Painting is rarely a team sport and maintaining the right balance between solitude and contact around which a career can be built is a perennial challenge. In the period from January 1951 to June of 1953 Gonzalo Chillida was striking this balance in two periods of residence at the Colegio de España in Paris. What came out of this experience over the next few years was a body of work which took his previously figurative tendencies down an accelerated path of abstraction which stands in bold relief against previous work and the muted abstract landscapes of the later periods.
Minimal yet densely rich brushwork floats against the white surface with effortless confidence. Surprisingly small in the flesh, in reproduction they can be imagined on a large scale. Yet this was Paris at the start of the 50s and the super-sized ambition of American painting hadn’t yet started to disrupt the fiddly aesthetic of European easel painting. This modest series is an object lesson in less is more.
We can only imagine where Chillida might have brought this development in his work had he kept dipping into the cauldron of Paris, but instead he settled back into the bosom of solitude.
*In the text above I make passing reference to Gonzalo Chillida’s later work and, given the restrictions of the 200 words format, I couldn’t expand on the beauty of the later landscape inspired paintings. To get an overview of the many fascinating aspects of Chillida’s oeuvre, I can recommend the following website, which is maintained by the artist’s estate.
Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (3), 1957, Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 13 in., Image courtesy of Aicon Gallery and the Estate of Ernest Mancoba
Ernest Mancoba (1904 – 2002) was born in South Africa, but spent the greater part of his life in Europe, moving to Paris in 1938, and to Denmark after the war, where he was a founding member of the COBRA movement. In Johannesburg Mancoba first trained in wood carving. One of his early sculptures depicted the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Despite the controversy this generated, Mancoba managed to remain above any limiting debate, always holding firm to “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
Mancoba carried with him to Europe a very African treatment of figuration, which comes across in the decorative fragmentation of the totemic figure which is central to his work, and which reappears in multiple subtle variations. Mancoba’s training in wood carving too seems to have informed the very application of the paint itself to the canvas; often a series of discrete all-over marks applied to the canvas with the patience of a sculptor chipping away at a wooden panel. The painted surface acts more like a solid block of undifferentiated marks, from which the central figure slowly emerges, and back into which it can just as easily seem to recede.