"Death can be a beautiful subject and I have treated it many times," Claudio Bravo reflected some years ago. "I don't know if I believe in an afterlife. If there's nothing after we die then death will be an enormous rest. I'm not afraid of death. I remember that my father, moments before he died, took my hand and said 'This is the most interesting day of my life.'"(1) It was with this cool equanimity of mind that Bravo turned toward his most recent cloth study series, begun in 1997 and continued through 2002. Christened with religious titles-- Psalterium, Benedictus, Offertorio, Annunciation--the series makes the sacred tantalizingly sensual through Bravo's justly famous magical illusionism and lush distillations of color. In the monumental Annunciation, yards of lustrous fabric in rich shades of emerald green and ultramarine blue stretch seamlessly across two panels, vividly conjuring the Biblical message given by the archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive the son of God. The miracle of conception and the propitious tidings foretold find transcendental and becoming translation in the lightly billowing folds and creases of the material. The festive draping and the joyous flickering of light on the fabric set a felicitous mood, and the verdant color harmonies strike an appropriately auspicious note.
"I'm not a religious artist," Bravo is careful to point out, "but like great non-Catholic composers who wrote masses, I feel comfortable doing religious paintings."(2) Raised in a conservative Catholic environment and educated by the Jesuits in his native Chile, Bravo developed an early interest in Spanish mystical spirituality, fostered by his readings of the saints John of the Cross and Teresa de Avila. During his formative years in Madrid, he found a psychic empathy with the religious painters of the Spanish Golden Age, notably with Francisco de Zurbarán. But it would be his removal to Tangier in 1972 that would elevate his spirituality onto a more universal plane. "The intensity of spiritual vision which was already inherent in Bravo's imagination was both underscored and transformed through his contacts with the Islamic world," Sullivan has remarked. "The concentration of emotional force with which Bravo is faced through his contacts with everyday life in Morocco has served, more than anything else, as a catalyst to reinvigorate his predisposition for seeing the world through a veil of spirituality."(3)
Bravo's recent cycling back to spiritual themes, undertaken just as he came into the seventh decade of his life, suggests that the present series may also reflect a more metaphysical and contemplative turn of mind. Tellingly, he has returned frequently in recent conversations to the nature and nuance of an 'old-age' style. The formal problem that Bravo has identified for his practice today is one of what he calls "fluidity," of "paring down what you paint, trying to get at the essentials." He claims a precedent in the masterful late-career poetics of Titian and Velázquez in particular--"I certainly have these artists in mind as I go about trying to evoke greater poetry and a sense of light in my art"--and has drawn from their example a freer handling of paint and an irrepressible vitality. "Drawing virtually disappears," Bravo notes almost incredulously about their late work, but in those compositions "completely dissolved in light and color" he fully admits that "the effect is splendid."(4)
Bravo has taken deliberate aim at "imperceptivity" in his painting, seeking a more intense and emotional aesthetic experience that he traces further to his own study of the ancients. "I am interested in the classical ideal of perfection of the concept, perfection in terms of philosophy," he has explained. "I am deeply interested in calibration or harmony, something that also stems from my interest in the ancients."(5) Bravo is a serious collector of Greco-Roman art, and his classicizing instinct takes a self-conscious cue from the essential clarity of antique sculptural forms. He brings that essentializing impulse to bear in the streamlined folds of Annunciation, which recall the sensuality of classical drapery, but radically updates his older source. Here, in the frieze-like frontality of his softly expansive fabric, he soulfully draws out the spirit of the Annunciation through the purified language of abstraction. His Annunciation is, finally, a celebration of spiritual experience through jubilant and emotional color, its sacred story given new, transcendental grace in this late meditation on the nature of painting and of life itself.
(1) E. J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo, New York: Rizzoli, 1985, 76.
(3) E. J. Sullivan, "Obsession and Meditation: A Decade of Work by Claudio Bravo," Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings, 1964/2004, New York: Rizzoli, 2005, 256.
(4) "Conversation with Edward Sullivan," Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings, 1964/2004, New York: Rizzoli, 2005, 140-41.
(5) Ibid., 146.