Text copyright © William Dyckes,
Julio L. Hernández in his studio
Photo by William Dyckes
There are several new realist movements in Spain today, but they are not new so much in the sense of a radical change in style or attitude as in the sense that they differ from the vast current of Spanish academic painting that has been passing itself off as realism for the past century or so. The work of these new realists ranges from the lyrical in Sevilla to the austere in Madrid, and from the satirical in Valencia to the melancholy in Madrid again. Yet for all the distinctiveness of these movements, there is a kind of dominant national character, an attitude toward technique and content that is identifiably Spanish. That this should be so in these times of mass media and international travel is not surprisingeven less surprising than in the case of the new American realists, for it is simply a function of the central facts of Spanish life: isolation and tradition. The Americans’ isolation is the result of believing that the rest of the world is so far behind them that it does not count, while the Spaniards are convinced that others are so far ahead that they avoid foreign contact and concern themselves only with their own affairs. But where the Americans gauge tradition in terms of the major art movements of the twentieth century, a thousand years of history loom over the Spaniards.
To assume that a Spanish art movement is more than indirectly linked to that which is going on in the rest of the world is often a mistake. Throughout its history the country has remained effectively insulated, and though its art often does resemble that of other lands, it inevitably springs from Spanish sources and has a distinctly Spanish character. Thus comparisons with the American Photo Realists (or even the more traditional realists) prove fruitless and misleading. The motivations, methods, and models being ultimately very different. Although the Photo Realists’ concern with objectivity and the communication of visual information seems, on the surface, to directly parallel the Spanish Realist’s concern with precision and their refusal to add any emotional shading to the subject matter, the Spanish emphasis is on craftsmanship and the revelation of the inherent emotional content of the scene. The Spaniards would probably reject the photograph for its extraordinary lack of information about light and space. They are still, in a sense, in competition with the camera, and proud of the fact that they can get more into a drawing with eve and hand than a machine can capture on film. A closer counterpart might be Edward Hopper, whose attention to atmosphere and the sensations of everyday life are even more important to them than questions of visual fidelity or brushwork.
For the most part, this article will deal with the oldest and most respected of the Spanish movements, that of the first generation of Madrid Realists. But old is a misleading word for, like the new realists abroad, they are mostly under forty. What is old is their movement, the roots of which date back to the early fifties, a time of great turmoil in the Spanish art world, when the Dau al Set of Barcelona and the future members of Madrid’s El Paso were moving toward the creation of striking new forms of abstraction. The Madrid Realists were a part of that same reaction against the stifling cultural atmosphere of postwar Spain, but they chose to explore a form of renovation that would revitalize the physical face of art rather than change it.
The first generation of Madrid Realists began to form while most of its principal members were still students. Antonio López-García and Julio (López) Hernández met in the Madrid School of Fine Arts. Francisco López (Hernández), Julio’s brother, studied at the Arts and Crafts night school at the same time. His wife, Isabel Quintanilla, entered the School of Fine Arts after the others had graduated. As one might expect from such a tightly knit group, there was a great deal of mutual influence and the sharing of objectives and subject matterto the point where they sometimes even depict the same people and objects. Yet the differences are clear enough by now. One painting by Isabel Quintanilla of her studio window, for example, has a Vermeer-like quality, the darkened room acting like a frame to set off a fragment of backyard. But though the scene beyond is done in intimate detail, the real subject of the work is the interiorthe strong sensation of space in the windowsill and the delicate lighting of the details of the window frame and a table that stands to one side. In a bas-relief of exactly the same subject, Francisco López unexpectedly compressed the sill and reduced the amount of detail, giving the work the appearance of having been almost scientifically planned. The elements that remain in the scene are given an equally formal treatment, but he allows a note of elegance to slip in with the precision and simplicityas in the two flat and finely chiseled pipes that run across the upper part like a pair of blood vessels. (Had he drawn it, and he is an excellent draftsman as well, it would still seem compressed and precise, and the treatment of light would be less specific than his wife’s.) When Julio L. Hernández creates a bas-relief, the actual depth of the work is exaggerated and the perspectives distorted, and surface detail abounds. The bas-reliefs that Antonio López-García did some years ago fall in between the two, shallow in physical depth but with ambitiously deep perspectives that may vary from one part of the scene to another. Drawing or painting the same scene in the way that he presently works, he would probably concentrate on the interior lighting and shadow details to such a degree as to "burn out" the exterior like an overexposed photograph.
Antonio López-García was the first of this informal group to develop an individual style of note, but it was not the one for which he is known today. In the late fifties, while Madrid boiled with a brand of abstract expressionism that enjoyed an international reputation, López-García turned to a naive form of surrealism. The principal characteristics of this style were a surface roughened by burning (his only concession to the impact of the abstract style) and the juxtaposition of images in mysterious ways. In the earlier works these images often appeared to have nothing in common, and the subject matter and apparent space of each element freely intermingled. He continued to use this "collage" form until about 1965, but altered it drastically as he went along, reducing the number of elements and soon limiting his effects to a single variation in the scene that would be sufficient to provoke a particular sensationa ghostly face painted into the wall above a cupboard, a child walking in space.
This evolution continued in the latter half of the sixties, bringing him back to a form of hyperrealism that is very similar to that of his friends, but still contains a vestigial Surrealism. Today it usually amounts to little more than the quality of the lighting or the apparently accidental decision to use part of the canvas for an experimental change of perspectivealthough he is still perfectly capable of doing something like leaving the feet of a corpse in the cluttered corner of a drawing of his cellar. Unfortunately, there is another reminder of this period that hangs on and continues to cloud the issues: the label "Magic Realism," which local critics hung on López-García’s style in the early sixties and have since extended to cover the whole group of Madrid Realists, young and old. Apart from its misleading association with the earlier American movement of the same name (to which it bears little resemblance), it has emphasized an aspect of the work that has since become minor and even superfluous, and quite possibly been responsible for the resurgence of surrealistic elements in the work of the younger artists.
The world that the Madrid Realists portray is an older Spain that exists side-by-side with the modern one, a displaced segment settled on the fringes of the prosperous capital. It is a world of country people who moved to the city in hopes of improving their lot but never changed their ways: where life continues to unfold oil a day-to-day basis, tile same tasks being carried out, the same events eternally recurring with imperceptible variation. Where women sew, cook, care for children, or sell chestnuts or lottery tickets in the street; where men work in small factories, ride crowded, airless subways, talk soccer in neighborhood bars in the evenings. Where people sleep in tiny rooms decorated with pictures of the Virgin, walk along unpaved streets that turn to dust in the heat of summer, age quickly and fade. It is also the world where the Madrid Realists have their homes and studios.
It is their treatment of this subject matter that distinguishes the Madrid Realists from those in the rest of the world and which justifies the serious attention that they are finally receiving. If they were simply another provincial school celebrating local color and customs in a relatively accurate way, their work would be of no more interest than picture postcards. But they penetrate their subjects and their environment so deeply and so completely that they are able to touch not only Spanish nerves but universal ones. If they paint and sculpt the same places and objects over and over again it is not for lack of imagination but because they know these things, and by repeatedly depicting them they are able to capture an essence. They are portraitists, in the way that Ortega defined the youthful Velázquez: they try to transcribe the individuality of each object.
These two painters share a fascination with light as well as subject matter, and usually choose or create a composition on the basis of the lighting problems it presents or what the lighting contributes to the atmosphere or the scene. Isabel Quintanilla is more likely to look for the latter, and is most attracted to strong contrasts that add an element of drama to the subject or, in some cases, become the subject. Like the Spanish Realists of the seventeenth centuryZurbarán is the name that comes to mind firstshe employs the tension of light and shadow to heighten the suggestion of spiritual qualities that she is looking for in the scene. Her most impressive works are those that span the greatest range of values, scenes in which light leaks slowly through a windowpane or a crack in a door to spend itself, atom by atom, in rich black velvet shadows. Her drawings, much less precise than her paintings, crumble the surfaces of things into gritty tones that minutely register every stain or glimmer (if reflected light. Her skill at drawing textures and volumes is more obvious in her fragmented studies of leaves and branches, but these works suffer a bit for their isolation. First and foremost, she is a creator of atmospheres.
Antonio López-García is given to extraordinary fluctuations in drawing style, ranging from a brittle delicacy that recalls Dürer to rough studies that evoke the Impressionists. But when the subject is light, as is usually the case, then the quality of the light determines the style. The drawings of his studio under floodlighting are so painstakingly precise that, given the glaring frontal illumination harder than the tenebrists’ side lighting) and tile stark. Sharply defined shadows, they are easily mistaken for flash-lighted photographs. Day interiors elicit a necessarily softer technique but also prove detailed enough to convince many people that he is a Photo Realist.
His paintings demonstrate that this is not the case. Though often crowded with objects, they ignore questions of detail and concentrate instead on the way that the light is absorbed or reflected by every surface, of precisely how much light is contained in each amorphous highlight and at precisely what depth it lies and how it affects not only the artist’s eye but every other object in the room. This love of light already a major element of his work as early as the paintings, which were nearly always dotted with hundreds of exaggerated highlights. And his progress through tile sixties it, was perhaps not so much a refining of brushwork and it shift subject matter as a gradual favoring of light as a means of expressing all of these things at once. This obsession with light is one reason for his relatively small production, for the constant changes in the position of the sun and the nature of tile light prevent continual attention to any one work. Even as much as a decade ago, when one might easily assume. that he had other priorities, he is known to have set aside a picture he was working on simply because the rosy dawn light of June had changed by Julyand completed it the following year.
Velázquez’s great talent was the ability to turn his hand loose as he looked at a scene and let it paint by itself, recreating complex volumes with a few simple but perfect strokes; López-García’s great talent may well be the ability to resist this. He takes infinitely more time than Velázquez did, but he works in far more detail and selects more difficult subjects. There are paintings and drawings of the long narrow bathroom in his studio that involve a greater variety of effects of space and light in the window, tile walls, and mirror than are involved in Velázquez’s legendary portrait of Las Meninas, and they are performed with a dazzling degree of skill.
Velázquez’s example was undoubtedly important to López-García, but his most direct source of inspiration was his uncle, Antonio López-Torres, who still lives and works in the region of Ciudad Real, where López-García was born and raised. The uncle attended the School of Fine Arts of Madrid in the twenties and emerged with a simple Realist style that his nephew continues to admire. It has something of the soft quality of nineteenth-century painting of the style that the Spanish acquired cautiously and at second hand from the French Impressionistswho of course had first discovered it in Velázquez.
THE LÓPEZ-HERNÁNDEZ BROTHERSThe sculpture of the López-Hernández brothers is even more different in orientation. Space does riot replace light as the central concern, although one might characterize the difference between them as being spatial in a senseFrancisco López thinks in terms of the object he is sculpting and Julio L. Hernández in terms of the space around it. In effect, they face in entirely opposite directions. Francisco is the most strictly objective of the four artists, seeking the most precise and unemotional recreation of reality, and Julio is almost rococo by comparison, doing everything he can to bring out all of the emotional and aesthetic potential.
The one thing that they do have in common is a feeling for the power of gesture, a point that is the sculptor’s equivalent of the painters’ use of light to capture essence. Characteristically, Francisco focuses it to such a fine point that its existence can almost be overlookedit is the sculpture, but the sculpture is also an object that can be easily responded to in other ways. The marvelous balances and tensions of a sculpture of a newborn child huddling on its side are thus buried in the viewer’s emotional response to the work. Because he has elected to rely on less, Francisco’s work is also constantly exposed to the risk of being confused with the pseudo-classical stylization that is still popular among the Spanish academics. The minimal treatment he gives his surfaces is especially misleading, and unless one looks closely it is easy to miss the subtle details that he works into the mouth and eyes or the gentle undulations that just barely register the bones and muscles beneath the skin.
Julio, on the other hand, is more likely to conceive of gesture on a grand scale, seeking it in the spatial tensions between two separate figures or between figures and objects. Among his more ambitious works is a portrait of his parents at their silversmith’s bench, a life-sized group that is essentially built around the way that his mother is touching his father’s arm. In another, more experimental piece, he cast a chair and the objects he had encountered on it, freezing the physical remains of an afternoon’s conversation in the studio. The spatial tension is more uniquethe work suggests its former surroundingsand at the same time the characteristic mystery of the Madrid Realists is conveyed in the dark and heavy bronze that has given glass and paper and wood a single somber tone.
ON THE EDGES OF MADRIDBeyond the central core of the Madrid Realists, mention should be made of several other first-generation artists and a number of younger artists who are part of the large group who make up what might be termed the second generation. María Moreno, who is married to López-García and studied at the School of Fine Arts at the same time as Isabel Quintanilla, has been a part of the group since the fifties, but appears to have always been too easily influenced by the others to develop a distinct personalityalthough her latest works suggest that this may now be happening. Esperanza Parada, Julio L. Hernández's wife, a sculptor who specializes in medallions, was also at the school in the fifties, as was Esperanza Nuere, whose drawings show the same skills and interests as the others. Amalia Avia, though she has never been part of the group, parallels them in some respects. Her brushwork is bolder and broader, but the world that she paints and the atmosphere she takes comfort in are quite similar.
The younger generation of Madrid Realists is a more complex group, influenced by reports of foreign styles as well as the example of the older generation. Many were directly influenced by López-García’s popular three-year stint as a teacher in the School of Fine Arts (he was finally dropped, allegedly because he could not meet the entrance standards required of art teachers). José López-Colmenar and Matías Quetglas were among the first to appear in the galleries, and they stressed, perhaps more than most others, the paraphernalia of the "magic" periodthe floating figures and the vaguer style. Guillermo Lledó came to Realism from a muted abstract style well after leaving the school. Like several of the older artists, he lives toward the edge of the city and finds his subject matter there, but his concerns are as much with color and form as with the atmosphere of the objects he draws. The most exceptional of the lot is Daniel Quintero, who shows more ability with the pencil than the brush. His work is often strikingly similar to that of the older artists, but with a harder line and a treatment of perspective that suggests the influence of the camera.
While the Madrid Realists have rightfully received most of the attention and credit for the new Spanish Realism, at least two other movements and one individual deserve special mention. The individual is Claudio Bravo, a Chilean artist who spent the decade of the sixties in Madrid and whose example was very important in encouraging the younger Realists. The groups are those located in Sevilla and Valencia.
Bravo showed an early talent for a precise and graceful Realism that helped him escape poverty in Santiago and reach Madrid, where the large community of unoccupied nobility presented an ideal market. His unique ability to render likenesses that were faithful to the subject while subtly transforming it into a thing of beauty was most highly prized by the assorted duchesses and countesses of the city.
Nevertheless, it was always Bravo’s intention to become a serious artist, and by the mid-sixties he had painted and drawn a series of pictures of folded papers, trompe l’oeil packaged paintings, and brightly polished motorcycle helmets that were remarkable both for their virtuosity and a strange, somewhat surrealistic quality. The emphasis on textures, angled lighting, and the practice of painting latter-day bodegones in which the objects are presented on a narrow foreground plane are clearly in emulation of Zurbarán, but Bravo is too exuberant and confident of his abilities to stop there. Instead of the black void that engulfed the Spaniard’s still lifes, Bravo offers bold skyscapes or white walls that multiply the complicated play of shadows.
While he appears to surpass the Madrid Realists in sheer technical skill, rendering virtually any shape or texture rapidly and accurately with either pencil or brush, he falls short of them in the question of content, which he is prone to ignore altogether, depending on startling effects and unusual subject matter to produce the sensation of mystery, or to sidestep with facile tactics like using a man’s clothing to stand in for him in a portrait. On occasion, however, in a work like the Homage to Santa Teresa, he has succeeded in bringing together a number of technical, symbolic, and connotative elements in ways that transcend the simple subject matterand demonstrate that he is indeed capable of becoming an important artist.
SEVILLA AND VALENCIASevilla’s revival as an artists’ center has encouraged the development of a variety of representational styles, including a very strong and expressionistic brand of social Realism, but the only artist whose work bears comparison with that of Madrid is Carmen Laffón. She has been painting her own kind of quotidian Realism for about as long as they have, but it is graceful and lyrical and ultimately a very intuitive art that records the bittersweet quality of life in a provincial city.
The Realist movement in Valencia is tempered by a Pop influence and a native attitude that is quite unlike the sobriety of the art of Madrid. The three young Realists who show as a group were, in fact, the first of that city to experiment with Pop styles in the early sixties, but they eventually found their way to more photographic forms of representation.
Manuel Boix, who once pursued a quotidian Realism somewhat related to the Madrid variety, has lately become more of a sensualist, examining common objects on a scale that can hover on the grotesque and in situations (like pins piercing flesh) that can provoke. Arturo Heras has become fascinated with the textures and shadows of burned or folded papers, blowing up postcards, photo images, and the like in exercises that recall Bravo but have a distinctly Pop feeling about them.
Rafael Armengol is the most ambitious of the trio, juxtaposing three-dimensional images with amplified versions of newspaper photographs, as if they were about to be wrapped up. One is left to draw one’s own conclusions from the fact that the objects are sausages or hams and the photos are of bureaucratic-looking men in the act of congratulating each other.
* * *
It is a given that the realist impulse will never die. As long as humans create art (and humans buy it), realism of one sort or another will be produced. Most of it will be as sentimental, banal, and uninspired as greeting cards or formal photo portraits. Few of the painters and sculptors will have the patience, the skill, the insight, or the imagination to overcome tradition and the simple joys of imitating nature. But here and there, now and then, artists will continue to appear who, like the realists of Madrid, can see beneath the surface of the time and place in which they live.
Most of the information in this article was gathered, largely through conversations with the artists, during the years that the author lived in Spain. The reference to Ortega is from part three of the essay "Introduction to Velázquez," 1943.