Photo by Gabriel Suau
Jesus Carlos de Vilallonga is a full man. His mind is full, his heart is full, the inside spaces and the outside spaces of his art are full. As he turns 85 this month, the Catalan visual artist remains young and generous in spirit, unabashedly proud and optimistic, with a trickster’s grin and a sharp yet playful intellect. He is clearly a Renaissance man who has always partaken of life. “When I paint, it is my liberation,” said Vilallonga from his studio deep in the Gótico, clay underneath his nails and paint on his smock.
Vilallonga works primarily in egg tempera, though his immense body of work includes etching, lithography, screen printing and digital art, as well as sculpture in bronze, aluminum and, more recently, a return to clay. His artistic process is organic and complex, highly personalised, echoing traditions of the Italian masters and often forgoing the more contemporary realms of oil or acrylic. Committed to technique, Vilallonga preps his masonite panels in layers of white and rabbit-skin glue. He often superimposes his drawings over silkscreened panels, coloured ‘fields’ that resemble ornate tattoos or blueprints of medieval cities that become his interiors. His finished one-dimensional works are hand-polished with agate, giving them a breathtaking and multi-dimensional light.
There is a richness and a cleverness to Vilallonga’s work. This is not Surrealism; rather this is a figurative map, if you will, of one man’s vision, of an artist’s gaze outward, then inward and back out again. Referring to himself as a “receptionist”, Vilallonga said, “I give back what is given to me. It doesn’t come from within me. I am sending love letters with characters that I invent.” These love letters are sent primarily via the female form, the highest expression of beauty in the mind’s eye of Vilallonga, and a recurring theme in his work. “I make love with black and white, with colours,” he said. “It is a very libidinous way of painting.”
Vilallonga speaks of the earliest known cave paintings as prayers, visualisations and dreams, calling forth what will be, what could be. “The primitive was figurative,” he added. “The figurative pre-dates, precedes the abstract. We are always pretending to see, or imagining that we see, the human form in nature because we are the model.” Vilallonga’s figures are vibrant and alive. They are from the present, imprints of a glance, a meeting or a short study. They are also from the past, deeper images and imaginings of love and place, of history and time.
Vilallonga’s family dates back to 13th-century Catalunya, and survived some of the harshest years of the region’s history. The fourth of eight children, Vilallonga was born in Santa Coloma de Farners. He grew up in an artistic, intellectually and culturally astute household, and was painting by the age of five. His father, a rural landowner, died quite young as he attempted to cross the Pyrenees while fleeing persecution during the Civil War, when Vilallonga was only nine years old. The family was scattered and reunited several times, and these themes of home, history, loss and recuperation remain close to Vilallonga’s heart and often appear in his work.
As a young man, Vilallonga was directed to architecture school, but was soon sneaking in to classes at the Barcelona School of Fine Arts, unbeknownst to his mother. These early lessons in architecture, though, clearly impacted Vilallonga, as he remains a lover of etching, of detail and clean lines, of layered construction. Vilallonga also studied in Rome, and at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris. “As a young man in Paris, I was the happiest man in the world,” he recounted. “What you most learn in school is what not to do; what you most learn comes from you, from your interior. When you are an artist, you are really feeling.”
The artist made his way to Montreal in 1954, where he “grew up” as a painter and as a man, adopting the city as his second home and ultimately raising a family of four daughters there. Initially performing as a cabaret singer with his flamenco guitar and selling his paintings door to door, Vilallonga was soon taken in as a poulet—literally a ‘young’ or ‘spring’ chicken—by Max Stern, then owner of the prestigious Dominion Gallery. The relationship proved fortuitous for both men and lasted until Stern’s death almost 30 years later. Vilallonga speaks of the parallel between French Canada and Catalunya, both regions of cultural romance and pride and fierce longing for independence. Much to his own surprise, Vilallonga was recently knighted by the Prime Minister of Canada, given the title of chevalier, which few not born in Canada can claim. “If my father were alive,” said Vilallonga, “he would be so proud.”
During those same three decades, Vilallonga travelled back and forth between Montreal and his home and studio in Cadaqués, when it was still “a village of artists”. There he enjoyed the company of the likes of Dalí and Picasso. “We were all there for the beauty of Cadaqués,” recounted Vilallonga. “Dalí was my neighbour and we met very often. It was a privilege to talk with him, with Dalí the writer, the talker. We had respect, Vilallonga and Dalí.”
Vilallonga’s emblematic portrait of the city he long ago returned to, entitled Barcelona Dona, pays homage to all who have passed through and contributed to her cultural identity, as Dona plays on both the Catalan word for woman (dona) and the verb donar, to give. The city is depicted as a sensual nude, a three-headed woman whose breasts and midriff comprise the port. The Catalan winds Garbi and Xaloc blow in from the waterfront. Four ships are docked aside her, representing the Romans, the Greeks, the Arabs and the Phoenicians who first landed here. Vilallonga initially constructed this work utilising the majority of his favourite techniques before turning it into a graphic print. Thus the represented layers of Barcelona become the layers of Vilallonga’s life and artistic production as well—archetypal, maternal, primal, futuristic.
Vilallonga is sated, satisfied with his art and with the reception of his art. He is the proud and tender narrator of his own story, revisiting intricate voyages of creation, transformation and flight. Perhaps it is this continuous and deeply-rooted willingness to explore himself and others internally and externally, to express both hope and concern for humanity as a whole, that has rendered his work so personal, so literally polished. When asked why he thinks his wife of almost 30 years, Katherine Slusher, international curator and writer, fell in love with him, Vilallonga turned to the side and replied, “Twenty-seven years ago, picture me with this Roman profile, playing guitar and cooking and talking about the night. It was natural.”
Vilallonga’s work has been exhibited throughout Canada, Europe and the US, most notably at the Lefevre Gallery in London, the Sagittarius Gallery in New York, Galeria Juana Mordo in Madrid, Art Contemporain in Paris, Dau al Set in Barcelona and Galeria Debellefeuille in Montreal. He has also shown extensive retrospectives at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in California and the Parisian Laundry in Montreal. To learn more about Vilallonga and his upcoming exhibitions or to set up a viewing appointment, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.