Obituary: Leandre Cristfol

LEANDRE CRISTOFOL, Spain's last Surrealist sculptor, lived until he was 90 without ever having sold a single work. In spite of being self- taught, he was one of Spain's most important Surrealist artists and a pioneer of abstract sculpture who combined simple materials with revolutionary ideas.

Cristfol was an introverted and kindly man who always lamented his inability to draw. "I have suffered because I never learned to draw well. I have wept for not being able to express an idea," he once confessed. He was renowned for his modest ways: "I never lifted a finger to make myself known. I just got on with my work, and most of it I kept."

Born in a small Catalan village of a humble family of farmworkers, he left the harsh village landscape of rocks and trees for the town of Lleida in 1922, aged 14. There he learned the trade of carpenter and cabinetmaker, and that was how he described himself until the end of his life.

He began his artistic career with figurative wood carvings but moved on to create graceful, airy structures from wood, clock-springs, watch- straps and discarded material. In 1930 the Morera Museum in Lleida mounted his first exhibition. Three years later he wrote: "I have started upon a path towards new forms; a path that I think will lead me to the beginning of the beginning." He had just produced his work Del aire al aire ("From Air to Air") which some specialists consider one of Surrealism's greatest creations.

Around this time he associated with a group of avant-garde artists in Barcelona calling themselves "logicophobes" who edited the review Art and - through the Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret - made contact with Surrealists in Paris. Peret wrote to Andre Breton: "I have met in Lleida a chap who does very interesting drawings and sculptures. He is a carpenter." As a result of the friendship, Cristfol exhibited in international exhibitions that the Surrealists organised in Tokyo and Paris.

As with many of his generation, Cristfol's life was disrupted and his creative work frustrated by the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. He had the foresight to bury the works he had created between 1932 and 1936 and many of these naturalistic forms are now on show in Catalan museums. After the war, he fled to France and was interned in concentration camps for Spanish exiles in France and Morocco, where he became dimly aware of his budding international reputation, but for many years he was isolated from the artistic world.

In 1953 he won a scholarship to study in Paris and Florence, and on his return shut himself in his studio in Lleida - in a building that was to have been demolished that week - and amidst the neglect and indifference of the official art world developed the major part of his work, which reflected a number of important trends of post-war art. From umbrella rods, glass, plastic, springs and corks he created "Ralentis" ("Slow Motion"), a work that sought continuous motion and anticipated kinetic art; "Planimetras" ("A Play of Levels"), that was pure abstraction; "Formes-Consum" ("Forms- Consumption") evoking the new realism of Pop art; and assemblages that prefigured "arte povera".

Through sculptures and wooden reliefs he experimented with concepts of movement, volume, space and forms, creating what the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia described this week as "a surprising Surrealist lyricism".

He lived for some of the harsh post-war years in Barcelona but never felt at home in the city's artistic atomosphere and returned to Lleida where he stayed until his death. It was not until the late Seventies and Eighties, when he mounted exhibitions in Barcelona, Madrid and Paris, and was invited to participate in an exhibition with Giacometti, that his work became appreciated among a younger generation of avant-garde artists.

The Catalan poet Joan Brossa said this week: "I admired Cristfol because he was one of the first to make abstract sculptures and his work continues to withstand the passage of time. He was a solitary person, who was proud to be able to show all his work because he never sold a single one. In that sense he was a pure artist who understood art as an act of freedom."

In 1979 he created his last series of important sculptures, Alfa Omega Alfa, an allegory of the harmony and cycles of nature. In 1989, the year in which the Mir Foundation in Barcelona mounted a big retrospective, King Juan Carlos awarded him the Gold Medal for Fine Arts.

Leandre Cristfol's works are represented in museums throughout Spain, including the Reina Sofia modern art centre in Madrid, all lent or donated by the artist. In his final years he created tiny delicate sculptures of insects, evoking his childhood when his mother had taught him to make models with the rushes that grew in the pond near the family home.

Despite his self-effacing gentleness, he was from the outset convinced of the value - indeed grandeur - of his work. "I always had faith that things made with such love and care would touch history in some way."

Elizabeth Nash

Leandre Cristfol, carpenter and sculptor: born Os de Balaguer, Catalonia 1908; died Lleida, Catalonia 19 August 1998.