The day Fernando Zóbel’s signature painted a Spanish sky 2
Zóbel’s signature seemed to have been painted across the Cuenca sky during the artist’s 13th death anniversary.
Culture

The day Fernando Zóbel’s signature magically appeared across a Spanish sky

On the occasion of a new Zóbel show in Manila, his niece recalls an unexpected moment in Cuenca 24 years ago
ANCX Staff | Mar 25 2022

One of the more significant highlights of this year’s Art Fair Philippines is a new exhibition entitled “Fernando Zóbel: The 1970s.” Put together by a Spanish team of experts, it shines a bright light on a side of Fernando Zóbel that is better known and loved in Madrid.

The show features 11 paintings created in the last but also one of the most fertile periods of Zóbel’s life. “You have to remember that Zóbel was in his 50s at the time — and at his prime,” says Adolfo Cayón, the exhibit’s Madrid-based curator. 

Zóbel’s signature seemed to have been painted across the Cuenca sky during the artist’s 13th death anniversary.
Zóbel’s signature seemed to have been painted across the Cuenca sky during the artist’s 13th death anniversary.

The artworks are thus “more personal, more free,” he maintains.

As opposed to what has been popularly assumed, the 70s were pretty intense years artistically for the Spanish-Filipino painter. “During this decade of imaginative abundance, Zóbel would create uninterruptedly, three of his six series. They are ‘El Jucar’, ‘La Vista’, and the highly acclaimed ‘Serie Blanca’ which emerged from the former two,” the curator says. “Eventually, they would represent, in simplified structure and schematic terms and as preferred by Zóbel himself, his entire pictorial body of work.”

The eloquent canvases in the show range from the wonderful ‘Estudio Sobre Baschenis (Study about Baschenis)’, which takes as its starting point, ‘Boy with a Basket of Bread’ by the Baroque artist Evaristo Baschenis and is embellished with Zóbel’s own detailed notes to himself, to the exquisite ‘La Vista XXXI’, whose series was “based on the view through my window” according to Zóbel. “What is it that really interests me?” he once asked himself, “Finding out makes the history a painting.”

Then there is also ‘Pequeño Homenaje a Stravinsky (A Little Homage to Stravinsky)’ which is based on a theme by Rembrandt, his etching ‘Le Paysage a la Tour’. Zóbel began this depiction in Madrid and completed it in his beloved Cuenca. It captures the mood of a stony landscape that seems to travel up and down a musical scale.

Zobel particularly loved Cuenca. He loved the once dying city’s landscape which would inspire many of his works. He even built a museum of modern Spanish art there. 

Which should probably explain a magical moment that happened in the city in June 4, 1997, which was the 13th anniversary of his passing. Zobel’s niece Georgina Padilla y Zóbel recounts it an essay in the accompanying catalogue raisoneé by Alfonso de la Torre and Rafael Perez-Madero made especially for the show. 

Pequeño Homenaje a Stravinsky 1972 oil and graphite on canvas 120 cm x 80 cm
Pequeño Homenaje a Stravinsky 1972 oil and graphite on canvas 120 cm x 80 cm

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“Under the Sky of Cuenca”

In 1997, a curious event happened: just as we were about to enter the Ermita of San Isidro, for Tio Fernando’s annual Anniversary Mass, at twelve o’clock sharp, we looked up at the bright limpid sky, and, to our great surprise we all saw a pure white trail, like sea foam, drawing an enormous white circle, and a horizontal white line crossing the circle, in the blue sky.

The plane (or whatever it was, since we never saw an actual plane), was slowly drawing Zóbel’s white signature in the blue sky, not only once, but three times! “¡Es la rma de Zóbel!” (“It’s Zóbel’s signature!”) we all exclaimed in unison, not quite believing what we were seeing. 

We took pictures against the sun, our cameras trembling, in case it was a mirage. The next day, in the daily newspaper “El Día de Cuenca”, Jose Luis Jover, a young poet from Cuenca who was also present, wrote these words:

“What I am telling you is true. All of us who were there, were all amazed to see that written symbol in the sky. And no one had flown up high to write it. Certainly, someone who loved Fernando Zóbel. However, I am sure that each one of us, who saw that sign over the sky of the city, thought for a moment, in our own inner selves, that we were witnessing a magical feat. It seems impossible that these things can happen. It must have been a real being who painted the sky of Cuenca with silver, with that large circle, and that line crossing it horizontally, Zóbel’s symbol.

“Quien quiera que haya sido, que Dios le bendiga.” (“Whoever it may have been, may God bless him.”) — José Luis Jover, June 4, 1997

Zóbel fell in love with Cuenca’s landscape and it would inspire many of his works.
Zóbel fell in love with Cuenca’s landscape and it would inspire many of his works. Photo by Tomas Fano on Wikimedia Commons

POSTSCRIPT

Up to now, many years later, this happening remains a mystery. When the newspaper article came out, it was also broadcast on the radio, and all the Conuenses (Cuenca residents) started to search to find out who the pilot was. However, all the airports, and air strips, big and small, nationwide, denied having in their flight records, a small plane departing towards Cuenca, at that time, and on that day.

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But back to the exhibit, which is ongoing until April 1, at the Leon Gallery International space in Makati.

The various pieces were delicately created with the light touch of an authentic master. Graphite drawings, always an important structural element in Zóbel’s works, are in these works “almost always hidden, acts as the scaffolding for the work, invisible yet essential,” as he himself would write.

Not by accident, this landmark show is also subtitled “A Homage to Rafael Perez-Madero,” who was considered Fernando Zóbel’s “right-hand man and advisor, as well as a flawless critic of his work,” said Cayón. He credits Perez-Madero, with the assistance of Georgina and Alejandro Padilla, heirs to Fernando Zóbel’s estate, with the magnificent stewardship of Zóbel’s legacy and the “highly merited reputation it enjoys today.”

This year, Zóbel will be celebrated at no less than the Prado Museum in Madrid, alongside an exhibition on Pablo Picasso and El Greco. Entitled ‘Fernando Zóbel and the History of Art’ the exhibit will run from November 15, 2022 to March 5, 2023, and will feature a dialogue of the author's sketchbooks “in which, starting from the classic copy, he ends up building his own abstract imaginary.”

León Gallery International is located at G/F Corinthian Plaza, 121 Paseo de Roxas, Legazpi Village, Makati. Viewing hours are from 9 am to 6 pm; Mondays to Sundays. For inquiries, pls text 0998.517.2010 or email info@leon-gallery.com.

Image courtesy of Leon Gallery