Gonzalo Chillida’s painting
As Oscar Wilde said of exhibition openings, there are usually too many people in front of the paintings and too many paintings in front of the people, and I’m afraid that the hurried visitor who is not acquainted with that secret man called Gonzalo Chilllida may view his works and comment –with admiration but a certain superficiality– that his painting is delightful. Delightful it is, but if we don’t go beyond that, we will have perceived very little. And as an apparent Impressionism can take us there, perhaps we must shut ourselves in and with his works, just as for years he himself did, far from the riot of events.
“To let a work be a work is what we call the contemplation of a work”, said Heidegger. And let us note how distinct from what Impressionism underlines is what we are shown by this contemplation, which unveils or reveals what was already there hidden or cloaked and is now exposed (“put outside”) for us like an invitation to active discovery. “If a work cannot be without being created,” Heidegger aptly pointed out, “then neither can creation exist without being seen.” And what does this show us. The being of the being, or reality as it is in itself. But how?
Looking at Gonzalo Chillida’s paintings, which so well exemplify what I have been saying, I believe that the revelation takes place in the enormously sad sense in which he shows us the loneliness of being. Because it is not just the melancholy anecdote of a September in San Sebastián that brings us to speak of his fair, sad eyes, nor yet of something more or less archaically recalled by the primeval Basque, but rather something which, if it didn’t sound pedantic, I would call metaphysical.
If we regard these paintings properly, we stand before cosmic loneliness, before the horror and the mystery that something exists instead of nothing existing, and before the wonder that Art can who show –yes, “show”, in the most elemental sense of the word—what is by logic unthinkable: the being that is outside the human. We must note the lack of “humanism”, in its most banal sense, in Gonzalo Chillida’s painting, and the way it approaches the world as something strange and remote from the space made to our measure which we normally inhabit, whether because it is open to distances or to limitlessness, or because it shows us a minimum of sands and pools on a scale which is not the one on which we normally perceive them, and above all because the paintings are enlivened by a sense of reverence and fear, and they unveil something to us that, despite that fact that it is always before us, at once enveloping, attracting, and frightening us, we usually fail to notice.
Thus we find ourselves facing a vision of the bio-cosmos that is really real although neither naturalistic nor representative like that fictitious universe conceived on a human scale and not on the scale of the more existential being that constitutes us. Really real because there is nothing fantastic or gratuitous about it, no matter how much it fascinates and surprises us. Really real because it is there, always, and it is what we never see.
At this level, the differences between the abstract and the figurational cease making sense. Because what now rules is the physiognomy of the universe in all its orders, which is to say, those forms of manifestation of being that reach beyond the figuration which we say we understand, while in fact all they do is to allude to something other than themselves. And it is now, and only now, when we stand before something that speaks for itself and speaks of a language that goes beyond everyday expression, which is obviously more than human and which even so we intuitively understand. And let me repeat that I am not speaking of a transfiguration of nature, nor of anything magical, but merely of the way the world shows us what it is like it and how it reveals itself to us when we clean it of whatever is obscuring it. And let us not forget that much of what obscures it is what we call “culture”.
How to describe this, which is not a magical vision, nor far less a fantastic one that carries us beyond the world, but is precisely an immersion in the world. Perhaps like something mobile and musical, or a rolling field, in the physical sense of the word field, beyond the difference between the subjective and the objective or between the inorganic and the living, it shows us the pure vibration of the atom of the cell, or, beyond the pulsations with a centre, the vertigo of stillness.
Although every shape makes a gesture and every colour registers an emotional temperature, it would be absurd to attempt to translate the physiognomy of painting into another language. And by this I don’t mean that I don’t believe in synesthesias, in the law of correspondences, or in that something that is difficult to explain that makes us feel the sound of a colour or the smell of a word. If something sustains all this, and there must be something, since any averagely sensitive person perceives it, it must be an emotional tone. And what is Chillida’s? What does his painting discover for us?
Although it may seem paradoxical after what I have already written, I will say that these paintings shows us what is always seen, and at the same time what is never seen: what was there, in La Concha Bay, just as we can see it from Chillida’s terrace, and just as he prophetically depicted the city of San Sebastián, when the processions, departing from the old quarter and walking toward the shrine of the saint that was located in the “Antiguo”, drew and defined what were then only shifting, vague dunes, the curve of the present beach, and that space which, with its sands, its streams defined by the low tide, its mossy rocks, its distant pinks and greys, its sunsets and horizons, makes obvious so many secrets, obvious ones but which nobody had grasped. This is what makes us say today that that some beach resembles “a Chillida” because both occur at the same time and it is not clear who is imitating whom. This is what need not be demonstrated nor explained: the presence of being.
And thus, in both nature and in art, and above all in the dialectic relationship between the two, it is shown to what extent art, as I said earlier, is physiognomy, gestures, expressiveness, the will to merge until one reaches the general being-world of unique creation. Because the artist is, in effect, the vehicle of being. And when someone, commenting on Heidegger’s thesis that –“art puts into operation the truth of beings”, points out that the philosopher does not make it clear whether the being that is revealed is the work of art as a being or whether it is the being that the work represents, one can only reply that the being is revealed physiognominically in the common creative act.
All of this amounts to an ethics as much as an aesthetics. Do you know, for instance, what Gonzalo Chillida likes best in his home? White walls without paintings or decorations: the pure in which the essential is manifest, like in that open beach in front of his terrace, where the slightest gesture is the most revealing in its very slightness: that which places us before what it really is: the miracle of the simple and of what in human terms we usually call, rejecting all fusses, modesty; and the pulchritude of a gaze that enables us to see what is really there to see, and nothing more; the being –I repeat— genuine being, understood as such, very Basque, which transforms an ethics, not a moralising but a vitalising one, into the root of the aesthetic and of the naked. Because it is about showing, and not about explaining or illustrating.
Although in the course of this article I have repeatedly tried to guard against a facile Impressionist view of Gonzalo Chillida’s paintings, one would have to be blind not to see how much his painting owes to the Basque light. And in saying this I do not refer solely to the difference between that clear transparency and the light of a raw and mordant sun, which instead of caressing the world and revealing its nuances devours and cruelly obliterates everything; I also refer, in an analogous sense, but on another level, to the difference that ranges from the clarity that arises from the inside of things from that which comes from the outside, transforming everything into a banal stage set. The former shows us the truth that is hidden in reality, beyond its mere appearance, the world in which we actually live and which we perceive only distractedly; and the latter disguises, obfuscates, blinds, deceives, and is the more artificial the greater the voltage of the spotlight
And it is not this magical transparency of the Basque light that enables Gonzalo Chillida to see simply what is, with the terror and the beauty that merge into the ecstasy to which he takes us, without leaving the world we live in, so ordinary at first glance, so fabulous when we come inside, having broken the scab of convention and superficial views. And to achieve this is what his painting is about. Because cosmic loneliness, the being which we all are and nobody is, is inside us and outside of us, calling us to that new awareness to which these paintings bear witness.
Exhibition Catalogue Gonzalo Chillida. Galería Theo, Madrid 1979.