José Manuel Ballester at Spanish Muse: A Contemporary Response
The Meadows Museum, Dallas
Through December 12
by Lisa Pon
José Manuel Ballester has long been interested in deserted spaces, from his lithograph of an enormous vaulted airport terminal (Aeropuerto, 1993) to his photograph of an eerily unpopulated view of urban skyscrapers (Vista de Hong Kong, 2006). Given his early training as a restorer of Flemish and Italian paintings, it comes as no surprise that he’s also made museums his subject—not the teeming spaces of viewing captured by Thomas Struth (whose 2005 photos in front of Velázquez’s Las Meninas are also on exhibit in Spanish Muse), but an empty hallway filled with natural and artificial light in P.S. 1, or the galleries of the Rijksmuseum, shorn of artwork and public, while undergoing restoration in 2005. Ballester’s contribution to Spanish Muse at the Meadows Museum brings that emptiness into painting itself. El Jardin Deshabitado (2008) is a photograph of Hieronymus Bosch’s renowned triptych of c. 1500, now in the Prado Museum, The Garden of Earthly Delights—but in his version, the living creatures have been digitally removed.
Ballester’s photograph looks huge. Though it is roughly the same size as the Prado painting, the removal of Bosch’s dense population of human beings and oversized animals not only throws the backdrop into the limelight but also magnifies its expansiveness. The glowing green meadow around the circular pool in the central panel is littered with the accoutrements we remember being carried or used by Bosch’s figures—a bright red cherry impaled on an ivory spike, for instance, or a curled blue petal that had served as a saddle for a trio precariously balanced on a camel. The landscape of the left-hand panel (in Bosch’s triptych usually described as prelapsarian) is pristine, while the right-hand panel, devoid of Bosch’s impassive monsters and tortured humans, retains the tree-man, his eggshell body now empty of the nude figures Bosch had placed inside. The tree-man’s face, in Bosch’s painting often interpreted as a self-portrait of the painter and in Ballester’s work the last vestige of humanoid presence, peers out at the viewer with a curiously blank gaze.
Many motivations for Ballester’s overdetermined work were deeply personal—from the death of a friend, to a dream the artist had of running through an empty Prado Museum in his native Madrid, to his sense of being an artist “orphaned” and cut off from the great tradition of Old Master painting represented there. Yet he is not alone in his strategy of digitally depopulating master paintings. In 2006, British artist Nicky Coutts also made a series of digitally altered photographs. Titled Another Land, the works included three images after Bosch’s great triptychs: the Temptation of St. Anthony, the Last Judgment, and significantly, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The differences between the Ballester’s Jardin Deshabitado and Coutts’ Another Land I are striking despite their common approach to The Garden of Earthly Delights. The desolation in Coutts’ garden is greater: its central meadow is left completely bare, and even the tree-man is removed, save for his empty supporting boats/shoes. After her digital interventions, Coutts’ landscape is printed as a black and white photograph. While its large scale—one-to-one with Bosch’s work—gives Another Land I a monumentality akin to the painted triptych, its black-and-white production and modernist presentation make reference to the photographic reproduction of an ever-growing corpus of artworks that André Malraux called the “museum without walls.” Mounted on aluminum and hung on the wall with spaces between the three panels, Coutts’ empty, black-and-white garden addresses the issue of photography’s relationships with Old Master painting. As Joseph Leo Koerner stated in the catalogue for Another Land, “To recognize the images in Coutts’ image is to experience the déjà vu of a masterpiece within a vast historical cascade of copies. The disappearance of the original’s figurative core dramatizes this distance from the source.”
Ballester, whose depopulated images draw almost exclusively on Old Master paintings in the Prado, retains the signposts of museological display and authority in his work. The black and gold frame, the museum label and even the white inventory numbers painted on the lower corners of the side panels of Bosch’s painting all reappear in El Jardin Deshabitado. As Francesco Calvo Serraller points out, in looking at Ballester’s work, we are asked to recall “the cultural institution as landscape, as our backdrop, as that which is behind us. In one way or another, the artists of our times have never forgotten this perspective, be it as a support or a hindrance.” For Ballester, self-proclaimed orphan-artist, the museum appears to be both.
Lisa Pon is an art historian and associate professor at Southern Methodist University.