Toros, hondura y cante

Josep Guinovart

(Barcelona, 1927 - 2007)

Toros, honduras y cante


On the back of the door or my university office is quote attributed to Josep Pla, which reads, “We live surrounded by utter chance”. It is undeniable that luck, like a river, norishes but it can also dry up and desiccate. Luck plays an important part in bullfighting too, with different phases know as suertes, or in English “lucks”, the “lucks” of pikes, the “luck” of banderillas, not to mention the luck needed when entering the bullring to finally dispatch the noble animal. I mention all this since bulls top the bill of the welcome Guinovart exhibition organised by the Vila Casas Foundation at Volart 2 in Barcelona. Toros, hondura y cante are themes brought together on this occasion under the subject of Guinovart not only by the chance and fluidity of song and bullfighting, but also by the circumstances which sometimes hold together our existence and other times unravel it.

I have mentioned elsewhere that it was also several lucky coincidences which brought me into contact not only with Guinovart’s work, but also to a certain degree with the man himself. Something like the same thing happened to me when I met Guinovart as happened to Salvador Pániker in his account of meeting Josep Pla. Like Pániker, I too felt curiosity for meeting the artist but at the same time, a certain sense of trepidation at the prospect of meeting someone merely playing the part of an artistic genius. Fortunately Guinovart turned to genuinely be the person who had always captivated me with the creative power, richness born of artistic restraint, pathos, open solitariness, and metaphysical anger that he brought to his drawings, prints, paintings, installations and sculptures. In fact, luck caused me t be at a round table with him in La Pedrera in Barcelona, only a month before his death. It was on Novembrer 15th, 2007, for a homage that Catalan society and culture were paying to Cesáreo Rodríguez-Aguilera. A year after his passing. The speech which “Guino” dedicated to his friend Cesáreo started with the following “The experience of a post-civil was friendship and its impact on the creative process”. We were accompanied at the table thought when Guinovart started to speak, but I can say that during his turn I heard the notes I had prepared for the occasion fall from my hands. I remember how, on that November afternoon, his language, which I was not accustomed to, seemed to me to be replete with profundities.

Just before starting his speech Guinovart turned to his left where I was sitting and, with the air of matador teasing a bull, asked me with supreme delicacy if I minded him speaking in Catalan – it being his mother tongue and the language he intended addressing the audience gathered in memory of Cesáreo in, under the undulating ceiling of La Pedrera. I instantly diffused the issue by breathing quickly into his ear that I should be the one to ask for permission to express myself in any language other than Catalan, taking into account where we were sitting. When our turns were over and the function was drawing to a close, Guinovart congratulated me on that fact that my opening words had been in my somewhat shaky Catalan. We smiled, shook hands and I said good-bye for, as it turned out, the last time to an eighty-year-old man full of life.


Toros, hondura y cante for Guinovart were interconnected themes, as I mentioned at the beginning. The bullfighting depicted by Guinovart contradicts the longestablished belief, still held by many as true, that bullfighting is a festival, some even go as far as to call it the national festival. Guinovart’s art challenges the apostles of this national festival and proves them wrong. Whatever bullfighting may not be, and it certainly is not rational festival, does not detract from what it is. Guinovart’s bullfight scenes pulsate with drama and fill the ring with sensual spectacle. Bullfighting is dust, sweat and flies; a mouthful of gritty wine at siesta time. The sun is a distinguished guest at the bullring; light which is made to ricochet around the arena by Guinovart, although the true masters of the ring are those strangely seen the creatures which officiate at an orgy of death and mischance. (See: monotypes from the series Els braus (The Bulls) (1950), 35 x 43 cm; La cogida (The Goring) (1954), ink a gouache on paper. 32x45cm; Tauromaquia (Tauromachy) (1957), sketch for a rug, 22x30 cm; Toros (Bulls) (1950), oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm). When viewing Guinovart’s bullfight pictures one realizes that man is a complicated and generally contradictory creature. He is in a constant state of oscillation, a being which lives with distorted truths from which he takes council. Bullfights interested Josep Guinovart for their chromatic richness and, doubtlessly, for their surprisingly symbolic exuberance. Bullfighting spurred Guinovart’s creativity with what he found in it to be unprecedented and unique; six fighting bulls and three matadors make up nine surprising pieces in a game of life and death on the ochre and yellow dust of the bullring. On this background of toasted light everything is highly contrasted; the austere character of the elongated animal smeared with blood split by an, at times, rational beast. The bullring is a sea of confusion hemmed in by objects, people and animals, all things which, after being transmuted, end up being deployed in the abstract compositions Guinovart created with such consumate skill.    

The horn-pointed hooves of the proud beasts tread as silently in the ring as the matador’s passes of the cape. Of course bullfighting interested Guinovart for its extraordinary iconographic value, of which the luxuriant bullfighter’s hat is but one example. In a bullfight there is an immense amount of liturgy and measured ritual. By the latent danger of the bull’s horns is ever-present and allowed Guinovart to deploy hi reductions of materials, to etch with nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. This contained risk caused in Guinovart a very satisfying monumental creative explosion. It allowed him to draw, paint, etch and, in short, shed light on this rough and direputable world. Once again, you only have to look at the series Braus to appreciate what I mean. In each monotype, drawing and oil of the series the signs and symbols play a transcendental role, and are repeated throughout his work, as confirmed by José Corredor-Matheos, an expert on Guinovart.


Guinovart’s wide-ranging curiosity steered his creative urge through the abysses and depths of flamenco singing and bullfighting. As a good Mediterranean he treated life as a constant adventure, at times unpleasant, found between an initial nothingness and a final nothingness. Today we can observe a Guinovart in figurative tension, a master who portrayed best the interior and profound of whatever fell under his gaze. A classic of great sanding nourished by the intuition and imaginative dialectics which, generally speaking, find us as the usual conventions of painting. In this exhibition at the Vila Casas Foundation we can enjoy Guinovart no trying to explain the inexplicable or decipher the mysterious, but one again immersing us in his pictorial codes. He achieved this through composition, chromatic modulation, on many occasions with the consistent provocation of renouncing a crude vision of a personal, animal or thing in order to bring us closer to a profound evocation, which is what, each in its own way, bullfighting and flamenco singing also try to do. The profoundness of song and bullfighting has exactly these characteristics; the constant musical and literary urge or, in the case of bullfighting, scenic and visual urge to express the incommunicable. Guinovart’s work also reinvents with all the naturalness and wild stamp so characteristic of his art. When faced by such profoundness we find ourselves, as Arnau Puig and Corredor-Matheos would say, in the presence of Guinovart mind way between harsh and sentimental. He had very little of the realist about him since the exploration of such profoundness leads us away from corporeal reality.     

The attention that Guinovart paid, since his early days, to rural magicism provided him with a wailling ally in the poetry of Lorca. Many Lorca-inspired guitarists perennially pay tribute to flamenco and the poet. For Guinovart the guitar was more than musical object, it was both the container and the contained; a physical and emotional reference point with the ability to conjure up images of the soul, just like the singing it accompanies. The energy and emotion of flamenco, its simple and primitivist signal manifested through song, had for Guinovart a radical and ancestral relationship which reverberated for him in a special way. This explains why some of the oldest forms of flamenco, where the gusty wail of the human voice is accompanied by guitar, were crucial to his work. If we agree that flamenco singing is the lament of a tortured soul, then we can agree that, being of equal intensity, Guinovart’s creative drive cries out from every paper, canvas and board. Hence the drama, catharsis, deep-seated symbolism; in short the profoundness which is invoked by this exhibition of his work at the Vila Casas Foundation. We can also embrace the expressionistic humanism, the primary and existential lyricism and musicality which his art imparts. 


José Ángel Marín

University of Jaen, June 2009.   


Bullfighting in the work of Guinovart

Artists and bullfighting


Seduced and fascinated by the creative potential, the vigour and richness of bullfighting, by a world of heroes and legendary bulls, artists, as part of their dialogue with reality, have throughout history portrayed the symbology, expressiveness and personality of its multiple values. While many have shown interest in transfiguring appearances, others have found refuge in tis more dramatic side: the confrontation between bull and bullfighter. Others, in their turn, have wanted to capture the lighter side of bullfighting to be found in passes and capes. Some painters have compared the sense of loneliness felt before a canvas to that of a bullfighter in a bullring, and many writers have described the art of bullfighting as being the only art in which the artist repeatedly risks his life. Magical and celebratory, abhorrent and barbaric, sun-lit and shadowy, bullfight, with its ritual and entertainment, has been a source of inspiration for many artists. Glorified by aficionados as a ritual of incomparable fascination, derided by its detractors for the suffering in inflicts on animals, bullfighting as a subject for art has managed to make the move from the social to the cultural ambit.  

In this sense, artists from Goya to Miquel Barceló, including Daniel Vázquez Díaz, Gutiérrez Solana, Ignacio Zuloaga and Picasso, also André Masson, Francis Bacon, Fernando Botero, artists from the El Paso Group (Antonio Saura and Pablo Serrano) and from Equipo 57, as well as Josep Guinovart himself, have found the bullring to be fertile ground for art, as much for its vivid iconography as its potent tragic and primal currents. Despite this, the genre of bullfight art has been looked down on by many because of the cultural baggage it carries and the academic technicality its execution supposedly requires. As well as which, it is regarded unfavourably by the opponents of bullfighting itself.

The image of the bull first appeared in ancient cultures and has always been accompanied by a complex interplay of symbols: the origin of life, fertility, sexual potency, astrological being, to name but a few. The play and ritual between man and bull, the origin of bull fighting and early scenes of people dancing with bulls can be found in painting at Knossos in Crete. Throughout classical antiquity the Mediterranean saw the spread of customs and images related to bulls, for example the Minotaur, the bulls of Gerion and the labours of Hercules. In Spain the figure of the fighting bull has its origins in pre-history as well as appearing in many sculptures in classical times. In the middle-ages and Renaissance there are references to bulls in documents concerning artists and miniaturists, although it was not until the 18th century when bull fighting began to assume its more modern from that popular art of a strictly bullfighting nature began to appear, mainly as cartoons for tapestries, by painters such as Ramón Bayeu and Antoni Carnicero. The development of bullfighting on foot, as opposed to on horseback, gave rise to a more colourful spectacle and, in turn, to a proliferations of prints on bullfighting subjects as well as the first paintings. Goya, a know aficionadao, was undoubtedly the first major figure to concentrate on bullfighting and he also started by designing cartoons for tapestries. His mains contribution to the genre, iconographically speaking, were his celebrated bullfight etchings Tauromachy, first printed in 1816. They are scenes which show some of the rawest aspects of the spectacle which transcend the merely popular to appeal on an intellectual level.


In the 19th century Spanish painting was closely aligned with Spanish folk customs and the picturesque, which is why bullfighting subject matter was often used by many artists of the standing of Eugenio Lucas, was broke away from the quaint clichés so prevalent at the time. The end of the century saw a new phase of painting begin with artists such as Sorolla and Casas, in which bullfighting gained prominence. Picasso, in the 20th century, was the second great figure to bring and altogether personal vision to the rite of the bulls. With a profound debt to Spanish painting, especially to the darkness of Goya and Velazquez, Picasso frequently returned to the dramatic struggle of man caught between life and death: a recurrent reenactment of the bloodthirsty Spanish tragedy. Picasso reestablished the bullfight as the epicenter of a brutal and bloody battle, and developed by means of intense and passionate scenes an archetype, with which he illustrated the duality of opposites: sun/shade, good/evil, male/female. The pairing of horse and bull, both central figures in Guernica, came to symbolise different human relationships such as prisoner and executioner, love and violence, eroticism and cruelty, and brought them face to face in the ritual of sacrifice, in hand to hand combat, linking them with the Crucifixion and copulation. Picasso saw the bullfight as symbolizing life and death, and love and sex.


Guinovart before Guinovart

Part of the generation known at the “second Catalan avant-garde”, Josep Guinovart (Barcelona 1927-2007) belonged to a group of artists who were profoundly affected by the difficult post-civil war years, which gave them a tenacious and combative outlook. Guniovart, an artist who broke down barriers between art and life, became one of the more prominent figure in Catalan art in the second half of the 20th century. His prolific career, spanning more than sixty yeas of uninterrupted and intense creative output, made him an artist of international standing, with a wide and rich body of work, as well as a man committed to his time and place.

After studying at the Llotja art school in Barcelona, Guinovart embarked upon a youthful period characterised by an imaginary and yet hyper-real reality. In the autumn of 1948 he had his first one-man show, in he entrance hall of the Galerías Syra in Barcelona, with works by Miquel Villà being shown in the main room. At the beginning of the 1950’s he came into contact with the I Salon of Independent Art, the Maillol Circle and the Cycle of Experimental Art directed by Àngel Marsà. A journey to Madrid brought him into contact with the landscape of central Spain, as well as Benjamín Palencia and Alberto Sanchez, artists of the Vallecas School whose work held a deep fascination for him, almost on a par with that of Miró Catalan Romanesque. Having affinities with expressionist realism, which he used to expose he social and political conditions of the day, the artist embarked upon what was to be a constant theme in his work; the non-separation of life and art. After participating in the third and fourth editions of the October Salon in Barcelona, he joined the Maillol Circle at the French Institute and in 1952 was awarded a grant to study in Paris.  In 1955 he co-founded the short-lived Taüll group with Cixart, Jordi Muxart, Tàpies and Tharrats. One of the most interesting documents pertaining to this group is a photograph taken by Francesc Catalá Roca of the artists together in the National Catalan Art Museum under the Taüll apse painting; proof of a formation that was never consolidated. Its existence was thanks to the photograph and a meeting to sign a document drawn up by the critic and lawyer Cesáreo Rodríguez-Aguilera. This group, like collectives in the 1940’s, attempted to breath new life into the art world, but its heterogeneity and lack of structural programme made it purely ephemeral.


The echoes of expressionist realism in his early work are a result of the daily battle against the poverty of the post-civil war years. The first important period of Guinovart’s work -late 1940’s and 1950’s- his characterised by the evocation of a sombre, desolate and dismal world. His realism had a certain harsh and dry feel to it, harking back, in its social concerns, to the miserabilist realism of Catalan painting, so apparent in Gimeno and Nonell. The structural and compositional awkwardness of his early work, together with its naivety, primitiveness, simplification and stasis, are all taken from Catalan Romanesque, which he had the opportunity to see at the Museum on Montjüic. Like many artists of his generation he found in Romanesque art a primordial expressivity full of artistic possibilities. These modern artists discovered roots and points of contact with the past, an enlivening and yet distant past with which they identified a certain way of feeling and being.   


Thoughout his career, Guinovart was engaged in creating a language which he used to refer to what it is to be human. He achieved this by use of certain elements of a figurative character such as faces, eyes and other parts of the body, although at times this relationship was established in a more conceptual way; suggesting he human form by use of linear signs such as crosses and circles, more drawn than painted, which acquired a universal and symbolic character.


Bullfighting in Guinovart’s work

The artist’s early work was firmly rooted in the social reality of the time -the fight against poverty and the political clampdown on culture. The subject matters of the day were all on a human theme; family and work, rural life and nature, as well as others such as bullfighting, jazz and the circus. Austere and distinguished images, treated with a constructive solidity of robust and monumental volumes, his works contain a characteristically implicit sense of condemnation and revolt.

Of especial interest to Guinovart was the versatility of the bullfighting world which allowed him to channel his creative flow and prodigious talent; a conceptualisation and subject matter which he turned into paintings, drawings and prints all testifying to his feeling towards bullfighting. As opposed to the traditional approach relying heavily on the portrayal of quaint customs and the gaiety of the event, the artist chose the emphasise the tension, drama, rawness, mischance and death, which he always depicted with matchless simplicity. Two series of monotypes entitled Els braus (The bulls) (1949-50), link him with Picasso and an exhibition of a collection of his bullfight lithographs which has just ended in Galerias Layetanas. Guinovart’s are scenes in a free and popular manner, revealing the marked influence of Lorca, in whom he found parallels with his own artistic concerns. This was also the case in a 1951 portfolio of etchings entitled Lorca, published by Cobalto, while the previous year he had portrayed the poet using the same technique. We must not forget that at the 1951 Milan tri-annual, in the Spanish pavilion curated by Rafael Santos Torroella, he exhibited prints inspired by Lorca’s poem Lament for the Death of Bullfighter. This Lorca-style. Drenched in ruralism, populism and the flamenco tradition, was to be a constant in his career, as can be seen in the selection of works dealing with flamenco singing in this exhibition.

In other works, such as Corrida de toros (Bullfight) (1949), Guinovart touches on an almost primitive, sign-like, surreal magicism influenced by the spirit of the Dau al Set group. As J. Corredor-Matheos mentioned in the catalogue for the exhibition Guinovart (1948-2002) at the Caixa Catalunya Foundation in 2002, magic and certain self-conscious simplicity mixed with the primitivstic element which impregnated the art of the 1940’s and early 1950’s was contemporaneous with Dau al Set. Although Guinovart was not a member of the group he did collaborate with them on several occasions. For exemple, in number 37 (March 1952) of their magazine he did five drawings to illustrate an article on Miguel Hernández by Rodríguez Aguilera. This is how magiscim derived from surrealism, and primitivism arising from nostalgia for the primordial, both developed by Miró and Klee amongst others, were part of the legacy of the avant-garde, which had been disseminated by various figurative tendencies. In this way the movement for artistic regeneration, linked with the avantgarde, took as read the importance of primitivism and magicism, and in general any manifestation of primary art, which explains its interested in folk art.

All Guinovart’s aesthetic experience is infused with this poesy. Toros (Bulls) (1950), particularly captures a popular folk tone with its stagy composition of architectural rigidity which also hacks back to Romanesque wall painting, the heavily delineated profiles, the face-on view of the figure with large almond eyes, and the semicircular arches acting as frames in three of the scenes. All these elements relate his work formally with the avant-garde. Guinovart treated bullfighting not so much for the subject itself, but more as a pretext for creating new compositions. La corrida (The Bullfight) (1952) is a splendid work, very much in Solanesque vein, with the matador as the axis point around which a circular composition is laid out.


His journey to Madrid and visit to the Prado Museum in 1952 profoundly influenced him; he was particularly struck by Goya’s Dog Drowing in Quicksand. Travelling through the region of Castilla resulted in his interested in Benjamín Palencia and the solemn poetry of the rural. This was when his real-life experiences coexisted with those lived at an intellectual level, as far as the cultural world was concerned. A magneficient example of this is the paradigmatic work Aparato para aprender a torear (Device for Learning how to Bullfight) (1952), which heralded a change of direction towards abstraction. The depiction of a living bull constructed like a machine but, paradoxically, with its entrails showing, formalized his need for geometric simplification. 


A nine-month stay in Paris (from April 1953 to January 1954) opened new horizons for him and led to a new artistic development, although it took him longer to bring about a change in his artistic language. Toro al sol (Bull in the sun) (1956) already reflects the liberty of an allegorical expressionism; all representations are distorted in an attempt to probe the open wound, the bitterness, the desperate cry and covert dramatic elements, as a metaphor of the inescapable combat for life. There are two masterful drawings of bull’s heads, destructured and formally distorted, Cap de toro (Bull’s head) and Toro al sol (Bull in the sun) both from 1956, in which his transition to non-figurative expression can already be discerned, although he was not finally to make the break from figuration 1958. These are works in which a brutal and fierce gaze, painful wounding and pathos are taken to their extremes, reminding us of Picasso’s striking deformations. Tauromàquia (Tauromachy) (1957), with a clear focus on its bracing bareness which intersects with a geometric structure, creates echoes of stone circles and ancient rites. A more intense sobriety of form, compositional simplification, a last stop before abstraction of form.

In the years following his return from Paris, and with a clear preoccupation for the social function of art, Guinovart became interested in mural and applied painting, thanks to his collaboration with architects and commissions from set-designers for plays and ballets. There were many collaborations of this type, seen by a wider audience, such as the set design for Feria del Come y Calle (The Shut Up and Eat Fair) (1964) by Alfredo Mañas, a sketch from which is on display in this exhibition, as well at the sets and poster for a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding in 1963. During this period Lorca and Picasso served him as models for positioning himself within society, fostering his expressive capacity with regard to humanism and populism.

The prominence of everything to do with bullfighting and his fascination for its ritual in his entire output shows that the struggle between bull and horse, or matador and bull, became an existential combat in which there primary and irrational impulses are the dark and obscure secrets of inescapable fate. For Guinovart, the real subject of the picture, the artistic intention arising from real references to a cultural tradition, became a symbol for the social/political phenomenon, a constant concern oh his.

A humanist by nature, as C. Rodríguez-Aguilera described him, it was during these years when he developed the timeless values which are to be found in the concept, representation, expression and communication of all his later work. It is artistic content demonstrating his personal experience of the tangible world surrounding him, which at the same time draws us into an intelligent and profound world that is both disturbing and moving. It is a critical and committed response to the challenges set by existence.

Conxita Oliver

Member of the International Association of Art Critics