"Pintor en el estudio" began the final chapter of Carlos Mensa’s oeuvre, determined by inquiries into new directions. His handling of colour became continuously brighter and more refined, with a tendency toward the three-dimensional countered by the appearance of the " non-finito" technique, creating ambient contrasts. The facial deformations in his work disappeared and the symbol of the mask became secondary. During this period, the climate of violence in his earlier work disappeared and certain rarefied atmospheres of mutual contemplation emerged in its place. He created paintings similar to classical works, which he updated by inserting his own critical message.
In 1979, Pintor en el estudio began the final chapter of Carlos Mensa’s oeuvre. His handling of colour became continually more refined and brighter, with a tendency toward the three-dimensional achieved through different glazes while at the same time his non-finito technique created ambient contrast and different levels of scenery.
Facial deformations disappeared and the symbol of the mask became secondary in his work. His drawing became more accurate and realistic. The background of Pintor en el estudio can attest to this, as seen in the frieze-like rendering of the characters, whose physiognomy recalls those of people close to the artist. A bronze relief made later in 1981 would make the identities of these characters apparent. This short foray into sculpture was repeated that same year with a small-scale reproduction in bronze of his 1974 piece Gorda con yelmo.
He resumed self-portrait painting, a genre he had previously tackled in 1971, when in a surprising turn he depicted himself in a cardinal’s robes, wearing a wig from another century and gagged with a corset, thereby becoming part of his allegorical cast of characters. This exercise in self-criticism and consistency is based on a line of thought that holds that to be critical of others, one must also be critical of oneself.
In the two great self-portraits of his late career period, Pintor en el estudio (1979) and Las tentaciones de San Antonio (1981), he depicted himself with his face uncovered, without a mask. In the former he is transfigured into a moribund cardinal, and in the latter, he is stripped of his habit. These works stand at the limits of realistic representation, where the image turns fantastical.
In a letter to the artist, Enrico Bellati wrote: "Las tentaciones de San Antonio could be a reservoir of symbols, a kind of iconographic graveyard where all the symbolic personifications of your painting converge". It seems prophetic that this work, made for an exhibition focusing on the figure of Saint Anthony that never took place in the end, was the last piece that the artist finished.
During this period, the climate of violence in his earlier work disappeared and certain rarefied atmospheres of mutual contemplation emerged in its place, as pointed out by Gloria Bosch. The importance of atmosphere is very present in the two self-portraits where historical figures, the clergy and the anonymous people of daily life intermingle. Spectators also appear in the frame, as if in a kind of mutual contemplation. Monkeys versus men, fixed figures that watch us silently as in "Viejo con turbante" (1981) and a frame placed within the frame, like in"María" (1980) and "El inquisidor" (1981).
He created paintings similar to classical works, which he updated by inserting his own critical message, as in Las tres gracias (1979), in which, as if in a premonition, a burqa appears, "Homenaje a Vermeer" (1979) and "Lección de anatomía" (1980). During the same period, he prepared for an extended stay in Venice to immerse himself in the great compositions of Titian that would inform his transition from easel to large format painting.
In 1980 he exhibited in the Bollhagen gallery in Worpswede, Germany. In 1981, he exhibited again in Italy and in Palma de Mallorca and also participated successfully in ARCO ‘82 in Madrid. Upon his return to Barcelona, he was diagnosed with an incurable illness and died on 29 March 1982, at 46 years of age. His death was unexpected, but perhaps it had been foreshadowed if one observes his work during this final period.
His interrupted artistic career nevertheless left a solid and personal oeuvre that reached remarkable levels, with indisputable achievements and dedicated mastery. Of his art, the philosopher Enrico Bellati has said that "he successfully overcomes what has been surrealism’s insurmountable limit: to bring together reality, the subconscious, individual experience and social meaning in the same creative act, as if in the dream of a classical artist".
“On black and white, with brick paving that recalls his chess games, Mensa had his last workshop built in a town in Empordà. Yet it was also the last dialogue, the last efforts, the last light, the last unfinished works and the last game, too… The empty warehouse gives one the metaphysical feeling of finding oneself in the scenery of a De Chirico painting, like an intuition that returns us to that painting, Malinconia di autunno, which he discovered in 1957 and through which he found himself. But it mostly establishes a connection that sends us 26 years later to Mensa’s first show in Barcelona, in the same space where he had contemplated De Chirico, although this time he was no longer a spectator, but a painter’.
(1) Personal letter from Enrico Bellati to Carlos Mensa. 1980
(2) GLORIA BOSCH. Hacia Carlos Mensa después de Carlos Mensa.. Text from the catalogue of ‘Mensa nel Palazzo dei Diamanti’, Ferrara, May 1985).
(3) ENRICO BELLATI. *Símbolo y crítica en Carlos Mensa. Catalogue of La Virreina, Barcelona City Council, 1983
(4) GLORIA BOSCH. Contemplació mútua. Exhibition catalogue of Fundación Vila Cases, Palafrugell, 2008-2009.