Gonzalo Chillida Web del pintor Gonzalo Chillida

The Idea of North
Alicia Chillida – Benito Macías Cantón

Water, in truth, does not reflect the sky, because my spirit reflects it;
its serenity, its transparency and its tranquillity is the same.

H. D. Thoreau, Journal. August 1851.

A north facing window, in search of constant cold light, cold without any abrupt changes, stable and serene. That is what the place in which Gonzalo Chillida chose to paint was like, in silence, daily, on occasions accompanied by music. His studio, a ganbara* overlooking the bay of Donostia-San Sebastian, the city where he was born.

A painting that he would commence in the manner of a song to nature and which in its development would rise like a meditation delving deeper into the mentality of  North, its landscape depicted through a highly personal view. In the atmosphere of the Cantabrian Sea, its quality of light and the tectonic strength of nature are the things that inspired and shaped Chillida’s work. In his painting his fascination for North precipitated a place of spiritual purification through infinite variations of the specular, in which the sea would draw a shape in the sand, and the sky project its light and image on that damp mirror. It is Japanese poetry through the brevity of the haiku which embodies with precision this process that the author himself described thus: The sea retreats, the sky. A double mirror each containing the other.

A space of quietness, isolation and absence. An idea of North that captivated him throughout his life, a metaphor for the mental depth of the northern land. The Canadian composer Glenn Gould described it as “an escape from the limitations of civilisation”, as something “other”, separate, outside society.

During the 1960s while Gonzalo was discovering the sands, Glenn Gould decided not to play in public any more. Both of them embarked on a definitive period of experimentation in which they were no longer interested in spontaneity. The studio, like a laboratory, becomes a place for analysing, mixing and cutting takes made with an interval of months or years. They developed control techniques that are not only used to eliminate the small imperfections but to enhance that specific interpretation they had before conceiving the work. What we have here is an interpretation through the montage. Without wanting to achieve the illusion of perfection, they were to opt for a meditated, calculated artifice as an art work.

When Gould gave up concert performances, he took advantage of the resources of the spread of the culture industry to propagate his position. One of these projects was The Idea of North: a factual documentary narrated in the first person that internalised a geography as a creative opportunity. The tape functioned as a cognitive tool to master artistic control. Once again Gould shared with Gonzalo the method as a strategy.

The boundary of Gipuzkoa with Navarre in the Bidasoa valley, that mythical place where Chillida lived for one month of the year, breathes life into that metaphor of North, in which the forest stages hand-to-hand fighting with nature. That is where the mists fold and unfold between the mountains and where the annual building of a collective, ephemeral cabin signifies a form of organised awareness, a constituent moment. It is when the south wind gets up around October that a group of friends would meet to witness the doves migrating towards Africa. Mugakosoro turns into a starting point, just as the harbour of Donostia / San Sebastian is another place opening up “to an infinity”: the sea and the horizon.

The walls of his house were white, bare, with the minimum of furniture. The artist preferred only to gaze at the painting done that day, hung above the fireplace, away from the easel, at another distance and on another scale. Then, when it had been taken up to the studio again and subjected to the gaze of a mirror, he would confirm and assess the final image. It is in the studio that the metaphor North functioned for Gonzalo, not so much as a geographical space but as a mental space synthesising a way of looking that was susceptible to illuminating his relationship with nature as a stage device. A mental space salvaged from the natural environment that was captured by the photograph or film, developed in the drawing or in the etching and finally put into the painting.

By the 1950s, in Castilla, he had opened up a new procedure that was to help him reproduce a landscape without needing to draw it. That was when he adopted photography as a trampoline and began to paint as a photographer and to photograph as a painter.

Each tide brought fresh drawings on the sand, new landscapes that the artist methodically recorded with his camera. Every evening he would bring new images, from the sea or the Igeldo Mountain. Early on, he used a Leica camera that he had inherited from his father and he himself used to develop the photos, black and white, matt ones in his studio. If initially photography functioned as a tool for capturing, and was subservient to painting, the super 8, video and above all the photographic panoramas, produced from the 1960s onwards, acquired a central role as they were to illustrate and reveal the progression and internal method of the painting.

Through the photographic equipment itself, he compared the natural scenes and evaluated them on the basis of their scale by appropriating them for himself in order to master them. The photographic act was to function as a way of training the painter’s eye. The way in which lenses help painting, which recalls the use of optical instruments by other painters who shared his same interests. It was an approach that entailed the need to re-think the history of artistic practices aside from the traditional prejudices that surround their intended technological specificity. Beyond the expressive materiality, the same, fundamental field of problems is shared.

The small-format works appear in his studio arranged on one plane on the floor; he used to like looking at them from a high angle, from above. That is how they remain active, always laid out, in view, as models or open notes in order, on occasions, like photography to be re-worked and provide a basis for fresh images.

It is no coincidence that when we confront ourselves with the atmosphere of his painting, we are reminded of something about its composition, about its way of “being image”, and about the early challenges of landscape photography. At the same time, Gonzalo distanced himself from avant-garde photography where photography and painting no longer competed with each other, and came closer to a photographic point of view that imitated the painter’s gaze. A landscape technique that seeks dead nature to avoid the effects of movement that could spoil the image owing to the long periods of exposure that the delicate emulsion process required.

Gonzalo Chillida’s emulsion-based work can establish a clear parallelism with the photographs of authors such as the Frenchmen Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), Eugène Atget (1857-1927), and the American Edward Weston (1886-1958). Without knowing it, they all shared the same method: not to produce a snapshot during the first moment, but to build mental images and in a way collaborate with the things they saw, establishing an exchange that concentrated meanings.

In terms of micro landscape we find ourselves right in the midst of the Kantian Sublime. In Sands, Seascapes and Skies, above all, the method is applied all the way to its final consequences. This functions on the basis of an almost scientific monitoring of thousands of shots. We find the in-depth exploration of the surface of the reality that reminds us of the thesis that everything is anywhere as long as we know how to look.

When opting to take the system to the limit, there is an intention to merge, copy, contaminate between artistic fields. His photographs and films are condensed shots that reveal the evidence of his speculations about a place in which time no longer exists. What emerges is the capacity of the photograph to be the analysis with respect to the painting, through the settings, superimpositions and paper cutter. In his work there is a reorganisation of space as a narrative element —based on a moving sensitivity before the light and water and before certain atmospheric qualities such as the mist, the snow or the clouds— in an effect, as described by Santos Zunzunegui, of tension in the expansion of the duration. This gives way to a state that is constructed in “continuity”, a path to find the abstract in the concrete.

Chillida shared certain aspects with the German painter Gerhard Richter, (Dresden, 1932): both used a photographic base with a method through which randomness was an intrinsic part of the process of their work, making it appear unfinished, open to the infinite and repetitive in its internal structure.

Gonzalo managed to trace an atlas tailored to his territorial vision, in which the geography is the very space of his thought. A space in which the Basque concept of nature reveals how closely linked it finds itself to that vernacular awareness, the fact of discovering nature through experience and enjoying it as a condition for accessing it. The quality of shades of his work also invites one to listen carefully. The sound marks present in the background of his images are capable of sketching the hidden character of the person who inhabits them. The forest, the sea or the river, each one produces a sound that belongs to it. Although in Gonzalo’s work nature seems to travel between vertigo, calm and silence.

Gonzalo Chillida’s work was fed daily by a laborious process of observation, his routine trips outside the studio took him back to the same places over many years. The sea, the river and the forest became his vital spaces par excellence. They are opening points, observatories from which to capture the best setting. The repeated choice of certain specific viewing angles, meticulously chosen, refer to that gaze immersed in an accumulation of experience organised into constant settings and re-settings. This obsessive repetition of its transit allowed him to accumulate images that ended up being recorded by his cameras and by his painting. Donostia-San Sebastian, his city, and some towns on the coast such as Getaria, Pasajes, Hondarribia or Zumaia, also end up subjected to a deconstruction process with respect to the usual mode of depiction.

The interpretation of his viewpoint in which the correct setting and light were fundamental make up a kind of ethnographic guide to a parallel world waiting to materialise. The move from the photograph to the unique work, the film The Idea of North reveals a point of view of Gonzalo Chillida beyond the limits of his recognised work.

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson

P.S. La Idea del Norte (The Idea of North) is also the title of the film that builds on a Basque ethnographical landscape portraying Gonzalo Chillida through the criteria and motivations of his view of nature. A voice of reflection turns the artist’s archive into the essence and visual vocabulary beyond the limits of his recognised work. The documentary makes use of interviews given by people closely linked to his work and revisits the places where the artist lived and worked. The metaphor of North delves further into a creative process in which painting and photography and film enter into dialogue. (The Idea of North, 2016. Video Colour, 40’. Directed by Alicia Chillida and Benito Macías Cantón).

*attic space

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