The Slum Brothel (The Slum Girls), circa 1934
Oil on canvas, 160 x 230 cm
Signed in the lower right-hand corner: "J. Solana" Inscription in black on the reverse, on the stretcher: "La casa del arrabal / José Solana"FULL SCREEN
José Gutiérrez Solana
The Banco Santander Collection boasts the largest inventory of works by José Gutiérrez Solana. This "collection within the collection" was begun nearly a century ago by Emilio Botín Sanz de Sautuola and later enlarged by his son and successor at the head of the institution, Emilio Botín, no doubt inspired by the fact that both the painter and the Botín family hail from the region of Cantabria.
These works have been cited in virtually every monograph published on Gutiérrez Solana and have appeared in major exhibitions in Spain and abroad, always labelled as pieces from the author's private collection as they remained in his possession until his death.
Although the artist was born in Madrid, his parents came from the mountains of Cantabria, where Solana spent long summers and actually resided from 1907 to 1919. As a result of this close connection, his entire artistic universe is filled with Cantabrian characters, customs and landscapes, which he depicted with consummate skill in many of the works in this collection.
A solitary creative genius with a singular personality, truly exceptional and unique in his field and indeed in the history of Spanish art, Solana was a contemporary of the Generation of '98 but did not share its critical spirit, preferring to go his own way. However, he could not remain entirely impervious to the political, sociological and ideological context of his time.
His career was forged in the midst of the flourishing avant-garde movements, and although his work made no formal innovations he was esteemed and acknowledged by the artists who did, considering him an isolated, unclassifiable creator due to his profound connection with Spanish pictorial tradition. Perhaps that is why there is a degree of controversy and mixed opinions about his work, which some claim is a mirror of his time while others see it as unrelated to the society in which he lived.
His artistic experience ran parallel to his literary experience. Solana the painter always offered glimpses of Solana the writer in his canvases. Some of these paintings have a strong literary component, just as there is a great plasticity in his writings. Both facets intertwine, supporting each other, sharing the same themes and a common purpose: to reflect and bear witness to the reality of his time. With his hard, raw gaze, stripped of all gratuity and ornament, Solana offers us a unique vision not only of his generation but of Spanish society as a whole. In his paintings he recreates a universe so personal that a new adjective, Solanesque, was invented to describe the dramatic, pessimistic view of existence it conveys, close in spirit to the Spain of the "Black Legend". Ramón Gómez de la Serna said that his painting was "made with the black colour of life"—undoubtedly the life that he personally experienced and lived. It is a vision of one part of the real Spain, but not the plural Spain of his time.
The same scenario appears in his writings, which Andrés Trapiello described as "unique, rare, miraculous and highly original", compiled in countless private folios in his recently published Cuadernos de París and his six books: Madrid, escenas y costumbres. Primera serie (1913), Madrid, escenas y costumbres. Segunda serie (1918), La España negra (1920), Madrid callejero (1923), Dos pueblos de Castilla (1924) and Florencio Cornejo (1926), his only novel.
His pictorial style was strongly rooted in Spanish tradition, looking to Goya, Velázquez and El Greco while developing a very personal oeuvre. He drew with oils in thick, pastose brushstrokes, using airy textures which, in conjunction with his preference for working with artificial light, lend his works a mysterious, enigmatic feel.
Solana's compositions are balanced. The characters emerge like a tableau, on an equal footing and given the same treatment as the objects that surround them. Though many of these works are reflected in their literary parallel, adding details and names, the characters in his paintings are presented as inanimate beings, separate from and alien to their context.
With regard to themes, throughout his creative career Solana centred his work on specific topics and recurring settings: carnival and festive settings, genre settings, feminine settings, bullfight settings, portrait settings, settings of religion and death and, finally, still-life settings. At times he chose to combine elements of this vast visual universe: for instance, in Lola the Hairdresser he used the subterfuge of a genre scene to incorporate a splendid portrait of the hair stylist, and in The Émigré's Return an ordinary setting serves as a pretext for painting nine individualised portraits.
In 1906, the year he concluded his studies at the Special School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving, Solana made his first foray into the world of carnival and festivities with Chulos and Chulas, depicting colourful characters of Madrid's lower classes which he describes in Madrid, escenas y costumbres. Primera serie in Baile de chulos en las Ventas: "Here the only people who dance are the sharp-eyed, seedy lot, the ones who bring in women off the street, the cocky blokes and pimps, the ones who grind organs and don't work because they're kept by women: the women who work in the tobacco factory, the match sellers, the waistcoat-makers and professional tarts; those who know how to live, but what a life!" This dark, quasi-Expressionistic work, still rather rough and crudely drawn, presents a vision of the fair reminiscent of Spanish light opera.
While Chulos and Chulas is an impersonal group portrait, the composition of Village Fair in the Field of San Isidro shows us a scattered crowd of people clustered into different groups to give the impression of a multitude.
The genre scene in The Hungarians, with its rough drawing, muted atmosphere and purely Solanesque palette, faithfully reflects a reality of the artist's time: the demolitions carried out in Madrid between 1917 and 1922 to make way for the second section of Gran Vía, and the resulting vacant lots that became impromptu stages for unusual performances. Solana captured this particular world in Madrid callejero, published in 1923: "The Hungarians with their monkeys, and their bear, were the ones who made the most money and worked the most in these vacant lots, where the street vendors parked their carts... Some of these Hungarians can also be seen with a tambourine and a stick under their arm and a bear covered in muck, fitted with a muzzle".
Solana was fond of popular festivals, and he recreated and blended the sights he saw there on his canvases or in his minutely detailed writings. Of all the scenes that carnival had to offer, the most striking was the representation of death, pain and the ridicule of mythicised characters; this became one of the most common themes of his written and painted work, perhaps because he had negative childhood memories of these festivities.
Reacting to the reality around him, Solana revelled in the world of masks, which allowed him to reveal the hidden recesses of human nature. In these fantastic and grotesque scenes, such as Masks with Donkey, he combined real characters like the woman and the military man with destrozonas in their lavish, brightly-coloured costumes. There is a biographical component here; it seems as though Solana wanted to don a mask as protection from the hostile world around him, from a society that never understood him.
In Alligator Mask, he makes ironic use of the animal's image as a symbol of revelry and merriment, perhaps in an attempt to rescue the person concealed behind it.
Carnival in a Village reveals his predilection for the realism and honesty of the common folk. This simple, luminous composition features real people deformed only by the masks they wear, whom he represents as grotesque figures full of movement and life.
In "La verbena del campo" Solana provided a brilliant literary description of the time-honoured folk festival he painted in Giants and Carnival Figures. As usual, his characters are hidden behind masks, but here, in contrast to other works, the composition focuses on describing the festivities, following the literary pattern: "When they start to dance as a group in the middle of the street, they make a very grotesque assembly."
Solana's genre scenes always tell a story about the portrayed character. The Émigré's Return depicts a common scene in northern Spain: the émigré's return from the Indies is celebrated with a gathering of friends, acquaintances and other people probably unconnected to the returnee, like the priest or the apothecary, invited to witness his triumphant homecoming. This was a very familiar theme to Solana, whose grandfather had been an emigrant in Mexico. On the table, covered with a large, freshly unpacked cloth, we see a bottle of rum, a large box of cigars and, towering above it all, a colineta, the painter's favourite cake. Solana painted the moment of the toast, after the émigré had narrated his trials and tribulations abroad; their sad faces and abstracted gazes speak of old memories, while loyalty is reserved for the dog, possibly his own pet Canelo.
This arrangement around a central table allowed him to portray each character individually, a compositional formula previously used in The Gathering at the Café de Pombo (1920, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid). The backdrop to this scene is a painting, a "picture within a picture", which from this point on would be a common device in his work, especially his portraits, as we see in Shipowner, The Merchantman's Captain, Valentín Ruiz Senén and Miguel de Unamuno.
In Santander Tavern the painter made no attempt to individualise the figures, instead preferring to capture the atmosphere of the afternoon hour, marked on the clock in the background, when sailors returned to port and stopped to have a drink and smoke as they discussed the day's events. This was a common sight on the docks of Santander, very close to the painter's own experience. The three seafaring men are portrayed as protagonists of that world he so admired, using a palette of greens and soft lighting to convey an impression of great serenity.
These figures are curiously alive and, despite their absent-minded expressions, engaged with their context, something we do not usually see in Solana's genre scenes with real characters. He liked to idealise them to a certain extent, as illustrated in his portrait of the Shipowner. The artist met this man on the docks of Santander, wandering among the ships and nostalgically reminiscing about his former life, and painted him with great dignity, accompanied by his old bottles of Jamaican rum and Dutch gin in a room full of character, with a bell glass inside which we see a moving sailing ship, a barometer and a painting of the old Santander docks with the 13th-century cathedral in the background. The old man was treated with respect in his literary works, which contain obvious allusions to his physical condition, his dependence and activity, and even details of his attire.
Solana took the same approach in The Merchantman's Captain, which portrays the Santander native Gervasio Olivares, captain of the steam and sailing vessel Gravina—the name of which appears on the bill near the bottom of the picture—that travelled the Santander-Havana route. The presence of a globe and conchs underscores his identity. The painting of a shipwreck on the wall behind the captain is the same one that Solana later used as a backdrop in The Triumph of Death.
On the other hand, the human quality missing from his group figures or portraits is enhanced by Solana in certain individuals like The Physicist, whose likeness emphasises his social status and personality more than his identity as a scientist, despite being surrounded by the tools of his profession. For the artist, this was the most important person of his acquaintance.
In The Bibliophile he used the figure, but not the face, of his brother to create an anonymous, depersonalised portrait. Solana undoubtedly intended to evoke his father, a great book lover, avid reader and owner of a vast library. In recognition of its excellent quality, the Ministry of Public Education awarded this painting first prize in the National Portrait Competition held in Madrid in 1933.
The Boxer represents a significant departure from Solana's habitual working method. Here he depicted a character and an event that do not appear in his writings and introduced a male nude. The victor, attentive to his rival's downfall, is contrasted with an anonymous audience silently watching the scene. An ambitious painting in terms of both execution and size, it was almost certainly made to be presented at the 1926 National Fine Arts Exhibition, where it attracted a great deal of attention from the press and critics but won no distinctions. The painter idealised the figure of Antonio Ruiz, a professional boxer from Vallecas, to whom Ramón Gómez de la Serna dedicated a small book when he won the European heavyweight championship. The painter's personal opinion is summed up by the leaflet in a front-row spectator's hands, on which we can clearly read "Circo de boxeo" (Boxing Circus). The painter Eduardo Arroyo appropriated these words when describing this work: "It is the circus of life and death in the gloom, far from the light of other peoples' festivities. An execution steeped in shadows. Circus and boxing."
In The Hairdresser, described in Solana's stories as "Lola the Hairdresser", he used mannequins, heads acquired at the Rastro flea market in Madrid that can also been seen in some of the surviving photographs of his studio. Here he incorporated the common device of the mirror, using it to reflect what the viewer cannot see—in this case, a blurred reflection of the back of the hairdresser's head. Her calloused hands clearly indicate her humble origins. Solana's literary descriptions is very concise: "At the end of the street, when we're most distracted, suddenly a little ball of hair falls from the balcony, followed by a larger one and a few longer strands. What might this be? We look up, and on a balcony we see a cardboard woman's head, all dented and chipped; the wicker bust is wrapped in a blue camisole. This head has real hair, falling to its shoulders in filthy tangles. Below the head, a sign in large letters reads: ‘Lola the Hairdresser'."
The Banco Santander Collection also owns a drawing in Indian ink and pencil entitled The Hairdresser, undoubtedly a sketch made to transfer the composition to a graphic medium.
These compositions are genre scenes in one sense, yet firmly rooted in his feminine settings. Like all of the female figures painted by Solana, these women are not lovely but coarse, unattractive and anonymous, identified only by the job they perform, in stark contrast to the noble bearing of the vast majority of the male characters he depicted.
Solana's difficult relationship with women was undoubtedly a product of his own experience. Son of a mentally disturbed mother and a victim of unrequited love, he remained a bachelor all his life, living with his brother Manuel. This strange relationship has been analysed by critics like Sánchez Camargo and Rodríguez Alcalde as well as by psychiatrists such as Dr. López Ibor and Prof. Rof Carballo. Solana felt sympathy or admiration for the most underprivileged women in his society. He frequently visited the brothels on Calle Ruamenor, in the slums of Santander, home to one of the famous houses of ill repute that he later immortalised in The Slum Brothel, of which he made five different versions with the same title. This theme also appears in his literary work, in chapters such as "Las mancebías" and "La calle de Ceres".
Both his writings and his paintings transport us to the sordid, miserable world of the brothels where women while away the hours, indifferent to life. Their semi-nude bodies and revealing attire betray their profession: they are not beautiful or young women, just "women of life".
In the chapter of his book Madrid, escenas y costumbres entitled "Las coristas", we find a harrowing description of the scene depicted in Women Dressing: "Behind a half-open door are the chorus girls, very scantily clad, in corsets and pantaloons, changing out of their stage costumes and into street wear; their brown, naked backs are revealed as they pull the skirts over their heads, and their upraised arms offer a glimpse of the tuft of hair in their armpits, like a dark stain. In this light they are ugly and dirty; gone is the allure they had when they strutted onto the stage in their boating costumes, with flesh-coloured stockings clinging to their legs, and their feet seemed smaller in high satin boots; one of them, who is pregnant, loosens her girdle and corset with a sigh of relief after suffering on the stage."
The feeling of apathy and absence of beauty in this painting are similar to the mood reflected in Solana's depiction of the brothel women, but the chorus girls lack the absent-minded gaze and spirit of resignation we sense in the Santander slum prostitutes. The artist used this motif to produce a highly plastic composition of intense colours, strong whites and stark contrasts between the figures.
He took a different approach in his paintings related to the world of bullfighting, to which Solana devoted a large part of his literary and pictorial work; these scenes are devoid of drama, relying solely on the inherent beauty of the theme. The degree of inconsistency we perceive is no doubt a reflection of the artist's own mixed feelings about bullfights, which simultaneously horrified and fascinated him. In some texts he rails against the fierce, harsh rawness of this tradition, but at the same time it is obvious that he is strongly attracted to this world steeped in symbolism. Solana saw matadors as heroes, perhaps because they were engaged in a constant struggle between life and death, and represented them as arrogant, brave, strong men. At one time he even donned the bullfighter's glittering costume, masking his own feelings.
Only in The Slaughterhouse did he denounce the darkest side of the spectacle, conveying the cruel, harsh reality of bullfights through the death of the bull and horses, also expressed in his writings: "These are pitiful creatures, nags for the waste heap which, after many years of service pulling a hired carriage, poor animals that ought to be allowed to die of old age, are sold for a pittance so their bodies can be ravaged by goring horns."
In El Lechuga and His Team, Solana immortalised a cobbler, according to Sánchez Camargo, or a carpenter, according to Benito Madariaga, named Isidoro Cosío. What we do know for a fact is that Cosío was born in the village of Carmona in Santander, knew Montes's Tauromaquia by heart and was so passionate about bullfighting that he even practised with his pet cat. His supportive wife made him a matador's suit whose bright green colour earned him the sobriquet of "El Lechuga" ("The Lettuce"). Despite the fact that his only appearance in the ring was an unmitigated disaster, Solana painted him posing triumphantly with his team against a mountain landscape where the most prominent building is the collegiate church of Cervatos.
Dragging Out the Bull is based on Goya's eponymous painting, although in this version the town of Albarracín is prominently featured in a composition where Solana, with his customary skill and mastery, struck a perfect balance between ground and figures, limiting the anecdotal component, as Álvaro Martínez Novillo has noted, to the picturesque setting.
The artist's preoccupation with religion and death and his fascination with the macabre inspired him to paint an undeniably harsh, coarsely realistic scenario. In these works Solana comes across as a man devoid of religious sentiment, focusing only on its most negative aspects.
The world of religious processions is one of the most frequent themes of his paintings, portrayed as spectacles of pain and anguish featuring anonymous hooded characters or open-faced villagers with wizened, glum features, always designed to enhance the aesthetic elements these settings had to offer. In The Procession, the white tunics of the penitents create a brilliant chromatic contrast with the dark figures carrying tall candles that delimit the composition, grouped around the central figure of Christ at the Column. Everything is sombre and dismal: the streets, the houses and even the first rays of dawn convey the sadness of the moment. Solana later used this painting as the cover illustration for his book La España negra.
The Mirror of Death is a blend of religion and superstition. Manuel Sánchez Camargo has recounted the curious history of this mirror, now in the Museo Municipal de Madrid: the frame, which came from a church, had a card inside on which the names of the deceased were written, and was acquired by an antiquarian to frame a mirror that he gave to his young daughter, who suddenly died soon after receiving it. Solana reflects the legend in this painting, where the framed mirror centres the composition between the living girl and the dead girl; in the middle we see a marriage chest from which death, the corruption of the flesh, is emerging.
In The End of the World he interweaves the drama of the figures with the representation of death and the interpretation of sin and its possible consequences; for instance, we see the sins of lust and greed, which Solana believed were beyond redemption. This painting bears certain similarities to Pieter Brueghel the Elder's Triumph of Death, but above all it is a work that once again allows us to admire the artist's sense of plasticity, harmony of colours and compositional skill. Solana made countless sketches of the different characters in this painting, including a pencil drawing of the central figure in the composition, The Old Miser, which highlights the greed of this old usurer escorted by death, personified as two skeletons with a scythe.
Religious motifs are rare in Solana's oeuvre, although the figure of the hermit does appear a few times, stripped of any religious connotations. The Hermits was clearly influenced by Diego Velázquez's work Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit (ca. 1633, Museo del Prado), judging by the numerous similarities in the arrangement of the scene, the use of colour and especially the treatment of the beautiful landscape, added not as a backdrop but as a simple ode to nature that is quite exceptional in Solana's oeuvre. It is actually a new version of an anonymous 17th-century painting that the artist had purchased on one of his frequent trips to the Rastro flea market and kept in his home.
In portraits he prioritised the setting over the sitters, whom he painted surrounded by elements indicative of their professions in a sordid, melancholy atmosphere, undoubtedly owing to the fact that he painted in artificial light. Solana produced few portraits and only by commission, as is the case of the portraits of Valentín Ruiz Senén and Miguel de Unamuno (1935–1936). In the first work, he captured the likeness of Valentín Ruiz Senén, an industrialist and financier from Vizcaya, surrounded by books, boats, maps and even a model of the ship that was named after him as chairman of the Naviera Arosa shipping company. He strove to emphasise the unique, personalised features and psychology of the individual, in contrast to the anonymity he preferred to bestow upon human characters in the rest of his works.
In 1935 Solana accepted a commission from the Ministry of Public Education to paint a portrait of Miguel de Unamuno. Two years earlier, Unamuno had written to Victorio Macho about the project: "What I will venture to predict is that the portrait Solana paints of me will be at least as authentic as the self-portrait I paint in my mind. I have gazed long and hard at Solana's pictures, I have internalised them and felt myself inside of them, sensing my Spanish fraternity with Solana's Spanish soul—the soul of the Spain that he and I, and others, are remaking".
But Solana did not start the portrait until some time later, as recounted by Ramón Gómez de la Serna: "I was painting the portrait of Don Miguel Unamuno, who was more of a grouch than ever, months before Spain's dark hour [...]. Don Miguel must be painted with unruly hair [...]. One day he came to me from the barber, neatly combed, and I told him, 'You don't look like yourself'. And that afternoon I didn't add a single stroke to his portrait."At the request of his friends, Solana made three versions, all signed in 1936, differing only in the choice of background, which in this case shows the city of Salamanca.
As a counterpoint to his characters and genre scenes, the artist repeatedly turned to still lifes, an important theme in his oeuvre but one that lacks literary parallels, sketches or notes and is not represented in his graphic work. These still lifes can be considered part of a personal, familiar, intimate setting, as he always used elements drawn from his own life experience, things he had lived with for a long time and chose to recreate in freer, easily read compositions where colour is the undeniable protagonist.
The Still Life with Red Cabbage, Copper Vessel, Cauliflower and Cabbage is a simple chromatic ode that intertwines the different hues of the objects to unleash their full expressive potential and combines the various elements in a more open way, always underscoring the real presence of immobile, inanimate objects. In these still lifes with modest, lowly motifs, Solana genuinely revels in the use of colour, matter and light.
In contrast, Still Life with Violin has a more sombre palette and seems to be a tribute to the artist's mother, who introduced him to music with her piano lessons; however, it could just be a general paean to music, of which he was extremely fond, for the image is based on a postcard in the Solana Archive at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and not on a photograph of his mother, as has been stated on several occasions.
He also honoured his father in Mexican Clay Figurines which, though drawn in two-dimensional planes, creates the optical illusion of sculptural depth, perhaps thanks to the carefully balanced volumes. Painted in a harmonious range of his favourite dun and earth tones, the figurines are wrapped in an unmistakeably Solanesque air of melancholy.
These images of popular Mexican types no doubt belonged to his father, who collected and kept small figurines in his office as mementos of his home country which the artist always treasured, according to Manuel Sánchez Camargo: "The house contained the most assorted objects: from Mexican figurines that reminded him of his childhood, even though the heat melted and discoloured them, to vessels and little idols from Mexico and Peru."
This complete set of 31 works in the Banco Santander Collection, assembled in their different settings, allows us to know and better appreciate the important work of the excellent, unclassifiable Solana, an artist of integrity who remained loyal to his own vision and perception of the world around him. Solana reveals himself for what he is: a unique, surprisingly original and personal artist. [María José Salazar]