Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Antonio Garrigues 1904 - 2004

Of the lawyer Antonio Garrigues Díaz-Cañabate, who has died aged 100, it can certainly be said that he lived in interesting times. He was a privileged observer of his homeland’s turbulent century, born under a monarchy, growing up under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, holding high office in both the republic that succeeded it and the dictatorship that followed, then joining the first cabinet of the monarchy that steered Spain back into the democratic mainstream.
Although he never joined a political party, he was close to the epicentre of Spanish politics for most of his life. Despite his signal services to the Franco dictatorship, as its ambassador to Washington and later the Vatican, he played an honourable part in the transition by softening the legal constraints on political activity and quitting the cabinet in the face of efforts by the Francoist old guard to frustrate much-needed change.
He built the law partnership he founded into one of Europe’s biggest and was a crucial facilitator of the influx of foreign capital that modernised Spain’s economy and transformed its social fabric. He chaired some of the country’s largest businesses and was noted as a writer in the fields of philosophy, theology, culture and current affairs.
Garrigues was born in Madrid, son of a successful lawyer, in 1904; his mother died when he was quite young. After an outstandingly successful studentship at Madrid’s Central University, he qualified as a lawyer and practised until 1931, beginning in his father’s practice. Under the provisional government of the Republic, the 27-year-old Garrigues was appointed director-general of registries and notaries in the justice ministry.
In the same year he married Helen Walker, from Des Moines, Iowa, daughter of a senior executive in the US multinational ITT. She bore him 11 children, three of whom died in infancy. When Madrid was under siege in the latter stages of the Spanish Civil War, Walker’s passport and the couple’s close friendship with a young American visitor, Joseph Kennedy, son of the US ambassador to London, rescued them from many a close shave. The city was defended by edgy Republican militias, and Garrigues was secretly giving what he described as purely humanitarian aid to their enemies.
After the war, he abstained from active politics, but moved in monarchist circles not closely connected to the regime and, in the 1950s, in discussion groups run by dissident priests. The death of his 35-year-old wife left him widowed in 1941. His brother Joaquín, Spain’s most prominent commercial lawyer, joined him in 1941 to set up the Garrigues law firm. The practice was later remodelled as a partnership on Anglo-Saxon lines, a startling innovation in Spain, and grew steadily. Multinationals seeking to expand in Spain made Garrigues, a frequent transatlantic traveller, their lawyer of choice.
In March 1962, Garrigues received an unexpected summons to be appointed Spanish ambassador to the United States. As Franco’s emissary to John F. Kennedy’s short-lived Camelot, he was able to use his former friendship with the president’s late brother Joe as an entrée into the inner circle; he regularly dined at the White House.
If the appointment to the Washington embassy was a particularly sensitive mission, no less was his next diplomatic posting, to the Holy See during the reforming papacy of Paul VI. There he served from 1964 to 1972, encompassing the Second Vatican Council which reassessed the Church’s stance on many issues, temporal and spiritual. A devout Catholic – he said he reached that position after a long journey from agnosticism – Garrigues was broadly in tune with the spirit of renewal and opening-up, despite the stiff resistance it met in conservative quarters at home.
He was involved in some early reformist initiatives within the Spanish establishment, contributing to a draft revision of the Francoist constitution which found no favour with his superiors in Madrid. On his return to Spain, Garrigues resumed his law practice and his other commercial interests. The law firm expanded to 1,200 partners. Garrigues chaired the broadcasting company SER, Citroën Hispania, the Spanish-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce and numerous educational and cultural charities, along with an array of other directorships.
Following Franco’s death, Garrigues was appointed in December 1975 justice minister in the first government named by the new King Juan Carlos, under Carlos Arias Navarro. He was seen as one of the more liberal members of an administration that, for all the monarch’s democratic leanings, was weakly led by Arias in the face of reactionary pressures from the “bunker” of the old regime. Garrigues stood down after seven months, disenchanted with the failure to open up a broader range of political liberties. His main achievement was the repeal of the repressive laws under which Franco had sent political opponents to face the firing squad. His son Joaquín later served as minister for public works in the government led by Adolfo Suárez of the Union of the Democratic Centre, while the father returned to business, remaining active for many years.
Garrigues leaves a considerable body of writings in various genres, from articles in learned journals of jurisprudence to newspaper columns and volumes of essays: Diálogos conmigo mismo (Dialogues With Myself, 1978); Reflexión sobre las cosas que pasan (Thoughts on Things that Happen, 1984); and poetry, including En la encrucijada de Roma (At the Crossroads in Rome, 1986).
In January, on the eve of Garrigues’ 100th birthday, King Juan Carlos I raised him to the nobility as the Marqués de Garrigues. He held many other honours, among them the Grand Crosses of Spain’s premier orders – Isabel la Católica, Carlos III and San Raimundo – and of the Order of Malta, along with French and Portuguese decorations, and was elected at the age of 80 to the Spanish Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. He died peacefully at his Madrid home.

  • Antonio Garrigues Díaz-Cañabate, lawyer, born 9 January 1904, died 24 February 2004
This was written for the Daily Telegraph; I think it was published in a different form, edited together with material from other writers.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Alfonso Hohenloe-Lagenburg 1924 - 2003

The twentieth century was not particularly kind to Europe’s aristocratic dynasties, but Prinz Alfonso Ferdinand zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who has died aged 79, was not only a relic of empire but an empire builder. The profits from his Vokswagen concession in Mexico turned the sleepy Andalucian fishing village of Marbella into the hub of a vast tourist industry on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
Hohenlohe, the second son of Prince Maximilian and Piedita Yturbe, was proud that his paternal line could trace its genealogy the the Gaugrafen von der Tauber, 14 centuries ago. His mother’s title, Marquesa de Belvís, came from her Basque grandfather, who made a fortune in Mexico. Marrying into a more ancient nobility won her an invitation to the coronation of the last Russian Tsar and, for Alfonso, baptism in Madrid’s royal palace with King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia for godparents.
The son did not inherit his mother’s shrewdness in matrimony and his numerous flings and misadventures kept gossip columnists in steady work. Nor did he inherit a vast family fortune, with the Great War, the Mexican revolution and the Spanish Civil War all taking their toll.
His childhood was spent in Spain (hence the usual form of his surname, ‘de’ Hohenlohe rather than von und zu) and in the ancestral palaces in Bohemia. Having mastered Spanish, French, German and English as a child, he travelled widely in Europe between the wars. Hohenlohe qualified in the USA as an agronomist, though it was only late in life that he put those skills to work as a wine grower.
In 1945, Hohenlohe began buying up cheap land around Marbella. Winning the lucrative concession for Volkswagen in Mexico in 1953, partnership in a Texas car dealership, and in the 1960s the Volvo franchise for Spain, funded further investments on the Andalucian coast. Cars were among his many passions: he was a keen rally driver and boasted that his father had owned the first Hispano-Suiza built. Tennis and painting were other enthusiasms.
Initially, by Hohenlohe’s account, he set out to cater for the elite end of the travel market, rather than transform the Costa del Sol into a byword for package tourism. The names he wanted in his guestbook were Rothschild, Metternich, Niarchos, Agnelli, al-Saud, Bismarck, the Aga Khan – and the emerging ‘jet set’ of Hollywood. With resorts like Biarritz and San Sebastián beginning to fade, Hohenlohe saw the potential for a wholly new luxury destination and his social status gave him a head start: close friends included his schoolmate, Rainier of Monaco, and the shipbuilder Aristotle Onassis. His circle in America included Howard Hughes, Bob Hope, Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper, Liz Taylor and Frank Sinatra.
His flagship hotel complex, the Marbella Club, was joined by a string of restaurants, housing developments, hotels, sports clubs and other ventures. As head of the Costa del Sol Promoters’ Co-operative, he lobbied successfully for major infrastructural improvements in roads, airports and water supply. His conference and exhibition centre spurred the growth of Torremolinos as a mass market destination.
Over the past few decades, especially during the wretched reign of Marbella’s ex-mayor Jesús Gil, property development spiralled out of control on the Costa del Sol and Hohenlohe (who has a boulevard in Marbella named in his honour) must share part of the blame, however much he disparaged the speculative philistinism that came to prevail.
Hohenlohe took a close interest in every aspect of the hospitality industry, from the architecture to the menu, the layout of gardens or the room décor. He became involved as a consultant or a business partner in tourist developments from Florida to the Philippines, with interests in the Caribbean and the United Arab Emirates.
His public profile owed much to his turbulent private life. In Venice in 1955, after a whirlwind courtship, he married the teenage Princess Ira (Virginia Carolina Theresa Pancrazia Galdina zu) Fürstenberg, who bore him two sons, Christopher and Humbertus (an Olympic skier and singer), before abruptly running off with a Brazilian playboy. Hohenlohe pulled strings to have the marriage annulled by the Catholic church. Divorced in 1960, he had well-publicised affairs with Ava Gardner and Kim Novak before marrying the actress Jackie Lane in Las Vegas 1970. She bore him a daughter, Arriana, but the couple soon separated and were divorced in 1985.
Five years earlier, a romance with Swiss ex-model Heidi Balzer had produced another daughter, Desirée. In 1991, aged 67, he married for a third time. This proved a happy union but his Gibraltarian-British wife, Marilys Haynes, died suddenly in 2000.
After selling off most of his interests in Marbella town and his Volvo concession, Hohenlohe was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago and withdrew to some extent from the front line. He maintained a lively interest in the promotion of his award-winning Príncipe Alfonso wine label and other ventures, some of them controversial like a proposed new golf-centred village on the edge of the Doñana nature reserve.
The Spanish government decorated Hohenlohe with the Medal for Merit in Tourism a few days before his death on Saturday in his Marbella mansion.

Alfonso Ferdinand zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg, entrepreneur; born 28 May 1924; died 20 December 2003

(This was written for the Daily Telegraph - unsure whether it was published)

Friday, 28 May 2010

José Tamayo 1920-2003

As a director, producer and impresario José Tamayo, who has died aged 82, was one of the most important figures in Spain's theatre world during the past century - and during the Franco dictatorship.
He was instrumental in the careers of performers like the actors Paco Rabal, Nuria Espert and Mary Carillo, and singers Alfredo Kraus, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé.
Tamayo founded the first of his several companies - it was named after Lope de Vega - in 1946. It took audacity, and the occasional run-in with the censor, for the Madrid-based company to stage the works of authors viewed with suspicion in cold-war Spain.
Tamayo put on Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding, Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman, Albert Camus's Caligula, Bertold Brecht's Mother Courage and works by Jean Anouilh, Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello and Ramón Valle-Inclán. The contrast with the staid and often trashy establishment theatre was startling.
From 1954 to 1962 he was director of the Teatro Español. His first musical was South Pacific in 1954, and Bizet's Carmen wowed open-air audiences eight years later.
In the 1960s he was the founding impresario and director of the Teatro de Bellas Artes and, through the Teatro Lírica Nacional, helped rescue the musical theatre genre from a long slide into mediocrity.
Tamayo's adventurous productions drew in new audiences and he also highlighted Spanish cultural excellence. First performed in 1966, his Antologías de la Zarzuela, showcasing a musical theatre genre rooted in 17th-century Madrid, attracted nearly 20 million spectators worldwide. A 25th-anniversary production in Madrid featured Caballé and Carreras.
Tamayo was born in Granada, where he acted in several amateur drama groups after the civil war. He then joined the Teatro Universitario Lope de Vega, where his early successes included La Vida es un sueño, the classic by Calderón de la Barca, progenitor of the zarzuela genre. Then came that first company of his own, which began with him producing Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
In recent times, Tamayo's stagings included Les Misérables, with his close friend Domingo as co-producer at the Teatro Nuevo Apolo, where Tamayo was the resident impresario, A Streetcar Named Desire and a reworking of Caligula.
Tamayo was greatly admired in Spanish showbusiness. His honours included the Gold Medal of Fine Arts and royal honours. His final illness followed his collapse at the opening of Madrid's Nuevo Teatro Alcalá.
He is survived by his brother and collaborator, Ramón.
  • José Tamayo Rivas, theatre director and impresario, born August 16 1920; died March 26 2003
[FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE GUARDIAN, 7 APRIL 2003. Photo from http://www.mundoclasico.com/]

Gladys Marín 1941-2005

In September 1973, Gladys Marín, who has died, aged 63, of a brain tumour, had just arrived back in Chile from a tour of Europe when the army chief-of-staff Augusto Pinochet led a military coup against the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende.
Immediately, Marín, a leading member of the Chilean Communist party and a parliamentarian, broadcast a desperate message of defiance on Radio Magallanes. Her name appeared on the junta's most-wanted list, and she went underground, separated from her husband, the Santiago Communist party secretary Jorge Muñoz, and their two sons.
Ordered by the party to leave the country, Marín flew to Moscow in November, leaving her sons with their grandparents. Her husband remained on the run until he was arrested, with other communist leaders, in 1976. Marín was in Costa Rica when she heard that he had "disappeared" in secret police custody. His body was never found.
In 1978, Marín slipped back into Chile, and spearheaded the communist operation to infiltrate exiles to develop the resistance. Even her sons were unaware that she was back. Once, while lodging in a house on the street where they lived, she recognised one of her children, but was too afraid for his safety to give him the embrace she yearned for.
In 1980, the Communist party opted for a strategy of popular rebellion, and Marín was instrumental in the creation of its armed wing, the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR), led by returned exiles with military training. Its most spectacular action was an abortive assassination attempt on Pinochet in 1986.
Marín was born in Curepto. Her mother, Adriana, was a schoolteacher, and her father, Heraclio, a small farmer and travelling salesman. Adriana left after discovering that her husband had fathered a number of the children she taught. Marín lived with her mother in Sarmiento and Talagante, south-west of the capital, Santiago. There, she would gather firewood in the hills.
A move to Santiago brought her to the Escuela Normal, where she joined the student union. When, in 1958, the Communist party was legalised in Chile, Marín joined the Communist Youth and supported the socialist Allende's unsuccessful presidential campaign.
The following year, she met Muñoz, then a mining engineer, and they married within a year. They worked in Allende's third campaign in 1964. A year later, Marín became Chile's youngest parliamentarian, and, between 1966 and 1977, she was general secretary of Communist Youth.
Allende's Popular Unity coalition won power in 1970. Marín took part in much of the left's extra-parliamentary work - peasant movements, voluntary urban work crews and cultural groups. The government, meanwhile, faced formidably funded rightwing subversion. The army chief-of-staff was assassinated, and, in 1973, his successor was ousted in favour of Pinochet.
By the mid-1980s, the Communist party's Popular Unity allies had opted for a coalition with the Christian Democrats, a move that Marín saw as a betrayal, although the regime undertook a limited transition to democracy.
Marín resurfaced from clandestinity in 1990, and, four years later, was elected party general secretary. In 1996, she was charged with "criminal calumny" for denouncing Pinochet as a tyrannical coward and psychopath, and jailed for four days. In 1998, while he still headed the armed forces, she became the first person to file criminal charges against him. When he took up his self-awarded senate seat, Marín was one of many protesters beaten up by paramilitary police outside parliament.
In 1999, she stood as the first Communist party presidential candidate in Chile since 1932, though with only 225,000 votes she came a distant third. When, in 2001, paramilitary police evicted the party from its offices, Marín resisted the takeover with a team of lawyers, cheered on building workers who hurled bricks at the police and was injured while defending the premises.
She gave up the general secretaryship in 2002, and was elected party president. Her autobiography, La vida es hoy (Life is Today), was published in 2003.
As the gravity of her illness became known, Marín won affection in even the conservative Chilean media, and was dubbed "everyone's favourite red". The communists enlisted leading artists in a fundraising campaign to pay for her treatment and re-equip the country's health service. The appeal mobilised an extraordinary array of social groups, from Christian leftists to the indigenous Mapuche community - Marín had a profound respect for popular religious sentiment.
She received post-operative care in Cuba, where she dictated more memoirs and wrote for the party press, but deliberately returned to Chile to die. Death, she once said, held no fear for her; she had spent half of her life in its shadow. But "La Gladys", as even her sons called her, lived to see Pinochet arraigned before a Chilean court.
She is survived by her partner, the journalist Julio Ugas, and her sons.
  • Gladys Marín Millie, revolutionary, born 16 July 1941; died 6 March 2005
[FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE GUARDIAN, 9 MARCH 2005. Photo from http://www.libertad.dm.cl/]

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Ramon Margalef López 1919-2004

Ecology is recognised today as one of the main scientific disciplines at humanity's disposal in confronting the challenges of the future. This is due in no small measure to six decades of work by Ramon Margalef, the Catalan scientist who has died aged 85, and whose name is invoked whenever someone measuring biodiversity within an ecosystem applies one of their key tools: the Margalef Index.
The man himself was modest about his achievements, preferring to define his discipline as an extension of common sense. He explained: "Ecology is partly based on seeing ourselves as part of the natural world. Those who study these matters see this interdependency as something positive, not a matter for argument or conflict. And increasingly, it is seen as implying obligations: this is where we live, so we have to attend to our housekeeping and not leave the place a shambles."
As for the eponymous index: oceanographers, terrestrial ecologists and nowadays even geographers and sociologists routinely employ this calculation, based on the total number of species present and the number of individuals within each kind, to characterise a given system - a millpond, a coral reef, a human community or a maize field - in terms of its comparative diversity and to forecast its development. The versatility of the tool testifies to its author's ingenuity in the application of scientific method but only partly explains why he is among the most frequently cited sources in learned journals worldwide.
Ramon Margalef López was born in Barcelona and was still a teenager, studying in the city's commerce college while indulging a keen amateur's interest in natural history, when Spain was engulfed in civil war. He signed up to fight in the Republic's youngest fighting unit, the "quinta del biberón" (the "baby's bottle brigade"), and after his side was defeated, he found work in insurance sales until Franco's army called him up for two more ignominious years of compulsory service.
On his discharge, Margalef won a scholarship to the Institute of Applied Biology, where he excelled; by the time of his prize-winning graduation in 1949, he had already begun publishing a body of work that would ultimately run to more than 300 articles and books.
Margalef made daring use of logarithms and thermodynamics in his researches into biodiversity and his 1957 inaugural lecture as a member of the Barcelona Royal Academy of Sciences, on the use of information theory in ecology, was promptly translated for the journal General Systems and won him a worldwide audience.
Another groundbreaking article, "On certain unifying principles in ecology", appeared in American Naturalist in 1963 and this, along with his 1968 collection Perspectives in Ecological Theory, based on his guest lectures at Chicago University, secured his standing as a forerunner of modern scientific ecology in any language. Limnology, the study of lakes and wetlands, would still be in its infancy without Margalef's input.
Appointed to Spain's first chair in ecology, which he held at the University of Barcelona from 1967 to his retirement 20 years later (when he was appointed emeritus), Margalef supervised the doctorates of a whole generation of ecologists from throughout Spain and beyond. He preferred to teach early in the morning and late in the evening, to free up his days for research - yet students still packed out his lectures. When one student observed that it was difficult to absorb all the ideas and information he imparted, he promised to sum it up in a book: the result was his famous 1974 textbook, the much-translated Ecologia, which like his other standard work Limnologia (1983) runs to just over 1,000 succinct pages.
He was an enthusiast for the public appreciation of science and for the engagement of scientific rigour in environmental policy. He once said: "People talk about dumping our wastes in the ocean depths, because the ocean supposedly has an immense digestive capacity. But I believe there are dangers, since this would alter many of the ocean's mechanisms of which we are ignorant or still little aware... (our ignorance) is itself a bigger danger. On issues like this, the ecologist is often asked to give approval or offer arguments in favour. Or else the ecologist goes for an equally untenable stance, one of simple protest. Protest, itself, has to present constructive solutions."
He was a visiting professor at Yale, Melbourne, Chicago, Quebec and several other universities in Europe and the Americas and held numerous honorary doctorates as well as the foremost international garlands in his field - the Humboldt, the Ramón y Cajal, Catalonia's main public honours and the Order of Alfonso X. His citation for the Huntsman Award, the Canadian prize regarded as the Nobel in oceanography, credited him among "the main architects of the intellectual structures in which we oceanographers and limnologists organise our observations, conclusions and speculations."
Margalef died in Barcelona four days after his 85th birthday. His final work, for the catalogue of an ecology exhibition at the current Barcelona Forum, was just off the press. He was survived by his wife, María Mir, and their family of four. Tragically, María died a few days after her husband. A fitting epitaph for both of them might be a line from an interview he gave in 1992: "If God has put us on Earth, we have the right to make use of it but we might as well do so with a modicum of intelligence."
  • Professor Ramon Margalef López, ecologist, born 20 May 1919; died 24 May 2004
[PUBLISHED ONLINE AT http://www.grijalvo.com/  Photo from the Catalan government's ecology prize website, http://www.gencat.cat/premiramonmargalef/cat/index.htm ]

José Manuel Lara Hernández 1914-2003

José Manuel Lara Hernández, founder of the Spanish-speaking world’s foremost publishing group and of its richest literary prize, was a self-made magnate who transformed the industry he joined in the unpromising climate of the aftermath of the Civil War. He pioneered mass marketing, introduced Spanish readers to foreign bestsellers in translation and helped secure Barcelona’s status as the language’s global publishing capital.
The brand he created in 1949, Planeta, nowadays covers an empire of more than fifty firms spanning books and periodical publishing, distance learning, television and radio, internet design, credit management and the daily newspaper La Razón. With a worldwide staff of around 4,000, the group has a turnover around the €900m mark and leads the publishing sector in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, ranking eighth in the industry worldwide.
Yet Lara readily acknowledged he was not much of a reader, or any judge of literary merit. He trusted his wife, María Teresa Bosch, to assess manuscripts - and this proved a shrewd strategy. Spain’s first genuinely bestselling trilogy, Josep María Gironella’s family saga launched in 1953 with Los Cipreses Creen en Dios (‘The Cypresses Believe in God’), had been spurned by other houses but Bosch persuaded Lara to gamble on the 800-page blockbuster. It effectively founded the Lara fortune, selling six million in Spain alone.
Lara was born in El Pedroso near Seville, son of the village doctor. He left school prematurely and tried his hand at various trades - as a carpenter, painter, even a chorus-line dancer - without conspicuous success. When Franco revolted against the Republic in 1936, Lara joined the rebels and ended the fratricidal three-year war as a Captain in the Legion. He remained a lifelong right-winger (though he was eventually happy to publish sure-fire commercial hits like the memoirs of veteran Communist leader Santiago Carrillo).
Demobilised in Barcelona, where he first met his wife, Lara set up a training school for civil service jobseekers. In 1944, he bought a small publishing house, selling it in a deal which secured him the translation rights to Somerset Maugham and G.K. Chesterton. These he published under the Lara imprint, which he later sold to found Planeta.
Fiction was Planeta’s core business. Early successes included imports like Frank Yerby or Pearl S. Buck. Lara introduced many novelties to the hitherto dusty world of the Spanish book trade, such as mail-order sales, encyclopaedias sold on credit, book clubs and international co-editions.
The Planeta award was created in 1952, carrying the then prodigious prize of 40,000 pesetas. It is still hugely endowed - currently worth €600,000 - but for many authors, its appeal also lies in the prospect of joining the illustrious company of Camilo José Cela, Jorge Semprún, Mário Vargas Llosa, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and other past laureates. Lara tolerated the prize’s cost, for he appreciated the acres of free publicity it generated. If the list of winners is top-heavy with names signed to Planeta, it may be because any author will prefer a publishing house that invests heavily in promotion.
Fuelled by its fiction catalogue, the business grew rapidly in the changing Spain of the 1970s, with well-timed acquisitions and business alliances along the way. Famous book trade brands like Seix Barral, Espasa Calpe and Destino are all under the Planeta umbrella.
In 1994, the publisher was created Marqués del Pedroso de Lara. He is survived by the Marquesa, two daughters and a son, José Manuel Lara Bosch, who recently succeeded him as Planeta group chairman; another son predeceased him.
  • José Manuel Lara Hernández, publisher, born 31 December 1914; died 11 May 2003
[PUBLISHED IN THE TIMES, 19 MAY 2003. Photo from semana.com (Colombia). A Spanish translation is at www.grijalvo.com/Mullan/b_Lara_es.htm]

Monday, 24 May 2010

Eduardo Úrculo 1938-2003

Few artists have been more publicly honest about their private passions than Eduardo Úrculo, who has died at the age of 65. The Spanish painter and sculptor was at the peak of his creative powers and winning the international acclaim that eluded him for much of his career. The Queen of Spain opened his current exhibition in Beijing last month. As many of his paintings, prints and sculptures attest, Úrculo’s special interests included the shape and texture of a particular region of the female anatomy. One of his most prominent legacies is an enormous bronze in front of Oviedo’s Campoamor theatre, graphically entitled Culis Monumentalibus (2001) and celebrating the aesthetics of a young woman’s hips and thighs. These were recurring motifs in much of his work since the early 1970s, when his was one of the artistic voices subverting the Catholic conservatism that underpinned Franco’s dictatorship.
In retrospect, it is unsurprising that Úrculo’s exhibition in Tehran was abruptly closed down in 1978 just before the Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power. The artist’s exuberantly erotic works were thrown out of an international show in Colombia in 1970 for “affronting morality and good manners” and later that year, Spain’s culture ministry pulped a catalogue it had published when the higher echelons inspected Úrculo’s contribution.
The female form, depicted with a profoundly humanistic tenderness, was by no means Úrculo’s sole theme. Thousands of tourists pause in Oviedo’s old quarter to gaze at a solitary male figure staring into the middle distance, leaning on a luggage trunk with suitcases around his feet. This is Úrculo’s The Return of Williams B. Arrensberg (1993), known in the local Asturian dialect as “el viaxeru” (the traveller). For Úrculo, objects like suitcases, coats, benches and - especially - hats were loaded with meaning about the human condition.
Born in the Basque seaside town of Santurtzi and raised in Asturias, Úrculo left school at 14 and was largely self-taught as an artist after a bout of tuberculosis kept him bedridden for months. A scholarship sent him to Madrid in 1958 and he enjoyed early success, exhibiting there and in Oviedo and Paris, where he spent much of the next year painting inner-city landscapes. A gritty social realism alternated with surrealism and abstraction in his work up to the mid-1960s, when he moved to Ibiza and began to develop in new directions.
Úrculo travelled widely and in northern Europe he came into contact with the Pop Art movement.. The female body, eroticism, fecundity (symbolised in his work by cows) and notions of distance and displacement came to the fore. The airbrush was a favoured tool for a decade; he also made silk-screen prints, ventured into stage design and explored the still-life genre. Hats became important, often representing the implied presence of the observer: the artist himself figures in many of his paintings as a hat-wearing man seen from behind.
Intense primary colours feature strongly in his pictures, shorn of extraneous detail. Technically, his draughtsmanship was brilliant. One of his acrylic paintings, El Beso (The Kiss), is a view of a couple embracing: only the back of her straw hat and the top of his red trilby are visible, but the image is as poignant and stirring as Rodin’s explicit Le Baiser.
Úrculo’s later works reflected his fascination with city life, particularly New York. Aeroplanes and eventually geishas emerged as new motifs. His bronze sculptures became landmarks in several cities. Recently, he was rediscovering elements of Cubism.
Úrculo was on sparkling form at a leisurely lunch in Madrid’s Residencia de Estudiantes when he abruptly keeled over and died. His wife, Victoria Hidalgo, was present. They had one son, Yoann. Had the artist lived until this summer, he was due to receive Spain’s highest artistic honour, the Gold Medal in Fine Arts, from King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.
  • Eduardo Úrculo, painter and sculptor, born 21 September 1938; died 31 March 2003
[FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE TIMES, 5 APRIL 2003; also on http://www.grijalvo.com/. Picture from biografiasyvidas.com]