“O you should have seen Benlliure´s workshop!” Don José told us, still amazed as he had been as a boy in Malaga 60 years before. “When my father worked with him there were more than a dozen assistants busy and they were all better craftsmen than any you’d find now.”
Mariano Benlliure , pronounced BEN YOUR-EH, (1862-1947), was one of the greatest Spanish sculptors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Monument to Goya by Mariano Benlliure beside the Prado Museum, Madrid (public domain photo)
“The man was such a genius,” Don José went on . “He could model anything in creation with absolute accuracy, from memory. He just seemed to know how everything was made and how it worked. You and I have to study something in order to model it but he just knew it. He could model everything by heart. If you told him to model a giraffe, say, or a zebra, he would take the handful of clay and begin to think with his fingers—‘how was it?’ they would ask, but never stop working. It is as if he were God and creating the first zebra. He assembled the bones and muscle machine and made it work.
“How did he know that? When did he look so closely at that animal? I don´t know about you, but when I look I don´t yet SEE. I must first create a problem for myself and then go to the animal to find out the solution. Seeing isn´t enough; even looking isn´t sure. I have to investigate, hypothesize like a scientist and then go and test. Maybe Don Mariano did that as a boy—he must have done it all his life. But when I knew him, he already knew everything, knew every animal, every bone of every animal, how every animal differed from the rest, and how they were the same.
A monument to the Spanish Independence War hero Lieutenant Ruiz by Mariano Benlliure, Madrid (photo by Luis García licensed under Creative Commons share alike, 2.5)
“In a way he knew too much. It was too easy for him to put unnecessary facts and facile realism into his figures, and often he gave into that temptation and spoiled his works. The bronze flowers and birds and weapons and frills he stuck onto his great figures and all around them and beside them ruined them for the critics and disqualified him as one of the greatest artists of all times. Such a shame!
“But I´ll tell you this: as a modeller he didn´t have a rival anywhere in any age—he couldn´t have had.”
Benlliure monument to Antonio Trueba, in Bilbao, Spain (photo licensed under Creative Commons Share Alike Generic 2.5)
This was the memory of one sculptor for his master. Everyone listened with great attention and respect. We all would have given a lot to see the great Benlliure in his workshop—modelling that horse for the Martinez Campos statue or one of his famous fighting bulls.
Monument to General Martínez Campos in the Retiro Park , Madrid (photo licensed under Creative Commons Share Alike Generic 3.0)
And Don José himself, who knew so much about sculpture, what about him and his work?
There was a liveliness, a straightforwardness, an honesty about Don José that made everyone like him and listen to him. It was as if he were still a young man telling you excitedly about all he was learning. He’d done every kind of sculpture, large and small, and his knowledge of the professional’s world was immense, going back to almost the nineteenth century. And yet……
I sadly had to admit to myself that his statues left me cold. They were plain, robust figures without life—accurately modelled, yes, but as lifeless as…..statues. The saint knelt and prayed; the soldier stood his guard; the dog lay sphinx-like on the ground with a stony stare. There was no charm to them, no grace, no surprise. Your “eye” learned nothing and what is more, was not invited to look for anything. The simpatico, enthusiastic Don José was unable to show his love for sculpture in his sculpture. Nowhere did you see signs of the fun he had while creating; nowhere was there any wit, any wide-eyed wonder, any favorite part. Evidently mere anatomical “correctness” was not enough to bring about lifelikeness—that divine grace of Benlliure.