February 3, 2003

The dark night returns


By Eric Rangus erangus@emory.edu

Carlos Rojas retired from Emory in 1996, but he still comes to campus quite a bit. About twice a week in fact. Primarily to do research, that sort of thing.

Emeritus professors are still professors, after all. Rojas, Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus of Spanish Literature, spent 35 years teaching on campus. He has written more than 30 books (several of them after his “retirement”), won literary awards in his native Spain and received the University Scholar/Teacher Award at Emory.

One of his most recent visits was certainly one of his favorites. He came to attend the opening of “Dark Night of the Soul,” the debut of a series of collages he created that will be on display in the Woodruff Library’s Corridor Gallery until Feb. 28.

“Collage is the art of making worlds encounter each other,” Rojas told a gathering of about 40 people at the exhibit’s opening, Jan. 23. “I wanted to create an ekphrastic blending of poetry, painting and collage.”

Rojas uses the term “ekphrastic” or ekphrasis frequently to describe his work. It is a term to denote poetry concerned with the visual arts or artistic objects. Rojas has written extensively on Spanish artists like Dalí and Picasso and writers such as Cervantes and Garcia Lorca, so his knowledge of the art of others is pristine. How he blends it, though, is an expression all his own.

“I reversed the usual approach in ekphrasis,” said Rojas, citing John Keats’ well-known poem “Ode To a Grecian Urn” as an example of literature arising from visual art. “It’s always the poet blending his poetry with a piece of art as a reference,” Rojas continued. “What I tried to do was exactly the opposite. To start with the poetry and blend it with my artwork.”

While he has been making collages for more than 20 years, creating series of works revolving around a theme is a relatively recent endeavor. His first series was a set of collages titled “Liquid Highlights.” In 2000, pieces from his two series “Homages” and “Scribbles” were displayed on campus in the Corridor Gallery. Rojas also contributed work to the “Science and Art: Shared Frontiers” exhibit in 2001.

“Homages” took the name of an artist, such as Dalí, and translated it in pictorial terms through collage. “Scribbles” expanded on that idea and blended entire verses from poems and plays into a collage of color and texture.

“The idea of ekphrasis was there, but I think I’ve been progressively working it out until I got to this series,” Rojas said.

“Dark Night of the Soul” is at times simpler and more complicated than either the “Homages” or “Scribbles” series. All 25 collages in the series owe their genesis to a line in a poem by Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish priest and poet. The line “noche obscura del alma (dark night of the soul)” appears in the poem “Song of the Soul.” Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca used the same line, “dark night of the soul,” 400 years later in a sonnet.

Both lines, Rojas said, are expressions of love rather than sadness—the usual symbolism attached to darkness. Rojas’ approach, though, was purely visual. The result of Rojas’s work is a surreal blast of images and colors that often explode off his canvases.

Each of the 23 collages exhibited in the Corridor Gallery (one piece of the series is being shown in Memphis, Tenn., another in Barcelona, Rojas’ birthplace) was begun with a very dark background. Rojas then added brighter colors (a lot of golds and reds) and on top of that placed glossy mixed media—pictures of fish, fruit and a variety of people are most common. The glossiness of the collage makes its third dimension stand out.

Sometimes subtly, sometimes not, Rojas incorporates the number of the collage (by Roman numeral) into the work itself. Sometimes it is stenciled on, other times painted, and it’s almost never in the same place.

Rojas’ latest series is his most personal and, therefore, his favorite. “There is a continuation insofar as they are all series of collages,” Rojas said. “But there is a clear break, I think, between ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and everything that preceded it. I started those series of collages with the idea of accessing my mind, but I think it has more successfully worked out in this series.”

“Dark Night” is more autobiographical than his other work, Rojas said. Collages IV, V and VIII specifically recall his childhood, growing up in the Pyrenees Mountains along the Spanish/French border.

In July and August, a faint light hovered above the mountains, he said. He later learned that it was a reflection of the Aurora Borealis (Vincent Van Gogh saw the same reflection when he painted his famous “Starry Night,” although the glow in his case hovered over the Alps). It was that light upon which Rojas reminisced when he created those particular collages.

Rojas first saw the glow as a child. His family has had a home in the Pyrenees for four generations. In 1938, when he was a boy, Rojas’ mother sent him to live there following the Italian Air Force’s bombing of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. The home still stands—it’s about 20 miles from Figueras, Dalí’s birthplace.

Rojas earned a degree from the University of Madrid, then moved to the United States in 1957. He taught briefly at Rollins College in Florida before moving to Emory in 1960. He spent the rest of his career here.

His ties to Emory are strong. His wife, Eunice, is retired from Emory Libraries. His daughter, also named Eunice, graduated with a degree in Spanish in 1996 (son Carlos Jr. went to Cornell and now is a professor of Chinese at the University of Florida).

Rojas currently is working on a book to be published in Spain about 10 crises in that country during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (whom Rojas referred to as “that old bastard”).

Artistically, he’s taking a bit of a break. However, once he starts again, Rojas said he will probably continue his favorite work. “All I can think of is to proceed with this series,” Rojas said. “I cannot think of another series or theme where I could blend poetry, painting and collage. And the whole thing started from a half of a line from a poem by St. John of the Cross.” ”experienced counterparts.






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