Fernando Zóbel De Ayala is a celebrated artist who grew up in Manila and then in Madrid. An intellectual, his study of Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca during his time at Harvard inspired the Saetas series he produced later on. He became part of the Spanish abstract informalist movement known as the “El Paso” group in late 1958, and his interest in Chinese archaeological excavations on the Calatagan Peninsula in the Philippines accentuated his interest in Oriental art, which he taught as Professor of Art at the Ateneo de Manila University. These influences converge visibly in Erenos.
Having studied Chinese calligraphy in the 1950s, Zóbel appreciated the disciplined structure of the art form, admiring its “bones,” as well as its ability to capture in a swift moment movement and expressiveness. He was also inspired by the American Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, whose works he encountered in New York while he was a student in America. The result of these influences and explorations resulted in an homage to, and denial of both Chinese Calligraphy and Abstract Expressionism to produce a unique body of work in his Saetas series. The American school privileged the surface quality of painting in a bid to eradicate figuration in their works, instead tapping into their emotions and inner states for inspiration. This resulted in their works being made with brush strokes that followed their hand and body movement, in what was known as a gestural style.
Kline and Pollock tended to forgo the brush altogether, applying paint through pouring, splashing and dripping. In Erenos, we see the moodiness of Rothko’s colour fields echoed in the wide brushstrokes in the background, and the application of black oil paint in an expressive, gestural fashion on top. Zóbel also did away with the paint brush by using a glass hypodermic syringe, allowing him to gain a level of graphic detail and precision that Kline and Pollock did not apply to their paintings. The syringe allowed him to control paint flow, pressure and the angle at which the pigment was used to create thin black lines in either horizontal or vertical directions. In this way, Zóbel replicated the precision of Chinese Calligraphy and its sense of immediacy as ink soaks into paper upon the movements and pressure applied by a Master.
Zóbel challenges both calligraphic and abstractionist forms at the same time. By painting thin, black strokes on top of a brushwork background, Zóbel’s works create optical depth, something the Abstract Expressionists avoided in their mission to highlight the flat material quality of their canvases. Additionally, by varying the density and direction of his lines, further depth and space is alluded to in his intricate networks of paint. Zóbel also successfully avoids figuration not just in the sense of identifiable forms, but dismantles the recognisable text that forms the basis of Chinese calligraphy. Zóbel also denied the use of the expressionist gesture by applying precise black lines carefully, but in his composition revealed the character and mood of each painting when viewed as a whole. In doing so, the artist creates a visual metaphor for movement using line and composition.
Having said that colour distracts from his mission to capture movement with paint, this painting employs tones of black, white, grey in its composition. Compared to his other works, the increased treatment of paint in the background is far more vocal in Erenos than in the rest. His trademark black lines are laid on top of a visually busier monochrome field, enhancing the sense of contrast and movement. The sweeping strokes of white over swathes of black on the canvas creates an expressive, moody atmosphere, somewhat unique to the other paintings in his Saetas series. Having spent a significant amount of time in Spain, Zóbel was inspired to reflect the concept of “Saetas," a Spanish word directly translated as “arrow,” a metaphor for an improvised flamenco song style that evokes strong emotion in both the audience and performer. His method for expressing this concept gave birth to his trademark style of thin, precise black lines made with a glass hypodermic syringe with oil paint, in order to express the sensation of swift, yet emotional movement. With the larger brush strokes forming a muted background, Zóbel prefaces the sensation that his fine lines create with an underlying sense of calm vitality, leading the eye from the top to the bottom, and left to right on the canvas. Interestingly in this piece, the black paint is applied in shorter lines that continue to flow in a generally vertical direction, creating a more energetic composition as the viewer’s eye is forced to negotiate the empty spaces in between. In Zóbel’s compositions, the blank and empty spaces are just as important as where paint is applied, and Erenos illustrates this element excellently.
With the broad strokes of the background, Zóbel creates a sophisticated compositional challenge that he balances out with the fine black lines of paint. With much of the movement in the back filling the right half of the painting, the artist stabilises the composition by applying the bulk of the dense network of black lines in the top left quadrant, while they spread outwards in a much sparser pattern in the bottom and right parts. The lines draw the eye in both vertical and horizontal directions, and while the lines become dense in some areas, the sensation created is never chaotic. Instead, there is a quiet structure and energy in Zóbel’s lines that balance out the calmer base pattern of white and black brushstrokes behind them. The effect emphasises the flatness of the painting, but interestingly, the dense areas and sections of darker paint hint at visual depth and a fascination suggestion of space within the canvas. By overlaying these two visual energies on the canvas, the artist creates areas of varying rhythm, tone and movement, as lines, textures and background tones are in constant dialogue with each other. In combining these elements, Zóbel reveals his mastery as an abstractionist and a visual composer.