GONZALO CHILLIDA, A FRONTIER PAINTER

Mikel Lertxundi Galiana

Gonzalo Chillida’s work makes it unavoidable to think of him as anything but an introspective man of few words. Silence is his leitmotif, from his Castilian landscapes to his sands, seascapes and forests; a silence that gives him a metaphysical quality that invites reflection.

Despite his participation in more than a hundred collective exhibitions, he only did a dozen or so individual exhibitions, a modest number for half a century’s work. It was probably due to his reserved character, the one that also dissuaded him from theorising about his work. Those who knew him define him as a sociable, affable but shy man. His shyness can be seen in the photographic report published in Blanco y Negro in 1991, where, portrayed on the terrace of his house, he seems to be wanting to move out of the way, withdraw from the lens and leave the protagonism to the landscape behind him, the Bay of La Concha, which inspired most of his work.

As Juan Manuel Bonet wrote in the article, ‘if we leave out his learning years, there are hardly any stages in his work: in other words, his evolution is not linear, but rather circular, deepening, returning again and again to the same motifs.’1 This means having to do without any kind of biography-chronology when looking at the figure of the artist and focusing on the study of each theme.

The first period is not easily classified, mainly due to its systematic destruction by the artist himself years later; however, it is reminiscent of much of the local work, produced during the post-war period. This was to change with his move to Madrid in 1947, where he arrived with the initial intention of following an official training course. However, despite starting procedures to sign up at the Central School of Fine Arts of San Fernando2. , he preferred to follow a freer style of learning and went to the Prado Museum and, like his brother Eduardo, to classes on drawing nudes at Madrid’s Círculo de Bellas Artes3.

 

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There is no doubt that his period in the capital was fundamental for moving away from routine models and making new contacts that helped him evolve, even though the experience might not be understood as a kind of epiphany and some of the investigations it led to formed part of his San Sebastían baggage. In particular, a certain connection can be seen between Gonzalo Chillida’s work of the 1950s and the legacy of Vázquez Díaz, evident in the search for formal geometry and the lyricism of his landscapes.

It is important to remember that, between the 1920s and the 1950s, Vázquez Díaz was a decisive influence on the learning of several generations of young Basque artists. During his time in Guipuzkoa at the beginning of the century and his later teaching at the Fine Arts Academy of San Fernando, he gave them a post- Cezanne influence that helped reduced the geometry of their landscapes and the Basque villagers, constructed by means of faceted brushstrokes. Although it is not the type of brushstroke that can be seen in the early work by Gonzalo that has been conserved, it can be seen in Eduardo’s pictures. One good example is a portrait of his brother from the 1940s [fig. 1].

In any case, Vázquez Díaz was a catalyst for the avant-garde in so many young artists, one of the first contacts with the modernity that launched them into discovering new languages. And so, in 1951, like his brother before him, Gonzalo moved to Paris, where he lived in the Colegio de España4. Little is known for certain about these periods: where he studied, who with or the places he went to. However, it is known that, while he was there, he met Pablo Palazuelo, Georges Braque and the musician Narciso Yepes, with whom he struck up a friendship that was to last a lifetime. However, the real importance of living in Paris can be found in the wonderful opportunity it gave him to learn more about the works produced by the most important creators of the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th as the starting point for contemporary art.

 

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On his return from Paris, he maintained his contact with the Castilian landscape, falling in line with the approach of the School of Madrid, which sought a formal renewal removed from academicism, which dominated large sectors of the Spanish art scene during the post-war period. A School of Madrid that was also heavily influenced - it is important to remember - by Vázquez Díaz. Gonzalo Chiilida’s work in this period is easily recognised because it focuses mainly on creating a reflexive landscape, constructed from geometry with contained colour (almost monochrome) and clearly defined outlines; characteristics that do anything but suggest the later plastic approach in his work. However, these qualities appear in some of his contemporary themes, such as his still-lifes, which enclose a form of meditation on the still-lifes of the Spanish classics, with Zurbarán and Sánchez Cotán as his main sources of inspiration. In these paintings, the objects are presented from a Cavalier perspective and become essential volumes that project shadows made of uniform black.

The viewpoints from high angles are also common in his landscapes, in which the painter does not focus his view on fields and natural elements, but rather on constructed spaces. Houses, churches and fences populate his canvases and drawings, but they are uninhabited spaces, laden with silence. His main motifs are Ávila, Soria, Segovia and Sepúlveda and he returns to them on various occasions; however, there are also other unidentified towns and bridges, converted into paradigms of the Castilian village. This is the case of two canvases titled Castilla (Castile), both of which were painted around 1954 and stand as examples of his approach to modernity. One is magnificent and shows an almost complete view of a town set on a hill [fig. 2]; the other leaves out the church and houses and focuses on the vegetable gardens on the far left and, out of context, they become a composition in which the painter plays with straight lines and circles superimposed on a plane. It is possibly one of the first experiments that position him halfway between figurative and abstract art.

 

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However, abstraction in its pure form does not keep his attention for long. His first attempts may also date from the 1950s, under the warm influences gathered from his time in Madrid and Paris. In most of them, the references to Palazuelo are undeniable [cat. XX- XX], even though Gonzalo develops his formal world in a way that is less strict. After all, Palazuelo was also key to his brother’s move into abstraction and, through him, that of other Basque artists of the day5. He also produced other organic experiments [cat. 12] and created winding shapes by scraping the backgrounds.6. In any case, the struggle for the forms to develop in the space on both essays makes it possible to link them to the concept that dominated his sands.

The 1950s were years of experimentation, in which he found themes that would then dominate his work, such as his sands, seascapes, points, horizons and mists, which are also reminiscent of the misty atmospheres that enshrouded some of the Guipuzkoa landscapes by Vázquez Díaz. This connection clearly comes together with the repetition of the motif the Huelva artist was to paint on two occasions in the 1920s: the factory of Pasajes.7 [fig. 3].

Therefore, in the 1960s, he had defined the themes on which he was to work, as Javier Viar point out, ‘away from movement, with reiteration that is almost ritual’8. The sand theme is one of the most repeated and its origin could come from an oil painting from around 1954 that reproduced a synthetic view of the Bay of La Concha, an infinite source of motifs for the rest of his career. This work could have been a revelation for the painter, the discovery of the key to his concerns, since it shows the points and wells that outlined the tracks left by the low tide. From then on, the motive appears free from spatial references, out of context: a fraction of beach seen from on high, crossed by trails of water.

 

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After all, it is a simple premise that allows him to create an endless array of combinations, but one in which the painter plays with the absence of definition, creating compositions that are on the edge of figurative art, painting ‘images of the shores of the beach and the endless changes made to the border between sand and water, with which he has achieved a work laden with lyricism’9.

These compositions are evanescent and tend to a monochrome that forces the matter that is represented, albeit riddled with chromatic subtleties. The lines of the water are shown by silver blues and greys, traces of colour with no outline, except for the odd example from the beginning of the 1980s, such as Arenas (Sands, 1983, Museum of Fine arts of Bilbao), which is more structured thanks to the inclusion of lines that evoke an abstract world.

Despite the fact that the plastic proposal of his sands differs from the geometric construction of his Castilian landscapes, the connection between both, between the syntheses of real landscapes and these interior landscapes, is silence, to which Calvo Serraller dedicated a beautiful thought: ‘This brilliance on the ground and water produce the effect of desolate intimacy, an atmosphere of virgin stillness, a prehistoric silence. And the soul finds melancholic distress before this silence, but suffers with sadness that is lyrical’10.The sands mark the transition between sea and land, that undefined, permeable space in which they are both present, but in other cases he looks up and focuses exclusively on the liquid world. His seascapes move away from the epic sea (the challenge of fishermen that traditionally flooded Basque painting) to explore a more transcendental concept. He flees from brave seas, subjected to diagonal tension, in search of horizontal placidness. His seas invite meditation, the opportunity to get away from everything, an attempt at observing the other side in greater detail11. To a certain extent, albeit in a different plastic key, they can be associated with the experiments of Xavier Álvarez de Eulate, the Franciscan artist who participated in the avant-garde experience of Aránzazu and who, in his autobiography, explained the intentions of his Horizontes (Horizons) series: “the onlooker’s eyes go into the horizon, inviting the mind to move towards infinity”12.

 

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Points are another personal contribution to the renewed view of a space that is usually treated in typical fashion by painters. He avoids complacency when faced with the so-called ‘unbeatable setting’ and explores possibilities that come from focusing attention on the rocky points that make up the ends of the bay and the Isle of Santa Clara. They are occasionally worrying objects that appear at one side of the painting; at other times, they form part of the search for symmetry and appear on both sides to create invisible tension between them, a current reminiscent of that which flows between the fingers of Adam and God the Father in the Sistine Chapel.

Continuing that upward view that takes him from the sands to the horizons, he reaches the sky, another view that is subject to an unending mutation of clouds and light that was to become a motif. He tried to capture the changing reality of the atmosphere through cloud formations, especially those that reflected vertical development owing to their expressiveness. The poetic stimulus of the skies is joined by the twilight by which they are illuminated.

Despite the fact that the Cantabrian is practically the only motif in his work, there is also room for mountains and forests covered by mist and fog, which continue to explore that pantheist vision that can be seen in his work on the sea. A vision which, after all, shows and reveals his connection with Oriental awareness in his approach to nature. In his mists in oil, but also his prints, presence is given to the void. This expressiveness brings him to the solutions used in Japanese painting, such as the mists and fogs of Hasagawa Tohaku (1539-1610), who is just one example and who created contemplative atmospheres using empty spaces. However, in general, his work also contains doubts (or synchrony, as you prefer) with the Japanese image, summarised in the adoption of points of view from high angles to a greater or lesser degree, the formal simplification of the natural elements or the landscape and the harmonious rhythms imposed on the composition and on the line.

 

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As far as technique is concerned, since the 1950s (except for a few examples, such as a series of sands produced in the 1960s with a material concept of oil), Gonzalo Chillida’s technique is laden with subtlety. He works with very diluted oil, which he applies on successive layers to create delicate veils and sweeps that produce the atmospheric effects that characterise his painting. A near-Renaissance procedure he shares with his nephew13, Vicente Ameztoy (who also inherited the studio Gonzalo used in Etxeondo
in the 1950s, the family home of the Ameztoy family in Villabona (Gipuzkoa)), and one which makes his landscapes appear to have been taken from paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries, out of context. Looking at his triptych of Pancorbo (c. 1990), [cat. 40, 41, 42] we seem to be looking at the rocky background of Da Vinci’s La Gioconda.


Gonzalo Chillida is a frontier painter, somewhere between abstract and figurative art and in references on the limits between land and sea, sea and sky, night and day, image and void.

1- Juan Manuel Bonet. “Gonzalo Chillida. El rumor del Cantábrico”. Blanco y Negro, Madrid, 1 December 1991, pp. 50-53.

2- General Archive of Complutense University, Madrid. 136/06, 066, 23. Academic records of Gonzalo Chillida Juantegui.

3- Indeed, two nude sketches (private collection) correspond to March 1947, before he applied to San Fernando, and they are linked to his time at the Madrid centre.

4- The institution created during the second Spanish Republic. It was run as a university residence and a means for disseminating Spanish culture. It was known at the time as ‘the convent’ due to the austerity of its regulations. Gonzalo stayed there twice, totalling almost one year: his first period started when he was accepted on 13 January 1951 and ended on 26 June; the second began on 29 November 1952 and ended on 26 June 1953. I am grateful to Ana María Pedrerol, librarian at Colegio de España, for providing me with the information in Gonzalo Chillida’s records, which also show his journey to Paris to study painting, even though it does not say where.

5- Javier Viar. “Palazuelo y el arte vasco. Reflexiones a partir de Imagen”. Boletín, No. 3, Bilbao, Museum of Fine Arts, 2008, pp. 257-303.

6- He used this technique in a drawing that dates from 1957 (private collection) in which a sharp tip eliminates the graphite that has been applied evenly on the paper.

7- The two paintings by Vázquez Díaz are La fábrica bajo la niebla (The factory in the mist, c. 1920, Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao) and La fábrica dormida (The factory asleep, 1925, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía).

8- Javier Viar. “Gonzalo Chillida”. In: Guía de artistas vascos. Bilbao: Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao, 2008, p. 133.

9- Ibidem.

10- Francisco Calvo Serraller. “Pintar al límite”. In: Gonzalo Chillida: Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao. Bilbao: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990.

11- The painter Antonio Saura had two of his small seascapes in his house in Cuenca and he defined them as, ‘an oasis of peace, mirrors for reflection, peaceful, humble company’. Antonio Saura. “El mar de Gonzalo Chillida”. In: Gonzalo Chillida. Pintura/Paintings. [Madrid]: Tf: Editores, 2006, pp. 85-89.

12- Autobiography of Xavier Álvarez de Eulate. Quoted by Larraitz Arretxea Sanz and Mikel Lertxundi Galiana. “Xavier Álvarez de Eulate”. In: Eulate exhibition catalogue. San Sebastián: Fundación Kutxa, 2011, p. 35.

13- Vicente Ameztoy was the son of Gabriel Ameztoy, brother of Pepita, the wife of Gonzalo Chillida.