A Solitary Artist’s Brilliant Photographic Collection
Inspired by Gould’s Goldbergs

 

David Mondedeu certainly defies both trends and stereotypes.

The Spanish-American photographer and printmaker, born in Houston in 1973, Texas, has charted a course that runs counter to the “self-promotional” tendencies that permeate the art world. Deliberately self-effacing and immersed in the work for its own sake, he chooses to let his images speak for him, and asked us not to put a photo of him into this article. He also has hewn to a path rooted in tradition rather than high tech.

His work combines classic photography on film, which he shoots in the time-honoured 6x6 cm square format with a vintage Hasselblad or Mamiya 6 camera in black and white.

But it is through his printmaking that Mondedeu’s work springs to life.  

Using an antique press, he painstakingly creates each print using the polymer photogravure process which combines elements of aquatint etching and photography: a full-sized positive polymer plate of the image is inked, a sheet of art paper placed over it and the combined “sandwich” pulled manually through a press to transfer the photograph.  The resulting photogravure combines the sharpness and detail of a modern photograph with the more impressionistic “painterly” appearance of photographic masters of the past, with Paul Strand (1890-1976) standing out as a particularly resonant influence.

Mondedeu counts among his other influences such diverse artists as William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Johann Sebastian Bach, Diane Arbus, the etchings of Goya, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, Agnes Martin and not surprisingly, Glenn Gould.  In pursuing his photographic explorations he has travelled to China, Peru, Israel, India, Nepal, Uganda, Portugal, France, Morocco and Mozambique. His work can be seen at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the National Art Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and the Hirsch Library at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

As a chosen medium of expression, Mondedeu is collecting his work in one-of-a-kind Artist Books, each a folio of removable photogravures grouped around a broad over-arching theme.  These large collections of original photogravures are so time-consuming to make that the artist has produced editions of just one or two copies – unique works in every sense.

As a solitary artist walking “against the Zeitgeist,” Mondedeu’s connection to Glenn Gould seems logical and compelling.

Mondedeu’s first book takes as its point of inspiration two artists whose trajectories intersect in a masterpiece – Bach, Glenn Gould and The Goldberg Variations. Variations on a Song is an Artist Book of 62 prints loosely inspired by Gould’s Goldbergs in the 1955 recording. The structure of the book loosely follows that of Bach’s work with a repeated “Aria” image (an antique keyboard – one of just three expressly musical images in the collection) at the beginning and end, and two photogravures for each variation, reflecting the binary structure of the pieces.

Says Mondedeu, “I was influenced by the very personal way Gould played the piano. I loved the humming, which in a sense personalize his playing. You understand and feel that there is a human being playing this music. I love the old chair he used, which I later learned that his father had built. So there’s this very human approach, which I found very moving and inspiring. It’s in the “imperfections” where beauty lies.  It’s what makes us human.  He understood that.  It’s not always just about technique.

“I admire that he seemed to be on his own, alone, dedicated to his craft and that he was able to step away from the concert halls and the public. It shows that his number one concern was the music he played.  To this day, I listen to his interpretation of the Fugue in E Major from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier whenever I’m editing because it forces me to go as deep as possible.”

The images are haunting, otherworldly and often dream-like; they consciously avoid attempts to correlate their subject matter directly with the specifics of the music.  They reveal impression – disparate strands of feeling that coalesce around the moods, rhythms and transitions that form the arc of Bach’s great keyboard monument as transmitted through the lens of Gould’s interpretation.

Variations on a Song was a massive undertaking. Mondedeu created the photographs presented in the book over the 15-year period between 2000 and 2015, in Paris, Madrid, Porto and Marrakesh. Tantalizingly, Mondedeu says he has over 200 rolls of film for Variations on a Song undeveloped, giving rise to the question of whether the future might hold the prospect of a Variations 2, or perhaps a work inspired by another Gould favourite, Bach’s mighty valedictory work, Art of Fugue.

When asked about his collection, Mondedeu is characteristically reticent.  

Indifferent to abstract descriptions and flowery artist statements, he says, “To me, everything is in the photographs, and in that sense, I find music and painting very liberating because they don’t rely on complex explanations but rather on emotions.  A work of art shouldn’t need a lot of explaining, since “Feeling is First,” as E.E. Cummings said in one of his famous poems.”,

When coaxed a bit more Mondedeu noted that Variations on a Song took so many years to create because on one level, the series was about finding his own artistic voice.  The collection is a kind of essay, about digging deep to explore what you want to say and how.  “Once I finished Variations on a Song,” which is the genesis of everything else, I was able to go see the world and photograph it. Most of the photographs were taken in quite close geographic proximity.” All his other books were photographed around the world in diverse places such as Uganda, China and Peru, to name a few, “not as straight documentary photography, but rather in a more personal, intimate, symbolic and literary perspective” to show that “on a very deep level, there is no difference between people, regardless of their nationality or religion. That’s why my books don’t have a geographic reference. I’m more interested in expressing basic human emotions not with paint like Rothko but with photographs.”  

Certainly that sense of the universal reflected in the particular suffuses every image in the Variations.

To date, David Mondedeu has produced an edition of just one copy of the Variations on a Song. It was with great excitement and appreciation that The Glenn Gould Foundation received this extraordinary work of art as a gift from David Mondedeu in 2017, in honour of Glenn Gould’s 85th birth anniversary.  

The Glenn Gould Foundation welcomes inquiries from galleries and individuals interested in co-sponsoring exhibitions of Variations on a Song . . . for details contact info@glenngould.ca with the subject line Variations on a Song Exhibition.

For more information about David Mondedeu and his work visit: http://davidmondedeu.com/

Article by: Brian Levine