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