So much of an artist’s world tends to be interior, which can be a great incubator for thoughtful new insight. We count on the creative thinkers to expand on our understanding and take us to places never before considered. But when these new ideas jar with commonly held beliefs about the way things work, this duality can create tension. Standing in front of a concept that challenges our understood reality, one struggles to determine: What is Truth?
INTERVIEW WITH PAINTER RAFEL BESTARD
Mallorca, Spain ~
Rafel Bestard: I do not believe in a fixed and immutable reality. Truth is what is real to each one of us, moment by moment. Still, we have the need for coherence between the messages from the external world and our own experience. Our brain strives to create some sort of agreement.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In many of your pieces, we see a struggle between primal urges and the more “civilized” behaviors of day-to-day living. Your paintings invite us to re-examine and question: What is the natural state of being human? Are we rightful caretakers of this planet, of the other species with whom we share the earth and of each other? Or are we merely high-ranking predators to be closely governed and reined-in, lest our natural instincts take over and lead to disaster? I’m very curious to know, Rafel, as you paint these works, what unique insights and “truths” are coming to you?
Rafel Bestard: As complex and original as we may try to be, human beings are not something outside of nature; so everything human is inevitably natural.
I think it is somewhat pretentious to think that we should assume the role of caretakers of the planet. I don’t mean to say that endangering wildlife, polluting the atmosphere and the oceans until they are uninhabitable is something I like. The sustainability of life on Earth is something that interests us; our survival depends upon it. Yet I do not see art-making as an “oracular” activity.
Rafel Bestard: Art was born from the cult of the dead.
Rafel Bestard: The purpose of art has been and is to create meaning where meaning is otherwise elusive. It is not about discovering the meaning of the world, because that presupposes that meaning can be determined and it is not so. As (Franz) Kafka says in the conclusion of his Prometheus, we try to explain the inexplicable, to reveal Truth, but end up having to return to the inexplicable. I stay with that.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is the role of the artist then if a society is to thrive and prosper? Is art to act as a mirror? Or to place our vision elsewhere: somewhere unique and original to the creator’s own imaginings?
Rafel Bestard: Art identified as “self-expression” does not seem to be true art at all. I also do not see art as a mirror of society; although much can be seen reflected in art, it cannot be explained as a social “product.” And neither is it an engine of prosperity and progress. Progress is a myth. No, the role of the artist is to make art, and the role of art is to humanize the “inexplicable.”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: When the mind encounters incongruencies, the natural impulse is to close the gap between competing realities. Yet doesn’t aligning two opposing realities only serve to weaken the truth of both? Would we be better served holding the disparate ideas intact and separate in our minds, making room somehow for the validity of both?
Rafel Bestard: Experiencing something common as strange is evidence of seeing it now in a different way and is a constant in my painting. The sense of incongruity that you mention I am convinced is necessary; attempting to eliminate this tension does not serve us.
Rafel Bestard: Awareness of the uncomfortable mysteries of life removes the question of what it means to be human, which is precisely art’s value.
The inner experience collides with the external world, and suffering and knowledge follow. Because of our consciousness, this pain is often accompanied by a sense of injustice.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The 17th century English philosopher and physician John Locke argued in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding that the only real things we are able to perceive are our own ideas. Critics wondered that if this is indeed true, then how could one ever know that what one perceives in the world around us is the same as what others see? What then is real? In the world of literature, an “unreliable narrator” tells the reader a story but from a questionable viewpoint; the events reported may or may not be accurate portrayals of what actually occurred or at least not how others in the story perceived it. The reader must determine for her or himself what is Truth, which can be rather exciting. Do you see yourself creating a similar role for your viewers? Are you a reliable narrator or an unreliable narrator? Is there a difference? Does it even matter?
Rafel Bestard: A truly reliable narrator is not possible; believing any viewpoint is an act of faith. What we call “real” is an interpretation, a convention, and can be at best more or less valid.
A picture is more interesting symbolically when the meaning is uncertain. Is (the 19th-century French modernist painter, Édouard) Manet a reliable narrator in “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”?
Rafel Bestard: In my paintings, I work hard to achieve a certain ambiguity instead of conveying a clear and direct idea that would devalue what I want to paint. So, I often spend a lot of time adjusting and engaging in small nuances of the posture and expression of the model. I dislike the exaggeration, the grandiloquence. It’s like when an actor overacts in a movie: You don’t believe it, and you disengage.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Should we even attempt to discern the “truth”? Or are we better served by our own fantasies? Our own imaginations?
Rafel Bestard: Sometimes fantasy is a way in. Life can so easily become a constant struggle with ourselves as we continually question our ability to overcome challenge after challenge, a relentlessness that almost inevitably leads to exhaustion. We forget about the idea of a healthy balance and avoiding excess. But by enlisting the help of our imaginations in our search for truth, we may end up better understanding and accepting our complex selves.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I’m curious how you perceive your day as you move through it. How might others become more open to that which is unseen?
Rafel Bestard: I think that when you paint, you alternately play two different roles: the creator of the painting, and also the spectator. These roles cannot be exercised simultaneously, and it is important that they are kept separate. I especially avoid being a spectator of the process of painting, of witnessing myself painting. As the creator, the pictorial language itself is very important and what typically absorbs me: the way the figures stand out or fade and the resources I use to paint ~ the consistency of the paint, the direction, shape, and rhythm of the brushstroke, its relation to the format and general composition of the painting… When I paint, I’m only aware of painting; if not, it simply won’t work. I cannot play the spectator of the process without irremediably ruining the result. Likewise, in the role of spectator, I can only see the trace of the act of painting, that is the important thing and it is what others can also see. Like what I said to you about art: a picture, properly painted, creates meaning where there is none. When resorting to common places and what is already known, there is no possibility of any artistic experience.
To become better skilled at taking in art, one must be willing to accept the inexplicable; and that is something that makes us unequivocally human. It may seem disturbing, but only because of the arrogance of wanting to know everything and having everything under control. That experience shared as spectators in front of the mystery, which reconciles us with ourselves and at the same time with the world, is what is achieved through art.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Would you say that vulnerability is a helpful trait for an artist to possess?
Rafel Bestard: Of course, as long as it implies that you are sensitive and receptive. Only in this way can meaning be created from the experience of the world. Or reclaim what once made sense but became lost due to forgetfulness or overuse, and re-elaborate it so that it “becomes visible” again or is discovered in an unexpected way. It is impossible not to be affected, and therefore transformed, by this journey.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What makes a successful painting? What qualifies as “good art”? Do you have a favorite artwork that you feel realized this goal?
And there are those from different eras that make an impact on me as well, from the funeral portraits of Al-Fayum to de Kooning. Holbein, Titian, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Hals, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raeburn, Manet, Degas, Sorolla, Corinth, Balthus, Hodgkin.
Although I also think that sensitivity to different art forms is not fixed or universal, it adapts and evolves. It is complicated, so it is better not to be categorical when making statements about it. There are works and periods that reach us more than others because in some unpremeditated way they connect with our sensibility here and now. It happens to me with baroque painting. I connect more easily with Velázquez or Franz Hals. “The Spinners” is a wonder and a true painting lesson.
Rafel Bestard: In contrast, other painters do not connect with me. For example, Rubens is perhaps one of the best painters there has been, a true wonder. On the other hand, most of his “great” paintings are alien, overwhelming, too complicated.
Rafel Bestard: But if I approach Rubens’ work to see how he has done it, how his pieces are painted, then I surrender to the evidence that it cannot be done better. The domain of the trade, the economy of means, everything is relevant, nothing is left and nothing is missing…and yet…it does not work for me.
In the eighteenth century, Velázquez’s paintings were very little appreciated, even in his own time. Outside the influence of the Court of Madrid, it was not valued much; the nineteenth-century royalists and impressionists had to arrive and only then did it begin to be considered in another way.
What, then, makes a painting successful? It is something that exceeds its intrinsic quality, the skill and talent of the painter. It has to connect with the feeling of the moment. And this is largely unpredictable. There must be an “artistic will” that is independent of the historical situation, of fashions, social, political and religious movements. It has its own dynamic, and we artists can only follow that rule of the game.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What advice would you give to an artist just now coming up? What do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?
Rafel Bestard: In art there are no shortcuts, drawing is learned by drawing and painting by painting. Who has a voice ends up singing. Recipes, guides and prophets must be avoided. What the crowds come to see, or do not come to see is meaningless.
It is essential to know what it is to be an artist and, above all, what kind of artist you want to be. Beyond fashions, which are all transitory, art follows a deep and atavistic human current. That flow is not owned by anyone or anyone. It is true that there are those who have contributed more to the flow and innovation of the art form, but this is more about temperament. One can only be aware of that reality, understand how to place oneself in it and contribute what one has to contribute, which is something unique.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there themes or ideas you wish to explore next?
Rafel Bestard: I return to Frank Kafka’s Prometheus:
Four legends speak of Prometheus.
According to the first, they tied him to the Caucasus mountain range for having made known to men the divine secrets, and the gods sent numerous eagles to devour his liver.
According to the second, Prometheus, undone by the pain caused by the harrowing peaks, was embedded in the rock until he merged with it.
According to the third, his betrayal became forgotten as the centuries went by. The gods forgot it, the eagles forgot it, it forgot itself.
According to the fourth, everyone got bored of that absurd story. The gods got bored, the eagles got bored and the wound closed of tedium.
Only the unexplainable cliff remained.
Rafel Bestard was born in Palma de Mollorca, and studied at Beaux-Arts University in Barcelona. He currently teaches drawing in his hometown.
Using oil pigments he creates himself, Bestard fuses the fundamental opposites: light and shadow, life and death.
He has participated in several collective and personal exhibitions and has displayed his work in several countries, including Germany, Canada, China, U.S.A, France, and Turkey. In 2012, his painting, Then A Moment Gest and Conceals won the X Biennale of visual arts prize in the city of Albacete.
Follow Rafel Bestard on Instagram.
A very special thank you to Byron Cisneros for providing the translation for this interview. Mr. Cisneros, who is a graduate of Pepperdine University and works as a consultant in alternative energy systems, also provided the translation for my recent interview with Spanish figurative painter, Miguel Angel Moya. We look forward to many future collaborations.