A Great Spanish Sculptor

“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.

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This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, Benlliure, equestrian statues, great artists, modelling clay, sculpture, Spain, stone carving and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Great Spanish Sculptor

  1. wrjones says:

    There was a TV documentary years ago on an “idiot savant” who, as I remember, was in his early 20’s. He could barely function without his mother but he was able to work as a janitor at a local school. In the program he went to a zoo with his mother where he looked at a rhino mother and calf for a relatively short period of time (20 minutes to an hour?). He then went home and recreated them with astounding accuracy from memory alone.

    I think the program said his mother sold the work for $40,000. My thought at the end of the program was if he were my son he would not be working as a janitor. I’d have him at the zoo everyday.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    ‘Your “eye” learned nothing and what is more, was not invited to look for anything.’

    You have these little jewels in each of your posts Swallows. It is so difficult to explain to people that art is more than just getting a likeness. This phrase gives some clue as to the deeper, richer side of art.

    I was recently criticized in a post elsewhere about some wildlife artists ‘knowing too much.’ One well-known artist responded that he didn’t understand how an artist could ever know too much. But you hit the nail on the head in your quote on Beniliure: “In some ways he knew too much.”

    Oddly enough I was rereading the wonderful book ‘Drawing Birds’ by John Busby yesterday and came across something similar regarding too much knowledge: “an artist can be trapped creatively by the sheer weight of known facts by which he or she thinks the ‘rightness’ of a picture will l be judged.”

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Gowing says this: “Claude’s art was the single historic style ever to be entirely naturalized in the English-speaking lands. It was their understanding of this original and elementary response to nature that qualified English and American painters to make their unconventional contributions to the landscape art that became, in the course of the nineteenth century, the tradition of the new.”
      (p. 394 of Louvre book cited above)
      Michael Wilson, a former Deputy Keeper at the National Gallery, says that Constable copied the Hagar and the Angel and that its influence can be seen in the Haywain. Maybe, though there I don’t see Claude’s value changes marking middle and far distance, do you?

      Here’ more Gowing: “[Claude] adopted a comfortingly familiar scheme, an idyllic prospect of infinite distance, framed as if in a pictorial theater, and retained it with only minimal adjustments all his life. But he realized this scheme with observation so fresh and specific that it equipped the centuries to come with new conceptions, both of the luminous continuum of nature and the unity of landscape art.

      “Claude developed the habit of drawing from nature in pen and wash. So responsive was he to the wide sweep of the campagna outside Rome, so attentive to natural detail, trees with ivy on them and paths that ran through sun and shadow, that he learned a new language of emotional expression that took its vocabulary from the environment itself. There was nothing like it in art—except the drawings Rembrandt was making at the same time along the canals outside Amsterdam…”

      As for the “knowing too much”subject, I always thought Leonardo was a good example of the artist who knew how to suppress his “knowledge” at creation time. His imagined horses, for example, are mere curves and galloping or rearing animal spirits—not the “real” horses he made such careful studies of. But it’s true, it takes guts (and something more) to kick the superego out of the artelier while you work; and to stand up to the bully every time you both look at your painting afterwards.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    “Claude developed the habit of drawing from nature in pen and wash. So responsive was he to the wide sweep of the campagna outside Rome, so attentive to natural detail, trees with ivy on them and paths that ran through sun and shadow, that he learned a new language of emotional expression that took its vocabulary from the environment itself. There was nothing like it in art—except the drawings Rembrandt was making at the same time along the canals outside Amsterdam…”

    That line about ‘learning a new language of emotional expression’ is sure striking isn’t it? I’m always skeptical about overvaluing the ‘new’ in art. But this seems to be a far more acceptable way of explaining how the new in art really can be valuable. And it really explains Claude’s tremendous accomplishment and influence.

    The rest of the Gowing quote sure makes me want to go find some Claude books to take a look at. That is the ‘problem’ I always find here: I leave with more to do than when I arrived! A good problem I guess, or I wouldn’t keep coming back.

    I feel like I know too little about either Claude or Constable to comment on Claude’s influence on Constable. But a quick look at the two paintings online shows both differences and similarities, at least to me. My first impression is that Claude uses his values to orchestrate an ‘ordered’ scene. Everything in its place. But Constable has these little flashes of brightness everywhere, accurately reflecting what we see I think, but disrupting the classical calm of Claude. So I guess what I notice more is not the orderly changes of values going back but all the flashes of high value coming forward throughout the Constable and nowhere in the Claude. If I were a modernist I’d say that Constable was trying to accentuate the picture plane!! But I’m not going to say that. Just seems too glib and easy. Still it does make you wonder. In any case it’s fascinating to compare the two paintings.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Thanks for that comparison of the Claude and the Constable: the greater dynamism of Constable. his flecks of white everywhere, Claude’s “ordered” scenes. Claude had a lot of good observation in his morning and evening pictures (hey, is the Hagar and the Angel rather evening than morning?), but he seems to have limited himself to just those times of day. Constable went out and filled his sketchbooks with real skies and as many moods of nature as he could grab. Nature is no longer pretty scenery behind a genteel story. It is a ghastly force that moves us humans no less than clouds and trees. Well, a generous one, in that it supposedly teaches us how to live with it.
      In the Haywain there’s a storm brewing, isn’t there? It’s a sultry summer afternoon and the air is starting to move. I baled hay as a kid and from a haywagon watched great thunderstorms come like that.

  4. Ken Januski says:

    Never baled hay Swallows but I do remember those summer thunderstorms! One of the most boring parts of the midwest is its flatness, especially in the part of Illinois I grew up in. But boy you sure could see the skies and clouds.

    I have to say that I’ve finally broken down and started reading about Constable, ‘John Constable, The Painter and His Landscape’ by Michael Rosenthal. It’s a bit more scholarly than I’d prefer but it is really interesting reading about Constable. I was tempted to do so when you first wrote about him a few years ago. But the Claude discussion finally pushed me over the edge, that and the fact that I found this book I didn’t even know I had amidst all my art books. And very good illustrations. As an abstract artist all my life until recently I think I’ve felt that I just didn’t have the time to read about him, even though there was something that probably interested me. Now that I’m working representationally it’s a lot easier to justify it. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’m sure part of that is just loving the clouds that he portrayed and that look just like the ones I grew up with.

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