, but from something which is that very background, clonic objects that come together to produce a second polyphonic object which annuls their multiplicity. From this silence, some processes of variable complexity are developed. Kirk Varnedoe analyzed the processes of fragmentation and repetition, similar to Rafael Navarro’s, in various precursors of the avant garde. He reminds us that in the case of Rodin ‘fragmentation and repetition functioned (..) as instances of the sculptor’s processes made evident in the product. By showing these processes... he (...) introduced an evident self-conciousness about the artificiality of art’s means’33. These forms of fragmentation and repetition become something usual in the 1970s. ‘The many forms of semishamanistic art of the 1970s, which drew on Minimalist forms as the core of more personal, earthy expression, demonstrated that repetition is a form basic not only to clinical rationalism but also to fetishism and private ritual’34. This can be applied to Rafael Navarro’s polyphonies. It is not by chance that the birth of the ‘diptychs’ and ‘polyphonies’ coincides with the increase of pictorial developments which describe an extension of the painting as such. Also the developments of contemporary dance (Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs) can be linked to these strategies. It is not just a strategy of rationalization, cataloguing, or musical variations like an ornament, but polyphonies also become a means of appealing to the senses and of the complex expression of complex ideas. All the devices are put into play. From the very beginning the morphological variations can be seen. The first four of these polyphonies, apparently so different from one another, El androbosque, La sombra inextinguible, Ella y Silencio I, can perfectly work as the forebears of some working guidelines which have been extended and enriched until today. The construction of images with images, choreographies of shadows, metamorphosis, radical objectualization. Turning to colour and digital techniques is part of this development. And let us note that these innovations, so striking in a photographer like Rafael Navarro, are applied with constructive purposes which are consistent with his ‘classical’ work. In the end, it is all about poetic work solidly supported by images. A work in which, as Wallace Stevens said, the poet or the artist ‘can reach nothingness, because he is successful’35, while the philosopher will have reached that same nothingness being unsuccessful.



Alejandro J. Ratia

February 2016




1 Lines from Piedra de sol. In Libertad bajo palabra. FCE. México,1981. p. 253.

2 Roland Barthes. La cámara lúcida. Nota biográfica sobre la fotografía. Paidós. Barcelona, 2004. p.46

3 Platón. Parménides. Trad. Guillermo R. de Echandía. Alianza Editorial. Madrid, 2015. p.84

4 From the entry “imagen”, in the Diccionario de Filosofía abreviado by José Ferrater Mora. Edhasa. Barcelona, 1978.

5 His first solo exhibition had been at Prisma gallery in 1973.

6 In nº 1-2 of Trama magazine, 1977.

7 However, Rafael Navarro’s abstract and decontextualized photogra­phs come from shots taken in many places because the photographer is a keen traveller. Here is Tarazona; the Fundación Miró in Barcelo­na; the remains of Mitla in Mexico; a deconsecrated monastery near Novo Mesto in Slovenia; the coast of Galicia…

8 And it is also the forerunner of a remarkable digital diptych made in 2015, Desencuentro, where the two halves of a torso are separated, as if by magic, producing the effect of a draughtsboard, the white skin in contrast with the dark trunk in the background. An effect of objectifi­cation which takes us back to Surrealism, to Magritte or Dalí.

9 The horizontal format of the images is imposed by having to read the two stills one after the other.

10 Rafael Alberti. Obras completas. Poesía III Seix Barral. Barcelona, 2006.p.546. Baladas y canciones del Paraná. Canciones II. Canción 13.                 

11 Text included in the book Dípticos. Rafael Navarro. PhotoVision, 1986.

12 In the catalogue of a solo exhibition of Rafael Navarro’s work at the Palacio Kiosco Alfonso in La Coruña, 1986.

13 Agustín García Calvo. De los números. La Gaya Ciencia. Barcelona, 1976. p.186.

14 So digital photography becomes a kind of new awareness of the me­dium.

15 Rebekah Modrak. Bill Anthens. Reframing Photography. Theory and Practice. p.324. Routledge. Abingdon, 2011

16 Where we can intuit a reference to Un descendant un escalier by Duchamp, and indirectly to Futurism, which inherited its inherited its interest in the deconstruction of movement from Muybridge and Marey.

17 Rorschach’s pattern reappears in one of Rafael Navarro’s most stun­ning series, his clearest foray into the realm of the  sublime: Miedos, images of waves breaking against the rocks, set in startling symme­tries, on the Costa de la Muerte.

18 It is in one of his earliest 'polyphonies', La sombra inextinguible, whe­re this motif is used for the first time.

19 Paraíso.  Canto XIX.

20Jorge Luis Borges. Nueve ensayos dantescos. Espasa-Calpe. Madrid, 1982. p.139.

21 Juan Antonio Ramírez. Edificios-cuerpo. Siruela.  Madrid, 2003. p.31.

22 This piece was made for the collective exhibition, entitled Itinere, organised for the opening of the CGAC, Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo.

23 Antonio Ansón. Rafael Navarro. El ciclo oferente. La Fábrica. Madrid, 2002.

24 Philip Wheelwrigth. Metáfora y realidad. Trad. Cesar Armando Gómez. Espasa-Calpe. Madrid, 1979. p.73.

25 Wallace Stevens. El ángel necesario. Ensayos sobre la Realidad y la Imaginación. Traducción de A. J. Desmonts. Visor. Madrid, 1994. p.57.

26 Op cit.

27 In his text for the catalogue of the exhibition Cuerpos iluminados. Ayuntamiento de Zaragoza. 2006. p. 19.

28 From Piedra de sol.

29 “And she took off her tunic,/ and appeared completely naked . . . / My lifelong passion, naked poetry, mine for ever!”

30 Erwin Panofsky Tiziano. Problemas de iconografía. Trad I Morán García. Akal. Madrid, 2003. p. 117-118.

31 Panteón is another example of the viewer’s eyes being led, forced to see through a hole or a fissure. This goes back to another model in the preceding El guiño de la vida (The wink of life) (1987), a four-stage sequence showing some torn material. Here we can have a partial intermittent look through a hole which is moving, unlike the one in Panteón.

32 Andrés Ortiz-Osés. Las claves simbólicas de nuestra cultura. Anthropos. Barcelona,1993. p.101.

33 Kirk Varnedoe. A fine disregard. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. NY,1990. p.127.

34 Op. cit. p.171.

35 Op. cit. p. 38.