Obituary: Jose Vela Zanetti

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JOSE VELA Zanetti was best known for his vast mural La Lucha del Hombre por La Paz ("Mankind's Struggle for Peace"), created in 1953 for the United Nations headquarters in New York. The artist was in exile at the time, and Spain under Franco was not even a member of the UN.

Less than a month ago, the newly restored mural was rededicated by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in a ceremony attended by the artist's son, Jose. Vela Zanetti, deeply moved by the honour, which he described as one of the great satisfactions of his life, kept photographs of the occasion beside him in his last days.

He had been chosen by the Guggenheim Foundation to create a mural for the UN on the theme of peace in an international competition in 1952. The mural, 20 metres by three, shows the ravages of war and concentration camps and depicts people pulling together to rebuild a shattered world. Painted in blues and reddish browns, it was inaugurated in the corridor outside the UN Security Council chambers.

Vela Zanetti was born in 1913 in the small northern town of Milagros, near Burgos; when he was still very young, the family moved to the provincial capital, Len, where he began artistic training. He won a public scholarship to study art in Florence in 1933, but Franco's revolt and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War disrupted his plans, and the artist later described the years that followed as "long and full of trials".

He fled into exile in 1939. His father, boss of a provincial slaughterhouse, had been shot by Fascists in 1936 in the opening days of the war, leaving a permanent scar upon the young artist. "The death of my father, along with exile, made more of me than normal circumstances would have. His death forced me to explore the limits of my abilities, to be a son worthy of his father."

Vela Zanetti settled in the Dominican Republic, where he produced hundreds of murals, of farmworkers and rural scenes, many of them on a heroic scale. In 1949 he was appointed director of the Fine Arts School of Santo Domingo. He won a John Simon Guggenheim scholarship for young Hispanic artists that enabled him to travel to New York, and he later lived in Mexico, Colombia and Switzerland.

One important work painted in the Dominican Republic hung in the assembly hall of the UN's International Labour Office in Geneva from 1959 to 1968. The untitled painting showed sturdy workers engaged in industry, building and farming, and remains in the ILO's collection.

Vela Zanetti returned to Spain in 1962, to the house in Milagros where he had been born, and painted all day long. "I get up at dawn to benefit from the light, and I stop painting at dusk. Mural painting has given me this discipline."

He is best known in his own country for portraits of peasants, still- lifes, Castillian landscapes and religious works. In 1997 he donated 57 paintings and other works to a foundation in Len that bears his name. One of his last works was a portrait of the Catalan architect Antonio Gaud.

Elizabeth Nash

Jose Vela Zanetti, painter: born Milagros, Spain 27 May 1913; married Esperanza de las Cuevas (one son, one daughter); died Burgos, Spain 4 January 1999.