Jorge Oteiza: the language of reality

By Maria Bendito - Monday, October 3, 2016
Jorge Oteiza: the language of reality

Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza (Orio, 1908 – San Sebastián, 2003), one of the most influential theoreticians of the second half of the 20th century, is now the guest of The Disoccupation of Space. The retrospective exhibition based on the artist will take place in the emblematic Casa Milà from 27 September 2016 to 22 January 2017.

Jorge Oteiza: the language of reality

Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza (Orio, 1908 – San Sebastián, 2003), one of the most influential theoreticians of the second half of the 20th century, is now the guest of The Disoccupation of Space. The retrospective exhibition based on the artist will take place in the emblematic Casa Milà from 27 September 2016 to 22 January 2017.

Jorge Oteiza is mainly known as an sculptor, but we cannot understand his complete importance if we ignore that he was closely linked to the development of aesthetical thinking and art pedagogy.

His career faced up to architecture first but, as he could not join the Escuela de Arquitectura de Madrid, he initiated into the study of Fine Arts. In 1934, Oteiza executed his first works, which were influenced by Expressionism, Primitivism and artists such as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso; as well as for Russian Constructivism, which he considered that had a parallel in Basque art. One year later, in 1935, his transfer to South America took place. He remained there for 13 years, where he studied pre-Columbian art and conducted several studies on American megalithic statuary. This period was characterized by anthropomorphic works in which Oteiza could announce the beginning of his soon to come abstract tendencies. 

"I was born in 1908, along with Cubism. It broke with the traditional past. Internationally, the generation before mine rejected the statue that had always been sought the imprisonment of its block of material. They meditated on open spaces, on the hollow of the statue and perforated it; my generation's peak was to calculate it on the outside and from the outside."

In 1948 the artist came back from America and stablished in Bilbao. Two years later, in 1950, he received the assignment of decorating the main facade of the Santa María de Aránzazu basilica. It was a mythical and mystic work, not only because of its architectural and sculptural languages, but also for its extraordinary siting. The works of the basilica were stopped by the Bilbao diocese and it could not be finished until 1969. 

In the 50s, Oteiza evolved to an sculptural synthesis in which the main characters of his works were not the figures -not even what’s known as canonical abstract- but the space. Oteiza used his works to divide space amongst the occupied and the empty. This de-materialization partially responded to the influence that the scientific nuclear development exerted on the artist, so his works were a transition from materiality to energy. 

In 1957, the Bienal de São Paulo recognized Oteiza as the best sculptor of the world. In that occasion, the artist showed and experimental project of 28 pieces shared out among 10 groups titled Propósito Experimental 1956 – 1957

Since then, his own evolution took him to produce his metaphysical boxes, maybe the most recognizable works of the artist. From mass to energy, from occupation to absence, Oteiza ended a process that involved both: his personal creation and an entire artistic language. 

The artist symbolically justified the exhaustion of any kind of artistic resource and, facing the meaningless, he drastically finished sculpting at the zenith of his career. So, in this total engagement to his ideas of art and what an artist should be, Oteiza abandoned sculpture in 1960. Then, he decided to link his engagement towards another vital commitment: the people, the society and the politics of the Basque Country. 

"Art does not transform anything, it does not alter the world, it does not change reality. What the artist really transforms, as he evolves, transforms and completes his languages, is himself. And it is that man, transformed by art, who can, through life, transform reality."

Since that moment, he started to stablish artistic dialogues amongst his old works and the public space, as can be seen in Barcelona with La ola (1957), a magnificent work the Oteiza himself donated to the MACBA, and in Bilbao with Variante ovoide de la desocupación de la esfera (1958), a work that was placed in front of the town council. But the most significant part of this period is that Oteiza became a writer of poetry and art and aesthetical essays. The most famous piece of this period was Quousque Tandem…! Ensayo de interpretación estética del alma vasca. Published in 1963, it can be translated to: Essay on the interpretation of the Basque soul, a work that supposed a milestone in Basque art and culture. 

Jorge Oteiza was a social fighter, a man that felt he was responsible for rescuing the soul and origins of Basque people. As he belonged to a society with unknown origins, Oteiza devoted his career to the search of their roots, which he found in prehistory. According to that, the dolmen and the menhir became the ingredients of his composition, which he transformed into his own language. 

The finality of art was not the object –sculpture or painting- but the elaboration of the artist’s identity to become a singular that could contribute to society. Oteiza was always tremendously critical with art system. He considered that the artist had to influence society to the good effect and, at the end, transform it. Unfortunately, he experienced that what was happening was the opposite: after the dissolution of the last avant-garde movements the artist had turn into something comfortable for society. Contemporary art was domesticated and consequently it could not help. Making art exhibitions with lots of pieces in a row to show the goodness and importance of an artist was useless. Art had to bother, upset, provoke and stir up human awareness, especially in the postwar period.

"Everyone wants to say something by occupation. I want to say nothing, to leave a mark, the void, of that which one ought not to say. Something always happens in an artwork. I don't want anything to happen. Only a disoccupation happens and something has occupied an empty place in which I myself must pass." 

Jorge Oteiza chose sculpture because it was the slowest artistic language: modeling, adding and extracting mass was a complex process that needed to be revised all the time. In this sense, the artist always said that he became a sculptor by working on his sculptures. So, when he thought he had become one he gave up producing: there was nothing else he could contribute to sculpture, and sculpture could no teach him anything else. Then, he chose another kind of human language, writing, and he focused on composing texts. So several years after having abandoned the practical process of art he completed his investigations in art theory by elaborating his own language. It was complex, even mathematical, with its own vocabulary, definitions and laws, like an encyclopedia. 

"I felt that words arose from my last sculptures. I felt that was the end. So I changed my sculptural language, slow and expensive, for the economy of this happier, safer and more practical language, inflaming words on a paper."

The exhibition is organized by Fundació Catalunya La Pedrera in collaboration with Fundación Museo Jorge Oteiza Museoa, the institution that loaned the major part of the works exhibited. Of the total amount of 130 pieces, only 3 belong to Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and 4 more belong to private art collectors. The curator of The Disoccupation of Space is Gregorio Díaz Ereño, the incumbent director of Fundación Museo Jorge Oteiza Museoa, headquarters of the artist's collection. Díaz Ereño counts on the collaboration of Elena Martín, head of the conservation department of the same museum. 

Thanks to a wide selection of pieces, 91 of the 130 works are sculptures, the processes of materialization and de-materialization of the space, that are so characteristic of Oteiza, are documented. Then, the exhibition flows from the first and primitive works of the artist to the minimalist constructivism of the 50s period. The exhibition also shows another kind of work composed by drawings, sketches and texts. 

Oteiza works discover in this exhibition an incomparable atmosphere, the colossal Casa Milà (1906 - 1912). A house designed and constructed by the world famous architect Antoni Gaudí (Reus, 1852 - Barcelona, 1926) that perfectly holds a talk with the artist's pieces. 

Jorge Oteiza is definitely the other side of the XX century Basque sculpture, which was internationally starred by Eduardo Chillida (San Sebastián 1924 - 2002). When taking a look to his works and knowing his career we can understand that Oteiza does not represent a triumphant person but the living drama of someone implicated in his ideals until the very end. A harsh and strong individual, so convincing and overwhelming that can make our inner fragility and tenderness come, in a matter of seconds, to the surface.

All images are copyright and courtesy Fundació Catalunya La Pedrera and Jorge Oteiza Fundazio Museoa

Maria Bendito is an art historian based in Barcelona. She graduated from the University of Barcelona and now she is completing an MA in Advanced Studies, which allows her focus on her fields of interest: art and architectural theory as well as contemporary thought. She has experience as a teaching assistant at the University of Barcelona and as a documentation assistant at Arts Santa Mònica. Maria currently combines art history with guided tours in the city.

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