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A ruined fresco's reminder of Dadaism

23rd August 2012

Dadaism is one of the most interesting concepts to have emerged in modern art. It is arguably not an art movement, which would fit in with its philosophical ideas. Conceived during the fighting of the First World War, its spiritual founders were of the opinion that humanity had let itself down and reached an absolute nadir and thus they rejected everything, even art.

What they produced as artists was "non-art", paradoxical, confounding, ironic and poetic. It was an expressive way of effacing oneself, which may explain why it could never be labelled or endure as a coherent movement. Thus it acted more as a catalyst for everything that has followed, from postmodernism to surrealism and even street art. It is the true definition of iconoclasm.

We can only wonder what they would have thought of the doings of an 80-year-old woman in the city of Borja in Spain then. The lady in question, with good intentions it has to be said, set to restore a faded nineteenth century fresco painting by a hitherto unknown artist and ended up creating something unique.

Elias Garcia Martinez's Ecce Homme (Behold the Man), though still intact, had been damaged quite extensively with the passing of time, as natural moisture seeped through the walls and eroded patches of paint. However, the original image was still visible.

It is a fairly average painting by critical standards, though it has to be said Martinez's rendering of a persecuted Christ in a crown of thorns was nevertheless produced with skill, subtle brushstrokes, creating accurate levels of shade and colour. The current version, courtesy of the unnamed woman, is anything but recognisable.

Without context, it would be hard to identify the now substantially inferior painting as that of Jesus, with thick, broad strokes, coupled with deep colours, transforming it into what we can conceivably refer to as "nothing".

Or, if you prefer, as the BBC's European correspondent Christian Fraser described the "once dignified" painting, "a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic". Such phraseology might induce laughter but it is anything but amusing. Accordingly, because of its absurdity, what it does provoke is a certain sense of tragicomedy.

The fascinating thing about the story is that it has brought worldwide attention to a nondescript work and an unheard-of artist. There is something of Dadaism in this. Martinez's Ecce Homme was art, but its relative anonymity made it invisible. Is that then anti-art or a consequence of fortune? It can be argued either way.

Now that it is ruined, we have now all heard and seen the fresco. It is perceptible to all and discussed as a work of art. Although the original version now only exists in a photograph that was luckily taken two years ago, we are still able to appreciate it as an agreeable painting. Dadaists might have called this anti-art.

As the original no longer exists, do we lament this? While it has been reported that an attempt to salvage Martinez's work is to be attempted, perhaps comfort can be found in the wonderful words of Jerry Saltz. The respected American art critic was discussing what it meant that Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, a defining Dadaist work of art, no longer physically existed, save for a now iconic photograph.

"Fountain is what's called an "acheropoietoi", [sic] an image not shaped by the hands of an artist," he wrote in 2006. "Fountain brings us into contact with an original that is still an original but that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state. It is a manifestation of the Kantian sublime: A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up stronger."

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