Obituary: Antonio Saura

William Jeffett
Friday 31 July 1998 23:02

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.

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