There are a plethora of artworks which have a certain conventional vision of life and its surrounding space, and which are acclaimed by both critics and cognoscenti. They proclaim the greatness of these artists, and trumpet the artistic and stylistic values of each of their works. But, basically, they miss the point altogether. There are only a very few artists, in fact, who even begin to grasp the fundamentals of what life is all about. Yet, there are some artists who are born into this world who may be found living life, in various ways, as life should be lived and, along with that, who have a capacity to understand what life is all about. The group of artists who have arrived at this, through both their experience and observation, is small, but included on this short list are Rafael, Florencio, and Chencho Aguilera, a three-generation family of Spanish painters. The first brings us the idea of how life should be led; the second gives a contemporary vision of what life is in today’s world; and the last conveys an expressed distance from all orthodoxy and tradition. All three come from a long line of artists who have depicted Spanish life as they see it, with all its flaws, its simplicity, and its greatness. But each has his own unique way of presenting his love of Spanish life.
When one looks at Rafael Aguilera’s paintings, one has the sense that they are much more complex than they appear. They history of the people of Spain is depicted within his works with both realism and humor. Don Rafael interjects a kind of humor in his work in general, not just in this particular painting. Like the famous film director Alfred Hitchcock, Rafael understands that context and location count for more than style. And, much like Hitchcock, his sense of humor knows no bounds. Or, is it a case of self-aggrandizement that he includes a figure of himself within almost every one of his works? This aspect of his work also invokes in viewers who know him, the puzzle of wondering where he will place himself within the mostly congenial gatherings of individuals he so successfully depicts.
These works were created during a period of widespread hostility in the world, when contemporary art tended to respond to the constant barrage of angst with corresponding lightness. Yet, when Rafael does put himself in the picture, it is not with pride, as a royal or knighted figure, but rather as a cult figure—the matador—one of the most respected surviving folk heroes of Spain.
Instead of mere figure tableaus, Rafael’s are tableaus of human emotion. Each figure seems to have an inner life of its own, an individual spirit, as is clear in the portraits. Each personage seems focused on something other than the group portrait of which they are a part. The scenarios depict what usually occurs just before a group portrait is either photographed or drawn. Although the basic concept of the group portrait is more about the preservation of memory than anything else, Rafael sees the process of setting up the group composition as more important than the formality achieved once the group is composed. This is how he sees life itself, as the process of human actions, which interact to form a whole, not the static form of life—the consequences of what happens before and after actions occur; instances which tend to make us less arrogant and more human—moments when one is aware that one’s garments may look wrinkled, or one’s hair not properly arranged and combed. Nor is Rafael afraid at times to depart from his “crowd” scenes in order to delve with greater depth and seriousness.
Rafael’s artistic process is a priceless mix of old-fashioned posing, which most of us have experienced at least once in our lives. His colors are straightforward. He seems to make no allowance for risk or error in the impulsion to continue and complete his voyage, so he seeks his subjects in the eternal world of nature, and in its daily process. What Rafael presents to us is the very heart and soul of his creative concept of life—which full of the particular notion that as long as there are people, life is worth living. He celebrates life every moment of the day, by expressing his artistic interpretation of how life is lived in Hispania. Rafael shares with us every nuance and quirk of human emotion. One need only look at his extant corpus to understand this. Every figure within the paintings has its own emotional wavelength, which is inscribed both on body and face, and he conveys all of this to us with every brushstroke he uses to create his realistic world. Whether one recognizes it or not, Rafael Aguilera is one of those gifted individuals who have been able to recreate the true essence of the life of a particular locale. In other words, he is one of our most valuable cultural figures—the genuine folk artist.
Like his father, Florencio Aguilera’s opus conveys that the artist is not only deeply in love with life, but also with the common, ordinary events of daily life. His secret lies in his palette and his understanding of light. This quality of light has an expressive pattern that evokes the Spanish master Joaquin Sorolla. One not only sees but also feels the vibration of the color and texture of the paintings themselves.
As any son would, Florencio has, for the most part, both appreciated and immersed himself in the lessons taught him by his father, yet his approach to art is on a totally different level. Florencio has, symbolically, taken his philosophy of art in another direction. That is not to say that the artistic lessons he had learned by observing his father never took root, it is just that Florencio has a different vision of his surroundings and uses this particular vision to create superb tributes to the space around him. However one may classify him—as a Modernist or Neo-Impressionist—he is someone one who engages with life itself and, evoking Hans Hofmann, transforms the physical reality of the senses into a spiritual reality created on an emotional and intellectual level in the artist’s conscious or subconscious mind.
Florencio uses extraordinary color mixtures and hues, particular to one’s self, humanity, and the earth. Sometimes he absorbs the profusion of colors glimpsed in the tones of a landscape, capturing the sun-baked earth as a symbol of the transcendence of his own experience of distress. His philosophical color system harmonizes and conveys beauty and joy to anyone that openly encounters his compositions. The color juxtapositions transfigure everything—hues of hope and renewal. Florencio’s soft blues are the expression of his soul striving to attain the absolute, just as his earthy reds express the force of his awakened passion for the landscape, which culminates in its special sanctity as a place of worship. Almost mystical, other paintings depict small settlements of individuals whose main function was to supply the fortress. In his own unique style, Florencio illustrates the simple fact that the fortress needed the surrounding settlement more than the settlement needed the fortress, by allowing the settlement to grow further and further away from its main source of protection. Thus he reflects on the eternal ebb and flow both of humanity and politics. Florencio attempted this style again—with greater effect—in works that depict more enlightened Spanish cultural life, especially his Bullfight series of 1996–1998. In this particular instance, rather than using a single subject to make his point, he brings to his onlookers both life and death, and the effective use of sunlight, to illustrate what is happening within the ring. Yet, his sky is not blue, nor are there any clouds or shadows in the paintings—the sun fully envelops the entire scenario of the struggle between man and beast. Unlike his father, Florencio does not depict the crowds within the stands of the bullring, nor does he attempt to endow these paintings with a sense of humanity. And why should he? They are not about humanity, but rather about the continuing struggle of man against nature. Though the outcome is usually inevitable, neither does death spare the human side. Sorolla’s influence enables Florencio Aguilera to create a world within another world in which light, and even darkness itself, which becomes the absorption of evil, both give needed protection.
Wiser counsels have said that each generation should better the one that preceded it. But, it would be unfair to apply such a standard in a comparison between the artistic styles of Florencio and his son Chencho Aguilera.
Artists excel at representing societal norms at either their best or worst. Goya exemplified this when he undertook to draw the horrific results of civil war. He was not afraid to assign to both sides responsibility for the atrocities he drew so well. Nor is Chencho afraid to assign to society its own specific character, and the responsibility for its present condition.
Rather than having Monet or Van Gogh as inspiration, the younger Aguilera has, for the most part, sought his inspiration in different comic book genres, such as Japanese Manga. Added to this is his own insight into the plight of contemporary society. But, like both his father and grandfather, he is involved in translating his art into a different stylistic format. Rather than creating an art of pure protest, he places the hurt in his figures’ bodies and faces—faces that tend to relay the history of the harshness of life in the present century. There are no smiling adults in his work, and the children who appear to be smiling are unlike any normal child. His methodology is to illustrate how societal norms make our lives so very difficult. The Japanese-style characters written across the canvases add a further haunting look to the paintings. It is as if the artist were indicating that his creations are the direct consequence of society’s ills. Chencho’s existentialist artistic philosophy is confrontational—all of his abstracts and models for further work culminate in the ultimate in betrayal and death. One might bitterly argue the point that all of his subjects deal with the problems of life, but within his world he also attempts to illustrate things that have yet to become extinct, and which could begin to help in creating a better society.
Chencho uses his images of reflect a certain desire to escape and to depict Spain in a totally different manner, taking an entirely different route than his submissive precursors. He looks to the very heart of the Spanish soul and the wrongs of a society that has lost touch with what its role should be in dealing with the members of that society.
The three generations of Aguileras have each given us their perspectives on society, each in their own unique way, through the good and bad periods of twentieth century Spain. The traditional folk art that Rafael produces gives us a chance to look at others, as we would look at ourselves, while Florencio’s art brings us into a new world altogether. Chencho conveys the strong urge to look into the unknown. The wonder is that they each generated a totally new vision of life that could be considered within the mind of the viewer.
Many people say that the strength of an artist’s work is how long they are remembered as artists. The Aguileras should have no fear of being forgotten. Their work is the embodiment of everything that is Spanish. Yet, Rafael, Florencio, and Chencho had this one thing in common, their undying love for Spain and its people. They are three generations of Spaniards who understand not only Spain, but also the fact that achieving new heights of artistic endeavor is an indispensable factor in our lives. The three generations of Aguileras reinforce David Hockney’s reflection that “there are things that we do all share, and what we find and what we share in our humanity.”