Gonzalo Chillida Web del pintor Gonzalo Chillida

Mountains and Waters
Horacio Fernández

Being a landscape painter means having experience of the landscape. A mindful experience in which going out into the countryside is not about going into exile, let alone going on holiday, but is the militant cause and the express purpose of the action of the landscape. An apparently straightforward situation that took too long, on the European scene at least, where it was necessary to await the consequences of a fact so futile as that of a poet’s ascent of a summit and subsequently talking about it. There was merit in Petrarch’s excursion to Mont Ventoux: at that time there were no words to express his feat, one small step for man, but, as you know, one giant leap for everyone else.

The word was coined in the end many years later, in the north, in the Netherlands, by combining two concepts: one related to the action of looking and the other referring to the place. The place is not exactly the space, an abstraction that is turned into something sensitive materialises when it is determined by human actions, such as work and, above all, the gaze. In actual fact, producing landscape is about looking at modified nature (or not, if that were possible) through the intervention of man, which necessarily involves leaving the workshop and venturing outside, walking uphill, enduring the sun or cold, the changing light of the hours and the coming and going of the clouds. What is also important is the greater or lesser toughness of the footwear, an essential though frequently despised tool of the landscape painter, despite the effort made by Van Gogh to transform his old walking boots into monuments, luckily recognised by Martin Heidegger. And by Nancy Sinatra.

The boots that recognise the landscape and are fixed to the ground indicate that the landscape experience is an autobiographical and even intensely realist one. Landscape painters need to have seen and felt. Even though in the end they can paint in the comfort of their studios, they have to experience the city suburbs first. That is how Poussin and Claude worked by painting with their assistants in the workshop, but firstly by sketching on their own in the Roman hills, apparently accompanied by a small, tremendously useful optical device, an oval or circular concave lens, with one side tinted with bitumen or sepia, and thus converted into a hand mirror.

Protected in cases, these small mirrors were used by landscape painters; the painters used to hold them in such a way that the back of them faced the subject, which was brought into focus, framed and cut out by means of the lens; the place was carefully scanned using slight movements of the arm to one side or the other until the best possible image had been obtained, more by luck than judgement, in other words, a dreamed of, previously existing image (although perhaps distorted, blurred or incomplete) in the artist’s head which confirmed his/her intuitions and inventions.

If the lens, later known as Claude Glass, was handled with skill, it was used to concentrate the gaze, it helped to fix the composition and allowed one to know one of the more difficult things in the complex art of painting: the moment when the painting is complete. For Manet it was the definitive test. If a painting worked in his little mirror he could at last leave his brushes on one side and devote himself to the pleasures of the Cafés where he really felt at home. Après deux heures de travail, j’ai regardé dans ma petite glace noire, ça se tenait. Je n’y ai pas donnée un coup de brosse de plus.

That little optical gadget reduced the shapes, blended the colours, highlighted the light, thus enabling one to distinguish between the shadows, and toned down the more discordant ranges of colours. Then, once the cut- out had been found, a rapid sketch was made in pencil or water colour; this more than sufficed to tackle the big canvas in which, in accordance with market demand, one was expected to accommodate a story by means of some small superimposed figures, a move that later frequently ended up revealing the background, the base of the landscape onto which they had been painted.

Photography also served, and most likely even more effectively, to synthesise the shapes and harmonise the ranges of colours. What is more, it was the best possible notebook. And the fastest. So over time, photography has become the great ally of landscape painters. In photos, of course, such as those by Robert Adams, Joel Sternfeld or Stephen Shore, but also in paintings such as those by Gerhard Richter.

Or those by Gonzalo Chillida. This is borne out by his series of photographs dealing with mountainous horizons, forests, seascapes and cloud effects. He frequently worked on panoramas by moving his camera along the line in which the cold tones of distant lands merged with the no less cold tones of the cloudy northern skies. He used to build them by using a little glue to join together the photographic prints that he proceeded to print out in mechanical developing workshops, and the pretensions went no further than that. In the end, the photos bore testimony to his gazes through the other little mirror, the prism of reflex cameras, his field notes, his sketches and his syntheses.

When Gonzalo Chillida’s photographic panoramas and paintings are brought together, the paintings increase in experience, they come closer to the world, they distance themselves from the assumed complexity that is so frequently applied to landscapes (on the basis of Rosenblum’s theories on the sublimity of abstraction and its relationship with the romantic landscapes of Friedrich et al.). When turning one’s back on informalisms, one also distances oneself from the doubtful metaphors with which one nearly always alludes to with respect to the paintings that do not depict very clear themes.

Neither the clouds nor the mountains, neither the forests nor the seascapes seem to suffice. A landscape painter has always been asked for more: anecdotal stories from the old ones and interpretative concepts attached with pins from the more recent ones.

One should learn from the oriental painting of the landscape, which for a very long time (long before the Flemish painters gave up their gilded backgrounds that they used to fill with wooded hills and frozen lakes with clumsy skaters) has been called descriptively using two and only two concepts: the mountains and waters that together form the word shanshui.

In an old treatise entitled Introduction to the painting of mountains and waters, written over one thousand six hundred years ago, the best things are affirmed to be clouded mountains, rivers between rugged canyons and other combinations of water (such as rain, snow, mist, steam, ice, etc.) united with the varying features of the mountains —rocky, craggy, wooded, barren, etc.—. Their spiritual substance is perceived when it is seen physically, an experience that a millennium and a half ago made it advisable to travel to places that may no longer exist, such as the mountains of Kongtong, Juci, Mogu, Jishu a Dameng mentioned by Zong Bin. Travelling a great distance and undoubtedly being beset by many difficulties in understanding these mountains when it came to deriving pleasure from them and remembering them with affection, among other equally happy possibilities.

Photographs are by definition memory. They have been described as open windows, inseparable from their themes like incomplete, but persuasive documents of the past. The photos by Gonzalo Chillida retain a small spark that remains unscathed and not so tiny of the randomness of his walks in his quest for visual effects capable of capturing his gaze so that he could enjoy himself and learn. Nothing ever happens in these photographs, there is never anyone there nor does it look as if anyone has been there recently; there are no protagonists with their corresponding tales or empty metaphors or nominalist precisions. They do not reveal their own or others’ anecdotes, nor literary quotations included by the skin of their teeth. Nor those geographical assertions that are magically turned into localisms or other – isms.

There will always be someone who finds clues that take him/her along those byways where it is so easy to get lost, but that will not be because of the desire of the author, the painter and photographer Gonzalo Chillida, who simply preferred to remain on the sidelines and not reveal all his cards, which now appear after his death in filial obedience to his heirs. What they wanted was the largely secret legacy of a landscape painter, who showed himself to be capable of walking, looking, painting and taking photographs of mountains and waters, to be displayed in the fullest and most enriching way possible.


Exhibition Catalogue. Gonzalo Chillida, Sala Kubo Kutxa Aretoa, Donostia-San Sebastián, 2016.