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Spanish Art History - Saura and the Idea of the Monster

Updated on June 12, 2011

Antonio Saura, Surrealism, & the Idea of the Monster in Spanish Art History

Antonio Saura stated in an interview with Elena Pita, of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, that whilst he understands and appreciates the classical ideas of beauty, for him real beauty is something that is intense and something that grips the stomach and the heart, in order to “blow the mind” of the viewer (El Mundo). Saura also states that he's fascinated by the idea of the 'monster' in art. It's with this vein of thinking that Saura's paintings are so unique and that they all could be described as having a “monstruous” appearance. There are a multitude of explanations as to why Saura is so intrigued with the idea of the 'monster' in art, and to the extent that these explanations have influenced Saura's own unique, 'monstruous' style of painting. The majority of such explanations derive from Saura's own intense childhood experiences and influences, such as his suffering a lengthy debilitating illness and his witnessing horrific events due to the Civil War in Spain; as well as the oppressive environment in which he lived in Spain, under the fascist dictator Franco's regime, and his feelings towards Franco and towards the regime; and the several types of avant-garde movements in which Saura has dabbled in and become influenced by during his career as an artist, such as Surrealism and post-Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Semi-abstractionism or Informalism. Painting primarily in series, Saura's artistic efforts have been described by critics as “powerful”, “stormy” and “thickly textured figures creating a feeling of tortured humanity” (Chilvers, I. Oxford Dictionary of Art), characteristics that Saura himself has hoped to achieve with his works.

Saura was born in 1930 in a small, poverty-stricken town in Spain called Huesca, but, due to pressures caused by the Civil War, which begun when Saura was 6 years old, he was forced to move to Madrid with his family at a young age. As a young boy, Saura lived in Spain during the most oppressive times throughout its history, under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco and during the Civil War in Spain which occurred during, what some might say, the most crucial age in developing a child's personality – his fears and anxieties, dreams and desires. Saura witnessed several intensely horrific spectacles of the destruction and heartbreak caused by the Civil War as a young child, such as the devestation of the town of Guernica, in Spain, and the man he saw after having been shot, with shrapnel still in his head. This latter scene clearly culminated into a vivid picture in Saura's subconscious mind of dreams and fears, and, the faceless anthropomorphic 'monstruous' images manifested themselves into many of Saura's paintings. Saura himself claimed that he was fascinated and impressed by the idea of the faceless, or of the distorted or “tortured” face, of the 'monster' in art (Guggenheim). Although Saura himself has never admitted it, it's a widely held theory that in the series' Caras, Crucifixions and Portraits, Saura depicts many of the 'monsters' in the paintings within these series' as pertaining to Franco and to the distaste Saura felt about his regime. Saura's Portraits series are especially angry, aggressive and gloomy, and, although Saura's never actually stated that these paintings were, in any way, political attacks, and even gave them titles relating to other 'imaginary' figures from history, his paintings depicting brutal, 'monstruous' characters, painted in an aggressive and violent style, were viewed as attacks against Franco and against his regime (Arte español en el siglo XX). These 'imaginary' portraits that Saura painted all have a similar feel, in that they incorporate an ordinary-looking body with, instead of a usual face, an animal-like anthropomorphic 'monster'. Some of his portraits resemble animals more vividly, such as Portrait imaginaire de Frans Hals (1967) and Portrait imaginaire de Philippe II (1967), whilst others resemble the monster more prominently, such as Giorgio Bacci (1981) and Portrait imaginaire de Greco (1967).

At the age of fourteen, after already experiencing a dramatic, intense childhood, Saura became ill with Tuberculosis, an illness which left him bed-ridden for five years during the peak of his adolescence and one which was so severe that on more than one occasion, he could have died from it (Succession Saura). During this time, Saura taught himself in the subject of art and begun to paint his first series, inspired by the then popular Surrealist movement. Surrealism was an artistic movement that originated in the 1920s by André Breton and concerns the subconscious dream-like visions that occur to the artist, the “omnipotence of the dream and the disinterested play of thought” (Surrealism) that is unique only to the artist themselves. As such, a painting incorporating a surrealist style is very difficult to understand by the audience, even once they are aware of what is being depicted. Despite Saura's declaration that he abandoned the Surrealist movement in his later paintings (Arte e idiologia en el franquismo), there is some evidence of its influence, certainly not least because of the idea of the 'monster', Saura's subconscious “dream” and his hidden fears and axieties, remaining a feature in the majority of his paintings, but also because it's difficult to ascertain what his paintings resemble, due to them almost being almost themeless in structure and their being so dynamic (Manfestoes of Surrealism). His first series', Constellations, Phenomena and Grattages, consisted of strong and atmospheric paintings, but didn't, at that point, include the element of the 'monster' as his later series' did; although the series Grattages, still incorporating the Surrealist artistic movement (The Arts in Spain), included paintings whereby Saura had begun to develop his famous 'monster' technique. The painting Abstracción, of his Grattages series, which Saura completed in 1955 at the age of 25, includes shapes that could be defined as 'monstrous' and this painting marks the beginning of his semi-abstract style of paintings that are dark, gloomy and aggressive (Succession Saura).

Saura moved to Paris in his early twenties where he begun painting in a post-Surrealistic style similar to that of Antonio Tapies, which was led by his deepening hatred for Franco and the repressed Spain due to the dictatorship. He joined a post-Surrealist group, Phases and begun painting using his well-known black and white pallet and also using reds, and it could be argued that it was during this time that Saura developed the portrayal of the 'monster' in his paintings. Saura's series' Portraits was begun around this time, beginning with his self-portraits, which do

Saura was influenced by the Spanish artist and painter of royalty, Goya, from a young age, after having visited art galleries and museums with his father as a child. Saura's Portraits series' includes some series' entirely illusory to Goya, Goya's Dog and Imaginary Portraits of Goya, in which he depicts both the imaginary Goya and his dog in his own semi-abstract style, which was dark, aggressive and almost without theme, and containing the 'monstruous' ideas that many of his other paintings do. Semi-abstractionism, which was a kind of “gestural abstractionism” style, also referred to as Action Painting (Europa de Postguerra), similar to the American Abstract Expressionism movement and the French Informalism movement, both of which Saura also had affinities with. All of these movements: Semi-abstractionism, Abstract Expressionism and Informalism involve artists painting with a powerful “sense of internalised violence”, a style that is brisk, aggressive and gloomy. As an example, Saura's La Chien de Goya (1984) incorporates this philosophy, and is a painting using his black and white colour scheme, his 'monstruous' adaptation of a 'dog' and it also stems from an “internal violence”, or a powerful emotion. Saura was particularly impressed with Goya's Cristo Crucificado (1821), and developed an immense, almost-obsessional, interest in the idea of the crucifixion, the torture and misery of what he describes as “the tragedy of a man that was absurdly nailed to a cross”. Saura was also impressed by other artists' paintings of Christ's crucifixion, such as Diego Velázquez's (1632) and he begun his Crucifixions series in 1958. The series remained one of Saura's most violent and aggressive series of all, and shows the most clear portrayal of the 'monster', too. The paintings Crucifixión (1960) and Crucifixión IX (1962) are particularly gruesome, angry and 'monstruous', whilst Crucifixión (1959-1960) depicts a cross shape complete with imprints of skeletal hands, and is also aggressive and represents brutality. It's also said that Saura includes a single eye in his 'monstruous' portrayals of crucifixions, to resemble the idea that God watches his monstruous children and society but fails to do anything about the suffering and misery that they create.

Saura stated in an interview, and in several further sources, that he remained fascinated throughout his life in the idea of the 'monster' in art, in something that “grips the stomach and the heart” with a fierce passion and causes an “explosion in the mind”. Whilst Saura was fascinated with, what for him was the true beauty, one which was so intense that it produced a 'sincope', he also appreciated the more typical idea of beauty too, the kind which is 'ideal' and 'ordered' beauty, such as those by Goya, as well as by other artists who painted traditionally and realistically. Saura's paintings and his style were influenced a great deal by several avant-garde artistic movements, such as Surrealism which is the portrayal of the subconscious dreams and fears without any schematic structure of theme, Post-Surrealism which is the representation of fears and axieties in an aggressive, brisk manner, Abstract Expressionism which is the violent, aggressive technique often incorporating dark colours and rapid brushstrokes, and Informalism which is paintings which have an affinity with no particular movement but are unique to the artist and to the country the artist is from. It's due to Saura's experimenting with each of these styles, although always maintaining the image of the 'monster' in his paintings, that Saura developed his own unique, but versatile, style of paining – one which remained gloomy and aggressive and also so intense and powerful. It's apparent, also, that the witnessing of such horrific and heartbreaking events as Saura did at such a young age, such as the tortured face of a man who had been shot immediately prior to Saura seeing him, and the photographs he saw of the town of Guernica having been destroyed by bombing during the Civil War, and living in such an oppressive society with the dictator Franco, whom Saura perceived as a 'monster' himself and his regime that Saura disliked with a powerful and an immense passion, as well as with the torment, anxiety and the misery of being so seriously ill were major factors that influenced his painting style – the aggressive, gloomy, tortured style which was uniquely Saura's own, with such an obsession with the 'monster' and his attempt at creating a beauty that is so intense that it grips the stomach and the heart and produces a powerful “mind-blowing” affect with its passion.


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