Antoni Tàpies - New Now London Thursday, July 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “If forms are not capable of wounding, irritating or inducing society to meditate, to make it realise how backward it is, if they are not a revulsive, then they are not authentic works of art.”
    —Antoni Tàpies

    One of the founding artists of the pioneering Art Informel movement, Antoni Tàpies came of age under the shadow of the Spanish Civil War and the conflicts around Catalan nationalism - a period marked by a brutality and violence that resonates with the artist’s treatment of form and the physicality of objects. Richly textured, the surface of Crani de vernís foregrounds the materiality of the painting itself, while the central skull motif carries these themes into a more focused meditation on the transience of life and the nature of our own corporeality.


    Emblazoned with the artist’s characteristic cruciform insignia, the skull of Crani de vernís draws directly on a long art historical legacy encompassing the pictorial traditions of the Vanitas still life and Memento mori. Most commonly featuring a skull, sometimes alongside other objects which symbolically reinforce the certainty of death and the vanity and fruitlessness of material wealth, the trope came to particular prominence during the late 16th and 17th centuries across Europe, with early Flemish and Dutch examples of the genre quickly evolving to suit the specific socio-cultural contexts of other regions. In Spain, the Vanitas tradition was heavily influenced by Catholicism, often featuring more overtly religious motifs and symbols as in the work of Juan de Valdés Leal and Antonio de Pereda y Salgado. While the religious emphasis here was on redirecting viewer’s attention from earthly concerns to more spiritual ones, the particular character of the Spanish Vanitas tradition is also closely tied to the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire, taking on new symbolic dimensions as the region’s global influence was eroded in the twilight years of the Spanish Golden Age.


    [left] Antonio de Pereda y Salgado, Vánitas c. 1660, Museo de Zaragoza
    [right] Dionisio Fierros, Vanitas, 1849, given to Museo de Zargoza by Hilarión Gimeno

    In this respect, Tàpies continues an art historical legacy that can traced through the Baroque flourishes of Antonio de Pereda y Salgado, to the somewhat ghoulish Vanitas of Dionisio Fierros. Supposedly depicting the skull of Francisco Goya, discovered to be missing when his remains were exhumed, the frontal presentation and luminosity of bone against velvety, swirling darkness is echoed in Crani de vernís, as is the prominent removal of the lower jaw. Just as the Vanitas had served as a cipher for reflections on a declining Empire in the 19th century, in the darkness of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War, Pablo Picasso also turned back to this more allegorical mode, producing his iconic cycle of angular, muted still lifes in response to the profound suffering and devastation being felt across Europe.


    Executed in 1988, Crani de vernís looks back at this same history, acknowledging the trauma and destruction of the 20th century as well as to our own, matter-bound existence. First coming to prominence in the 1940s, Tàpies was ‘of the generation defined by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s assertion that instead of understanding our bodies as something we have, we rather are our bodies. For Tàpies, the body was a site of representation since the 1950s, and a way of exposing what we refuse to see and confront, but that is essential to understanding our own conscience’ – a key feature of the Vanitas tradition.i


    The 1950s and 60s proved to be pivotal for the artist, who represented Spain La Bienalle di Venezia in 1958, following the critical success of his first exhibitions in America some years before. By 1962 Tàpies was the focus of a major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with large scale exhibitions mounted in subsequent decades at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including the Jeu de Paume in Paris, 1994 and the Reina Sofia in Madrid, 2000. His work is included in major international institutions including the Tate Collection in London; The Museum of Modern Art in New York; Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome; Musée art moderne – La Centre Pompidou, Paris; and of course, the Fondació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, opened just a few years before the execution of the current work.



    i ‘Antoni Tàpies. Revlusion and Desire’, Meer 23 February 2017, online.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Lelong, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Galerie Lelong, Tàpies, 16 February - 18 March 1989, no. 2, p. 32 (listed)

    • Literature

      Anna Augustí, Tàpies: Obra Completa, Volum 6è. 1986 - 1990, Barcelona, 2000, no. 5654, p. 543 (illustrated, p. 243)

Property From a South East Asian Private Collection


Crani de vernís

signed 'Tàpies' on the reverse
paint and varnish on canvas
115 x 146.5 cm (45 1/4 x 57 5/8 in.)
Executed in 1988.

Full Cataloguing

£120,000 - 180,000 ‡♠

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Gibbs
Associate Specialist, Head of New Now
+44 20 7901 7993

New Now

London Auction 13 July 2023