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Obituary: Alberto Gironella

MEXICO, AS mirror and motor of so many isms, from Surreal to Modern, naturally guards its own cultural heroes and if Alberto Gironella never achieved the global repute of fellow legends such as Rivera, Orozco or Kahlo, that probably suited him fine. As a Mexican nationalist he doubtless found it sufficient to be revered in his own country. For Gironella was extremely, overtly famous in Mexico and, as with other 20th-century Mexican art stars, it was as much for his political and social involvement as his painting, not to mention an appropriately juicy private life.

Gironella may have been Mexico's greatest living painter (the sort of thing few countries currently even aspire to) and portraitist of the revolutionary leader Zapata, but he was also the founder of one of its most important newspapers and unofficial ambassador-at-large for that melange of machismo and militancy which is so Mexican. Proof of his extreme Mexicanness was a commission to paint the portrait of the singer Madonna, a collector of Kahlo and connoisseur of Mexican Modernism deliberately seeking the last link to that entire generation of artists and intellectuals.

Though Gironella had exhibited with Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo in 1953, at the tender age of 24, he became notorious representing a younger generation who challenged the dogma of ruling muralists such as Rivera, proposing a personal, subversive aesthetic instead of the Communist Party- led social realism of their elders. This approach has been labelled "Surrealist" but Gironella's affiliations and influences were with a whole range of art practices including Cobra, Nouveau Realisme and Tachisme. By his own description:

The spectator remakes the painting that he sees. Each recreates in his own way. Sometimes the secret remains as complete for him as for me. For there is a secret in that anomalous relationship that is a painting; I do not know why I put this next to that. There is something irrational within this . . .

Gironella was born in Mexico City in 1929 to a mother from Yucatn who spoke Maya and an immigrant father from Catalonia who took him regularly to bullfights, the family root of one of his later obsessions. His other lifelong passion was for literature, which he studied at the National Autonomous University. Graduating in 1949, he founded a small literary magazine, Clavileno, and two years later created Segrel, another equally fleeting journal. When his poetry and a full-length novel, Tiburcio Esquila, failed to find publication, Gironella became an artist, at which he was instantly successful.

He spent four years in Montmartre, like so many Mexican painters before him, and continued to be a serious Francophile all his life. Gironella was a regular at the famous lithography workshop Atelier Clot in Paris and his prints were especially well-regarded, illustrating a range of books such as Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and works by Cervantes, Cortzar, Flaubert and Nietzsche. One of his most important influences was the Velzquez retrospective in Madrid that he had seen during his European travels of 1961-64. Gironella later did his own, almost equally revered interpretation of Las Meninas as well as of famous works by Goya.

Following a tumultuous 1958 exhibition at the Union Panamerica in Washington DC he won a prize at the 1960 Biennale des Jeunes in Paris, where he also had a successful solo show presented by Edouard Jaguer and entitled Mort et transfiguration de la Reine Mariana. Gironella was always more than just a painter, he was a social and cultural catalyst, becoming the close friend and collaborator of everyone from Fernando Arrabal and Octavio Paz to such Surrealist mainstays as Andre Breton and the poetess Joyce Mansour. His best, lifelong friend was probably Luis Bunuel, even though Gironella admitted to a singular dislike of any form of cinema and only spoke of poetry with his compadre.

In Paris in 1963 Gironella organised a large exhibition on Jose Guadalupe Posada, the first serious critical retrospective on this popular artist, for he was as committed to promoting culture in general as his own work. Indeed he dedicated a series of his exhibitions to other artists, such as Bunuel or the matador Manolo Martnez. Gironella was also involved in several collaborations, notably with Pierre Alechinsky, with whom he exhibited at "L'ecart absolu", the last official exhibition of the Surrealist movement, held in Paris in 1966. The previous year they had engaged in a pictorial duel, producing etchings in competition with each other.

In 1980 Alechinsky came to stay with Gironella in Mexico and they embarked on a large series of collaborative works about bullfighting which resulted in an exhibition which toured Paris, Madrid and Jutland, before being given as a joint donation to the Musee Reattu in Arles in 1996. This work also resulted in a book, Deux pinceaux dans le sable (1996). In 1980 the two artists appeared, along with Octavio Paz, on one of Mexico's most popular television programmes, 14.15 on Canal 2, to discuss Pintura, Poesa y toros.

Obsessed with bullfighting, Gironella often dressed in full matador costume. There is an impressive photograph of the white bearded patriarch in full regalia, a woman slung in his arms, which appears in another de luxe book, Noche Fantastica - Tauromaquia, published in 1980. Indeed Gironella boasted that his bullfighting pictures, which always featured the number eight, another of his fetishes, completed a trilogy started by Goya and Picasso.

Gironella may have been an avant-garde rebel in his youth but he soon received official approval, a Guggenheim grant in 1968 and an even larger one from the Fundacin Cultural Televisa in 1977. He made his permanent home at the mountainous lake resort of Valle del Bravo and demonstrated an active interest in his country's public life. During the press crackdown of 1984 he donated several paintings to help found the left-wing paper La Jornada, which became one of Mexico's leading dailies.

La Jornada itself reported Gironella's death with an elegant full-page cover photograph but no accompanying story, in keeping with his ferociously reclusive, if not testy legend. Though it is known he died after a long battle against bone cancer and that his body was immediately cremated, any further details concerning his demise or the number of his wives, girlfriends and children, legitimate or otherwise, are still suitably oblique.

Adrian Dannatt

Alberto Gironella, artist: born Mexico City 26 September 1929; died Mexico City 2 August 1999.