Eduardo Chillida



Eduardo Chillida was goalkeeper for Real Sociedad in the early 1940s; there is a relationship between that and sculpture, he says: ‘You must have a very good connection, in both professions, with time and with space.’ His sculptural work is massive and monumental; Chillida is a manipulator of space, and through that of the viewer’s sense of time. Influenced perhaps as much by the grey skies of his native Basque region as by classical sculpture, works such as Peine del Vento in San Sebastian, its claw-like protrusions eating hungrily into the coastal space, established Chillida as Spain’s foremost sculptor. Working in a variety of heavy materials such as concrete, steel and wood, Chillida continues to expand his sculptural vocabulary and to grapple with space and time.

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Although Eduardo Chillida works with massive materials, and often on a very large scale, he sees himself as being primarily a manipulator of space, and, through his manipulation of space, of the spectator’s sense of time or duration. It is an appealing part of his legend that he was once goalkeeper for the Real Sociedad football club in San Sebastián, which then, as now, ranked highly in the Spanish league. Chillida once remarked that he saw a close connection between being a sculptor and keeping goal: ‘You must have a very good connection, in both professions, with time and with space’. Some of his fellow citizens in San Sebastián apparently still know him better as a former goalkeeper than as a modern sculptor.

    It has been customary to speak of Chillida as a direct descendant of Julio González, taking over from him the Spanish artisan tradition of working in forged iron, and turning it to new modernist uses. Such an interpretation, though, ignores the wide range of materials and techniques that Chillida has used throughout his career. His earliest sculptures, for example, were in stone and in plaster, and he has also made work on a monumental scale in wood and concrete. It is similarly misleading to think of him as being a sculptor whose influences are primarily from the Mediterranean world; he has spoken of the typically grey overcast skies of his native region, which borders on the Atlantic. At first he consciously avoided looking at Greek sculpture but was finally drawn to it when he had an accidental encounter with a Greek fragment when visiting the Louvre – the detached, broken hand of the Victory of Samothrace. Perhaps part of its appeal to him was that, although he is an abstract sculptor, he has long made a practice of drawing hands, chiefly his own. His encounter with the marble hand in the Louvre prompted him to travel to Greece in 1963, a visit that led to a considerable lightening in the mood of his work.

    Chillida has, in the course of his career, undertaken a large number of public commissions. The success of these commissions depends largely on his response to the site. When he is seized by an idea it is likely to take the form of a spatial paradox. Some of his most typical sculptures are concerned with the projection of mass into space and often take the form of large iron slabs, pierced with openings of different shapes and sizes, and supported a short distance from the ground on three simple legs. Chillida says he liked the idea that the real sculpture was the space you perceived through the slab, but that he also wanted this space to be limited in some way, not stretching out into the infinite, as it would have been if the slab were raised and placed against the sky.

    Chillida’s position as the leading Spanish sculptor of the last 50 years has been affected by the way in which his Spanish predecessors, Picasso and Julio González, expatriated themselves to France, abandoning Spain and becoming part of the international modern movement. Chillida had moved to Paris in 1948, only to ‘discover the importance of being a Basque’; by 1951 he had returned to Spain. It is in the heart of the Basque region, close to San Sebastián, that his best known work, Peine del Viento XV (‘Comb of the Wind’), 1976, is sited. The sculpture’s massive steel forms clasp and frame the rugged Basque landscape, but it is the space between these forms, the suggested rush of air even on calm days, which gives the piece its vitality, as the title itself suggests.

    It is certainly possible to see in Chillida’s sculptures a relationship to the kind of painting produced at the same time by Antoni Tàpies and the other artists who based themselves on another region with a strong separatist tradition, Catalonia. Like them, he used an abstract vocabulary to express resistance to the centralism which prevailed under the Franco regime. But in some ways he carried this resistance even further than his Catalan colleagues, since his more ambitious sculptures are public works. Spanish conservatives were right to find in them something subtly subversive, though his critics could not always pin down precisely what this was.

    Nevertheless, Chillida is, primarily, an intuitive sculptor. He is as deeply resistant to any form of stylistic classification as he is committed to expanding his sculptural vocabulary; he has described his creative process as follows: ‘Finally, when I am working, I am questioning the unknown. This is my real problem. I work to know; my work is a problem of knowledge. Knowledge is something in the past; to know is something in the future.’

 Edward Lucie-Smith


Died August 19, San Sebastian, Spain


Born January 10, San Sebasitian, Spain
  1930-42 Attends a secondary school in San Sebastian. Goalkeeper for the town soccer club.
  1943-46 Studies architecture at the University of Madrid
  1947  Studies at a private academy in Madrid and begins to sculpt
  1948 Moves to Paris
  1951 Returns to San Sebastian. With the aid of a blacksmith, completes his first abstract sculpture in iron, Ilarik. Subsequently sets up a forge in his studio
  1954 First solo show at the Clan Gallery, Madrid. Included in the Spanish section of the Triennale in Milan, where he receives the diploma of honour
  1956 Major solo show at the Maeght Gallery, Paris (and subsequently 1961-1993 in Paris, Zurich and Barcelona galleries)
  1958 Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Awarded The International Grand Prize for Sculpture. Visits the US for the first time
  1959 Experiments with wood. Also, first works using steel
  1962 The Kunsthalle, Basle, runs simultaneous solo shows for Chillida and Mark Rothko
  1963 Travels to Greece; the white buildings and bright Mediterranean light inspire works in alabaster, created from 1965
  1964 Awarded the Carnegie Prize for sculpture at the Pittsburgh International
  1965 First solo show in London, at Mc Roberts and Tunnard Gallery
Major exhibition followed by the first-ever award of the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Prize, at the new museum in Duisberg, West Germany
  1969 The steel sculpture Comb of the Wind IV is installed in front of the UNESCO building in Paris. Renews acquaintance with Heidegger as the latter's book Die Kunst und der Raum, illustrated by Chillida, is published
  1970 Produces first works using concrete
  1972 Completes his 6-ton concrete sculpture Lugar de Encuentros III intended to be hung underneath the Castellana bridge in Madrid; not installed until 1978
  1973 Creates first sculpture in terracotta
  1975 Awarded The Rembrant Prize of the Johann-Wolfgang-von-Goethe Stifung, Frankfurt
  1977 Three-part sculpture Comb of the Wind XV fixed to the rocks at the point of Donostia Bay, San Sebastian
  1978 Shares with Willem de Kooning the Andrew W. Mellon Prize
  1979 Retrospective at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh Museum of Art
  1980 Exhibition at The Guggenheim Museum, New York; travels to Madrid and Bilbao
  1981 Retrospective at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao
  1983 Elected a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts
  1984  Establishes the Chillida Foundation
  1986  Works on a monument in Guernica commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the destruction of the town in the Spanish Civil War; the monument Gure Aitaren Etxea is inaugurated in April 1988
  1990 The 44th Venice Biennale mounts a major exhibition of Chillida's work, at Ca'Pesaro, Venice. Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London
  1991 Martin-Gropius-Bau is used for a retrospective of the artist in Berlin. Awarded the Praemium Imperiale Prize for Sculpture, Japan Art Association, Tokyo
  1992 First retrospective exhibition of the artist in his home town, San Sebastian
Elected Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
  2002 Died August 19, San Sebastian, Spain