Fernando Zóbel. A secret Form of Viewing | Alfonso de la Torre

From among the numerous photographic portraits taken of Fernando Zóbel de Ayala (b. Manila, 1924 – d. Rome, 1984) after he moved to Madrid at the end of the 1950s, the most evocative images take us back to 1962, and, in particular, a tetralogy of images taken by Fernando Nuño[1], the official photographer of both the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca (1966) and of our abstract generation. I will describe the first image: with his back to the camera, a fragment of the painter’s torso, a syringe full of ink in his hand, standing before a blank canvas, poised and ready. His body tense, before the easel, the artist seems to be separated from the act as if awaiting the decision of his hand. This was the cover of the catalogue for Nuño’s exhibition at the Ateneo of Madrid, a photographer who seemed determined to show artists on the brink of evaporation. This portrait of Zóbel is also the symbol of a drama in three acts, since other photographs in the same publication show, like a tracking shot, the final encounter of the syringe with the canvas[2]. This moment of pause, like someone saying a prayer, was the reflection of something absent ready to take shape, representation and meaning, evoking that which our artist explained as such: “the truth is that I’m not capable of expressing myself without first thinking.”[3] There is a plenitude in the knowledge and arrangement of pictorial images which, nevertheless, appears to end with the apparent absence of language, as if Zóbel was aware of a secret form of viewing, an apparition ready to fade, displacing the viewer towards their own narrowness and, from there, released.

These photographs obviously led me to think of those well-known pictures of Ugo Mulas and Lucio Fontana, a ritual in the silence of the studio in front of the canvas before comes the tear. On contemplating the paintings by Zóbel displayed here, Azul sobre pardo (Blue on brown) or Celina (Celina) (1959), we perceive how the pigment was spread with a syringe on the canvas, as though a suspended impulsion, or as this artist said, “an emotional improvisation”[4]. This singular instrument, which plays a leading role, allowed him to “find the way to trace long, fine and controlled lines, with oil paint (…) handled simply and at the same time sensitively. This is still one of my favourite drawing instruments”[5]. The encounter of the line traced with the syringe and the sweeping movements of the dry brushes “transformed the linear quality (and) suggested direction, speed, light and even volume”[6], with a nod to “masters such as Kline or De Kooning”[7]. Although over the years there was a transformation in his pictorial world, this linear essence persisted as can be seen in the homages to the suspended spaces of Flemish painting, this being observed here in his painting Variante barroca (Baroque variant) (1969) or in his linearist visions of the landscape, such as Marina (Marina) (1974).

Another of Nuño’s photographs shows Zóbel in his Madrid studio, this time positioned in  the centre of the image with his arms crossed and with an air of embodying in that instant the full powers of a painter, surrounded by black and white paintings like a theatrum orbis terrarum. He seemed to have fulfilled the desire expressed years earlier for his future: “What a life: to live surrounded by books and paintings, painting and writing. The life of an enchanted monk”[8]. This is how Claudio Bravo depicted him, in the summer of 1963, an optical portrait in which Zóbel wears a habit of the enchanted order, auratic and phantasmic. Our painter reached this plenitude after having passed through a tentative stage influenced by a certain Antillean Fauvism and an encounter with Georgia O’Keeffe’s work[9] seen in 1946 at MoMA. In part too thanks to his early discovery of art brut explained by the excessive Alfonso Ossorio[10] as well as the painting of Mark Rothko which he saw in Providence in 1955[11]. This made a major impression, shaping his decision once and for all toward abstract painting. Those nine paintings by Rothko were sufficient to transform his life.

Throughout his career, Zóbel exercised an abstraction which, rooted in the evocation of nature, allowed him to make early use of the much-desired “brush to paint mist”, to be found in his studio since 1949, or to pay attention to the painting book which instructed one “how to do rocks, trees, mountains and I don’t know what else”[12]. As we can see here, the issue of his painting instruments, syringes, paint brushes, rulers or colour samples, and also the support (both canvases or stretchers and paper), pictorial tools and pigments, inspired a genuine formal investigation for Zóbel throughout his career.

If painting became his preferred medium, from his first canvas in 1946, a copy of Vincent Van Gogh, to his last in 1984, which depicts a bridge dissolving in the mist over on the River Huécar[13], Fernando Zóbel showed that he was a total artist, painter and drawer and investigator of graphic techniques[14]. Diaries, notebooks, and photographs, complete the outline of his enormous personal creative corpus. However, on my journey to and from between the library shelves, I feel that I should mention the publications which, it seems, were published under his watchful eye and responsibility. I refer to important books from his era such as the triad of Zobelian poetic monographies written by Mario Hernández, José Miguel Ullán, and Pancho Ortuño[15]. We should also add the very beautiful monograph: Zóbel: La Serie Blanca (Zóbel The White Series) (1978), by Rafael Pérez-Madero[16], and a film experience from that time[17]. I always write that this last book was one of the most carefully put-together volumes on art, translated into English, printed in the still very grey (for the Spanish publishing world) 1970s. There are also the volumes of his own photography. And we should not forget his critical writing, covering monographic texts on artists or movements; we can also mention his beautiful compilation of quotations on painting “and other things”[18].

In June 1977, Zóbel had a solo exhibition in Paris, for the first time, at the Galerie Jacob, on the street of the same name[19]. The critic Jean Marie Dunoyer highlighted in “Le Monde” the qualities of his painting, the nudity of the landscape on the point of evanescence which did not stop it from being grounded in reality: “Pearly landscapes, vaporous, translucent, intensely poetic, which are all localised […] We must not be misled by the apparent lack of precision. Nothing could be more solidly constructed. It delights the spectator and plunges him into euphoria.”[20]. In addition to underlining the surprise on seeing this first encounter with his work in Paris, the critics observed the rare delicacy of his work, vaporous and transparent, with a fluidity concealing a rigorously prepared construction: “like some of those Eastern proverbs with two meanings […] they represent two visions: one global, the other meticulous “[21].

An artist-collector who was a true activist[22]. In the past I wrote that I consider another of his creative act to be the formation of his art collection, brought together in our first democratic museum which he created. And, evoking John Cheever in that Yaddo of Saratoga Springs, another community created by artists, I would conclude: Fernando Zóbel, how his light shines[23].



[1] Fernando Nuño (Madrid, 1938-Málaga, 1996). As is well-known, he was the author of the photographs for the opening, on 1 June 1966, of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca.

[2] Cover of the publication. JIMÉNEZ, Salvador. F. Nuño. Madrid: Cuadernos de Arte del Ateneo de Madrid, nº 97, 1962.

[3] PÉREZ MADERO, Rafael: “Conversaciones con Fernando Zóbel”. In: Zóbel: La serie blanca. Madrid: Ediciones Rayuela, 1978, p. 24.

[4] Ibid. p. 17.

[5] Ibid. p. 19

[6] Ibid. p. 21

[7] Ibid. p. 24

[8] ZÓBEL, Fernando. Diarios (1948-1949). Vol. 1, p. 20, pro manuscripto. Courtesy of the Fundación Juan March, Madrid.

[9] The Museum of Modern Art, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 14 May-25 August 1946.

[10] An artist linked to various nationalities, Alfonso Ossorio (Luzon, Manila, 1916-New York, 1990). Although born in the Philippines, with Chinese and Hispanic ancestors, he spent his childhood and education in England, then the United States, as an American citizen, where he met Zóbel.

[11] Gallery of Art Interpretation-The Art Institute of Chicago, Recent Paintings by Mark Rothko, Chicago, 18 October-31 December 1954. Then travelled to the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence with the title Paintings by Mark Rothko, 19 January-13 February 1955. Sometimes entitled Paintings by Rothko.

[12] It happened on 24 August 1949: “It looks like a brush to paint mist (…) also a painting book which teaches how to do rocks, trees, mountains and I don’t know what else”. ZÓBEL, Fernando. Diarios (1948-1949). Op. cit. p. 27.

[13] The first painting, a copy of “A Wheatfield With Cypresses” (1889), by Vincent Van Gogh (1946) and the other one mentioned: “Huécar-El puente” (26/V/1984).

[14] Between 1954 and 1984, he produced 231 prints using different techniques: mainly etchings, lithographs and silk screens.

[15] HERNÁNDEZ, Mario. Fernando Zóbel: el misterio de lo transparente. Madrid: Ediciones Rayuela, Colección Maniluvios, nº 10, 1977; ORTUÑO, Pancho. Diálogos con la pintura de Fernando Zóbel. Madrid: Theo Ediciones S.A., Colección Arte Vivo, 1978 and ULLÁN, José Miguel. Zóbel/Acuarelas. Text: “Manchas nombradas/Líneas de fuego”. Madrid: Ediciones Rayuela, 1978.

[16] PÉREZ MADERO, Rafael-ZÓBEL, Fernando. Zóbel: La Serie Blanca. Madrid: Ediciones Rayuela, 1978.

[17] “Zóbel, un tema” (1974). Produced and directed by: José Esteban Lasala. Script: Rafael Pérez-Madero. With text by José Hierro.

[18] ZÓBEL DE AYALA, Fernando. Cuaderno de apuntes sobre la pintura y otras cosas. Colección de citas recogidas por Fernando Zóbel. Madrid: Galería Juana Mordó. 1974. Cover by the Blassi brothers. Typography by Joaquín Sáenz and Manuel González. Printed at Gráficas del Sur. Republished in 2002 by the Fundación Juan March, Madrid.

[19] Galerie Jacob, Zóbel-Aquarelles, Paris, 7 June-July 1977

[20] DUNOYER, Jean-Marie. Formes. Paris: “Le Monde”, 25/VI/1977.

[21] DE LA GRANDVILLE, Léone Nogarède. Zóbel. Paris: “Les Nouvelles Littéraires”, 16-23 June 1977.

[22] As is well-known, his collector’s spirit not only focused on Spanish painting but also on various other artistic collections.

[23] CHEEVER, John. Diarios. Barcelona: Literatura Random House, 2018, p. 442.