Jaume Mercant "From solitude and silence"

Jaume Mercant Melis was born in Capdepera, on 25th September 1908, in the bosom of a family of carpenters. Due to his family’s economic difficulties, he started helping out in the carpentry workshop at the age of six.

He attended evening classes at the Theatines convent, and his interest in drawing and painting began. His parents did not understand his affection for painting, but Jaume continued nevertheless, although he did so in secret from his family and neighbours.

During his military service in Palma, he attended several classes given by the painter and photographer Josep Pons Frau (Sineu 1883 – Palma 1952). In the 1930s, he exhibited his works in different establishments in Cala Rajada: Hotel Castellet, Cas Bombu and Casa Mateo. In 1933, he attended some classes given by one of the artists who settled in Cala Rajada, the Romanian painter Arthur Segal (1875-1944), who fled the atmosphere of persecution that prevailed in Germany in the 1930s, especially because he was Jewish. In 1941, he married his wife, Margalida Servera Ginard, who was a neighbour from Artá; and in 1944 he held his first rather serious exhibition at the Caixa de Pensions in Artá.

In 1950, he met the journalist and critic Gabriel “Gafim” Fuster Mayans, his discoverer and the man who arranged his first exhibition in Palma, more specifically at the Galeries Costa in 1951; that same year, he won the Bronze Medal at the 10th Autumn Salon of the Circle of Fine Arts in Palma.

In 1952, he took part in a group exhibition held at the Regional Museum of Artá, entitled “Quatre pintors” (Four Painters), and won the Silver Medal at the 11th Autumn Salon of the Circle of Fine Arts in Palma. Between 1954 and 1956, he took part in different painting contests held in Palma. In 1957, in order to launch his painting career, Mercant and his wife left Capdepera to settle in Palma. For four years, they settled in Secar de la Real, and afterwards, in the centre of Palma. In 1959, he held two exhibitions: first in Puigpunyent and then in Galerías Gralla in Palma. In 1961, he exhibited at the Agrupación Artística of Manacor; in 1963 at the Galeria Minòrica, and in 1964, when he started working as a caretaker at the School of Architects in Palma, he won the first National Landscape and Customs Painting Competition of the Balearic Islands. In 1970, he finally retired and devoted himself exclusively to painting. However, from 1975 onwards, he gradually gave up his artistic activity for health reasons.

In the 1970s, he held important exhibitions: in 1972 at Galeria Pelaires; in 1973 at Galeria Dera; in 1974 at the School of Architects, and a group exhibition at the Galeria Grife y Escoda in Palma; in 1977, Capdepera dedicated to him a tribute exhibition. Between 1979 and 1980, he took part in a group exhibition on the artistic heritage of the former Provincial Council, held at Sa Llonja in Palma. In 1986, the Bartomeu March Servera Foundation of Palma inaugurated an individual exhibition of Mercant’s work, and in 1989 an anthological exhibition of his work was held at Sa Llonja. The following year, he exhibited in Torre de ses Puntes in Manacor and took part in a group exhibition in Capdepera entitled “Art avui” (Today’s Art). In 1993, he was one of the artists involved in the exhibition “100 anys, 100 pintors” (100 years, 100 painters). After a long illness and dementia, he died on 26th April 1999.

The work of this self-taught painter is the result of a constant struggle, one that he carried on from an early age despite his parents’ disapproval, who did not understand his love for painting. However, despite his lack of artistic references and scarce training, he decided to devote his life to his artistic vocation.

His work as a whole is the fruit of a «solitary and personal action» forged by dint of learning, self-improvement, experimentation and hard work. He was a nonconforming painter, far from gregarious, who kept his distance from trends and groups; an artist who did not live from painting but for painting, who cherished the act of creation as well as his freedom and independence above any other consideration.

Nevertheless, in over fifty years as an artist, he developed in different genres: portraits, still lifes, religious themes, etc. He is mainly considered a landscape painter, a genre renovator, and one of the most interesting and unique artists of the second half of the 20th century in the Balearic Islands. In fact, from the 1940s onwards, landscape became his primary form of expression.

His painting is always based on his surroundings, his closest environment. Since his earliest surviving works, from the 1920s until he settled in Palma, his paintings show Capdepera and its landscapes, the castle, its streets and also views of Cala Rajada, Es Carregador, Son Moll…

The year 1957, when he left Capdepera to settle in Secar de la Real, was a turning point in terms of selecting the motifs that inspired his landscapes. From then on, he would paint Secar de la Real, Palma and its surroundings: the Cathedral, Bellver Castle, some areas of the old Palma, but also the Port of Andratx, Peguera, Puigpunyent, Estellencs… In 1961 he moved to Palma, when, in addition to the previously mentioned places, he expanded his range of landscapes: the port of Palma and also the plain of Sant Jordi, Es Jonquet, and the inside of the Cathedral. Finally, from 1970 onwards, the year he retired, he combined his residence in Palma with long stays in Capdepera, at his property in Ses Cases Noves; in this period, he resumed his work on Capdepera and its surroundings.

As I said, the elements of his paintings show easily identifiable places and motifs, but Mercant rejects copying, so his paintings are based on the memories of what he has seen and experienced, on the imprint it has left on him. From there, he draws a series of sketches in pencil, pen or felt-tip pen on paper or cardboard, which, depending on the period, he transfers to canvas, cardboard, wood or tablex, and then applies different layers or very subtle glazes of oil paint.

In his workshop, Mercant reorganises the space, idealises the motifs, refines the shapes by adding, removing or modifying the compositional elements based on the idea or feeling that motivates him. All this through the use of colour, light, space and atmosphere, turning the everyday into poetry. He is not interested in «mimesis» but in evocation, suggestion. His work evokes emotions, feelings, using a suggestive language to represent an environment influenced by subjectivity. His landscapes are interpretations, recreations of what he has observed. They are halfway between reality and his inner world, a reflection of himself, of his state of being within the world and his way of perceiving the environment. They express his deepest self; they are, in short, inner landscapes. The deserted streets, the empty landscapes and places convey an atmosphere of placidity, silence, serenity, as if time had stopped, all enhanced by the absence of human presence; except for the rare occasions when a human reference appears in the distance, as if it were just another element in the landscape. The use of backlighting, the twilight glow of dawn or dusk, highlights and supports his personal vision of desolation and emptiness. Mercant delves into the real world, into its limits, creating an amplified reality.

His early works from the 1920s, while showing his lack of technical skills, prove his precociousness and natural talent. In these works and others from the 1930s and some from the 1940s, he gave priority to loose brushstrokes, mixed colours on the canvas and a wider chromatic range, switching between more academic works and others with post-impressionist strokes. As he evolved, especially from the 1950s onwards, he started to define his language, moving towards formal purification, while light effects became increasingly important, all achieved through the use of small brushes resulting in a subtle and meticulous work, as well as the use of little paint and an almost imperceptible brushstroke, applying very faded glazes, so that sometimes even the lattice of the canvas can be seen.

In the 1960s, his work combines, on the one hand, idealisation, expressing the chimera of a dream-like Majorca, the desired one, and on the other hand, the criticism of urban disasters, landscape destruction and dehumanisation of cities; and in addition, works that are halfway between social criticism and caricature, as well as some others with surrealist traces.

As his work progresses, it becomes more personal until it reaches a subjective and personal interpretation of the landscape genre. It was, as I have said, a path towards formal and chromatic purification and simplification, especially in the 1970s, when his work achieved real formal strength; a fruitful period in terms of quantity, but mostly in terms of quality, marking his artistic maturity. In short, a work full of sensitivity and lyricism, both personal and unmistakable.

The paintings in this exhibition cover his different periods, from one of his earliest surviving works from the 1920s to one of his last oil paintings, made in 1976. All of them are oil paintings, something usual throughout his career, with the exception of a pencil sketch on paper. Most of the works are painted on canvas, but some of them are also on wood and one, from the 1920s, is on cardboard, like all the works preserved from this decade.

Maria Esperança Llabrés Terrassa

Art historian and Curator.