Comments on Francisco Hernández’s stylistic evolution
ENRIQUE CASTAÑOS ALÉS
The first significant works by Francisco Hernández correspond to the end of the forties. Autorretrato (Self-portrait) from 1947 and San Sebastián (Saint Sebastian) from 1948 are two good examples of the production of his artistic beginnings. The first one is a medium format canvas of pasty brushstroke and chromatic warm tonalities. More than with Francisco de Goya’s Self-portrait in the workshop, from around 1794-95, which is kept by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, it has an undeniable debt with Velázquez’s self-portrait in Las Meninas. Unlike Goya’s picture, where he appears full-length, Hernández is represented from the waist down, although it is true that the bent position of the left arm holding the rectangular palette and a bundle of brushes with his hand, as well as the position of the right hand holding the paintbrush (to «correct» the image seen in the mirror), that in turn is placed on the surface of the canvas that he is painting, offer undeniable similarities with the charming picture by Goya. Nevertheless, the general spirit and the aesthetic concept predominant in Hernández’s canvas are much more next to a Velazquian intention, so, as numerous specialists have pointed out, among whom Jonathan Brown stands out, the great Sevillian painter is represented with his motionless paintbrush and his thoughtful look, this is, at the precise moment when he conceives the «idea» of the picture that he is making, wishing to show in that way the «intellectual», «mental» character, of painting, an activity which, although it was made by hands, it cannot be compared to manual labour; its place is next to poetry and other noble activities of the intellect. This is for many, one of the interpretive keys of the unequalled Velazquian picture, and, knowing the unlimited admiration of Hernández for the great baroque painter, it should not surprise us the mentioned correspondence. In three quarters position, Hernández inclines slightly his head on the right, raising it lightly, directing a self-absorbed look toward a vague and uncertain place outside the picture. It is the work of a very young painter, of an adolescent, in which there can be noticed mistakes as the forced position of the hand that holds the paintbrush, the unnaturalness in which it emerges over the edge of the palette. However, it is also, at the same time, the work of a young man in possession of an ideal, the enthusiastic product of a boy determined to be a painter at any cost.
As for the San Sebastián from the collection of Malaga Episcopate, of medium format as well, it is an oil painting whose chromatic tonalities, as the evening resplendence that is seen at a distance in the horizon, the wounded body of the young man and the piece of red cloth that covers him partially, reveal influences of the Venetian school, especially from Tiziano and from Tintoretto, although the composition and the lightly diagonal position of the saint have an undeniable debt with the San Sebastián by José de Ribera which is kept at the Capodimonte Museum of Naples, a canvas from 1651 of morbid sensuality. Hernández places the body in more vertical position, making the face and the trunk be faced on the right, unlike the figure by Ribera. Much more distant similarities might be established with the Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni of Palazzo Rosso in Genoa, from around 1615-16.
As the decade of the fifties advances, Hernández’s palette enriches, arising a work of quick and gestural stroke, of enormous assurance and skill, where some times the pictorial matter is thickened and applied in thick paste, while other times it lets the canvas be transparent. It is a painting of spots and very gestural strokes, from which, as the painter himself recognizes, the figures are constructed, generally on some backgrounds made with spatula, with predominance of red, blue and green. Its impressionist appearance must not be confused with the historical impressionism. For this one, no colour exists by itself in Nature, in such a way that the colouration of objects is a mere illusion, being therefore light the only creative element of colours, this solar light that surrounds the objects and reveals them, according to the time of the day, in their infinite modifications. For that reason the impressionists do without the local shade, do not turn shade into absence of light, but into light of another quality, and let each colour its own power by means of the theory of the dissociation of shades.
Francisco Hernández, unlike the impressionists, uses black and shapes the object following a technique that would be closer to Sorolla’s luminism. The favorite subject of his compositions at that time is the human figure, especially portraits, where he takes care of the composition and the general arrangement of the figure in a superb way. An oil painting like Niño (Child), from 1955, exhibited for the first time in Galerias Altamira in Madrid in May, 1956, is a magnificent piece of work made, as it is usual in him, entirely in his study, with this self-assured, slovenly kid, with his unfastened shirt and a cigarette in his mouth who alone occupies the center of the composition, in which we notice that it is a quick and urgent notation, a painting perfectly constructed in very little time and with very few strokes and gestural, vibrant, nervous, rapid brushstrokes, whereas two or three canvases back to front complete the sober scenery. Perhaps the painter is right when he says that, even without knowing it, he also practised at that time a gestuality related to the historical expressionism, and the fact is that this grammar, which in the case of Hernández is not in the middle of the fifties precisely expressionist, was in the spirit of the time, both in America and in the European Informalism.
One of the most charming pictures of that time is Cabeza de estudio (Head of study) which depicts one of Pascual Taillefer’s daughters, dedicated to him, a delightful small head of a girl, wonderfully shaped, with the curls of the chestnut-coloured hair in vivacious contrast with the innocent face almost in profile, an infantile face of an immense delicacy, with a perfect harmony and combination of the intelligent eyes, the right set eyebrows, the nose, the mouth and the chin, a face that is an almost luminous and radiant sun that raises over a pearly neck standing out among the frills of the dress. The background made with spatula is only good to highlight the main motif, in the best tradition of the Spanish painting.
Those years are also the years in which Francisco Hernández’s natural disposition for drawing is consolidated, perhaps his strongest and firmest artistic quality. Any portrait of that decade made in pencil is enough to exemplify the painter’s extraordinary gifts in that field. Let us consider in detail the picture Retrato de Araceli Fernández-Calvo (Portrait of Araceli Fernández-Calvo), from 1956. It has the magnificent appearance of a classic portrait, the bust being centred in the thick paper, catching the painter, with supreme ability and skill, the strong personality and the character of the portrayed one, whose low look exposes certain sadness. The sure lines of the graphite, short and tight, draw short hair, sober perimeter of a wide and clear front, under which a face is modelled divided by a thick shade that covers its right side. The bearing and the dignity of the portrait is provided by its amazing plasticity, its intelligent concept able of synthesizing with mathematical accuracy the features of the character.
In November 1958, Hernández makes an exhibition in Madrid, in Alfil gallery, in Génova Street, which is going to mean a radical change of his drawing concept, although it was an ephemeral, somehow transitory, turn in time, one of those aesthetic incursions of the painter by the inner recesses of drawing in search of a new spiritual dimension. Let us bear in mind that there is no modification as for the sureness of the stroke and the abstract concept of the skill, there is however, a significant one, as for the style, the deliberately dramatic meaning, of form. One of the most representative pieces of this exhibition is El Bautista (The Baptist), a drawing in pen on paper that Hernández took during his trip through Central Europe, but that he refused to sell to a Swiss or German gallery. It was finally acquired by a collector from Barcelona. It is an oblong drawing, much longer than wide, of almost a metre high. It is of those drawings to which there can be applied the well-known assertion that «colours are learnt; drawing is not». The Precursor is standing up, with a shell in the low right angle, as symbol of baptism. His right leg is slightly bent and almost detached from the ground, his arms are also bent, but both the gesture of the fingers of his right hand and the expression of his face show that he is harshly exhorting those that are listening to him. He seems to shout at them what the gospel of Matthew (3, 2) says: «Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near». The strangest thing of this drawing is the final effect of the form, as if a type of moth that mortified and perforated the flesh appeared in it, piercing it and making it cavernous as if it was a woodworm, emptying it of its material content, destroying it and leaving it almost in a pure skeleton. That is what it has already happened in one of the squalid thighs, dried by fasting and atonement. The texture made by the application of ink on paper is of an absolute originality. The most visible debt that this figure of the Baptist has is with the immeasurable Altar of Isenheim, with that Christ of Grünewald that writhes in pain and whose fingers are contorted and deformed by suffering. In his History of the German art Gustav Barthel says that what Grünewald «captured in Isenheim includes all the revelations of the being, from the terrible fate of death up to the blessedness of the mystical ecstasy; from the fantastic imaginary miracle, up to the crystal-clear reality». We see something of that in Hernández’s drawing. There is in him a deep truth, but it is at the same time remote, distant, coming from the mists of times.
Another extremely interesting stage is the one that begins in Hernández’s painting towards 1961-1962, and whose most excellent culmination is shown in the pieces that he exhibits in Galería Grife & Escoda, in Palma de Mallorca, in October, 1964. They are works of an enormous melancholy, of abandoned sadness, in which the figures have lost their arms and resemble to be statues, hieratic and rigid effigies of an irrecoverable past, archaeological traces of lost Mediterranean civilizations, where the Greek archaic statues merge with the Egyptian painting and the law of frontality. As it happens in a picture, Niña y gato (Girl and cat) dominated by a personage with the head in profile and the eyes in front view, almond-shaped, watched in the background by an immobile staring cat, summarily painted. Some decorative elements, as bracelets of geometric design, a squared fragment, tiny circles and other signs evoke the ambience of Pancho Cossío’s pictures in the fifties. The titled picture Homenaje a Federico (Homage to Federico), from Manuel Barbadillo and Jane Weber’s collection, a work of allegorical subject, is a good exponent of that period. The same might be said about a delightful drawing in pen with the motif of a child sitting on a chair, with the round chubby face, the legs without reaching the ground and the expression between serious and sad, that is kept in Rafael Ruiz’s Malaga collection.
Probably, the most original, elaborated and planned stage of Francisco Hernández’s whole painting is the one that starts around 1965 with the organic forms, it culminates in the Tríptico de Venecia (Triptych of Venice), from 1966, and it continues with the human figures with knots and stumps until the middle of the seventies, to be precise up to Alegoría del cante jondo (Allegory of flamenco singing), from 1974.
The central work of Hernández’s whole production, his most genuine and elaborate contribution to the Spanish contemporary painting, is the Tríptico de Venecia, with which he represented Spain in the Biennial of Venice in 1966. Made entirely, in a completely surprising way considering such a big piece of work, in gouache pencil and Indian ink on canvas, the general impression that it causes is that of a painting made with very dilute oil, a thin film that lets the canvas be transparent, as in the pictures by Velázquez after his second trip to Italy. Nevertheless, the aesthetic root of this great work is from a Rembrandtian origin, another of Hernández’s most admired creators. Rembrandtian one because, as it happens with El buey desollado (The skinned ox) of the Louvre museum, the Tríptico also raises the genre of still life to a top level, redeeming it from a possible ordinary condition. Rembrandt, in spite of the realism of the motif, or perhaps precisely for that reason, but especially for the chromatic harmonies and the mystery that the scene surrounds thanks to the light effects, turns that slit open animal, of extraordinary physical presence, into a piece of pure painting that transcends the current character of the subject. Hernández, on the other hand, turns those organic forms, mixtures between wineskins and bones, into a metaphor of human existence, an image that speaks about the tension, of the daily struggle that living means, of our tragic condition. Accidentally, one remembers, involuntarily, don Quixote’s fight with the red wineskins, the battle of the errant knight with those wineskins that seemed giants to him, and whose explanation of the event to his master by Sancho serves Unamuno as pretext, in his dying comment, to highlight the slow process of the squire’s Quixotization, approaching, without hardly realizing, that pure ideal which the good Alonso Quijano pursued. But this work by Hernández might be interpreted otherwise – without forgetting the probable religious symbolism that number three has, since three are the panels that shape it–, arguing that those forms represent a human species not formed, not completed yet, struggling in the process of its constitution among opposite forces, until finally that strange being, able at the same time of the most sublime feelings and of the most depraved actions, arises.
That same year 1966 is also the one of the execution of La familia Morales (Morales family)), together with the Tríptico de Venecia his most sublime work. It is an enormous collective portrait of the children of the one who at that time bought plenty of his works in Madrid, José Maria Morales Ródenas, already dead, and whose descendants have a magnificent collection of paintings and drawings by Hernández. Made also in Indian ink on panel with a primer of alkil and a colouring, the pen has been silhouetting these angelical figures, whose presence seems an apparition. There is in the whole composition a strange magic, unreal, surreal ambience, of subtle phantasmagoria of exquisite modulations. Whether they appear in front or in profile, looking sometimes at the spectator and others at an indeterminate place, these children live only in that indescribable dimension of the real artistic creation. The paradoxical thing is here, in view of the result, the direct execution, in which the models have been posing one after the other for the artist, who measures at a rough guess the figures and their proportion in space, that is to say, working in a quite intuitive way. Hernández’s look is here clear and transparent, vividly contrasting his style, a realism crossed by supra-real sparkles, with this necrophiliac background that we notice in the pictures of the realist painter Antonio López. Notice in this portrait by Hernández the synthesis with which the physical space of the room has been captured: a rectangular floor piece with rhomboid tiles and a carpet hung on the wall to indicate the limit of the space. Placed in the same plane there are represented the seven children, whose different heights produce an undulation effect of a contained dynamism.
Some oil portraits made by Hernández to members of the same family offer identical aesthetic conception, especially those of Patricia Morales and Miguel Morales García-Gascón when they were children, which date from 1968 and 1970 respectively. The dense and heavy, extended and diffuse pictorial matter, construct some figures whose chromatic harmonies, especially the blue and turquoise ones, raise to regions of an unknown weightlessness, territories where dream and reality are confused and connect.
The pictures from 1969, as for example those titled Fuga, Prologo contenido y Dialogos (Flight, Content Prologue and Dialogues), continue stressing the organic thing, but now only human members, thighs or arms, which resemble to have been partly amputated, are represented; hence the stumps in which they end. Pieces of cloth swirl and float around them, like sails swollen by the wind. The rosy shades of the flesh and the turquoise green ones of the cloths and remnants are dominant. Sometimes the human remains have disappeared and we are only present at a deployment of knotted cloths fluttering by the composite space. Hernández says that these curved forms perhaps have to do with the scenery of the Malaga region of Axarquia where he lives, feminoid forms for him, in deep contact with the ground.
Between 1974 and 1976 Hernández’s work becomes partly more dramatic. The previous organic forms end up by materializing, being defined, and there arise beings whose members have clearly been cut off, generally the head, the feet and the hands, their bodies being also swollen, enlarged in some areas, bound with strips and frayed bandages that strongly press them. Sometimes, we can see the formation of an underworld of roots and interior ramifications in the low extremities of these men who no longer exist, as if the veins and the arteries were transmuted into a dense and thick tangle of vegetable roots. They are usually sat, leant against half-ruined brick walls and it is also usual to find a cane and a well branched tree top in the place of the head. Undoubtedly, surreal elements that mix with those of expressionist affiliation. Hernández seems to be shouting, warning about inhibitions, alienation, absence of freedom. The Alegoría del cante jondo (Allegory of flamenco singing), from 1974, is a work that synthesizes very well the plastic, metaphorical and symbolic worries of Hernández in the middle of the seventies. The head as such has disappeared, probably a resource to avoid the anecdote. The whole body is in tension, reflected in the muscles of the neck and of the arms, in the sternocleidomastoid, in the deltoid and in the trapezius. Notice that the trunk and the extremities are represented in font, whereas the formless head is completely turned, in an impossible position. The roots of the singing are those that are rising through the members and the extremities of that exasperated man, who seems to be making a plea, up to ending at the head, organic formless matter covered with roots that contrasts with the symmetrical geometry of the architecture that is at the background, a new tribute to the churches of Velez-Malaga, making a drawing in zigzag with the roofs, hiding partially an intense brilliance aureoled by spherical stars that draw a sort of celestial crown. Flamenco singing condenses all the suffering and the deepest feeling of the Andalusian people, some atavistic experiences with which the painter is fully identified.
La Virgen (The Virgin Mary) and El Cristo crucificado (The Crucified Christ) of the same year 1974, canvases of two and a half metres in height, can be appropriately considered to be works of cosmic resonances, in which Hernández has wanted to summarize very deep-rooted religious concepts, offering some frontal, symmetrical figures, of perfect drawing, inaugurating in certain way his custom from that time of introducing members of his own family as models. Locked up in what it might be interpreted as a mystical mandorla – but not with the traditional almond shape which is painted in the Christ Pantocrator coming from the apse of San Clemente de Tahull, but made by means of two opposite circles, as in a well-known altar frontal of the 12th century coming from Seo de Urgel which the Museum of Art of Catalonia keeps, or in some coloured drawings from the English Romanesque art, especially in one of the middle of the same century that the Bodleian Library of Oxford keeps–, both the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms and Jesus Christ on the cross, are surrounded by roots, fruits, plants, butterflies, stars and planets, symbols all of them from an unknown origin, from a beginning of the world and from an unknown future, finally from the cycle of time that culminates precisely in Christ, master of time and centre and end of History. Modestly dressed, the Virgin, enthroned, has her eyes lowered and her right arm bent in a majestic gesture, whereas she wraps her other arm around the Baby who is sitting with his small arms open on one of her legs, nude, with enormous open eyes. Christ is only accompanied by an ordinary child dressed in current clothes and sat by his feet, possibly in allusion to the whole Humanity, for whose redemption from sins He dies in the cross.
From the end of the seventies, Hernández’s painting becomes more baroque, more leant towards the religious, mythological and classic iconography, with many compositions that recall the Greco-Roman past, the European classic painting, the religious images of the Holy Week, the Mediterranean subjects and the simbology related to the region of Axarquia where he lives. He may include in the picture a representation of David by Michelangelo, or of the Venus de Milo, or of the Slave from the Louvre, one also by Buonarroti, who recreates the subject of Prometheus Enchained, the Three Graces or The Fall of Icarus. Especially in the production of the nineties, the foreshortenings, the theatrical gestuality of the figures and the scenographic inclination are plentiful. Basic geometric forms, composite symmetry, frequent references to beloved painters, as Gutiérrez Solana, vividly contrasted colours, structure always based on a solid drawing, presence of religious personages and numerous signs and symbolic elements constitute the main features of Hernández’s style in the last two decades of pictorial activity. Nowadays, the signs of street graffiti primarily centre his interest.
Traducción de José María Valverde Zambrana
Publicado originalmente en el catálogo de la exposición de Francisco Hernández que, bajo el título de Francisco Hernández 1945-2007. Entre el clasicismo y la modernidad, se celebró en las salas temporales del Museo del Patrimonio Municipal de Málaga entre el 13 de abril y el 10 de junio de 2007.