“La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée!”
Paul Valéry. Le cimetière marin

For many years, during my summers in Cuenca, I often contemplate two small paintings by Gonzalo Chillida. Hung in a very public part of the house, they constitute a quiet pool of peace; mirrors which invite reflection; mild, modest and warm company. Both paintings, made in soft colours –greys tinted lightly with blue or with ochre—show, in their verticality, a series of subtle strata that fade as they rise to the top of the canvases. The sense of infinitude of a possible misty ocean blurring into a possible sky, without a reference point aside from its own mysterious vagueness, is achieved by purely expressive means, without illusionist artifice. Though small, the paintings appear much larger to the viewer, and I have often wondered whether the effect they cause would be more intense if they had been painted in a larger format.

However, when one establishes the perfect match of pictorial treatment with the structure chosen, as in these paintings, one is led to doubt the validity of such a conjecture, which the painter has obviously considered. The problem of the relation between expressiveness and the size of the canvas, and even of the instrument used, which is so important in painting, depends as much on the spirit that inspires it as on the artist’s personality.

Certain American painters –I am thinking especially of Still and Rothko- have forced the scale in order to achieve an overpowering spatiality. Certain small works by Klee manage to submerge us in an infinite and expansive world, and as intimate a painter as Morandi –with whom Gonzalo Chillida’s work shows some affinities, to be sure, though it belongs to a different conceptual world—can achieve similar spatial pictorialness by means of a theme-pretext which belongs it in principle to a conventional domain. In the painting that concerns us here there can be no doubt that the spatial dimension depends less on the format than on the potentiality that it manifests.

In Gonzalo Chillida’s most recent painting the horizontality we mentioned earlier is dropped in favour of an agitation of the surfaces, a greater movement, an effervescence of the pictorial surface, and all of this, it is understood, within a similar subtlety of treatment, and with all the elegance and refinement that characterise his work. If we disregard for a moment the hints of reality that are given off, and within the paintings’ characteristic bi-dimensionality, we will find above all a diversity of situations inscribed in an expansive space, that in principle could be lengthened in all directions. It is as if the images that we are seeing are merely a fragment of a much vaster expressive phenomenon, permitting –or, rather, obliging—the eye to travel beyond the limits of the canvas. This space, taken up with transparent, light, and vaporous elements, is nonetheless constructed, paradoxically organised, since beneath its fluid and free appearance there is a true underlying composition, an invisible skeleton that sustains and justifies it.

Balance-imbalance, completion-incompletion, evidence-ambiguity; these contradictory factors related to many aspects of contemporary art, constitute permanent elements of doubt in Gonzalo Chillida’s painting, and although it seems paradoxical, also of balance. The doubt is the viewer’s since when facing the work each of these factors I have enumerated appears to play a determining role, which turns out to be at once balanced and wisely unbalanced, finished and voluntarily inconclusive, obvious and at the same time ambiguous. Of balance as well, since they offset and complement each other in a pictorial conception in which this contradictory dialectics constitutes the very essence of his fluid and evanescent universe.

It is precisely in the territory of obviousness and ambiguity that we must situate a problem –for me the most important one-- posed by this painting. If we observe these works not only as visual-sensorial phenomena, we will find relations with the marine and celestial universes –in fact both marine and celestial at once—of his earlier works, but also a sharper focus of his gaze at the more dynamic organic details such as the reflection of the water, the rivulets formed by the tides, the subtle and ephemeral marks on the wet sand, etc.. There appear the most surprising shapes in the ever-warm mirror that is Gonzalo Chillida’s painting: cosmic waterfalls, desert mirages, blazing evening skies, and always, like an eternal beginning, the sea, the sky, and the sands, in a northern atmosphere, all mists and nostalgia.

It occurs to me that if we radicalised the two gazes –that of pure expressiveness, and the purely referential— and if we were to take the part of one in detriment to the other, we would be making a serious mistake, since the painting we refer to is made of a passionate symbiosis of the two realities. The reference to reality is never explicit, but rather is related to an affective space, itself determined, but which spawns expressive imprecision. The shapes remain, in an intermediate zone between the defined and the undefined, as if in this eminently pantheistic universe, any greater precision were impossible, and only vagueness and mistiness could reflect vehemence in the face of nature.

This expressive option is rare in the West; only a handful of abstract expressionist have captured, under quite different aesthetics concepts, the merging with nature that Oriental painting has given us in the past with such intense longing, and such a happy resolution. Accordingly Gonzalo Chillida’s painting represents one of the more interesting attempts to achieve this merger of reality –in this instance the sea view transformed into a mental scenario—with pictorial abstraction, which is to say, the coincidence of two passion –the affective ground and the pictorial ground—without ever succumbing to the temptation of illusionist representation. The sensory perception of nature becomes, naturally and effortlessly, a modern conception of pictorial space: bi-dimensionality, sensibility and phantasmagoria appear to join in a meta-landscape, in a true abstract landscape that is both beautiful and real.

Antonio Saura

* This text was first published as the preface to the exhibition catalogue Gonzalo Chillida (Madrid, Galería Elvira González, 1994), and was again published in Visor / Sobre artistas (1958 – 1998) (Galaxia Gutenberg / Círculo de Lectores, Barcelona, 2001), Copyright: Succession Antonio Saura /