Antonio López García: Timeless Realism in a Spanish Key
by Jason Edward Kaufman
When he was 13 years old, Antonio López García (b. 1936) left his agrarian family in Tomelloso, a town in La Mancha, and went to Madrid to prepare for the entrance exams of the School of Fine Arts. His uncle, the realist painter Antonio López Torres, had recognized his talent, and his father wanted a better life for his son. The 1950 pencil portrait of Josefina, executed when the artist was 14, gives sufficient indication of his precocity. He studied (1950-55) and later taught (1960-69) in the capital, becoming one of Madrid’s preeminent realist painters.
Because he is not prolific, García has had only a handful of one-artist shows. Three have been in New York: two in the 1960s and one, in 1986, at his current representative, the Marlborough Gallery. His work is in several major U.S. museum collections. Rizzoli’s English-language monograph on the artist has broadened his reputation in the United States and Great Britain. But, like many Spanish artists who came of age during the Franco era, García remains little known outside Spain.
He is a versatile realist, proficient in the traditional media of pencil drawing, oil painting on board, carved wood sculpture, and bas relief in plaster. His subjects range from portraits and landscapes to still lifes and genre scenes, generally taken from life in or near his native Tomelloso or Madrid where he resides and works.
He was early drawn to Picasso in whom he “sensed something dangerous…like a corrosive acid. There was something sour, hard and aggressive, which reflected life and the human condition with an intensity and a richness of expression such as I have never found in other modern artists. It both overwhelmed and somewhat frightened me.” This fascination led García to borrow elements from Picasso’s blue and rose periods.
While other Madrid artists dabbled in international abstract expressionism, he ventured into Surrealism. He would collage disparate realist vignettes in disjoint compositions with a folk-art naivete, despite their sophisticated representational technique. This “magic realism” continued through the mid-1960s, but gradually, as he says, “the physical world gained more prestige in my eyes.”
In fact he had never abandoned it. The 1959 oil Francisco Carretero and A. López García Talking, like many portraits and townscapes of this period, is devoid of surrealistic disjunctions. So are Autumn (1961) and The Sea (1961-70). Even a work like The Campo del Moro (1960) is first of all an accomplished landscape, notwithstanding the Chagall-like addition of two women strolling in the sky above the horizon.
Some of his relief sculptures conjure fantastic episodes, such as The Apparition (1963) in which a child hovers mid-air against a wall, gliding toward an open door. But others, such as The Couple (1964) or The Clothes Rack (1964), are no less earthbound than the George Segal tableaux they so closely resemble. There are many affinities with the Tuscan Renaissance in his work in three dimensions. The ethereal Head of Carmencita (1965-68), for example, might at first glance be a quattrocento Florentine bronze by Desiderio da Settignano.
García’s painting also reverberates with the art of the past. The Grapevine (1960) evokes Tiepolo’s sunlight, the Quince Tree (1962) Chardin’s dusky murk, and other paintings echo Old Masters from Dürer to Degas. But most pervasive is the atavistic strain that stems from García’s appreciation of antique art.
“The best art of [antiquity] achieves an emotional intensity that transcends individual achievement,” he says. “Its creators…were expressing a collective feeling that was beyond their individual limitations as artists. That, to me, is quite wonderful. The art of antiquity is like a paradise lost.”
García instinctively returns to this paradise. He has long been “obsessed” with Roman mural painting, which at times he seems to emulate. His portraits of women all hark back to the so-called “Lady of Elche,” a 5th-century B.C. Iberian carving in the Prado Museum collection. Her firm flesh and almost Oriental serenity seems almost genetically linked to García’s female subjects. His unforgettable painted-wood standing Man and Woman (1968-91)–as sentient a representation of humanity as has been sculpted in our time–call to mind both Greek full-length statues such as the Riace bronzes in Reggio Calabria, and Egyptian sculptures as the Seated Scribe in the Louvre.
García observes that “The Greeks and Romans had an ideal of beauty, an aesthetic consciousness that diverged from such a crude and direct sculptural representation [as the Scribe].” What he refers to as “this unwillingness to alter reality for aesthetic reasons, or the inability to do so,” is indeed characteristic of Spanish realism.
García is keenly aware of the national tradition of which he is a part: “The measure of Greek art is the gods; that of the art of , , men. With Greek art elevated concepts interfere…. In the great Spanish art–in Velázquez, Cervantes, Goya–nothing interferes. They give you realism with a purity, with a tuning to reality not merely physical but psychological. One finds this in no other art.”
Spanish painting before Picasso is very much about this kind of realism. It marked the work not only of Velázquez–García’s idol–and Goya, but of Zurbarán, Ribera, Cano, Coello, Meléndez, and others. They often cast common types in the roles of saints. The unclothed women of Velázquez and Goya are naked rather than nude. For the first time in the history of art the women are human rather than allegorical beings. Sitters for Spanish portraits, too, are unidealized and unheroic. Not even royal portraits were exempt.
As the art historian Jonathan Brown writes, “The credible detail, that small touch of the familiar, had long been a part of the repertory of Spanish painters.” Even in Medieval and Renaissance Spain, when art on the peninsula was dominated by Italian and Flemish models, Spanish artists adopted neither the Italianate predilection for idealizing and aestheticizing, nor the Flemish penchant for precise and delicate rendering. Rather than gently invoke Christian empathy, Spanish pre-Baroque painters of the Passion created horrific visions to make Christ’s suffering more palpable.
García concludes that the Spanish realist idiom is less overtly seductive than others. “With Italian and French painting,” he states, “the outer beauty leads one to the inner content. With Spanish painting, and in a certain measure German, the inverse is true.” He continues, “When one understands its content, the surface of a Spanish picture also is of immense beauty, but one won’t see it unless one sees the inner content first.”
The beauty of García’s own work begins with an appreciation of his craft. In such works as The Sideboard (1965-66), or the atmospheric views of Madrid from the 1970s, it seems inexplicable that anyone can obtain such verisimilitude without the aid of a photographic device.
Though García is devoted to the mundane–he depicts humble people, buildings, plants, and cluttered interiors–his meticulousness is exhilarating. In his hands, starkly lit studies of his studio or bathroom beguile like rare jewels. The red brick wall in his backyard becomes a subject of tremendous interest. His extraordinary deftness prolongs our attention to these quotidian prospects, disrupting our perceptual complacency and directing us to reexamine forms, often leading us to experience their beauty.
Moreover, the sheer amount of time spent transcribing what he sees–he sometimes works intermittently for years on a single work–and the skill with which García accomplishes it, result in something of the subject’s essence being embedded into his depictions. As the artist explains, “the pictorial nucleus begins to grow and you work until the whole surface has an expressive intensity equivalent to what you have before you, converted into a pictorial reality.”
The presence captured is not the lifeless hyperrealism of certain American artists. García’s art goes beyond technical virtuosity. Like Vermeer’s painting, the Spaniard’s elicits the revelation that, astonishingly, one is looking at the subject as if through another’s eyes: Here is an ordinary scene, but one we’ve never actually looked at before; and it appears not as we are accustomed to seeing such scenes. Our experience is somehow enhanced, both deepened and intensified. Time expands ecstatically, as if the analytical scrutiny of the artist were compressed into our own brief examination–as if it is the artist observing, not merely we. García’s superb realism can engender this intersubjective experience.
Art has always strived to transport the spectator, to allow the viewer to experience the world as another has or does. Realism was the dominant approach for at least two millennia, until Modernism cast it into disrepute. Today’s realists, relatively few among the hordes of contemporary art makers, must have their doubts as to the efficacy of their practice. So many critics declare the mode passe and hail abstraction the lingua franca of 20th-century culture. But what a peculiarly mute language abstraction is.
Can an abstract (i.e., non-objective) work communicate? Can it transfer ideas or emotions. Its chromatic or decorative scheme may appeal to us, and we may even conjecture as to its symbolism or meaning. But isn’t the content entirely subjective? The artist had no dictionary of abstract forms to encode his ideas, and we have no means of deciphering them. Rather than communicate, abstraction just reflects: its impact relies on the ability of the viewer to make of the event something significant and intelligent.
By contrast, realism begins with significant (objective) subject matter. As García explains, “The viewer should see the object as I saw it, but with a lot of room for his own interpretation…. The painting is like a very clear mirror which is barely visible but unmistakably there.” There is a moral precept operative here: fidelity to that which lies beyond one’s self. This moral stance is at the center of realist practice; it eschews the solipsism of abstraction.
In the increasingly secular and artificial 20th century, realism can paradoxically offer a mode of transcendence. Not all realism is spiritually uplifting. But it the artist sustains the tension between his visualization and the spectator’s, the latter’s connection to the materiality of a scene can be transformed into a meditation on, and communion with, the world and the ineffable.
Perhaps Antonio López García makes figurative art because he recognizes the alienation that abstract art tends to reinforce. “I am nostalgic for an art of our times in which a greater number of people can participate,” he says. It is a privilege to be able to participate in García’s art today. And future generations, too, will have that opportunity, for such mastery is destined to take its place in the canon of Western art.
(1) Antonio López García by Francisco Calvo Serraller, Edward J. Sullivan, and Michael Brenson, Rizzoli, pp. 358, $150.00
(2) All quotes are from Michael Brenson’s interview with the artist in the Rizzoli monograph (see note 1), or from Antonio López García, “Una España Velazqueña,” Blanco y Negro (Sunday magazine section of ABC, Madrid) Jan. 28, 1990, pp. XIX-XXX.
(3) Jonathan Brown, The Golden Age of Spanish Painting, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 310.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in The World & I, Dec. 1991, pp. 234-39.