Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Juan Barjola 1919-2004

After a lifetime’s work which established him as the foremost expressionist painter in Spain, Juan Barjola was in his studio preparing a new series for a forthcoming exhibition when a pile of canvases toppled over him, causing the injuries that led to his death a fortnight later, aged 85. Barjola’s work addressed recurring themes – bullfighting, poverty, crucifixions, suffering, prostitution, figures of authority and wretched stray dogs – that help locate him in a distinctively Spanish lineage of tremendismo that can be traced back to the harsh realism of Goya, down through the Picasso of Guernica or the violent imagery of Antonio Saura. He was a great admirer of Francis Bacon, whose own disturbing re-interpretation of the Velázquez Pope Innocent X finds definite echoes in Barjola.
Juan Galea Barjola (he preferred his second, maternal, surname) was born to a poor farming family from Torre de Miguel Sesmero in Extremadura. His talent was evident even in childhood, so he enrolled at 15 in the arts and crafts school of the provincial capital, Badajoz. The civil war (1936-39) interrupted his education; its horrors and the squalor it bequeathed marked him for life. It was 1943 before he graduated from Madrid’s San Fernando School of Fine Arts, where he later taught colour and composition.
In the late 1950s, Barjola’s work moved away from an initial interest in sculpture and abstraction towards a dedication to figurative painting, drifting through surrealist phases to develop his mature style of critical expressionism. Although many influences can be discerned in his evolving work, from a post-Cubist reshaping of spatial dimensions to the lurid mysticism of James Ensor, it would be wrong to ascribe Barjola to a particular school at any point in his trajectory: he was rigorously unorthodox.
His restless imagination and his search for his own style excluded him from groups, though his indifference to passing fashions probably cost him a fortune. It was his constant pursuit of self-expression that had him still at work daily in his eighties, living on the outskirts of Madrid to be at a safe distance from the social whirl of the art world; he would rather stay away from an opening of his own exhibition than sacrifice a day in the studio.
His first solo exhibition at Madrid’s Galería Abril in 1957 was critically praised, though it made little impact on the market. A grant which financed a European tour in 1960 exposed him to new influences and drew him to the attention of international galleries, leading to shows in Europe, the Americas and Japan.
He had achieved global recognition by the 1970s, despite or because of his solitary and restless style. Much of his later work used a palette of black and white, within which he could still achieve a remarkably moving luminosity. The subjective expressionism he evolved could be called an existentialist style: even in dealing with oppression, death and poverty, he conveyed a humane sense of compassion and protest at the human condition, verging on sarcastic exasperation.
Barjola considered poetry the highest form of art and was proud to have illustrated collections by Rafael Alberti and José Hierro, among others. He shared the National Prize in Plastic Arts in 1985, among many honours that included the medal of his native region of Extremadura and his designation as an “adoptive son” of Asturias. He had a special relationship with Asturias, the homeland of his wife, Honesta Fernández, and donated more than 200 of his works to the principality to create the Juan Barjola Museum. It opened in Gijón in 1988, housed in a remodelled Baroque palace and chapel and exhibiting Barjola’s works over half a century while also dedicating space to contemporary artists.
In his final years, Barjola was represented by the Madrid gallery of Antonio Machón, who visited the painter during his last days in hospital and found him as lucid as ever, still preoccupied with perfection in art. In a vignette that recalled the reputed last words of Oscar Wilde, Machón said the artist gestured toward a mediocre print decorating the wall of his private ward and demanded its removal; then he breathed his last. He is survived by his wife and their only son, the architect José Antonio Galea Fernández, co-designer of the Barjola Museum.
  • Juan Antonio Galea Barjola (Juan Barjola), artist, born September 19 1919; died December 21 2004

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