“Everything happening in Spain is terrifying in a way you could never imagine... We are living through a hideous drama that will leave deep marks in our mind.”
Joan Miró writing to Pierre Matisse, 12 January 1937 (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 146).
Julio González accomplished his mature, pioneering production in metal sculpture during a period that lasted barely a dozen years, from the time he employed his skills at forging and welding to assist Picasso in creating a series of sculptures in 1928, until the German Occupation of France in 1940, when the scrap metal he needed for his work was being commandeered for wartime use. There is among the prodigious number of sculptures González completed during this period a remarkable variety of figural inventions to admire and enjoy, in which the architecture of his welded iron structures is surprisingly light, open, and lyrical, revealing his always astonishing sense of inspired improvisation and fantasy. None, however, is as grippingly intense, as caustically fraught with the inner vision of this man, and so humane in his response to the tragic events of the day, as Monsieur cactus, one of his final works.
General Franco’s fascist rebellion to overthrow the recently elected Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic commenced in July 1936. Dalí was among the first artists to deal in his work with the horror of the Civil War, conjuring gruesomely surreal images of cannibalism and torturous dismemberment to protest the self-annihilating, internecine strife in his land. González, Miró and Picasso—all of whom were working in Paris—were loyalists, fervent believers in progressive Republican principles. In early 1937 the Spanish government invited them to each contribute a work for exhibition in its pavilion at the Paris International Exposition, which would open that summer. González created the life-size iron sculpture La Monserrat (Merkert, no. 218), a young peasant holding her child in one arm, and a sickle—the instrument of her labor—in the other, as a tribute to the Spanish nation. “This barbaric land, as beautiful as it is wretched,” the sculptor wrote. “This country, which since its beginning, was always subjected to new conquerors... this martyred people, oppressed, without their own liberty, without the hope of ever obtaining it” (“Picasso sculpteur et les cathédrales,” essay, 1932, in J. Withers, op. cit., 1987, pp. 133-134).
Visitors to the Spanish Pavilion encountered La Monserrat as they entered the building, before moving on to view Picasso’s Guernica and Miró’s huge, multi-panel Le Faucheur (“The Reaper”; Dupin, no. 556), subsequently lost. The propagandistic intent of these powerful, public art works was to enlist moral and material support for the Republican government. Franco’s Nationalist armies had the advantage of openly receiving assistance in military equipment and personnel from Hitler and Mussolini. The European democracies, and America, too, failed to aid the loyalist cause. Only the Soviet Union stepped in to help, to further Stalin’s own ends, thus grimly pitting one merciless totalitarian system against the other, with the ordinary Spanish citizen caught helplessly between them, setting the stage for catastrophe on an inconceivable scale in the all-consuming global conflagration that soon after ensued.
By early 1939, the Republican situation was virtually hopeless. Barcelona—once home to González, Picasso and Miró, where family members still resided—was abandoned to the Nationalist insurgents in February 1939. Madrid fell the following month; the Republican government soon collapsed and capitulated to Franco’s demand for unconditional surrender. Hitler, in the meantime, emboldened by the terms of the Munich Pact, entered Prague, extinguishing yet another liberal democracy founded in the aftermath of the First World War. As these events unfolded, González commenced work on Monsieur cactus (also known as Homme cactus I). The first drawing for this idea is dated 3 December 1938; more followed during March 1939. The sculptor also conceived a female companion figure, Madame cactus (Homme cactus II) (Merkert, no. 237).
“The prickly biomorphism of González’s cactus figures is one of his most original inventions, Josephine Withers wrote, “his outraged response to the war” (ibid., p. 87). Various species of cactus imported from Spain’s former colonies in the New World were cultivated in the Mediterranean climate. The gardens on Montjuïc in Barcelona, created for the 1929 World Exposition, contained numerous varieties, thereafter maintained for botanical studies as well as sightseeing. González may have pondered a visual analogy between the upraised points of cactus arms and the multiple spires of La Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, the edifice which was in González’s view the supreme expression of human aspiration in architecture.
The sculptor’s conception of Modern Man—and Woman, too—in Monsieur and Madame cactus suggests a new Adam and Eve, whom we witness already exiled from Paradise, as were the long columns of Republican refugees who fled Catalonia across the Pyrenées into France during the spring and summer of 1939, to escape persecution from the victorious Nationalists. The most salient feature of the cactus man and woman is their spines, a means of self-preservation—as in the cactus itself—a defense that evolved to deter any species with a fondness for the cactus flower and the succulent flesh of the plant. The effect is akin to the intent seen in tribal art—a Kongo power figure, for example—but reversed. The nails, instead of having been hammered into the fetish object to invoke a spiritual power, point outward; these spines are the assertion of inviolability and resolve.
Monsieur cactus is ruggedly angular in a masculine way, with appurtenances as bellicose as they are exaggeratedly phallic in appearance. Withers saw in the cactus figures a “sinister and demonic transformation” (ibid.). But more to the point, perhaps, is that this thorny citizen has been, and seeks to remain, not just survivor, but a free man as well. Madame cactus lifts one arm to the sky, a hopeful gesture which Margit Rowell suggests González may have taken from the nude female figure raising a lamp in Jules Lefebvre’s painting La Vérité, 1870, then on view in the Musée de Luxembourg, Paris.
“Within this century, then, Julio González stands almost alone, the rare blend of an artist who is both modern and a humanist,” Leo Steinberg declared. “Modern because his forms are vital, open processes in space. He is human, firstly, because man is his lasting theme, and his works, when they seem least anthropomorphic, remain anthropo-kinetic. And secondly, because the kind of kinesis he imputes to man tends to be proud, free, energetic, eliciting not pity or recoil but admiration... The kingdom of González is within you, and his types are the internal aspirations of your body and mine” (Other Criteria, London, 1972, pp. 242 and 244)
The present bronze cast of Monsieur cactus first belonged to the artist Hans Hartung. In 1935 the German-born painter settled in Paris, where a friend introduced him to González. Hartung exhibited in 1939 at the Galerie Henriette Gomes in a joint show with the sculptor’s daughter Roberta. They married several months later. Hartung acquired a notable collection of González’s work, which he retained following the end of his marriage to Roberta in 1952. Following Hartung’s death in 1989 the collection, with his ex-wife’s agreement, was administered under the auspices of the Fondation Hartung (sale, Christie’s London, 30 June 1999, including the present sculpture).