13 Jan Toni Vidal – Life & Silence
Five kittens made from polychrome wood and a wind-up ladybird accompany me as I write this article about Toni Vidal. Given to me as gifts during my many visits to his flat in Barcelona and his house in Es Castell, they take me back to a world in which small objectes lead to a universal dimension and a different meaning. On one occasion, Toni took from his pocket three tiny pebbles from the sea, which he always carries with him, to draw my attention to the beauty of the world. It was then that I understood the reason for his work and its depth. In a world in which art and photography are more interested in questioning our perception of reality through mind games and confusing proposals, Toni Vidal proposes an art founded on truth, emotion and sincerity.
The anthological exhibition organised by the Insular Council of Minorca coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of his first exhibition in an art gallery (Sala Aixelà) in Barcelona, in 1968. Since then, Toni Vidal has worked incessantly, in silence and isolation, on a path that has led him to create a photographic archive made up of thousands of images, many of which are still in the darkroom as negatives. A small part of the photographs in this exhibition were included after having been taken many years ago, alongside others well known ones, which today are symbols of embodiment, in the words of Arthur Danto. In the latter photographs, known to many, which are laden with symbolism, there is excellence in the value of the ideas they embody and in the attitudes they provoke. Although the work of Toni Vidal is heterogeneous, the natural quality of his art and the ethical and moral values it contains make up a coherent, consistent whole, aside from the trends and the guidelines that are all too often imposed by photographic authorities.
The exhibition, understood as anthological, thus aims to allow visitors to examine his work with a selection of the photographs that best convey the spirit of each of the themes developed by the author: Portraits; Social Awareness (Men/Women/Work, the Gas Maó and La España Industrial); Minorca, and a Poetic Spirit. Nonetheless, they all have their origin in his work as a portrait photographer between 1951 and 1967, in Es Castell, which are exhibited. At the age of seventeen, Toni Vidal, a distant relative of the Minorcan photographer Llorenç Miquel, opened a photographic studio on Carrer de Sant Ignasi, under the supervision of Pere Martorell. Using an old enlarger and a laboratory with no running water, he learned to develop, touch up negatives, print and position lamps and customers, to get the best out of each one. Three grams of ethanol, five grams of hydroquinone, twenty-five grams of anhydrous sodium sulphite, thirty grams of potassium and sodium carbonate, one gram of bromide and a large dose of respect for the model attracted hundreds of soldiers, women, children, couples, farmers, fishermen and traders who asked: «Is in this hovel where they take such good photos?». That experience allowed Toni Vidal to master a technique that would later enable him to achieve an excellent command of the resources of light.
Created in 1854 by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disderí (1819-1889) with the purpose of recording physical features, small photographic images soon began to evolve towards the portrait photography genre. Toni Vidal was also drawn to the potentialities of this genre and in 1970 the author presented an exhibition entitled «Contemporary Catalan Artists». This was the beginning of one of his most rewarding types of production. Based on admiration, respect and affection, the portraits of intellectuals, artists, poets, writers, monks and persons in exile taken by Toni Vidal are surprising due to their psychological complexity, meticulousness and depth. According to Émile Zola, the face is the mirror of the soul and reflect all that seems to be hidden. The capacity of Toni’s camera to penetrate reveals pain, joy, sadness, inner strength, and the irony of them all. The photographs of Josep Pla, Joan Fuster and Maria Aurèlia Capmany are especially striking due to their capacity to examine each character in depth.
In the nineteen sixties, Toni Vidal first saw the signs of a Minorca that had started to undergo a social and economic transformation. The balance between the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, known as the Minorcan road to development, soon ceased to be a reality. The assignments that Toni Vidal was asked to take on were in many cases new buildings designed for the growing tourist industry. So he turned his camera to a Minorca in danger of disappearing, to which little attention was paid. The landscapes and forms of life in that old Minorca were gradually replaced by a Minorca that began to exploit tourism under the motto «Blue and white island». This is how Toni Vidal started out along the path to photography understood as a document… and as an art. Although his first impulse was to leave a record of all he saw, the sensitivity he used to capture light, characters and objects have given his work a first rate artistic quality. Today, Minorca, Gas Maó, Men/Women/Work and La España Industrial are extraordinary examples of how to give new meanings to visual reality, through an absolute mastery of the contrast of light and shadow and impossible blacks and whites. Beyond the nostalgia or melancholy of that bygone Minorca or those first jobs, the author proposes a different gaze, by transforming it. As Roland Barthes said in the book Camera lucida: «Photography only takes on its full value with the irreversible disappearance of the reference, the death of the photographed subject or the passing of time».
It is in this sense that Toni Vidal becomes an advocate of meanings and connotations. We can approach his photographs as historians, anthropologists, architects, sociologists, geologists, biologists, seekers of beauty and emotions, aestheticians or explorers of the secrets of life they contain. According to Toni Vidal: «Any attempt to explain what is inside us or before us, whether photography, writing or music, must be made using an impeccable technical command and a sensitivity that is able to bring to light part of this life, energy». For that reason, rather that visit his photographs, we must live in them.
In a world filled with noise and artificiality, Toni Vidal invites us to be silent. His photographs have the calm of a suspended time that transports us to an eternal present. Here lies the sensation of mystery generated by the gardens of St. John, the Pons Dock, the rocks or the onions. In the words of Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949): «We think we have discovered a secret grotto, filled with treasures, and we come out into the daylight with false gems in our hands. Even so, the treasure continues to glitter in the dark, motionless». So we must open our eyes and our hearts, says Toni Vidal. The universe and its beauty is present in the smallest object. And Minorca, a small island in the Mediterranean, made of light, wind and stone, where the north wind dies, provides the author with a poetic vision created from authenticity and silence.
In 1987 the artist embarked on a new path towards the synthesising and essentialisation of the photographed subject. Following the «Men/Women/Work» exhibition staged in 1983 at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona, where he exhibited two hundred photographs, his difficulty in integrating into the exhibition circuit became more and more evident. The abundance of theories pointing to a markedly conceptual idea of photography, which led the author to isolate himself. In response to this, Toni Vidal surprises us again by refocusing the lens of his Hasselblad to the simplest, the most austere and the most impoverished: rocks and vegetables. Here he discovers a beauty that is a pure manifestation of the beauty of the universe. In the same way as ancient civilisations considered stones sacred, he, too, discerned their sacred nature: «in a grain of sand is sufficient to allow us to see all of Minorca». By introducing colour, he allows us to discover the infinite wealth of textures, shapes, nerves, veins and whimsical oddities of pebbles eroded by the sea and the wind… «Pebbles are fruits of the earth ripened by the sea». It is not his wish to perform an aesthetic exercise, a mind game or to dissect the photographed object, «rather to show life and present it with as much emotion as possible».
As Joan Oliver says: «the man who discovers stone, who imagines it […] the poet of stone». And, in effect, Toni Vidal discovers these stones, cobles, pebbles and rocky places in order to draw our attention to the beauty and sublime nature of their shapes, colours and textures, just as the informalist painters in France, Spain and Germany and the arte povera in Italy did all those years ago. But Toni Vidal goes even further, by adding words to this visual poetry, conceived as a symphony of colours and shapes, the words of poets who, through their verses, are able to reach areas that images cannot reach, taking us to total art, the art that Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres seeks through the violin or Miquelangelo Buonarroti through architecture. In this sense, the books Menorca tot just ahir (Triangle Postals, 1999), Roques de Menorca (Triangle Postals, 2005) and, in particular, Vestits de ceba (Triangle Postals, 2012) are true gems and can be included in the category of books of art, available to be read, contemplated and experienced…, poetic objects. The photographs of the tunics wrapped around the onions tell us this, with their fragility, like «graceful bodies that dance amidst tulle veils» (Àngel Mifsud). He, along with Joan Brossa, Joan Perucho, Pere Xerxa, Josep Palau i Fabre, Narcís Comadira, Antoni Moll Camps and many others, form a constellation of verses that magnify the life that Toni Vidal reveals to us with truth, depth and affection. As Susanna Rafart rightly said, he is the best known photographer of the poets and the least know poet of the photographers, in a continuous interior exile that reminds us of the monks of Montserrat photographed by him.
This anthological exhibition is a great tribute to Toni Vidal, and also to the poets who, through the music of their words, have accompanied us to these new worlds that Toni Vidal has revealed to us. I would like to express my sincere thanks for the verses Margarita Ballester, José Corredor-Matheos, Pere Gomila, Francesc Florit Nin and Sònia Moll have dedicated to our great 20th century photographer in this catalogue. It is heartening to see that this modest, solitary Toni Vidal who is committed to humanity, and loves all that surrounds him, including a grain of sand or a blade of grass, has so many friends who love and appreciate him. And of all these, Lucienne, who, with her light, has illuminated Toni’s life, night and day.
Toni Vidal, a writer of light, advocate of senses and discoverer of lives.
MEMBER OF THE CURATORIAL TEAM