PAINTING AT THE SHORELINE

Years ago Gabriel Celaya wrote a lovely and apposite text about Gonzalo Chillida’s painting, in which he alluded to the metaphysical character suggested by his representation of the non-human, the uninhabited natural landscape. The text was written for an exhibition mainly of sandy landscapes, which could be identified vaguely with marine views from the beach. It would appear that the man approached the sea, strolling on its beaches, troubled by some fundamental question. It was on a beach that St. Augustine wondered about the inscrutable meaning of the mystery of the Trinity, when an angel made him understand that his curiosity would be satisfied when the sea could fit into a small hole in the sand.

The earth and the sea engage in a face-to-face dialogue, but can never cross the line that separates them, a boundary of antithetical elements. It is true that man, crossing it, can view the two perspectives, but from each he is radically different: he stands, feels, and thinks differently. From the sandy desert of the beach, the sea shows itself, nonetheless, also as a blue desert; it is a flat and polished perspective like an infinite mirror, where, illuminated by the light, the sky, earth, and water are reflected. It is the mirage of a complete reality, the absolute illusion of  truth.

Pre-Socratic physicists give the impression of having conceived the world from a shoreline, and, without doubt there is always in metaphysical questioning a longing for the shore. We may recall in this regard Kaspar David Friedrich’s impressive canvas of depicting a monk facing the sea, which is the image of someone who has reached the limit in his search for the truth.

Just as it occurred to Gonzalo Chillida, when one reaches these ultimate truths, there is no point in distracting oneself with changes in perspective. One does not progress through change, but rather through silent concentration, a delving into what one sees, which encompasses all that is visible, because one has understood the infinitude of vision. In this regard, the stance and the work of Gonzalo Chillida are, without a doubt, those of a romantic visionary, of a mystic who cannot become excited by the picturesqueness of nature, having penetrated to its essence. His painting, then, is like that of Friedrich or of Morandi, frankly metaphysical, with the sole difference, with respect to the latter, that Gonzalo Chillida contemplates the world from the exterior, from outside the home, from beyond the human.

In this way, the arrière-pays, of which Yves Bonnefoy spoke so beautifully, seeking truth in the painted landscapes behind the anecdotal mankind, becomes for Gonzalo Chillida the sole object of his artistic interest, his sole reference point from which to contemplate the real. Albert Camus, another thinker of the shore, of deserted banks, saw in Piero’s paintings weak and bloodless men, heralds of the desert, tainted by the heat of the sands that hold the secret of the world in a highly purified state thanks to the abrasive actions of all the elements together: air, fire, earth, and sea. The man of the desert is an essential man, like nature herself, in whose grains of sand Marguerite Yourcenar –Le temps, ce sculpteur—thought she felt the heartbeat of the stones, stones reduced to their fundamental being, particles,  dust, the beginning and the end.

Somewhere between mists and sunset clouds, Gonzalo Chillida’s landscapes may at times retreat from the shore, but, as vacant spaces, they never abandon the water-earth connection, except when the gaze rises to the heavens, to that pure infinitude which has no like in nature other than the unfathomable sea. His colours, meanwhile, are pure luminous substance, with opalescent reverberations, whose immaculate breath is not broken even by the dull reflections of the earth and its translucent capillary vegetation. This brilliance at the level of the earth and the water produces the effect of desolate intimacy, an atmosphere of virginal stillness, a primeval silence. And the soul is gripped by melancholy in the face of such silence, but its suffering is lyrical. Gaston Bachelard, in L’eau y les rêves, explain to us the truth that is hidden in this poet’s predilection for water: “The being consecrated to water is a being in vertigo. It dies every minute, something of its substance breaking down incessantly. Everyday death is not the exuberant death of fire that crosses the sky with its arrows; everyday death is death in water. Water always runs, water always falls, concluding always in its horizontal death. Through innumerable examples we shall see that for the materialising imagination the death of water is more poetic than the death of the earth: the water’s pain is infinite.”

Amongst the mists, the beauty of Gonzalo Chillida’s landscapes is born from an intimate fellow feeling with nature, whose very being they represent. His painting is at the  shoreline, where what is seen is surely the beyond. In truth, one cannot venture any further than the painting of Gonzalo Chillida.


Francisco Calvo Serraller

This text was first published as the preface to the catalogue Gonzalo Chillida (Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes, 1990 ).