Presons íntimes

Assumpció Mateu

(Girona, 1952 - )

Presons Íntimes (Intimate prisons)

Assumpció Mateu


Two stages on the journey of life


Assumpció Mateu has waned o bring together two important times of her life, two periods of reflection and exploration which are, respectively, the start of her artistic career and her most recent period of artistic production. Two periods and two series seemingly very different but which are, in fact, linked by a series of characteristics which demonstrate, once and for all, her creative ability and the faculty she has had right from the beginning for looking around her and capturing various languages and making them her own. It is a method which produced results and allowed her to rapidly forge ahead.

The first pieces are from 1974 and 1975, when Assumpció was finishing her studies at the Facultat de Belles Arts de Barcelona, during the last years of Franco’s dictatorship. The political repression at the time was not as fierce as it had been in previous decades, but there was still a climate of continuous tensions, a lack of freedom, which in the case of Catalonia has had a direct bearing on its sense of identity, both as a culture and as a people. In universities many student groups spent their time as best they could in the struggle. Assumpció was part of clandestine theatre group with she fully identified. They were a group of young people who, like her, used art as a way of demonstrating their opinions and to raise awareness to what was happening around them. Some of her companions were imprisoned and Assumpció found in her work a way of demonstrating support for her friends.

She felt, paradoxically, that her companions in jail were freer tan she was outside. This feeling, the perception or conception that liberty comes from inside us because nobody can take away our thoughts, led her to create a group of works using differing formats, technique and materials which she entitled Prsons Íntimes (Inner Prisons), which makes up the first series of this present exhibition.

Her main intention was not to produce works which were aesthetically impeccable. She was at an extremely important point in her life – the awakening of her political and social consciousness. It was a stage of personal and artistic exploration in which art offered and opportunity to say -I am here and I am fighting using what I know how to do.

This is how she produced the group of woks which are now being exhibited for the first time and which show us that even early on Assumpció Mateu had very clear ideas as to what she wanted to do. In them we can discern the basis of her later development.

It should be emphasised that from very young she took pains to draw from a wide body of influences nourished by painters, writers, poets and filmmakers who all left their mark. We could say that in these works we can find visual references to Tàpies, Millares, Burri, Motherwell and Miró. They formed part of a natural process of development of her work at a time when Informalism played a central role in the production of the most advanced art in or country. These references help to understand the character of these works, as well as later ones, since many of them have been retained along her career.

Amongst these characteristics we fin: the value given to materials (cardboard, wood, paper, newspaper, sticking plasters, bandages for plaster casts, plastic, string, soil, rags, powdered marble, sawdust, etc), the use of a wide range of techniques (stitching, tearing, cracking, hand and foot prints, scratching, cutting, daubing and the use of fire and branding), the role of graphics and he written word, and lastly, the overriding importance of texture. As we can see, in those early years, the texture and surface, or skin, of the picture where fundamental.

Of these pictures, several, in which hands and feet play an important role as marks and symbols of man, sand out. It has to be remembered, as pointed out by Chevalier and Gerbandt, that the word for hand in Spanish -mano- has the same root as the Spanish word for demonstration -manifestación. This is the function of hands is Assumpció Mateu’s early work.

In ancient cultures, in Egypt for example, hands symbolized the principle demonstrated, action, and donation -the hand as a connotation of what is wanted. Hands with fingers splayed in pain, desperation, like the hands of Mary of Cleofas in Caravaggio’s The Descent or the hands of the woman in Guernica; moment of intense dramatic tension. Hands which show pain, anguish and desperation in unjust and inexplicable situations: hands which calm. Fists raised demanding rights. These are works which suggest the perception the young artist had of the situation she was living in. She had the awareness and internal need for rebellion.

We also have feet: feet advancing, probably to an uncertain destiny; feet walking in silence, creating a new territory but leaving tracks as they pass. The feet tell us, together with the hands, of the men and women who have fought for their ideals, defended their language, culture and country.

Another important element is the presence of fire. Fire is an element of both destruction and creation, a duality found in many cultures around the world. Fire represents censorship, repression, want of liberty and, at the same time, it is an element which permits creation and regeneration, as we can see in Bosc Cremat (Bunt Forest).

Fire can be understood as a metaphorical element, as Heraclites understood it, as an element of transformation- everything is born of fire and returns to it. Everything is transformed in a process of birth and destruction. The artist created a number of these early works using fire but the use of fire also provides a sense of destruction and barbarity.

The appreciation of space, an absolutely essential element in the life of man/woman, is present in several works. Closed space, at times attained with minimal effects, achieve a strong sense of multiple meanings. These are works which go well with these verses by Marcos Ana, a poet from Salamanca:

The world is not round.

It is square space

Where men circle

Under a pewter sky.


Delimited space which start by physically surrounding their occupants may end up imprisoning them mentally and emotionally too:

It was so many centuries ago

I was born in confinement,

That I have forgotten the world,

The way a tree sings,

The passion that sets

Love alight on lips!


Open spaces, on the other hand, show he world their culture, their interior, their identity, despite being fragile spaces which may fracture, crack or wound. We should not forget that most of the titles of these works are loaded with significance: Horitzó cremat (Burnt Horizon), Finestres barades (Barred Windows), Captives II, Temps anul·lat (Annulled Time), Vull surtin-ne’n (I Want to Leave), etc. These titles aid understanding of the works and reinforce their content.

Presons Íntimes, is a hard but frank work which says what it thinks. A work as hard as the reality it exists in; not an easy place for free creation. But there always can be found a crack, a chink which lets light in, and with it, hope.

Bosc Cremat

To reach this point the painter has had to make a long and worthwhile journey, she has travelled many paths, made the most of her life experiences and worked very hard. All these elements have made her into an artist with personality, producing works replete with poetry, excellent technical knowledge and a vast wealth of meanings.

In this process nature has been a source of inspiration for her, and indispensable element of her life. From the windows of her studio in the Empordán region of Catalonia she can observe a large portion of the landscape which provides her with nourishment and stimulates her to continue with her work. She still has her studio in Barcelona with its beautiful garden. This constant relationship with nature is fundamental for her. From it she draws the inspiration and motivations for her creations, as can be seen from the fact that the four elements: earth, air, fire and water, have been central to some of her series.

The close relationship between her life and nature is also a primary source for the works which make up Bosc Cemat. One day, when she was on her way back from visiting one of her best friends who was in hospital with only a few days to live, she came across the remains of the recently burnt-out forest of Maçanet de la Selva. It left a strong impression on her. The mounds of burnt trees illustrated the absurd, illogical, irrational, senseless situation to her. She saw a beautiful landscape wrecked and destroyed, just at a moment when she found herself faced with a similar situation – the immanent and absurd loss of her friend. He was a friend, also a painter, about to be lost forever, at the peak of his creative powers. A companion with whom she had shared many dreams both in life and in art.

Some days later, driving in her car, she had a similar experience in another wood -in the Montgrí. She stopped, got out of the car and walked through the remains of what had been another beautiful landscape. Everything was lost: the colours, the cool freshness, the shade, the shifting, dappled light. Its charm, obviously, had disappeared, but also the living things: the inhabitants of the wood had all gone or been killed. Everything was charred ruins, ashes and desolation.   

Silence reigned. The artist identified totally. Nothing could be done. The sensation of being in the remains of the wood was similar to what she felt after the loss of her friend. The absence created by death was like entering a burnt-out wood -no life, no sound- everything in ruins, only debris scattered all around and the all-pervading burnt which stuck to the skin. Exactly as the painter described it in one of her poems:

I tread on silence

In the gloom of a burnt wood

There I feel

I feel

Like a reflection of my own soul.


Greys and blacks dominate the colour scheme of the trunks of her trees, although ochre is still present. The earth is scorched dry with no sign of the grass which once covered it. Everything has changed. She took her camera and began to shoot it. It was a necessity, an urge. She did no know exactly why she did it; only that she had to. This space, although one day it would regenerate, would never be the same again.

We can see this process as a kind of catharsis, a need to cure her pain, to find the equilibrium needed to carry on. She wanted to convert sadness and pain into a creative and, at the same time, regenerative action.

From these ashes arose the last of her series: a group of magnificent works, in which she demonstrates, once again, excellent control of colour and texture, two elements present since her earliest work. It is also a work of poetic density, powerfully charged with profound and moving emotion.

We could say that in these works Assumpció Mateu is restoring life. Through her work she is re-establishing a large part of the charm and mysterious knowledge that characterizes the vanished woods.

Bosc Cremat follows two, clearly differentiated, lines of treatment. There are works where photography plays a central role, and others clearly painterly. The two parts complement each other. The first presents a more overall picture. These works show solitude and silence. They are works which distil a sentiment of a more romantic character, both for the sadness they convey and for the identification of spaces with countless dry trunks on earth with ash.

In amongst this desolation something remains. The artist was able to capture something of life, the joy and freshness which had left a kind of sediment. Through her gaze and her art she managed to transmit to the viewer her aesthetic vision and bestow poetry and beauty onto these desolate scenes. This is the magic of art; the privilege of the creative.

The works in the second group are of a more detailed nature -as if conducting another level of investigation. They are work which move from the particular to the universal. They are like blow-ups of burnt tree-bark, or trunks which have lost their shape during the devastating action of fire. Life and death go hand-in-hand. Death is present in the black pigment, in the silence and in the symbolism of fire as a destructive element. Life is present in the reflections of light, in the colour regaining ground from black, in the subtle use of colour and in the delicacy of treatment which, paradoxically, contrasts with the strength of the textures and the potency they transmit.

These are dense and profound works which pierce the bark, break through the surface of the trees and infiltrate their insides. These works convey feelings, memories, lived experiences and shared moments. The burnt forest is full of ashes which embody, as Assumpció would say, absences in her life -the personal and intimate, the intellectual and the ideological. Absences which, nominally at least, are represented in the installation which initiates the discourse of this exhibition. It is a heavily symbolic works -a metaphor for the creative process of these two series. It is a large cage with its floor covered with its floor covered with pieces of mirror which reflect the names written on the ceiling of the people who, one way or another, have left their mark on her work and on her life. These shards of mirror, fragile and broken like memories, can be taken all together to constitute an essential part of her career.

Finally, there exists an element which unifies these two periods separated in time: the intensity plainly visible in both of them. They are two dramatic periods of Assumpció Mateu’s life which she lived to the full, to which she surrendered herself and gave full rein to her emotions, her feelings, her anger and her pain. She herself explains that her interior necessity has always, at both ends of her career, been above the purely visual. She had to channel this torrent, so necessary to her both as an artist and as a person.

But central to this emotional intensity, these experiences dumped on canvas, is the technical component -with obvious differences between the two periods which arose from knowledge and experience- that savoir faire which she has accumulated over time and which has allowed her to become the excellent painter that she is.

 Antonio Salcedo


Travesig the states of soul

You advance slowly. Creative stages grow with a desire or slowness at the point where the lived path, observation and perception all fuse with the work-process itself. The cross-over between slow and fast is the fragment. Which illuminates the journey. Presons Íntimes (Inner Prisons) arose from this dialogue between two states of life and gives us access to the confluce of elements which are always there, whether or not he conditions which generated them or their visual formalization change. In fact it demonstrates that there is but one way of perceiving the things of the world and one set of symbols which allow expression of what we may feel at any one moment, according to the circumstances lived.

There is a way of seeing and feeling things which is personal to each individual and corresponds to each person. Circumstances may change but the way of perceiving them is highly individual. This is why I believe that two states, although they may be separated in time, can be drawn closer by the intensity of the manner in which they are lived and expressed, referring always to the content and not the form.  

Between 1974 and 1975 you created the series on the theme of Presons Ìntimes and, starting in 2004, another series was produced on the Bosc Cremat (Burnt Forest). Pain forges links in time and stitches the senses beneath the torn skin or the carbonised bark of a tree. Back in those days you asked yourself where the real prison was; since to be aware of feeling imprisoned is the first step towards existence and being free, but you, on the other hand, were a danger, a threat to society. Your approach was social, tending towards a strong desire to expose certain situations typical of Franco’s regime. You had friends in prison but your thought went beyond this, because you considered that real liberty was to be found inside a cell. They, those who were inside, had cast aside an identity conditioned by others; while those on the outside had to lead secret, hidden lives.

…those two moments so far apart in tie were lived with intensity and pain. What moves you at times such as these is not the need to find a result but he search itself. This is what counts. This is why these moments are so alive although they may unconsciously take on visual associations.

The physical prison, the volume of a work where you incorporate broken mirrors in the base and absent names on the transparent ceiling. Inside and outside which, from the small boxes you worked with to the use of space as a display container, form part of the same transfer. I remember the gallery in Milan where you had a solo exhibition in 1976, where one of the deciding points was the glass which connected outside with inside. Now, the interior mirror will absorb the external fragments and space, as a container, will also be trapped by the prison. Simultaneously we have the confluence of different moments and the differentiation of elements -inside and outside the mind, inside and outside the space, inside and outside the skin- from the inner prison to the burnt forest.

This relationship or dialogue between inside and outside, interior/exterior, sacred space/profane space has been a constant in my work. Skin and tree bark also act as a protector of the inside, inner, personal, where you see yourself as a reflection of yourself, the interior mirror as we can see in the small boxes of 1975 and 1976. In that gallery in Milan, glass differentiated the inside from the outside but, in fact, it acted as a filter, a skin, fragile and transparent but real, between the two spaces. This creates a profound and suggestive dialogue which, in turn allows us to grow seeing things in a broader way with more dynamic associations.

The impossibility of communicating or expressing in words everything you feel places you within other limits which come close to the concept of a prison. This is why you paint, produce sculpture and visual poems, include photography and video, and also write. Your world breaks through those limitations when it moves through these different modes of expression, when dialogue and reflection meet. Confronted with the names of those who are no longer with us, the pages of your notebooks turn, filled with absences which later go on to construct the presences of your work.   

My skin is made of all these vital absences. I need to feel them and write them down because they help me on my journey; they help me understand that they are part of a whole and that we are what we have done. This is why, at times, I need to fall back on other ways of expressing myself, other than painting, to express these feelings, thought and emotions. Also, this year I have been putting together on cloth L’arbre del dolor (The Tree of Pain). Every day I have been cutting out of the newspaper a photograph of a disaster or human injustice and sticking it on the cloth because I need to feel and be aware of the pain which is everywhere. Our society should not forget the others, those who do not have the luck of not suffering so much. When you are capable of recovery you project yourself further. Writing on the wall of my studio and slowly putting together this skin made up of the names of people who have existed and have given me something is to create a fuller sense of absence.    

In 1985[1], when we were speaking about Pavese, about how you and I were in agreement on so many things after such a short time knowing each other, about your need to space so as to be alone to paint (you were a tutor at the Facultat de Belles Arts de Barcelona), you told me that “writing is believing that every action is a testament to how one is”. And that fear of words and the need to paint is “a more direct mirror”.

Presons Ìntimes turn into a metaphor which condenses into a state of sadness and silence, it is the transition of the sense between two stages of existential pain. In the 1970’s you expressed the plasticity of that inner silence with captive words, marks, wounds, stitches, barred windows, open fissures, and now, with the passing of time and in the absence of people, you cross the threshold of the burnt-out forest and enter the open space of a landscape where the senses once again search out the inside and the outside of carbonised tree trunks.

There is a sadness about what goes on in the world. You are aware of the injustice and lack of communication between people. The work of now was brought about by every intimate and dramatic moment of the type that you can not run or hide from -instants of loneliness, of feeling trapped inside a bubble, isolated and feeling as though the world around you is also ill and that you can not stand still watching all these things happening as if it were a film; you have to act.

But in the transmission between spaces and states of mind there is a place where your ways of looking, perceiving and accepting converge. The skin and what moves under the skin of a tree appeared on the corks and barks of 1976, but there is also a concern for hidden life, for inner things that we can come across at different times. You split tree[2] to extract that perception of a space we can not see and, at the same time, you express the awareness of being inside, of feeling part of the relationship between an external presence and a hidden absence. 

Fire, burning, wounding… we are also approaching another moment, in 1983, -catching sight of burnt wheat in Soria. This image[3], like others taken on your walks, is also connected to an aspect of your work I would like to emphasise: the past as creative sedimentation and the role of absence.

The feeling of being inside changes everything, it changes all the ways of seeing and perceiving things in the world around us. Taking this way of looking and living as a starting point, we can find, at different times of my career, similar images which are repeated in different ways but which have the same meaning. I remember the burnt wheat as I also remember the woods of resinproducing pines which, from a gash in the bark which causes a flow of resin, totally change shape, split and twist together. For me, nature is a mirror in which I have a sensation of myself and can feel the pain and the joy of humanity. I have the fortune of being able to express myself with the tools at my disposal, and I had the luck of choosing well early on.  

Preson Ìntimes allows us to proceed slowly through questions and doubts, through loneliness and anguish. Your strength and revolt against a world which does not learn from its mistakes but only repeats them, and the way in which you have come to terms with your inner life, have gradually, enabled you to not only again entry to the creative process, but also to encounter your own freedom through gesture and writing.

Glòria Bosch


[1] Glòria Bosch, “Assumpció Mateu: tot fet és testimony de com és un” (“every action is a testament to how one is”), Girona, Punt Diari, 23 June 1985, pag. 13.

[2] Glòria Bosch, “Assumpció Mateu: l’emprenta de asumir” (“the mark of accepting”), Girona, Punt Diari, 13 August 1986.

[3] Glòria Bosch, “Assumpció Mateu: jo vull dir-ho tot en una sola línea” (“I want to say it all in one line”), Girona, Punt Diari, 13 February 1985.