The question surrounding artistic legacy presents a unique problem: beyond collective memory and history books, can we trust our museums and governing bodies to ensure great works of art withstand changes in trends, markets and cityscapes? For the late 20th century Basque artist Eduardo Chillida, whose monumental sculptures feature in public spaces all over the world, the answer was simply to take the responsibility upon himself.
In 1983, the sculptor and his wife, Pilar Belzunce (whom he had known since his early teens), acquired a 16th century farmhouse. Surrounded by parkland, the property sits on a hilltop on the outskirts of the town of Hernani, just inland from his hometown of San Sebastián. Over 15 years, he set about restoring the house with the help of local architect Joaquín Montero, establishing a stone workshop and using the grounds to store and display his works. He named this place Chillida Leku — leku being the Basque word for ‘place’, a thought provoking term in an ever-changing world.
Chillida and Belzunce opened their sculpture park to the public in 2000, two years before the artist died, but in 2011 the family had to reduce the operations, leaving it open to visits by appointment only. Now, the museum has reopened, thanks to funding from Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth. The property, with its rolling verdant hills, is the perfect showcase for the artist’s works, of which there are 40 in all, including Homenaje a Braque (Homage to Braque), and early renditions of his well-known sculpture, Buscando la Luz (Searching for the Light), an immense, undulating iron funnel that has oxidised with time, just as the artist intended. “My father never talked about big or small,” says Chillida’s eldest son, Luis Chillida, of the scale of his works. “He would always say: ‘Big or small in relation to what?’”
Chillida was born in San Sebastián in 1924 and though he had a passion for sports — he was goalkeeper for the local professional football team — he studied architecture, before he shifted his studies to drawing at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid. In 1948, he travelled to Paris on a scholarship to study at the Cité Internationale Universitaire. It was in the French capital that he began to sculpt — initially creating arresting, modernist works that displayed a preoccupation with the human form. Though they were much less abstract than the style he later became celebrated for, these early works were picked up by the prestigious gallerist Aimé Maeght, who also represented Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and Alberto Giacometti, and the two began a working relationship which spanned the next three decades.
After a few years, Chillida longed to return to Spain, to remove himself from Paris and its classical influences. “He loved the light here, it was darker than Paris,” says Luis. “That was when he started working with different things.” Iron, wood, steel, granite and alabaster soon formed his vocabulary; though the sculptor continued to sketch throughout his life, fine-tuning the way he explored form. He liked to sketch hands constantly, especially his own, and was ambidextrous with his pencil. “He wanted to fight against the facility he had for drawing, so he started drawing with his left hand — it gave him more time to think and let the other senses take over,” says Luis.
The evolution of Chillida’s work was driven by this spontaneity. “My father always loved to work without knowing what he was going to do; he always said, ‘If you know what you are going to do, it’s only because you have done it before,’” Luis says. Instead of replicating works (he didn’t work with moulds) the sculptor would create a spin-off series on a single idea, something he called aromas. He used the same title for each, but added Roman numerals as a cataloguing system.
There was one occasion, Luis recalls, when his father did attempt to increase his output by producing editions. It was in 1957, early on in his career, for an exhibition held at Galerie Maeght in Paris. “When he saw the finished work, he said to my mother, ‘Pili [as he called her], this looks like a shoe shop,’” Luis says with a laugh. This was the catalyst that spurred the sculptor to find new ways to increase his audience. His answer: to work with public spaces. “That way it didn’t belong to one person, it belonged to everyone,” says Luis.
From then on, site-specific works came to define his practice, and environmental factors increasingly became part of the creative process. The series of works, Lo Profundo es el Aire (How Profound is the Air), combines the raw, uncut exterior of the original stone with a polished, architecturally conceived void through which air and light can pass. At Chillida Leku there is an aroma of this work carved out of pink granite, though the idea took on even more significance when the artist employed alabaster, a material that reveals itself in unexpected ways in different light.
Nature’s hand is perhaps most dramatically felt in Peine del Viento (The Comb of the Wind), a work composed of claw-like steel sculptures embedded in the rocks at the western end of La Concha Bay in San Sebastián. Day in, day out, as the waves crash over them, they are exposed to sun, salt and wind. (This work has protected status from the local government, who will also nominate it for consideration as a unesco World Heritage site.)
Peine del Viento was first discussed in 1964, when the local council approached the sculptor about putting together an exhibition. Though Chillida had a significant international presence, few people in the town knew of his practice. He said, “I appreciate the idea, but no one will understand — I have something else in mind.” The work would take the next 13 years to realise. “My father used to say: ‘What is time? It takes the time I need,’” says Luis. “He never wanted to be rushed.” •
- words: Alice Cavanagh
- photos: Rory Gardiner