Lita Cabellut’s saving Memory
Lita Cabellut’s life contains all the ingredients that go to making a movie based on extremes. Pain, distress, her childhood’s emotional shockwaves, her adolescent loneliness, then creative happiness, supreme emotion transposed onto the blank canvas surface, which transmuted pain into esthetic pleasure and into an obvious artistic success, based on an exceptional personal experience. The intentional cracklings on the surface of her canvases recall her life’s background. Her body of work is entirely based on memory, of intensely endured events in the Catalan artist’s life, who recreates them energetically. They become authentic works of art, scenes filled to the brim with knowledge, whose figures bring intimacy ever closer inside the enclosed, reconstituted world of her paintings. Lita Cabellut’s approach is close to that of Borges, who could bring back to life a lost civilization thanks to a library’s fragments. Lita Cabellut’s work is intimately intertwined with the memory of an old area of Barcelona, El Rava, close to the port, La Boqueria on Las Ramblas and its Sant Antoni market, with its pickpockets, its strolling players, its clowns and of course its prostitutes.
The artist has rarely painted group scenes, but has devoted the main thrust of her research to recalling the characters that made up her own world. To them she has devoted her tactile and mental emotions, creating an oeuvre that we recall with great happiness since it was born of immense pain. However, her beginnings’ difficult pathway was far from being a flourishing road. Abandoned at three months by a mother whom she only got to know when was eight years old, Lita Cabellut was brought up until then by a protective grandmother, so protective that she “spared” her going to primary school. With an unknown father, a prostitute mother, belonging ethnically to Spanish gypsies, her future was none too promising. Her grandmother died when she was eight, and she set off for the orphanage where she made up for her educational deficits and successfully passed all the stages, from primary and secondary studies, until she reached the Fine-Arts School in Amsterdam, one of the best-known in Europe.
Lita Cabellut was born in 1961, during those confused years, that Michel Ragon described as those of esthetic crises (2), when figures were reappearing in the vanguard dominated at that time by abstract art, and old-fashioned, visceral, quarrels. She was also born during those years when Francis Bacon’s work had conquered a whole generation of artists, fascinated by the cruelty seeping from his paintings. Bacon, whose maturity and themes, viewed from the point of view of horror, and painted in acid hues, enhanced his ascension to the throne of European art. It would appear that these two events, or these two coincidences, were prematurely entrenched into Lita Cabbelut’s life and future art expressivity. Of course, her assiduous visits to the Prado Museum in her early youth, played a major part in Lita Cabellut’s decision, taken aged thirteen, to become a painter, after having long meditated on the works of Vélasquez, El Greco, Ribera, Fernando Galego, Goya, Hieronymus Bosch and Rembrandt. Three years later, her first exhibition took place. The rest is history.
The awareness of what is most deeply entrenched in human beings, for someone in touch with her dreams, was to determine her choice of becoming a painter so as to write a new page in Spanish painting, entrenched within the splendor of innocence and the spontaneity of bitterness. In the Prado, “Arthemise”, “Portrait of Rembrandt by himself”, fused and familiarized her experience with the works of the great Dutch masters. Once school was over, all roads led to Amsterdam. The specific links between Spanish and Dutch painting were close-knit. Rembrandt fascinated her, not just by his painting but also through his vitality. “However I loved life, with a madman’s frenzy. Women and gold, art and suns, everything that shimmers and burns, everything that hides and murmurs, joys and bursts, tenderness and reflections, everything, everything. With an equal passion, full bodied, tear-filled… With women’s flesh!” (3) And so began the acquaintance with that first-class star whose brightness is resplendent and with whose genius Cabellut was completely enthralled. In a manner of speaking, Rembrandt pointed the way for all the paths leading to art followed by the Spanish artist. As soon as you look at Lita Cabellut’s paintings, you can easily place her in the world of Spanish art, through its tonalities, its expressivity and its typical chromatism. All those convincing reds and blacks leave no doubt in the minds of those who follow contemporary art trends.
The Catalan artist confirms that Dutch paintings, more particularly those of Rembrandt, played an important part in her conception and understanding of painting. But there are nonetheless two contemporary artists who hold a very special place in her creative inspiration, more specifically in her early days: on the one hand, Francis Bacon, the great British painter, who changed her outlook and opened up another direction, and on the other hand, a Spanish artist this time, in fact Antoni Tapies, more usually guided by his mathematical spirit and his abstract expressivity. Cabellut often notes that she is mid-way between Rembrandt and Tapiès, ensuring a transitional bridge (4) between tradition and modernity. Her closeness to Tapies is due to the fact that the great Catalan’s artist work seems to overhear the world’s rumors. It proves an ascetic mind aware of the imminence of revelation. It also entails that non-space and non-time can at least produce art, but above all grasps the essential difference between zero and the awareness of zero. The key to Lita Cabellut’s work is none other than imagination, unveiling the phases of an intangible presence by means of red, black strokes, via a luminous blue, a light gray, that superimpose themselves on the tonal values and lead to a total explosion of pictorial emotion, regrouping the inseparable quartet of prostitutes’ heads, of musicians, generals or clowns. But one could as easily summon up a succession of musicians, clowns, prostitutes, bearing an ever-increasing violent emotion. Nobody is spared and its gentleness leads to a visible and hidden cruelty.
Lita Cabellut opens up a scale of restrained colors wherein shadings turn into solid colors. But through powerful blacks and reds, she also obstinately creates a darkness, in which light is glimpsed thanks to multiple, unexpected spaces, emphasizing the suggestive power of her broad and free gesture, ever intact. The surface tension is extreme. The eye hides or discovers it, a terrifying eye gazing skywards seeking a saving grace, far from decadence, violence and daily pain. Inside a stratified universe, the intense pleasure of painting the human condition leads the artist to unknown horizons. The stroke, in a broad, strong gesture with an unflagging brush, provides a comforting tonal richness whose determinism is strengthened the more the gesture sets aside the pictorial mass in favor of spatial breadth without predetermined limits. Her art and her creative attitude can be understood as a series of actions that one sees and that one forgets: I see and I recall, I make and I understand. In her canvases, Lita Cabellut does not emphasize story-telling , but she creates an art that jolts, creating a conceptual drama. Her portraits introduce us to a disillusioned world in which dreams connect us to the rough reality of a grimace synonymous with pain, a twisted face, a neurotic eye, sending us an unequivocal message: these images hide an interiorised volcano under a peaceful surface. Dramas of passing time, individual and human dramas, follow each other in a series of paintings that simultaneously reveal their provocative aspect, the underlying expressive eroticism of these deformed women wearing masks and the stigmata of urban life, enclosed within its coherence and its perplexity. These scarred faces produce an intuitive style, filled with sensitivity. The physiology of reactions by visual means demonstrate, so to speak, the meaningfulness and the essence of art through its transcendental rewriting of the human condition whose gravitas examine ideas of eternity, of grandeur, as well as those of ideals and tragedy.
In her prostitute series, Lisa Cabellut raises realism to the level of a reality, linked to the desire for expressing the violence her characters endure on a daily basis and which is then transmuted into an energy of survival, a willingness to appear on the threshold of the myth regarding the “oldest profession in the world”, as old as humankind. Lita Cabellut paints her characters from memory. They are like echoes, tangible reminders of her life in that mythical area of Barcelona, of those sailors and men seeking pleasure, replenishing themselves in other people’s warmth. She paints her characters in series and leaves herself open to the latent dangers of repetitiveness and monotony. And yet there is none of this here. The series open up like a world in miniature. In the physical meaning of the word, Cabellut’s work is revealed as an interior force linking the spaces of the captive figures, creating new fields inside which the artist’s work appears in all its deliberate essence. The motives and energies carrying the artist’s reflection through these splendid and tragic figures with their imaginative automatism, are also un-hoped for cries seeking a return to morality, to the cradle, to normality, translated in intense and sensitive brushstrokes, providing us with a feeling of painting anchored in its solidity. Her broad strokes carry within them the vitality of the human body, the violence of a subjected body. As for the parallel violence of the black and reds, she brings a vibration that breaks the space’s equilibrium with elements painted in unstable strokes, ensuring a feeling of constructed deconstruction.
Like counterpoints in music, the colors’ expressivity appears as reinforcement, magnificently responding to the themes’ globality, spontaneously emerging from intuition. Mysterious and rich, it is confirmed by means of emphatic and diluted tonal values, providing spaces to the intermediate tonalities that emphasize the balance, and lead their expressivity towards a tangible harmony. In the beginning, Lisa Cabellut at first adhered to an abstract expression that has evolved over time into a free figuration. That is how a composition, seemingly abstract, contains delightful little surprises of filigreed precision if one examines it in detail. The most striking example is “Magdalen” (1999), which hides in the mists of a grayish landscape, gentle tonalities and transformed coloration. Her admiration for Rembrandt, Vélasquez and other modernists, is therefore understandable since they painted abstract works with an apparent realism. Her prostitutes’ series, with their descriptive emotional content, also have psychoanalytical attributes filled with cruelty, disfiguring the mirror image of an experience viewed through an existentialist mind-set. In these images of women divided, self-isolated, anxious, depressive, with their distorted faces, we read not only a human expressivity, but also something else that comes from the heart and expresses disillusion (Pro Morbi, page 181), resignation (Pro Kalo, page 164), absence (Pro Maruja, page 167)…
Of course, it is important to underline the technique Lisa Cabellut uses, which is essential to grasp her artistic concept. This particular technique lends the brushstroke a major role during the preparation of the surface, by provoking carefully wrought cracklings, the better to visualize the pictorial work as a block of reflective memory. When I discovered her work for the first time, I wondered about her technical insufficiencies. It was only on visiting her studio in The Hague that I realized it was in fact a masterful process to make the surface more actively a polygon of the artist’s memory, that she controls so as to amplify the visual strength of the artwork and endow it with its very essence. Thus Lisa Cabellut brings her language close to the individualistic and unique discourse through which communication between art and the viewer becomes a concrete and perceptible possibility of fragments of memory, midway between illusion and reality.
The “Prostitutes” series filled with the latent violence reflecting a sense of implication, wherein the stances, the busts and figures of the women are treated in such a way as to signal fear, an alarm-signal, a sign of distance, in order to better measure one’s own sensitivity, one’s own expression, and the echo of one’s own inner being. The paintings have such a deep inner impact that no-one, no viewer, can get close to them and emerge unscathed. The solitariness that marked her childhood and her adolescence has clearly left its marks. The lack of warmth that opened up space to pain, and the lovelessness, are compensated by the violence and power of the created image, proportionate to the lack of affection. In fact, Lita Cabellut paints a hidden violence that sends her back, through diversified forms, to her origins, in which suffers a woman’s body, a prostitute’s, an individual body’s as well as the entire universe. In the amazing and powerful “Flique” from 2006 (p.140), the form’s precision delineated with great expressivity, the face is modulated with a fine transparency, emphasizing the sensitivity of the handling of broad black outlines, covered in successive and delicate layers of turquoise and brown toning down the power of the gray background. Then, the sensitive touch of the red lips, confers serenity to the deep eyes with their singular, almost religious power. The touch is lively, the coloring minimalist, overwhelming. Her “Senora Gomez”, 2006 (p.204) and “Senor Gomez”, 2006 (p.205), then “Sorprendido” (p.207) are painted on a gray ground, handled in broad gestures. The heads’ gray outlines are highlighted in a transparent fine lilac and are a considerable size in order to re-inforce their authority. The tonal juxtaposition between crude colors, the speaking mouth, the technical and premeditated subtleties of the crackling, adding a wild, barbaric and sublime presence, are proof of a genuinely inimitable style, combining the delicate know-how of light and shadow, with an approach towards color and its precise values. “Lita”, 2006 (page 183) is significant in that sense. Painted from a high angle, with a few simple gestures and minimalist means, the décolleté has, along with the face, traces of crackling that endow the body with all of memory’s weightiness. The closed eyes seem to inform us that this work is probably a self-portrait of the artist, announcing: “Here is Woman” instead of “Here is Man” (Ecce Homo). By this means, the Spanish artist provides us with a stunning work, the genuine impact of the mystery it engenders being none other than the simplicity of her quivering flesh. To preserve a living harmony with a picturesque appearance, heavy lips, a broad nose, Lita Cabellut dares to safeguard opposites that make up a whole! “Arjan-2”, 2006 (page 186), then “Regina”, 2006 (page 202), are painted with more limited means than “Lita”. Seen from above, fore-shortened, they appear set free from restraints, from traditions, synthesizing the essential qualities of a sincere colorist and of the breathing form, touching.
Inside these portraits, we come across sensualists, gentle or wounded, severe military types, touchy and secretive, strolling players and clowns, smiling and sad-faced, meditative and inspired musicians, and finally good-time girls whose physical decline is over-emphasized. In each work, in each category of the groups, every figure is imbued with a power of observation under the beams of the human light, that explains the particular attachment these works arouse. These portraits, wherein passions and emotions preserve their essential character, unveil their souls thanks to Lita Cabellut’s psychological insight. None of her numerous character studies can leave us indifferent, be it « Luciano », 2006 (page 38), « Woytila » (page 43), « Truman » (page 56), « Ron » (page 80), « Petra » (page 94), « Angela » (page 107), « Kanzlo » (page149), « Kula » (page 165), « Erendira (page 172), « Oscar » (page 210). The artist lends little importance to the titles, allowing her entourage the pleasure of encoding the names accompanying the works, which she accepts with an obvious enjoyment. Lita Cabellut totally absorbed Rembrandt’s lesson, who used to say: “Making a portrait is to create a being, to become the equal of the Creator. Very few artists understand that. Even less the models. A man, a woman, comes to my studio. They bring me their weightiness, the vices of their mouths, their dodgy glances, ridiculous ears, and their skinflints’ or satyrs’ nostrils. They bring me their watery humors, their make-up and their stigmata, their ugly humanity and above all, their base and immeasurable vanity”. (5) In fact, in her recent paintings from 2005 and 2006, object of this book, Lita Cabellut presents exclusively portraits, or rather four different series of close-up portraits. First of all, a series of prostitutes and transvestites, a series of musicians, then of clowns and generals. Must one insist on the separateness of these series? Obviously not, since they were carried out by the artist in a precise ordainment. There is also a certain similarity of places linking them and such a distinction would be purely artificial. The creative gesture is not a nervous discharge, but a poetical act expressed by means of the bodies and the close-up portraits that the artist paints even as she is thinking about them. To perceive a face is to experience a shock that leaves us no time to look, unlike the way we examine an image. Emmanuel Levinas (6) insists on the face’s characteristic vulnerability – the part of the human body that is the most naked and most exposed to violence.
Lita Cabellut manages in this group, in these series of grouped individualities, to underline the unity of the whole, a mixture of sadness, humility and dignity that appears in their souls’ outlook and challenge us, sensitive to the metaphysics surrounding these real or imaginary models. The wealth that transfigures these beings and refines them is the condition of the soul, which the artist is seemingly most interested in. Whatever attitude she employs to express them within the measures of her means. The faces of these characters seem to stretch upwards, heavenwards, but for Merleau-Ponty (7) : “Pure or impure, figurative or not, painting never celebrates another enigma but that of visibility”. A prostitute, transvestites, Lita Cabellut paints them within their skewed corporal richness, in their ravaged or fruitful flesh. These faces do not appear simply as love-machines, rumors, and aversion. It is true that the Catalan painter treats them with an understandable deference, shifting their voluptuousness, joys and sentimental enjoyment into subject matter. In her generals’ series, Cabellut also handles them in an offbeat manner, slightly uglified, because for Rembrandt those who revolutionized the world were ugly. Whereas politicians and historians pretend that by means of violence we can ensure peace, the artist well knew that violence leads to nothing or else quite simply to tears, to unhappiness and to desolation. From an era marked by abstract expressionism to free figuration, Lita Cabellut leads us into new paths, to new prowess. Living a solitary adventure, isolated from the rest of the artistic community, she has forged her own place through her physical and creative independence, and the recognition of the critics and of the public allows her to create within an enduring serenity. In her work over the last two years, object of this book, the artist has created, through four series, paintings of a striking precision, with a vibrant unity, born of a true creative happiness, of a mental coherence and of a gestural freedom, based on a pictorially rich and original technique whose very essence can be called simultaneously poetry and melancholia. “Nevertheless, I do not know what was attractive about that character, but I felt from the very first, that it was very simple to love…”(8)
Translated by Ann Cremin
Art and Architectural Historian, Titulary Member of the European Academy for Arts, Sciences and Letters.
Robert Burton, Anatomie de la mélancolie, Ed. José Corti, Paris, 2000, p.11.
Michel Ragon, 25 ans d’art vivant, Ed. Galilée, Paris, 1986, p.297.
(3) Raul Mourgues, Rembrandt Kabbaliste, Ed. de la Baconnière, Neuchâtel, 1948, p.9.
(4) Conversations with the author in The Hague, January 3, 2007
(5) Raul Mourgues, op.cit. p.57
(6) Levinas, L’utopie de l’humain, Ed. Albin Michel, Paris, 1993, p.92.
(7) L’œil et l’esprit, Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1964, p.26.
(8) Sade, Histoire de Juliette, Société Nouvelle des Editions Pauvert ,Paris, 1987.