Spaces for reflection
Mikel Lertxundi Galiana
My paintbrushes tell me: “look at the sand, it’s a miracle”.
Gonzalo Chillida’s work is projected beyond the formal, beyond the perception of some beautiful subjects and irreproachable execution to delve further into the world of reflection. Through coherent production he made use of the expressive power of silence as the means for existentialist contemplation. The building of spaces for reflection is a constant throughout his career: from the constructive landscapes and still lifes of his early period right up to the sands, seascapes, forests, mountains and skies, the essential subjects of this painting.
Although Juan Manuel Bonet affirmed that “his evolution is not linear, but circular, involving going into depth, going around the same subjects over and over again”(1) —and it is true that there is an almost ritual quest in the recurrent nature of his subjects—, one can pick out a formal transformation in the handling of some of them. Despite slight variations, Chillida developed his artistic identity using his own language, recognisable by its uniqueness and in which figuration and abstraction coexist in the quest for one and the same ideal, while generating proposals in which the boundaries between both are fuzzy.
This article offers some keys enabling one to approach his work. Keys that are manifested in it in continuous interrelation to offer the beholder an amazing repertoire of possibilities.
Leaving on one side the complexity of part of his sands, most of his landscape work underwent a synthesis. In it he opted to eliminate the details in order to reveal the essence of the shapes. This exploration may be more obvious in his early work, which at the time I linked to the legacy of Vázquez- Díaz owing to their affinity in the quest for a formal geometry, as well as via the lyricism distilled by his landscapes(2). One must not forget that the native of Huelva not only exerted a key influence among the various generations of Basque artists, but also on the Madrid School towards whose positions Chillida came closer following his return from Paris in 1953. So his work during this period needs to be understood in line with the desire for renewal of its members when facing the academicism that repressed Spanish art following the Spanish Civil War [1936-39] while it is easily recognisable on account of the conceiving of a landscape of reflection built from geometry. This quality emerges to the same extent in his contemporary still lifes that contain a meditation on the dead natures of the Spanish classic artists, with Zurbarán and Sánchez-Cotán as his main sources of inspiration. The objects, presented through an isometric perspective, become indispensable volumes that project shadows of uniform blacks. To a certain extent, many of his later landscapes were the continuation of that quest for the elemental when emerging bereft of details with their silhouettes that can be made out in the mist.
In the 1950s, immersed in the process to discover his own painting, he gradually divested his creations of the human figure. This must not be understood as being motivated by an incapacity to depict people as he used to accomplish this correctly. In fact, he was a splendid portrait painter, although throughout his career he was to relegate the genre to the private sphere and to an occasional commission received from some of his collectors. His refusal to inhabit his paintings comes from an intention to get closer to the essence of the places, to seek out a landscape liberated of the anecdotal or narrative burden that could result from the including of figures and their interaction with the space.
In this position there are clear points of connection with Italian metaphysical painting that prompted him to come up with desolate landscapes, full of silence and stillness; villages full of mystery in which the buildings cast convincing shadows that contribute towards shaping an oneiric, unreal atmosphere. Life has come to a standstill and the reason fills us with anxiety. The reflection by the poet and painter Ardengo Soffici about De Chirico’s painting could be used in the same way to interpret this period of Chillida: “Juxtaposing long straight lines, immanent masses of colour, almost funerary chiaroscuros, he manages to express these sensations of vastness, solitude, immobility, ecstasy that are sometimes produced by the images of the memory of our souls when we are asleep”.
The noiseless quality of his compositions of the 1950s extends to the rest of his work, although it becomes more evident in his figurative works. In his seas, forests and mountains, which in many cases can only just be picked out in the mist, there is a desire to display a transcendent reality that could be associated with a pantheist view of nature. When asked about the meaning of the landscape, the artist himself described it as “a way of contemplating God”(3). A perception that, at the end of the day, highlights his being in tune with sensitivities having oriental roots. In his mists painted in oils, but also in his etchings, the void makes itself present by creating contemplative atmospheres(4).
It is more obvious, he used to say, in the figurative ones; that does not exclude his sands, which are a priori in need of a more committed approach of the beholder in order to perceive their existentialist depth. Concurring with Gabriel Celaya, “the solitude of the being is manifested”(5) in them. A reflection akin to the one expressed by Calvo-Serraller: “These brightnesses level with the earth and water produce the effect of a desolate intimacy, an atmosphere of virgin stillness, a pre-historic silence. And the soul grieves melancholically before this silence but suffers from lyrical pity”(6).
Shapes in the space
In its configuration much of his work was subjected to research into the development of shapes in space. It is tempting to want to see the start of this preoccupation in Castile (1954, private collection) in which he presented part of the composition of another oil painting of the same name in a decontextualized way. The fences around the kitchen gardens turn into a game of elemental straight lines and circles that spread right across the canvas as if wanting to take it over. In fact, it could be interpreted as one of his first experiments on the boundary between figuration and abstraction.
His first attempts at pure abstraction, despite not lasting long in his case, emerge during the same period, almost. There is no doubt that his two sojourns in Paris between 1951 and 1953 were decisive in his development. “Faced with this scenario at the start of the 1950s, artists who were extraordinarily reluctant to engage in any hint of adventure did not hesitate to leave and it can be said that they left in droves, almost in a stampede, towards Paris”(7), as Alfonso de la Torre summed up the exodus of artists. The city put him in contact with new plastic concepts, but also with the artists grouped around the Collège d’Espagne and in particular with Pablo Palazuelo, an artist who had played an equally key role in the move to abstraction of Gonzalo’s brother, Eduardo Chillida. In any case, the references to Palazuelo are undeniable in several of his Shapes (c. 1960, private collection), even though Gonzalo developed them in a less strict way. More distanced from geometry remain other soundings out of an organic type, such as Pintura (c. 1957, private collection), in which he generated sinuous meanderings by scratching the oil underneath, or many of his Indian ink drawings on paper (from around 1959), in which he commits himself to deploying different kinds of itineraries, midway between dynamic fossil tracks and the calligraphic brushstrokes in Indian ink. But just like his brother in similar contemporary items, Gonzalo discovered the concept intuitively without having had any direct contact with oriental art.
All this experimenting constituted the substrate on which his most personal subject, the true distinctive feature of his production, was to germinate: the sands. The premise he started out from was simple, although the results were very varied. It consisted of capturing the reflections of the light on the masses and trails of water produced in the sands by the low tide. Vicente Ameztoy, the painter and nephew of the artist, explained it so aptly in an eloquent text: “Gonzalo observes from the great viewing point of his home, located above the beach of La Concha, the events of an aesthetic nature that take place when the sea meets the sand: lights and atmospheres reflected in these unique landscapes that are created when the water recedes in the direction of the horizon; he restricts his unique gaze to this strip of conjunction, then he removes it, and in the solitude of his studio workshop he builds his private, universal language with oil paint on canvas”(8). In actual fact, his capacity to transcend the subject reveals an artist who is constantly observing and meditating before the landscape, on the lookout for the changes and infinite combinations he can be supplied with depending on the time of day, season or climate conditions. “My paintbrushes tell me: look at the sand, it’s a miracle”, as Gonzalo himself used to say(9).
Puntas/Tips (c. 1954, private collection) and Sands (c. 1960, private collection) are some of the early works in which he focussed his attention on puddles of water —turned into rhythmic balloon shapes, in the case of the latter— although still integrated into a synthetic view of La Concha bay. In both there is a revelation, from which the subject was to appear decontextualized in most of the cases free of spatial references, to be able to play around with the lack of definition and create compositions on the fringes of figuration.
A series of small oil paintings in which he experimented with various solutions belong to the early 1960s. Some of them were subsequently lithographed and etched and they differ from those that were to come about through the presenting of an impasto surface worked with a juicy concept of matter. In the 1970s, however, he explored new paths with languages close to informalism, generating compositions that tended towards dynamism with silvery, diagonal brushstrokes that cross a space, either shining, or spectral and mysterious.
Between the second half of the decade and the early 1980s his sands tend to adopt a mineral drift with systems tending towards geometry. Trails with angular routes predominate and distance themselves even more from the naturalist description of the subject. His sands of a constructive configuration, with profiles reminiscent of broken slabs of slate (1979, Juan March Foundation, and 1983, Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao) or iridescent crystals (1979, Chartered Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa). At the end of the 1980s and early in the 1990s, this kind of rigour became diluted when he inclined either towards fast-flowing torrents flowing into brilliant seas, or towards the evanescence of sands on their way to being turned into coloured clouds that on occasions he combined with indecipherable organic trails. Once again Ameztoy got it right when approaching the works in this period: “the colour is set on fire with respect to his previous series of sands. Ambers and blues, pure yellows and incredible pinks create unique, novel atmospheres that intensely stimulate the beholder’s eye and imagination”. (…) Against veiled, rubbed, subtle backgrounds that design the plane of the sand, Gonzalo Chillida drew some clear brushstrokes, surprising on account of their vibrant character and daring. It is a painting produced with a high degree of inspiration (…)”(10).
After the turn of the century, this suggestive world, in which he travelled along the limits of lyrical abstraction, lost their capacity to seduce when the subject became more recognisable. Despite all, there would still be an opportunity for a truly enigmatic work. His brother Eduardo died in 2002, and the following year Gonzalo painted the work Sands (2003, Chartered Provincial Council of Bizkaia) with which he was to participate in the exhibition put on by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao paying tribute to his brother. It depicted an extraordinary dry sand, almost a dune, lifted up by the wind. The recreation of this dry scenario and its ascending movement was a metaphor for the evaporation of life.
The gaze is fundamental in Gonzalo Chillida, in other words, what he looked at and how he looked at it, as this is not action devoid of purpose. The choice and framing of subjects were not random, but the product of an act of reflection before the reality with the aim of passing it through a transcendent sieve. In it there is a coincidence with oriental art, which is equally manifested in its high-angle viewpoint, in the formal simplifying of natural elements, in the harmonious rhythms that is granted both by the composition and the line, in the arabesques of its breakers or in its mists; in its essentialist view, at the end.
For this he disregarded scales. He managed to transfer the same subject to different formats without this leading to any loss in its capacity for suggestion(11). He was capable of solving broad panoramic views using minimal mediums or granting a large format to a detail in the landscape(12).
The front view is not routine in Gonzalo Chillida, who throughout his career opted to print an oblique orientation onto his gaze. Except in some of his subjects, among which are the seascapes and forests, he approached the subjects by means of high-angle and low-angle shots which, owing to their suggestive dynamism, fill them with question marks. Nevertheless, the direction of his gaze varied as the years passed. In his final years he exchanged the descending tendency, which he had tended towards for nearly five decades to fly over the landscapes of Castile and the coast of Gipuzkoa (Getaria or Pasaia) and which also includes the almost zenithal one of sands and breakers, for another ascending one. In fact, some of his later sands are practically coloured clouds reflected on the film of water that remains on them. In this space that marks the transition between the sea and the land, in this indefinite, permeable sphere, in which both are present, his gaze would rise while trying to go deeper into that quest for transcendence. The coloured clouds constitute another spectacle subject to an incessant mutation of clouds and lights that the painter turned into a subject. He tried to depict the changing reality of the atmosphere through cloudy formations, in particular those that developed vertically as a result of the burden of expression enclosed within them. To the stimulus of the poetic component of the coloured skies is added the lights of twilight setting them on fire.
- Juan Manuel Bonet, Gonzalo Chillida. El rumor del Cantábrico in Blanco y Negro. Madrid, 1 December 1991. pp.50-53.
- Mikel Lertxundi Galiana, Gonzalo Chillida, un pintor de frontera in Gonzalo Chillida [exhibition catalogue]. Editing Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea / Chartered Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, Donostia-San Sebastián 2013. pp. 15-27.
- Álvaro Bermejo, Gonzalo Chillida: el hombre de arena in El Diario Vasco. Donostia-San Sebastián, 25 January 1993. p. 14.
- Although the painter was reluctant to explain his work, in a document preserved in his archive he left some lines about his mists: “I am a great nature lover. These colours and these mists that can be seen in my paintings actually exist in our landscape although I will sometimes idealise them and they will come out of reality and turn into an abstract painting”. Chillida Ameztoy Archive: handwritten document by the author (n. t. / n. d.).
- Gabriel Celaya, La pintura de Gonzalo Chillida in Gonzalo Chillida [exhibition catalogue]. Galería Theo, Madrid 1979.
- Francisco Calvo Serraller, Pintar al límite in Gonzalo Chillida [exhibition catalogue]. Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao, 1990.
- Alfonso de la Torre, Tiempo de cardo y ceniza in Abstracción: del grupo pórtico al centro de cálculo, 1948-1968. [exhibition catalogue]. Guadalajara: Guadalajara City Council, Municipal Board of Culture; Madrid: Galería Guillermo de Osma, 2015, pp. 13-36.
- Vicente Ameztoy, Arenas in Egin, Hernani, 20 December 1992. p. 28.
- Álvaro Bermejo, Op. cit.
- Vicente Ameztoy, Op. cit.
- The painter Antonio Saura, a personal friend of Gonzalo Chillida, owned two small seascapes of his that he defined as “a haven of peace, some small mirrors suitable for reflection, peaceful and humble company”. Two oil paintings which despite their “small size” gave him “the impression of contemplating works of much greater dimensions (…)”. See Antonio Saura, El mar de Gonzalo Chillida in Gonzalo Chillida. Pintura/Paintings. Tf. Editores. Madrid 2006. pp. 85-89.
- Alicia and Javier Chillida had already pointed out that capacity to adapt to the formats. See Alicia Chillida & Javier Chillida, En la intimidad del estudio in Gonzalo Chillida [exhibition catalogue]. Editing Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea / Chartered Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, Donostia-San Sebastián 2013. pp. 7-13.
Exhibition Catalogue. Gonzalo Chillida, Sala Kubo Kutxa Aretoa, Donostia-San Sebastián, 2016.