The essay below and continued on pages 50 and 51 is written by Professor John Seed, Professor of Art at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California, on Lot 1177, Fernando Zobel's Aranda (Saeta #266) and Saeta #83. Comprised of two paintings, the Lot is accompanied by a set of correspondence between Fernando Zobel and the American poet John Frederick Nims (1913-1999) and his wife Bonnie Larkin Nims (1921-2008) from 1959 to 1983.
Professor John Seed recently published a short biography of Fernando Zobel in Harvard Magazine, and is currently working on a book about Zobel "A Delighted Monk" which will include selections from the artist's correspondence with the Nims family and other friends.
Christie's is grateful to Professor John Seed for this catalogue entry.
Two Saetas from the Estate of John Frederick Nims, Saeta #83 (1958) and Aranda (Saeta #266) (1959) are testaments to the friendship and the exchange of ideas between artist Fernando Zobel de Ayala, the poet John Frederick Nims (1913-1999), and his wife Bonnie Larkin Nims (1921-2008).
Throughout Fernando Zobel's career as an artist he read and studied poetry, finding it essential to his creative process. Embracing the poet Cavafy's idea of the "immediacy of the remote", Zobel found that great poetry obliterated the barrier of time and facilitated deep spiritual connections. One of the most remarkable aspects of Zobel's works - his ability to fuse Western and Eastern aesthetic traditions - was aided by the universal metaphors he found in a wide variety of poetic forms and traditions.
The title of Zobel's first sustained series of abstract paintings, the Saetas, was inspired by the works of Federico Garca Lorca whose Poem of the Saeta channeled the emotions and musicality of ancient Spanish folk music. The word Saeta is not only the name of a devotional form of song, but also means dart or arrow. In Lorca's poetry the shooting of arrows serves as a metaphor for engagement in the hunt for poetic images, so that Saeta has a double meaning. Zobel was intimately familiar with Lorca, having written his honors thesis at Harvard on Lorca's drama. He had also translated and illustrated one of Lorca's plays Amor de Don Pemperlin and was known to quote verses from Lorca to his friends.
In 1959 the American poet and translator John Frederick Nims, who had met Zobel at Harvard, was living with his family in Spain, serving as a visiting professor at the University of Madrid. While in Spain, Nims had been translating the complete poems of St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Carmelite monk who is often considered the greatest poet of the Christian mystical tradition. His poems, some of which were written while the author was imprisoned for heresy, describe an intimacy between God and man in terms that verge on abstraction.
In the notes he published with his 1959 edition of the Poems of St. John of the Cross, John Nims cites Lorca who argued that St. John's works have duende, an Andalusian term for a mysterious power "that all may feel and no philosophy may explain". Fernando Zobel, according to his nephew Peter Soriano, had often discussed duende with Reed Champion, an artist and mentor during his years in Boston. Zobel, who wanted his abstract paintings to resonate emotionally, certainly discussed duende with John Nims as well.
One fall afternoon, Zobel arrived at the Nims family's sparsely furnished Madrid apartment, bringing two paintings as gifts. They were Saeta #83 and Aranda (Saeta #266). There is a kinship of ideas between the two paintings that Zobel presented to the family and the poetry of St. John of the Cross, something that John Nims must have very much appreciated. Zbel's Saetas were in fact charged with the same range of emotions that Nims found in the poetry he was translating. Seen as a pair, the two paintings display contrasting and complimentary ranges of emotion and tone. Saeta #83 suggests a crisis of escape from darkness, while Aranda (Saeta #266) emanates revelation and spiritual communion.
Aranda (Saeta #266)
Aranda (Saeta #266) may be named after Aranda de Duero, a town known for its red wines, or possibly after General Antonio Aranda Mata, a recipient of the Cross of San Fernando who in 1941 was appointed head of the Spanish Royal Geographical Society. The image, which can be alternately viewed as a landscape, a crucifixion or an abstraction, corresponds very closely to an ink drawing dated March 3, 1959, and which appears in the Magaz-Sangro monograph. Like Saeta #83 it demonstrates Zbel's assimilation of a wide ranging and seemingly divergent group of sources including Spanish Baroque painting and poetry, Abstract Expressionism, Chinese calligraphy and Zen philosophy.
Aranda (Saeta #266) features a matrix of black lines set on gently brushed and modulated tones of grey and white. The soft tonalities of the background echo the works of Mark Rothko which Zobel famously encountered in the United States in 1955. Magaz-Sangro remarks on the way that Zobel often sought to "suspend forms on a field, so to speak, an incorporeal field that is the opposite of the proverbial background." In a 1961 essay written to accompany a Zobel exhibition at Manila's Luz Gallery, Eric Torres states that the spaces surrounding the artist's calligraphic strokes should be seen as Zen spaces, commenting that "Space to the Zen artist is a vital principle, not an empty hole."
Playing off the "vital" space of the background, the black strokes and drips of paint ejected from a hypodermic syringe - and in some cases then caressed by a brush -- seem to float, creating linear tensions. This approach was inspired by Chinese calligraphy which Zobel practiced and admired. Zobel favored the rigor he saw in Chinese characters, telling a friend that Japanese calligraphy " had no bones."
In giving this painting as a gift to a man immersed in translating the works of St. John of the Cross Zobel was certainly aware that the connection some might make between this work and Saint John's famous visions of a floating cross. Although he consistently insisted on the abstract nature of his works Zobel sometimes hinted at the sources of his visionary imagery. In a 1961 letter to Bonnie Nims he put it this way:
"I rather fear that my tendency, when elated, is to switch from words to Baroque symbolic iconography."
By the end of 1958 most of Zobel's Saetas featured a reduced palette of black linear elements applied with a hypodermic syringe set on white or lightly modulated backgrounds. Saeta #83 is a rare example of a Saeta in which this formula is reversed, with solid black providing a nocturnal setting. The powerful contrast of a floating white lattice set against black clearly evokes the emotional fervor and tenebroso (dark tension) of Spanish Baroque art. The dark tensions of Saeta #83 also have a poetic resonance with one of St. John's "Canciones" (Songs) titled The Dark Night. The poem narrates a nighttime escape in which the narrator:
"rejoices at having reached that lofty state of perfection: union with God by the way of spiritual negation." (Translation by John Nims)
In the second stanza of the poem the narrator's escape is described as occurring "in the dark where all goes right, thanks to a secret ladder," an image that seems to fit this Saeta perfectly. Zobel was certainly familiar with this poem, as he owned a 16th century copy of St. John's works, in Spanish, which he offered as a gift to John Nims.
Saeta #83 was included in Zobel's critically acclaimed Madrid exhibition of 1959, and also reproduced in the first monograph published on the artist, Zobel: Pintura y Dibujos. In a 43 page essay by Antonio Magaz-Sangro -- an artist and critic who Zobel called his "spiritual twin" -- the author praises the Spanish solemnity of Zobel's works. Interestingly, he also notes that the calligraphic character of the paintings reflects Eastern influences:
"The expressive affinity between the painting and calligraphy of Zobel and the art of the Far East is undoubted, and can be found in the impromptu execution; a confidence and lack of hesitation that gives his paintings their open and spontaneous air."
Saeta #83 also has stylistic affinities with the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, whose works Zobel had seen in the collection of his relative Alfonso Ossorio, but Zobel's works favor lyricism over expressionism.
Fernando Zobel's Correspondence with John and Bonnie Nims: Selected Text and Images
After his gift of the two paintings, Zobel remained close to the Nims family for the next 24 years, maintaining their friendship through a remarkable correspondence that began in October of 1959 and which continued intermittently until 1983, the year before his death. Zobel was an avid letter writer who told one friend that when he lived in Manila it seemed like letter writing was "all I ever did there." Aided by his secretary at the Ayala Company, he would sometimes send out as many as ten carbon copies of the same letter to different friends leaving a blank after "Dear..." so that individual names could be typed in. A few of his letters to the Nims family are carbon copies, but most of them intimate and hand-written.
Zobel's letters to the Nims family contain a wealth of anecdotes from the artist's life: comments about art and culture as well as his views of literary and artistic personalities. Poetry and poets are frequently discussed, and the first letter in the collection includes Zobel's attempts to write and translate Haiku poetry with the aid of his Japanese gardener. The letters, many ornamented with drawings, give a fresh, first-person account of important events in Zbel's life and remind us his intellectual vitality and incisive wit.
From a letter to John and Bonnie Nims, dated August 9, 1960, sent from Manila:
"I have big news. Big for me at any rate. I wanted to let you know and bring you in somehow to the rejoicing. The whole thing was triggered by my stroke. Things of this sort force one to count days, weigh values, and inspect alternatives. I have decided to stop working for our company...I have enough to live on and I'd like to really concentrate on painting and on certain types of scholarship."
From a letter to Bonnie Nims, dated Oct. 8, 1961, sent from Manila:
"Sometimes I get the odd feeling that Spain's real mission is to remind the rest of the world what life is about."
From a letter to Bonnie Nims, dated Oct. 8, 1961, sent from Manila:
"I sometimes wonder what it is I find so fascinating about the Chinese. Freud knows, I don't."
From a letter to Bonnie Nims, dated Feb. 7, 1963 sent from Manila:
"I can't say I really feel sorry for men who aren't artists. Freedom creates obligations and most people would just as soon live without either. I feel sorry for people who would like to be artists and cannot be for whatever reason. I feel even sorrier for artists who lose contact with or forget whatever it was that made them want to be artists in the first place."
From a letter to Bonnie Nims, dated June 17, 1963, sent from Madrid:
"Most exciting: you have been to Cuenca, haven't you? Do you remember the hanging houses; the ones hanging on the cliff like this? Well, to cut a long story short, the municipality wants me to have them, free, if I install my collection of abstract Spanish paintings in them and open them to the public. Imagine!"
From a letter to Bonnie Nims, dated Sept. 21, 1963, sent from Madrid:
"September is a frantic month. All the painters are back in town, knifing each other. Of course everyone likes me because I don't knife anyone."
From a letter to John and Bonnie Nims, dated July. 12, 1983, sent from Madrid:
"And then, finally, I paint and paint. The obsession continues and slowly develops a curiously classical accent. Age, I suppose --- they've asked me if I would mind being put up for the Royal Academy and I said, why not? It doesn't really mean very much one way or the other --- Love Fernando"