Thursday, 13 May 2010

Jorge Oteiza 1908-2003

The Basque language has a word, “huts”, expressing something that obsessed Jorge Oteiza, one of the greatest Spanish sculptors of the 20th century. “Huts” means a vacuum, the absence of something yearned for; a flaw, a hollowing-out.
Oteiza made sculptures to frame empty spaces, having decided that sculpture was not about the shapes of things but about the spaces within and around them. Although he formally abandoned his artistic discipline in 1959, he is now winning wider recognition as a figure to be ranked with Eduardo Chillida, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and few others.
In 1950 Oteiza and the architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, his lifelong friend, were chosen to design a new Aránzazu Basilica for the Franciscan community in Guipúzcoa. It was a turning point in the careers of many of those involved, and in the history of church design. Oteiza described the commission as “the happiest day of my miserable life” - but it generated enormous controversy, mostly around Oteiza’s frieze of the Apostles above the main entrance.
The influence of Henry Moore is evident in the Apostles. There are 14 - Oteiza included both the repentant Judas and his successor, Matthias - but what left conservative churchmen aghast was that each figure has a gaping hole in its body. Oteiza said that these were men who had opened themselves up: “They gave their hearts for others, and this self-sacrifice gives them their common sanctity and their true Christian identity.” It was too much for the visiting pontifical commissioner, one Monsignor Constantini, to whom it was “a row of monks with their guts torn out”.
Clerical fire and brimstone paralysed the project for years. Oteiza’s Apostles were left lying by the roadside while debate rumbled on as to whether they were profane or sublime. It took Pope Paul VI to call the reactionaries off and sanction the completion of the basilica, so it was 1969 before Aránzazu was finished. The building is daunting, but it represents the finest Basque talents of the era.
Another work that speaks volumes about Oteiza’s stubborn, combative character is entitled, in Basque, Hau Madrilentzat (“This is For Madrid”, 1975). At first sight it is an array of geometrical shapes; then the penny drops - it is a stylised version of the elbow-grasping, fist-shaking gesture known in Spanish as a corte de mangas. The title was Oteiza’s blunt message to the capital city after it reneged on a contract he had won for the Plaza Colón.
Born in Orio, in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, in 1908, Oteiza went to school in the Basque country and in Navarra, his father’s homeland. He was an introverted, solitary boy. One of his childhood pleasures was to lie on the beach and contemplate the sky. After their business collapsed, the family moved to Madrid and when Jorge’s father emigrated to Argentina, the 20-year-old student worked as a waiter and typesetter to support his mother and five younger siblings while he studied for a medical degree.
The scientific elements of his studies awakened interests in structures, energies and the representation of the invisible. He turned to sculpture and was already picking up awards by his early twenties. That makes Jorge Oteiza the last survivor of the artistic vanguard that predated the Spanish Republic.
In 1935, Oteiza embarked for South America, and for 15 years wandered around many countries - staging shows of sculptures and ceramics, teaching and writing on the philosophy and history of art. Returning to Spain in 1948, he became a leading light in his generation of Basque artists.
He won the National Prize for Architecture for a chapel on the pilgrimage path to Santiago, and produced landmark pieces for university buildings, an aluminium statue for the Dominican church at Valladolid, even a façade for the Madrid Institute of Artificial Insemination. Between exhibitions and lectures, and a day job at an electrical ceramics firm, he wrote about Goya, South American megalithic statuary and in defence of abstraction.
He developed a sculptural style influenced by constructivists and suprematists like Kasimir Malevich. Oteiza’s will to explore sculpture to its limits reached its most fruitful expression in the late 1950s with his Propósito experimental (“Exploratory effort”). His international standing was sealed when a set of these small sculptures won at the São Paulo Bienal in 1957.
Two years later, Oteiza announced that he was finished with full-scale sculpture and had other things to do. He turned to the written word, claiming to have explored the properties of space so extensively that “I ended up with a purely receptive empty space, without a sculpture in my hands”.
He had stored up so many projects and models, however, that even during his most prolific period as a writer, polemicist and poet, new sculptures emerged. In 1963, his key literary work appeared. Quousque tandem…! (“Is this where we have reached?”), subtitled “An effort to interpret the aesthetics of the Basque soul”, had a profound impact on several generations. Many were captivated by the depiction of Basque identity as constructed around opposite but complementary principles - ancient and modern, urban and rural - and marked by the region’s unique pre-Indo-European language. These themes were developed in Oteiza’s 1966 book, Ejercicios espirituales en un túnel (“Spiritual Exercises in a Tunnel”), banned until 1983.
Oteiza’s other projects of the 1960s encompassed aspects of the Basque cultural renaissance he had pursued since his youth. Ventures into film-making, proposals to create museums or research institutes in aesthetics, prehistory, anthropology and architecture, a university of the arts and a Basque-language “children’s university’ were crammed into a few years, along with his involvement in the art groups Gaur (“Today”), Emen (“Here”) and Orain (“Now”).
Chillida was a collaborator in Gaur; they exhibited together and shared many friends. A falling-out between Chillida and Oteiza was a setback to the emergence of what might properly be called a Basque School. One issue between them was Chillida’s work as an illustrator for the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Die Kunst und der Raum (‘Art and Space”): Oteiza felt he had a better grasp of Heidegger’s meaning. A 30-year feud ensued, with Oteiza the main mover. Of more significance, probably, was that for many years after Oteiza had ostensibly renounced sculpture, Chillida practised it to growing international acclaim. There was widespread relief in 1997 when Oteiza swallowed enough pride to visit Chillida for an embrace of reconciliation.
A profound spirituality informs most of Oteiza’s work. He could articulate a humanistic form of Christianity or, with equal lucidity, proclaim himself “a devout atheist”. But his relationship with Christianity and specifically with the Catholic church was erratic. In the early 1960s, Oteiza suggested to a few friends getting a small plane, flying to Rome and dive-bombing St Peter’s while the Vatican Council was in session. The deranged plot was taking definite shape by the time Oteiza lost interest in it: like some of his much sounder enterprises, it came to nothing.
Perhaps it is as well that he did not dedicate himself to politics. He did, however, take a public stand against Francoist repression, as one of the artists fronting the Gernika 70 campaign supporting the 16 defendants in the notorious Burgos Trial. In the first democratic elections of 1977, Oteiza was a Senate candidate for the Basque Left.
He considered donating his artistic legacy to the Basque community, but fell out with the region’s Nationalist Party. By 1992, he had resolved to give everything to the people of Navarra, with an Oteiza Museum to be created alongside his ancient farmhouse at Alzuza, near Pamplona.
Oteiza had discovered Alzuza in the early 1970s and used to retreat to the hills of Navarra from his seaside home in Zarautz. An unseemly controversy has dogged the museum project, with a crisis emerging in the foundation created to run it. Its board split between friends of Oteiza and allies of the Navarra government and, at one point, Oteiza said he no longer wanted the museum to bear his name. This may take years to resolve.
Oteiza’s recent exhibitions were not a “return” to sculpture: he never truly left it. Most of the items have come from a stockpile of small-scale maquettes made between 1955-75 in wood, tin and chalks, of which more will be created in full measure in years to come. New public monuments based on his works have appeared in the past few years in the Basque Country and beyond. In September last year, the seafront at San Sebastián became the site for a massive steel version of one of the pieces that triumphed in São Paulo 45 years earlier. It stands at one end of the beach, a stroll away from Chillida’s Peines del Viento (“Wind Combs”).
Another recent installation, in Bilbao, is Variante ovoide de la desocupación de la esfera (“Ovoid variation on the emptying of the sphere”), one of the pieces in his 1958 series of hollowed-out spheres. The emergence of more of Oteiza’s works into daylight will enhance his posthumous stature, probably without dimming Chillida’s star.
In 1938, Oteiza married Itziar Carreño Etxeandia. She died in 1991 and, for the past decade, a tomb in Alzuza cemetery has been marked by two crosses, bearing the names Itziar Carreño and Jorge Oteiza. In his last decades, the artist liked to disarm interviewers by exclaiming: “Jorge Oteiza? That fellow died years ago.”
  • Jorge Oteiza Embil, sculptor and writer: born Orio, 21 October 1908; died San Sebastián, 9 April 2003
[FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE INDEPENDENT, 10 APRIL 2003. My friend Juan Manual Grijalvo publishes a Spanish translation at]

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