Mixed media on canvas
116 1/2 x 116 1/2 in. (295.9 x 295.9 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Museum purchase thanks to a gift from Kaleta Ann Doolin and Alan Govenar in loving memory of Kaleta's mother, Mary Kathryn Doolin, MM.2014.01
Listen to Tyson E. Lewis, professor of art education at the University of North Texas, discuss this work (5:34 minutes)
Miquel Barceló (Spanish, b. 1957 )
Soup of Europe (Sopa d'Europa), 1985
by Tyson E. Lewis, professor of art education at the University of North Texas
Looking at the painting Soup of Europe, I am struck by the accuracy of its depiction of the act of studying. A man clenching his head between his hands stares into a dark soup. Is the figure caught in deep concentration, or is he exhausted by hours of study, or perhaps both? Perhaps we can only enter into a state of deep, radical, meditative concentration when exhaustion has fully taken over. In any case, I feel the heaviness of the figure’s head as it dangles over the bowl. This heaviness is felt throughout the painting and is further emphasized by the thick impasto application of paint which almost looks like encrusted cake frosting. The entire scene is weighed down by the application of the paint and the density of the muted color scheme. Indeed, the painting is so heavy that it feels like it might fall off the wall. The heaviness here is material, certainly, but it also concerns the heaviness of the act of study, the burden of carrying centuries of learning on one’s shoulders. Can one bear the weight?
What is the responsibility that one has to this lineage, to this massive inheritance, an inheritance that might be equal parts oppressive and inspirational for the studier? The heaviness of the painting is matched by its silence. When I look at Soup of Europe, I hear almost nothing. Maybe the faint echoes of pages being turned somewhere in the cavernous background of the Louvre’s Grand Gallery. Or perhaps the creaking of an isolated chair or the occasional sigh from an exhausted studier.
But there is virtually no sound emanating from this painting and there is virtually no movement. While the surface is alive and teeming with animated brushwork, the surface play seems to almost imprison the figure into an almost concrete-like permanence. The scene is claustrophobic and the ceiling feels like it's pressing down on the figure. There is literally no space to maneuver. Perhaps, studying has frozen him. Perhaps study is not unlike gazing into the Medusa’s eyes—we are transfixed by what we see and cannot utter a sound, let alone move. The soup itself is peculiar. It's not a text that the studier is looking at, but rather a bowl full of darkness. Surely this is not the night sky’s; it lacks any stars by which to navigate. If there is a cosmological reference here, it is most assuredly to a black hole capable of sucking in all the light, hence the reason why we cannot see the reflection of the studier in the soup.
Thus, it is not a pool into which Narcissus can fall in love with his own image reflected back to him. Instead of reflecting back, the soup offers no reassuring reflection of ourselves. The studier’s image is absorbed into it, again, as if it is a black hole at the center of a swirling universe.
But if this is the case, why does the artist refer to it as soup? Soup suggests messiness, yes, but also suggests nourishment and sustenance. And yet this studier is exhausted, captured, turning into stone before our very eyes. What kind of sustenance can this soup offer? Standing before the studier, I suddenly feel like I want to pick up that bowl, spill its contents on the floor, and shake him out of a stupor, would I not be freeing him for falling into the void, never to return.
Not so fast. Perhaps there is some kind of sustenance at work here after all. Surely darkness is not nothingness, it's certainly not a pure void. Instead, we might think of darkness as seeing the potentiality to see before seeing anything or the potentiality for light before anything is illuminated. In this case, the soup is no longer a black hole sucking up the universe so much as an aperture emitting the potentiality for something new to be seen, some new possibility that is not found in the abandoned stack of books piled up on the right side of the studier. If we take this position, suddenly our reading reverses course and the sadness and melancholy of the painting is transformed into a moment on the cusp of discovery, awakening, inspiration.
But even if this is the case, the lesson of the painting seems clear—the work of study is long and difficult, perhaps without end. And the soup of study is equal parts black hole and infinite potentiality.
With this in mind, I suddenly realized that I, too, have been frozen by this painting, that I am standing breathless and silent before this figure, that I am gazing into the same abyss. As if emerging from a dream, I shake my head, which suddenly feels heavy, and slowly walk away, wondering if the painting has absorbed part of me into its soup or if it has imbued me with sustenance.