Obituary: Antonio Saura

ANTONIO SAURA was one of the major post-war painters to emerge in Spain after the hiatus of the Civil War. As such he was at the centre of the renovation of the Spanish avant-garde in Madrid, even under the most difficult and repressive years of the Franco dictatorship.

He came to Paris in his twenties, from 1953 to 1955, frequenting the Surrealists and their associates, and exhibited with the Surrealist group in 1954. Initially he worked in a Surrealist style, as is typified in early works like Chien aboyant a l'eclipse (1954), which represented a kind of reconnection with the pre-Civil War avant-garde in its use of techniques related to Surrealist artists such as Oscar Dominguez and Joan Mir. Other Spanish artists of his generation followed a similar path in exploring a form of post-Surrealism, as in the examples of Manolo Millares, also working in Madrid, or Antoni Tapies working in Barcelona.

The avant-garde model provided a mode of political resistance, and, despite the repressive politics of the period, Saura established a position of resistance in both his art and personal conduct. In 1956 he took part in an exhibition of the international post-Surrealist group called Phases headed by Edouard Jaguer, which proposed an art of the imaginary, though he soon became disenchanted with the possibilities offered by Surrealism and related movements.

Adopting a more painterly and expressive mode, in February 1957 Saura was a founder member and director of activities of the movement El Paso ("The Step" - implying a step towards new things), which included the painters Manolo Millares, Rafael Canogar, Luis Feito and the sculptor Pablo Serrano, and lasted until 1960. The group published a militant review of the same name, which included important tracts by Saura. His "Notas sobre Pollock" was one of the first theoretical texts published in Spain to engage with American abstract expressionism, and Saura became one of the principal proponents of a Spanish version of gestural abstraction.

What separated this group from both their American (abstract expressionism) and French (l'art informel) counterparts was a powerful sense of internalised violence. For Saura this took the form of a highly abstracted approach to the human figure which retained a tension between the physical presence of the aggressively applied paint and the representation of the human body. Though his work related to that of Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and the Danish artist Asger Jorn, his subjects were culled from the Spanish tradition and included "Crucifixions", "Crowd Scenes", and "Imaginary Portraits", the latter often of historical figures such as Phillip II and Goya. His colours were black, white, grey and red, with the paint violently suggesting the existential peril of the human body.

In 1959, Saura explained his position in the following terms:

By any means to fill a white surface, with an action sustained by an elemental, obsessive structuralisation, ruled by a mathematical-biological logic, fluid as a continuous, organic river. Not to fall into absolute chaos, not to drift toward suicide, not to lose my footing, and not to divorce myself from a tremendous reality.

The painting Hiroshima mon amour (1963), now in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection at the University of East Anglia, is the best example of this period of the artist's work in the UK, and here we find a variation on the crucifixion theme in reference to the destructive aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, the title of the painting deriving from that of the highly influential novel by Marguerite Duras and the film by Alain Resnais. According to Sir Robert Sainsbury, this work was not allowed to be publicly presented in New York in the early 1960s, because of the controversy implicit in its title.

Though he is famous as a painter, Saura was also a great printmaker, especially in the medium of lithography. He made his first lithographs in Madrid in 1958, and in 1960 collaborated with the Madrid branch of the politically radical Estampa Popular group which sought to diffuse large edition prints at modest prices to the Spanish working class. He continued this activity throughout his career, often collaborating in the production of books with writers such as Camilo Jose Cela, Jorge Semprun, Julian Rios, and Ramon Gomez de la Serna.

Saura was one of the most articulate Spanish painters of his generation, publishing several books, and, even through the later years of his career, he maintained a critical and oppositional perspective as a writer. Refusing the idea of art being placed in the service of political ends, he launched the most acerbic attack on the removal of Picasso's Guernica from the Prado to the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, in a text entitled Contra el Guernica (1982).

From 1957 onwards, Saura exhibited frequently outside Spain. During the 1960s he received important solo exhibitions at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1963), the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1966). He subsequently had retrospectives in 1979 at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona (1980) and the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia (1990). In 1960 he received the prestigious Guggenheim Award for Painting, and in 1964 the Carnegie Prize, Pittsburgh. The same year he participated in Documenta (as well as in 1977 and 1982), and in 1976 he exhibited in the Venice Biennale, the most combative and significant Biennale from a Spanish perspective, because that year corresponded with the illness and subsequent death of Franco.

Saura's works may be found in public collections all over Europe and America. In Britain he is represented at the Tate Gallery, London, the British Museum and the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

William Jeffett

Antonio Saura, artist: born Huesca, Spain 22 September 1930; died Madrid 22 July 1998.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum