Interview with Javier González de Durana

"Oteiza and Chillida were two titans of art, but also two human beings with greatness and limitations"

Arts Interviews


March 2022.    Reading Time: 9 minutes

A history professor specialising in art, Javier González de Durana has curated the exhibition Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida. Dialogue of the 50s and 60s, which arrives at the San Telmo Museum in San Telmo, San Sebastian, on 8 April after its visit to Valencia. The exhibition, which includes works on loan from Iberdrola, presents for the first time the creations of two of the most internationally renowned Spanish sculptors of the 20th century. The most relevant thing for Durana is that the exhibition is not about the personal confrontation between the two artists, but about the years of friendship, encounter and mutual learning. An opportunity for healing art.

The exhibition Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida. Dialogue in the 50s and 60s presents part of the work of both Basque artists, what is new about it?

The most singular feature is the fact that the works of both sculptors are presented in abundance and from the same period. Until now it has been possible to see pieces by both artists, but in small numbers and linking sculptures, sometimes from very distant periods. A metaphysical box by Oteiza, from 1957, has little to do with a chamotte earth by Chillida, from 1995. It seems as if the fact that they are Basque and that they were internationally successful in the 1950s was enough reason to bring together pieces from one and the other.

Although the public and personal confrontation between the two sculptors is widely known, this exhibition focuses on their years of friendship. What should visitors know about their relationship?

I thought it was important to show that their personal and artistic relationship was not marked by confrontation at all times, but that there were almost two decades in which they both related to each other as good colleagues, participated in interesting cultural initiatives and carefully observed each other's work. As a result of that relationship, pieces emerged in which it is possible to find points of contact and mutual enrichment, but I have not wanted to be very explicit, preferring instead to insinuate them so that it is the spectator who finds them.

People are contingent, but works of art contain messages of transcendence and the capacity to interact far beyond the life of their authors

The exhibition has the consensus and collaboration of the two artists' legatee institutions: the Jorge Oteiza Museum Foundation and Chillida Leku. What was the process involved in getting the works of both artists exhibited?

At first they did not welcome the idea. Some wounds and sensitivities still remain open. It took me several months to convince them that, 20 years after the death of Oteiza and Chillida, the legacy institutions could not continue to prolong the estrangement. They may not have spoken to each other for decades, but their works are nobody's enemies and they can dialogue with each other and with their viewers on the plane of imagination and artistic reflection. Diplomacy was important to make them understand that this was an opportunity to normalise their responsibilities as institutions owed to the dissemination, better understanding and interwoven readings of their works.

Oteiza and Chillida ended years of rivalry with a symbolic embrace in 1997 in Hernani (Basque Country). Now, they meet again and talk face to face in this exhibition, what is the message of this initiative?

Personally, I don't think that embrace was very sincere. There was imposition and theatricality. Oteiza and Chillida were two titans of art, but also two human beings with greatness and limitations, their own political thoughts and unique reactions to life and to others. The message of this exhibition is that people are contingent, but works of art contain messages of transcendence and the capacity to interact far beyond the life of their authors. 

The works created by Oteiza and Chillida in the 1950s and 1960s share the same space in this exhibition, but what are the differences and similarities between the work of the two artists in both concept and form?

All artists look at and reflect on what their contemporary colleagues are doing in order to improve their techniques and produce better works. That is why it is possible to find parallels and differences between Oteiza and Chillida and between them and other sculptors of the 1950s, such as Henry Moore, Berto Lardera, Robert Jacobsen... The starting points were different. Oteiza elaborated an aesthetic-social theory. His sculptures were not finished works, but mere demonstrations of something more valuable to him, aesthetic reflection. Chillida, on the other hand, started his pieces from any point and saw what he wanted to do as he progressed in his work, discovering the message that the sculpture contained once it was finished.

Iberdrola's is a magnificent art collection and these two pieces [on loan] are remarkable proof of that

The 120 works - including sculptures, drawings and publications - have been selected from a chronological perspective. In this sense, what is the artistic and life journey that visitors will find?

The exhibition runs from 1948, when Oteiza returned from Latin America after a thirteen-year absence and Chillida went to Paris to become a sculptor, until 1969, when Oteiza completed the statuary on the façade of the Basilica of Aránzazu and Chillida installed his first monumental sculpture in the UNESCO gardens in Paris. The spatial route presents several chapters, an initial one in which the works carried out between 1948 and 1951 are shown, a second space offers the stage of the construction of the basilica of Aránzazu between 1951 and 1955 together with other works and a third space in which pieces from 1956 to 1969, the most experimental period of both artists, are interwoven.

What significance do the works lent by Iberdrola have in the careers of Chillida and Oteiza?

Very important. Oteiza's Empty Box is a refined example of his aim to turn emptiness into the sculptural subject, making the Malevich units [geometric modules devised by the author to combine multiple forms] mere envelopes of such emptiness. And Chillida's granite is almost the opposite, a massive and dense occupation of space in which the sculptural is manifested in the various exterior planes. Iberdrola's is a magnificent collection of art and these two pieces are remarkable proof of it.

What place do both Chillida and Oteiza occupy in Spanish contemporary art?

I believe that in the field of sculpture they occupy the highest position, together with Pablo Picasso and Julio González.

After passing through the Bancaja Foundation in Valencia, the exhibition will arrive in April at the San Telmo Museum in San Telmo, San Sebastian. How important is it to bring art to the public?

In San Sebastian the exhibition will be seen and felt with passion and historical interest. Both were natives of this Basque land, and there are many memories they left in this city. In Valencia it has been an opportunity to get to know their works, but in Donostia other emotional components will be added. It will be an unbeatable opportunity to put aside the gossip once and for all and focus on the art they gave us.

In the field of sculpture, they occupy the highest position, together with Pablo Picasso and Julio González

As a curator and art researcher, how important is it for you to participate in this encounter between the two sculptors?

I feel very fortunate. At first, my reaction was to think that bringing it to a successful conclusion would be impossible, but I thought it was worth trying because of the greatness of the challenge it represented. Of course, considering the importance of its protagonists, it is a very important milestone.

To what extent is support for art and culture by large companies relevant?

Public institutions are not and should not be the only entities with responsibility in the field of art and culture. Private initiative has to play a counterbalancing and complementary role, covering what may be marked by ideological-political interests and attending to those activities that are not considered relevant from the public sector because, due to their pioneering or minority nature, they do not provide short-term prestigious returns. In this respect, Iberdrola's attitude is exemplary.