Enrique Grau, Great Colombian Master
Enrique Grau is one of the three most famous artists of Modern Art in Colombia, along with Alejandro Obregón and Fernando Botero. He was raised in an environment that was the fountain of inspiration for his distinctive expressionist work. He developed a style of figuratism in the artistic Colombian atmosphere contrasting the still lives and landscapes that characterize the period in which he lived in. The theme of the feminine figure is epitomized in most of his works as an exaltation of womanhood.
Grau was born in Panama by fate, on December 18, 1920, but lived his first years and most of his life in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. The “Heroic City”, as it is commonly called, declared by Unesco as “Patrimony of Humanity,” has always been a city bursting with history and legend. This is where colonial America had its principal port to bring slaves from different parts of Africa. Because of its unique geographic location and being an essential port city, Cartagena became a target of the greed of English and French invaders. Due to the imminent danger to the city, the construction of forts and walls were indispensable to protect it. Cartagena was a city of sailors, thieves, pirates, slavery, and commerce that brought a mix of merchants and aristocrats from the Old World. Immigrants came particularly from Spain, France, Italy, and the Middle East.
Cartagena became a melting pot of cultures all fused together with the same religion: Catholicism. The Catholic Church introduced The Inquisition, which persisted in Cartagena de Indias until the revolution on November 11th of 1811. It was a city where fables, history and legends intertwined in a way, which made Cartagena exceptional. Gradually, this coastal city on the northern part of Colombia, acquired a unique community, which was a mixture of aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and rigid catholic and African traditions.
Enrique Grau was raised in this mythical city with a turbulent past and metropolitan present, influencing not only his flamboyant personality but also his distinctive style. He followed a nomadic life, residing in Bogotá, New York, Paris, and Italy throughout his lifetime. In addition, his adventurous and restless mind took him to places as Greece, Egypt, Africa and Galapagos Islands. All this traveling nourished the iconographic patrimony of his paintings and sculptures, and strengthened his accumulation of visual information. His itinerant life became an endless fountain of resources for his works.
A cultured and studious man, Grau exhibited annually since 1940 in Colombia, Venezuela, Italy, Brazil, and United States. His work has been featured in retrospectives in Colombia, as well as at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Paris’ Museum of Modern Art. He was a painter, sculptor, and muralist, but was also infatuated by the scenography and wardrobe of the theater. Grau was mainly self-taught and considered himself an artist from the moment he was born. Enrique Grau died April 1, 2004 of pulmonary disease at a hospital in Bogotá at the age of 83.
In the beginning of the decade of the 50’s, the Colombian sculptors Edgar Negret (1920) and Eduardo Ramirez Villamizar (1923-2004), and the painters Alejandro Obregón (1920-1992) and Enrique Grau (1920- 2004) defined a new creative way of approaching innovative ideas into the art society of their generation. These four artists were responsible for bringing to Colombia the originality and playfulness of Modern Art. They introduced cubism and abstractionism to the very rigid and conservative Colombian society of the time. Only Grau returned with resolution and forever to figuratism, after a period of cubism. Grau never reached complete abstraction due to this choice. One clear example of his cubist period is “Camara Oscura” 1956, oil on canvas, 63 x58cm. As it is seen in this painting, the figurative image continued to be perfectly recognizable, in spite of being cubist in style.
The figure was always the center of his interest with forms of excessive volume and dense, gigantic figures, like “La Bella Lola”, 1989, charcoal and pastel on paper. Grau also had an interest in kitsch, which was a response to the 19th century art that suggested exaggerated over-romanticizing and melodrama. His approach to kitsch was not critical, but more an instrument to embellish and over decorate each of his works. It could be said that he was a sentimental man, but it was more a result of his love and passion for the history of his country and its culture. It seemed that Enrique Grau wanted to exalt his history and the history of his beloved Cartagena de Indias and Colombia. Being raised in a city full of history as Cartagena was of great importance to the outcome of his works.
Colossal figures were very common in Latin American Art and still are. We can appreciate examples of these, in Diego Rivera’s murals and Fernando Botero’s paintings. The excess of volume in figuratism is a way of seen their environment, and it is typical of the Latin American personality. This characteristic in many Latin American artists of his time was part of their existential passion and a courageous attitude of tackling life. It was a way of showing lack of respect and shameless boldness towards a society and a government that oppressed its people. Voluptuous forms in visual art also became a tool to express survival in such a way as if to show the world that they were larger than what the European and North American society thought of them.
The preference for the rounded forms, and robust, disproportionate figures were a main characteristic in Grau’s pieces for a very long time until his death. Grau respected the human figure and treated it with reverence, especially his feminine ones. His obsession for depicting women was distinctive in many of his works, using them as a tool to express all of his talent. His paintings of female figures were an excuse to reveal the human beauty in an idealized way.
The subjects of his paintings, as mentioned before, were voluptuous, and muscular. They were never at rest, always in action. Some were depicted talking on the phone, getting dressed, undressed, or playing. Scrupulous details helped Grau describe the atmosphere of the scene illustrated. Two of his most notable female works were the “Rita” series, and the “Triunfo de las Musas”(The Triumph of the Muses) 1997. Through them, Enrique Grau integrated all the characteristics, which he was well known for. The Rita series is actually one prostitute who is portrayed at different times of day. She is talking on the phone with a client (Rita 10:30am), putting her makeup on (Rita 3:30 pm), or getting dressed (Rita 5:30pm). This series was also executed as sculptures. The Triumph of The Muses, 1997, is a mural painted on the ceiling of the restored Teatro Heredia in Cartagena. It is 900cm in diameter. The muses are: Clio, muse of history, Polimnia, muse of speech, Caliope, muse of epic poetry, Euterpe, muse of music, Erato, muse of romantic poetry, Terpsicore, muse of dance, Melpomene, muse of tragedy, and Talia, muse of comedy.
Grau’s characters seemed to desire to escape from the boundaries of the canvas to interact with the viewer. Even in his subjects’ mundane life, Grau managed to portray an aristocratic figure, whose arrogance and glow was able to conquest the viewer and invited him to meet her and be acquainted with her intimately. Enrique Grau was eager to show the world what life should be all about, at least that imaginary world that was in his head. In his works there was no judgment, no prejudice, just overconfidence and pride in the characters, even if these were servants or prostitutes. He observed each subject with clarity, frequently injecting humor and irony to the scene. They were exuberant and irreverent in their attire and posture. Grau seemed to select a moment in time when action was occurring.
The concentration of lights and darks, which he adopts after studying Caravaggio and Diego Velázquez, is a very classical chiaroscuro, with characteristics that were slightly baroque. Enrique Grau’s colors are bold and bright as those used by Obregón, Negret, and Villamizar. Enrique Grau developed an approach to Modernism, which differentiates him greatly from other figurative artists in Latin America. His style was realist expressionism, but his works were filled with mythology, bright color, chiaroscuro, attention to detail and an array of objects, which together told a story. Storytelling and beauty acquired a significant connotation. As seen in “Rita 10:30am”, 1989, oil on canvas, a paraphernalia of objects on the table can be seen, and through them, we know about her habits,His Lifetastes and vices. Through her posture, attire and smirk, it would be assumed that she is a prostitute who is arranging her next meeting with a client on the phone. He had an impulse to decorate and add miscellaneous objects: cages, birds, flowers, butterflies, cupboards, fruits, keys, and hats filling up the canvas to the frame. “Horror vacui” can be appreciated in almost all of his works. A good example of this fear to the empty space can be appreciated in “La Coleccionista de Mariposas”, 1972, tempera over paper. The great amount of items in his pieces created an atmosphere of mystery and confusion. The scrupulous use of details to a point that seemed to be obsessive is very representative of his paintings. Grau appeared to need all the details and objects in order to tell a story that is never completely revealed. He once said that: “When I am asked to explain a painting, I don’t do it. Explaining it would be giving away the mystery.”
Even though, Enrique Grau did not manage to reach worldwide fame, his work deserves to be more recognized in the international art market. Grau’s masterpieces are a testimony that modern art does not have to be abstract in order to be avant-garde. His works are an instrument of exalting the human nature in all of its aspects, and the result of a man’s background and history conveying a message of joy and cynicism to the world. He is proof that figuratism does not belong in the past, but can be an innovative approach to storytelling. It is necessary to comprehend our past in order to move forward towards the future. His legacy is a dignified tribute to humankind without judgment or intolerance. Enrique Grau, a precursor of Modern Figuratism, has used his distinctive style full of fresh ideas to serve as an inspiration for artists to imitate and appreciate for years to come.