Permanent Collection

Fernando Zóbel

Manila (Philippines), 1924–Rome (Italy), 1984
Ornithopter, 1962Ornithopter, 1962

Looking at Ornitóptero once again, I recall Fernando Nuño's photograph of Zóbel launching himself towards the white surface of a canvas with a syringe filled with black paint in his hand. Indeed, that was the very technique he used to produce works such as Ornitóptero.

The event that was to determine the evolution of Zóbel's art, as he himself confessed, occurred a few years before he settled in Spain. A Mark Rothko exhibition in Providence (Rhode Island) had a tremendous effect on him, who was still little more than a restless young man who frequented Manila's artistic circles. It was then that Zóbel, a student at Harvard and a disciple of the Boston School of figurative painters, considered starting afresh with a different approach to painting. Once settled in Spain, he discovered that many of the most promising artists in the country had shared the same feelings—either in Paris or from a distance—he had felt when confronted by the works of the Russian exile painter in the United States.

The title Ornitóptero suggests the idea of a flying machine. Its formalist arrangement provides a certain sensation of landscape, in this case an aerial and, of course, abstract landscape. With his personal combination of ironic elegance and melancholy, Zóbel once told me that, in his experience, landscape was nearly always seen at a hundred kilometers per hour through a car window. I was very young at the time and his description caught my imagination. I have always felt that there is a lot of truth in it, and that it provides an explanation for the modern form of impressionism that can be found in Zóbel's art.

Juan Manuel Bonet, en Catalog Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, Cuenca, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2016

The Júcar River X, 1971The Júcar River X, 1971

Many abstract painters' works have their origin in concrete ideas or images. In Zóbel's case it was landscapes, as, for example, the river gorge that surrounds the city of Cuenca. A title like Júcar X clearly suggests its origins: the water of the glinting river, out of which emerges what is known as the Horse's Rock. However, when we look at the canvas it appears particularly enigmatic and empty. At first, we see some very soft stripes and some splashes of color occupying part of the canvas, and thus accentuating the painting's emptiness. But when we get closer we start to notices the soft pencil criss-crossing that covers the painting, conferring order to the stripes and splashes.

Why use a rational grid in a landscape that should respond to the expression of brute force, to the lack of order and the randomness of nature? Because what we are looking at is a painting, not nature —we are looking at a product of reason and human sentiments, at a painting in which the artist highlights certain elements through the confrontation between the grid and the gestured brushstrokes. In this manner, dispensing with all anecdotes and superfluity, the painting is removed from all the clichés about what is "picturesque" that have inundated landscape painting since the eighteenth century.

But the grid also transports us to the world of music, which was so loved by Zóbel. The horizontal lines recall the stave while the vertical lines fill the function of musical bars, marking time and giving a sequential and narrative tone to the painting. In this sense we could speak of a melodic painting, of lyrical melody.

Javier Maderuelo, en Catalog Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, Cuenca, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2016

The Second of May IV, 1962The Second of May IV, 1962

Zóbel's final production was revealed to the Spanish public in a posthumous anthology presented by the Fundación Juan March in 1984, which later toured several capitals of Spanish provinces.

Dos de mayo IV, one of his last paintings, was among the works chosen for the 1984 exhibition. It is an audacious piece, not least because it is difficult to find in it any of the elements we normally associate with Zóbel's work.

The title could lead us to believe that it is a variation on Francisco de Goya's celebrated painting, but neither the color nor any other element are reminiscent of the "heroic" Goya, so we must take our investigations elsewhere.

Photography played a part in the birth of many of Zóbel's paintings—not in the sense of mechanical reproduction, of course, but rather in the manner of some nineteenth-century artists, such as Edgar Degas, of whom Zóbel was an admirer: in other words, photography as a prolongation of memory, as an archive of fleeting memories. In Dos de mayo IV, the photograph that inspired Zóbel—taken by himself—showed some boys playing in the street on a spring day, which explains the dynamism of the image.

Although Zóbel continued to construct landscapes in the final years of his life—some of the best being of Madrid—during this period he showed a special interest in evoking moving figures in abstract terms.

Juan Manuel Bonet, en Catalog Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, Cuenca, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2016