Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Eduardo Chillida 1924-2002

Two kinds of tourist visit the Basque city of San Sebastián: those who stroll along its seafront and are astounded at the far end of it to come upon weird pieces of twisted metal implanted in boulders; and those who already know that Eduardo Chillida's hypnotic sculptural assemblage Peines del viento ("Wind Combs") is in itself a good enough reason to visit the capital of his native province of Guipúzcoa.
Chillida was one of the great artists of the last century and one of its great rebels. As a proud Basque and a democrat, he opposed Franco's dictatorship and earned at least a mention in histories of the transition to democracy through his role in the campaign to free political prisoners. But he will be chiefly remembered and revered for his struggle against an even bigger enemy: the law of gravity.
He once declared that his vast monumental pieces embodied "the great battle that goes on in the vertical plane, between the forces that push up and those that press down". It was, he acknowledged, irrational, but he had taken his stand: "Geometry doesn't exist for me. I'm an outlaw, there's no denying it."
Born in Donostia (as San Sebastián is known to Basque speakers), Chillida effectively emigrated to study architecture in Madrid in 1943. Franco's drab Spain was no home for an imaginative architect, so Chillida switched to drawing. He went on to become a key figure in an artistic movement that the philistine Fascist regime failed to recognise as subtly subversive.
In his mid-twenties, Chillida turned his back on figurative art. Living by now in Paris, he absorbed influences from the likes of Picasso and Julio González, or the American David Smith, who had explored the artistic possibilities of sculpture in iron. In 1950, Chillida married his childhood sweetheart Pilar Belzunce, who recalled a few years ago that Chillida went through a creative crisis in Paris. Wisely – wisdom not being his strong suit – he took Pilar's advice and reconnected with his roots in Guipúzcoa.
In 1951, he set up his studio near Hernani, nowadays a notorious hotbed of Basque separatism. It was handily sited next to a disused forge that Chillida could fire up again to teach himself the requisite skills. Yunques del sueño ("Anvils of Dreams", 1955) was the key work from Chillida's "iron age". His work was already selling, though only one Madrid gallery gave him exhibition space during these years.
Divine intervention was called for. The Franciscan community at Aránzazu decided to build a new basilica, and bravely commissioned some of the country's avant-garde artists. Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza would design the building; Jorge Oteiza would produce the apostolic figures adorning the façade; Chillida would create the doors. The project became ever more controversial as it took shape. Years later, critics would speak of a "school of Aránzazu", but this was more a temporary coalition of hugely individual talents. Chillida, for instance, soon fell out with Oteiza and it was nearly 30 years before they exchanged a civil word and acknowledged each other's greatness. The basilica was, from time to time, put on hold until the latest outraged splutterings had died down. It is now seen as a 20th-century landmark in ecclesiastical architecture and design.
Chillida was winning international acclaim, including the sculpture prize at the 1958 Venice biennale. From the 1960s, his work expressed a shifting range of preoccupations and employed varied materials – wood, alabaster, reinforced concrete, terracotta – to produce what he termed, vaguely, "meditations in space".
He was, indeed, a deep thinker: some projects were years in the gestation. Their titles are challenging: Elogio del Aire ("In Praise of Air"), Espíritu de los pájaros ("Spirit of Birds"), Peines del viento ("Wind Combs"), Música de las esferas ("Music of the Spheres"), that sort of thing. "Wind Combs", his most-visited work, was begun well before 1968 but not fully installed in its magnificent setting in San Sebastián until 1977.
Chillida explained the Combs as meaning to evoke "the horizon as something unknown, unfamiliar... a symbolic Finisterre." To see what he was getting at, they are best viewed on a stormy day at high tide. They convey an implacable sense of a strong, solid, determined and creative country that defies, humours and ridicules its adversary, the ocean. Either that, or they are lumps of metal stuck into boulders at wild angles and, should you wonder why, Chillida has made you think.
In his prime, Chillida had the air of an untroubled genius, his anxieties ensconced in his artworks. The World Bank in Washington houses his Alrededor del vacío ("About Emptiness"), a steel sculpture from 1969 which questions and provokes its surroundings. In Sweden, the burghers of Lind have a Chillida of their own; Tehran, Barcelona, Basle, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf are proud of theirs, too.
He preferred coastal or hilltop settings, where his big, rugged lumps of metal or concrete could represent humanity's engagement with the natural world. But he could make equally dramatic interventions in urban space. In 1972, a new bridge over Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana created room for an open-air sculpture park. Chillida's offering, Lugar de encuentro ("Meeting Place"), was meant to be suspended on cables from the bridge, but the city authorities dithered. His concrete creation languished at the foot of the bridge and was soon renamed by the local citizenry La sirena varada ("The Beached Mermaid"). The Miró Foundation in Barcelona gave it a temporary home until, with democratic local government reinstated, Madrid welcomed it back. Already a public figure by the time Spain's ancien régime was tottering, Chillida readily embraced the cause of amnesty for political prisoners. Many of the 400 Basques in jail at the time of Franco's death in 1975 were ineligible for release under the cautious pardon scheme accompanying the coronation of Juan Carlos, or the wider amnesty agreed by the new premier, Adolfo Suárez. The artist became a figurehead for the general amnesty movement, Gestoras, whose logo was his design.
By late 1977, the last political prisoner walked free and Chillida announced that the campaign was over. But the Basque separatist group ETA returned to the offensive, murdering hundreds more in democracy than it had under Franco, and hijacked the name of Gestoras for its own mawkish purpose of portraying jailed terrorists as heroic victims.
While ETA clung to its time-warp, Chillida and the rest of the world moved on. He became an active campaigner for the release of ETA kidnap victims. His monument to the Fueros, a tribute to the restoration of regional self-rule, greeted the new Basque Parliament at Vitoria-Gasteiz. One of his last great works was Monumento a la tolerancia, a monument to tolerance built for Seville in 1992 which marked 500 years since the expulsion of the Jews from the city.
Honours rained on him in later life, awards and decorations from France, Japan, Germany, Israel, Italy and the Royal Academy of Arts, of which he was appointed an honorary member in 1983, stacking up alongside those from his native country. Accepting an honorary doctorate in engineering from the University of the Basque Country, he did not wait for the rector ceremonially to place on him the birette, or doctoral bonnet; Napoleonically, Chillida donned it for himself.
He designed the university's "tree of knowledge" logo, and that of the region's savings bank. He never charged a fee for the designs he produced for the new institutions of Basque civil society. Chillida's imprint is all over the Basque country; Bilbao's Guggenheim museum houses some of his finest work. In the context of the region's conflict, the "Wind Combs" have taken on a new significance. Today's totalitarian ETA regards journalists as fair game if they write anything it dislikes. Each time a colleague is shot or bombed, nearly all of the region's journalists gather in protest beside the combs. Last summer, after a fresh ETA onslaught on media workers, hundreds of Madrid journalists held a free-speech rally in the shadow of the "Beached Mermaid".
Chillida had been an ETA target himself. His sculpture museum, Chillida-Leku, based around an ancient farmhouse at Zabalaga on the outskirts of Hernani, was opened officially in September 2000 by the King and Queen of Spain. A massacre was thwarted when several mortar-bomb launchers were discovered nearby.
The sculptor's most ambitious project has yet to be realised. Mountains inspire many artists: Chillida had a different take on it. Tindaya, on the Canary island of Fuerteventura, became his obsession. He did not want to sculpt it in the conventional sense: he wanted to hollow it out. He was determined that his everlasting legacy should be a tunnel into the heart of the mountain, opening into a perfectly cubical empty space measuring 50 metres in each direction.
It was a crazy, sublime idea, to create the world's biggest sculpture out of air, by subtracting solid material. Fears were voiced that the project might cause the entire mountain to collapse: details, details. The Canary Islands government finally consented to an amended plan after technical reports said that if the cubical space were scaled down to 40 metres each way, Tindaya would still stand. At Chillida's death, the contracts had been signed but the project was still on the drawing board.
The last years of his life were unhappy. He fell into prolonged bouts of depression and lost the will to work, all apparently triggered by a drastic episode of food poisoning involving dodgy oysters.
The poet Gabriel Celaya once described Chillida as "a dictator, an engineer, of dreams". Had it not been for a knee injury, he might also have been a star goalkeeper for his hometown team, Real Sociedad, for whom he played in the early 1940s.
Chillida and his beloved wife Pili had four sons and four daughters. At a retrospective show in Valencia four years ago, Pili revealed that she thought of his sculptures as her daughters, too. He once said of Pili, "She is the organised, clever, good one, but I'm pretty much a wandering soul. Without her, I'd probably be living under a bridge somewhere."
  • Eduardo Chillida Juantegi, sculptor: born San Sebastián, 10 January 1924; died San Sebastián 19 August 2002

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