How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 2
The city of Cuenca, declared a World Heritage Site in 1996, is famous for its fifteenth century Casas Colgadas or Hanging Houses.

How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum

In 1966, Fernando Zóbel opened Museo de Arte Abstracto Español which helped “save” the once dying city of Cuenca in Spain.
Cristina Bilbao and Lora Lumba | Apr 27 2019

 “I think there are two people who wrote the story of this city: God, in who I don’t believe, and Fernando Zóbel who brought us into the modern world.”

—Antonio Perez, Museo Fundación Antonio Perez Art collector and Cuenca resident


Two prints hang above the bed my husband and I share. One is called Jardin Seco. And the other is Hocinos on Otono. Both are prints of the paintings by the artist Fernando Zóbel. And though Fernando’s quiet unraveling of ochre with soft, subtle, and fluid wisps of black and orange give life to the otherwise muted blacks, grays, and whites of our bedroom, I must admit, this could never be the proper way to contemplate the artist. If you want to see a Fernando Zóbel painting, you must see it in the museum the artist himself created.

How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 3
Cuenca Cathedral, whose construction began in 1196 and finished in 1257, is the first gothic cathedral of Castile.


“If you want to see a Fernando Zobel painting, you must see it in the museum the artist himself created."


A visit to the man

It was early February when I decided to visit the Zóbel art sanctuary. The landscape of Cuenca, Spain was rushing by, looking like sparse sketches— thin, brown, ragged lines on white paper. It was zero degrees outside the train and, as far as the eye can see, it was all dried trees and shrubs enveloped in snow. I was with my husband Iggy and our friends—all Filipinos. We stepped out into the biting cold and rushed into the enclosed area of the train station, where our guide from the Cuenca Tourism Board, Ana Chacon, was smiling widely at us with an apology.

“I am so sorry! It is snowing today,” she said. We shivered under layers upon layers of clothing. One of our friends remarked enthusiastically: “No problem, we are used to it!” We broke into a hearty laugh. We finally proceeded to walk out the station. The cold made us gasp as the walk turned into a run for the waiting taxis, barely allowing us to appreciate the huge sign adorning the station’s modern facade: Cuenca Fernando Zóbel.

How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 4
The museum features the original wooden beams of the hanging houses.

Knowing the Zóbel family name, the sight of the sign had us surprised and delighted but not shocked. After all, the Philippines is teeming with Zóbel de Ayala properties and their names on main thoroughfares, malls, villages, and cities are nothing but usual. I assumed that somehow the Zóbel family had donated the construction of the train station as well, thus the name.

“Oh, no,” Ana quickly corrected me. “We named the train station after Fernando Zóbel because he saved this town.”

Cristina Bilbao made a quick stop at the museum to appreciate the late Filipino-Spanish painter and his collection of modern art.


Birth of an artist

How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 5
In the early 60s, the Hanging Houses began to fall apart. But, because of Zóbel’s museum, tourists and new residents came, businesses flourished, and the houses were revived and restored.

The city of Cuenca in central Spain had been prosperous throughout the twelfth to nineteenth century. But from 1961 to 1966, residents were abandoning the city’s famed Casas Colgadas or hanging houses, first constructed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and relocating to the new, more modern areas located in the lower part of the city. The old gothic quarter in the upper part of Cuenca was almost deserted. It was then that Fernando Zóbel, an artist of both Spanish and Filipino heritage, was invited by his good friend, Gustavo Torner, an artist in Cuenca, to look specifically into these hanging houses. Zóbel had been looking for a space to create a museum filled with his personal collection of Spanish abstract art. And his search around Madrid and Toledo for the right space had yielded nothing.

But, at last, Cuenca! “Beautiful Cuenca,” he said. “I spend six hours wandering by the river, alone, taking photos and making notes.” Fernando signed a lease with the mayor and proceeded to restore and renovate the Casas Colgadas, painting the hallways into Spartan white, but making sure the original structures, such as the wooden beams of the ceiling, were kept. “Fernando was really keen on it being the most refined building in the world,” said Torner in Hanging from a Dream: The History of the First Spanish Museum of Modern Art, a documentary by Antonio Pérez Molero. “But he didn’t want it to look like a lot of money had gone into it. The luxury was in the idea, not the materials.” Zóbel meticulously placed each piece of artwork. The collection began to grow.


“Spain is an explosion of light, it fills me with light. I wander the streets and listen to the sound of Spanish, the sound of home. If I have to get lost somewhere, let this be it.” —Fernando Zóbel


“Sometimes, Zóbel would buy a certain painting for a particular place because it was necessary. And many times, and this is one of the nicest things, he would talk with the artists and say, `Take a look and see what picture of yours you think should go here, seeing the space as it is.’ That was a tremendous chance!” Nicolas Mateo, primer secretario del museo, enthused in the same documentary. “That’s why Fernando used to say,`This museum has been designed by us painters.’ And each picture was where it was because of that, because it had its space, and no other picture was there contradicting the next one.”

How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 6
The museum features some of the most important twentieth century Spanish abstract artists, such as the painter Antonio Saura. (Above) Saura’s Geraldine dans son fauteuil, 1967. (Below) Saura’s Brigitte Bardot, 1959.

Finally, the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (The Museum of Spanish Abstract Art) opened on July 1, 1966.

The effect was stupendous. “It was the first museum of modern art in Spain. Now, there’s heaps of them, but the Museum of Abstract Art in Cuenca was the first to break with the traditions of classical art, the only kind of art shown in Spain,” Mateo stressed. Artists, gallery owners, art collectors, publishers, writers, art lovers, and travelers came to Cuenca from all over Spain and the world. A colony of artists began to live and thrive in the city and the cultural roots of Cuenca were sought, preserved, enriched. A once dying city came back to life.


In the artist’s honor

The taxi took us through a maze of houses found in the lower part of Cuenca town. Over the steep slopes, the taxi went for a climb. After a few minutes, we stopped. Facing us was the Casas Colgadas and the fortress of houses on a cliff surrounding the historical center of the city of Cuenca. This whole mountaintop, a breathtaking sight, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. To get to the Casas, we took a nerve-tingling walk across the St. Paul Bridge. For its thrilling height, it was a tourist spot in itself.

As we drew closer to the museum, we were taken in awe by a city of twelfth century stone structures and classic architecture, such as the Cuenca Cathedral, one of the two first gothic cathedrals of Spain. We finally arrived at the museum. Inside, it was clean, white, and light, and neither did it look like a simple box or a gigantic warehouse as other galleries and museums are these days. It is a series of tunnels where each room surprises you with a treasure. Despite the gravity of artworks found here, having been made by the most important twentieth century Spanish abstract artists such as Gustavo Torner, Antonio Saura, Gerardo Rueda, Antoni Tàpies, Eduardo Chillida, and, of course, Zóbel, the museum is not imposing, intimidating, or austere. It is all at once modern, old, provocative, but homey and intimate. It made us want to stay.

Unfortunately, our stop at Cuenca was only a matter of hours and we were due to take a train trip back to Madrid.

How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 7
Inside the museum: a spectacular collection from the leading figures of modern Spanish art.

So, I bought the two prints of Zóbel. My companions purchased other artworks as well, before we proceeded to Hotel Parador de Cuenca, a sixteenth century convent turned hotel. (It is nestled on a high rock formation across the Casas Colgadas, and the way the light falls on this stone cathedral-like structure is absolutely beautiful.) But, there was something else that is equally striking about it. The former monastery’s ancient stonewalls dramatically presented artworks that are cutting edge. Some, quite electrifying. And yet these modern pieces of art housed in medieval architecture did not seem out of place. It was, just like the museum that changed Cuenca forever, a soul-enriching fusion of the old and new. Even here, Zóbel’s influence can be felt.

In 1980, having suffered a stroke, Zóbel decided to secure the future of the museum and donated it to the March Foundation which took over its management and finances. He died of a heart attack in Rome, Italy four years later. In his will, Zóbel wished to be buried at the San Isidro Cemetery in Cuenca. And the whole town wept for their savior.


Here are five art pieces that Zobel produced in the last decade of his life.

Jardin Seco (Dry Garden)

80.5 x 80 cm
In oil glazes (1969)
How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 8
Photograph courtesy of Ana Maria Chacón, Cuenca Tourism Board.

Though Zóbel was adept at sketching, photography, and engraving, he is best known for his spectral abstracts. After experimenting with the Spanish love of black as a fundamental color, Zóbel revived his love for polychromatic paint in the 1960s. By using the color spectrum to vivify the intricate details that he often thought unnecessary to portray in canvas, Zóbel isolated the color distortion that he believed embodied the life of his subjects.


You may also like:


Rio IV (River)

190 x 240 cm
Oil on canvas (1976)
How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 9
Photograph courtesy of Ana Maria Chacón, Cuenca Tourism Board.

In his later years, Zóbel made Cuenca his lone muse. Often, he painted the rivers and landscape that surrounded the city.


Hocinos VI

80 x 80 cm
Oil and pastel on canvas (1983)
How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 10
Photograph courtesy of Ana Maria Chacón, Cuenca Tourism Board.

One of his final works, the Hocinos VI (believed to be inspired by the Cuenca y Hocinos cliffs located in Castille-La Mancha) shows a canvas that exemplifies all art methods and philosophies that Zóbel favored. There are notes of Zóbel’s Eastern rumination along with his fascination with lines and the Spanish black unicolor.


The Júcar X (Stone Horse)

191 x 241 cm
Oil and graphite on canvas (1971)
How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 11
Photograph courtesy of Ana Maria Chacón, Cuenca Tourism Board.

A notable element in Zóbel’s approach to expressionism was his apparent partiality to portray human stability pacifying natural chaos. The Júcar X or Stone Horse was believed to be his abstract rendition of the Hanging Houses), a man-made creation, emerging as a fusion of solid colors from a light landscape that was the Júcar River, which flows by Cuenca. The delicate but present grid that synchronizes its visibility with the emergence of dark colors was Zóbel mashing up painting and music—depicted by the horizontal lines suggesting staves, and the vertical lines as bar lines.


La Piedra del Caballo (The Stone Horse)

Fernando Zóbel’s sketchbook
16.50 x 24.00 cm
Watercolor and ink on paper (1975)
How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 12
Photograph courtesy of Ana Maria Chacón, Cuenca Tourism Board.

The museum is an artwork itself, situated in the Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses), a building complex that rests upon a giant rock outlined by the ravine of the Huécar River. Overlooking the ancient city, the Casas Colgadas is known as the historical centerpiece that upholds Cuenca’s heritage. Taking notes from museum designer and fellow artist Gustavo Torner, Zóbel made use of the unconventional structure and location of his gallery to situate the aesthetic territory of each painting and define it with lighting and atmosphere.


Travel tips

How Fernando Zobel saved a dying Spanish city by opening a museum 13
Outside the museum: the well-preserved medieval city of Cuenca.

How to get there: From Madrid, take a two-hour Renfe train ride to Cuenca-Fernando Zóbel Station.

What to eat: Roasted Cordero (two-week old lamb) at the Parador de Cuenca. Delicioso!

Where to stay: Parador de Cuenca, the sixteenth-century former convent of San Pablo. Overlooking the Hoz del Huecar gorge, the hotel has unparalleled views of Cuenca’s Casas Colgadas.

For more information, visit paradores/parador-de-cuenca or call +34 969 23 23 20.


This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 14 No 2 2014.

Photographs by Cristina Bilbao​