Today, sixty years after his death, Julio Gonz©alez is justly acclaimed as the father of modern metal sculpture. The American sculptor David Smith, the painter John Graham and a handful of others grasped the significance of his work as far back as the early 1930s, not long after Gonz©alez achieved the breakthrough that marked the final mature phase of his art. That wider recognition came slowly, however, seems consistent with the quiet and unassuming nature of this man, by trade a decorative metalsmith, who possessed the innate humility of a professional artisan who spent long decades in the patient and dedicated practice of his craft. Gonz©alez never sought to earn a living from his sculptures, and apart from close friends rarely admitted interested visitors into his studio.
In a many ways Gonz©alez seemed like an artist lifted from the traditions and sensibility of Europe's medieval past and set down in the 20th century. In this respect, the title Homme gothique is entirely apt, and if it seems strange that such an innovative and forward-looking sculpture should evoke a far distant era of our past, such contradictions are often the hallmark of authentic modernism. The term "Gothic" was coined by Renaissance Italian humanists as a derogatory reference to the medieval builders in France and northern Europe, who, in their view, seemed possessed by an insane and barbaric taste for soaring heights and sharp, arching forms, so unlike the more rounded and temperately proportioned structures of the classically-derived Mediterranean style. Shorn of its negative connotations, the term again came into use among historians of the 18th century Enlightenment, who recognized the age of the cathedrals as one of the great flowerings of the human spirit.
Gonz©alez was a devoutly religious man who loved Gaudi's Sagradia Familia cathedral in Barcelona, the city where he was born and grew up, and the great Gothic cathedrals and other medieval monuments in the Ile de France around Paris, his adopted city. Gonz©alez wrote: "Every religion has its temple, but the only one through which the mystery of its architectural lines, purifies our thoughts and raises them above the world, is Gothic (ogival) art. This is what the architect of the Ile de France, faithful interpreter of his country's spirit, has succeeded so well [in doing] and with such grandeur in expressing" (quoted in J. Withers, op. cit., p. 138). In its themes and references Homme gothique is perhaps more a 'portrait' of its author than many other works from his hand, and as such opens a broader window on the traditions from which he emerged and the intellectual ideas to which he was drawn.
Like a medieval artisan, who usually inherited his trade from his father, Gonz©alez was born into a family of decorative metalsmiths, whose traditions stretched back at least two generations. At the age of fifteen he joined his older brother Joan in his father's shop, and as an apprentice learned to cut, hammer and forge all kinds of metal, making jewelry and decorative objects. He was especially drawn to hand-forged ironwork, a specialty in Barcelona since the Middle Ages, which had experienced a major revival in the late 19th century with Gaudi and the Art Nouveau movement. At first his training as a craftsman and technician tended to inhibit individual creative expression, and Gonz©alez was keenly aware that there was wide divide between fine art sculpture and his own wares. But in Paris his skills were in demand, and collaborations with progressive sculptors would eventually guide him in finding a way to express a personal vision in sculpture.
Gonz©alez became friends with the Catalan sculptor Pablo Gargallo in 1903 when the latter briefly worked in Paris, and their relationship deepened when Gargallo returned to live in Paris in 1923. Gonz©alez learned oxy-acetelyne welding while working in a Renault auto factory during the First World War, and taught Gargallo this skill, which was crucial to the development in the late 1920s of his mature and characteristic style in metal sculpture. Gargallo's iron Grand arlequin (fig. 1) is essentially figurative and naturalistic, displaying the baroque and curvilinear forms that bear witness to his roots in the Barcelona modernista movement. The manner in which the sculptor forges and joins the iron components to create these fluid, graceful shapes is indeed remarkable, but at the same time, the result borders on caricature. Gonz©alez executed his own Arlequin Pierrot ou Colombine in 1930-1931 (Merkert, no. 126); in conception it is far more rugged than Gargallo's version, and avoids Gargallo's sentimentality. Gonz©alez's sculpture calls attention first and foremost to its material, and only thereafter to its subject. "The sculpture constitutes a reality of its own. It refers to nothing else" (M. Rowell, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, op. cit., p. 18).
Pablo Picasso had constructed assemblages in cardboard and wood, but possessed neither the technical skills nor the equipment to make sculptures in iron. Gonz©alez had been a friend of his family since childhood, and as young men they frequented the café Els Quatre Gats, the famous watering-hole for Catalan artists in Barcelona at the turn of the century. Picasso knew that Gonz©alez had assisted Gargallo and Brancusi to supplement his modest earnings from jewelry making, and enlisted his aid in creating the small Tête in the spring of 1928 (Spies, no. 66). Gonzàlez then played a major role in executing a series of wire constructions, including Figure (Spies, no. 68), based on drawings of bathers that Picasso had brought back from his summer holiday at Dinard.
Picasso intended his La femme au jardin (fig. 2), the largest of this series of metal sculptures, as a monument to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Gonz©alez appears to have forged the components from scrap metal to Picasso's specifications, and by this time Picasso had acquired enough skill to undertake the welding himself, although the quality of his craftsmanship was not quite on the same professional level as his teacher. Picasso was disappointed to learn that the iron would rust if left outdoors, and commissioned Gonz©alez to create a replica in cut and joined bronze (Spies, no. 72II), which Picasso installed in his garden at Boisgeloup.
In these collaborations Gonz©alez had played the role of the dependable and largely anonymous medieval guild artisan, while one might compare Picasso to the imperious and visionary Abbott Suger, the mastermind behind the design for the first Gothic cathedral at St.-Denis outside Paris in the mid-12th century. This partnership had been mutually beneficial and liberating for both men. Picasso developed the use of found objects as a regular means of fabricating his assemblage sculptures, and now possessed the technical means to work in large sculpture as he done in his painting, spontaneously and without preconceived plans. Gonz©alez, for his part, learned the value of assemblage as a means by which the raw materials of his craft could be reconfigured to create startling and evocative freestanding images in space. These collaborations freed his imagination to visualize form from substance, and subject from form, in juxtapositions of sculptural elements and materials beyond anything that Gargallo, who died in 1933, had ever attempted in his late work. Seized by this epiphany, Gonz©alez thought in terms of the cathedrals he loved: "To project and draw in space with new methods. Only the pinnacle of a cathedral can show us where the soul can rest suspended. These points in infinity were the precursors to the new art." (quoted in D. Smith, "The First Master of the Torch", Art News, vol. 54, no. 10, February 1956, p. 35). Now confident in his mission, and fully committed to it, Gonz©alez nonetheless retained his customary humility: he asked Picasso for permission to work in this way, which Picasso gratefully granted to him.
The dominant form in Homme Gothique is the ogival (pointed or lancet) arch, the basic structural component in Gothic architecture, the source of its soaring, light-filled open spaces. The division of the figure at the waist into upper and lower sections is similar to the vertical construction of the main arcade within a cathedral (fig. 3). The figure's legs correspond to the piers that anchor the lower arch. His waist is analogous to the triforiam, the horizontal band at mid-height on the arcade, which in turn is surmounted by the clerestory, the upper arch that frames the window, which corresponds in the sculpture to the upper torso of the figure, "the pinnacle where the soul can rest suspended." In order to avoid the flatness inherent in a wall form and to emphasize the three-dimensionality of the figure, Gonz©alez bends the arch at its peak to one side. In this position the narrower side of the arch assumes the role of a flying buttress, the external brace that pushes in on the cathedral wall to support the height of the building. The curved tuft of hair at the top of the figure's head (a motif that also appears in Picasso's Le femme au jardin), is akin to the finial at the tip of pinnacle of the buttress.
The transformation of the elements from a cross section of cathedral architecture into the shape of a human figure has been deftly realized, but it is a spiritual, not just a material, representation, one derived from the beauty and proportion of its forms. Describing the great cathedrals, the historian Henri Focillon wrote: "A considered arrangement of symmetries and repetitions, a kind of music of symbols silently co-ordinate these vast encyclopedias of stone" (in the Art of the West, London, 1963, vol. I, p. 8). The painters Hans Hartung and Henri Göetz, who were friendly with the sculptor, observed that Gonz©alez was interested in formulating mathematically derived proportional systems in the late 1930s. Gonz©alez may have been familiar with the Livre de Portraiture of Villard de Honnecourt, the master mason and engineer of the 13th century, who analyzed the human figure in geometric terms not as a means of abstract stylization, but in order to endow them with lively and realistic movement. Gonz©alez wrote: "When an architect of the cathedral conceives one of his magnificent spires, it is not of geometry that he thinks; at this moment, it is only a question of giving it a beautiful form which while responding to the architectural requirements, can at the same time idealize that which his imagination and heart inspire in him" (quoted in J. Withers, op. cit., p. 134).
While Picasso could buy brand new colanders to attach to his La femme au jardin, Gonz©alez could afford to work only with scrap iron. It is the roughness of these humble materials that gives his sculptures their formal grit and modernistic edge. Gonz©alez was well aware that his medieval forbears worked with similar resources. At the same time the great cathedrals were going up in northern Europe, craftsmen developed the watermill-driven blast furnace, which for the first time could produce pig iron in large quantities for use in swords, ploughshares and the complex iron framework for stained glass windows. Gonz©alez wrote: "The Age of Iron began many centuries ago, by producing (unhappily) arms - some very beautiful. Today it makes possible the building of bridges, railroads. It is high time that this metal cease to be a murderer and the simple instrument of an overly mechanical science. Today the door is opened wide to this material to be at last forged and hammered by the peaceful hands of artists" (quoted in M. Rowell, op. cit., p. 15).
(fig. 1) Pablo Gargallo, Grand arléquin, 1931.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Le femme au jardin, 1929
Musée Picasso, Paris.
(fig. 3) Interior arcade of Chartres Cathedral, early 13th Century.