Thirty years or so ago, I found myself trudging up a very steep street in the hills above Barcelona, on my way to visit Antoni Tàpies in his studio. I was there because I wanted to talk to him about his relationship with his Catalan colleague Salvador Dalí, whose biography I was writing at the time.
The studio, which had previously been a garage, was on the ground floor. Hanging at eye level on its exposed brick walls were pieces from his collection. The most eye-catching were the paintings by Miró which were, quite honestly, marvellous. Shelves held African masks and primitive carved wooden figures, and I also noticed Homme (Apollon), a tiny Giacometti sculpture inspired by African and Oceanic art.
‘For me the work of art — whatever it is… has its own individuality,’ Tàpies once said. ‘The fact that it may hang on a wall is incidental; it is something complete unto itself. Some collectors never hang their paintings. I think this respect for the work is crucial, as are the withdrawal and concentration necessary for the contemplation of a single work.’ It is one of those curious coincidences that ‘Tàpies’ derives from the Catalan word ‘tàpia’, meaning ‘wall’.
Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012) was the most important member of the Art Informel movement to come out of Spain in the latter part of the 20th century, and his personal collection offers a unique insight into the powerful bond that existed between this revolutionary artist and the paintings, sculptures and artefacts he acquired over the course of his lifetime.
Within this wide-ranging collection — which is being offered in Christie’s Art of the Surreal sale and Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale, both on 27 February — is a core group of pieces by some of the most important figures of the 20th-century avant-garde, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso.
Of particular importance was Miró, with whom Tàpies enjoyed a close relationship dating to his first visit to his studio in 1948. They got on so well, in fact, that Miró adopted his younger compatriot as his protégé.
‘He showed me all the works he had in his studio,’ Tàpies told me, ‘and they were extraordinary. He took a great deal of time to explain the thinking and philosophy behind his art and I was very moved. We became close friends, discussing art and exchanging ideas over many years, and he was enormously encouraging. We often swapped paintings, which is why I have these marvellous examples on my walls here to look at and study every day.’
Tàpies explained that he had started out as a virtually self-taught artist. He was influenced by the Surrealist and Dada movements, and helped to set up Dau al Set — ‘the seventh face of the die’ — a Catalan artistic movement that was similarly inspired by dreams and the unconscious.
He wasn’t very complimentary about Dalí, though — I got the impression during our conversation that he thought him a lightweight as an artist and a man. So we left the subject of Dalí (somewhat to my relief) and talked instead of Tàpies’ visit to Picasso’s studio in the rue des Grand Augustins in the early 1950s, when Tàpies was living in Paris on a French government grant.
‘To visit the studio and to be shown by Picasso where he worked in a series of attic rooms with his close friend, Jaime Sabartés, was awe-inspiring,’ Tàpies recalled. ‘I had admired his early Cubist work when I had seen it in magazines as a teenager teaching myself to draw and paint, and here I was talking to one of the two early avant-garde artists I most admired.’
Our talk, which unfortunately for my biography was not very complimentary to Dalí, was utterly fascinating. The same could be said for his studio, with its wide-ranging collection of artworks that spanned Khmer statues, examples of Eastern art and African primitive pieces. I am so glad that I got to meet this delightful and very thoughtful man at the height of his career.