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During 2016, we commemorate the 4th centenary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes; the man whose life has been eclipsed on countless occasions by the projection of the quixotic figure of his great literary masterpiece. After four centuries, there are still those who, contemplating the impact of his great creations, strive to provide a contemporary vision of our genius author. Cervantes, more than anyone else, wanted to come close to the “roots of the country, right into the spine” by writing about “the real Spain, the one that politicians and journalists talk so much about nowadays; trying to give voice to those who don’t have one”. These words come from José Manuel Navia, a man with the mind of a philosopher and the heart of a photographer, who considers that photography has more in common with literature than with art. Literature is, indeed, the common ground of his works. Modern biographers (in contrast to those from the past that have tried to disguise history as literature to enhance the character, says Navia) agree that the life of the One-armed man of Lepanto is “full of gaps”. This has been useful for Navia, giving him the liberty to almost do “whatever he wanted to” during his journey around those places that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra visited during his life. And there are quite a few of them. His adventurous nature, “something common at that time”, took him from Madrid to Algiers, going through Napoli or Seville, becoming a witness and taking part in historic moments, such as the Battle of Lepanto.
“He travelled an awful lot for his time. From Madrid to Seville used to take about ten days on a mule” says Navia. His journeys, viewed with a contemporary and documentary perspective (like most of Navia´s work), can be admired until the 1st of May 2016 at the headquarters of the Instituto Cervantes; located at 49 Calle Alcalá. The 66 pictures that comprise the exhibition under the title “Miguel de Cervantes o el deseo de vivir” – organised by Acción Cultura Española (AC/E) and the Instituto Cervantes – seek to show the audience “what would draw Cervantes attention if he could walk again through those places”. “I wasn’t interested exclusively in finding what was left of Cervantes´ world; that would have ended up being a book on monuments”, explains Navia. That´s why the first image that marks the green light of this exhibition and of Cervantes´ life is a puppet; which was to become a reference of his childhood. But it is not the only one that appears; these macabre dolls repeat themselves throughout the exhibition.
This picture, taken in Alcalá de Henares (where Cervantes was born in 1547), next to one of a procession, shows the “hope and rigidity of a country that was obsessed with the cleanliness of blood”. After an image of Cordoba, the city where his father´s family came from and where Cervantes spent some of his childhood, Navia takes us to Madrid. There a young Miguel, willing to be a writer, goes to Calle de la Villa, where the studio apartmentsof Juan López de Hoyos used to be. The images of modern Madrid give a clear guide as to what the artist is trying to show us in his work: we are going back to a modern hypothetical perspective of Cervantes. As we can see by looking at the picture of a young lady, lighting up a cigarette while she is sitting down in a terrace in one of the popular neighbourhoods of Madrid, the photographer didn’t only want to show in his images what was left of Cervantes´ world today, but if Miguel were here now, what would his attention be drawn to?
During the December of 1569, Miguel (Navia can´t help to talk about him in a familiar way) travels to Rome “under the service of the Cardinal Acquaviva”. He leaves Spain “to avoid a threatening conviction”: he is accused of injuring Antonio Sigura, a master builder, during a duel. He travelled through Italy until he became a soldier, and under that role, he walks through the Quartieri Spagnoli of Napoli, which as we can appreciate in the exhibition “It’s still the same as it was during the XVI century”.
The Battle of Lepanto has, obviously, its space in Miguel de Cervantes o el deseo de vivir. “Whichever way the boats went” – Navia meditates – “they had to go through Ithaca”. The artist points out the image that shows the island and says: “It´s wonderful that Cervantes was there after he had read Homer!” In the words that give title to these pictures you can read “Don Quixote will be, simply and plainly, a manchego reinvented as a Homeric hero”.
Severely wounded in combat and with his left arm left numbed for the rest of his life, Cervantes will still appear in other warlike episodes. This will take him to the Maghreb, the birth of the Moorish world “one he will always have in the back of his mind”. Given the importance of this episode, our artist freezes time during this phase of Cervantes life. In it we can appreciate women dressed with warm colours in streets and beaches that seem like time hasn’t gone by for them. It is on this route where Navia shows his captivity in Algiers and his subsequent arrival to Oran, where they assigned him a commission after a brief visit to Portugal.
Finally he arrives at Seville. He will do it on his own; even though he has just married Catalina de Esquivias. “I wanted to show that he arrives to the mundane” says Navia about the pictures that speak of Andalucía. Seville, at the time, was the actual economic capital city of Spain “it is where Cervantes lives his free and easy mundane life”. That´s why, in the images, we can appreciate women with short, lacqueredand identical hair styles, that walk through white streets, surrounded by peculiar street characters, the back of a nice young lady and those taverns where Cervantes probably stayed while he was working as a tax collector; which will eventually take him through the Andalusian villages of Montilla, Écija , Estepa o Castro del Río.
The puppets return to the Navia´s exhibition when Miguel de Cervantes gets back to Valladolid in 1604. “It’s the moment to go back home and enjoy the rest of his time as a writer”, after countless journeys and adventures. It is during these years that he publishes both parts of The Quixote (1605 and 1615). That´s why La Mancha (with its windmills photographed in an unusual way, its rotisseries in the middle of rainy roads, a casino or the lagoon of the Ruidera) has a special place in Miguel de Cervantes o el deseo de vivir.
During the last stage in Madrid there is one picture that attracts the attention. In it, we can see a theatre with its armchairs covered by blankets “so they don’t get dusty”: which becomes a visual metaphor; as Cervantes had no success as playwright. Also in Barcelona during the night of San Juan, which is the same date when Don Quixote and Sancho see the sea for the first time in the second part of the Quixote, are the images that close this exhibition. This becomes an Ode to Freedom, a song to life that Navia has created in solitude – as he prefers it that way – leisurely, sometimes waiting for hours or capturing the perfect picture in a blink of an eye. Navia, in favour of picture sequences and an enemy of selfies and of the constant abuse of portraits, advocates the practice of “Lyric Documentary”. A concept used by Walker Evans, American photographer known by his work of documenting the effects of the Great Depression. This has served to follow Cervantes, and to create the illusion that today he is more alive than ever before.